Church unity movement may have found 'a new way forward'

Church unity movement may have found 'a new way forward'

March 10, 2010
Written by Gregg Brekke

The difficult road to unity that began with the formation of the Consultation on Church Union (COCU) in 1962, and seemed to some observers on the verge of collapse just two years ago, appears to be back on track after a summit meeting of the heads of 11 denominations Feb. 17 in Baltimore.

The United Church of Christ was one of the founding members of COCU and its successor, Churches Uniting in Christ (CUIC). It was represented in Baltimore by General Minister and President the Rev. Geoffrey Black and the UCC's ecumenical officer, the Rev. Lydia Veliko.

The CUIC project - which aims to establish a relationship of full communion among the 11 denominations - seemed in danger when two historically African American denominations, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion and African Methodist Episcopal churches, withdrew from the partnership in 2008 in protest over its failure to follow up seriously on a 1999 "Call to Christian Commitment and Action to Combat Racism."

After two years of careful preparatory work, the Baltimore meeting struck a more hopeful note. All 11 denominations were represented for the first time since the breach, and agreed that seeking racial justice will be the CUIC's core commitment in its future work. The new blueprint includes three initiatives for the next two years:

• a consultation "on the intersection between the reconciliation of ministries and (the issue of) race."
• a partnership with other ecumenical bodies to foster efforts around a key public issue where race plays a strong role.
• an annual meeting of heads of churches to deepen their relationship with each other, especially by strengthening CUIC's commitments to racial justice.

The UCC's Lydia Veliko said the Baltimore meeting "begins to move this historic ecumenical dialogue forward again."

"It's vital that we keep working at reconciliation - especially across the deep divide caused by racial injustice," she said. "We give thanks for God's grace which has sustained the search for unity through difficult times, and for the bonds of friendship that are forged when churches are genuine in our desire to overcome division."

Bishop John F. White, ecumenical officer for the African Methodist Episcopal Church, called the meeting "positive and productive."

The denominational leaders also agreed to develop educational materials to help CUIC churches understand the history of Haiti through the lens of racism, which has distorted Haiti's development and has implications today for relief and rebuilding efforts in the earthquake-devastated country.

Ecumenical leaders originally conceived COCU in 1962 as a plan for the organic union of Protestant and Anglican churches in the United States - a "united" church similar to the union of two denominations that formed the United Church of Christ five years earlier.

But the project for institutional merger foundered later in the decade, setting the stage for a more realistic plan for reconciliation of ministries and full communion among the divided churches.

Unlike other relationships of full communion in the United States, CUIC aims to bring together historically African American denominations and predominantly white churches. CUIC is also distinctive because of its size: the combined membership of the 11 denominations is more than 20 million.

Besides the UCC's Black and Veliko, heads of churches and ecumenical officers attending the meeting were Bishop John Bryant and Bishop John White, African American Episcopal Church; Bishop Warren Bryant, African American Episcopal Zion Church; the Rev. Sharon Watkins and the Rev. Robert Welsh, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); Bishop Thomas Hoyt and Bishop Ronald Cunningham; Christian Methodist Episcopal Church; Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, Episcopal Church; the Rev. Michael Livingston and the Rev. Herman Harmelink, International Council of Community Churches; the Rev. David Wickmann and the Rev. Hermann Weinlick, Moravian Church; the Rev. Gradye Parsons and the Rev. Robina Winbush, Presbyterian Church (USA); Bishop Sharon Rader and the Rev. Steven Sidorak, United Methodist Church. Bishop Mark Hanson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, on an ecumenical journey in Europe, was represented by the Rev. Sherman Hicks.

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