By Douglas A. Foster
Two hundred years ago next year, Thomas Campbell wrote in a foundational document of the Stone-Campbell Movement, the Declaration and Address, “that the church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one. . . .” “Division among Christians is a horrid evil, fraught with many evils,” he added, and said that Christians “are . . . bound to love each other as brethren, even as Christ has loved them.” In that document, Campbell called the Lord’s Supper “that great ordinance of unity and love.”
One hundred years ago next year, a great Centennial Convention was held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to commemorate the writing of the Declaration and Address as a founding document embodying the call for the unity of all Christians. Yet by 1909 the work of the spirit of this world had divided this unity movement once, and was beginning to do it again.
On the final Sunday of that convention, a “Great Communion” service was held at Forbes Field with 25,000 partaking of “that great ordinance of unity and love.” Yet many who could have been there, weren’t. That very year the U.S. Department of the Census published 1906 data in the Census of Religious Bodies that listed Churches of Christ separately from Disciples of Christ. And Standard Publishing sharply opposed the inclusion of H. L. Willett on the program of the Centennial Convention and in the book of sermons from it.
Next year, 2009, marks the bicentennial of the call for unity in Campbell’s Declaration and Address and the centennial of the “Great Communion” at the Centennial Convention. The spirit of Christ—the spirit of unity—has been at work in this divided movement in remarkable ways in the past decades. Examples include the National Unity Meetings led by James DeForest Murch and Claude F. Witty in 1937, college unity forums since then, the Restoration Forums, the Stone-Campbell Dialogue, and the World Convention.
In these and many other venues, sisters and brothers in Christ from our heritage have come together in ways appropriate to each context to find mutual understanding, reconciliation, and ways to reflect in a visible way the unity of Christ’s church. He has created this unity in the one body, but we have failed to recognize and embody it.
About five years ago conversations began among members of the Stone-Campbell Dialogue and the board of the Disciples of Christ Historical Society about ways to acknowledge the bicentennial of the Declaration and Address. A 2009 Task Force with members from all the North American streams of the movement was assembled, and under the sponsorship of the DCHS met several times over the last four years. In the discussions it became clear that one large gathering like that of 1909 was not feasible.
So a plan was made to encourage followers of Christ from all the streams of the Stone-Campbell Movement globally to come together with one another in their own neighborhoods, villages, towns, and cities to share in another Great Communion—one that will happen in thousands of places around the world. A book has been published by members of the Task Force and others titled One Church. A Web site, www.greatcommunion.org, has been created with scores of resources on how to participate in this event of unity and love.
Consider what makes us one. It isn’t our work or intellectual prowess, but the sacrifice of Christ that embodies the grace of God.
We encourage you, as members of the Stone-Campbell heritage, to participate in “that great ordinance of unity and love” on Great Communion Sunday, October 4, 2009.
Doug Foster is director of the Center for Restoration Studies at Abilene (Texas) Christian University and chairman of the 2009 Task Force.
Task Force Members
Glenn Thomas Carson, president, Disciples of Christ Historical Society
Robert Welsh, president, Council on Christian Unity
Charles Gaines, former vice moderator of CC(DOC)
Diane Spleth, Disciples minister, Indiana
Dara Cobb, Disciples minister, North Carolina
Jeff Weston, general secretary, World Convention
Clinton Holloway, World Convention
Mark Taylor, editor, CHRISTIAN STANDARD
Doug Foster, historian, Abilene Christian University
Victor Knowles, publisher One Body magazine
Greg Taylor, managing editor, www.wineskins.org
Jerry Taylor, Abilene Christian University
Irie Session, Disciples minister, Texas
Patricia Magness, Milligan College
Joy McMillon, The Christian Chronicle
Wye Huxford, European Evangelistic Society