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The Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick is the stated clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC).
Last week, he joined more than 240 other key Christian leaders at the Global Christian Forum (GCF) to discuss the future of worldwide Christian unity.
U.K.-based Christian Today, a partner of Christian Post International, caught up with Kirkpatrick to find out what he thinks about the prospects for unity within the global body of Christ and what role he sees WARC playing.
CT: There seemed to be a consensus at the GCF that barriers and stereotypes were broken down as a result of the meetings and fellowship. Would you agree with that?
Kirkpatrick: Yes, absolutely. We all came here with hopes but I think that not many of us came with the expectation that there would be a genuine yearning and looking forward to a greater unity in Christ across so many lines and divisions. We have not always spoken well of one another and lived well together. I think it’s really been a gift of the Holy Spirit.
CT: So you are very positive toward the Global Christian Forum as a tool for building unity among Christian denominations and traditions?
Kirkpatrick: Yes, I am. How exactly it will be shaped in the future I don’t think anyone really knows. I think the decision was right not to try to build a big structure but at the same time not to disband it, but rather keep it going, encourage it nationally and regionally and realize we’ve got to do this again. And I think in 10 years time it’s going to take some organizational shape that we never even anticipated.
CT: How do you see WARC fitting in with the GCF and the wider ecumenical movement?
Kirkpatrick: WARC has a unique role as a Christian world communion and although there is different terminology between the ecumenical world and evangelical world, their support, encouragement and the connection of the churches is one important stream that ought to continue.
My guess is that the gift of moving forward will not be identified with a particular organization. The world communions are important but so are the umbrella groups like the World Evangelical Alliance and the World Council of Churches. Perhaps they may be the ones who ought to take even greater leadership in the future.
CT: So you are quite happy that WARC was able to play a supporting role in the future?
CT: What prompted your decision to recently unite with the Reformed Ecumenical Council (REC)?
Kirkpatrick: We’ve been working closer and closer together and two years ago we were setting up a committee to draw up plans of cooperation and the WARC executive committee said ‘well maybe God is calling us to cooperate and we ought to be one.’ And we had a meeting, and it was one of those things where again we came with relatively low expectations. Yet, they also had a sense that God was calling us to be one and it was really a miracle of the Holy Spirit.
The conversation was interesting. The people from REC were saying they had been bounded to a deep commitment to historic foreign confessions out of an evangelical orientation and a passion for the Scriptures and for world mission. As they became a church primarily of the Global South, however, they realized there was no way to be faithful to Scripture and those confessions without being a movement with a deep passion for justice in the world.
At the same time, WARC had just come out of the General Council with a passion for justice and the economy of the earth. And a passion for justice and the economy of the earth calls us back to our spiritual roots in the Bible, in our confessions, and we realized God had brought us to the same place.
There was, from then on, no point talking about structures of cooperation. We really ought to be one. We’ve had pretty much unanimity from our churches to move forward on this and it will take place at the General Council in the summer of 2010.
CT: Have you finalized the name of this new body yet?
Kirkpatrick: Yes, we have. Subject to the Reformed Ecumenical Council agreeing, which they are likely to do, the name being proposed at this stage is the World Communion of Reformed Churches. It should be official by January.
CT: I think some people really lament your passing from the PCUSA and fear that it won’t hold together too well after your departure. What impact do you think your leaving is going to have on the U.S. church body?
Kirkpatrick: Well, my not staying is due to a number of issues. There is of course the natural leadership cycle and I’m getting to the age where there is an expectation that one does three terms.
But I have also been trying to spend a huge amount of time on issues of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. and the World Alliance and I have at least two more years with the Alliance.
But I think the commitment of the PCUSA to the ecumenical movement and the worldwide reformed movement is strong. I do not sense any major movement that would shift that. Like a lot of mainline churches, we have got major financial problems and in the midst of all the things that we are argue about there is no serious debate in the PCUSA about whether we should be reaching out to global Christian forums or world reformed communions or world national council of churches and I anticipate that commitment will remain strong.