Ecumenism in modern and post-modern Western Protestantism possesses a deep and rich history, and I would argue that there is no better example of this desire for Christian unity than the United Church of Christ. Founded in 1957 as the result of the merger between the Congregational Christian Church and the Evangelical and Reformed Church, both of which were mergers themselves, the UCC truly embodies the words on our insignia “that they may all be one” (John 17:21). As a denomination, we publicly state that we are called to be a “united and uniting church”— “In essentials–unity, in non-essentials–diversity, in all things–charity.“
This diversity is reflected in one particularly unique way among UCC congregations—namely, that 9% of all churches (455 churches in total) are affiliated with another denomination(s) in addition to the UCC. Terminology describing these congregations is equally diverse—they can be known as partnering, multiply-affiliated, cooperating, dually-affiliated, joined / joining, twin, etc. For the purposes of uniformity, our office is beginning to refer to them as ecumenical congregations (and alternatively, multiply-affiliated congregations); and in the UCC, there are three major designations by which these types of churches have been categorized historically:
1. Dual congregations, which possess dual alignment or affiliation with one or more denominations. These congregations generally maintain one single membership list and one unified organizational structure and budget.
2. Federated congregations, which are a single congregation composed of two or more autonomous or semi-autonomous bodies, maintaining separate membership lists. A federated church may or may not have separate organizational structures and budgets, each body holding membership in a different denomination. Federated congregations began to be organized in the late 1800’s.
3. Union congregations, which are a specifically defined by an historic agreement in which churches of Lutheran and Reformed (now UCC) background share the same building. Some historically Union congregations have also adopted federated or dual form, so that makes categorization difficult. And in some communities, as many as four congregations use the same facilities according to some formal schedule. The earliest known Union congregation was founded around 1710.
Other types of congregations in the UCC such as yoked churches and larger parish congregations also run along the spectrum of ecumenism and could be categorized in this way, though the numbers of these types of churches are much smaller than the numbers of dual, federated, or Union UCC churches.
In addition, a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly frequent is that UCC congregations are affiliating with traditions or groups that do not necessarily hold mainline denominational status but may have some broader recognition. For example, the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, a multi-denominational group of primarily African American Christian leaders and laity representing churches and faith-based organizations to support movement toward a theology of radical inclusivity of LGBTQ persons, has gained particular prominence in the UCC. Our office has not begun to track these sorts of affiliations, though there may come a time when this will need to occur if more formal agreements are made between these bodies and the UCC.
This year, our office conducted an in-depth study of ecumenical congregations in the UCC; and this week, two of us will be presenting the preliminary results of this study at the annual meeting of the Religious Research Association in Indianapolis. The purposes of this research project were to: (a) provide a deeper understanding of the demographics, beliefs, and practices of ecumenical UCC congregations; and (b) to determine differences and similarities between ecumenical UCC congregations and solely UCC congregations.
In the coming weeks, we will be sharing the results of this study on our blog–there is much to unpack within the surveys and other data we collected. I’m excited to share this information both within and beyond the denomination, especially since it’s the first in-depth study (that I’m aware of) that examines these types of congregations. And as you read the results, I invite you to ponder the notion of “better together” and to determine for yourself whether ecumenical congregations embody this notion (and in what ways they might, or might not, do so). The answers may surprise you, or they may confirm what you suspected. Stay tuned!