In a time of deep religious division and tension, many American churches are joining in a fresh bid for greater Christian unity. After five years of discussion and prayer, church leaders are to meet Wednesday in Pasadena, Calif., in the official launch of an ecumenical body – Christian Churches Together in the USA (CCT). Its mission: "to grow closer together in Christ in order to strengthen our Christian witness in the world."
In its inclusiveness, CCT offers a striking contrast to religious dissension in the political arena. The group involves churches from all five Christian "families" – Catholics, Evangelicals and Pentecostals, Mainline Protestants, Orthodox, and racial or ethnic churches – and represents the broadest ecumenical fellowship ever formed in this country.
"Not everyone is in the tent, but it's a major step forward," says the Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, general secretary of the Reformed Church in America and chair of CCT's steering committee. Thirty-six denominations and national organizations have joined, representing about 100 million churchgoers. Eighteen more groups are in the decisionmaking process or participating as observers.
Recognizing that historical divisions have fostered misperceptions and even hostility, and that this has weakened Christian influence, the CCT seeks better understanding and a common voice on important societal issues.
And they aren't wasting time. The agenda for this week's three-day gathering focuses on how the various "families" understand evangelism, and on reaching a consensus on a specific proposal for a poverty initiative.
"There is a strong realization that if we as Christians are to be effective in the world we need to be a common voice," says Bishop Stephen Blaire of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Stockton, Calif. "And addressing poverty is integral to the work and witness of being a Christian."
Ecumenism has a lengthy history in the United States. The National Council of Churches was founded in 1950 (a forerunner in 1908), and includes mainline Protestant, Orthodox, Anglican, and African-American denominations. But the Catholics never joined, and Evangelicals opted for their own National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), which made a rule that members could not also be part of the NCC.
The NCC has emphasized social justice issues, and many Evangelicals have criticized them for being too liberal. The Evangelicals focused on bringing people to Christ and on matters of personal morality.
But times are a-changing, and signs of a new convergence are multiplying. Some prominent Evangelical leaders and churches have added HIV/AIDs and environmental concerns to their agendas.
"There's a large group of Evangelical and 'midway Christian' groups that are understanding we can't simply deal with what we used to call spiritual issues," says the Rev. Kurt Fredrickson, associate professor of ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., the largest multidenominational evangelical seminary in the US. "There's almost a holistic sense of who we are as people and how we are in the world, so we have to deal with poverty, injustice, and the environment."
The poverty initiative under consideration this week, which highlights child poverty, is likely to have a political component. CCT plans to hold its 2008 meeting in Washington, D.C. "That might be an occasion to speak to society and the political world and ask for some commitment on reducing child poverty," says Mr. Granberg-Michaelson.
Still, some Evangelical, Pentecostal, and African-American churches have shied from participating in CCT. The Southern Baptist Convention, the biggest US Protestant denomination, sent an observer to a couple of meetings, but has not signed on.
'It's amazing to get this representation [in CCT]," says Dr. Fredrickson. "Yet it's not a surprise that some Evangelical or charismatic groups aren't there, because many determine who's in and who's out on doctrinal issues. They stick to themselves."
CCT defines its theological criteria simply, welcoming any denomination or national group that worships the triune God and believes "in the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior according to the Scriptures." The group also will take all its decisions by consensus.
National faith-based organizations, such as Bread for the World and World Vision, may join, but may not represent more than 20 percent of CCT.
"We have several Evangelical and Pentecostal groups that have not previously been involved who are very enthusiastic," says Granberg-Michaelson.
Bishop James Leggett of the International Pentecostal Holiness Church is one of the five CCT presidents. As for the largest Pentecostal churches, the Church of God in Christ, a historic predominantly black church, is sending an observer, and a dialogue is under way with the Assemblies of God.
The launch of CCT was postponed a year in hopes of bringing historic black churches into the gathering. Two major African-American churches have joined, and a few others are sending observers.
The Rev. William Shaw is president of the 7.5-million-member National Baptist Convention, USA Inc., which also belongs to NCC and the Baptist World Alliance. "This new thrust has a voice that is considered conservative in many ways, but it isn't the voice of what is the popular image of conservative evangelicalism," says Dr. Shaw, who is also a CCT president. "I'm hopeful this group will be a strong voice for the unity of the church, but also a strong voice for human rights and the addressing of inequities that have existed within our country for a long time."