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.

When it comes to Christian unity, some theologians say no

May 16, 2011

When Protestant leaders were developing plans for a new form of the church for twentieth-century America, some of the most supportive participants were theologians in the several churches. Other members of the academic community, however, opposed the venture. Some of these negative responses were prompted by the publication in 1967 of Principles of Church Union, a slender volume outlining the new church as it might be.

Almost immediately Episcopal theologian John Macquarrie invited a group of professors to provide their assessment of COCU’s Principles. He published their ideas in a 64-page booklet with the title Realistic Reflections on Church Union.

The 64-page, small-format volume contains brief papers by seven scholars. Three were on the faculty of Union Theological Seminary in New York (Macquarrie, Reginald H. Fuller, and Paul L. Lehman). Four were Episcopalians (Macquarrie, Fuller, Walter C. Klien, and John Knox), and another was a member of the Church of England (Eric L. Mascall). One was Roman Catholic (John A. Hardon) and another was Presbyterian (Lehman).

Macquarrie notes that all of the participating scholars agreed on two points: that the COCU process should be slowed down and that it was inappropriate at that time to move forward toward “organic union.” He identified three reasons for slowing the process: 1) Despite certain positive characteristics of the recently published Principles of Church Union, the document did not provide an adequate foundation for building a church that would be truly catholic and reformed. 2) Even if the principles could be improved, the union of these ten churches would be a setback to genuine Christian unity. 3) The very idea of “organic union” was old-fashioned.

Reginald H. Fuller noted that Episcopalians held two principles as they worked for unity. First, they always looked three ways: toward Rome, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. Second, they used the four points of the Lambeth Quadrilateral as criteria. He believed that the Quadrilateral’s points were treated positively, although inadequately, in the Principles, but that the three-fold interest in unity possibilities would be significantly compromised by COCU.

One objection was that the Principles fell short with respect to matters that were important to catholic Christians (among them the sacerdotal character of the ministry, especially of bishops, and the sacramental nature of baptism and eucharist).

Macquarrie’s band were unwilling to accept the COCU proposal for solving some long-time disagreements, which was that the united churches would accept certain structures and systems as necessary for the life of the united church (the office of bishop, for example) but would not insist on any one theological explanation for that structure or system. Two writers mentioned that if Lutherans had also been participants in the process, doctrine would not so easily have been underplayed. Because of their confessional character, Lutherans would have insisted that the Principles deal more fully with ecclesiological issues.

Some of the contributors expressed their disagreement with the intention that the new church be evangelical. One writer saw this emphasis as a veiled way to insisting that the Word would be dominant in the new church. Another feared that the evangelical emphasis provided a way to preserve the two major “aberrations” in Protestant theology: liberalism and pietism.

The harshest rejection was offered by Paul L. Lehmann, a Presbyterian professor of systematic theology at Union Seminary. Historically, the experience of the church had been that the emphasis upon structural union leads to the church’s disobedience. Procedurally, this proposal was a top down approach to unity and failed to involve the grass roots members of the church. Ethically, the proposed union failed because it focused attention upon the church’s own life when it ought to be focusing their attention upon the world that was “riven by war and injustice and driven by powers” that were threatening humankind. “What would it profit, if through COCU, the Church gained her life and lost her soul?”

These scholars represented a three-fold point of view concerning unity movements that has been held by many people then and now: 1) Christian unity is to be highly valued, but it can only be affirmed when it leaves the ideas and practices of one’s own tradition exactly as they currently exist. 2) Even when viewed in the most charitable way possible, efforts like COCU are trying to create a new church that is built on unacceptable principles that would contribute little of value to the church’s own life or to the life of the world. 3) The leaders of COCU and similar ventures probably mean well, but they are wrong and if they have their way the possibilities for more genuine unity would be obstructed.

When leading scholars of the church hold this view, how would it be possible for church executives to work effectively for Christian unity? Other scholars, however, responded to COCU’s Principles more favorably. More about them next time.

Reuniting the church so that civilization can be saved

January 31, 2011

Half a century after the Consultation on Church Union began, it is difficult to understand the sense of urgency that fired the movement during its early years. Eugene Carson Blake, the Presbyterian leader who launched the effort, can help us understand. During his formative years, he had read deeply in theological literature inspired by two crisis-oriented theological conferences held in Oxford and Edinburgh during the summer of 1937. Although Blake may not had have read Five Minutes to Twelve by Swiss theologian, Adolph Keller, he encountered similar ideas in the journal Christendom and in J. H. Oldham’s Christian Newsletter (Brackenridge, 107).

Christian leaders around the world recognized that the Great War that had been waged during Blake’ adolescent years had not solved the problems of the world. It had given way to the Great Depression and to the rise of new political powers that were struggling for mastery of the world: Fascism, Communism, and the “constructive idealism of which the League of Nations may be called the most conspicuous example” (Keller, 37).

Church leaders were convinced that only a united church shaped by the gospel and empowered by the Holy Spirit could be effective in the world that was coming to be. During World War II and the post war revival of religion, Blake was pastor of the 4,500-member Pasadena Presbyterian Church. Turning away from the traditionally conservative religious ethos of his boyhood years and the liberal theology that had taken its place, Blake was drawn to the neo-orthodox theology and activist approach of Reinhold Niebuhr, the theologian whose stern visage had been portrayed on the cover of Time during Blake’s Pasadena years (March 8, 1948).

Niebuhr provided a model for a theology that was seriously scriptural, consonant with the intellectual tradition of western culture, and actively engaged in the political, economic, and cultural struggles of the society. (For a description of Blake’s neo-orthodoxy and acknowledged dependence upon Reinhold Niebuhr, see Brackenridge, 37-40.)

The persistence of this mood into Blake’s COCU years are manifest in a series of sermons that he and Martin Niemöller delivered in Philadelphia during Lent 1965. During World War I, Niemöller had served in the German navy. Later he had become a Lutheran pastor, aligning himself with the Confessing Church, and endured eight years in a concentration camp. He was one of the presidents of the World Council of Churches, where he and Blake had become strong friends.

The Lenten series took place at The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) on Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia. In his sermon on the opening evening, Blake declared that the word that God had spoken to the churches in the book of Revelation was being repeated in their own time. They are “threatened with apostasy in forms caused sometimes by their ancient traditions and their rootage in separate and limited cultures.” These churches now stand before “an open door, [the] opportunity to move with boldness in the name of Christ out into an open sea of an ecumenical movement in a frail craft with a cross for the mast, leaving the safe moorings in the protected harbor of our past” (Maertens, 33).

Later in the series, he affirmed that there were “two realities toward which all of us ought to turn our attention as Christians.” One was the life and death power struggle between “atheistic communism and the traditional Western nations which once could be called Christendom.” The other was “the technological revolution” that was “changing both East and West at a speed with which neither Western nor communist ideologists are able to cope” (Maertens, 65). Blake closed this sermon with the exhortation that Christians “press forward…into increasing involvement in the world as servants of the Lord Jesus Christ” (69).

Both preachers were convinced that the ecumenical movement was a central factor in the process by which the churches could fulfill this urgent ministry in the world. In his concluding sermon, Blake stated that they had been “trying to persuade you who are leaders and pillars of the church in Philadelphia to follow that vision which has come to the church of Jesus Christ worldwide through the open door of the ecumenical movement of our time. The burden of much of what we have said has been to ask you to move out from the safe and comfortable tradition of the churches into the center of the stream of human history, to serve Jesus Christ your Lord in the world for which he died, to risk your lives and the life of the church itself in the many-fronted battle in which the loyal army of Jesus is now engaged” (Maertens, 101).

Whatever they may think about church reunion, Christians today are called upon to continue in this struggle for the well-being of the world and its people.

The Challenge to the Church: The Niemöller-Blake Conversations, edited by Marlene Maertens (Westminster Press, 1965). Eugene Carson Blake: Prophet With Portfolio (The Seabury Press, 1978). Five Minutes to Twelve: A Spiritual Interpretation of the Oxford and Edinburgh Conferences, by Adolf Keller (Cokesbury Press, 1938).


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