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Ecumenical and Interfaith News – December

(Submitted by the Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee of the Southern California/Nevada Conference, United Church of Christ, and the Pacific Southwest Region, Disciples of Christ)

Weaving the Tapestry of Christian Unity: UCC, Disciples, and…

      The Disciples of Christ and the United Church of Christ are more than “kissin’ cousins.”  In the second part of the twentieth century, there was a growing sense on both sides that we are very close in our sensibilities as Christians.   Both bodies felt deeply committed to the unity of the Church of Jesus Christ.  So both were in the forefront of efforts to overcome the feelings of denominational superiority and the consequent mutual put-downs and sheep-stealing which produced alienation, and which made it so easy for people outside the Church altogether to mock Christians–to not take the Christian claim seriously for themselves.  Indeed, the very existence of the UCC came in 1957 by the bringing together of the Congregational Christian Churches, which were more like the Disciples in their outlook and the way they governed themselves, with the Evangelical and Reformed Church.  The “E and R” were a denomination of ethnic German people with a pattern of worship and theology  much more like the European churches which both the early Congregationalists and the early Disciples thought they were leaving behind!    But the Congregationalists learned much from the Evangelical and Reformed, for instance in the area of worship.  The UCC Book of Worship, which is considered one of the very finest of its type, depends very heavily on the deep sense of liturgy—on the value of structure and beauty in worship–which the E and R people had more successfully preserved.

     No denomination has the whole truth of Christ.   That’s why ecumenical efforts are so important: we enrich ourselves by really paying attention to what others have and especially value.  Some of the UCC people who have had real contact with the Disciples over the years have been very drawn to the Disciples commitment to celebrating communion every Sunday.  Here is a central element of liturgy—our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters would say the central element– which most Protestant bodies, including both the Congregationalists and the Evangelical and Reformed, had tended to neglect.   God was moving in a mysterious and delightful way on the early American frontier, far removed from the recognized centers of culture and education, to bring this rediscovery of communion via these folks, Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone and others, to whom the Disciples of Christ now look back as their founders.

     Yet another strange fact is that the movement bringing the Disciples into being, which was a restoration movement, wanting to return to the unity of the New Testament Church, itself could not maintain unity.   Divergent priorities led to three separate streams which have continued to our own day, known as the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, the Churches of Christ, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the last of these being “us”, in full communion with the UCC.  The other two groups focused less on the ministry of unity and more on other aspects of the original Stone-Campbell impulse.  For a long time they had little interest in ecumenism.  Disciples and UCC today would tend to characterize the other two groups as “evangelical” if not “fundamentalist” in outlook.

     The good news here is that for sixteen years now, representatives of the three different streams have been meeting annually for what is called the “Stone-Campbell Dialogue.”  The most recent meeting was held in November in Albuquerque.  The theme was “The Role of the Holy Spirit in Christian Unity.”  Participants first spent a day in common service, working with a local project designed to help a very poor community.  Then they got down to the business of theological exchange.   They attended worship at local churches on Sunday, Nov. 6, and then celebrated communion together that same afternoon.   The participants in the dialogue affirmed five modes of unity enacted in the Church by the Holy Spirit: confession, transformation, liturgy, participation in the divine kingdom, and prayer.   The openness to other traditions expressed itself not only in the three groups singing a capella during worship–which is the practice of one of the three groups (obviously not the Disciples!)–but also in the practice of Lectio Divina, or listening silently together during mealtimes to spiritual reading, which comes from the Roman Catholic tradition.

     The dialogue theme’s stress on unity must surely have been welcome to the Disciples participants.    The hard part for both Disciples and UCC people, in this period of declining membership and budgets on the local church level, is to maintain our witness to unity while also believing in and promoting our own particular way of being Christians.  Our stress on the responsibility of the individual in developing his or own spiritual life and witness, on the responsible freedom of the local church to govern its own affairs  while also relating to and supporting the regional and national levels of the church, and on the importance of taking a stand for justice and peace in society –all of this is precious, and needs to continue and grow even as we confess in all humility that our two denominations are only two small parts of the universal Church, and that Jesus Christ is fully present only  in the whole.

Poverty, Wealth, and Ecology

     An important consultation sponsored by the World Council of Churches was held in Calgary Canada, Nov. 6- 11.  A document was issued which calls the churches to reflection and action in a time of global financial crisis and environmental threat.  The concluding words of the report warn that time is running out for humanity on Planet Earth, unless major changes are made to preserve the natural environment and to shield especially the poor of the earth from harm.

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