An American Church That Might Have Been

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.

19 Responses to An American Church That Might Have Been

  1. John D Grabner says:


    Given the Disciples’ early enthusiasm for COCU, I’m wondering how you’d account for the opposition of some event planners to using your adaptation of the COCU eucharistic liturgy at the Turner Memorial Lectures in Yakima this year. Would you say it’s peculiar to the Northwest Regional Christian Church or is it more widespread?


    • John, when the 1968 liturgy was published, it was often described as too ponderous and liturgical for ordinary use, and frequently the manner of celebration confirmed that evaluation. At the COCU plenary in Memphis (at First Baptist Church Beale Street) we used a popular musical group and the impression was quite different. When the entire text is written out, people unaccustomed to that form tend to respond that it is too liturgical for real protestants to use. I encountered this in the seminary chapel. The response you experienced in Yakima is probably not different in kind from what one would find among Disciples in other parts of the country. There might have had a certain local twist to it, but the Northwest is not all that different from other parts of the country. Note in my Resources section a paper by Massey Shepherd. Keith

      • John D Grabner says:


        Your explanation is what I expected and feared. It certainly explains the manner in which the liturgy was presented at the Turner Memorial Lectures.

        Coming as I also do from a non-liturgical tradition, the objections are very familiar to me and have apparently changed very little over the years.

        So, if something like COCU were to be started now, what kind of worship forms do you think it should embrace?


      • John, During the summer I have posted a series of columns on developing an alternative way of worship for progressive churches. In the series to this point I have dealt with the service of the Word. Currently, I have gathered these together into one manuscript, which I am editing and will post a little later on in the Resources section of my website. I will then begin posting columns dealing with the service of the Table. Although I have not thought of the question you raise, the answer can probably be inferred from this series on worship in progressive churches. Keith

    • Arlo Duba says:

      John, I need your email address,

      And Keith, looking up John Grabner, I was directed to this blog and it has occupied me all morning. I had just been taken by George Hunsinger’s book, The Eucharist and Ecumenism. I would like to see some blog on the subject of that book. I am in the closing stage in getting my manuscript on the History of the Book of Common Worship published. It is now with OSL Publications, having been rejected by Westminster and Eerdman’s. Both say that the mss is too narrow to assure them that they could profit from the publishing. OSL said they will be satisfied if 800-1,000 copies sell. So at least it gets published.

      But also, Keith, back the summer of 2010 my hard drive melted and I lost my address book. I need information from you to re-establish you in my new computer to resume correspondence.

  2. Rodney Allen Reeves says:

    Keith, I also vividly recall reading the next day about Eugene Carson Blake’s dramatic speech in San Francisco at Grace Episcopal Cathedral on Sunday Dec 6, 1960.

    I still have a copy of his speech somewhere around the house — likely up in the attic, which is perhaps a metaphor or sorts for the somewhat limited incarnational long term results that at the time many thought would be real “game changer” in the church conciliar movement — even though COCU & now CUIC certainly have had & are continuing to have a positive impact — even more so than Peter Ainslie’s famous Yale Divinity School Lectures stressing the plea of the Disciples of Christ for the Union of the Church delivered close to 50 years prior to Blake’s call for Union in 1960.

    While you were a doctoral student at PSR Berkeley when Blake delivered his speech which caused a big stir, I was a student at YDS in New Haven, and I recall the energy & excitement from Blake’s speech on the west coast was also palpable on the east coast, at least on Prospect Hill in New Haven.

    Look forward to your further comments on the history of the conciliar movement & possible prospects looking forward.

  3. Brian Morse says:

    Dr. Watkins,

    I was a seminarian at CTS after you retired. We were still wrestling with your legacy (which I hope you take as a positive). The words of the people who spoke out (and boycotted chapel) was that African-Americans often felt unwelcome or left out. Liturgical felt like “white man” religion. I heard people share with me personally that they felt the black church was being disrespected and marginalized. I am certain this is not your intention. I’m just saying what was expressed to me.

    The Black Student Caucus president shared with me that there was an informal boycott. Professor Rufus Burrow had a long-standing informal boycott that he expressed (to other students, not to me) that he felt worship at CTS was racially insensitive. It was kind of funny when he continued this after Mary Alice Mulligan became Dean of Chapel! (Church life is never without a healthy dose of laughter.)

    I don’t say these things as a criticism to you. Frankly, I like the same methods that you like. I do, however, think that there can be a healing and fruitful conversation when we listen to those who’s life experiences have brought them to a different place.

    I’m wondering if you have entered into intentional dialogue with those who feel left out in a litergical/COCU-esque worship style. I can imagine deeper understanding and greater respect for each other may happen.


    • Brian, thank you for helping me remember and understand my years at Christian Theological Seminary. It may be that the most difficult practical challenge in the church’s public life is to develop an agreed pattern in which most congregants affirm the theological character of what is being done and are adept at using the cultural modes of language, music, and ceremony that are used to express the prayers, teachings, and sacraments of the event. Every pastor and church musician has to work at this task all of the time. The worshiping body at a place like Christian Theological Seminary is a very complicated social entity and therefore it may be even more difficult to meet the challenge there than in a regular congregation. I’m sure that I speak for others who have been charged with the responsibility of preparing and conducting worship in such a place when I say that it is a challenging assignment. I know that African-Americans sometimes felt left out. So did Disciples of Christ (irrespective of race), and feminists, and theological conservatives, and people from liturgical traditions, and some of the faculty, and Methodists, and staff, and liberation theologians, and people from charismatic churches. During my years at the seminary, there were processes for consultation, evaluation, and planning. Some of my work as director of the chapel (perhaps not remembered by many) achieved some of the goals you infer. An example is that the first city-wide celebrations of the birthday of Dr.King took place at CTS, under my direction, with the majority-black choir of Shortridge High School as choir for the service. This was long before Sweeney Chapel was built and took place in Shelton Auditorium. While even that event could have accurately been described as more white than black in its style, its content was respectful and its spirit pointed toward a future in which the barriers of race, gender, and station in life are transcended in a new manifestation of the people of God.

    • eirenetheou says:

      i am not a “liturgical” Christian, but i have learned many things from worshiping with “liturgical” Christians that i continue to use in worshiping and leading worship in other contexts.

      When we enroll in a theological seminary, we should expect to experience things that we have not already experienced and, perhaps, learn some things that we don’t already know. Otherwise, we’re wasting time and money.

      Conflicts in congregations (and seminary chapels) about “worship style” and the content of teaching usually derive from a desire to hear only what we already know — that is, to hear only echoes of what we already say, what we already profess, what we prefer. When churches and seminaries move, however enthusiastically or grudgingly, toward a “multicultural” environment, the tensions aroused by our desire for echoes are multiplied.

      At an earlier time, in our innocence, we aspired to “unity in diversity” — but then “diversity” became an end in itself. As an end itself, “diversity” seeks to “dismantle” everything that existed previously and replace those persons and things with itself and its “preferences.” This is what we have seen at CTS and in other places. “Diversity” is not a ministry of reconciliation, but a political movement aimed at replacing one structure of dominance with another. We may hope that a ministry of reconciliation will emerge that will encourage all the parties to seek a common understanding and a community of common faith, “bearing one another’s burdens.” That would be the beginning of a true ecumenism.

      God’s Peace to you.


      • Don, your analysis is a persuasive interpretation of the continuing tension between unity and diversity. In congregations, most congregants choose to be there because of their favorable response to what is already there. Because the membership is stable, those patterns tend to remain in place. A seminary chapel is different. It is the only show in town and people come because there is a certain degree of expectation that they do so, like it or not. Furthermore, the community keeps changing. Even if a pattern does develop that everyone affirms, the very next year the composition of the congregation changes and many of the presumably settled issues all come up again for debate. During my years in the CTS chapel, I sought to maintain a way of worship that would be distinctive to that locale and community while at the same time shaped by principles widely shared in churches around the world. It was a challenging and deeply satisfying work. Keith

  4. Bob Cornwall says:


    Thank you for the reminder of that highpoint in ecumenical life. I’m assuming we weren’t invited in because Disciples had yet to experience a full denominational identity. I have to admit that while my parents were members of Grace Cathedral at the time, and thus I was within the Episcopal orbit, I was much too young to know what was going on (I was but a wee bit over one years old!

    That aside, I remember participating in an observance of the initiation of CUiC, which seemed so promising in 2002, but it too has lost steam, or so it seems.

    • Bob, I don’t know why Blake (and Pike) selected only two other Protestant churches in the initial effort. At the subsequent meeting to establish a process for moving forward with the idea, the list was enlarged to include churches with which one or another of the four were engaged in unity conversations. Disciples were among them and have been prominent participants throughout the half century since things got started. Keith

  5. Brian Morse says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful reply Keith.

    While I wouldn’t trade my experiences at CTS, I wish I could have experienced worship with you. (That’s not an insult to those I did worship with!)

    Thank you most of all for recognizing the spirit in which I wrote this. If you ever talk to Leon Riley, please tell him that he means a lot to me. Our conversations were few and brief, but the Spirit was activated in my heart when I listened to him.


  6. […] ______________________________ 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, Pi … Read More […]

  7. luciaoerter says:

    Keith, I don’t know if you remember me, but I was a student at CTS 90-96. I’m curious about the story behind the cross in the chapel. What information do you have about the composition of the cross.

    Lucia (Hutchison) Oerter

  8. […] 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 […]

  9. Ann Lewis says:

    I found this posting in a search for where COCU stands today, and recognized some familiar names amongst those who have responded. I was a student at PTS in the 80’s (I remember Arlo Duba well). And Lucia Oerter once spoke at our church, when her husband served a congregation four miles away.

    I have long been interested in ecumenicity, having been a student with the WCC at Bossey and serving as both a UMC and PCUSA ordained minister. I’m wondering if the time is not ripe to renew the dream of COCU. I’m thinking it might be the perfect antidote to the schism that currently threatens our denominations.

    Amongst familiar company, I’d like to share a wild and crazy idea I’m interested in pursuing.

    Instead of those with a more narrow biblical interpretation moving to leave each denomination…what about inviting those with a more inclusive perspective to work together to unite across denominational boundaries to form a new denomination which unites us… rather than divides us?

    I am willing to leave behind a legacy and tradition which I deeply value to live into a new way of being the church in fulfillment of Christ’s prayer in John 17.

    Perhaps there are others who are already actively pursuing this. I will continue my search for kindred hearts. I invite you to comment if you are one.

    • Ann, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I continue to work on this project and part of my intention is to discuss what COCU could have done. I agree that there is a need for something that revives some of COCU’s dreams, but at this moment I don’t know how to articulate these possibilities. Your ideas will be appreciated. Keith

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