Though it was not specifically on their agenda, the roomful of men and women assembled in a modest Silver Spring motel this week were engaged in nothing less than changing the face of Christianity in this country, if not the world.
These people were not plotters or power brokers. Most were theologians who had gathered for their semiannual consultation on faith and order.
Faith and order is the specialized area of study which, though only a few decades old, is laying the foundation for mending centuries-old rifts in Christianity. By seeking out and emphasizing those areas of doctrine on which diverse groups of Christians can agree, it has provided the foundation for the ecumenical movement and a number of projected church mergers.
"We are committed to the ecumenical movement," said Bishop James R. Crumley Jr. of the Lutheran Church in America.
Crumley pledged continuing support for the search for church unity because "we are convinced that God through the Holy Spirit is urging us onward to an even greater day for the churches as they confess their faith together and give a more dynamic witness in and to the world in this historical moment."
The consultation here is a part of the work of the National Council of Churches (NCC). But it is one of the hallmarks of the faith-and-order movement that participants in those discussions include representatives of churches that are not members of the NCC. The group ranged from Roman Catholic to Church of God, from Southern Baptist to the predominantly gay Metropolitan Community Churches, as well as the mainline Protestant denominations within the NCC.
The central task of the faith-and-order movement is to examine the theological beliefs of the churches that profess Christianity, through dialogue among spokespersons for those churches.
The questions examined deal with those issues that, in the history of Christendom, have split churches. Some of those questions are: Is the eucharistic bread and wine actually transformed into Christ's body and blood, or does your church view holy communion as a commemoration of His sacrifice? How does one baptize, by sprinkling or total immersion, children or adults, and what are the prerequisites? What is the role of a minister, and how is he or she ordained?
In asking and answering questions such as these, churches of different backgrounds discover what divides them and, more important, what they have in common. One of the most impressive breakthroughs of the faith-and-order movement is the development of a document of concensus on "Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry."
The document was hammered out two years ago by a conclave of more than 100 theologians meeting in Lima, Peru. It reflects the agreement on these three essentials of Christianity by major Christian traditions: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed, United, Disciples, Adventist and Pentecostal.
The concensus document is being studied widely by churches around the world.
The areas of agreement reflected in the "eucharist" portion have been translated into a liturgy for holy communion that has been widely used, particularly in ecumenical situations.
The faith-and-order movement has given rise to a host of dialogues between two branches of the Christian faith -- "bilaterals," in the jargon of the movement. There are approximately 60 such discussions going on worldwide, leaders of the movement said here this week.
Not surprisingly, a number of them involve Roman Catholics. "Through the bilateral dialogues, but not limited to them, the Roman Catholic Church has joined the ecumenical movement," said the Rev. Dr. Gunther Gassmann, a German churchman who heads the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches.
"This in itself constitutes an unparalleled, quantitative and qualitative extension of this movement," Gassmann said.
In his keynote address to the gathering, Gassmann reminded the church leaders here that the dialogues are "not aiming at expressing something completely new."
Rather, he said, "the aim is to express the apostolic faith of the church in continuity with its roots and transmission in history" by "reconciling the diverse expressions of faith in such a way that they can serve as contemporary expressions of faith and practice in a church fellowship which incorporates and celebrates a rich heritage and is oriented towards witness and service."
Some veterans of the faith-and-order movement here, however, pressed for a wider agenda in the dialogues. The Rev. David Bowman, a Jesuit who served on the staff of the Protestant NCC for a decade, wondered why, for example, "there is no consideration of ethics in these dialogues."
"I would to God they would take up the abortion issue," Bowman said, adding, "If they had done so 10 years ago, I don't think the Roman Catholic Church would be in the situation it is in today."