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Church Reaches 30-Year Milestone

One church and four denominations celebrate three decades of ecumenical partnership.

What started as a local ecumenical experiment has turned into a national ecumenical example as the United Christian Parish (UCP), a Reston institution, celebrated its 30th birthday this month.

Founded as part of the ecumenical movement in the 1960s, UCP of Reston was one of many Protestant churches nationwide to come together as one Christian church some 30 years ago.

On June 10, UCP, and its nearly 700 members, celebrated its 30th anniversary as one of the country’s preeminent ecumenical experiments. Representing four distinct denominations — United Methodist, Presbyterian Church USA, United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ — UCP has had to juggle similar but different traditions, custom and beliefs as it has shaped its identity in Reston. For the last 15 years, the Rev. Suzanne Rudiselle, wearing four hats, has led the church's ecumenical charge.

“Its pastor then was the Rev. Robert Regan, who decided that if Reston was going to be an unusual and pioneering community, then its churches should be likewise,” said member Marilyn Silvey.

Regan, who lives in Fredericksburg, said he had been looking into the possibility of uniting a few churches for a while before moving ahead with his plans for UCP. “It took a number of years before we were ready to make the move,” he said. “I felt that we had, and have, too many divisions in the church. It’s hard to say we are one when there are so many different expressions of Christianity.”

THIRTY YEARS LATER, the church is alive and well. “Being a multi-cultural city has made our success possible,” Rudiselle said. “Reston is a place of tolerance, that is its charm and its strength as a community and that is what made it possible for us to thrive.”

Regan, the founding pastor, began holding Methodist services in Reston as early as December 1964. “Reston was new,” Regan said. “We could experiment there without so much of the politics inherent in a more entrenched community.”

Barely two years later, in January 1967, Regan opened the doors to a new facility, the Redeemer Methodist Church, on North Shore Drive near Lake Anne Village. Six years after that, UCP was born.

“I like the idea of people who profess to be in the same religion working together under one banner,” said Bill Jackson, one of the parish’s charter members. “I never understood all this denomination identity. Why all these lines of demarcation?”

Other charter members like Barbara Bonner shared Jackson’s unease with what she called “brand name religion.” “I think the ecumenical church is more in fitting with Christ’s spirit,” said Bonner, who was raised Methodist. “All this breaking into separate units didn’t go down well with me.”

Regan, the founder, believes most of the Christian denominations that populate the Protestant landscape are a result of “historical not theological” reasons. “There are no major differences,” he said.

Over the years, as UCP grew, the churches lay leaders drew up a constitution that called for additional church buildings to be built in each of the Reston neighborhoods, an ode to Reston founder Robert Simon’s plan to build individual villages, Silvey said.

Eventually the church would expand to have buildings on South Lakes Drive and Colts Neck Drive, in addition to its North Shore facility. “All three were separate congregations but part of one church, and the pastors rotated once a month,” said Sylvie, who has been a member since she moved to Reston in 1977. “Alternative elements as the type of baptism — immersion or sprinkling — were and are available, and creeds and hymnals from the four denominations are used.”

RAISED IN the American Methodist Episcopalian (AME) traditions in Indianapolis, Jackson, an African American, joined the Redeemer Methodist Church after he moved to Reston in 1968 because there were no AME churches in the area. He was instantly interested in the idea of UCP. Overall, Jackson and his wife Mary think the experiment has been a success. In fact, their son Darrell recently became a deacon at the church. “We were able to see things that were very effective in other denominations and we have drawn the best things from all four,” he said.

While many members of the congregation, like the Jackson’s, signed up during the 1960 and 1970s, the church continues to attract new members each year. Anna Perkins moved down from Maine to Oak Hill about a year and a half ago to be closer to her daughter. Perkins’ minister in Maine had heard of the Reston’s little ecumenical-engine-that-could and recommended Perkins, a recent widow, check it out. “They are very open with everyone, there is no animosity whatsoever to be found here,” Perkins said. “It is just a very open and inviting place.”

Rudiselle said her parish’s set-up allows members to sample the best aspects of all four participating denominations. The church honors all four distinct religions, Rudiselle said, while still honoring the traditions and beliefs unique to each of the denominations. As pastor of UCP, Rudiselle holds standing in all four denominations and all regular members of the parish are considered members of each of the four churches. “It has not always been easy,” Rudiselle said.

“No, I won’t say it has been easy,” echoed Bonner, “but, we have hung in there and to my knowledge we are the only existing church of its kind in the country.”

“Over the years, from my perspective, UCP had more problems due to having three separate buildings and three ministers than it did due to being ecumenical,” Silvey said. “I have found being a Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist and Disciple has only advantages, and I have gained, for instance, participating in a UCC parents’ support group and going on a Presbyterian mission trip to the Czech Republic.”

IN 1998, according to the church’s Web site, the three congregations of the United Christian Parish voted “to worship and to operate” as a unified congregation which it did beginning in 1999. Today, the multi-denominational congregation holds worship services at its North Shore Drive building while most of the church’s administrative business takes place at its Hunters Woods building. The third facility on South Lakes Drive is up for sale. While the parish looks to downsize one of its buildings, it is looking to enlarge and upgrade its Lake Anne sanctuary.

Rudiselle said the change in philosophy was a mostly-monetary decision. With three facilities, the church realized it was spending too much money on building maintenance and operations. “We wanted to spend more on mission money,” she said.

Today, UCP gives away over $100,000 in mission money, the pastor said.

Rudiselle arrived at UCP in 1988 via the Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. “I loved the wonderful mix of four denominations here,” the retiring pastor said. “I really feel the Christian church should be one church.”

Jackson agreed, though he doubts he, or his three sons, see that day. “Its all about power struggles — people trying to feather their own nests,” the charter member said. “Besides, if you have three denominations then you have three bishops. If you have one denomination, you’ve got two unhappy bishops out of a job.”

While Rudiselle would eventually like to see one Christian church, she thinks it is important for each denomination to stay true to its roots, something that UCP has done. “We need our different styles of worship,” Rudiselle, who was originally ordained Presbyterian, said. “Some of us like that bombastic style, others like it a little more peaceful.”

Steve Lambakis and his wife joined UCP in 1993, shortly after relocating to Reston. Lambakis was raised with a Greek Orthodox background while his wife was a Disciple. They were both “intrigued” at the ecumenical nature of UCP. “It has been a constant learning experience,” he said. “While there are differences, the biggest thing I have taken away from this is just how much there is in common between the four denominations.”

The important thing, Rudiselle said, is that the individual churches continue talking to each other. Rudiselle’s parish has not only been at the forefront of the modern-day national ecumenical movement, since Sept. 11, it has been a leader in the local interfaith movement. More than 400 people of all sorts of faiths packed UCP’s sanctuary on 9/11. “We hung together in our shared shock,” she said. “We prayed for the victims, for our enemies and for those who were missing.”

In the months leading up to war, UCP, under Rudiselle’s guidance, played a key role in the interfaith peace movement in Reston.

For their part, the national organizations of each of the four denominations are supportive of UCP’s mission and structure, Rudiselle said. Two of the churches, Presbyterian and Methodist, have a more hierarchical structure while the UCC and Disciples, are more Congregationalist. “All of them are actually quite delighted with us. Puzzled, but delighted,” Rudiselle said, laughing. “I think, for them, we are the great head-scratchier. Whenever they feel the need of showing they are ecumenical, they trot out UCP.”