The American Church That Might Have Been

COCUIt’s one thing to believe, as many people do, that the denominational system of church life in the United States no longer makes sense. When Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Disciples of Christ, and United Church of Christ churches are so much alike in what they believe and how they are positioned in the nation, why should they continue as competing religious organizations?

It is quite another thing, however, to figure out a constructive way to bring them together into a new American church that is based on classic theological principles and focused on how the Christian faith can be an effective participant in the ongoing struggles of the human community.

For near a century, the primary approach to fixing this increasingly dysfunctional system was to merge denominations. Several denominations today are the result of mergers that happened in the recent past.

The most comprehensive plan to restructure American Protestant denominations would have united nine denominations into one new church, which its uniting documents entitled “The Church of Christ Uniting.” It would have had approximately 25 million members and would have penetrated every nook and cranny of our far-flung nation.

This venture was called the Consultation on Church Union (COCU for short). It was initiated by a sermon delivered on December 4, 1960, by a nationally known Presbyterian clergyman in one of the nation’s most celebrated Episcopal churches before a congregation that included important leaders from most of America’s Protestant churches.

COCU closed its work in 2002, when it folded its life into a continuing enterprise, Churches Uniting in Christ, with a somewhat broader membership but a much more modest plan for the future.

During many of COCU’s active years, I was one of my church’s representatives. I understand the issues that were being debated and continue to believe that the goals were well stated and that the resulting new church would have represented significant progress for religion and life in our generation.

In recent years, I have devoted much of my working time to writing a history of the Consultation. I have completed most of my research and have written a first draft of a book. This manuscript would print out to a book of 200 pages or more, which is longer than I would like it to be.

I am ready to begin a serious revision, which is intended to bring out the narrative line more clearly, fill in some missing detail, and tighten the prose style. It’s also time to work on matters that could lead to publication. From time to time during the next few months I will post various research briefs and other matters that I have developed during this period of work.

The first of these postings is a detailed Table on Contents that is based on the first draft. I’m using it to shape the revision, with the full recognition that in the process of doing a new draft the outline of the book will change. In time a new and revised Table of Contents will develop. In the meantime, the provisional table of contents  and provide the foundation—and perhaps the stimulus—for discussion.

Comments, questions, and recommendations will be much appreciated.

Click here to read the Contents Detailed.

3 Responses to The American Church That Might Have Been

  1. Marilyn Cooper says:

    What an exciting yet difficult task that COCU set out for the churches of the US. In order to make plans for the future, I suspect the group would need to start over with a new generation, teaching that life is about change. It is such a compelling thought that Jesus would want us to be one. But getting to the nitty gritty of how often communion, sprinkling or immersion…ahhh, so hard for some to not let go or change since, obviously, “my way” is the best way. Right?

    Keep up the good work.

    • You are right that we have to approach these issues in a new way. It’s interesting that frequency of communion and mode of baptism were issues settled rather early in COCU’s life. The problem areas turned out to be the ministry, especially bishops vs. presbyteries, ethos of the churches, organizational variations, and matters dealing with mutual acceptance and exercise of power.

  2. genehill says:

    How interesting! I look forward to reading this, and from one who was right there through it all! GH

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