WASHINGTON, March 3 (RNS)--The Consultation on Church Union, an initiative that has been striving for decades to increase unity among nine Protestant denominations, 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 three denominations other than the ones already involved with COCU.

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

As the discussions begin with additional groups, COCU continues to work 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 (Disciples of Christ), the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Church, the International Council of Community Churches, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church.

At a plenary in early 1999, representatives of the nine denominations forged a plan to form closer relationships and begin working under a new name--Churches Uniting in Christ--in 2002. But in a development since the plenary session, COCU's executive committee decided last fall that the plan for closer relationships would no longer immediately include recognition of the ministries of the nine denominations because of some concerns voiced by officials of the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA). The decision was made public when COCU distributed a digest of the plenary in mid-February.

Episcopal Church representatives have said they need to resolve issues of how they will recognize and reconcile the various ordained ministries of the member denominations. Episcopalians believe their bishops can be traced to the time of Jesus' apostles while other COCU-related denominations do not hold to that definition for their own bishops.

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

Kinnamon said resolving issues regarding both recognition and reconciliation of the ministries of the nine current COCU member denominations now fit into goals the consultation hopes to achieve by 2007.

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

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

Kinnamon does not consider the change in plans as a backing away from intended goals but rather a sign that the member denominations have decided to focus on the "level of unity that God has granted" them at this stage.

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

In the period before the 2002 planned event, the individual member denominations will vote on the revised plenary recommendation for becoming Churches Uniting in Christ. Kinnamon hopes the three additional denominations--and perhaps others--will attend that celebration and commit themselves to further dialogue with the nine member denominations.

While the churches are currently cooperating, Kinnamon said, the 2002 ceremony would be a sign of greater commitment. If the issues are resolved concerning recognition and reconciliation of ministries, then the churches might eventually be considered in "communion" with each other, he said.

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