Churches Uniting

With each signature on a parchment document, a group of Dutch clergymen watched their churches pass into history.

What emerged _ a new church combining three Protestant denominations _ is now being watched from India to Indiana as the latest bid 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.

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 with such influential backers as the Episcopal, Methodist and Presbyterian leadership.

If successful, such movements could reshape the ecclesiastical landscape for many of the estimated 340 million followers of Protestant churches _ a worldwide array of hundreds of churches and splinter groups.

There are other, deeper religious estrangements, including the nearly 1,000-year schism between Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. But theologians see a confluence of modern forces encouraging mainline Protestants to trim their dense family tree.

Historical rivalries appear to be waning five centuries after the Reformation blazed through Christianity. Worries, meanwhile, are rising. Non-denominational, evangelical "megachurches" lure away followers, especially in the United States. Mainline leaders wonder whether their fragmented fellowship hinders attempts to remain relevant and active in a hyper-drive 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 _ which officially formed in May from the Netherlands Reformed Church, the distinct Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (which has a Calvinist tradition) and the nation's small Lutheran Church.

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 took a nosedive in postwar generations. Surveys suggest nearly 40 percent of Dutch now consider themselves agnostic or atheists. Low _ or even negative _ birthrates indicate trends that could leave even fewer worshippers in the European pews in decades to come. The flip side: Immigrant Muslim populations continue to grow.

"The churches need new ways to reach out to people," said Heetderks, whose church claims to represent about 2.5 million churchgoers, or 16 percent of the population. "It's not going to be easy and, unfortunately, time is not on our side."

Dutch Protestant church leaders have tilted 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 permit female pastors, but will not force local congregations to accept them. This, however, did not sit well with conservation factions in the three churches. At least 15,000 members refused to join the new church and have formed a breakaway group.

This strain is being felt across many congregations in many places.

Anglicans, who disagree over women clergy, now face a far worse international feud over gay priests and same-sex blessings. In June, the powerful Southern Baptist Convention _ the largest U.S. Protestant body with 16.3 million members _ voted to quit the Baptist World Alliance to protest a perceived liberal shift that included support of female pastors and "gay-friendly congregations."

"The Netherlands is just an example of what may happen in many other places," said Herman de Vireos, a professor of Dutch studies at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. "Churches are not just being drained of their followers. In many places, such as Europe, they are losing ground in highly secularized societies. This all feeds into what we call ecumenical efforts. The crass word would be 'seeking survival.'"

In Europe, attempts at Protestant unions like the Netherlands could be complicated by legal issues in countries with state assistance for churches, such as Germany and Denmark. But elsewhere they appear to be gaining momentum.

A watershed came in 1999 with the union of two churches in southern Africa _ 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, said the Rev. Tom Best, who works on ecumenical issues at the World Council of Churches in Geneva.

But 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 recognizes rites such as Communion and baptism, and negotiations continue for fully shared clergy recognition and ministry.

"Churches are seeking to solve their old theological demons," said Best. "They also realize they must bring new energy and commitment at a time when pressures are mounting."