When representatives of 40 denominations, communions, and Christian organizations gathered in late January 2003 at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California, no one knew for sure the outcome. Eighteen months earlier a nucleus of this group had met outside of Baltimore to begin asking whether it was possible to form a new, more inclusive structure of Christian fellowship. Their vision was to draw mainline Protestant, Catholic, evangelical, pentecostal, Orthodox, and historic black churches to a fresh table of ecumenical participation.
Nothing quite like it had ever been tried in the United States. The National Council of Churches of Christ encompasses mainline Protestant, Orthodox, and historic black churches, but not others. The National Association of Evangelicals was organized largely in reaction to the NCC. Suspicion and hostility between the two groupings has long spread division and mistrust. Meanwhile, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has not officially joined any wider ecumenical fellowship in the United States.
Around the world, the situation is quite different. In about 65 countries, the Catholic Church is a full member in such national church councils or associations. The National Council of Churches in Korea recently welcomed the Assemblies of God. Likewise, the South African Council of Churches now includes two of the largest pentecostal bodies in that country. And in many countries, national ecumenical organizations have undergone radical changes to build a fellowship that expresses more fully the breadth of the Christian community within their land, as church leaders have concluded that new ecumenical wine cannot be poured into old wineskins.
THE GROUP that gathered in Pasadena in January reflected this same breadth of participation, and it achieved a remarkable breakthrough. It approved a draft organizational plan for a new fellowship to be called "Christian Churches Together in the USA." Its mission: "To enable churches and Christian organizations to grow closer together in Christ in order to strengthen our Christian witness in the world."
The vision embraced by the group was introduced in this way:
We are challenged as Christians by the prayer of Jesus in John 17 that all who believe in Him might be one with God and with one another so that the world would believe in Him as God and Savior. We acknowledge that this is not what we experience now and recognize that we have different histories and convictions on some key issues. We pray for a fresh awareness of the Holy Spirit's work among us that will foster: relationships where our differences can be better understood, our commonalities better affirmed, and our brokenness healed by God; more opportunities to engage in shared witness, vision, and action; a strong prophetic voice of the Christian community in America. We believe that we will be led into these new relationships as we commit ourselves to spiritual disciplines such as prayer and study of Scripture to listen for and obey the voice of Christ.
The organizational plan goes on to propose a common theological basis for Christian Churches Together, a statement of its purposes, a governing structure, and a timeline for implementation. Over two years, they would bring the proposal to the decision-making bodies of denominations, communions, and Christian organizations. When 25 agree officially to become participants, representing of the breadth of fellowship intended in its vision, Christian Churches Together in the USA will become formally established.
Questions remain. Will a body this diverse agree on any significant public witness? That will be tested. Yet the growing consensus in the churches around issues such as overcoming poverty and racism, as well as discovering together the shape of evangelical witness and mission in a postmodern society, could find expression in CCT. Its plan, however, insists that the first step must be to deepen fellowship and understanding with one another. It desires to root its life in "being together" in order to discern how to "act together" in witness in the world.
Further, as CCT emerges, those churches that belong to the NCC will need to decide what this means for its life and mission. Those will be important discussions in the coming years as old institutional divisions in the Christian community begin to break down and new possibilities take hold.
This much seems clear. CCT is the best chance that we will have in this decade to change the ecumenical landscape and to create a body that more fully reflects the life of the churches in the United States. That could become a powerful tool for strengthening the mission of the church at the beginning of a new century.
Wesley Granberg-Michaelson was general secretary of the Reformed Church in America and a Sojourners contributing editor when this article appeared. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops voted in late 2004 to participate in CCT, which planned a launch meeting in summer 2005.