Signs of life and hope
In 1995, a small Baptist congregation in Florida, estranged from its roots because of the increasingly conservative restrictions placed on them by their convention, finds a UCC congregation seeking renewal and a clearer sense of identity. They form one congregation, stronger and more vibrant than either of the two former congregations, and with vital proclamation of the gospel to their community.
A group of United Church of Christ and Alliance of Baptist youth in North Carolina come together for weekend program, and after experiencing fellowship, and both groups share the excitement of discovering they practice their faith in similar ways. The phrase "I thought I was the only one who thought this way..." was frequently heard from participants.
In 2002, a group of people in Asheville, NC, sharing a commitment to social justice and witness in the name of Christ, find each other and organize a congregation, "Circle of Mercy," led by United Church of Christ and Alliance of Baptist ministers. The congregation is seeking, over time, to affiliate both with the United Church of Christ and with the Alliance of Baptists.
At Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas, affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a growing number of Baptist students enroll, seeking a place where they can pursue traditional Baptist values of freedom. The Divinity School, in response to the growing number of students, launches a Baptist Studies Program, currently enrolling 36 students.
These and other stories of ecumenical friendship bring us to this process and moment. Since 1995 the United Church of Christ, the Alliance of Baptists, and more recently the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) (henceforth named as "UCC," "Alliance," and "Disciples")have been working to articulate our growing sense that God is inviting us to form a new and dynamic ecumenical relationship based upon the deep roots of both faith and friendship.
Those first conversations between the Alliance and the UCC focused on becoming acquainted with each other and exploring matters of theology and polity. Participants discovered areas of convergence and divergence, as well as a strong affinity for each other?s commitments in mission and in ministry. Both communions felt that an intentional ecumenical relationship would be mutually beneficial, and would strengthen this mission and ministry especially in the local church setting.
History and background
In 1999 and 2001 the General Synod of the UCC and the membership of the Alliance received interim reports of the dialogue team and voted to continue the conversation. These reports included deliberation on matters of history, theology and polity, as well as various options for ecumenical relationship. In 2001 the team was charged to articulate a proposal to bring the communions into a formal ecumenical relationship. The nature of the relationship was left purposely undefined, and both bodies asked that the dialogue team return in 2003 with a specific recommendation which would enable both communions to engage in a relationship which will strongly enhance the mission and the ministry of their congregations.
By 2001 it had become clear that there were many instances in which the relationship between the Alliance and the UCC also involved a relationship with the Disciples, especially in local congregational experience. Because the UCC and Disciples themselves are in a relationship of full communion, it became increasingly obvious that the dialogue would be strengthened by asking the Disciples to join as full partners. It is clear that these three communions share many common values and faith convictions.
A desire to seek relationship with other Christians is central to the heritage of the UCC. As a united and uniting denomination committed from its inception in 1957 to living out the full visible unity of the church, it has sought ecumenical dialogue and mission partners in an attempt to be faithful to the prayer of Jesus "that they all may be one, so that the world may believe." (John 17:21) The Alliance is an association of churches and individuals that recognizes that the freedom we know in Christ is at the center of the Gospel, and leads it to live respectfully in relation to the discernment of the individual believer in matters of her or his own faith convictions. This valuing of freedom and respect for diversity likewise leads the Alliance to seek relationships with other Christians who share its ecumenical passion. Similarly, the Disciples claimed the unity of the church as its "polar star" as it was born in the early 19th century, and has always sought throughout its history to enter into ecumenical relationships for the sake of strengthening the mission and ministry of the church.
A powerful biblical image that offers us understanding of and motivation for our future relationship as the Alliance, the Disciples and the UCC is found in John 15:15, "I do not call you servants any longer...but I have called you friends." Jesus named and claimed us as friends. Our relationship with each other, therefore, is to manifest that friendship in Christ through our mutual service and obedience in seeking justice, peace and mercy for the sake and salvation of the world.
Given the commitment of these three bodies to the unity of the Church, we thus propose that our communions commit to a Partnership in Mission and Ministry based upon the call to be Christ?s "friends," and our shared values of witnessing to God?s love. This biblical understanding of friendship is neither superficial nor whimsical.
Such friendship will call us to minister together with people on the margins of society, to risk endeavors that will challenge both the status quo and our own safety. It will also require humility like that of Jesus, who washed the feet of his friends, enlarging our capacity to be servants of the world. It will require us to deepen our understanding of the church—both of our own communions and the larger church of Jesus Christ. It will demand that we move beyond our real and perceived differences to embrace the friendship that Jesus lived.
Local and regional ministry
The proposed Partnership will clearly enrich the lives and ministries of our communions in three areas—ministry, mission and congregational life.
Many congregations of our three communions are finding ways to work together. Currently, several congregations of the Alliance have affiliated with the UCC. Other congregations are in a time of discernment and exploration concerning denominational affiliation, and are in conversation with the Disciples and the UCC. Finally, some Disciples, Alliance and UCC congregations have taken initiative to collaborate in matters of ministry, mission and witness while maintaining primary identity with their communion of origin. These initiatives include youth programming, lay and pastoral theological education, the training and continuing education of clergy, disaster relief, overseas mission and cooperation in making a witness to peace and justice in the North America and around the world. We expect as well that gifted men and women in all three of our communions will have wider opportunities for ministry as a result of our relationship.
Congregational and regional relationships are at the heart of our evolving partnership, and will continue to give insight for an even wider commitment.
The wider ecumenical context
The context of the Partnership in Mission and Ministry we propose for the Alliance, the UCC, and the Disciples is both that of the world (God?s oikoumene) and the wider ecumenical movement (seeking unity in the body of Christ). It is for the sake of the strengthening of the mission and the ministry of the church itself that we make this witness.
In the face of division and fragmentation among nations, peoples and cultures, the world longs for credible signs of reconciliation, understanding, healing, and hope. The church is thus called to witness to God?s reconciling love and peace. In ecumenical friendship we will dare to reach out to others who may be different from us, but who are called and claimed by the same loving God. Our deepening friendship can be a sign of the wholeness of God, of God's creation, and of God?s one family of humankind—a gift to be lived here and now.
In the spirit of the "Message" from the 7th Consultation of United and Uniting Churches held at Driebergen, Holland, we believe that this emerging ecumenical relationship can become be a model of unity that will be:
"tangible enough to make a difference to the world, intense enough that those in it recognize their responsibility for one another, costly enough that churches are changed as a result of being in it, and intentional enough that the body of Christ is renewed through the sharing of gifts."
It is our hope and prayer that, through our commitment to this Partnership in Mission and Ministry, we might become "a sign, to both church and world, of the power of the gospel to unite that which is divided and to reconcile that which is estranged." (Message, 7th Consultation of United and Uniting Churches) This is the context of our work, whose source is the living Christ calling us to be one "so that the world may believe." (John 17:21)
We now recommend to the General Synod of the UCC that the United Church of Christ, in partnership with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), enter a Partnership in Mission and Ministry with the Alliance of Baptists, based on a commitment to continuing ecumenical dialogue and witness, and grounded in the biblical value of friendship as so powerfully expressed by Jesus? own life and ministry.
WHEREAS ecumenical relationships are realized in the commitments that friends and partners make to each other for support, assistance and mutual counsel; and
WHEREAS we look forward to expanding and strengthening an evolving ecumenical relationship of deepening friendship, continuing dialogue, and joint public witness with the Alliance of Baptists and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); and
WHEREAS the United Church of Christ cherishes its ecumenical relationships and seeks to implement them in as many settings of the life of the church as possible;
BE IT THEREFORE RESOLVED that the United Church of Christ commit itself to an ecumenical relationship of deepening friendship, continuing dialogue, and joint public witness, by establishing a Partnership in Mission and Ministry with the Alliance of Baptists and in continuing partnership with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the General Synod encourage the United Church of Christ Covenanted Ministries, Associated and Affiliated Ministries, Associations and Conferences, to consider what this Partnership might mean in their roles and responsibilities in relation to participation by congregations, clergy and church staff affiliated with the Alliance of Baptists; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the General Synod encourage congregations, clergy and church staff of the UCC to develop and deepen this ecumenical friendship by pursuing opportunities for worship, fellowship, collaboration, sharing of resources, and mutual support with neighbors in the Alliance of Baptists, and wherever possible in partnership with the Disciples; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the General Synod encourage conversation between the Alliance of Baptists and the Disciples-UCC Common Global Ministries Board to discern where the ministry of all might be enhanced by cooperation and collaboration; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the General Synod encourage the seminaries and other settings of the church where teaching of history and polity occurs to include information about the Alliance of Baptists in order to deepen understanding of the faithful witness and ministry of the Alliance as a new ecumenical partner; and also encourage the development of programs of Baptist studies; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the General Synod encourage, as part of the Partnership with the Alliance of Baptists and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the continuation of theological conversation on matters of ministry, sacramental life, theology and polity throughout the life of the church; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the General Synod encourage all settings of the United Church of Christ to invite participation by the Alliance of Baptists, as with other ecumenical partners, in national and regional events; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the General Synod encourage leaders in the United Church of Christ to seek to make common public witness with leaders of the Alliance of Baptists, with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and other ecumenical colleagues, on issues of national and international concern, and collaborate wherever possible on works of public witness and justice-making; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the General Synod, in recognition of a deeply shared commitment to children and to the growth of our churches, encourage the United Church of Christ to share and, where possible, collaborate with the Alliance of Baptists in the development of educational resources for children and youth; and share opportunities for mission, outdoor camp experiences, education, and fellowship events for children and youth of the Alliance, in partnership with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); and
BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED that the General Minister and President name United Church of Christ representatives to an ongoing Partnership Council to facilitate and encourage the growth of this Partnership in Mission and Ministry among the United Church of Christ, the Alliance of Baptists, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).