Christian unity seems on the mend

 — Dec. 30, 198730 déc. 1987

by Patrick O’Driscoll, USA Today

Young revelers rock the ballroom in a New Year’s Eve countdown. At midnight Thursday, the cheer goes up: “Happy New CHURCH!”

How’s that again?

While millions of us sing choruses of Auld Lang Syne to welcome 1988, some 1,600 Lutheran teens in Anaheim, Calif., will hum a hymn – on kazoos, no less – to welcome the birth of a new Lutheran church.

No irreverence is intended – just a little unbridled joy as three of the USA’s largest Lutheran denominations officially unite on Jan. 1 to become the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the nation’s fifth-largest religious body.

Though more a milestone for the uniting churches’ 5.3 million members, the merger has caused ripples of interest among the USA’s more than 210 Christian denominations. During a decade of strides in mending church divisions, it’s considered another step on a long, rocky walk to Christian unity.

“More and more people are saying, ‘Let’s get on with this business of bringing the church together as one,’ ” says the Rev. Paul Kennedy, a Lutheran pastor whose Worcester, Mass., congregation swaps preachers, shares vacation Bible school and holds a Thanksgiving service with a neighboring Roman Catholic parish.

Today, almost every major Christian body has formal dialogues with other denominations, seeking common ground on doctrine, liturgy and moral issues. Their talks may not yield mergers. But experts on ecumenism say the talks build bridges between groups long split by medieval schisms, the Protestant Reformation, bias, ignorance, suspicion.

Among the ’80s dialogues:

– Catholic and Lutheran scholars have all but buried differences over the doctrine of faith in God’s mercy as the sole key to salvation – a main reason 16th-century reformer Martin Luther broke with Rome. Other joint statements touch ordained ministry, Holy Communion, papal authority and infallibility.

– The 1.7 million-member United Church of Christ and 1.1 million-member Disciples of Christ have adopted an “ecumenical partnership” for worship and ministry. On May 1, they’ll begin joint worship.

– Two black Methodist bodies – the 1.5 million-member African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and 950,000-member Christian Methodist Episcopal Church – aim to unite by the mid-1990s.

– Presbyterians, Reformed Church in America and some Lutherans recognize each other’s ordinations and Eucharists, and share pulpits. Lutherans and Episcopalians share Communion and preachers.

– Southern Baptists and Catholics have met on baptism, scripture, mission, grace for some 18 years.

– Catholics and Anglicans are nearing agreement on ordained ministry and Communion and have made progress on church authority, the issue that caused King Henry VIII’s split with the Vatican.

– As members of the 25-year-old Consultation on Christian Union (COCU), nine Protestant bodies are near recognizing each other’s baptism, ordination, mission, Eucharist.

The Lutheran union – blending 2.9 million-member Lutheran Church in America, 2.3 million-member American Lutheran Church and 111,000-member Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches – is this decade’s second big merger. Northern and Southern Presbyterian branches reunited in 1983 as the 3.3 million-member Presbyterian Church (USA).

COCU General Secretary Gerald Moede counts 30 church union efforts under way around the world

Why this Christian urge to merge? The cue comes from Christ’s prayer, in the gospel of John, that “those who believe in me … may all be one.”

“We’re all Christian by nature,” says the Rev. Timothy Maland, a Lutheran pastor in Hutchinson, Minn. “The bit about Roman Catholics or Lutherans or Methodists, that’s all man-made stuff.”

Today, churches focus more on what unites than what divides. Deeper scholarly research, joint work on social issues and foreign missions, and the rise of church councils are pushing ecumenism. And Vatican Council II’s 1964 Decree on Ecumenism nudged Catholics, the largest Christian body, into full discourse.

Now, some Catholic experts talk of the possibilities of church reunion.

“It’s closer than we might believe,” says the Rev. John Hotchkin, head of ecumenical affairs for the USA’s Catholic bishops.

Last September, the USA got a vivid glimpse of the possibilities when Pope John Paul II and leaders of 18 Protestant and Orthodox bodies worshiped together in Columbia, S.C. The pope seemed to acknowledge the churches’ identities when he addressed them as “ecclesiastical communions,” not “separated brethren” as he has in the past.

But a prayer service does not a reunion make. The Vatican still bans “full participation” in non-Catholic worship. And its ban on women’s ordination and married clergy clashes with many Protestant bodies.

Some denominations, fearing dilution of doctrine or loss of identity, simply choose not to discuss reunion. Absent from the new Lutheran merger, for instance, are nearly a dozen other conservative bodies, including the the 2.7 million-member Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and 415,000-member Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.

Potential breakups threaten, too – within the 14.6 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, conservatives and moderates are struggling for political control.

Some biblical fundamentalists consider Catholics non-Christian idol worshipers. Meanwhile, “there’s still a lot of anti-Protestantism among Catholics,” says Bro. Jeffrey Gros, a Catholic who heads the National Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Commission.

And ecumenists push on for ’88.

In May, “mainline” Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox and conservative evangelicals plan an unprecedented four-day “gathering of Christians” in Texas.

Another milestone: next September’s meeting of the nation’s two largest black Baptist groups. The 7.5 million-member National Baptist Convention USA Inc. and the 4.5 million-member National Baptist Convention of America plan a first-ever joint session during separate annual conventions also in Texas.

Gros, whose office is a principal builder of ecumenical bridges, declares the us-and-them days over: “Now it’s ‘we,’ with our own problems together. It’s a coming together, ever so gradually. Like any kind of courtship … you have to be patient.”

Posted: Dec. 30, 1987 • Permanent link:
Categories: NewsIn this article: Christian unity, church union, dialogue, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Lutheran
Transmis : 30 déc. 1987 • Lien permanente :
Catégorie : NewsDans cet article : Christian unity, church union, dialogue, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Lutheran

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