A new kind of church for America

November 18, 2014

Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, and  several others, all mixed up in a new American church: why would you do that? Watkins-COCU

When people ask about my new book, I tell them that it describes an effort starting in 1960 to combine nine major Protestant denominations into one new church. With 25 million members, it would have been the largest Protestant church in North America.

The first response from some of my questioners is another question: “Now why would they want to do that?”

Usually there isn’t time for more than a sentence or two to explain the purpose of this serious venture that was called the Consultation on Church Union (COCU). “They believed that being divided up the way they were their churches were wasting energy and resources and were seriously distracted from their proper work, which was to make the world a better place.”

But here’s what I would tell them if we were to take time to talk about it a while.

First: Leaders of these churches were convinced that the challenges—such as the Civil Rights Movement—that were facing the nation and its people required a new, stronger witness and much more imaginative actions of justice and mercy than their divided churches could provide. They believed that by uniting they would dramatically increase their effectiveness in dealing with the new era that we were entering.

Presbyterian leader Eugene Carson Blake who launched this movement gave this reason as one of the most important purposes of the new church he was proposing. A growing number of church leaders realized that their denominations were significantly shaped by cultural and racial factors, and therefore were perpetuating divisive and unjust factors in American life. Therefore, they wanted to reshape Protestant America so that it would represent the new interracial society that was emerging.

Second: Ordinary church members in all of the denominations were increasingly post-denominational, no longer much interested in the peculiarities that kept the churches distinct from one another. They easily moved from one denomination to another and wanted their national leaders to make it easier for them to do this. James Pike, Episcopal bishop of California in whose cathedral church the sermon was preached, unilaterally had been making some of these changes in his diocese and wanted to see them take place across the nation.

Third: Blake, Pike, and many others believed that it was time to take care of the Reformation’s unfinished business. More than 400 years earlier, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Cranmer, and others had worked diligently at revising doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church of their time. They had succeeded at some of their goals but before the work had been completed, portions of the church broke away from the main body and finished their reforming efforts in their own idiosyncratic ways.

These variations of Christian faith and church life had been perpetuated long after their theological or pastoral character required. Consequently, churches and their members lived with the unfinished business of a long, long time earlier. Now was the time to finish up that work.

Fourth: It was increasingly clear that denominations—parallel church organizations spread all across the country—were organizationally dysfunctional. There were too many denominational publishing houses, too many regional executives, too many congregations in some communities and too few in others, too many coordinating committees and interdenominational councils and boards. Consolidation, simplification, and structural revision could help church leaders lead happier and more productive lives. Protestant churches would be better able to continue their close relations with other parts of the American governmental, economic, and cultural system.

One reason why I rarely give my fuller explanation is that people come up with a second question: “So what happened? Obviously these churches are still operating a separate enterprises. What successes did COCU experience? Why and how did the original vision fall short? My next COCU column will answer this question.

Read the story yourself in my new book: The American Church that Might Have Been: A History of the Consultation on Church Union (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014). To buy the book, click Wipf and Stock, the publisher and look for Keith Watkins on their list of authors. Hover over the book for the special web discounted price of $23.20.

Passion on two wheels

November 10, 2014

KrabbeHow do you respond when someone says, “Bicycling is good exercise; that must be what keeps you so slim.” Or when someone asks, “How do you occupy your mind while cycling? Don’t you get bored?”

One response is to acknowledge the comments and then change the conversation since the passion that drives hard-core cyclists is difficult to explain to those who have never experienced it. Another response is to suggest books that portray the spirit of strong, passionate cycling. Two I like are Tim Krabbé’s The Rider and Mike Magnuson’s Heft on Wheels: A Field Guide to Doing a 180. On their covers, one book is described as “a cycling classic” and the other as “so much fun you’re nearly tempted to skip your next ride and keep turning the pages.”

On the surface, these two narratives differ sharply. Krabbé is a Dutch chess player and novelist who in his youth was an amateur bicycle racer. First published in 1978 in Dutch, his book is described as a sports novel or autobiographical novel. He builds his story around a single race—the mythical Tour de Mont Aigoual in 1977. Magnuson, a novelist, essayist, and teacher of creative writing at Southern Illinois University, tells about one year of his life when he changed from being the fat man who couldn’t keep up on the group rides at Carbondale Cycle to the one who on many nights was strongest of them all.

Krabbé’s story combines a minute-by-minute account of one race with flashbacks from The Rider’s several-year history of competitive cycling. Heroes in the story include some of the great names of European cycling. In contrast, Magnuson sketches his life-long fascination with cycling and intertwines a second plot, his twenty-five years of chain-smoking, hard drinking, and Double Whoppers with cheese.

MagnusonIf there is a hero in Magnuson’s transformation, it is the Lance Armstrong who, following recovery from cancer, slogged his way up Boone Mountain in a driving rain and decided to pedal back down instead of giving up his bike and his career as a competitive cyclist. And also a man named Saki, now deceased, who was the heart and soul of Carbondale Cycle and its gang of skinny, aggressive, care-for-one-another cyclists. (On my one visit to Carbondale a few years ago, Saki befriended even me, despite the fact that I couldn’t keep up with the guys on an easy evening ride.)

The one thing about these two books that makes them alike, despite their differences, is that they reveal how the mind works when cycling is near the center of a rider’s being. No matter how brutal the body game of cycling, for Krabbé and Magnuson the mind game challenges even more. Even though it is always affected by the glucose and oxygen supplied by its bodily host, cognitive power still commands, controls, and overrides the muscles that beg for relief.   Read more…Passion on Two Wheels

A life lived with steadfast purpose and grace: a personal remembrance for All Saints Day

November 4, 2014

Remembering the life of Billie Lee Caton Watkins / July 19, 1931 — August 12, 2014

Billie Lee Caton Watkins July 19, 1931—August 12, 2014

Billie Lee Caton Watkins
July 19, 1931—August 12, 2014

Billie Lee Caton Watkins was born on July 19, 1931, in Helena, Montana, the first child of Ellen and Edgar Caton. She was christened Wilhelmina Leontine, but Billie Lee was the name her mother really wanted. The family soon moved to Portland, Oregon, and Chester, Sandra, and John enlarged the family circle. Billie Lee attended Richmond Grade School and Franklin High, becoming the first person in her family to graduate from high school. Friends invited the Catons to Central Christian Church, where Billie Lee was baptized. She was active in Camp Fire Girls and Christian Endeavor, delivered the evening Oregonian, and took violin and piano lessons.

During her senior year in high school, her pastor offered a class in New Testament Greek. Since Billie Lee planned to attend Northwest Christian College (now University) in Eugene, Oregon, she enrolled. Among the 32 students was a high school senior from another congregation, Keith Watkins. At the end of the year, only Billie Lee and Keith remained in the class. They were married after their junior year at NCC.

After graduation in 1953, Billie and Keith moved to the small farming community of Somerset, Indiana, where Keith served as student minister while attending seminary. There, Sharon and Marilyn were born. In 1956, Keith was called as pastor to the Christian Church in Sanger, California, where Michael joined the family. In 1959, the family moved to Richmond, California, 3 weeks before Carolyn’s birth. Keith was called to the faculty of Christian Theological Seminary in 1961, and the family moved to Indianapolis. Kenneth was born a year later.

Billie managed a limited household budget and encouraged the activities of her five kids, acting as car-pool mother, Girl Scout cookie chair, and library volunteer and math coach in the local public schools. At University Park Christian Church, Billie taught the kindergarten class, was a mainstay in Christian Women’s Fellowship, and sang alto in the church choir. She joined a community choir and was a founding member of a recorder ensemble that played at community gatherings, the Indianapolis Art Museum, and Governor’s Mansion.

In Indiana and later in Oregon, Billie was a leader in Church Women United and served on regional Nurture and Certification Teams that counseled seminary students preparing for ordained church leadership. She expressed her commitments to love and justice quietly but vigorously by participating in work projects and demonstrations in the communities where she lived and elsewhere in nation and world.

Upon Keith’s retirement in 1995, they moved to Sun City West, Arizona. Billie joined another recorder group, enjoyed line dancing, and participated in regional church work. She joined Keith in interim ministries in Portland and Albany, Oregon, before she and Keith settled in Vancouver, Washington, in 2002. During her decade as a member of First Christian Church in Portland, she sang in the Sanctuary Choir, served on the World Outreach Committee and as an elder, participated in the Christian Women’s Fellowship, and ministered lovingly to many.

Through all of thesBillie in Pink Blouse 2e years Billie maintained a home marked by tranquility and love. She provided an ethical barometer for her five children and nine grandchildren, recognizing the light of God in each of God’s children, and treating every person she encountered with dignity and respect and love.

Billie spent 1993 in a full series of treatments for breast cancer. Her cancer returned in 2006. Through a long series of treatments, she continued her life with steadfast purpose and grace. She died at home on August 12, 2014 in Vancouver, Washington, surrounded by family. Liturgies celebrating her life were conducted at First Christian Church in Portland and Central Christian Church in Indianapolis, with burial in Crown Hill Cemetery, close to her long-time Indianapolis home. “Buried with Christ in baptism; raised to walk in newness of life.”


The fussy side of scholarship

October 22, 2014

Frirst DraftToday I sent my publisher the draft index for The American Church that Might Have Been: A History of the Consultation on Church Union. This is, I believe, the last piece of hard work on a project that has consumed 10–15 hours a week for at least five years.

I may have to fuss with this final part of the manuscript a little more, to correct errors in formatting and to proofread the typeset pages. The Chicago Manual of Style, I realized after my index was almost complete, devotes 46 pages to its instructions on indexing and my work would have been easier if I had read the last few pages that provide a method for doing the work. Today, I am savoring the sweet taste of completion. Counting front matter (but not the index, which hasn’t been typeset yet), the book is 254 pages long.

WatkinsIt is supposed to be published before the year is out, which is important to me because 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of my receiving the Th.D. degree in church history and historical theology from Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. My Th.D. dissertation, in the typescript prescribed by the Turabian manual, is 425 pages long (without an index). My new book is probably longer by 20%.

The dissertation explores the ecclesiology of New England Puritanism, with special attention to the contributions of Increase Mather (1639–1723), who spent his entire career as a minister in what was then the preeminent church in Boston.

There is a nice symmetry in bracketing this half–century of my life with books on ecclesiology in the United States. Although the idea popped into my head only this morning, these two books separated by half a century examine periods in church history that were similar in vision and hope. Church leaders in the 17th and 20th centuries hoped to reshape the churches of their time so that they would be fully faithful to the one Church of Christ and be appropriately adapted to life in the culture of their era.

I have to admit that I’m tired of working on my new book, especially because the last phase of manuscript development deals with fussy details. Everything needs to be exactly right and I find little pleasure in dealing with these matters even though I know how important it is that the pages be accurate.

These activities have been especially burdensome because of the death earlier in the summer of my wife, Billie Lee Caton Watkins, who was my most constant proofreader. Although she rarely commented on the ideas in my manuscripts, she had an eagle eye for punctuation, spelling, and clarity of expression.

Another factor leading to fatigue is my birthday on Halloween that pushes me further into my octogenarian decade. In a comment on one of my recent postings on Facebook, a friend stated bluntly that I work too hard. Whether or not she’s right, I doubt that I will start another book with the scope of the one that I now am finishing.

I do, however, have three half-finished book manuscripts to work on, half a dozen shorter pieces that clamor for my attention, and a stack of half-read books to be finished. I feel greater zeal, however, for spending time on my bikes. If today were not so wet—perhaps the rainiest of the season so far—I’d be out there now instead of writing this blog.

Something else I need to do: figure out ways to sell this book. As soon as more information about such matters has developed, I’ll be sure to let you know where to get yours!

Singing our way to the cemetery

October 7, 2014

The Christian funeral according to Thomas G. Long: a review essay

(Continuing a series on rituals at the time of death)

Accompany Them with Singing My first funeral was one that Thomas G. Long would have approved. It took place 60 years ago in Somerset, Indiana, a village on the Mississinewa River where I was serving as pastor while doing my theological studies in Indianapolis, 75 miles to the south. The deceased was a frail old man who died shortly after a fall and broken hip. He was embalmed in the funeral home in the town of Wabash where he had died in the county hospital. His family and a few villagers whom he had known all of his life gathered at the little Christian Church for the funeral. The open casket bearing his body was at the center of the church where the communion table ordinarily focused attention. I used the order for funerals of my church, which was published in Christian Worship: A Service Book, edited by G. Edwin Osborn.

Following this simply, traditional funeral rite, most of us followed the hearse to the village cemetery, whose caretaker was a third-generation resident of the Somerset community and long-time elder of our church. There we conducted a committal service and watched the first phase of the burial. The mood of the occasion was very much like that in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard.” Although the theme was muted, the family and the larger community were joined together in a journey in which we accompanied this old man as he moved from his embodied life with us to a new form of life, reposing upon “the bosom of his Father and his God.”

Long would have approved this funeral because the traditional ritual, the immediacy of the body, the sympathetic presence of community, and the reasonably clear gospel narrative were all present in a way that was self-evident to participants and respectful of the life of the deceased. His book, Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral (Westminster John Knox, 2009), mourns the loss of such closely integrated funeral practices and scorns many of the alternatives that have become commonplace in urban American during the sixty years since I conducted that traditional liturgical journey.

One problem in our time is that cemeteries and churches are far removed from one other so that the cohesion of the journey is hard to sustain. Another is the fading away of the Christian narrative that once provided the plot line for funeral rites and the resulting personalization of ceremonies and services that mark the end of life. We now concentrate attention upon remembering the details of the deceased life rather than upon the theological narrative of how that person now moves forward from this life in our world to a new way of life with God. Long deplores funerals that are intended to be therapeutic sessions for survivors rather than occasions for worshipping God. Read more. .    Singing Our Way to the Cemetery

A new style book on old style ecumenism

October 1, 2014

Reviewing Can a Renewal Movement Be Renewed: Questions for the Future of Ecumenism, by Michael Kinnamon

A New Book on Ecumenism

A New Book on Ecumenism

At one level, the many churches around the world affirm that there is only one church, one “body of Christ.” At another level, they recognize that in practical reality there are many churches, each one of which functions as though it fully represents that one church.

Ecumenism is the attempt to solve this conflict between theological assertion and historical reality. It is the continuing effort to draw these churchly entities together into a more explicit manifestation of what they really are.

Early in the twentieth century, the desire to manifest the church’s oneness became a complex process, usually referred to as the ecumenical movement, that has been the primary expression of ecumenism for more a hundred years. Especially important among its several patterns of work were the formation of inter-church councils, church unions, study commissions to establish theological consensus, and joint efforts for evangelism and missions.

The ecumenical movement reached its highest point of activity during the decades following World War Two and then entered into a period of decline. The senior editor of a major publisher stated the current situation clearly when he acknowledged his company’s probable lack of interest in a manuscript that I was doing on the Consultation on Church Union: “Nobody’s interested in old-style ecumenism any more.”

Despite this alleged lack of popular interest, Michael Kinnamon has successfully published a new book (with this same publisher) in which he interprets the current state of affairs in the ecumenical movement, analyzes new patterns that ecumenism is taking, and explains why this movement continues to be important.

He is well qualified to write this kind of book, having spent his professional life dealing with ecumenism: in his formal academic training, as a staff member of the World Council of Churches in Geneva, as a highly skilled participant in ecumenical conferences and ventures around the world, and in academic posts in four U.S. seminaries, Prior to assuming his current position at Seattle University, Kinnamon was general secretary of the National Council of Churches.

Through these many years Kinnamon has engaged in this work because, “like many others, I long for a church better than the one I see around us.” Read more…… Kinnamon-Renewal Movement

Born to run (and ride): what cyclists can learn from runners

September 29, 2014

Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall ((New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010)

Born to Run

Born to Run

Although I am a cyclist not a runner (my running experience was mostly high school cross country), I occasionally read books by runners. Belatedly, I’ve been reading Born to Run, a best seller, out since 2010, and it’s giving me much to think about!

Why does my foot hurt when I run? This was the question that pushed Christopher McDougall to write this book. Is it because human beings aren’t built to run? Or because we do it wrong? Or because running is fine for a while but we inevitably wear out or hurt ourselves and have to stop. He could not be satisfied with these conclusions, however, because there were anomalies that kept bothering him.

One was that new developments in sports medicine and running equipment were not improving the well-being and performance of runners but instead seemed to be making things worse. McDougall was attracted to evidence in the evolutionary history of human anatomy that the ability to run was one of the characteristics that distinguished our kind of hominids from others and gave us a decided edge over other species. It didn’t seem reasonable that one of our initial advantages should in these later years become a sore point in our physical ability.

Perhaps most unsettling was the fact that a few people, including an obscure tribe in an almost impenetrable canyon in Mexico, could still run even to the point of running down wild game. Added to their number were a few people in recent American life who ran for the sheer joy of running, people who didn’t know the rules now laid down for proper running, who had no special shoes or other equipment, whose training was erratic and eccentric, but who could run fast and set records that even a generation later are hard to equal.

Determined to find an answer to the immediate question about his sore foot and to the broader question of how running fits into the history of humankind, McDougall pressed forward. He talked with other runners, consulted doctors and therapists, read studies and other reports, and interviewed people who designed and marketed fancy shoes, orthotics, and other equipment designed to help people run longer, faster, and safer. Summaries of these investigations make up much of his book, but McDougall presents them in a circuitous manner.

His career as war correspondent and writer for magazines like The New York Times Magazine and Esquire taught him to write separate pieces that related to his search. He links them together loosely rather than in systematic, academic fashion, piece by piece drawing readers more fully into the exploration. The plot line to McDougall’s book consists of two intertwined stories that are named in the book’s subtitle: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.

The hidden tribe of exceptional runners is the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico’s Copper Canyon who have preserved the ability to run that McDougall believes to be inherent in humankind but largely forgotten by everyone. In addition, there are a few people, especially a man known as Caballo Blanco—the White Cowboy—from conventional society who have slipped out of the patterns now practiced as the norm in order to recover distinctive features of the Tarahumara way of life.

The “greatest race” is one that McDougall, Caballo, and a few others were able to create in the Canyon, a race that pitted marathoners from developed societies against Tarahumara runners. McDougall constructs an adventure story that keeps people reading, and in the process he also answers some of his questions. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that he provides a body of narrative and conjecture and invites readers to infer answers.

My inferences can be stated briefly. Running was one of the unique and distinguishing evolutionary developments that helped our kind of hominids become what we are. While the capability of running was inherent in the anatomy, it was combined with social factors that helped to maintain groups of human beings who worked (and ran) together in order to gather and catch food and do everything else that people do. Running is a natural capacity that people love to do and learn to do by being with others who run.

In most societies we gradually adopt habits and attitudes that discourage us from running and we forget how to do it. When we try to do it again, we develop practices and attitudes that are potentially injury-causing. In order to run the way that we were born to do, we have to unlearn some of our later practices and recover another way to run, a way more like that of the Tarahumara in Mexico and Bushmen in Southern Africa. If there’s a rule on how to run this way, Caballo defined it: “Think Easy, Light, Smooth, and Fast” (111).

Now I have a question: Why does my left leg hurt when I do long rides? With McDougall as my guide, I’m looking for an answer.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 381 other followers