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Protestants Move Toward Affiliation

January 25, 1999

ST. LOUIS (AP) _ While Pope John Paul II brings together millions of Roman Catholics throughout the Americas, Protestants are building a bridge of their own.

Nine Christian denominations voted Sunday to move toward a broad affiliation of churches _ a rare victory in the Consultation on Church Union’s four-decade campaign to unite 20 million Protestants, despite their differences.

It was almost 40 years ago that the group’s Presbyterian and Episcopalian founders, citing Jesus’ call for ``one faith, one baptism, one God,″ proposed a Protestant superchurch. When the plan was derailed by denominational loyalties and disagreements, the group opted for a proposal for church affiliation without merger.

The new document asks participating churches to declare publicly in the year 2002 that they are Churches Uniting in Christ. These churches would agree to share one baptism and to recognize one another as ``authentic expressions of the one church of Jesus Christ.″

They would also fully accept one another’s ministers as ``instruments of God’s grace″ by the year 2007.

The churches would regularly celebrate Eucharist together and join forces to fight racism.

``We can do it. We must do it, and we did it,″ said Vivian Robinson, president of the Consultation on Church Union, after the victory vote.

But it may be too soon to celebrate. Presiding Episcopal Bishop Frank T. Griswold noted that the Episcopalians’ approval of the document depends on the group’s success in hashing out a leadership conflict.

``If we can’t resolve this question we might have to go our separate ways,″ he said.

The dispute, said the Rev. David W.A. Taylor, former general secretary of the union and a Presbyterian minister, centers on ``the respective place of bishops in the life of the church and the whole community of the baptized.″

The Episcopalians believe in a succession of bishops dating back to the early church as a mark of continuity and unity. In the past, the union has asked the Presbyterians, who do not have bishops, to add a similar office of oversight.

The Presbyterians, who favor decentralization and less structure, rejected the idea. They have proposed instead recognizing a corporate oversight body made up of clergy and lay elders.

The second draft of the document deleted references to bishops, a move that upset Griswold. So the delegates approved an amendment calling for meetings of church representatives to clarify what it means to recognize one another’s ministries.

The union also includes the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the International Council of Community Churches, the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.

The last three are black denominations. While some black religious leaders have no interest in merging with white churches, the Rev. Cyrus Keller Sr., an African American Episcopal minister, believes black churches can have a dramatic impact on the union’s theology and ministry.

``Once we become recognized as a player on the field there will be a difference in the whole approach to being Christian and witnessing,″ Keller said.

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