Creating a new progressive ecumenical church

The Rev. Chuck Currie calls for a new progressive ecumenical church relationship.

The divisions that we face within our denominations, the decline of the mainline church over the last generation, and the changing realities we face in a society more pluralistic than ever beg the question of whether or not we are — any of us, regardless of denomination — doing church in the right way. So today, I come with a proposal. Let’s throw out the rule book, break with tradition, look to the future with our eyes open and hearts centered on living out the Greatest Commandment, and perhaps even bring together some of our denominations under one new banner — a new united church — that reflects a belief that living out God’s mission for the world is more important than bureaucracy and polity, the laws that govern our churches.

What am I suggesting? Within the mainline tradition there is a growing consensus moving our churches in a progressive theological direction. We read the Hebrew Scripture and the stories of the Prophets, and their battles for economic justice resonate with our own times. As we reflect on the life and ministry of Jesus as shared with us in the Christian New Testament we hear God calling us further to be a people of justice concerned with the “least of these” and with those on the margins. Jesus’ own teachings have called many of us to embrace movements of liberation for Africans, Latin Americans, women, and gays and lesbians. We believe that those who use the Bible to justify discrimination or who wield Holy Scripture as a partisan political weapon to divide are the heirs of those who just a generation ago used the Bible to justify Jim Crow laws and worse. Those of us who still hear God speaking — a slogan of the United Church of Christ that can also be explained as feeling the Holy Spirit opening up our hearts in new and exciting ways just as Jesus did for his community and time — need to band together and live out the unity that we are called to live in Christ in new and more substantial ways. Hear it all below:

This sermon was delivered by The Rev. Chuck Currie, a United Church of Christ minister, at Portland, Ore.’s First United Methodist Church on April 29. The Scripture readings included 1 John 3:16-24 and John 10:11-18.

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Category : The Lead

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  1. Nicole Porter

    Isn’t there enough churches already? Like some 33,000+?

  2. Josh Magda

    What would happen, if say in 15-20 years when the mainline church is even smaller, the traditional denominations consolidated their financial, liturgical, real estate and theological wealth, and became an institution that was much more lightweight, but also more effective, with the ability to bring the best of tradition forward with what Spirit has been trying to get us to do the last 150 years, in a multitude of geographically and culturally appropriate forms, as a clear alternative to the fundamentalist presence in the US?

    I’m excited by the prospect, as we really are a sleeping giant.

  3. Nicole Porter

    I think “giant” might be a bit of an overstatement, don’t you think? Conservative churches vastly outnumber the ones who have taken a liberal bent.

  4. Yes, well that was the dream of COCU (the Consultation on Church Union) over 40 years ago. This proposed union of AME, AMEZ, CME, Disciples, TEC, UMC, PCUSA, and UCC is now a shadow of its former self called “Churces Uniting in Christ.” Mergers are easier dreamed than accomplished.

  5. Peter Pearson

    Consolidating a number of churches does not create a new church or more churches but actually lessens the number if I am understanding the goal here. I am for anything that brings believers together to pray and to serve. But institutions live to perpetuate themselves and I cannot see a bunch of bishops and church house staffs eager to join the ranks of the unemployed no matter how lofty the goal. That part will need to be well considered and planned.

  6. Pmgentry

    I get why it happens, but as a (progressive) lover of history and tradition I object to when the word “tradition” (as in, “break with tradition”) is used simply as code for “things I disagree with.”

    Also, to form a church united along the lines of contemporary political discourse seems shortsighted. One of the things I find most important about church is that I engage with people different than myself. I’d prefer not to exile Republicans from my Sunday morning. Let’s leave that sort of tactic to the right wing where it belongs.

  7. jmwhite1

    I agree with PMGentry above regarding planting our flag along a particularly contemporary political trajectory.

    I would welcome though a discussion about finding ways to meaningfully federate and merge the back-office operations of some of our denominations while maintaining the worship & charism of our own tradition.

    Jon White

  8. Among other interesting fights in our contemporary culture is the ongoing fight between Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment forces. We have heard an anti-enlightenment screed from both N.T. Wright and the ABC.

    An important discussion of this battle is found in Pinker’s “Better Angels of our Nature”

    I think our future is in defining what an Enlightenment Church might look like. For Pinker the major factor in reducing all violence worldwide over the last 100 years has been Reason. Organized religion has planned a more distressing and destructive role, the echoes of which are heard in the characterizations of Christianity as mean spirited and narrow.

    Our tradition actually never separated Reason from Revelation as some of the Enlightenment thinkers worked so hard to do. Indeed Reason and Nature are part of God’s revelation and they are both open ended as is our posture towards Scripture based on its interaction with Reason.

    Short of major catastrophe, Reason is likely to continue to be the upward escalator upon which human conditions of existence continue to improve. We should claim that heritage in stark contrast to the closed down doctrinally driven churches.

    Barthianism and Christian Realism have both become dead ends. The open door to the future is the open door of Reason and Nature, seen as Richard Hooker does as parts of God’s revelation, providing a reflective surface for understanding scripture and tradition.

  9. I am all for the concept, but the protestant reformed liturgical tradition (if any) is NOT my style. I agree with the emphasis on social justice, but I need Solemn High Mass on Sunday (as do many other people).

  10. Keromaru5

    My first objection: Haven’t churches basically been throwing out the rule book for the last fifty years? Has it helped at all? And I’m not just talking about liberal churches: I think a lot of the abuses committed by more conservative Protestant churches come from their insistence on going their own way and ignoring the great theologians who came before them, and inventing esoteric new doctrines.

    My second objection: We can’t simply ignore the very real theological differences we have with other churches. Where do you find a balance between Sola Scriptura and Apostolic Tradition? Or between institutional churches and congregationalism? What about our differences around LGBT rights? A lot of these divisions have existed for centuries. They’re not going to go away just because someone said so.

    My third objection: Concern for social justice is fine, but what about spirituality on the individual level? Not everybody can be an activist. Are we going to teach them to pray? Are we going to help them apply Christian love to their home and family life? To their careers? To their social circles? Some people may not have the time, access, or resources to help the poor and marginalized: they may be poor and marginalized themselves. The Church isn’t just called to feed and clothe them, it’s called to offer them a spiritual home.

    So yeah. Some nice sentiments, but I think it’ll take more than that to heal the division in the Church.

    – Alex Scott

  11. Bill Dilworth

    “Consolidating a number of churches does not create a new church or more churches but actually lessens the number ”

    Well, that’s assuming that every layperson and cleric of each Church joins the new body (and yes, it is new, even if it’s a continuation of pre-existing bodies). Experience suggests that that won’t happen, and that for every Church you will have at least two successor groups: those who join the new body, and those who form some sort of Continuum.

  12. Peter Pearson

    What about what God might want folks?

  13. C. Wingate

    OK, here’s my experience of this:

    For many years, my son was a member of the Maryland State Boychoir, and they rehearsed and performed in a huge ex-Lutheran church in Baltimore. It was ex-Lutheran because the congregation was in the evangelical Lutherans who were caught up in the formation of the UCC. This place is immense: the church seats something like 800 people, with a killer organ, and in addition to all the many Sunday school rooms and the like, it has its own gym. It’s constructed in the very stylized early ’50s neo-gothic, with wonderful stained glass. And of course, it’s practically empty. The neighborhood is still there, and supports a good-sized catholic parish among other churches; and anyway, this place has the potential to be a destination church, given the facilities. But they’ve forgotten how to do church. Every year they had a boychoir appreciation service, and so dutifully I go, and one year finds us repeating the words of “Que Sera, Sera” as a litany. Their service book specifically disavows use of a creed. And the boys outnumber the rest of the congregation two to one, noting in this the number of parents press-ganged into attendance.

    I just don’t see grafting ourselves onto and conforming ourselves to church bodies that are even worse off than we are. I don’t know whether this congregation still exists, but if it does, it’s because they are no longer responsible for their own building. It now belongs to the boychoir, which maintains it principally as a hall for their performances, including, of course, a round of lessons and carols at Christmas, Willcocks descants and all. We’re headed the same way; we just aren’t as far along.

  14. Nicole Porter

    This is my question, who will first put their miter down to go ahead with a merger?

  15. Ann Fontaine

    I really think it is an idea for closer relationships with non-bigoted churches – working together for inclusion and justice – not so much actual detailed mergers. We are already in full communion with ELCA (Lutherans) and Moravians – not merging but sharing clergy and working together.

  16. I think it is a great idea and will be helpful to consolidate the religious marketplace in America… all those who wish to “throw out the rule book” and “break with tradition” should get together and go for it.

    Meanwhile, I hope to remain an Anglican/Episcopalian.

  17. Mary Anne Chesarek

    Our parish was in an ecumenical relationship with a UCC church for about 24 years. We shared a building, holding separate services 3 Sundays a month and a joint service once a month. The congregations split in the early 90’s, but we retain warm friendships with each other and do some social and community outreach projects together. As long as no one declares that “My way is the only way,” I would be willing to look at some sort of reunion.


    The ecumenical movement had upsides and downsides. It brought Christians together in a way unthinkable to those who came before. But it seems to me the downside is that the denominational distinctives that make us who we are would be sure to be sacrificed in a pan-progressive ecumenical church. I think we already suffer in an age where the average parishioner is not particularly literate in the story of our faith, and where we continue to pine for more defined “Episcopal identity.”

    I love the idea of cooperating with others and even coming into full communion with other churches sharing the gifts that we uniquely bring.

    I am not interested in being a part of some vaguely protestant religious blob united around a political agenda. That could be almost as bad as the religious right.

    Besides, part of our genius is praying together in spite of our disagreements about all sorts of issues including political persuasion.

    Sean Ferrell+

  19. I, too, well remember with Bishop Epting the hopes and failures of COCU when it was Consultation on Communion Union instead of Churches of Christ Uniting. One point of the name change was to recognize that a single body simply wasn’t coming. However, that recognition led instead to churches not merging but seeking full communion relationships. So, we have that with the ELCA, the Old Catholics, and the Northern and Southern Moravians. Now, how the ELCA can have full communion relationships with the Presbyterians and the UCC, with their radically different understandings of how episkope is lived out, I don’t understand; but, then, that’s their decision, based on (among other things) affirming the Reformation heritage.

    No, I don’t get excited about a single Protestant body, however progressive. On the other hand, the more ways we progressive Christians can work together, the better! Indeed, that’s at least one arena where the Conservative Evangelicals have looked stronger in the common culture.

    Marshall Scott

  20. tgflux

    I was involved (at the local&diocesan level) in the ecumenical process contributing to both COCU and the TEC/ELCA covenant, in the late 80s. I was young and excited about ecumenism. {Le Sigh}

    I still wonder why our efforts didn’t generate more enthusiasm (in both senses of that word).

    When I see proposals coming around again, I know I can expect to hear more “Meh”s, particularly from Episcopalians . . . and I am not entirely apart from them (both from my own age/experience/burnout AND from my greater love for TEC at this point).

    And yet I can’t help but think, at SOME point, we’ll have to get more serious about union of Christians, for one reason or another.

    Here’s one reason: when I say “Christians”, I’m basically thinking of progressive Christians (as Currie does). Folks, in the Great Unwashed World Out There is ever-increasing FURY at “Christians”: the Christians (I prefer “Christianists”) who get all the press. They are dragging the Name of Christ through the mud (that’s being unkind to mud). HOW are we ever going to contrast&CONFRONT—BOTH the Christianists, AND the antitheists who mistake us for the former—while we remain apart?

    At some point, TOGETHER, we have to plant the Banner of Christ: WE ARE FOLLOWERS OF JESUS, Liberating Queer Lord—in Whom we live, move, have our being AND eat—and the Christianists are (while beloved of God) the deceived of the Father-of-Lies, doing his foul bidding (whether they call themselves Catholics, Baptists, Pentecostals *OR* Anglicans).

    I know we Episcopalians (and UCCers, ELCAs, many PresbyCUSAs and UMCs—etc!) value our Mainline “niceness”, and don’t want to call a spade a spade (or homophobic sin, “SIN”).

    But if we’re going to be IN and FOR the world (while still not of it, of course), we HAVE to come together for the sake of Christ’s Gospel (the Truly Queer one).

    [But yes, I still want Apostolic Succession and the Real Presence (can haz Bells&Smells?) in this United Church, too. ;-)]

    JC Fisher

  21. Chris H.

    Ann, are you sure he’s not suggesting real complete mergers? Similar to what several churches in India did, or the several types/synods of Lutherans that merged to form the current synods? With the shrinking resources in each denomination, it makes sense-and is already happening in a way. In those towns where one church closes, those parish members move on to the churches that survive. Here, it’s Episcopal churches struggling with the Lutherans having the population mass to continue on; in the NE, TEC outnumbers the Lutherans. I noticed on the post with the map of where Episcopalians were that where TEC was weakest, was also where the Lutherans,Methodists were stronger, so is trying to rebuild necessary in those places? Is having one progressive church poaching from others, really helping?

  22. Adam Spencer

    I suggested this very thing to a colleague a few weeks back. And I think people need to start calling a spade a spade and stop pulling their punches around this thing.

    The numbers/financial realities tell a powerful (and saddening) story about mainline protestantism. We can continue to live in our silos and subsequently die in our silos and take our unique charisms and precious traditions down with us or we can creatively join together, sharing the best of ALL of our traditions, and do what we’ve been commanded to do – “To be one as I and the Father are one.”‘

    Imagine a small rural community or hard-hit urban neighborhood where the Episcopal Church, the Lutheran Church, the UCC Church and the Methodist Church share a building. The other buildings are sold or re-purposed for ministry. There’s no reason there can’t still be a Liturgical Service and a Non-Liturgical Service on Sundays. Can we make those sacrifices? Can we make those compromises? Can we broaden our understanding of ourselves as Christian? And what if?

  23. Starkg

    I love the idea of a merger, and I hope we can find ways to become closer. I have a couple concerns:

    – what kind of an ecclesiology would this pan-Protestant church have? If I remember rightly, that was the issue last time around. Bishops or presbyteries? Dioceses or synods? Priests? Ordination?

    – what theology of Eucharist will be adopted? I can’t just have a memorialist position, I left that for a reason.

    – lgbt issues? UCC, ELCA, and TEC are mostly together on this, as is the remnant of PCUSA, but UMC just shot it down, and the old Catholics and moravians? This issue becomes apparent when you are a gay man discerning leadership.

    We also just have very different theologies. I hope we can find creative ways to be church together, to embrace one another, and even merge in many cases, but I am episcopalian for a reason. I could have joined a pro-gay Lutheran or Congregationalist church, but that would have been intellectually dishonest.

    Gregory Stark

  24. IT

    Recently we visited a small desert town, where nearly all the churches are lined up along a single road called “Church Lane”. Behind Church Lane is a hill, with a simple cross on it.

    We found out that on Easter, pretty much everyone climbed up to the cross for an ecumenical sunrise service. Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists, and all the rest, joined together for a communal worship.

    The only group that didn’t join in, was a fundamentalist Christian evangelical church.

    Take of that what you will. Maybe we still have things to learn from small towns.

    Susan Forsburg

  25. Josh Magda

    “The numbers/financial realities tell a powerful (and saddening) story about mainline protestantism. We can continue to live in our silos and subsequently die in our silos and take our unique charisms and precious traditions down with us or we can creatively join together, sharing the best of ALL of our traditions, and do what we’ve been commanded to do – “To be one as I and the Father are one.”‘

    I agree with this sentiment. The church is getting smaller and will be even more so in the future, unless something dramatic happens. This nation and the world need us, they just don’t always know it.

    The mainline/liberal churches have far more in common theologically and liturgically than they do not. Collectively, we are a paradigmatic, radically different alternative to the fundamentalist vision of the faith, which is ultimately an antiChrist and ecocidal vision. Nothing that truly moves our world into civilizations of love and justice, the part of God’s dream the Spirit has especially planted in our hearts, will happen unless something happens in America, and nothing will happen in America spiritually unless something happens in Christianity. What about a healthy, civilizationally significant American Christianity, that could actually be at the forefront of Spirit’s movement in the world rather than at the tail end, or not at all.

    The fanatical obsession with small divergences in theology, and the individual egoistic preferences they entail which urge us to stay divided so as to preserve our pet perspectives, our killing us.

    What about pooling our theological resources and letting people come to their own conclusions about specific matters, even as we engage in shared mission and liturgy? Or letting clergy make the decision about gay marriage? We all know where it is going to end anyways, its just a generation or so away. The whole point is to come together around shared mission- and to have space for new liturgy and church forms, which is DESPERATELY needed- while preserving liturgical forms that are valued in communities as appropriate.

    As for governance-is it really important whether a particular parish is episcopal, presbyterian, or congregational? Might all be a legitimate part of God’s future (or some fusion thereof?)

    One thing is for sure, we cannot continue down the path we are on.

  26. Bill Dilworth

    I’ve never found the merger idea very attractive, because it seems to denigrate diversity. There are real differences between denominations in belief, style of thought and action, and history. There’s nothing wrong with maintaining those distinctions, nor do I think that Christ’s prayer that we all be one necessitates some sort of Union Church.

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