Magazine article The Christian Century

Time for New Wineskins?

Magazine article The Christian Century

Time for New Wineskins?

Article excerpt

OFTEN I HEAR it said, "If the National Council of Churches came to an end, church leaders would gather and decide to create something like it again." I agree. And that might be the best thing that could happen. The NCC's immediate financial crisis is but the symptom of a deeper crisis. Trust in the NCC by the leaders and constituency of many of its member communions has been severely eroded. Further, much ecumenical momentum within the U.S. churches no longer flows through the structures of the NCC.

In short, even if it is capable both of balancing its current books and persuading its member communions to raise the additional funds essential for its financial viability, the NCC would still need to answer an underlying question: What vision of an ecumenical future drives the council, and can it be realized through its present institutional life?

A persistent administrative dysfunction is the cause of the NCC's crippling financial crisis. Some of the causes are systemic. As with most denominations, designated funds can be found for the service of human need and support of cooperative mission. But resources to support particular advocacy for social, racial and economic justice, as well as the traditional ecumenical work such as that of the Commission on Faith and Order, the core of the NCC's historic vocation and witness, are more difficult to secure.

Additionally, money essential to support the infrastructure of the organization and the public witness of the general secretary and related staff comes from undesignated funding from the member churches and taxes on those parts of the council which have predictable revenue streams. As the core financial support from member churches shrinks, tensions between the funded and unfunded parts of the council escalate.

None of this is new. In the past, ways have been found to navigate through these troubled waters and keep the ship afloat, mostly on course. But in the last few years, this ship has been taking on more and more water. Passengers and crew no longer focus on where it is heading. The concern, instead, is whether the ship can be kept afloat. The result: even as meetings of governing bodies, committees and groups of the NCC have become focused more on issues of institutional survival than on ecumenical vocation, member communions turn less to the NCC as a resource for enabling their ecumenical engagement. Concerns over the financial instability and administrative incoherence of the NCC now seriously weaken its most fundamental asset-the trust and confidence of its own member churches.

What are the options? We need to begin with the right questions. First: What are the current and future ecumenical challenges facing the churches? And second: How can the U.S. churches and communions best be enabled together to address these challenges? Clear answers to these questions will then clarify the NCC's institutional future. The fellowship of the NCC includes most of the historic (or mainline) Protestant churches, the Orthodox churches and the historic black churches. Absent are the Roman Catholic Church, the evangelical churches and most Pentecostal churches. The initial challenge at the beginning of a new millennium, then, is to ask whether a table of ecumenical fellowship inclusive of all these groups can be created.

In this respect, institutional ecumenism in the United States lags behind developments in much of the world. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, is now a member of the councils of churches in about 55 countries throughout the globe. At some regional levels, ecumenical bodies such as the Middle East Council of Churches are now structured to include representatives of the Orthodox churches, the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant and evangelical churches. Within several countries, national councils have gone through a process of re-creating themselves to become more inclusive ecumenical bodies. One recent example is Great Britain, where the old British Council of Churches was dissolved in order to create a new ecumenical vehicle including the Roman Catholic Church and other churches previously outside such a fellowship. …

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