RICHMOND -- The Roman Catholic Diocese of Richmond, long involved in innovative ecumenical ventures, has joined the Virginia Council of Churches, which includes 14 Protestant and Orthodox denominations.

Although the Catholic diocese has cooperated for years in most of the council's activities, it was only recently "that we felt this is the time to become a member," said Bishop Walter F. Sullivan.

The 141,000-member diocese was voted into membership Oct. 16 and will be officially welcomed by the council's annual assembly Thursday at Fifth Baptist Church here.

The action leaves only one other mainline body in the state not a member of the organization. The Virginia Baptist General Association has not joined, citing its congregational nature as preventing it from speaking for individual congregations.

According to the National Council of Churches, the Richmond diocese is the 75th Catholic diocese or archdiocese to join a state council of churches.

Though his diocese was not a member of the council, Bishop Sullivan played a role in establishing a joint Catholic-Episcopal parish in Virginia Beach, intermarriage agreements with Southern Baptists and an upcoming covenant with Lutheran and Episcopal leaders for joint ministries at the parish level.

The diocese also has worked with the council in other areas, most notably campus ministry, Christian education programs, social action and legislative lobbying.

"The diocese is not a stranger to the council," said the Rev. James McDonald, general minister of the council. "Both Bishop Sullivan and the diocese have long been important players on the ecumenical scene."

The official announcement of membership was scheduled for last Sunday, Reformation Sunday, a day on the Protestant liturgical calendar that recalls the 15th century revolt by Protestants against the Catholic Church.

In a statement prepared for that day, Bishop Sullivan said, "We chose Reformation Sunday to announce our decision because this Sunday reminds us that we are called to be a renewed people. Although divisions exist within the Christian community, we share a common vision for greater unity and collaboration in ministry. We hope this decision to join the Virginia Council of Churches can continue the reconciliation which has been called for by Vatican II."