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The ecumenical challenge of united and uniting churches.

The sixth international consultation on united and uniting churches meets at a time when ecumenists are challenged to live into unity in the face of claims that unity is a false or misguided or protectionist goal. For example, in my country (the USA) some religious extremists assert that ecumenical churches are anti-Christ, unfaithful and faithless bodies of misguided and misguiding individuals who have forsaken biblically-based witness for worldly and godless pursuits, and who therefore must be exposed as impostors who live under demonic rule. Such criticisms are strident in their negativism, and devastating in their impact on churches that struggle to live into visible unity. Further confusing ecumenists who are already confused by the complexities of ecumenical activity, these attacks serve to erode commitment to Christian unity. From the centres of ecclesiastical decision-making to the "grassroots", there has been a turning away from the ecumenical movement - a massive retreat from the effort to overcome the churchly divisions that fracture and disempower.

Why have spurious claims been so effective? How has it been possible within a short period of thirty to forty years for the prophetic work of so many persons in so many parts of the world, and in so many different kinds of churches, to lose its force? Can the reasons for the retreat of ecumenists and ecumenically-committed churches be articulated? Are there explanations that can assist those under attack to survive this period of recession, to continue effectively in the struggle for the emergence of a church that is truly catholic, truly reformed and truly evangelical? Is it realistic to be committed to the emergence of a people of God reunited from all of the Christian traditions - Protestant, Anglican/Episcopal, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Pentecostal? What is the vision that can give hope and direction to those who believe in the imperative to be the one church for the one world? How do all churches become "unitable churches"? Can they together create the new structures that are congruent with life in organic union?

In this context, united and uniting churches (UUCs) bring to the ecumenical movement a life-giving word. They proclaim the truth of the founding, radical union vision that inspired hope for visible unity. They model church life that is holistic, union-centred and shaped by an ecumenically-informed morality of change that moves churches from separation and division into unity and union. As they encounter effectively the power of denominationalism, liberating Christians in many countries from the relative powerlessness of formerly divided and fragmented church life, united and uniting churches are helping to shape a new paradigm for living into unity and union. Their conversion to new life is so radical that it challenges all churches to engage in self-examination and prayer, in order to discern the meaning of this movement within the ecumenical movement. Are united and uniting churches enabling the larger ecumenical movement - through their conversion and new forms of institutional life - to move into an authentic future within the household of God? Are they enabling the ecumenical movement to live out of a reclaimed, powerful and liberating union vision? Is their path into organic union the way all churches must walk, if the people of God are ever to live as one people?

Such questions involve churches in a search for understanding that transcends the level of discourse within ecumenism today, The origins and development of the UUCs reveal life in union informed by a hermeneutic of contrition, an interpretation of church life that connects biblical truth with historical, theological and sociological insights, searching them for the norms and strategies that lead into a life of recovered unity. Discerning the way of obedience, moving from fragmentation and division to union, UUCs are moving out from remorse and penitence into the light of forgiveness and the "long road of amendment" that brings them into the circle of redemption and reconciliation. Enduring protracted negotiations (see for example the Church of South India) and the disappointments of dialogue reception, UUCs experience all that is to be endured on the rocky path to union. The ecumenical movement has, in them, a resource which is essential to the experience of all churches if they are to realize the goals of living into visible eucharistic unity.

In this presentation I will consider, first, selected problems within the ecumenical movement as sources of the criticisms that, however exaggerated or unfair, have contributed to the undermining of ecumenical ministries. Then I will relate the development of united and uniting churches to the larger ecumenical movement. The second part of the paper will identify the strength, but also the vulnerability, of the union vision as it has determined the history of UUCs, emphasizing a context of denominational resistance and even opposition. Completing this statement is a question about possible structural changes, that is, where the focus on UUCs is placed within the World Council of Churches.

Visible unity and organic union: vocation and gifts

The ecumenical movement is living under siege, held hostage to its own authentic but often-rejected goal of unity through organic church union. In this situation, the role of UUCs is decisive. Will ecumenism find the way to liberate the churches from their self-imposed captivity? Will it find a way to envision all churches within one eucharistic whole? Will it be able to forge the conceptual and practical tools for living radically changed lives - moving through penitence, forgiveness and amendment into a common life of redemption within the body of Christ, the Reconciler? The experiences of UUCs of vision empowerment, complex ecclesiastical negotiations, delayed results - even failures, and, most importantly, liberation from isolation and the fear of change, have prepared them to be taken seriously as evolving ecumenical models of normative institutional life today. The question is, are not UUCs, as trans-denominational and trans-confessional bodies, the model of church union that can effectively take all churches into the life of koinonia to which we are all called as persons, churches, confessions and communions? How else can institutional churches move authentically into organic union - the glorious gift of the triune God? We rejoice that some separated churches have moved into visible unity through union. United in integrated life, they are a gifted presence, manifesting forgiveness, and calling others to the way of full eucharistic life in union with each other and with Christ.

The challenge (and gift) that the united and uniting churches offer to the rest of the ecumenical movement is, first of all, the witness of ecclesial spiritual conversion, "the change of heart and holiness of life" that is so present in congregations of the UUCs.(1) They model "the need for continuous repentance for our willingness to be divided..."(2) With courage and perseverance they model their conversion to life in union with one another, and with Christ. They live in what is truly the fullness of communion to which we are all called. Thus they are able to go beyond ecumenical cooperation, dialogue and even common witness in mission, to spiritual and structural change. They have discerned the truth that the "full visible union of all Christians" follows informed decision-making about the level of what must be relinquished and what must be retained - in structural forms, beliefs, patterns of association and other institutional practices. Breaking the hold of unrepentant denominational or confessional forms of ecclesial life, they embody more perfectly life in the new creation. In the UUCs, former identities are relativized in the life of koinonia, so that culture, liturgy, doctrine and even witness are subject to the test of obedience to the will of the triune God for unity.

As churches which have moved from division and separation into union, the UUCs also call attention to some of the sources of weakness experienced in the ecumenical movement today. They are, for example, an effective challenge to the widely-touted "bottom up" approach to ecumenism. While the current emphasis on the local as the preferred place of ecumenical life is based on negative assumptions about the wider ecumenical movement, united and uniting churches continue their connections with the wider church. This is because they affirm the holistic perspective from which they live, and they understand that their health and future depend upon a process of transformation that relates the local and the universal church. They embody a catholicity that is a mark of the true church. UUCs seek to heal and unite, avoiding the separation of the local from the national or regional or global forms of ecumenism, and searching for ways to change and grow that do not foster continuing division and separation between the various expressions (or levels) of ecumenism.

If kairos is taken broadly, to mean "time in the present" (Rom. 11:5), then the vocation of united and uniting churches is shaped by the ethical and theological demand for immediacy. Union is to take place now. It is to occur at once! Not "towards a fuller koinonia", but a lived koinonia in the kairotic moment that is the now, the already, the almost-too-late moment in which churches must come together in the life of the new creation. The restoration of full communion in sacramental life and ministry is integral to their vocation, as is the need to move from convergence and consensus to commitment in the shared life of Christians and churches in local, regional and global settings. The marks of the church are to be lived in the present so that proclamation, service and fellowship are seen to be the defining elements of the people of God. Thus UUCs have a role that is essential to the life of the ecumenical movement. They live in a way that is crucial for the realization of the ecumenical goal - the life of the restored unity of the people of God.

The union-vision tradition and the paradox of affirmation and denial

United and uniting churches offer both a challenge and a tremendous resource to the ecumenical movement. For they live paradoxically, witnessing to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit even as they yield to the powerful forces of denominationalism that reject transformation. Only through the gift of God's grace do they remain faithful to their ecumenical vision, keeping in balance their "holy impatience" and their need to adjust to the demands of life in imperfect union. Living in this tension, UUCs are gifted with resilience. They have stories to tell of the miracle of divine love that sustains and re-creates. I believe that it is because they embody the authentic vision of the unity for which Jesus the Christ prayed. that their journeys model the way for churches to move into the recovery of organic unity. Their witness is authentic, not because it is perfect - united churches still struggle to overcome the ravages of casteism, racism, genderism and consumerism. Their genuineness follows from their commitment to change whatever is clearly a denial of the gift of life in koinonia. Everything is under review - doctrine, service, liturgy, ecclesiastical and public policy, stewardship, evangelism and dialogue.

When full communion was realized by the bridging of the "divide" between churches in which the historic episcopate is a tradition and those in which it is not, the Church of South India (CSI) began its journey into the fullness of lived koinonia. Encountering the hard realities of relationships with the larger denominational bodies with which it had connections, the united church persevered in "living into" the canonical, ecclesiological and political considerations that are problematic following the organic union of previously divided churches. Denominationalism, with its inordinate need for preserving particular religious cultures, functioned as a powerful obstacle to the rapid growth of the newly united church. It has been a consistent deterrent to the emergence of united churches that are broadly representative, adequately resourced and effectively related to the various expressions of ecumenism. As a result, there has been a loss of momentum in the movement from division and separation into union. Whereas in the 1960s and 1970s expectations were high - it was thought that there would be an "explosion" of uniting churches - the pace of negotiations slowed or, in some cases, substantial changes were made in the goal of the negotiations. Thus the Consultation on Church Union, the most comprehensive union effort yet attempted in the United States, altered its plan from one for the structural integration of nine denominations to a "communion of communions" which would preserve the autonomy of each of the "uniting" churches. Slowed down by the hard facts of churchly resistance, and with a general lack of enthusiasm for structural unions such as that of the Church of South India, the ecumenical impulse faltered.

Still, the movement into church union continues. For UUCs are microcosms of the larger world of churches and movements - with a difference! As they mature in union they discover how to live out of ecumenical perspectives in each area of ecclesial life. Their experience of living an integrated approach, with the increased self-understanding that develops, means that an ecumenical process of reflection and change is kept in motion. This kind of contribution can only give hope to those who are yet to bring their churches to commitment to a vision of union. UUCs say, in their integrated lives, that the experience of union is restorative and it can be done. They witness to the miracle of healing - a sign of salvation that affirms that long years of "alienation, separation and ignorance" are ending. As they explore their relations with various ecclesial bodies with which they have historical connections, they affirm an understanding of the "unity of the church as koinonia". The Canberra unity statement articulates a basis for the continuation of their movement in union, and for their dialogue with those who have still to claim the truth of the vision of union:

The purpose of the church is to unite people with Christ in the power of the Spirit, to manifest communion in prayer and action and thus to point to the fullness of communion with God, humanity and the whole of creation in the glory of the kingdom.(3)

United and uniting churches demonstrate that the goal of full communion will be realized when all of the churches are able to recognize in one another the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. A theological basis is thus provided for building relationships with the various ecclesial bodies with which they have historical connections, and for participating in those expressions of the wider church in which the commitment to unity is a vital force. Life in the World Council of Churches, relations with the Christian World Communions and responsible action in regional and local ecumenical bodies are all essential to maintaining and strengthening life in union. Through these links, mutuality of concerns is fostered and UUCs are encouraged to live into the full experience of their identity. However, these relationships within the wider ecumenical movement are clearly problematic, since united and uniting churches challenge the denominational and confessional orientation of bodies such as CWCs and even the conciliar movement itself. In this transitional period, in which all churches are challenged by the emergence of post-denominational Christianity, uniting and united churches are challenged in a special way. Although the vital role played by Faith and Order as a clearing house and facilitator will continue, with Faith and Order serving as a major resource for UUCs, they are in grave need of a "support system", within the ecumenical context, that will permit them to continue to discover what union is and requires. Is it in the life of the World Council of Churches that united and uniting churches can find such a system, a place in which they are enabled to develop their prophetic role within the ecumenical movement?

Beyond denominationalism: churches in solidarity with UUCs

Although the World Council of Churches is not a church, and has no enforceable authority in the life of its member churches, it is the one body in which all Christians can meet to pursue ecumenical ends, either through full or more limited kinds of participation. Churches within the WCC are learning to live together as a community for the world, in the name of Christ. One area in which this is strikingly true is that of mission. Churches undertake to carry out programmes intended to serve the needs of the world, initiatives which also help churches discover how the reunited church of Christ will live and move and have its being! This context is clearly one in which the vocation and gifts of UUCs are both valuable and redemptive. For this to be acknowledged, however, strategies are needed to assist all churches to understand and support the life of united and uniting churches. Will the World Council of Churches do this? Is there any experience in its life of jointly sponsored mission that has prepared the churches to move in this direction?

The WCC experience of a programme that began as the responsibility of the general secretariat and was then carried out under the name of the WCC as a whole has implications for the claim that mission is one of the marks of the church. An application of the Lund principle, the Programme to Combat Racism (PCR) is helping churches to understand the integrity of a reunited church of Christ on the way to unity and union. Member churches of the WCC are discovering how a united life of churches in mission can liberate those to whom they are sent. PCR, begun in the early 1970s as a new venture in "lived unity", is a creation of the member churches of the WCC united in purpose, resource-sharing and strategic action. Innovative and prophetic, PCR is thus the outcome of decision-making by the churches acting as one. They are taking responsibility together for life in mission, and they are succeeding in a programme priority that had defied all earlier efforts from the Oxford conference in 1937 to the New Delhi assembly in 1961. This priority was to combat racism within the churches and in societies where it had become systemic and oppressive. Whether they had worked separately or in limited cooperative efforts locally, regionally or internationally, the churches had failed, before PCR, to achieve the goal of defeating the demons of global racism. That is: ministry undertaken separately by the churches failed in its goals. A divided church was no match for the heretical system that was one of the most powerful denials of koinonia ever seen.

By designing and implementing PCR, making it a line item in the operating budget of the WCC, and assigning it to the general secretariat as a programme priority to be carried out on behalf of all member churches and in consultation with all programme units, the member churches discovered a way to be united in mission. They have not thereby taken the steps necessary for union, but they are learning what it will be like when churches do finally decide to take those steps necessary to leave behind centuries of separation, division and alienation. However, because these are new experiences which challenge the ecumenical movement to find new language, new methods, even new forms of worship, the WCC is vulnerable to misunderstanding, misrepresentation and in some instances a high level of inner conflict. There are very few churches to which it can turn for understanding and the kind of experience that the Council needs in this new phase of its existence. Experienced in the process of transformation, UUCs are appropriate partners to support and give guidance to the Council in similar ventures of mission that require the formidable skills of communication, negotiation and resource development which these churches have developed, in varying degrees, on their journeys into koinonia. United and uniting churches are equipped to serve the WCC as partners in mission. Can the WCC relate to them in ways that make mutuality a reality in the life of the UUCs? How can they be strengthened in their resolve to live the vision of union more faithfully? Can their commitment and experience be formative for the ecumenical development of other churches?

The member churches of the WCC, in their commitment to address the evil of systemic racism together, have provided the ecumenical movement with a kind of holy heuristic ecclesiological device for discovering who the churches are when they act out of the union vision together. In mission of this kind which is committed, without reservation, to the eradication of heretically sanctioned oppression, churches have become credible in the world. More importantly, they are learning how to struggle as one body, empowered by the Holy Spirit and becoming effective as a united and uniting and liberating force in the world. Such mission is grounded in faith claims that become lived truth, truth by which those who suffer are freed in the name of Christ. This result is a clear sign of the churches' effectiveness in mission; through this mission the power of racism has been broken by the greater power of divinely-inspired churches. The witness of churches in the newly liberated South Africa confirms this claim.

Changes in the structure of PCR suggest that the full significance of this new venture is still to be grasped by all of those who represent the member churches in WCC. The programme's place at the centre of the WCC's life was meant to witness to the meaning of "Christian" - and other forms of racism - as moral death. But the shift of the programme to a programme unit, thus identifying it as one in a list of programme areas, has obscured the nature of the evil being combatted, and the nature of the sin in which the churches are together involved. This is not the place to argue the issues relevant to the programme today. It is important, however, to understand what some of these issues are, since they have a bearing on the possibility for UUCs to be in a working, sustained and supported programme relationship at the centre of the structural life of the WCC.

I believe that unity or union will be attained only if the evil of denominationalism is identified and eradicated. The ecumenical movement can create the moral climate for a programme in which the UUCs become the main resource for the churches acting as one to move beyond the worship of the idols of denominationalism, into new life which is given and graced by the one God who is creator, redeemer and sanctifier. A struggle of this magnitude will depend for its successful outcome on the application of ecumenical learning that is reliable and realistic about both the nature of the enemy and the scope and nature of the resources required for ending its stranglehold on churches already committed to life in koinonia. It requires recognizing that true koinonia is clearly incompatible with life that is dominated by denominational power. Bishop Stephen Neill's comment, "denominations may be necessary, but they should never be regarded as a permanent feature of the Christian landscape...",(4) must be placed together with H. Richard Niebuhr's insights. Niebuhr wrote that:

The road to unity is the road of repentance. It demands a resolute turning away from all those loyalties to the lesser values of... the denomination... which deny the inclusiveness of divine love. It requires that Christians learn to look upon their separate establishments and exclusive creeds with contrition rather than with pride.(5)

Furthermore, it is not the differentiation (or diversity) of churches and ecclesial bodies that is evil. Even sects may be seen as genuine attempts to call Christian churches to authentic life. Rather the problem lies

in the failure of the churches to transcend the social conditions which fashion them into caste-organizations, to sublimate their loyalties to standards and institutions only remotely relevant if not contrary to the Christian ideal, to resist the temptation of making their own self-preservation and extension the primary object of their endeavour.(6)

On this analysis, the parallels between the churches' need to eradicate racism and their need to move beyond denominationalism are clear. Does the experience of the churches with effective joint action against racism not provide them with the framework for moving effectively together to meet the challenge of denominationalism? Is it not possible to see, even now, the outlines of an ecumenical focus designed to foster unity and union by a joint "mission to end denominationalism" - should not that be at the centre of the life of member churches of the World Council of Churches?

Since ecumenical morality is grounded in biblical truth, decisions made by the churches on the way to organic union must be congruent with the agreed theological affirmations, loyalties and norms that shape the churches' search for visible eucharistic unity. Tremendous work in dialogue, formation and reception is essential if the churches are to develop a common approach to the changes needed for them to move into organic union. New resources and new methods are needed for this pioneering and prophetic work. Although Faith and Order will continue to be the senior partner, are there not new initiatives that must also be taken? The WCC has pioneered the united (and uniting?) commitment to the eradication of racism, and has created new theologies, methods and strategies in the process. It is successfully engaged in assisting the churches to live out their common life in mission in this area of need. Diverse communities are, as a result, liberated in their personal and corporate lives.

Will the Council now undertake to use what it has learned about power, united effort and perseverance against all odds in the struggle of churches to live beyond the power of denominational narrowness and division? What is needed if the movement from separation into visible eucharistic fellowship and, eventually, into organic union is to be achieved? How will the ecumenical movement lead churches in the reconfiguration of institutional life that will celebrate authentic differences in types of spirituality, styles of worship and perspectives on the sources and norms of Christian morality? Can it generate the energy and enthusiasm that will set a quicker pace for change, resisting the many ways in which the status quo in church relationships is maintained, allowing little or no change in areas of sacramental life, ministry and polity?

The united and uniting churches could, if empowered, assist other churches to act together in mission, while they are themselves sustained by the WCC in their life in union. Such mutuality of purpose is essential to the deepening of the churches' ecumenical vocation. It is absolutely essential to a viable future for UUCs, who understand their life in union as the forerunner of the reconciled life of all churches. If the church of Christ is ever to live in all its fullness, the ecumenical impulse must become a compelling reality. To affirm and enhance the vocation of united and uniting churches in our time, can there be a WCC "Programme to Free Churches From Denominationalism" - now?


1 "Decree on Ecumenism" of the Second Vatican Council, cited in The 1993 Directory for Ecumenism, Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Origins, vol. 23, no. 9, p. 134.

2 1993 ARC-USA Statement, ibid., p. 132.

3 Signs of the Spirit, ed. Michael Kinnamon, Geneva, WCC, and Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1991, pp. 172-74.

4 Stephen Neill, Anglicanism, New York, Oxford UP, 1977, p.404.

5 H. Richard Niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism, Cleveland, World Publishing Co., 1968, p.284.

6 Ibid., p.21.

Rena Karefa-Smart is ecumenical officer of the Washington, DC, diocese of the Episcopal Church, USA.
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Title Annotation:Sixth International Consultation of United and Uniting Churches
Author:Karefa-Smart, Rena
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Date:Oct 1, 1995
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