Christian Unification Signals Trend


THE conflicting currents of unity and division have washed over some of the nation's largest Christian denominations in recent weeks. At the end of July, the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Indianapolis voted for full communion with the United Church of Christ (UCC). The accord between the two denominations calls for mutual recognition of members and clergy.

The UCC endorsed the plan at its national convention in Fort Worth, Texas, in June. ``This is not a merger,'' said Paul Crow Jr., Disciples spokesman. ``It's not a uniting of the churches' structure. This is setting up a common acknowledgment of each other.''

The Disciples have their origins in the frontier of Pennsylvania and Kentucky in the early 1800s. Rejecting the use of dogma or creed beyond belief in Jesus Christ, the church has 1.2 million adherents, and is concentrated in the Midwest, Kentucky, Texas, and Oklahoma.

The UCC, which has about 2.1 million adherents, was formed in 1957 in a merger of the Congregational Christian Church, which included the original Puritan churches, and the Evangelical and Reformed Church.

While not a formal merger, the move follows a general trend in mainstream American Protestantism toward unification of churches with similar theological backgrounds. Most of these mergers take place between ethnically based denominations or between denominations divided at the outset of the American Civil War.

The most recent of these involved the Northern-based and Southern-based Presbyterian bodies, which united in 1983 to form the 3 million-member Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In 1983, three Lutheran denominations merged to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which has 5.3 million members.

Meanwhile, the Episcopal Church and the Roman Catholic Church are dealing with small splinter groups dissatisfied with church policies.

In the Episcopal Church, a group of traditionalist parishes met in Forth Worth in June to create the ``Episcopal Synod of America.'' Members are unhappy over the ordination of women to the priesthood, and want stronger church stances against homosexuality, divorce, and abortion.

While the Episcopal Church has had women priests since 1976, the traditionalists were most upset by the ordination of Barbara Harris, the worldwide Anglican communion's first female bishop, in February. The Rev. Ms. Harris is suffragan (assistant) bishop of the Episcopal diocese of Massachusetts. One of the state's diocese's conservative parishes, All Saints' Church in Boston, voted this month to join the new synod.

So far, the synod has declined to break openly with the 2.5 million-member Episcopal Church. However, one parish in Maine, St. Paul's Church of Portland, voted Aug. 3 to withdraw from the Episcopal Church altogether. It is apparently the only parish to do so since Bishop Harris's ordination.

The Roman Catholic Church is faced with a revolt by a black priest and his followers in Washington, D.C. The Rev. George Stallings is dissatisfied with the church's treatment of black Catholics, and has formed the Imani Temple, a separate church that combines traditional Catholicism with black religious traditions.

Speaking last Aug. 4 to a Milwaukee conference organized by the church's National Office for Black Catholics and the National Black Lay Catholic Conference, New York Cardinal John O'Connor appealed to black Catholics to remain in the church. ``The church cannot be exclusive, whether it's exclusively white, exclusively black, exclusively yellow,'' Cardinal O'Connor said.

``The majority of us intend to stay in the church and bring about change and a lessening of racism,'' said Archbishop Eugene Marino of Atlanta, the first black archbishop in the US.

The conference decided to study proposals for a separate African-American rite within the Catholic Church. If authorized by the church, such an arrangement would be similar to existing Eastern rites, known as Uniate or Eastern Catholic churches, which have their own hierarchies of priests and bishops, and liturgies virtually identical to those of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

While black Americans are mostly Protestant, the number of black Catholics has been growing steadily in the past two decades. One source of this growth has been the Catholic school system, to which many urban black parents have turned for quality education for their children as inner-city schools have deteriorated. Estimates of the number of black Catholics in the US range between 1 million and 2 million.

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