This May in Amsterdam in the Netherlands, in signing a document a group of Dutch clergymen created a new church combining three Protestant denominations – the Netherlands Reformed Church, the distinct Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (which has a Calvinist tradition) and the nation’s small Lutheran Church – into the Protestant Church in the Netherlands. What emerged is now being watched as an attempt to consolidate religious energy at a time of serious challenges for mainline Protestants: shrinking congregations, faith-snubbing youth and deepening rifts about reconciling homosexuality and Scripture. It was a moment four decades in the making. Talks on a possible union began in the 1960s and moved ahead cautiously. At the same time, the Netherlands was undergoing transitions that mirror other places across northern Europe. The role of religion in everyday life declined drastically for the post-war generation. Surveys suggest nearly 40 percent of Dutch now consider themselves agnostic or atheists. Low — or even negative — birth-rates indicate a trend that could lead to even fewer worshippers in European pews. In contrast, the immigrant Muslim populations continue to grow.
Other worldwide protestant initiatives
At least six initiatives are under way around the world to bring together various Protestant churches, including a looser, nine-member association in the United States which includes the Episcopal, Methodist and Presbyterian churches. If successful, such movements could reshape the ecclesiastical landscape for many of the estimated 340 million followers of Protestant churches worldwide. There is a confluence of modern forces encouraging mainline Protestants to combine resources in uniting churches.
Strategies for survival
Historical rivalries appear to be waning five centuries after the Reformation created a new Christian church landscape. One influence is the fear that non-denominational, evangelical “mega-churches” lure away followers, especially in the United States. Denominational leaders wonder whether their fragmented fellowship hinders attempts to remain relevant and active in the modern world.
“The competition for people’s attention has never been greater. Getting people into the church to hear the Gospel is what it’s all about. If we are not united and if churches continue with fighting and suspicion, then we are failing in our mission,” said Rev. Jan-Gerd Heetderks, president of the synod of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands. “The churches need new ways to reach out to people,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy and, unfortunately, time is not on our side.” The church claims to represent about 2.5 million churchgoers, or 16 percent of the population.
Dutch Protestant church leaders have moved to more liberal views in recent decades in an attempt to keep pace with society. The new Protestant Church will grant blessings to gay couples and ordain female pastors, but will not force local congregations to accept them. At least 15,000 more conservative members refused to join the new church and have formed a breakaway group.
The Netherlands is just an example of what may happen in many other places. Churches are not just being drained of their followers. In many places, such as Europe, they are losing ground in highly secularised societies. This all feeds into a drive to ecumenism. The core issue for many churches is survival.
Anglican disagreements over women and gay priests
Anglicans, who disagree over women clergy, now face a far worse international disagreement over gay priests and same-sex blessings.
Southern Baptists leave Baptist World Alliance
In June, the powerful Southern Baptist Convention — the largest U.S. Protestant body with 16.3 million members — voted to leave the Baptist World Alliance in protest against a perceived liberal shift that included support of female pastors and gay-friendly congregations.
In Europe, attempts to unite Protestant churches on the Netherlands model could be complicated by legal issues in countries where state assistance is provided for churches, such as Germany and Denmark. Elsewhere they appear to be gaining momentum.
Southern African churches unite
In 1999 two churches in southern Africa united – one multiracial and the other mostly black – to form the Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa as part of post-apartheid reconciliation. Other discussions in South Africa involve possible consolidations among Dutch Reform denominations and closer collaboration between Anglican and Presbyterian churches. Some small Christian churches in India are also pushing toward union, according to the World Council of Churches in Geneva.
Churches Uniting in Christ in the USA
By far the biggest effort to share resources is in the United States. The movement, Churches Uniting in Christ, seeks “intercommunion” among its nine core churches. A 2002 pact recognises rites such as Communion and baptism, and negotiations continue for the recognition of each other’s clergy and a fully-shared ministry.