As Americans share a more intense awareness of the potential divisiveness of faith, a group of Christian churches is about to take a quiet but significant step toward greater unity.
With the formation of Churches Uniting in Christ (CUIC) later this month, nine denominations representing 22 million worshippers - both African-American and, predominantly, white churches - will enter a new phase of the most comprehensive church-unity movement in US history.
It's not an official merger nor the creation of a new national structure, but a covenantal relationship by which they pledge to "live out their unity" more fully in local communities and to jointly combat racism. They also commit to an intensive dialogue aiming toward full communion by 2007, in which ministers could lead worship in each of the communions.
"This is a way of 'being church' together, and the most significant union effort in crossing racial barriers," ex-
plains the Rev. Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the Consultation on Church Union (COCU), a group that will disband with the inauguration of CUIC. "Local congregations will, for example, join several times a year to celebrate the Lord's Supper, combine mission programs in their communities, include members of neighboring congregations at baptisms and other events."
The churches have discussed union ever since Presbyterian leader Eugene Blake called in 1960 for a merger of several major American churches. A 1970 plan for union was rejected, however, because of differences over the way ministries are ordered, and also the challenge of racial division.
In response to the bid to involve African-American churches, "the answer came back, 'You don't even know us,' " says Martin Marty, religion historian and ordained Lutheran pastor.
"So the effort slowed down a bit for churches to get to know one another."
There was also recognition of the central role of the black church in its community. "We moved toward the covenantal relationship to preserve these kinds of distinctive gifts while blurring the lines between us," adds Dr. Kinnamon.
The remaining task is the "reconciliation of ministry," like that completed in 2000 by the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which was not without controversy in the ELCA.
The main issue is the historic episcopate - a requirement of the Roman Catholic and Anglican (Episcopal) churches in which only bishops who are said to trace their succession back to Jesus's apostles can ordain bishops. This is a stumbling block for many churches with less hierarchical traditions of ordination.
"It's a long way from the congregationalism of the Disciples of Christ and the United Church of Christ to the episcopate," says Dr. Marty. He foresees "more drama in the covenanting of the next five years."
From Jan. 18 to 21, representatives will gather for the CUIC inauguration in Memphis, Tenn. On Jan. 21, Martin Luther King Day, they will hold a ceremony on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, where King was shot in 1968, and sign an appeal to all Americans to work toward ending racism.
The nine denominations involved are the African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Christian Church-Disciples of Christ, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, Episcopal Church, International Council of Community Churches, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ, and United Methodist Church. The ELCA is a "partner in dialogue," and the Moravians, American Baptists, and Roman Catholics are "consultant observers" to the CUIC.