From Charisma News Service

Jan. 31--Calling it a move toward unprecedented unity in American Christendom, evangelical leaders are praising a plan to create the broadest-ever alliance of Christians. They say if it is successful, the association could help remove divisions in the body of Christ.

Church leaders from 30 denominations agreed Wednesday on a proposal to create the widest network of Christians ever formed in the United States, the Associated Press (AP) reported. The steering committee of the budding effort--tentatively called Christian Churches Together in the U.S.A. - will in the next several weeks invite a wide range of national church bodies and agencies to join the new group.

The loosely knit alliance would represent five segments of U.S. Christianity, listed in the plan as "Evangelical/Pentecostal, Historic Protestant, Orthodox, Racial/Ethnic and Roman Catholic." "I don't think there has ever been anything like this attempted before in this country," said Orange, Calif., Catholic Bishop Tod Brown, who along with Baltimore's Cardinal William Keeler was among the 55 participants who met at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.

Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, steering committee chair and chief executive of the Reformed Church in America, called the meeting "a remarkable breakthrough. We gathered a wide representation of the Christian churches in the U.S.A. and were able to inspire them into making a deep commitment together."

Granberg-Michaelson said there were representatives from the Pentecostal/Charismatic Churches in North America, Missionary Pentecostal Churches of God, International Pentecostal Holiness Church, Church of God based in Cleveland, Tenn., and the Foursquare Church.

The Catholic church and most evangelicals and Pentecostals do not belong to the liberal National Council of Churches (NCC), which is currently America's largest ecumenical group, the AP observed.

Brown said the U.S. Catholic hierarchy could decide on the proposal within two years. The ambitious idea of a broad Christian alliance emerged from discussions three years ago within the NCC. It is not sponsoring the new unity effort, but its chief executive is participating.

NCC general secretary Bob Edgar told Charisma News Service that he "was delighted at the broad spectrum of theological perspectives" that spent two and a half days together. "For me, it was moving that these Christians spent so much time working on a new space where they can work, talk, worship and pray together," said Edgar, a United Methodist minister and former Congressman.

"I think everybody who was there is excited that flesh is being put on the skeleton of the body of Christ," he added. "Christ called us to be in communion with another. This organization is getting structure and spirit for the future."

Kevin Mannoia, former president of the National Association of Evangelicals, who attended the meeting, believes the alliance would help fulfill Jesus' prayer for unity in John 17. "If Christian Churches Together moves toward becoming primarily a political or issue-driven organization, it will fail," Mannoia, dean and CEO of the Haggard School of Theology at Azuza Pacific University in Azusa, Calif., told Charisma News. "That's not what's it's about. If it can retain a high commitment to truly seeking the unity of the church, then I think it will be effective."

However, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, the 15.9 million-strong Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), may be reluctant to join, though it had an observer at the meeting.

Bill Merrell, vice president for convention relations for the SBC's Executive Committee, said he doesn't expect his denomination to join the alliance. "The SBC has been historically disinclined toward any ecumenical involvement," he told Charisma News. "We're not likely to be involved...It would be a departure from our ordinary approach towards ecumenism."

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