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.