United and Uniting churches

United churches are those which have been formed through the fusion of two or more separate churches, of different or the same confession. They have arisen over the past two centuries as churches have sought to make the unity given them in Christ fully visible. In union, churches move beyond cooperation and partnership to a degree of mutual accountability which can adequately be expressed only by life within a single ecclesial structure. There are some 50 united churches today, found in all regions of the world. Many of these incorporate churches that were themselves formed from earlier unions, so that the total number of "uniting actions" may be as many as 150.

Uniting churches are those presently engaged in a formal process towards union. At present a total of some 40 churches are involved in at least 15 such processes worldwide. In some cases churches on the way to union already express the unity given them in Christ in partial and provisional ways, for example through partnership agreements or joint mission programmes. It should be noted that some already United Churches describe themselves as "Uniting" to stress their commitment to further union (e.g. the Uniting Church in Australia, 1977).

United churches have taken Christ's prayer that Christians may be one (John 17:21) as an imperative for concrete action towards unity. They have adopted a "kenotic ecclesiology" whereby divided churches from different confessions are prepared to "die" to their former identities in order to "rise" together into a new, united church. They are the most complete (though not the only possible) form of "organic union" (the second Faith and Order world conference, Edinburgh 1937), and the clearest expression of the "local churches truly united" foreseen in the statement on conciliar fellowship from the WCC Nairobi assembly (1975).

The United churches form probably the most diverse family of churches worldwide. Five distinct types are often identified: the first is the earliest unions bringing together Reformed and Lutheran churches in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia in the 19th and early 20th centuries (the Old Prussian Union of 1817, later the Evangelical Church of the Union, in Germany). The second type is the series of unions through the 20th century, bringing together various combinations of Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists, Disciples of Christ, and other "free" churches in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and the United States (beginning with the United Church of Canada, 1925).

The third type is unions among the confessions named above in the southern hemisphere and the Caribbean (the Church of Christ in Thailand, 1934; the United Church of Zambia, 1965; the United Church in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, 1992); the fourth type are the unions including Anglican churches and thus episcopal structures of governance (beginning with the Church of South India, 1947, and including the most comprehensive union, the Church of North India, 1970, composed from Anglican, Baptist, Congregational, Disciples, Methodist, Brethren and Presbyterian churches). Up to now these unions are limited to the Indian subcontinent.

The fifth type is the unions among churches within the same confessional family (the Presbyterian Church (USA), 1983). While such unions do not require overcoming major theological differences, historical, cultural and social sources of division often make the union process at least as difficult as among churches from different confessions.

These churches, then, are linked not so much by a uniform structure or ecclesiology as by their commitment to visible - that is, structural as well as spiritual - unity and by the actual experience of union. Their ecclesiological life is shaped by their experience of integrating the diverse (indeed, sometimes apparently opposed) understandings and practices brought into the union (for example, the United Reformed Church in the United Kingdom (1972/1981/2000) has incorporated both "infant" and "adult" baptism into its theological and liturgical life).

Church unions often make an important theological and social witness. For example, the unions in the southern hemisphere have been an important vehicle for the indigenization of the church as several mission-founded churches, funded largely from abroad, have yielded to a single, autonomous locally led and funded church. A different witness was made by the Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa (1999) as it brought together a predominantly white church and a black church in the context of immediate post-apartheid South Africa.

To this point the United and Uniting churches have not formed their own Christian World Communion, not wanting to become "another denomination" and perhaps fearing that such a move would lessen their zeal for further union. The WCC's Faith and Order Commission has, at their request, served as the united and uniting churches' common reference point, organizing a series of international consultations of united and uniting churches and publishing a Survey of Church Union Negotiations at regular intervals.

Many United churches have maintained contacts to the world confessional bodies of their constituent churches. Of the world communions, the Disciples Ecumenical Consultative Council and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches have encouraged their member churches to enter into new unions. They (and the Anglican Consultative Council) have maintained continuing contacts with united churches incorporating respectively Disciples, Reformed and Congregational, or Anglican elements.

Issues facing the United and Uniting churches today, as explored at their most recent international consultation, include (1) the nature of union (how much agreement in theology and practice is essential for union? what form of organization will best serve the new united church?), the imperative for mission (how to ensure that the union serves the church's mission to the world, rather than simply ensuring the church's survival?), and the question of identity (what is the distinctive identity of these churches? how can they relate most effectively to one another, to their "parent" churches and their world communions, to other churches and to the ecumenical movement?). In addition, several current union processes (in South Africa, Wales, the United States) include Anglican or Episcopalian churches and thus face the question of episcopal governance. In the United States, issues of racism are crucial in the ten-member Churches Uniting in Christ (from 2002, the successor to the Council on Christian Unity).

With their commitment to making unity fully visible, and their practical experience of union, the United and Uniting churches continue to make a distinctive and important contribution to the ecumenical movement.