This week's question comes from Jayne in Lawrenceville. She asks about the recent action taken by the Consultation of Church Union in St. Louis on January 24th regarding the unification of nine different Protestant denominations. Just what are the implications of this action?
On January 24th the nine member churches of the Consultation of Church Union voted unanimously to enter into a new relationship of cooperation. The nine churches were the United Methodist Church, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Presbyterian Church USA, United Church of Christ, Episcopal Church, Christian Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, and the International Council of Community Churches. These churches entered into a new relationship that will be initially celebrated in January of 2001. These churches will recognizes the validity of each others ministers, ministries, and the marks of worship including baptism and communion.
It may surprise some readers that this is a step forward by these churches. Up until the past few decades, many Protestant churches disavowed the validity of other churches who didn't believe exactly as they did. For instance, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) maintains that baptism should be reserved for youth and adults and should be accomplished by immersion (dunking). The Methodists and the Presbyterians both allow infant baptism by sprinkling. A second difference is in communion. Some of these churches insist an ordained or licensed minister must preside over the ritual, while others do not. By recognizing each other's rituals, as well as each others' ministers and ministries, these churches have acknowledged that diversity is not necessarily a bad thing and tolerance is a virtue.
So, what are the implications of this new mutual admiration? Most of these denominations have seen their membership figures decline and are facing a shortage of trained ministers. By working together it is hoped these churches will be stronger, enabled to minister more effectively as a collective, and better able to utilize the leadership that is available. Another hope is that by working together this larger body will have a positive impact in the political and the societal arena. Further, each of these churches have committed themselves to combating racism and to promote inclusiveness in their ministries with the hope to instill these values on society at large.
The dream of a single body of Christians has long been a vision in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Their founders, Thomas Campbell, Alexander Campbell, and Barton Stone, had hoped to blur and eventually eliminate the sectarian boundaries of the Church. The motto "Not the only Christians, but Christians only" expressed the dream of uniting with one church after another until there was only one body of Christ whose mission of making disciples of Jesus was key. Indeed, their dream is in sync with Jesus' plan for the church "that they all may be one, even as the Father and I are one" (John 17.11), as well as with Paul's admonition to the Church "There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all" (Ephesians 4.4-6).
Although this new relationship seems promising, there are still many points of contention between the denominations. The Methodist and the Episcopal churches both recognize bishops as an ordained hierarchy, while the Presbyterian and Christian churches do not. The Disciples still do not sprinkle infants and each of these denominations employ ministers in church positions differently.
Still, this seems to be a step in the right direction. Jesus once said that a house divided cannot stand (Mark 3.25) and the Christian house seems to have been seriously divided since the Reformation, over 400 years ago. Perhaps this is the first step for Christians of all faiths who may one day be able to do the works and ministries of Jesus in the world together as one.