Catholics and Protestants, Together

WASHINGTON — On the night before he died, Christ prayed that all his followers might be one. Pope John Paul II has called disunity of believers the single gravest Christian scandal.

A new group doesn't think it will end that scandal altogether, but its founders say they want to take steps in the right direction. The U.S. Catholic bishops agree.

“We will work by discernment and consensus only,” said the Rev. Robert Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches.

Edgar and the National Council of Churches are behind the push for a new organization called Christian Churches Together in the USA, which the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on Nov. 17 voted 151-73 to join.

“It's the will of Christ that all be one,” said Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., who chairs the bishops’ committee on ecumenical and interreligious affairs. He said at the bishops’ fall meeting in Washington, D.C., that the new organization is a “forum for participation” through which Christian churches can “pray together, grow in understanding together and witness together.”

“In this organization, no one can speak for anyone else and any church can speak for itself,” Bishop Blaire told the Register.

U.S. bishops have declined to join the National Council of Churches throughout the organization's 55-year history. The National Council of Churches consists of 36 denominations and 130,000 congregations comprised of about 50 million people.

Edgar said Catholic bishops have always refused to join because the structure of the organization gives small churches the same influence over decisions as large churches. He said the disparity in size between the Catholic Church and member churches of the council simply made it a bad fit for Catholics.

“The challenge has always been: ‘How do you get fair representation when the Quakers have one vote and here come the Catholics with 67 million people and they also get one vote?’” Edgar explained.

Bishop Blaire told the Register that Christian Churches Together, though inspired by the National Council of Churches, is organized in such a manner that nothing happens without majority consensus or if any member objects.

“The National Council of Churches is a highly organized membership body,” Bishop Blaire said. “Christian Churches Together, by contrast, is a new ecumenical table. … The emphasis will be on spiritual ecumenism and praying together.”

In his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One) Pope John Paul II reminded bishops that working for unity was a duty: “I therefore exhort my brothers in the episcopate to be especially mindful of this commitment. The two Codes of Canon Law include among the responsibilities of the bishop that of promoting the unity of all Christians by supporting all activities or initiatives undertaken for this purpose, in the awareness that the Church has this obligation from the will of Christ himself. This is part of the episcopal mission and it is a duty which derives directly from fidelity to Christ, the Shepherd of the Church” (No. 101).

Forming Relationships

Edgar said the organization will mainly focus on issues of “peace, poverty and justice,” but he's not sure what it will do practically to address the issues. He said Christian Churches Together is unlikely to address issues that would undoubtedly stir controversy and objection among members, such as abortion, euthanasia and fetal stem-cell research.

“Reporters keep asking, ‘What will it do?’ and it's very difficult to answer that question because this is a whole different paradigm,” Edgar said. “It will be an organization in which Roman Catholics, evangelicals and black churches can pray together, build relationships and think together. As long as we don't know each other, we'll continue to carry on myths about each other. We are less interested in action than in relationships.”

The organization will have a full-time staff of two, and it's undetermined where the headquarters and staff will be located. Bishop Blaire said the cost of joining is nominal, with bishops agreeing to pay about $20,000 this year.

Edgar said the “movement” toward creation of Christian Churches Together began with a meeting hosted by Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore the weekend before terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. In attendance were Cardinal Keeler, representatives of the Salvation Army and several evangelical leaders.

“At that meeting, we decided to move forward very slowly and that if this was going to be successful it would need to be created by the member churches themselves, and that's what has been happening,” Edgar said.

A steering committee will meet in January to make practical decisions about going forward, now that Catholics and nearly 25 other denominations have signed up. Representatives from each member church will meet again in June, Edgar said. He hopes representatives of each organization will then meet twice a year to “talk, learn and live together.”

At those meetings, Edgar said, it's possible the organization will vote on statements and come to consensus on plans for Christians to help the poor and bring about enhanced peace and justice.

“But if even one member objects, it can't move forward,” Edgar said. “We have a whole society that thinks God's will is what more than one-half of people think it should be when they vote. This organization won't work that way.”

Not Joining

But none of it makes sense to representatives of the Southern Baptist Convention, who attended an early meeting about Christian Churches Together and decided not to join.

“We have no involvement and we have no intention of any involvement with Christian Churches Together,” said Martin King, director of public relations for the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board. “We see no reason for anyone to establish this organization, because it's not going to do anything unless there's consensus without condescension, and getting consensus in a group as diverse as that is not likely.”

Asked whether his organization was concerned about members of Christian Churches Together not sharing Southern Baptist values such as opposition to abortion, King said, “It certainly would be a concern for us.”

“Our purpose as a denomination is to help our churches to share Christ with people, and being involved in an organization like that wouldn't help us with that,” King said.

Bishop Blaire said it's true that some of the organizations joining Christian Churches Together are substantially different from the Catholic Church. He said the Salvation Army is probably the church farthest from Catholicism.

“I understand the reservations of the Southern Baptist Convention, because they're pretty conservative and fundamentalist in their approach to Christianity,” Bishop Blaire said. “But to join Christian Churches Together, you have to believe in the Trinity, so that's a pretty good foundation on which to begin building and developing relationships. The Salvation Army believes in the Trinity.”

Edgar said those who oppose joining Christian Churches Together do so out of certainty that “they're right and everyone else is wrong.”

“There's this misunderstanding from wealthy, independent radical-right churches that God called them to ministry and everyone else is an infidel,” Edgar said.

Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput said the structure of Christian Churches Together, requiring consensus and no objections for action to go forward, would prevent the organization from embarrassing Catholics or forcing them to cooperate in anything contrary to traditional Church values.

“There's always pressure on Catholics to compromise,” Archbishop Chaput said, “but I don't think we will compromise and I'm not worried, considering the structure of this effort.”

Wayne Laugesen writes from Boulder, Colorado.