The declining National Council of Churches, once the mouthpiece of America’s mainline Protestant denominations, is struggling to find a new purpose.  At its May 2002 board meeting, the NCC discussed its latest ecumenical outreach, an attempt to incorporate Roman Catholics and evangelicals.  Called “Christian Churches Together in the U.S.A.: An Invitation to a Journey,” the April manifesto was signed in Chicago by leaders of most of the NCC’s constituent Protestant and Orthodox churches, along with several Roman Catholic prelates, some liberal evangelicals, a Pentecostalist, and the head of the Salvation Army.

In the past, NCC General Secretary Bob Edgar has proposed that the NCC might dissolve itself in favor of a larger ecumenical umbrella that would include Catholics and evangelicals.  Other NCC leaders, however, have a different vision.  This latest manifesto does not specify what its goal really is.  “This is an evolutionary process,” NCC President Elenie Huszagh explained to the board.   “[The Chicago manifesto] doesn’t suggest the demise of the NCC.  It’s not ‘either/or.’  It’s an ecumenical conversation.”

But Edgar still seems to envision a broader group replacing the NCC, comparing the transition to the evolution of the old Federal Council of Churches into the National Council of Churches 50 years ago.  He told the board that “There was an audible ‘yes’ that it’s an important moment for the creation of a new something broader and deeper.  It seems certain we’re moving in that direction.”  He predicted the “process is moving in years, not months or decades.”

Edgar was pleased that Catholics were present for the Chicago meeting in “strong voice,” but he admitted that most conservative evangelicals will not want to join the process.  Though he did not explain further, he presumably was referring to the apparent refusal of the National Association of Evangelicals and the Southern Baptist Convention to participate.

The manifesto laments “unnecessary divisions” among Christians and expresses hope for a “greater unity,” though it offers no specific remedies.  It is brief and admits that the “questions for conversation” and the “details of the way” toward Christian unity are, as of yet, unknown.

The NCC manifesto imagines a “new life together” among Christian bodies that includes engaging in common prayer, “speaking to society with a common voice,” promoting the “common good,” fostering “faithful evangelism,” and seeking reconciliation.  “Speaking to society” is problematic, as critics of the NCC have consistently complained that the organization’s work is often short on theological substance and long on liberal political activism.  Edgar speaks of anti-
poverty advocacy as a primary theme for an expanded ecumenism.

But some NCC critics have pointed out that fighting poverty, though vitally important, is not uniquely the mission of the Christian Church.  Nor is there consensus among Christians about the best way to help the poor.

Among the nearly three-dozen signers of the Chicago manifesto were William Cardinal Keeler, Catholic Bishops Tod Brown and Edwin Conway, Catholic Archbishop William Levada, Sr. Joan McGuire, United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick, Episcopal Bishop Chris Epting, Salvation Army Commissioner John Busby, liberal evangelical activists Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action and Jim Wallis of Call to Renewal, and Bishop George McKinney of the Pentecostal-Charismatic Churches of North America.

Most of the signatories were from NCC member communions.  The near absence of evangelicals, the questionable enthusiasm of Roman Catholics, and the document’s lack of specifics call into question whether the Chicago manifesto is a significant step toward fulfilling Edgar’s vision for a “broader” ecumenical body.  The Chicago participants will gather again in January.

Whether the NCC will survive long enough to usher in a new ecumenical body is also an open question.  Though Edgar came to office three years ago promising to end the NCC’s overspending, the deficits have continued.  As of the May 4 meeting, the NCC had a $406,000 deficit for the current fiscal year, out of a $6.7-million budget.  Edgar claims that the budget will be balanced by year’s end.  But the NCC’s once substantial assets are now down to $1.8 million.  The organization can endure only a few more years of substantial deficit spending.  The latest financial report records the organization’s assets at just over seven million dollars, nearly $2.5 million of which is clearly unavailable for ready use, in accounts receivable (two million dollars) or in property (nearly $500,000).  The NCC’s accounts payable and accrued expenses, on the other hand, total a whopping $5,289,885.  The NCC is virtually bankrupt.

New revenues remain elusive.  The NCC’s largest member communions (e.g., the United Methodists and the P.C. U.S.A.), have declared they will provide no more bailouts.  Donations from member communions are expected to drop next year.  And this year’s income from foundations now stands at less than half of expectations.

Edgar and other NCC leaders spoke at length about their recent visit to the Middle East, during which they were largely critical of Israeli policies, supportive of Palestinian goals, and uncritical of the Arab leaders whom they met, including the Syrian dictator, the king of Jordan, and the prime minister of Lebanon, along with Palestinian Authority representatives.  Though Edgar and other NCC leaders lamented the continuing exodus of Christians from the Middle East, no one mentioned the possibility that Islamic intolerance toward religious minorities might play a role.

This shunning of reality was typical.  The NCC, though likely headed for demise, remains blithely committed to the political and theological blunders that have already made it irrelevant.