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?


  1. Great post, Paul. I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts on the model you propose for 21st century ecumenism, given the limitations of previous approaches, though, as you've pointed out before, there have been interesting developments between Catholics and various Orthodox, particularly the meetings between the top Russian Orthodox ecumenist and Benedict XVI last fall.

  2. Thanks Dave! Do you have a link to the meetings between the pope and patriarch from last fall? Here's another interesting article regarding Catholic/Orthodox ecumenism:

  3. Do you think it's possible that the "Churches Uniting in Christ" might yield a new Uniting Church of the US?

  4. Isaiah - Thanks for your question!

    Churches Uniting in Christ (CUIC) is the present-day offspring of the original Consultation on Church Union (COCU), which aimed at a full merger between 10 member churches. In the wake of the rejection of this merger (due largely to Presbyterian concern over bishops and general concern over bureaucracy), COCU morphed into CUIC which lowered its goals and expectations for Christian unity.

    Today, CUIC works for "full communion" between churches (recognition of each other's ministry and sacraments) instead of any kind of merger or Uniting Church. A recent example of this is the full communion reached between Lutherans (ELCA) and United Methodists last year but the churches were quick to clarify that this was not, in any way, a merger (see: Also, over the past couple years, CUIC has been caught up in issues surrounding racial reconciliation after the black Methodist churches either left the organization or threatened to do so (over concerns that the CUIC was not doing enough to address racial injustices).

    All of that to say, Churches Uniting in Christ has the potential to be a major player in yielding a new Uniting Church of the US - but it would have to overcome its own internal divisions and (re)embrace a more ambitious and creative vision for Christian unity.

  5. Thanks for the informed answer?

    Considering how the ecumenical movement came largely out of the world missionary movement in the 19th century is there any possibility that the new emphasis on Missional Church (or even to some extent the Emerging Church), and a Newbigin-like concern for mission in the west might provide some kind of resurgence in some new ways?

  6. Isaiah - Yes, that is my hope and prayer! The extraordinary success of church unions in places like India serves as a reminder that the ecumenical imperative is strongest in a missionary-minded Church.

    As evidenced by their alarming decline, mainline Protestants can no longer assume a position of privilege or establishment in American society. In a culture torn apart by divisions and increasingly hostile to the Gospel, there is a need for churches to recover the evangelical mission that supports the quest for Christian unity.

    At the same time, though, evangelical churches must adopt a vision of visible unity in order to be truly “nondenominational” and fully live into the incarnational dimension of the evangelical mission. By embracing an evangelical ecumenism within a missional context, mainline and evangelical Christians in America may discover new energy in the search for full Christian unity together.