New US inter-church alliance tackles poverty and common witness

By staff writers
14 Feb 2007

Tackling poverty and witnessing to the Gospel message are among the first shared concerns of the newly constituted Christian Churches Together in the USA, a pan-church body which celebrated its official launch in Pasadena, California, at a 6-9 February 2007 gathering.

Christian Churches Together began as a concept in 2001, with the aim of expanding beyond traditional ecumenical boundaries and institutions – which many in the evangelical constituency, especially, have traditionally regarded with suspicion and hostility.

The group counts 36 churches and organizations as founding members. It describes itself as a body that “provides a context — marked by prayer, theological dialogue and fellowship — in which churches can develop relationships with other churches with whom they presently have little contact.”

But it has already faced challenges. Representatives of historic black Methodist churches, for example, have expressed reservations about how some participants in CCT handle issues of racism, social justice and the ministry of women. They also have questioned the need for another inter-church organization.

However supporters of the CCT concept, which does not make joint action and agreement a pre-requisite of conversation, say that tackling such differences by participation rather than separation is precisely what is needed to bridge deep divides within the US Christian community.

During the past five years, representatives to Christian Churches Together have focused on praying and witnessing together and building relationships through five faith families in the United States - Evangelical/Pentecostal, Orthodox, Catholic, historic Protestant and Racial/Ethnic.

The Pasadena event included discussions on the importance of evangelism and the elimination of poverty and a "celebration and commitment service" involving more than 150 participants and observers, including seminary students and young leaders.

The presidents of Christian Churches Together who spoke at the meeting were the Rev Leonid Kishkovsky, Orthodox Church in America; Cardinal William Keeler, Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore; Bishop James Leggett, International Pentecostal Holiness Church; the Rev Dr William Shaw, president of the National Baptist Convention, USA Inc., a historic African-American communion; and the Rev Larry Pickens, chief executive of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Inter-religious Concerns.

The organization adopted a statement on "the scandal of widespread poverty in the United States and around the world" and proclaimed that a renewed commitment to overcome poverty "is central to the mission of the church and essential to our unity in Christ."

"Our faith in Christ who is the truth compels us to confront the ignorance of and indifference to the scandal of widespread, persistent poverty in this rich nation. We must call this situation by its real names: moral failure, unacceptable injustice. Our faith in Christ drives us to call our churches and our society to a more urgent, united response," the statement declared.

Acknowledging the work that churches already do to help struggling people, the statement stressed that Christian Churches Together must build on those efforts and collaborate more closely to eliminate poverty in the United States.

"Unfortunately, partisan and ideological divisions too often promote one-sided solutions and prevent genuine progress," the statement said. "We believe substantial success in reducing domestic poverty requires an overall framework that insists that overcoming poverty requires both more personal responsibility and broader societal responsibility, both better choices by individuals and better policies and investments by government, both renewing wholesome families and strengthening economic incentives."

The group cites four necessities to overcome domestic poverty: strengthening families and communities, reducing child poverty, making "work" work and strengthening the educational system.

The ‘Churches Together’ model of ecumenism was pioneered in Britain and Ireland, following the winding up of the former British Council of Churches and the development of new ecumenical instruments which included the Catholic Church and Black churches alongside Anglican, Protestant and Orthodox participants.

The commitment was to ‘enabling’ bodies which support the joint endeavour of different denominations and associated organisations, rather than speaking and acting on behalf of them. However the new approach has been hampered by a series of budget cuts, restructuring, and the determination of the larger churches (particularly the Church of England and Catholic bishops) to maintain their own profile and power base, say critics.

On the positive side, supporters say that the ‘churches together’ approach has ‘widened the tent’ of ecumenism, and has changed its character to make it more accessible to those who have felt alienated from what some have seen as an ‘activist ecumenical culture’ that moved ahead of the churches themselves on some issues.

Christian Churches Together in the USA stresses that it is developing its own ways of working which complement those of other ecumenical and inter-church bodies, taking into account the specific needs and challenges of the religious situation in the USA.

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