WASHINGTON, May 29 (RNS)--At its 50th birthday party six months ago, the National Council of Churches announced with great fanfare that after teetering on the brink of extinction, the proud ecumenical body didn't need lifesupport after all.

Faced with mounting debts, a multitiered bureaucracy and astaggering sense of aimlessness, the NCC cut costs, restructured andreshuffled in an effort to stay alive.

Now, however, the very people brought in to revitalize the dyingorganization are offering to pull the plug, bury the past and attempt aresurrection as an entirely new body.

The cause of death? Oddly enough, its own success.

At its recent executive board meeting in Washington, the NCC formally cemented what had been talked about for years--to consider aplan to first shut down and then reopen as a new organization that couldattract the sought-after participation of Roman Catholics, evangelicalsand Pentecostals.

In the midst of this midlife crisis, the NCC also allowed itshumanitarian arm--Church World Service--to become financiallyindependent and largely run its own affairs. Like a mother facing anempty nest, the NCC started to wonder: Now what?

While the NCC's new staff has managed to "stop the hemorrhaging"there is a growing sense that the organization, and the religiouslandscape that molds it, is completely different than it was 50 yearsago.

"The NCC should celebrate its past, but not recreate it," concededthe NCC's new general secretary, the Rev. Bob Edgar.

No one can say for sure what the new body would look like, or if itwould mean the NCC would cease to exist entirely and a new body would take itsplace. An eight-member panel will study the issue, report back to themain body and a new organization could be up and running by 2003.

But what is for certain is a growing sense--and even bewilderment--that the times have changed so much that the NCC has served its purpose, and now it's time to move on. The past few years have seen major ecumenical advances that 50 years ago would have seemed impossible:

  • Catholics and Lutherans last year signed an agreement on themajor issue that led to the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago:salvation by faith, not works.
  • Episcopalians will likely approve an agreement with Lutheransallowing both churches to share clergy, missions and sacraments.
  • The United Church of Christ, Reformed Church in America,Presbyterian Church (USA) and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America nowshare clergy between congregations under a new agreement.
  • Catholics and Anglicans recently wrapped up a meeting in Torontoto assess 30 years of dialogue and recognize--at least for the Anglicans--the historic authority and importance of Catholic Church hierarchy.
Clearly, the ecumenical environment has shifted so dramatically over50 years that a new model for dialogue is needed, many agree. And ifthat is to happen, perhaps its time for the NCC to step aside.

"Implicit in the call for a new organization is the closing of theNational Council of Churches in order to give birth to something new,"said the Rev. Bruce Robbins, the head of the ecumenical agency of theUnited Methodist Church, a major NCC contributor.

The New York-based agency was formed 50 years ago when mainlineProtestantism was at the height of its prominence and influence. Itbrought together all the proud Protestant bodies, plus Orthodox andhistorically black churches.

Noticeably absent, however, were the Catholics, evangelicals andPentecostals--all bodies that have grown in the past 50 years whilemost of the NCC's 35-member communions saw several decades of decline.

Getting those groups involved will be the major goal of whateverform the NCC decides to take in the future. Around the world, 109countries have national councils of churches, and the Roman CatholicChurch is active in 63 of them.

"In a whole host of countries, ecumenical expressions are moreecumenical than they are in the U.S.," said the Rev. WesleyGranberg-Michaelson, chief executive of the Reformed Church in Americaand a member of the committee that will suggest changes for the NCC'sfuture. "The U.S. is really behind the times in terms of what's going onaround the world."

NCC observers say the organization could be more effective if itfocused on issue advocacy in cooperation with other religious groups.Many agree there is a desperate need for a unified religious voice onissues such as gun violence, pornography, poverty and children.

"The need to expand the circle is obvious and pressing," said theRev. Michael Kinnamon, a Disciples of Christ pastor who is trying tolead nine Protestant churches toward full communion under the ChurchesUniting in Christ proposal.

One official within the Catholic Church said that while the churchhas been discussing doctrine with other Christian churches for decades,Catholics have traditionally preferred "bilateral" talks with individualchurches rather than "unilateral" talks with everyone.

Church leaders would most likely want to hear what the NCC had inmind before deciding on getting involved, said John Borelli, theassociate director of the secretariat for ecumenical and interreligiousaffairs for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"Things have certainly changed," Borelli said. "The Catholic churchwasn't formally in the ecumenical movement when the NCC came into being50 years ago. A considerable amount has been achieved, and we're reallystarting to see the fruits of these decades of dialogues.

"These really are different times."