The COCU Liturgy of 1968: A Model for Christian Celebration

What would worship be like in a new church that embraces the broad Protestant middle of American culture? This question was one of the first to be addressed by member churches of the Consultation on Church Union in the 1960s. The rising influence of evangelical Christianity had not yet registered, nor had the seeker-service gatherings of churches like Willow Creek and Saddleback come into view.

The pressure points were clear enough: should worship be liturgical or free, determined by national or denomination-wide principles or by local pastors and congregations, sacramental or pulpit-based, led by clergy or by lay persons, classical in style or popular.

A broad generalization concerning the first COCU churches is that in the 1960s the Episcopal Church would have affirmed, with only a little equivocation, the first of these antitheses, while Disciples and former Congregationalists within the United Church of Christ would have affirmed the other side. Presbyterians and Methodists would have hovered somewhere between the two.

In order to move toward agreement about worship, the Consultation commissioned a scholarly paper that would move towards defining the church’s liturgy. (For a review essay of that paper, shepherd-towards.pdf.)

A second step was to establish a commission on worship, with representatives from the COCU churches and from other churches, Protestant and Catholic, that would have an interest in the project. The result was published in 1968: “An Order of Worship for The Proclamation of the Word of God and The Celebration of the Lord’s Supper With Commentary.”

The small-format booklet included the full text of the liturgy, with its prayers and variable parts, and sixty pages of notes and commentary. It was one of the first important liturgies to adopt contemporary English forms for the language of prayer. It sought to present a liturgy that was “more fixed and traditional than those used by congregations accustomed to a more freely structured and ex tempore manner of common worship” and “a greater openness and freedom for churches in which liturgical worship has been more inflexible.”

In general, the liturgical churches found the liturgy to be similar in style to those prescribed in the service books, while other churches experienced the liturgy as being more formal and fixed than they were able to accept for normal use.

In anticipation of the 2010 Turner Lectures, sponsored each year in Yakima, Washington, by the Northwest Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the 1968 COCU Liturgy was adapted for use as the closing celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The liturgy itself was spread over five pages of the sixteen-page document given to worshipers at the closing event. Disciples pastor Doug Dornhecker took the lead in adapting the liturgy and I took the lead in developing the commentary.

Most congregants at the lectureship come from churches that would have been called  “non-liturgical” forty years ago. Therefore it was little surprise that one response to the evening’s celebration was that it was too liturgical for their taste. Another response, however, was appreciation for the spirituality of the service and for the thoughtful way that it expressed some of the ideas concerning the eucharist that often have been points of dissention between churches.

Because this liturgy continues to have much to teach Christians in the English-speaking world, I have revised the Yakima document slightly, removing the parts that were specific to that occasion. The document includes a brief statement about the history of the Consultation on Church Union, the text of the liturgy adapted for continuing use, and commentary and notes. To read this document, click The COCU Liturgy of 1968.

New issues have arisen in the half-century since COCU was launched and the forty years since “An Order of Worship” was published. Even so, this liturgy and commentary continue have much to teach contemporary pastors and congregations as they come before God in praise and thanksgiving.

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