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
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.