WASHINGTON (AP) â€” The National Council of Churches wants to help form a new organization that would for the first time include all major branches of U.S. Christianity.
Though much is uncertain about the plan approved by the council's board Tuesday, one possibility is that the organization itself would go out of business.
The council is made up of mainline Protestant, black Protestant and Orthodox denominations. The majority of U.S. Christians are outside the council, in the Roman Catholic Church, Southern Baptist Convention, and Evangelical and Pentecostal groups.
``I find this extremely helpful and hopeful,'' said the chief executive of one key council member, the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
The board did not discuss the future existence of the council. But chief executive Robert Edgar said in an interview it's an open question whether the council would continue on alongside the new body, or disappear.
``Sometimes an organizational structure has to be willing to die. We have to be willing to entertain that,'' said the Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, chief executive of the Reformed Church in America.
Edgar and Granberg-Michaelson are members of a small task force that will hold preliminary talks with Christian groups outside the council, invite them to join the process and propose next steps to the council's national assembly in November.
The project faces numerous obstacles, both ideological and practical.
Conservative Protestants â€” Evangelicals, Pentecostals and Southern Baptists â€” have been indifferent or hostile toward the council, often accusing it of theological liberalism and promoting political causes to the neglect of spiritual ones.
The U.S. Catholic Church decided a generation ago not to enter the council, partly because Roman Catholics in this country alone exceed the 50 million members in the council's 35 denominations.
However, since the Second Vatican Council, Catholic bishops have been free to join cooperative bodies with other Christians and have done so in 55 other countries.
Edgar sent word of the proposal two weeks ago to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Association of Evangelicals and plans early contact with Southern Baptists.
In another major action, the council board settled a long-running dispute by granting independent financial control to its relief agency, Church World Service. The agency, which brings in 85 percent of council revenues, has been dissatisfied with the cost and quality of council administration.
Oddly, leaders' negotiations over the Church World Service problem April 20 led to the idea of creating the new pan-Christian group. ``It was a surprise for all of us,'' said the Rev. Bruce Robbins, ecumenical officer for the United Methodist Church.
The council has struggled through financial trouble, with a $4 million deficit for 1999. Revenues are still ``seriously lagging budget,'' a financial report said. But Edgar expressed confidence that anticipated special gifts, staff cuts and other economies would stabilize finances by the end of 2000.
On the Net: Council site: http://www.ncccusa.org