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 life support after all.

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

Now, however, the very people brought in to revitalize the dying organization are offering to pull the plug, bury the past and attempt a resurrection 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 a plan to first shut down and then reopen as a new organization that could attract the sought-after participation of Roman Catholics, evangelicals and Pentecostals.

In the midst of this midlife crisis, the NCC also allowed its humanitarian arm--Church World Service--to become financially independent and largely run its own affairs. Like a mother facing an empty 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 religious landscape that molds it, is completely different than it was 50 years ago.

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

No one can say for sure what the new body would look like, or if it would mean the NCC would cease to exist entirely and a new body would take its place. An eight-member panel will study the issue, report back to the main 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 the major issue that led to the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago: salvation by faith, not works.
  • Episcopalians will likely approve an agreement with Lutherans allowing 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 now share clergy between congregations under a new agreement.
  • Catholics and Anglicans recently wrapped up a meeting in Toronto to 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 over 50 years that a new model for dialogue is needed, many agree. And if that is to happen, perhaps its time for the NCC to step aside.

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

The New York-based agency was formed 50 years ago when mainline Protestantism was at the height of its prominence and influence. It brought together all the proud Protestant bodies, plus Orthodox and historically black churches.

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

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

"In a whole host of countries, ecumenical expressions are more ecumenical than they are in the U.S.," said the Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, chief executive of the Reformed Church in America and a member of the committee that will suggest changes for the NCC's future. "The U.S. is really behind the times in terms of what's going on around the world."

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

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

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

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

"Things have certainly changed," Borelli said. "The Catholic church wasn't formally in the ecumenical movement when the NCC came into being 50 years ago. A considerable amount has been achieved, and we're really starting to see the fruits of these decades of dialogues.

"These really are different times."

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