The declining National Council of Churches, once the spokesman for America's flagship Protestant denominations, is struggling to find a new purpose.
At its May 2002 board meeting, the NCC discussed its latest ecumenical outreach to incorporate Roman Catholics and Evangelicals. Called "Christian Churches Together in the U.S.A.: An Invitation to a Journey," the April 2, 2002 manifesto was signed in Chicago by leaders of most of the NCC's constituent Protestant and Orthodox churches, along with several Roman Catholic prelates, several liberal evangelicals, a Pentecostal, and the leader of the Salvation Army.
NCC General Secretary Bob Edgar has in the past proposed that the NCC might dissolve itself in favor of a larger ecumenical umbrella that would include Catholics and Evangelicals. But other NCC leaders seem to dispute that vision. This latest manifesto declines to specify what its goal really is.
"This is an evolutionary process," explained NCC President Elenie Huszagh to the board about the Chicago manifesto. "It doesn't suggest the demise of the NCC. It's not 'either/or.' It's an ecumenical conversation."
But Edgar still seems to have the vision of a broader group replacing the NCC, comparing the transition to the evolution of the old Federal Council of Churches to the National Council of Churches fifty years ago.
"There was an audible 'yes' that its an important moment for the creation of a new something broader and deeper," Edgar told the board about the Chicago manifesto. "It seems certain we're moving in that direction." He predicted the "process is moving in years, not months or decades."
Edgar celebrated that Catholics were present for the Chicago meeting in "strong voice," but he admitted that most conservative evangelicals will not want to join in the process. Though he did not explain further, he presumably was referring to the apparent refusal of the National Association of Evangelicals and the Southern Baptist Convention to participate.
The manifesto laments "unnecessary divisions" among Christians and expresses hope for a "greater unity." But it offers no specific remedies. It is brief and admits that the "questions for conversation" and the "details of the way" towards Christian unity are as of yet unknown.
It does envision a "new life together" among Christian bodies that includes engaging in common prayer, "speaking to society with a common voice," promoting the "common good," fostering "faithful evangelism," and seeking reconciliation.
The "speaking to society" is problematic, as critics of the NCC have consistently complained that the NCC's work is often short on theological substance and long on liberal political activism. Edgar speaks of anti-poverty advocacy as a primary theme for an expanded ecumenism.
But some NCC critics have pointed out that fighting poverty, though vitally important, is not uniquely the mission of the Christian Church. Nor is there broad consensus among Christians about how to help the poor.
Signatories to the Chicago manifesto include Cardinal William Keeler, Catholic Bishops Tod Brown and Edwin Conway, Catholic Archbishop William Levada, Sister Joan McGuire, United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick, Episcopal Bishop Chris Epting, Salvation Army Commissioner John Busby, liberal evangelical activists Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action and Jim Wallis of Call to Renewal, and Bishop George McKinney of the Pentecostal-Charismatic Churches of North America, among the nearly three dozen signers.
Except for the Catholic representatives, all of the 34 signatories are from NCC member communions, except for the Salvation Army representatives, Bishop McKinney of the Pentecostal church, and the two liberal evangelical activists.
The near absence of evangelicals, the questionable enthusiasm of Roman Catholics, and the lack of specifics, call to question whether the Chicago Manifesto is a significant step towards fulfilling Edgar's vision for a "broader" ecumenical body. The Chicago participants will gather again in January.
It is also questionable whether the NCC will survive long enough to usher in this potential new ecumenical body. Though Edgar came to office three years ago promising an end to the NCC's deficit spending, the deficits have continued. The NCC now has a $406,000 deficit for the current fiscal year out of a $6.7 million budget. The NCC's once substantial assets are now down to $1.8 million. Seemingly, the NCC can endure only a few more years of substantial deficit spending, if that long.
The latest financial report records the NCC's assets at just over $7 million, nearly $2.5 million of which is clearly unavailable for ready use in accounts receivable ($2 million) or in property (nearly $500,000). But the NCC's accounts payable and accrued expenses total a whopping $5, 289,885. The NCC is virtually bankrupt.
New revenues for the NCC remain elusive. Its largest member communions, such as the United Methodists and Presbyterians, have declared they will provide no more bail-outs. Donations from member communions are expected to drop next year. And this year's hoped for income from foundations now stands at less than half of expectations.
Edgar and other NCC leaders spoke at length about their recent visit to the Middle East, during which they were largely critical of Israeli policies, supportive of Palestinian goals, and uncritical of the Arab leaders whom they met, which included the Syrian dictator, the King of Jordan and the prime minister of Lebanon, along with Palestinian Authority representatives.
The NCC board also approved a resolution urging Christians to "stand in solidarity with our Muslim neighbors" in the wake of September 11 and to hold open houses at their churches for local Muslims on the one year anniversary of September 11.
Though Edgar and other NCC leaders who went to the Middle East lamented the continuing exodus of Christians from that region, no one openly mentioned the possibility that Islamic intolerance towards religious minorities might play a role.
But this shunning of reality was typical. The NCC, though headed for its likely demise, remains blithely committed to the political and theological blinders that have made it irrelevant.
This article can be found on The Institute on Religion and Democracy website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission.