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.

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!

A new American church for a world groaning in travail

April 8, 2013

The era in which the Consultation on Church Union began its work to remake the church and the nation

The decade of the 1950s was a moment in America when two cultural forces were coming together like tectonic plates. By the end of the decade, major systems in American life were experiencing tremors that presaged a more dramatic revolution than most people—especially those in leadership positions—could have imagined.

When the tremors came, a natural response was to hold things together until the shaking ceased and then to shore up the systems where vulnerabilities had been revealed. A more imaginative response by a few church leaders was to acknowledge that something much more substantial needed to be done. New systems able to withstand the shaking America’s institutions would have to be devised.

One of these efforts was the movement to unite nine ecumenical protestant churches at the center of American life and culture. Although the intended merger of existing denominations did not take place, the unity movement impacted American churches and culture.

As part of my research on the history of this movement—the Consultation on Church Union—I have written a description of that period when the United States was undergoing radical change. To read the essay, click New Church – World Groaning

America’s last plan for church union

March 20, 2013
COCU's Final Documents

COCU’s Final Documents

On a blustery day in early spring, I decided to stay off of my bicycle and instead complete the second draft of my current research project, which is to write a history of the last effort to develop a comprehensive plan for church union in the United States.

I am using the word last in two senses. One is that the Consultation on Church Union, as this 40-year venture was called, was last in that it was the most recent effort. The more important meaning of last is that it is unlikely that any other project of this kind is likely to be attempted during the lifetime of anyone capable of reading this blog.

It’s hard to comprehend what American church life would be like today if COCU, to use the acronym by which the Consultation was most widely known, had succeeded. Imagine a 25 million member Protestant church comprising Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist (four denominations), United Church of Christ, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and International Council of Community Churches branches Christianity!

There is much more work to do in order to complete this manuscript, which (at 400 words per page) would print out to about 175 pages). Not least of the tasks is to find a publisher (if you have ideas and influence, let me know). The detailed table of contents outlines the story line of this saga of American Protestant church life.

The American Church That Might Have Been: A History of the Consultation on Church Union, by Keith Watkins (Table of Contents of Second Draft)

Part One: Moving from Vision to Plan (1960—1970)

Chapter One: The Bold Proposal (“Jesus Christ, whom all of us confess as our divine Lord and Saviour, wills that his church be one”)             

  • A Sermon to Transform the American Church
  • Principles and Patterns for Christian Unity

Chapter Two: The Challenge to Reunion in Concrete Terms (If the churches are unwilling to give this proposal full seriousness, they are “abdicating their ecumenical responsibility”)

  • Creating the Consultation on Church Union
  • Developing the Theological Foundation for a New Church

Chapter Three: Second Thoughts on Church Union (Pressing on to become an instrument for peace and reconciliation across all boundaries of nation, race, and class)

  • A Deeper Understanding of Ministry
  • The Resurgence of Hope

Chapter Four: Principles of Church Union (“A more inclusive expression of the oneness of the Church of Christ than any of the participating churches can suppose itself alone to be” )   

  • The Principles
  • Enlarging the Enterprise

Chapter Five: Responding to Issues of Structure and Organization (“The law of man is secondary. We move today under command of the law of God”)

  • Facing Organizational Challenges
  • The Unification of Ministries
  • Bringing Things Together in a Plan of Union

Chapter Six: At Last A Plan of Union (Whatever the decision may be, the lives of all of us will be changed  and the shape of the church will have been drastically altered)

  • Following Christ to the Cross
  • The Basic Elements of the Plan
  • Deliberations and Actions

Part Two: Negotiating the Terms of Agreement (1971—1988 )

Chapter Seven: Reaching for Balance and Equilibrium (Still “the best hope for a reconciled, revitalized Christian community”)

  • Empowering the Black Churches
  • Reclaiming the Sacramental Center

Chapter Eight: Changing the Focus from Plan to Process (Consensus on theology but still searching for agreement on organization and structure)

  • Paying Attention to What the Churches Had Said
  • A Different Kind of Next Step

Chapter Nine: Moving Yet and Never Stopping (A consensus struggling to find expression)

  • Dutifully Working at the Pragmatic Task
  • Christian Unity and Racial Justice
  • Consensus Struggling to Find Expression

Chapter Ten: The COCU Consensus (“A sufficient theological basis for  covenanting acts and the uniting process”)

  • Something Like a Compass for the COCU Churches
  • Second Revision, in Two Parts
  • Adoption of the Theological Basis for Unity
  • COCU at the Turning Point

Chapter Eleven: Churches in Covenant Communion (Pledging to walk together until we are visibly united in Christ)

  • The Idea of Covenant Takes Shape
  • Liturgies for Covenanting
  • One More Time Around

Part Three: Watching the Vision Vanish Away (1989—2002)

Chapter Twelve: Churches Uniting in Christ (Like a grain of wheat, COCU falls into the ground and dies)

  • The Responses by the Churches
  • Searching for a Way Forward
  • COCU Becomes CUIC

Chapter Thirteen: Continuing the Search for Christian Unity in America (The post-COCU agenda for the nation’s ecumenical protestant churches)

  • What COCU Tried to Do
  • Why This Venture Seemed So Promising
  • Why COCU Lost Momentum
  • COCU’s Achievements
  • The Post-COCU Agenda for Ecumenical Protestant Churches in America
  • Conclusion


The American Church That Might Have Been

January 28, 2013

COCUIt’s one thing to believe, as many people do, that the denominational system of church life in the United States no longer makes sense. When Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Disciples of Christ, and United Church of Christ churches are so much alike in what they believe and how they are positioned in the nation, why should they continue as competing religious organizations?

It is quite another thing, however, to figure out a constructive way to bring them together into a new American church that is based on classic theological principles and focused on how the Christian faith can be an effective participant in the ongoing struggles of the human community.

For near a century, the primary approach to fixing this increasingly dysfunctional system was to merge denominations. Several denominations today are the result of mergers that happened in the recent past.

The most comprehensive plan to restructure American Protestant denominations would have united nine denominations into one new church, which its uniting documents entitled “The Church of Christ Uniting.” It would have had approximately 25 million members and would have penetrated every nook and cranny of our far-flung nation.

This venture was called the Consultation on Church Union (COCU for short). It was initiated by a sermon delivered on December 4, 1960, by a nationally known Presbyterian clergyman in one of the nation’s most celebrated Episcopal churches before a congregation that included important leaders from most of America’s Protestant churches.

COCU closed its work in 2002, when it folded its life into a continuing enterprise, Churches Uniting in Christ, with a somewhat broader membership but a much more modest plan for the future.

During many of COCU’s active years, I was one of my church’s representatives. I understand the issues that were being debated and continue to believe that the goals were well stated and that the resulting new church would have represented significant progress for religion and life in our generation.

In recent years, I have devoted much of my working time to writing a history of the Consultation. I have completed most of my research and have written a first draft of a book. This manuscript would print out to a book of 200 pages or more, which is longer than I would like it to be.

I am ready to begin a serious revision, which is intended to bring out the narrative line more clearly, fill in some missing detail, and tighten the prose style. It’s also time to work on matters that could lead to publication. From time to time during the next few months I will post various research briefs and other matters that I have developed during this period of work.

The first of these postings is a detailed Table on Contents that is based on the first draft. I’m using it to shape the revision, with the full recognition that in the process of doing a new draft the outline of the book will change. In time a new and revised Table of Contents will develop. In the meantime, the provisional table of contents  and provide the foundation—and perhaps the stimulus—for discussion.

Comments, questions, and recommendations will be much appreciated.

Click here to read the Contents Detailed.

Church renewal and the counter culture

January 31, 2012

From its earliest days, the Consultation on Church Union generated negative responses from radical renewalists who were convinced that America’s white churches were complicit with the systemic injustices in American society. They believed that the churches had to repent and as signs of this repentance make dramatic changes in their patterns of life. While conceding that COCU had moved with surprising speed to resolve long-standing theological issues, the renewalists, for the most part, believed that these changes were largely irrelevant to the needs of American life, were taking too long, and would result in a form of unity that embodied the continuation of oppressive systems.

Providing a voice for many of the people impatient for change was Stephen C. Rose, Presbyterian theologian, author, editor, and renewalist. During COCU’s critical period (1969, 1970, and 1971), he was a stand-by alternate for the United Presbyterian Church at COCU plenary assemblies. He came into prominence in 1967 with the publication of his book The Grass Roots Church: A Manifesto for Protestant Renewal. After serving on the staff of the venerable Community Renewal Society, a Chicago organization founded in 1882, Rose moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, the community where Jonathan Edwards lived after being deposed from his pastorate in Northampton.

There he was associated with Jonathan’s Wake, a renewal society that resurrected a name that went back to Edwards’ time. Richard L. York, an Episcopal priest with a ministry to the street people of Berkeley, California, wrote in the Submarine Church Press that Jonathan’s Wake “is evangelical, conversion centered, Pentecostal, post liberal, post-secular, remythologizing, nongenerational, inside-subversive, outside-related, Wake-Up Oriented, youth black Third World supporting, democratic, post-Protestant, post-Catholic, Non-existent Reality, nonmembership, leaderless, post-mao, post-sds, happening joysprung mobile unit.”

York announced that Jonathan’s Wake would attend the triennial assembly of the National Council of Churches in Detroit in December 1969 and put forward its own slate for election to the Council’s General Board. They would try to persuade the Council to redirect its efforts around the proposals promoted by Jonathan’s Wake. If they failed in doing this, York continued, “we shall seek to organize the minority into a movement outside the formal churches.” In March, York concluded, “Jonathan’s Wake becomes the Free Fundamentalist Delegation to COCU—the Consultation on Church Union, meeting in St. Louis. They invite all seminary students to join in confrontation of Super-Church to see that it tithes as it jives.” Read more. . . An Incarnation of the Counter

Stephen C. Rose’s current work can be followed in his blog (accessed January 31, 2012): https://stephencrose.wordpress.com/ Rose was born in 1936.

A church that trusts the past as it moves into the future

June 13, 2011

During the 1960s, one of the most widely covered stories in religion was the concerted attempt to create a comprehensive form of mainline Protestantism for the United States. Throughout the process’s creative period, the churches’ theologians were at its center because the primary focus was to address issues of ecclesial and sacramental theology that had kept the churches separated from one another for nearly 400 years.

As I reported in a recent column, some theologians registered unfavorable responses to the theological aspects of the documents that the Consultation on Church Union (COCU) published. Other theologians, however, came to strongly positive conclusions as is illustrated in a series of essays published in the Austin Seminary Bulletin: Faculty Edition (December, 1970). The entire edition was devoted to A Plan of Union for the Church of Christ Uniting.

Rather than summarizing these essays as a single document, I am highlighting ideas presented by Professor James A. Wharton. His standing among Presbyterian colleagues is indicated by the fact that he served as a member of his church’s committee to draft a new Confession of Faith and a Book of Confessions.

In his analysis of the theological affirmations of the Plan of Union, Wharton concludes that its drafters “have depended heavily upon the classical Christian formulations as these are embodied in the traditional heritages of the consulting churches. The drafters “reach back behind contemporary faith statements current in some of the consulting churches to a point at which the older traditions of some participants and the current traditions of others can be seen to derive from similar classical rootage.”

Wharton is convinced that this use of language was not a tactical ploy designed to “pacify conservative sectors among the consulting churches.” Rather, the Plan of Union is built on the principle that “the theological base, the identity-ground, of the uniting church stands in direct solidarity and continuity with the church of Jesus Christ throughout all ages.”

These ideas, Wharton suggests, had fallen out of fashion in some of the denominations and the crisis of “combining these traditions into one uniting church has compelled the drafters to look at the church again from an historical perspective to which we had grown quite unaccustomed.”

This same Plan, however, was also marked by theological openness, Wharton continues. He sees this characteristic in the stance taken toward creeds as they would be used in the united church. Classical creeds would be used persuasively, not coercively. Furthermore, the new church, “with the guidance of the Holy Spirit” would be free to develop new confessional forms in contemporary language. “The basic principle is that only after the united church has been formed and begun to share a common life will it be appropriate to undertake a new expression of the faith it holds in common.”

Wharton suggests that the Plan has refused to push the proposed new church in the direction of any of the “sectarian options currently in vogue” which would have “rendered the plan almost immediately obsolete.”

He declares that the Plan is an exercise in trust. It takes the theological traditions of the participating churches seriously, but it gives even greater support to the “judgment that the common rootage in the classic Christian tradition of all the consulting churches is a thing to be trusted and relied upon in the future theological course of the church’s life.”

Having introduced the idea of trust, Wharton carries it further and in so doing affirms the theological principle upon which any serious discussion of Christian unity ultimately depends. Here is the way he states this position:

The Plan of Union “supposes that a church constituted as the plan provides will seriously weigh its varied testimony to the classic Christian tradition in any decision or new formulation it may be called upon to make. It assumes the integrity of the consulting churches toward the theological traditions which each brings to the union. Then it assumes that the church born of the union of these churches will show equal integrity toward the broader and richer theological base which the union provides.

“But, above all it trusts. It trusts not in the everlasting adequacy of the combined traditions, and certainly not in the potential wisdom of the united church to provide more adequate traditions of its own. Basically, it trusts the Lord of the church attested in Scripture and in derivative ways in these various traditions to keep the faithful witness to him alive in a church constituted in this way.”

The variegated trust that Wharton describes broke down as the churches moved toward the time when decisions about unity had to be made. The old churches, with their levels of trust diminished even more, remain. Their members and the nation which they have been called to serve in Christ’s name still await the new church that COCU sought to engender.


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