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).