Covenanting: New Directions for Ecumenism

by Elizabeth Achtemeier

Elizabeth Achtemeier is adjunct professor of Bible and homiletics at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.

This article appeared in the Christian Century October 31, 1984, p. 1014. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The appearance of the Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry agreement of the World Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Commission, the theological consensus statement of the Consultation on Church Union (COCU), and the proliferation of local ecumenical efforts in countless places offer new possibilities for effective unity during this decade.

The ecumenical movement is in a period of kairos. The remainder of this decade -- indeed, of this century -- represents a pivotal time for Christian reconciliation. The appearance of the Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry agreement of the World Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Commission, the theological consensus statement of the Consultation on Church Union (COCU), and the proliferation of local ecumenical efforts in countless places offer new possibilities for effective unity.

Because the COCU churches did not accept a merger model in 1973, but requested a different plan for growing together into unity, COCU has been preparing a threefold approach to common life, mission and worship among its member churches. This approach, called covenanting, has liturgical, theological and juridical dimensions. It will be tested and amended at the next COCU plenary session, to be held in Baltimore, Maryland, in November.

Since its inception in 1962, COCU has taken seriously the biblical mandate for Christian unity. Covenanting is an attempt to envision and make possible the gradual achievement of an organic unity that would bring crucial parts of the churches together. Several elements will be proposed in Baltimore to constitute the skeleton of a united Christian body: mutual recognition of baptism among the denominations; recognition and reconciliation of their ministries; regular eucharistic sharing; joint mission and service projects; and the constituting of councils of oversight to supervise the covenanting process.

If these elements are accepted and enacted by the nine COCU denominations, their separate institutional existence will not thereby be ended, but the fashioning and functioning of the joints and ligaments of a united ecclesial body will begin. The New Testament koinonia will be enhanced, while the ethos of each communion will continue to enrich the others. Thus the 1984 plenary appears to portend a watershed in COCU’s life. Each of the three vital aspects of the Christian church’s life -- theological agreement, episkopé (oversight which holds together both catholicity and apostolicity) and the local congregation where it all comes together -- will be central at Baltimore.

Theological disagreement has been one of the ostensible reasons for division in the church in centuries past -- perhaps even a primary reason. When fellowship was broken, ways of living in separation developed; these became quite efficient at keeping Christians and churches apart. In the new openness of the era of the Second Vatican Council, however, church leaders began to appoint to official commissions theologians charged with finding new ways of agreeing, of getting beyond or behind the divisions of recent centuries. Perhaps to the surprise of some of these leaders, their theologians have succeeded in building verbal bridges across the traditional theological crevasses. COCU now has such an agreement, in evolution since the early ‘60s.

During the church’s second century, a ministry (and then minister) of oversight (episkopé) became a foundation of inter-congregational fellowship. Congregational ministry arose out of and focused on presidency at the Lord’s Supper. The ministry of episkopé continued this eucharistic focus, as bishops began to serve among the congregations, unifying the Eucharist of the local communities and that of the universal church.

For various historical and theological reasons, communions such as the Presbyterians, growing out of the Reformation, evolved corporate, rather than personal, episkopé’. Others, such as the Methodists, who continued a personalized oversight, removed most of the theological content from the office. But even if they have not called their minister of oversight a bishop, most denominations have consistently maintained some ministry of that sort.

The theological agreements being reached in COCU and the WCC envision reconciling the episkopé of the various churches. Aye, but there is a rub, pungently expressed by a simple quatrain:

When you say episkopé

I’ll never make a fuss.

It’s only when episkopé

Becomes episkopus!


How is the oversight, which we all need and already have in some fashion, to be personally embodied? COCU is committed to maintaining the bishop’s function in a uniting church. But it is also open to having this ministry be different from any now existing among its member denominations, and it welcomes the diverse experience of all its bodies. It must walk a fine line between the autocracy of some forms of episcopacy and the tyranny of committee rule which characterizes those Protestant churches where bishops can be “selfappointed.”

A renewed episcopacy could involve reconciling the overseers of the various communions into a common body, a council of oversight. Since the Council of Nicea, episcopal churches have usually maintained the principle of “one bishop for each piece of turf” (even if they have seldom lived by this theological ideal). A reconciled body of overseers would consist of a group of bishops who would provide corporate, collegial supervision over a single geographical entity, at least for a period of time. Such a body would probably take joint responsibility for ordaining new ministers, and it would certainly need to be involved in planning and implementing a common mission. (The idea of interim joint episcopal oversight is not particularly radical; the current secretary of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity in Rome, Pierre Duprey, made such a proposal in 1978.) There would certainly be anomalies in such episkopé. But the greatest anomaly is a divided church.

The first question to confront such a body of bishops would probably be this: Since laypersons and presbyters (priests) are also involved in oversight, should they also be reconciled and serve in such a body? And would the churches nominate women, members of ethnic minorities and persons with disabilities to this ministry? A second question might be the following: Will the new group of reconciled persons in each place be a kind of “skin graft” growing over old divisions, or will it be simply an interim, experimental organization for developing and enhancing new relationships among still separated bodies? The November plenary session will wrestle with these and similar questions.

Local congregations are ready and willing to invest themselves ecumenically; a great deal of common life is already evident among them. The goal of covenanting among the COCU denominations is especially intended to manifest and enable the oneness of the church at the congregational level.

Denominations were important in bringing the Christian faith to the variegated areas of American life, especially to the frontier. Their value now is by no means as clear. Because their structure is organized to secure the preservation and extension of the larger institution, congregations that take their primary identity from their denominations cannot relate to the total life of a community. Thus, denominational organization tends to make congregations a force of division rather than of reconciliation in their communities. The result of this fragmentation is that denominationally defined local churches do not feel ultimately responsible for representing God’s reign in or to their area. As William Cate reminds us,

The denomination’s organizational structure is arranged on an area basis that deals with churches in a vertical, special-interest fashion, not horizontally and in relation to the community in which it finds itself. . . . Denominational executives . . . assume that their primary responsibility is toward their individual churches I The Ecumenical Scandal on Main Street (Association, 1965), p. 63].

To serve communities effectively, congregations need to be oriented to the needs of an area, assuming holistic pastoral responsibility for their immediate environment. They must exercise a priesthood for their communities, being the church for a particular place. This can only happen if their primary associations are with other groups of Christians in their immediate neighborhood, not with a denominational officer, or with other congregations of the same denomination many miles away.

In recent years COCU conducted experiments in joint mission and worship among local congregations -- experiments which made clear the value and possibility of such a concept of congregational mission and identity. The consultation learned that a group of congregations, bound together by covenant and regular eucharistic worship, can more effectively address community problems than can those divided by their denominational identities. Britain’s “local ecumenical projects” are demonstrating the same truth. COCU also discovered the necessity and value of the presence of people of various heritages and abilities (including those whom we often label disabled) in every community for it to be an authentic “catholic” church.

Local churches need to represent Christ to and for their neighborhoods, living and acting together as one Christian people around the Lord’s Table and in mission. Celebration and service can be planned and structured as the needs of the community dictate, both in small congregational groupings and in larger, parishwide events. Lesslie Newbigin, long a missionary and bishop in the Church of South India, expresses eloquently the theological point at stake:

When we say the Church is for that place, the meaning of the preposition “for” is determined christologically -- by what Jesus Christ has done, is doing and will do with and for all humankind. . . . Just as Christ is not understood unless he is understood as the Word by whom all things came to be, for whom they are, and in whom they are to be consummated, so also the church in any place is not rightly understood unless it is understood as sign, first-fruit, and instrument of God’s purpose in Christ for that place [the Ecumencal Review (April 1977). p. 118].

If congregations are to be such a sign, firstfruit and instrument of God’s purpose of reconciliation in any place, it is vital that they have a sense of being one people in worship and service, in association with other Christian congregations in the area -- not in isolation from or in competition with them. What emerges is a new ecclesial identity as a “household” of local congregations, defined as Christians together meeting the needs of a particular place. Such a form better incorporates the findings of the past 30 years of ecumenical debate on “place,” community and eucharistic fellowship. Uniformity in such interrelatedness is not necessary: the activity of the Holy Spirit is seldom very orderly.

Since some kind of oversight for such congregating congregations will be necessary, it is precisely at this point that joint episkopé, as exercised by a group of bishops, might profitably enter in. Smaller groupings of congregations could be ministered to more effectively, and on a more personal basis. In such a situation local groups ready to move together quickly for the sake of mission could do so; already-developed structures and organs (such as the National Council of Churches’ Commission on Regional and Local Ecumenism) could be utilized and built upon; those no longer useful could be let go. In worship, regular eucharistic fellowship will characterize common life. Joint ordinations by the larger body of bishops will make possible the interchangeability of ordained persons.

William Cate has written that “Christian unity occurs at points of interchurch contact and relationship: it is not the creation of an ecumenical structure . . .” (“Ecumenism Surges in Local Churches,” The Christian Century [March 14, 1984], p. 268). But in 20 years of work and gleaning, COCU has learned that some institutional expression (even if temporary and modest) is vital precisely at these points of “interchurch contact. It is the middle judicatory officials (whether bishops or regional or conference ministers) who are crucial in enabling or in frustrating the long-term ecumenical possibilities. Since the second century, the bishops have best exercised this ministry of unity, for they focus in one ministry both Eucharist and mission.

At several crucial points in the New Testament, unusual things happened when an area’s Christians were “all together.” As it enters its third decade of life, COCU is working consciously to foster such togetherness, in theological agreement, in ministry and mission and in congregational life. Such an approach will require more time (most conversations of COCU’s scope require 40 years), and will be much less tidy than a traditional union would be. But it will bring the churches together in their ecclesial life -- in membership, mission and ministry -- and it takes seriously the valuable diversity possible within organic unity. Such an approach is also compatible with, and parallel to, the “conciliar fellowship” goal being worked out in the WCC’s Faith and Order Commission.

Establishing a covenanting relationship with other churches is not “cheap ecumenism.” A change in identity is required; intentionally becoming a sign to a broken human race demands communal strength. COCU denominations will accept these challenges only as they realize that being baptized into Christ and the cross really does signify an abandonment of self and the acceptance of a new identity.

One thing is certain: it is in the cross, and the weakness and defeat it represents. that the power of God was and will be made manifest. It is to that cross that Jesus wishes to draw all people. And it is at the foot of that cross that each of us will recognize and experience our oneness with him and with each other.