Los Angeles Times, 5 Sep 2000

Church Councils Seek to Speak With One Voice

By LARRY B. STAMMER, Times Religion Writer

The nation's two largest ecumenical organizations are positioning themselves for a radical realignment that could bring liberal and conservative churches together in common social causes and lead to the disbanding of the venerable National Council of Churches.

Traditionally, churches in the United States have been divided. Old-line Protestant churches, along with Anglican, Orthodox and African American denominations, have belonged to the National Council of Churches. 

The National Assn. of Evangelicals, meanwhile, has represented more conservative evangelical and Pentecostal churches and has prohibited churches from joining if they are affiliated with the National Council of Churches.

The Roman Catholic Church, the nation's largest with 60 million members, has belonged to neither group.

Those divisions have weakened the voice of American churches on major national issues, religious leaders say, and they are taking steps to form a new, broad-based ecumenical body. 

"The old compartmentalized segmentation of the church is giving way to a new sense of vision and mission and presence of God in America. The block walls are coming down and giving way to picket fences," said the Rev. Kevin Mannoia, president of the National Assn. of Evangelicals.

Earlier this year, the executive board of the National Council of Churches voted to disband the organization over the next three years if a new broad-based church group is formed, said the Rev. Robert Edgar, the council's general secretary.

The National Assn. of Evangelicals has removed the rule prohibiting churches affiliated with the National Council from also joining the evangelical group. Already, the Reformed Church in America, a founding member of the national council, has applied for membership in the evangelical association, which is expected to act on the request next year.

'Dramatic gesture'

Leaders in both camps said the moves portend dramatic changes in the ecumenical landscape.

"The National Council of Churches would be able to give its life away for the sake of a new reality," said Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, who is also general secretary of the Reformed Church in America. "One can't underestimate the dramatic nature of the gesture."

Precisely what form a new organization would take remains deliberately vague. "We want to be humble enough to suggest that we don't have all the answers and make room for the Holy Spirit to lead, guide and direct us," Edgar said. "We want not to invite Roman Catholics and evangelicals to come to our table, but to have them see this as an opportunity to invent a new table."

But any new group with wide differences in theological views and church governance would probably have to rally round narrowly defined common issues--such as fighting poverty. Other divisive national issues involving moral questions, such as abortion and homosexuality, presumedly would be off limits.

The idea would be to have "a common forum to address the nation and share in a common witness," said the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA). "In spite of all the divisions, there is a coming together to a commitment on fundamental, social and economic justice that goes across all the labels."

The next step is likely to be a summit next spring that would bring together leaders from a broad range of Christian denominations. Leaders of the National Council plan to spend this fall working on ideas to bring other churches together for such a meeting, and Mannoia and Father John Hotchkin, a ranking Catholic ecumenical affairs officer in Washington, said in interviews that their organizations would probably participate.

But both of them cautioned that until there is a concrete proposal in hand no commitments could be made.

"The question always is . . . what are we going to gain? What is going to be accomplished? What's the goal? Will this really serve?" said Hotchkin, who is executive director of the Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. "People don't just like to build sand castles in the air."

No longer majority

A conjunction of events has prompted the moves. In recent years, the National Council of Churches has struggled with financial woes and seen its ecumenical mission eclipsed by new agreements among individual denominations. Earlier this year, for example, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church reached a "full communion" agreement, and similar accords have been reached between Lutherans and churches in the Reform tradition, including the Presbyterian Church (USA).

In addition, the council -- which has 35 member denominations or churches with 50 million members -- no longer accounts for even a majority of Christians in the United States. In addition to the nation's 60 million Catholics, the churches belonging to the evangelical association count roughly 30 million members.

"There's a sense that the National Council of Churches is too narrow a vehicle to represent Christianity in the United States," said Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the Consultation on Church Union. "If you want to talk about being a national council of churches, you certainly have to have Roman Catholics and evangelicals."

Granberg-Michaelson noted that the council and the evangelical association were created half a century ago. Today's leaders represent a generational shift in thinking, he said. Edgar and Mannoia, who now head the two groups, no longer see each other's organization as necessarily set against each other.

Edgar and his colleagues downplay the impact of their organization's financial problems. Instead, they stress that the advent of Christianity's third millennium and what they term the action of the Holy Spirit is moving churches to reexamine how far they have come--and how far they must go--to fulfill the prayer of Jesus that his followers may be one.

"This is a kairos moment to work with Roman Catholics, evangelicals, Orthodox and historic black and mainline churches," Edgar said, using the Greek term for a time inspired by God. At the turn of the new millennium, "many of us may be adult enough to have some ego disarmament."

Mannoia said that evangelicals are tapping their historic social activist roots after a period during which many evangelicals stressed converting individuals over changing society.

"The evangelical movement is rediscovering the integration of social holiness and personal holiness," Mannoia said.

The changes are not without cost. Mannoia said several churches have talked about quitting the evangelical group in protest over admitting churches outside their traditional membership.

To join, Mannoia noted, churches still must subscribe to the evangelical group's bedrock statement of faith--that Jesus Christ is the son of God and that the Bible is "the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative word of God."

"It's frightening for historic NAE leadership. We've never done it that way before. We had this nice closed circle of exclusivity," Mannoia said. But the group is clearly willing to take risks, he said, noting the organization's choice of him as its new president and its recent move of its headquarters from Wheaton, Ill., to Southern California precisely in order to be in a more multicultural setting.

In the past, he said, the evangelical association defined itself by setting itself against the national council. No longer.

In making those moves, the evangelical group "took a huge risk," Mannoia said. "Sometimes I wonder if they really know the risk that they took."