Two branches - one black, one white - of the 204-year-old Cumberland Presbyterian Church are pondering reunification in Chattanooga this week.
It's not expected that actual reunification will happen during the national denominations' concurrent General Assembly at the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel, but it's exciting the Scenic City is where the two denominations are worshiping together and talking about a possible future merger.
"We feel there is no reason for us to be separated because God calls us together," said the Rev. Forrest Prosser, pastor emeritus of Red Bank Cumberland Presbyterian Church and moderator for the Cumberland Presbyterian Church for the past year. "We have the same basic history, confession of faith, same system of government, same name. It doesn't seem right to stay as separate denominations when we should be working together."
The largely black Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America (which now has 113 congregations) split from what is now the largely white -- and much larger (800 congregations) -- Cumberland Presbyterian Church less than 10 years after the end of the Civil War, actually remaining together longer than some denominations following the end of the conflict that saw master separated from slave. The new name for the potential unified church is the United Cumberland Presbyterian Church.
Reunification has been attempted before, most recently about 15 years ago, according to Prosser. The process reached the level of votes in the individual General Assemblies, he said. However, while the Cumberland Presbyterian Church voted for reuniting, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America did not.
The analysis was that the effort was too top-down led, he said. "So many local pastors were afraid," he said. "[The CPC] is so much larger. The CPCA feared that they'd get swallowed up."
Prosser said the effort has been different this time around, with emphasis being put on the presbyteries (regional governing bodies) and the local churches.
"A lot of good things have happened this time that did not happen the time before," he said.
Since the last reunification try, the denominations have had individual services together and their Christian education committees have met together, Prosser said. Meanwhile, a unification committee began meeting last September and has continued to meet.
As moderator, which is essentially head of the church, he said he has been pushing "the myths of unification" and oversaw the dissemination of a reunification survey, which "came out fairly positive on both sides. There are always problems, but right now it's working good. I'm kind of upbeat about it."
In Chattanooga this week, the concurrent General Assemblies are being jointly hosted by the Hiawassee Presbytery (CPCA) and Tennessee-Georgia Presbytery (CPC), whose areas overlap.
According to minutes of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, the report of the Unification Task Force suggests a plan of union be readied for a vote by the General Assemblies in 2016, and, if approved, sent to the various presbyteries for ratification in late 2016 and early 2017. If ratified, both General Assemblies will vote on revised bylaws and standing rules in 2017 and plan a celebration of the United Cumberland Presbyterian Church in 2018.
"We're still at the dating stage," said Prosser. "We're trying to focus in on the grassroots situation. My sense is it'll happen. You can't be sure about anything. But we're still in the getting to know each other stage."
"Many in both churches believe that the time for reunification has now fully come," said the Rev. Cliff Hudson, moderator of the Tennessee-Georgia Presbytery. "Change is scary, but change is an opportunity to do better ministry together."