America’s last plan for church union

COCU's Final Documents

COCU’s Final Documents

On a blustery day in early spring, I decided to stay off of my bicycle and instead complete the second draft of my current research project, which is to write a history of the last effort to develop a comprehensive plan for church union in the United States.

I am using the word last in two senses. One is that the Consultation on Church Union, as this 40-year venture was called, was last in that it was the most recent effort. The more important meaning of last is that it is unlikely that any other project of this kind is likely to be attempted during the lifetime of anyone capable of reading this blog.

It’s hard to comprehend what American church life would be like today if COCU, to use the acronym by which the Consultation was most widely known, had succeeded. Imagine a 25 million member Protestant church comprising Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist (four denominations), United Church of Christ, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and International Council of Community Churches branches Christianity!

There is much more work to do in order to complete this manuscript, which (at 400 words per page) would print out to about 175 pages). Not least of the tasks is to find a publisher (if you have ideas and influence, let me know). The detailed table of contents outlines the story line of this saga of American Protestant church life.

The American Church That Might Have Been: A History of the Consultation on Church Union, by Keith Watkins (Table of Contents of Second Draft)

Part One: Moving from Vision to Plan (1960—1970)

Chapter One: The Bold Proposal (“Jesus Christ, whom all of us confess as our divine Lord and Saviour, wills that his church be one”)             

  • A Sermon to Transform the American Church
  • Principles and Patterns for Christian Unity

Chapter Two: The Challenge to Reunion in Concrete Terms (If the churches are unwilling to give this proposal full seriousness, they are “abdicating their ecumenical responsibility”)

  • Creating the Consultation on Church Union
  • Developing the Theological Foundation for a New Church

Chapter Three: Second Thoughts on Church Union (Pressing on to become an instrument for peace and reconciliation across all boundaries of nation, race, and class)

  • A Deeper Understanding of Ministry
  • The Resurgence of Hope

Chapter Four: Principles of Church Union (“A more inclusive expression of the oneness of the Church of Christ than any of the participating churches can suppose itself alone to be” )   

  • The Principles
  • Enlarging the Enterprise

Chapter Five: Responding to Issues of Structure and Organization (“The law of man is secondary. We move today under command of the law of God”)

  • Facing Organizational Challenges
  • The Unification of Ministries
  • Bringing Things Together in a Plan of Union

Chapter Six: At Last A Plan of Union (Whatever the decision may be, the lives of all of us will be changed  and the shape of the church will have been drastically altered)

  • Following Christ to the Cross
  • The Basic Elements of the Plan
  • Deliberations and Actions

Part Two: Negotiating the Terms of Agreement (1971—1988 )

Chapter Seven: Reaching for Balance and Equilibrium (Still “the best hope for a reconciled, revitalized Christian community”)

  • Empowering the Black Churches
  • Reclaiming the Sacramental Center

Chapter Eight: Changing the Focus from Plan to Process (Consensus on theology but still searching for agreement on organization and structure)

  • Paying Attention to What the Churches Had Said
  • A Different Kind of Next Step

Chapter Nine: Moving Yet and Never Stopping (A consensus struggling to find expression)

  • Dutifully Working at the Pragmatic Task
  • Christian Unity and Racial Justice
  • Consensus Struggling to Find Expression

Chapter Ten: The COCU Consensus (“A sufficient theological basis for  covenanting acts and the uniting process”)

  • Something Like a Compass for the COCU Churches
  • Second Revision, in Two Parts
  • Adoption of the Theological Basis for Unity
  • COCU at the Turning Point

Chapter Eleven: Churches in Covenant Communion (Pledging to walk together until we are visibly united in Christ)

  • The Idea of Covenant Takes Shape
  • Liturgies for Covenanting
  • One More Time Around

Part Three: Watching the Vision Vanish Away (1989—2002)

Chapter Twelve: Churches Uniting in Christ (Like a grain of wheat, COCU falls into the ground and dies)

  • The Responses by the Churches
  • Searching for a Way Forward
  • COCU Becomes CUIC

Chapter Thirteen: Continuing the Search for Christian Unity in America (The post-COCU agenda for the nation’s ecumenical protestant churches)

  • What COCU Tried to Do
  • Why This Venture Seemed So Promising
  • Why COCU Lost Momentum
  • COCU’s Achievements
  • The Post-COCU Agenda for Ecumenical Protestant Churches in America
  • Conclusion


9 Responses to America’s last plan for church union

  1. Dwight Welch says:

    would love to buy it when released!

  2. Rod Reeves says:

    Keith, a much needed reflection you have undertaken. Like Dwight, I also will want to read your book when published. Rod

  3. Gene Hill says:

    In one sentence, what went wrong with COCU? Why did it not happen? I, too, look forward to reading this book! I’m wondering if your daughter, Sharon, might continue with the torch. So many doors have opened for her, and continue to open – from Rome to the White House! All the best in this endeavor, but keep riding (as well as writing)… 🙂 GH

    • Gene, there are several reasons why COCU did not succeed. The last chapter in my current draft provides several, among them the unwillingness of the churches to yield their current forms and the increased complexity of the issues that the churches were trying to resolve. It also became clear that some of the ideas that were central to the original proposal did not hold up. An example is that the ministry in apostolic succession would be accepted as a fact in history but that no doctrine had to be agreed to. When crunch time came, most of the churches weren’t willing to move forward on this non-doctrinal basis.

  4. Robert H. Boyte says:

    Keith’s book will be an important contribution for those who may have never heard of COCU and for whom church union is a concept buried in history. They may note two insights that are still relevant.

    (1) The mainline denominations that were a part of COCU, and their congregations, are the church bodies suffering the most these days. Had “A Plan of Union” been put into practice mainline churches would have been prepared for these times rather than struggling with aging real estate, dwindling membership, discouraged clergy and reduced budgets.

    (2) Of all church organizations COCU was the most realistic in its recognition of racism and efforts to combat it. It recognized that union implies inclusion and racial justice.

    • Bob, I agree with the second insight that you make in your comment. Your first insight addresses an important aspect of the COCU hope. The overlapping and duplicative aspect of the denominational system would have been eased. We would be better able to respond to the current crisis but I doubt that the problems would have been as successfully solved as your comment suggests. Thank you for your positive response to the book I’m developing.

  5. eirenetheou says:

    i shall be most interested in your analysis of what COCU actually achieved (and what it did not achieve) and why it “lost momentum.” i suspect an intimate relation between the achievements and the ultimate failure.

    Organizational union is inevitably a political activity, and political entities work their will either by coercion or by compromise. In historic Christianity, Rome and the Orthodox maintained a kind of unity effectively by coercion for many centuries, until their alliances with authoritarian rulers (born of compromises issuing in mutual benefits) began to break apart and then were gradually overcome by democratic forces. COCU, composed of churches divorced from Catholicism by irreconcilable distinctions, attempted to rebuild the historic institutional unity of Catholicism on compromise alone, but the distinctions remained — and compromise proved difficult or impossible to achieve.

    God’s Peace to you.


    • I agree that coercion and compromise are prominent factors, perhaps even the most often and inevitably used, in organizational unity. There is another factor, and to maintain alliteration, I’ll name it conversion. There are times, even in churches, when renewed study, especially when done in communion with people who hold different points of view, leads to new understanding and changes in behavior, including changes in organizational structure. There were evidences of conversion in COCU discussions, but they did not come to permeate the full body of any of the participating churches. After COCU’s demise, none of the churches made any effort to reform their own church life to conform to the patterns that the COCU documents proposed. Keith

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