Beliefnet

WASHINGTON, May 23 (AP)--The National Council of Churches is going to try to form a new organization that would for the first time include all major branches of U.S. Christianity, its board decided Tuesday.

If successful, the new ecumenical body could spell an end to the council, which is now made up of mainline Protestant, black Protestant, and Orthodox denominations.

Most Christians in the United States are currently outside the council, in the Roman Catholic Church and in evangelical or Pentecostal groups.

Under the purposely vague plan approved by the 50-member council board, a task force will hold preliminary talks with Catholic, evangelical, and Pentecostal leaders, invite them into a joint process and propose next steps to the council's national assembly in November.

The project faces numerous obstacles, both ideological and practical.

Conservative Protestants--including evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Southern Baptists--have been indifferent or hostile toward the council, often accusing it of theological liberalism and promoting political causes to the neglect of spiritual ones.

The U.S. Catholic Church decided a generation ago not to enter the council, partly because Roman Catholics in this country alone exceed the 50 million members in the council's 35 denominations.

However, since the Second Vatican Council, Catholic bishops have been free to join cooperative bodies with other Christians and have done so in 55 other countries.

Participants at the council's 50th anniversary meeting last November said it was time to give birth to a new ecumenical future, noted the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, chief executive of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a current National Council member.

"I find this extremely helpful and hopeful," he said of the proposal.

The future existence of the council was not discussed by the board.

"Sometimes an organizational structure has to be willing to die. We have to be willing to entertain that," said the Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, chief executive of the Reformed Church in America, part of the task force that will contact the other Christian groups.

The Rev. Robert Edgar, the council's chief executive, sent notice of the proposal two weeks ago to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Association of Evangelicals. He plans an early meeting with the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest U.S. Protestant denomination.

In another action at the council board meeting, officials settled a major internal dispute, granting independent financial control to its relief agency, Church World Service. The agency, which brings in 85% of council revenues, has been dissatisfied with the cost and quality of council administration. It was during discussions of the Church World Service problem that the idea of a new pan-Christian group first arose.

The council has struggled through a period of financial turmoil. Following a $4 million budget deficit for 1999, Edgar expressed confidence that anticipated special gifts, staff cuts, and other economies would stabilize finances by the end of 2000.




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