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.


“A Proposal Toward the Reunion of Christ’s Church”

January 18, 2011

The sermon that Eugene Carson Blake, preached at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on December 4, 1960, is one of the great sermons of the twentieth century. Following the proclamation, James A. Pike, host pastor, declared: “His prophetic proclamation is the most sound and inspiring proposal for the unity of the Church in this country which has ever been made.”

Somewhat calmer was the assessment by Robert McAfee Brown two years later: “After much general talk for decades at high levels and low about ‘the imperative to unity,’ a responsible church leader has finally put the challenge to reunion in concrete terms. Unwillingness to examine the Blake proposal with full seriousness would be an abdication of ecumenical responsibility, and one more tragic indication that Christians are more proficient at mouthing their convictions than in acting upon them” (The Challenge to Reunion, 1963, p. 17).

Since this sermon is of such importance, I have been surprised that the actual text is not easily obtained online. To remedy this situation, I have prepared an edition and hereby make it available to all who are interested in bridging the chasms that divide Christians from one another and impede us from being fully faithful to the church’s mission in the world.

The sermon was preached prior to the triennial assembly of the National Council of Churches that was soon to meet in San Francisco. It was widely covered by the press, both religious and secular. Soon thereafter representatives of four churches that embraced the broad middle of American Protestantism (Presbyterian, Episcopal, Methodist, and United Church of Christ) formed the Consultation on Church Union (COCU). Their purpose was to establish a reunited church that would be fully evangelical, fully catholic, and fully reformed.

Although this prophetic venture fell short of its goal, the impact upon American church life and upon American culture was profound. These documents deserve to be studied with great care. In God’s good providence, the time may yet come when this vision comes to pass.

The title to Blake’s sermon is: “A Proposal toward the Reunion of Christ’s Church.” He included a quotation from a statement by thirty-four leaders of  Reformed and Presbyterian Churches on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the Calvinist Reformation. Pike’s response consisted largely of quotations from a statement by Anglican bishops attending the Lambeth Conference of 1958.

The full text of sermon and response are filed in  the section of this website entitled Writings on Religion.

The image, which shows the interior of Grace Cathedral at the present time, comes from the website of Grace Cathedral.


A Sermon to Transform the American Church

December 6, 2010

In the 1950s two preachers commanded national attention because of their advocacy, in the name of the Gospel, of theological, cultural, political, and societal issues that challenged conventional American attitudes. In anticipation of a national gathering of church leaders in his city, one of them, James A. Pike bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California, invited the other, Presbyterian Eugene Carson Blake, to preach during the Holy Eucharist at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. In an earlier column, I  state why this sermon (preached fifty years ago, December 4, 1960) was so important. In this column I provide excerpts from the sermon.

The Proposal: “Led, I pray by the Holy Spirit, I propose to the Protestant Episcopal Church that it together with the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America invite the Methodist Church and the United Church of Christ to form with us a plan of union both catholic and reformed on the basis of principles I shall later in this sermon suggest. Any other churches which find they can accept both the principles and the plan would also be warmly invited to unite with us.”

Why Union? “I am moved by the conviction that Jesus Christ, whom all of us confess as our divine Lord and Saviour, wills that his church be one. This does not mean that his church must be uniform, authoritarian, or a single mammoth organization. But it does mean that our separate organizations, however much we sincerely try to cooperate in councils, present a tragically divided church to a tragically divided world.”

“Never before have so many Americans agreed that the Christian churches, divided as they are, cannot be trusted to bring to the American people an objective and authentic word of God on a political issue. Americans more than ever see the churches of Jesus Christ as competing social groups pulling and hauling, propagandizing and pressuring for their own organizational advantages.”

Principles: “Let me begin by re-emphasizing the requirement that a reunited church must be both reformed and catholic. If at this time we are to begin to bridge over the chasm of the Reformation, those of us who are of the Reformation tradition must recapture an appreciation of all that has been preserved by the catholic parts of the church; and equally those of the catholic tradition must be willing to accept and take to themselves as of God all that nearly five hundred years of Reformation has contributed to the renewal of the church.”

Cutting the Gordian Knot: “I propose that, without adopting any particular theology of historical succession, the reunited church shall provide at its inception for the consecration of all its bishops by bishops and presbyters both in the apostolic succession and out of it from all over the world, from all Christian churches which would authorize or permit them to take part.”

“I mention first this principle of visible and historical continuity not because it is necessarily the most important to the catholic Christian but because it is the only basis on which a broad reunion can take place, and because it is and will continue to be the most difficult catholic conviction for evangelicals to understand and to accept. My proposal is simply to cut the Gordian knot of hundreds of years of controversy by establishing in the united church an historic ministry recognized by all without doubt or scruple. The necessary safeguards and controls of such a ministry will become clear when I am listing the principles of reunion that catholic-minded Christians must grant to evangelicals if there is to be reunion between them.”

Worship: “In worship there is great value in a commonly used, loved, and recognized liturgy. But such liturgy ought not to be imposed by authority or to be made binding upon the Holy Spirit or the congregations. More and more it would be our hope that in such a church, as is here proposed, there would be developed common ways of worship both historical and freshly inspired. But history proves too well that imposed liturgy like imposed formulation of doctrine often destroys the very unity it is designed to strengthen.”

Notes: In my search for an online publication of this sermon, I have found only one, a “full text of the sermon,” that was printed twenty-five years later in “The Ecumenical Review” 38/2 (April 1986), 140-148. Copyright restrictions do not allow me to post this document, but I will continue my efforts to find a copy that can be posted. The photo owned by Presbyterian Historical Society is published in “Eugene Carson Blake” by R. Douglas Brackenridge.


An American Church That Might Have Been

October 18, 2010

On Sunday December 4, 1960, a sermon preached in San Francisco seized the imagination of people across the United States and much of the English-speaking world. Two of the highest profile Christian leaders in the nation—Eugene Carson Blake, Stated Clerk of the United Presbyterian Church, and James A. Pike, widely-known Episcopal bishop—conducted worship at Grace Episcopal Cathedral high atop Nob Hill. As bishop of the Diocese of San Francisco, Pike  was host pastor, and Blake was guest preacher.

Among the worshipers who crowded into this very large church that Sunday were delegates to the triennial assembly of the National Council of Churches, which was about to begin in that city. It is hard to imagine any gathering at that time that would have brought together such an impressive array of the nation’s Christian leaders.

Blake’s sermon was the catalytic agent for a long period of significant ecumenical development. He declared that the time had come for churches to take decisive steps to move out of their divided way of life and become one church that could more fully manifest the gospel and serve the needs of the people of their land.

His specific proposal was that his Presbyterian Church and Pike’s Episcopal Church invite the Methodist Church and the United Church of Christ to join them in creating a new church that would be recognized globally as fully Catholic and fully Reformed. Already, these churches were sufficiently agreed, Blake declared, in faith, worship, and other central issues that they could achieve this long-sought but often-frustrated goal.

Representatives of these churches soon established a process called the Consultation on Church Union (often referred to by its acronym COCU) and extended an invitation for others to join them. At the high point, nine American denominations were full participants in COCU and several others were active observers. This union movement continued to function until 2002 when it was reconstituted as CUIC—Churches Uniting in Christ.

By the end of its first decade, the COCU churches realized that the goals so clearly stated at its origin were more challenging than had been realized in the early years. The creation of a new kind of church at the center of American life was not realized at a time when such achievements seemed both possible and desirable. Half a century after that Sunday in Grace Cathedral, the kind of union then hoped for seems even less attainable.

COCU deserves remembering for three reasons: 1) It represented the culmination of a period of time, starting in the crisis between the two world wars, when many people believed that civilization was threatened and that a united church might have been the only power capable of saving the civilized world of the time.

2) It was the American version of a process that had been widely successful in countries around the world, especially in South India, to overcome the historic divisions in the church that had prevented Christians from worshiping freely in one another’s churches.

3) It responded creatively to previously ignored challenges in American life, such as racism, and in this regard became what may have been the most prophetic of all unity movements in the twentieth century.

I was a doctoral student at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley on that important Sunday. Although I was not in the cathedral congregation to hear the sermon and response, I immediately was captured by the vision. My career as seminary professor began a few months later and during most of my years as scholar and church leader, I represented my church on COCU’s commission on worship.

From time to time, I intend to post columns about the Consultation on Church Union in the hope that they can keep alive the memory of a movement that had a profound influence on churches in North America and around the world. The first of these, an anniversary edition of “An Order of Worship,” will be posted next week. The subtitle of this posting is “The COCU Liturgy of 1968: A Model for Christian Celebration.”

Note: The image below pictures the 1989 Disciples COCU delegation. KeithWatkinsHistorian is third from left in front row.



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