Even before last month's nuclear reactor accident at Three Mile Island, some elements of the religious community had given considerable attention to the religious implications of the energy crisis.
Now, the near-disaster in Pennsylvania and the attention focused on it have pushed the energy question to the top of the agenda for many religious groups.
Three years ago the National Council of Churches governing board directed a special task force to study the ethical implications of the various alternatives for energy production and to come up with a policy statement. The council has traditionally issued policy statements, after study, on a wide range of issues, in an effort to relate Christian principles to contemporary problems.
Last November, after extensive study, the task force presented its proposed policy statement to the governing board of the council.
The 46-page document examined in detail the theological, economic, political, international and environmental implications of the energy problem. The bottom line, however, called for church support for a national energy policy that does not rely on nuclear fission or "large-scale of coal." It stressed instead conservation measures and support for technology to develop energy from "renewable sources," such as solar energy.
The proposed policy statement was debated at length by the governing board meeting in November. But the body temporized and ultimately avoided taking a stand on it, on the grounds that there had not been enough study of the issue in the churches themselves.
Next month, a little more than six weeks after the entire country has had a crash course on nuclear energy problems, the issue will come once again before the governing board at its spring meeting in San Antonio.
But this time, delegates will have not one but two policy statements on energy to consider. For the first time in the council's 30-year history, an alternative policy statement, reflecting more moderate views on energy production, has been prepared and submitted by a member church for consideration.
The alternative statement is primarily the work of the Rev. Olof Scott, priest of St. George's (Antiochian) Orthodox Church in Charleston, W. Va. Scott, 37, was employed in the nuclear energy industry for 15 years before he decided to study for the priesthood.
Scott said in a telephone interview that he had the help of people both inside and outside the nuclear energy industry in drafting his statement, which treats the topic in broad general priciples but stops short of any specific recommendations.
In Washington last month, the social issues committee of the National Capital Union Presbytery presented a resolution-after extensive study of the issue-on nuclear waste. The resolution called for a five-year moratorium on the licensing of any new nuclear energy plants, to give experts time to find better ways of disposing of nuclear waste.
"We weren't saying no nuclear power," explained the Rev. John Wimberly, chairman of the social issues committee. "What we were trying to do was to make sure that people three or four generations from now won't have to pay for our greed," through problems created by nuclear waste disposal.
"But a lot of Presbyterians [delegates to the Presbytery] work for the Department of Energy or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the resolution got tabled," lamented Wimberly, who is on the staff of the Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church. "I like to remember that it was one week to the day after the Presbytery tabled the resolution that Three Mile Island hit the papers," he added.
It was a little more than a week after that accident that the faculty of Lancaster Theological Seminary in Lancaster, Pa.-22 miles down wind from Three Mile Island-produced its own policy statement on nuclear energy.
Despite the obvious pressure under which it was developed, the five-page Lancaster statement takes a thoughtful view of the issues surrounding the nuclear energy controversy.
The faculty of the United Church of Christ seminary calls for a moratorium on new nuclear power plant construction and phasing out of existing plants "as rapidly as possible until there can be solutions to the problems of nuclear waste disposal and accidents such as that at Three Mile Island."
The statement also calls on Congress "to separate the promotional and regulatory functions of the Nuclear Regulation Commission" and asks for regulations requiring continuous on-site monitoring of all nuclear plants.
In Rochester, Minn., the Southeastern Minnesota District of the American Lutheran Church has called for a moratorium on construction of new nuclear plants "until the health and safety questions have been resolved."
A similar stand was taken by the national board of the interdenominational Church Women United, meeting in Farmington Hills, Mich.
Industry representatives have spent long hours monitoring discussions of the issue by church groups and articulating the industry viewpoints. During the time the NCC proposed policy statement was in formation, industry house organs repeatedly reminded readers to contact their churches on the issue, giving detailed instructions on how to lobby the churches.
The pronuclear energy people concede that what happened last month in Pennsylvania is "definitely going to cause us some problems," in the continuing debate, as Scott put it.
"In the long run, we can only hope that people will look at Three Mile Island from a dispassionate point of view," he said, of the forthcoming National Council debate. But he doubts that they will, he said, adding regretfully: "Most people like to listen to doomsday sayers."