WASHINGTON, March 3 (RNS)--The Consultation on Church Union, an initiative that has been striving for decades to increase unity among nine Protestantdenominations, is attempting to expand its ecumenical reach.

The Rev. Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the consultation,has begun conversations or been formally invited to meet with threedenominations other than the ones already involved with COCU.

"I've had positive conversations with the Moravians and will haveconversations that I think are quite hopeful with the ELCA (EvangelicalLutheran Church in America) and American Baptists," he said.

As the discussions begin with additional groups, COCU continues towork on mutual recognition among the nine current member denominations. The nine member denominations include: African Methodist Episcopal Church,African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Christian Church (Disciplesof Christ), the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the EpiscopalChurch, the International Council of Community Churches, thePresbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ and the UnitedMethodist Church.

At a plenary in early 1999, representatives of the ninedenominations forged a plan to form closer relationships and beginworking under a new name--Churches Uniting in Christ--in 2002. But in a development since the plenary session, COCU's executivecommittee decided last fall that the plan for closer relationships wouldno longer immediately include recognition of the ministries of the ninedenominations because of some concerns voiced by officials of theEpiscopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA). The decision wasmade public when COCU distributed a digest of the plenary inmid-February.

Episcopal Church representatives have said they need to resolveissues of how they will recognize and reconcile the various ordainedministries of the member denominations. Episcopalians believe theirbishops can be traced to the time of Jesus' apostles while otherCOCU-related denominations do not hold to that definition for their ownbishops.

In addition, Presbyterian representatives have been concerned thattheir ministry tradition of elders has not been fully addressed.

Kinnamon said resolving issues regarding both recognition andreconciliation of the ministries of the nine current COCU memberdenominations now fit into goals the consultation hopes to achieve by2007.

The current plan for the nine members includes recognizing eachother's churches, sharing Communion together and focusing on missionsprojects, such as a commitment to combat racism.

If the nine bodies agree on that plan, they will participate in aninauguration ceremony in January 2002 and become what Kinnamon calls "asacramental community."

Kinnamon does not consider the change in plans as a backing awayfrom intended goals but rather a sign that the member denominations havedecided to focus on the "level of unity that God has granted" them atthis stage.

"At this point, we can move into a committed relationship thatincludes a strong mission and sacramental sharing without having to getall the ducks in a row regarding ministry," he said. "But we do commitourselves to work on the issue of ministry in a set time period."

In the period before the 2002 planned event, the individual memberdenominations will vote on the revised plenary recommendation forbecoming Churches Uniting in Christ. Kinnamon hopes the three additionaldenominations--and perhaps others--will attend that celebration andcommit themselves to further dialogue with the nine memberdenominations.

While the churches are currently cooperating, Kinnamon said, the2002 ceremony would be a sign of greater commitment. If the issues areresolved concerning recognition and reconciliation of ministries, thenthe churches might eventually be considered in "communion" with eachother, he said.