NOTE: A sidebar, UMNS story #017, and photographs are available. The full text of the "Appeal to Churches" to combat racism follows this article.
*Burton of Nashville, Tenn., is editor of Interpreter magazine, a publication for leaders in United Methodist congregations.
By M. Garlinda Burton*
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (UMNS) - After 40 years of conversation, leaders of United Methodist Church and eight other Christian groups - representing some 22 million believers worldwide - joined hands Jan. 20, vowing to worship, witness and work together from this day forward as Churches Uniting in Christ.
The nine member denominations of Churches Uniting in Christ also marked the Martin Luther King Jr. birthday celebration with a public march and by signing a pledge on behalf of their churches to take the lead in fighting racism and white privilege in their communities, the nation and around the world.
After 40 years of dialogue about how to unify across denominational lines (and after failed attempts in the 1970s to create one "superstructure" church), the member churches of the Consultation on Church Union (COCU) agreed to maintain their denominational identities and structure for now.
However, at their 19th Plenary in Memphis they declared their intent to move from just consultation to tangible acts of cooperation, and so disbanded as COCU and reconvened under the new name "Churches Uniting in Christ." Member churches include the African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); Christian Methodist Episcopal Church; International Council of Community Churches; Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); United Church of Christ; and United Methodist Church.
For local churches, this means that they will be encouraged to do joint mission, cooperate in new church development, and recognize and observe common baptism and other worship celebrations. And local congregations of the participating groups - including Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Disciples - may amend their church signs to reflect their affiliation with the organization, such as "First United Methodist Church: member, Church Uniting in Christ."
Most importantly, say leaders of the nine member churches, local Christians will be challenged and encouraged to work together on what the uniting churches have called their No. 1 moral agenda item: wiping racism off the face of the earth.
"While each communion is retaining its own identity and decision-making structures, we are pledging before God to draw closer in sacred things, regular sharing of the Lord's Supper and mission work, especially a mission to combat racism together," explained the Rev. Bruce Robbins, top staff executive of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns in New York.
"Let it be recorded that, in a nation still deeply distorted by the sin of racism, Christians gathered in Memphis to say, "In the name of Christ, this must stop!" said the Rev. Michael Kinnamon, a professor at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis and top executive of the Consultation on Church Union.
The Consultation on Church Union began in 1962, with four denominations discussing possible union. Its original goal was to make unity tangible by bringing participating churches together as one body. The effort at a superstructure stalled, but nine denominations, including the United Methodist Church, stayed the course and moved the talks in a new direction. Unity of purpose replaced "organic" union as the goal.
With the involvement of three historically black Methodist denominations, the consultation was further challenged to expand its notion of Christian unity. How could churches unite across denominational lines, when their ranks were torn by racism? As a result, the nine churches declared that the first call to action as Churches Uniting in Christ would be aimed at battling racism. At their 18th Plenary in 1999, the members adopted an "Appeal to the Churches: To Seek God's Beloved Community." The letter was signed during the 19th Plenary in Memphis.
For United Methodists, the call is particularly significant because the three historically black Methodist churches in COCU-Churches United in Christ began after racial segregation in the "mother" Methodist church led some blacks to create their own denominations.
"Racism is one of the 'pinch points' for our church and for Churches Uniting in Christ," said Bishop Fritz Mutti, head of the United Methodist Church's Kansas Area, addressing United Methodist delegates and observers at the Memphis gathering.
"If our church is unwilling to confront racism and white privilege, then we will have failed at our primary reason for coming together (with other denominations)," added Bishop Melvin Talbert of Nashville, Tenn., ecumenical officer for the United Methodist Council of Bishops.
In his address, Kinnamon said that, in fact, how the denominations deal with racism in the future will be the "real test of how we live together."
However, when it comes to church polity and tradition, the symbolic and tangible moves toward unity are not without their sticking points for some participating communions. Two such sticking points are the role of bishops and the order of ordained ministry. On one end of the spectrum, Presbyterians do not have or recognize the office of bishop; on the other end, Episcopalians count bishops as essential to their definition of a threefold order of ordained ministry.
Still, while the battle over bishops was once feared as a threat to unity among the nine groups, they all agreed to move forward with reconciliation plans and have even added others to the dialogue. Joining the nine in Memphis as "recognized observers" or "partners in dialogue" were representatives from the Moravian Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the American Baptist Church USA and the Roman Catholic Church.
APPEAL TO THE CHURCHES To Seek God's Beloved Community This letter was signed at the inaugural ceremonies in Memphis, Tenn., on January 21, 2002. Pastors and other church leaders are encouraged to share it with their congregations.
Call to Christian Commitment and Action to Combat Racism
The following is a call to action from delegates to the Eighteenth Plenary of the Consultation on Church Union (COCU) to the nine member-churches. Common witness and service are two marks of an ecumenical body. The COCU member-churches have chosen to live this commitment especially by focusing attention on the need to combat racism within and among the member-churches, in all churches and in society.
The experience of the Consultation on Church Union makes clear that the unity of the Church is God's gift expressed in creation and redemption. This unity is given not only for the church but also for the whole human community and all creation. It is the gift of God's own life offered to all humanity. For this reason the church is called to be a sign and instrument of the communion and justice God intends for all people.
This truth informs COCU's search for visible church unity in particular ways.
1. It implies that there is an irrefutable link between the churches' search for unity in faith, sacraments, and ministry and the struggle to overcome racism in the churches and the human community.
2. It implies that authentic unity is inclusive and requires racial justice within the life of the churches and of society.
3. It implies that our prophetic witness against racism and all the powers of oppression is a primary test of the faithfulness of these churches.
In combating racism, the Eighteenth Plenary Session of the Consultation on Church Union calls upon the nine member-churches to commit themselves to a unity that is liberating and reconciling, a unity offered in the Gospels, yet not fully expressed in the life and structures of these churches. It is in this context that the COCU churches, seeking to become Churches Uniting in Christ, are making commitments to change ourselves and our society.
Something is seriously wrong with race relations in the United States. One of the most prominent and pervasive evils in our national heritage and cultural routines is racism--that is, biased assumption about the genetic or cultural inferiority of certain racial-ethnic groups, and/or subordinating practices that exclude persons or deprive them of their humanity because of their racial-ethnic identity.
Racism so permeates our customs and institutions that none can escape participation in it. Indeed, no member of a dominant group can fully avoid benefiting from it, and no member of a subordinate group can avoid the intention of oppression. Racism is finally about power -- abuses of power by a dominant group intent upon preserving its economic social, political, or ecclesiastical privileges and the resulting deprivations of opportunity imposed on a subordinate group.
Unless significant initiatives are taken to counter current conditions trends, racism -- especially white racism -- will continue to corrupt our national and ecclesiastical aspirations for a society that incarnates "liberty and justice for all." We, therefore, appeal to the peoples of our nation and our churches for a renewed commitment to the sin of racism and white privilege. The moral integrity and credibility of both our nation and our churches are at stake in this struggle. For the churches in COCU particularly, our quest for visible unity is irrelevant -- in fact, fraudulent -- unless that unity embodies racial solidarity and produces a vital public witness for racial equality and fairness. The churches seek to embody this commitment together, through the Church of Christ Uniting envisioned by the COCU member churches.
From the perspective of the Christian gospel whose mandate is reconciliation of all God's children, racism is demonic and sinful. It denies the image of God given each person in creation, and in the creation each person enters by baptism.
How then shall the member-churches of the Consultation on Church Union, yearning to become Churches Uniting In Christ, combat racism? How shall we make our vision of church truly catholic, truly evangelical, and truly reformed, visible through our struggle against racism?
In view of what we discern that God is calling all the churches to be to do, and in view of the present impediments to effective responses to that call, this Eighteenth Plenary appeals to our member-churches to the following nine strategic commitments, and to implement these commitments together:
1. Continue to make a compelling theological case against racism. Racism must find no refuge in and no solace from the church. It is a denial of the truth known in Christ, who breaks down the humanly constructed walls that partition us into alienated communities of faith (Eph. 2:13-14). The church cannot be "truly catholic" unless it is fully open to all people on an equal basis. The church we seek to become, therefore, must be a model, a prophetic sign of the unity in diversity of God's creation. Christians must hear this affirmation regularly and convincingly.
2. Identify, name and share information with each other regarding those concrete programs and initiatives in combating racism that already taking place within our member churches. A consultative conference should be explored to bring together this information and to take further action in light of these learnings as a good faith first step anticipating the inaugural liturgical celebration of Churches Uniting in Christ in 2002.
3. Claim Martin Luther King Jr. Day observances and similar appropriate occasions for dialogue leading to systemic change. Encourage and enable interracial dialogue within and among churches, as well as among members of the whole community. When properly designed, such dialogue can be an indispensable instrument of justice and reconciliation-- reducing fears, suspicions and resentments, and enhancing mutual respect and understanding. The connection between the date of Martin Luther King Jr. Day observance and the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has important potential in forging the concerns of addressing racism and pursuing our unity in Christ.
4. Take the discipline of social ethics seriously, because the careful arguments and nuanced distinctions demanded by that discipline can save us from the simplistic exhortations that hinder effective advocacy. An adequate defense of some preferential forms of affirmative action, for example, depends in part on sound and subtle interpretations of distributive and compensatory justice. Social ethics can bring a necessary depth to a strategy against racism.
5. Insure that worship is an intentional witness against racism, and therefore reflects the fullness of the Gospel. Worship is sometimes an instrument of racial separation and oppression. Not only is the eucharistic table divided by theological barriers, but also by the racial separation within and among the churches. As the member-churches of COCU seek a common table, they must evaluate all liturgical resources and practices and insure their racial sensitivity and inclusiveness.
6. Maintain a strong program of Christian education on the dynamics of racism and the demands of racial justice. Educational resources, like liturgical ones, need to be evaluated to insure that they are consistent witnesses against racism and for racial equality, especially in relation to family education.
7. Engage in rigorous institutional self-examinations, searching for racism embedded in the structures, politics and programs of churches, and set goals for measuring our progress. This self-auditing is imperative to overcome racial offenses and advance racial reconciliation, while providing targets for change. It is most effectively accomplished in a context of mutual accountability, admonition, and affirmation among the churches.
8. Renew the churches' commitment to the struggle for equal human rights through advocacy. In continuing the civil rights agenda, four instruments of justice seem especially relevant for our time: 1) the preservation and enhancement of federal civil rights laws, 2) the continuation of key affirmative action initiatives to address imbalances and deprivations caused by racism, 3) the defense of economic rights, such as adequate housing, health care, nutrition, employment, and other essential material conditions, and 4) reform of the criminal justice system.
9. Develop resources to address the issues related to racism in the member churches' capacity and responsiveness to new immigrant and cultural groups.
As a first step in this "Call to Commitment and Action To Combat Racism," the delegates to the Eighteenth Plenary Session have covenanted racism in our churches and in our nation as an essential component in our pursuit to become Churches Uniting In Christ.
Combating racism is a formidable task - and eradicating it will appear to many as beyond realistic possibilities. It demands both the conversion of individuals and the transformation of churches. Yet, we have good reasons for hope and persistence in struggle - primarily because God is ever creating new possibilities for racial solidarity.
The commitment by the COCU churches to overcome racism and live more intentionally the unity and catholicity of Christ's Church is a promise and a prayer. It will lead us into deeper understandings of the triune God, the redemption offered in Jesus Christ, the nature of the Church and the world as created by God. In this commitment these nine churches, seeking to become the Church of Christ Uniting, will be a sign and foretaste of the unity of the whole people of God.
Adopted by unanimous vote of the delegates of the nine member communions to the Eighteenth Plenary of the Consultation on Church Union, January 24, 1999, in St. Louis, Missouri.