Monday, May 10, 2010

A United Church of America?

The model for Christian unity that has been the most successful over the past century has been the "lowest common denominator" or the "Uniting church" movement.

Interestingly enough, the Uniting church movement has its roots in Christian evangelism. On the mission field, European/American distinctions between "Presbyterian" and "Baptist" seemed silly. Why impose the centuries-old wounds of the European church on a fledgling church in southern Africa?

So, in 1910, missionaries from across the globe converged in Edinburgh, Scotland for a Conference of World Mission and Evangelism. The chairman of the conference called for the "evangelism of the world in this generation" under the ecumenical motto taken from Jesus' prayer "that they may be one." Springing from this 1910 conference in Edinburgh, a growing consensus of missionaries viewed Christian divisions as the single greatest barrier to the spread of the Gospel.

This evangelical call to ecumenism led to the fusion of two or more churches across the world, many times from different confessional families. In these mergers, the uniting churches shed their denominational labels and joined together around a set of agreed upon doctrines. Typically, these unions involved Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Methodists - most notably in Canada (1925), Thailand (1934), the Philippines (1948), Zambia (1965), and Australia (1977). Even more significantly, church unions in India included Anglicans - and thus episcopal structures of governance - first in the South (1947) and then in the North (1970). The Church of North India is the most comprehensive uniting church in the world - including Anglicans, Baptists, Congregationalists, Disciples of Christ, Methodists, Brethren, Presbyterians, and some Pentecostals.

If it could happen in India, why not America? Similar efforts aimed at full unity between Protestants in the US were made, but broke down for the following reasons:

1) Bishops: In both England and America, Presbyterians were reluctant to accept the need for bishops. Anglicans, for their part, insisted on the need for bishops, with some even calling for the re-ordination of pastors from non-episcopal traditions - a deal breaker for most Presbyterians and Methodists.

2) Bureaucracy: Especially in America, where the churches are still relatively large with thousands of congregations and millions of members, many feared that a united Protestant denomination with an accompanying bureaucracy would drag down the mission of local churches.

3) Shifting Emphasis: By the 1960s, the emphasis of an older generation of Protestant missionaries on Christian doctrine and Christian unity shifted as a younger generation focused more on political issues and unity between different religions. As a result, efforts at Christian unity have lost their sense of evangelical urgency, especially in the World Council of Churches.

4) Vatican II: Also in the 1960s, following the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church committed itself to full ecumenical dialogue with other Christians. Given the sheer size and historical self understanding of the Catholic Church, it did not make sense for them to become a member of a federation like the World Council of Churches. Instead, they began talks with other "world confessional families" - with Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, and Reformed. So, the conversation has shifted from unity between different Protestants to unity between Catholics and Protestant "families" (which has so far yielded few visible results).

5) Decline: In places where the church did manage to visibly unite, church unions often set off a period of steep membership decline. The United Church of Canada - one of the earliest uniting churches bringing together Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Methodists - went from representing 6% of Canadians with over a million members in 1965 to representing less than 2% of the population with less than 600,000 members. At its current rate of decline, the United Church of Canada will cease to exist in the next twenty years. This has caused great alarm among potentially uniting churches in the United States (although they themselves are already declining), who warn that a watered down identity leads to a less compelling witness.

For all these reasons, the Uniting church movement has stagnated in the twenty-first century. Sadly, those churches that did manage to unite seem destined to be regarded as anomalies within Christianity - as simply one more denomination among many instead being part of a movement sweeping toward one visibly united Church.

What are your thoughts? Could the Uniting church movement be revived - or modified - for Protestants in our present context? Or was it hopelessly flawed from the outset?