For 40 years, church leaders have held formal meetings to heal the enduring fractures of American Protestantism. On Jan. 20, their toil will begin to pay off as congregations nationwide get a green light for finally getting to know their Christian neighbors.
After that date, white churches won't need to feel funny about inviting black congregations to dinner or accepting a reciprocal invitation to worship. Methodists won't need to worry about taking Holy Communion from a UCC pastor or vice versa. For these potentially awkward getting-to-know-you steps and many more, a handy opportunity will be in place.
The opportunity will have a name: Churches Uniting in Christ (CUIC). The name encompasses nine denominations, including the UCC and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), who spent four decades probing foundations for closer ties. In January, they will pass the baton to local pastors and laity to make those spiritual bonds known to the world.
"We're making manifest the visible unity of the church even though it's not yet perfect," says the Rev. Lydia Veliko, UCC Minister for Ecumenical Relations. "Our 'yes' means we are willing to take the next step. It doesn't mean we've got it all figured out."
Ceremonies on Jan. 20
Incomplete though the process is, Jan. 20 marks a turning point in a century of ecumenical progress. Ceremonies in Memphis on Martin Luther King Jr. Day will recall with pride how councils of churches emerged on all levels after World War I and how new denominations later bridged gaps within the ranks of Methodism, Lutheranism and Congregationalism.
But Churches Uniting in Christ also reflects a world much changed since then, one that now largely embraces tenets of pluralism and postmodernism. Gone, for instance, is the assumption that denominations ought to dissolve to achieve unity. Today's goal is to embrace a variety of "gifts" from one another's distinct Christian settings while preserving denominations. What's more, local churches aren't expected to implement national policies, but instead will design their own ecumenical practices, which might someday bubble up to shape broader church policy.
"Ecumenism doesn't work very well when it's worked out in meetings and then passed down to congregations," says the Rev. Richard Hamm, General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Yet because of the need for demonstrating Christian unity, Hamm says, he challenges congregations after Jan. 20 to find their own creative ways to show unity across lines of race, class, age and denomination. "If we allow ourselves to be divided as Christians, that says to the world that there are more powerful things than the Gospel," says Hamm. "Then the world wonders, 'What's the big deal about Jesus? He can't even unite his own people.'"
Racial barrier comes down
Some doors to unity, previously closed, will swing open under CUIC. Clergy from participating denominations, for instance, may serve the Lord's Supper in joint services. Members from each church may receive from a common table without hesitation. This practice stops short of what's known as "full communion," in which one denomination's clergy may pastor another's local churches, but participants hope to get there by 2007.
A second barrier, a racial one, came down during the 40-year Consultation on Church Union (COCU), which officially ends in January. For the first time, "partnerships" among mainline Protestants will include three historically black denominations: African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion and Christian Methodist Episcopal. Through this step, leaders say, a pathway has cleared for the church to model locally how various races might live together.
"Most ecumenical efforts have attempted to address historic theological differences, dating back to the Reformation," says the Rev. John H. Thomas, UCC General Minister and President. "But in the lived reality, race is what tends to divide the church. This is an attempt to address a barrier in church and society, a very contemporary church-dividing issue ... It's a witness to the world as well."
How local congregations express this emerging unity will be as vastly varied as their imaginations. The Rev. Llewellyn Smith, pastor of Gloucester Trinitarian Congregational UCC in West Gloucester, Mass., says she intends to urge new connections with youth and with elderly in nursing homes. Thomas says he's seen mission work unite strangers as they address local problems "that on your own would be a little too daunting." Veliko suggests following an Illinois Methodist church that invites other congregations to its sanctuary whenever it baptizes someone and makes a point of recognizing visitors.
Ecumenical? Or interfaith?
Hurdles both obvious and subtle could hinder progress toward CUIC's lofty goal of full communion among all participants.
On the obvious side, Episcopalians and Reformed Christians will have a hard time agreeing on whether bishops have an indispensable role to play in sanctioning ordained ministries. So far, Presbyterians and Episcopalians have represented opposite poles on this issue.
On the more subtle side, passion is growing in some Christian circles for more interfaith worship services and workshops designed for inter-religious understanding, especially in the aftermath of September 11 terrorist attacks on Washington and New York City. Though Veliko and others see no inherent competition between interfaith movements and ecumenism (seeking inter-church unity), some are saying zeal for ecumenism must be redirected toward more pressing projects.
"I hope we can possibly not give so much priority to our ecumenical discussions," says the Rev. Nancy Taylor, UCC Massachusetts Conference Minister and President, "because who cares about our differences for how we do communion or baptism? We need to learn more about Islam."
Goal: Oneness in Christ
This argument doesn't persuade the Rev. Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary of COCU and Professor of Mission and Peace at UCC-related Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, Mo. Christians, he says, have a spiritual gift to model "koinonia," or loving community, in a way that interfaith relationships cannot. What's more, interfaith conversations might only seem to be the bigger challenge, when actually the hard part is getting Christians on the right and left to join hands.
"You're going to now reconcile with Muslims before you get along with the local Baptists?" Kinnamon asks rhetorically. "Bringing together liberals of one tradition with liberals of another tradition is not exactly the grand vision that scripture calls us to."
In addition to the nine participating denominations, a 10th—the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—will be CUIC's "partner in mission and dialogue," meaning it will add its voice to anti-racism proclamations and attend discussions on shared ministries. The Moravian Church Northern and Southern Provinces also are expected to approve "partner" relationships when they meet in spring and summer of 2002.
After 40 years in the making, the CUIC arrangement promises in Hamm's words "to mean whatever congregations want it to mean." But whatever it comes to mean, it will surely get congregations thinking about a calling to be united. "I think the hardest sell we have on ecumenism these days is that we feel we're already living it out in our communities," says the Rev. Robert Welsh, Ecumenical Officer for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). "But are we doing that if blacks are denied housing or jobs? Our long-term goal is to manifest our oneness in Christ, and we're not there yet."
The Rev. G. Jeffrey MacDonald is Pastor of Union Congregational UCC in Amesbury, Mass. and a freel- ance journalist. His articles on religion have appeared this year in The Christian Century, The Christian Science Monitor and the Washington Post.
To discuss this issue with long-time ecumenist the Rev. Thomas Dipko, former executive vice president of the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries, click here.
Are any churches in your area members of these denominations? If so, you can arrange to join them for the Lord's Supper, Baptism, mission work or anything else through Churches Uniting in Christ (CUIC). For information on CUIC, visit www.cuicinfo.org. CUIC participating denominations:
African Methodist Episcopal Church
African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Christian Methodist Episcopal Church
Intl. Council of Community Churches
Presbyterian Church (USA)
United Church of Christ
United Methodist Church