The former president of the United Church of Christ has informed leaders of the denomination that he and his wife are in the process of divorcing.
The Rev. John H. Thomas has also admitted to having formed a committed relationship with another woman, with whom he worked while in Cleveland, where UCC’s national office is based.
“While it is not appropriate to discuss details of this matter publicly, it is important that, as officers of the church, we respond with truth and clarification when questions or concerns are raised,” reported the UCC’s Collegium of Officers this week after news broke of Thomas’ troubled marital status.
That said, the five-person leadership body laid out the responsibilities of its offices in circumstances that involve UCC clergy and warrant situational or ecclesiastical review. The Western Reserve Association's Church and Ministry Department, for example, would look into the concerns and review the situation to determine if the clergyman in question should be authorized for ministry. UCC employment aspects, meanwhile, are handled by the UCC's Common Services Human Resources office and thereafter by the executives and governing bodies of the employer.
While the collegium – which gives leadership to the UCC – said it is “supportive of the processes in place within our denomination if and when circumstances warrant situational or ecclesiastical review,” it did not state clearly what type of review Thomas would face, if any.
It did, however, note that Thomas informed the Church and Ministry Department of the matter at its urging.
While the collegiums said little else, one conservative fellowship within the denomination was quick to pronounce that the former UCC leader had indeed sinned and called upon him to “repent and seek restoration.”
Biblical Witness Fellowship, a movement within the UCC that seeks the renewal and reformation of the denomination, said it was saddened by the news of Thomas’ “adulterous relationship” and his decision to break his “covenant commitment to marriage.”
“His action deepens the crisis of integrity in the UCC with consequences well beyond the tragic dissolution of his own family,” stated the fellowship.
“The whole church is deeply hurt when our leaders fail to keep their vows and engage in this form of duplicity,” it added. “It compromises the witness of all of us in the body of Christ.”
Thomas, who left office at the end of his term in September 2009, had served for 10 years as general minister and president.
During Thomas’ time at the helm, the UCC became the first major Christian denomination in the United States to officially support same-sex marriage. The church body also witnessed a “big bleed” in membership, having dropped from over 6,000 churches in 2000 to about 5,320 churches in 2008 – the year of its most recent annual report.
“Dr. Thomas was a champion for the religious legitimization of sexual license and the redefinition of marriage,” noted Biblical Witness Fellowship. “It now appears that his agenda may have been driven by personal justification of his own behavior rather than by any authentic conviction.”
After leaving office last September, Thomas went on to serve as a visiting professor in church ministries and special assistant to the president at UCC-related Chicago Theological Seminary, where he still works.
Due to presidential term limitations, Thomas was ineligible to seek re-election last year.
The denomination’s current president and general minister is the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black. The new president was installed this past April – nine months after he was elected to take the helm of the 1.1-million-member denomination.