The Presbyterian Church (USA) has come one step closer to adopting an agreement with other mainline Protestant churches after a majority of its regional presbyteries adopted the basic principles of the Churches Uniting in Christ agreement.
The agreement, previously known as the Consultation on Church Union, would be a network of nine Protestant denominations to share ministries, recognize one another's churches and share in Communion. Organizers hope to have the movement organized by 2002.
In an April 3 memo to members of the Presbyterian Church, Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick, the highest-ranking full-time official in the denomination, said a majority of the church's regional presbyteries had agreed to the principles of the union.
The nine members of the movement, with a combined membership of about 17 million, are: the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the United Church of Christ, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church and the International Council of Community Churches.
DENVER -- Episcopal Church leaders approved a historic pact Saturday with the nation's largest Lutheran denomination, voting to create an alliance in which the churches will share clergy, sacraments and strategy.
The Episcopal Church's House of Deputies, made up of 832 priests and lay people, overwhelmingly approved the agreement Saturday, one day after it won approval from the other chamber of the church's legislature, the House of Bishops.
Leaders of the 5.2 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America approved the alliance last year.
"It enables our two churches to work together in a shared mission to our broken and hurting world," said the Very Rev. Donald Brown, co-chairman of ecumenical relations for the 2.4 million-member Episcopal Church.
"Both our communities will be living into reality Jesus' prayer that all his followers might be one," Brown said.
While they differ in style, the Episcopalian and Lutheran churches in the United States share similar patterns of worship and of regional organization.
Allowing the sharing of clergy will help congregations in parts of the country where one church is strong while the other has a thinner presence. In New England, for example, there is a single Lutheran synod and one Lutheran bishop, while the Episcopal Church has seven dioceses and a dozen bishops. Across much of the upper Midwest, the opposite is true.
The pact, which takes effect Jan. 1, also includes a compromise involving the Episcopal ordination of bishops, who are installed in a laying-on of hands by three predecessor bishops from a line believed to stretch back to Christ's apostles.
The alliance will allow Lutheran clergy to serve in Episcopal churches without such ordinations. New Lutheran bishops, however, would have to go through an Episcopal ordination to serve in an Episcopal church.
A spokesman for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Frank Imhoff, said there is some opposition to the pact among Lutherans, who for centuries have been wary of authority and church hierarchy.
It may prompt some Lutheran congregations to leave the church, said the Rev. Lowell Almen, secretary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, but he stressed that much of the opposition to the pact comes from a misperception of the alliance as a merger.
"It doesn't mean either church body is losing responsibility for its own internal life or giving up its own history," he said. "Perhaps those histories will be enhanced.
LOS ANGELES - Two of the country's largest ecumenical organizations are considering a realignment that could bring liberal and conservative churches together.
Lines that divide the National Council of Churches and the National Association of Evangelicals already have started to dissolve, and further changes could change the ecumenical landscape.
The realignment would involve the National Council of Churches, which traditionally has included mainline Protestant, African-American and Orthodox groups, and the more conservative National Association of Evangelicals, which represents evangelical and Pentecostal churches.
The long-standing divisions between the groups have weakened the voice of American churches on national issues and steps are being taken to form a broad-based ecumenical organization, church leaders said. "The old compartmentalized segmentation of the church is giving way to a new sense of vision and mission and presence of God in America. The block walls are coming down and giving way to picket fences," said the Rev. Kevin Mannoia, president of the National Association of Evangelicals.
The Southern California-based evangelical group, which has about 30 million members, formerly prohibited churches from joining if they were affiliated with the National Council of Churches.
That rule was recently rescinded.
The National Council, meanwhile, voted this year to disband the organization over the next three years if a new broad-based group is formed, said the Rev. Robert Edgar, general secretary. The council currently has about 50 million members among 35 member denominations.
A new organization probably would rally around common issues, such as poverty, and stay away from divisive issues, such as abortion and homosexuality.
July 22, 2000
Beset by financial deficits and political controversy, the nation's largest ecumenical agency says it wants to reorganize under a new umbrella that would include Roman Catholics and Evangelicals. The famously liberal National Council of Churches (NCC) now includes 35 denominations, most of them mainline Protestant, and a few of which are Eastern Orthodox. Over 50 million Americans belong to NCC denominations.
But most of the NCC's largest denominations have suffered deep membership declines for 35 years or more. The NCC's critics say it has moved from being mainline to sideline, more renowned for its reflexively left-leaning politics than fostering genuine Christian unity. Fewer than one in three American church members now belong to an NCC denomination.
Neither the Roman Catholic Church nor the Southern Baptist Convention, which are America's largest religious bodies, belongs to the NCC. Fast-growing Pentecostal and independent evangelical congregations have shown little to no interest in the NCC. Recognizing these demographic trends and its own financial troubles, the NCC at its May 2000 board meeting in Washington, DC, suggested a new ecumenical body that would include Catholics and Evangelicals.
But the proposal was vague. And it failed to explain why Catholics and Evangelicals would be tempted to join forces with troubled Protestant agencies that often fail to represent their own claimed constituencies.
The proposal is largely the result of the NCC's deficit troubles. Over 80 percent of the NCC's income comes from its relief arm, Church World Service (CWS), which retains a popular following and provides a tangible service. The remainder of the NCC, largely devoted to political action and publications, suffered a deficit of almost $4 million last year.
The NCC has traditionally relied on CWS to cover its deficits, but supporters of the relief agency have become increasingly vocal in their protests. At its May board meeting, the NCC agreed to grant the relief agency more budgetary autonomy, although it stills falls under the NCC's final authority. Meanwhile, the NCC's is still trying to extract donations from member churches to erase last year's deficit.
NCC General Secretary Bob Edgar told Ecumencal News Service that the CWS controversy led to a consensus that it "was time to build on the last 50 years - not to recreate it, but to open it to Catholic, Pentecostal and Evangelical communities."
"It's time for the Christian community in the U.S. to kiss and make up and covenant," Edgar said, in reference to the theological and political differences that divide U.S. churches. He hopes for a new ecumenical arrangement that includes Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, Pentecostals and liberal Protestants. One precedent is in Great Britain, where the old British Council of Churches was dissolved in favor of a new group, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, which includes Roman Catholics and Evangelicals.
British church liberals have complained that the new British ecumenical arrangement has restrained the religious radicalism they preferred. The NCC 's Edgar has echoed this concern about the NCC's potential successor organization, insisting that any new umbrella must maintain a "prophetic voice."
A "vision team" of eight persons will explore the NCC's options for broadening its base and will report to its annual assembly in November. Edgar said the NCC has already informed the U.S. Catholic bishops and the National Association of Evangelicals of its hopes for more formalized cooperation. Southern Baptists will be contacted soon, he pledged.
NCC board member Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, who is also general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, pointed out that Roman Catholics currently belong to 55 ecumenical councils around the world. "We can learn from them," he enthused, expressing hope that Roman Catholics in the U.S. will likewise consider cooperation in a new ecumenical organization.
The Rev. Bruce Robbins, an NCC board member who represents the United Methodist Church, which is the NCC's largest member denomination, also was enthusiastic about the proposal. He predicted that a "new ecumenical vehicle" could "looks towards greater unity" and would enable the NCC constituency to "talk to partners with whom we've not spoken at all" in the past. Robbins admitted that the NCC is not presently representative of "that broad constituency" that comprises American Christianity.
Largely ignored at the NCC board meeting were the reasons for the NCC's unpopularity with many American Christians, including many member of NCC denominations. Critics of the NCC point to the NCC's frequent theological ambiguity. One worship session at the NCC meeting, for example, was led by an openly homosexual church leader. Critics also point to the NCC's penchant for very liberal political pronouncements that do not reflect the beliefs of more conservative church members.
At this particular meeting, the NCC affirmed its continuing cooperation with the New York Civil Liberties Union to expose "police brutality," re-affirmed its role in the "Universal Health Care Campaign 2000" that seeks federal government control of the U.S. health care system, urged continued organizing on "climate change" (i.e. Global Warming) issues, pledged litigation against "school vouchers" that would provide inner-city children alternatives to public schools, and urged support for prison chaplains extolling Islam, traditional Native American beliefs, and other non-Christian religions.
The board also discussed its opposition to capital punishment. And the board reiterated its cooperation with liberal activist groups such as the Children's Defense Fund that demand a greater federal government role in welfare programs. An NCC resolution wants to make the "NCC constituency a potent political force in debates around pivotal legislation affecting poverty elimination." In a special appearance before the board, Washington attorney Greg Craig thanked the NCC for helping to raise money to pay his legal bills in the Elian Gonzalez case. With help from the NCC, Craig led the legal effort to return the little Cuban refugee boy back to Cuba.
In marked contrast to the NCC's usually sharply politicized version of the Gospel was a speech delivered by the Rev. Daniel Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest who is the new chaplain for the U.S. House of Representatives. Formerly the director of spiritual formation for the Archdiocese of Chicago, he unequivocally said his role is to share "the risen Christ," not to dispense political advice. "I have come that you might have life and life to the full," he said, quoting Jesus'words from the Gospel of John.
Coughlin described the challenge of living a "resurrection life" and learning to listen for God's voice. He described America as a "great nation" and his own awe as he daily passes the statues of heroic Americans that line the Capitol hallways. Coughlin shared his regret over the nation' s cynicism over its elected officials. "It's dreadful how people talk about people in government," he complained. "We are a grace nation. I believe in Christ and His presence in our government."
When asked by an NCC board member how Coughlin could employ his role as chaplain to challenge congressmen in a "prophetic" (i.e. political) way, the chaplain quickly replied that he had no forum that would allow him to be prophetic. If his priestly vocation demanded him to be vocal on political issues, then he would have to resign as chaplain to the U.S. House of Representatives, he strongly implied. The NCC board members, regularly accustomed to employing their church positions for political maneuvering, seemed slightly befuddled by Coughlin's clear preference for proclaiming the Gospel over partisan jockeying.