Two global Protestant groups are meeting in the United States to launch a new organisation representing more than 80 million Christians in Presbyterian, Reformed, United, Uniting and other churches around the world.
"In these times of division and dissension in our lives, including church life, it is highly significant that two global groups of churches … should be willing to come together in a higher level of union," said Richard van Houten, General Secretary of the Reformed Ecumenical Council (REC), one of the two bodies that are to merge.
The two church groupings came together on 18 June 2010 at a gathering in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to found the World Communion of Reformed Churches.
Van Houten spoke in advance of the 18 to 26 June meeting, called a uniting general council.
Reformed Christians trace their heritage back to the 16th-century Reformation led by Jean Calvin, John Knox and others, as well as to earlier movements that sought to reform the Roman Catholic Church.
The Rev Setri Nyomi, General Secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC), the other partner in the merger, explained that the term "communion" had been chosen for the new organisation's name to point to a, "new form of working relationship".
"As a communion, we recognize our common baptism and our togetherness at the Lord's table, making us better witnesses and more effective in making a difference in the world," said Nyomi, a theologian from Ghana.
Following separate meetings of WARC and REC early on 18 June, the more-than-400 delegates from the two organisations were then to gather for a joint service in advance of the first session of the new grouping, to be preceded by drumming and greetings by Native American chiefs from the local area.
"We are bringing the drum back with one purpose: to signal unity to the world," said Mike Peters, a Native American minister from Grand Rapids, who has helped plan the event. "It could be the start of a spiritual awakening."
Organisers say a strong Native American presence at the event is a reminder of the church's historic role in marginalising the culture of Native Americans, and the mistreatment of them.
"Hearing the voices of the world's indigenous peoples, particularly from North America, whose guests we are when we meet on their land, will challenge us and inspire us," said Judi Fisher, a WARC vice-president from Australia, who represents the group's Pacific region.
News of the official founding of the new church grouping brought congratulations from the World Council of Churches, the Geneva-based organisation that promotes Christian unity.
"It will strengthen the contribution of the Reformed churches to unity, peace and justice," said WCC General Secretary, the Rev Dr Olav Fykse Tveit. "This is a new expression of the visible unity of God's Church, and as such it represents both a gift from God and a sign of hope."
Delegates in Grand Rapids are meeting under the theme, "Unity of the Spirit in the Bond of Peace", words from The Letter of St Paul to the Ephesians (4.3) in the Bible's New Testament.
WARC traces its roots back to an alliance of Reformed churches founded in 1875, and to the International Congregational Council, which held its first meeting in 1891.
The REC was founded in 1946 as a grouping of Reformed churches that did not belong to WARC. From the 1960s onwards some Reformed churches became members of both bodies.
The two groups noted that REC is known for its emphasis on spiritual development and fidelity to doctrinal statements, while WARC is known for its stances on racial and gender justice, the protection of the environment, and the need for a new international economic order.
WARC's Nyomi said; "The way we trace our identity has always included that we are saved to make a difference in the world."
In 2000, Nyomi became the first person from outside Europe to head WARC as its General Secretary, and he is expected to have the same role in the new communion.
"We are united; we are ready to continue playing the prophetic role that God has called us to," said Nyomi.
He referred to a statement called the "Accra Confession", adopted by WARC at Accra, Ghana in 2004. The confession calls on Christians worldwide to confess their complicity in the face of mounting social and environmental ills, and the document commits its signatories, "to seek a global covenant for justice in the economy and the earth in the household of God."
More information: www.reformedchurches.org/
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]