That long, zigzag road of trying to achieve greater unity among a big swath of American Protestantism has passed another milestone.

It no longer intends structural merger, but nevertheless aims at functional cohesion.This time, "I think it's going to fly," says the Rev. David W. A. Taylor of Princeton, N.J., general secretary of the Consultation on Church Union. "After 26 years of work, we've now got a plan before the churches."

The plan was recommended unanimously at a meeting early this month in New Orleans of the consultation, involving about 200 representatives of nine denominations totalling more than 22 million members.

It is termed "covenanting" and envisages mutual recognition by the denominations of one another's baptism, membership and clergy, allowing intercommunion and joint ministry, mission and service.

"What we have been seeking since the beginning is not uniformity but unity in things that really matter, like membership and ministry and mission," said the Rev. George H. Pike of Louisville, Ky., a Presbyterian.

However, the consultation recommended a plan of structural union in 1970, but that was soon dropped after it ran into widespread denominational opposition.

The setback followed eight years of work by the consultation, which was launched in 1962 after the late Presbyterian leader Eugene Carson Blake urged a unified church that was Catholic, reformed and evangelical.

The nine denominations participating in it are the United Methodist, Episcopal and Presbyterian churches, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), United Church of Christ, International Council of Community Churches and three predominantly black Methodist denominations.