National Council of Churches' new leader wants to broaden base

November 09, 1993|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Religion Editor

The new president of the National Council of Churches wants it to broaden its ecumenical horizons to embrace Roman Catholics, conservative evangelical Protestants and Pentacostalists who have never been part of the group's membership.

The Rev. Gordon L. Sommers, leader of the small Moravian Church in America, will be installed as head of the council, the nation's largest ecumenical organization, in a ceremony tomorrow evening at West Baltimore's Bethel A.M.E. Church.

Dr. Sommers, 58, of Bethlehem, Pa., will be the 17th president -- and the first from the 56,000-member American Moravian Church founded by missionaries from central Europe in the 18th century.

The council, whose 275 board members represent 32 Protestant and Eastern Orthodox denominations with a total membership of about 49 million, began a five-day meeting yesterday at Baltimore's Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel.

On broadening the mainline, mostly liberal council to include Catholics on the one hand and Protestant fundamentalists on the other, Dr. Sommers said, "We have previously expressed this vision, but still the vision awaits fulfillment."

He posed a question to the organization's leaders: "Can we expand the process of transformation in which the council is now engaged, accepting willingly the changes that such a wider ecumenical circle may require of us?"

His own reply was, "I am committed to lead the [National Council of Churches] in this exploration."

Since the reforming Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the 58 million-member Catholic Church in the United States has drawn closer to the National Council of Churches in theological discussions, ecumenical worship and social concerns such as poverty and war and peace, but its bishops have never seriously considered formal affiliation.

Dr. Sommers suggested that a broader ecumenical partnership might be needed "to lead people to faith in an age of unbelief."

"Our witness to a broken and divided world will be most convincing when it reflects the unity promised by Christ," he added.

An unusual aspect of tomorrow's installation service for Dr. Sommers will be the participation of a Roman Catholic prelate -- the Most Rev. William H. Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore, who is president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Archbishop Keeler has been active in ecumenical relations on behalf of the Catholic Church.

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