Christians nearing a new unity

CHICAGO (Reuters) – A coalition that would for the first time unite the major Christian faiths in the United States is taking years to coalesce, but its organizers say that’s a good sign and are not discouraged.

One day the group could speak with a single voice on important issues in a country of 296 million where historically three of every four people claim to be Christian or at least identify with that faith.

The group, Christian Churches Together in the USA, began in 2001 when more than two dozen church leaders met to find a way to spread the patchwork quilt of U.S. churches on a single table.

They range from Bible Belt Baptists and black Protestants to Orthodox ethnics to more ritualised Episcopalians and Catholics. Historic suspicions and theological divisions have often kept them fragmented.

Organizers had spoken of formalizing the group this spring, with a public debut worship service in Washington in the autumn. But a steering committee meeting in California earlier this month instead produced a decision to meet again for further work in the spring of 2006.


The committee issued a statement saying it had “wrestled with difficult and complex issues in a spirit of love and goodwill” and had “intensive dialogue and sharing” with black churches.

Bishop Christopher Epting, ecumenical officer for the U.S. Episcopal Church, said the effort had been “strengthened … by our consensus decision to make sure that we have significant representation” from every sector before a formal launch.

A BROAD TABLE

The Rev. Jeff Farmer, president of Open Bible Churches, an association of evangelical Pentecostal/charismatic churches, said he came away from the California meeting convinced that while the group may not formally exist, “It already does in our minds” and “we’re well down the road” to a launch.


“I see it as huge, a hinge in history,” he said in an interview. “It’s never before happened on this planet, that such a broad table has gathered.”

What might look like a delay, he said, is really an effort to accommodate an increasing number of denominations who want to be founding members but who have a variety of meeting dates and schedules to work under to win the approval of their memberships.

“It is an opportunity for us to work together not as activists in a sense of political lobbying — I don’t think that’s on anyone’s mind — but rather working together for the good of culture and community.”

At the recent meeting, he said, the group began to talk about overcoming poverty and “what could be the impact if the Catholics, Protestants and the Pentecostals and the historical racial and Christian movements all came together. They could have more impact than the government.”

So far, 31 churches and national organizations have formally joined the group, six more than the target core of 25 organizers had said they needed to begin. An additional 20 church leaders interested in joining were present at the California meeting.


Currently, the 55-year-old National Council of Churches represents faiths with 45 million members but the country’s 66 million Roman Catholics do not belong.

U.S. Catholic bishops, in an ecumenical spirit growing out of the Second Vatican Council, explored joining the Council 30 years ago but decided to opt instead for collaboration, citing among other things different priorities.

A FORUM FOR MUTUAL TRUST

Catholics have been involved in the new group since the start. Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore said at one point he envisioned the new organization as one with no large bureaucracy or programs of service to the churches but would be a “forum for mutual trust and exchange.”

Tim Matovina, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame, said one of the significant things about the new group is its stated objective of not taking a stand on something unless all member churches agree.

Often today the rank-and-file members don’t always agree with what church leaders say, he said.

Beyond that, the renewed interest in ecumenical cooperation is another indication that “in American religion today … denominations mean less and less,” he said.

The country has a strong history rooted in home-ruled Congregational churches, and today Lutherans, Presbyterians and Catholics are “experiencing this Congregational dynamic where people kind of ignore or resist what denominational leaders say, and seek out a pastor who suits their style … what’s important is the service.”

John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship at Calvin College in Michigan, said one ecumenical driving force is that generally more liberal groups such as Catholics and more conservative evangelicals are finding common ground in recognizing a need for helping the poor and suffering.

“Some of the North American Christians who have been traditionally most opposed to ecumenical engagement (namely some evangelical and Pentecostal denominations) are now willing to engage with other Christian traditions,” he said.

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June 15, 2005
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