A friend, who is an expert in the unity movement, recommended the manuscript to his publisher but was told that their readers aren’t buying books on “old-style Christian unity.”
Even the Christian Century, which for generations was the nation’s primary advocate of ecumenism, rarely uses the word “ecumenical” in its columns. One occasion when the word was allowed was the interview with historian David Hollinger (published on July 2, 2012) who reported that “ecumenical Protestant churches“ is the title he prefers for the classic Protestant denominations.
This declining interest in church unity movements was confirmed a few months ago when I announced a workshop on my book for the program of a theological conference I would be attending. Five of my friends showed up.
The next step in finishing the book is to draft a description of the story it tells and in the process to indicate why this book should be read by people who care about the Christian witness in an inter-faith world broken open by the principalities and powers.
The next few paragraphs are my first effort to write the statement. Comments, question, and suggestions will be much appreciated.
The American Church That Might Have Been: A History of the Consultation on Church Union
For most of the twentieth century, a small group of Protestant churches stood at the center of American life. Four of these denominations—Episcopal, Presbyterian, Congregational, and Methodist— were especially important as pillars of the national culture and guardians of all that was considered true and right. Members of these churches held positions of power in the institutions of government, business corporations, and academic institutions.
Although the American constitution maintained a de jure separation between church and state, these classic churches constituted a de facto establishment of religion.
In December 1960, Presbyterian Eugene Carson Blake, one of the nation’s best-known religious leaders, proposed that these four American churches form a plan of church union that would be both catholic and reformed. The idea was widely and enthusiastically reported by major news media. During the next few months the churches that Blake had named formed an organization, the Consultation on Church Union, to develop this plan. They added a third descriptive adjective, evangelical, and received two additional churches to their number.
The primary motive for reshaping church life in America was the conviction of its leaders that only a united church could minister effectively to a nation that was divided by race and class. They were convinced that this new church would enable the churches to minister more effectively to a divided world.
At its high point, the Consultation consisted of nine denominations, including three historic African American churches. With 25,000,000 members, the Church of Christ Uniting would have been spread throughout the nation more completely than any other Protestant church. It would have overcome 400 years of separation between major branches of the Protestant Reformation and provided experiences of local communion and common witness that previously had not existed.
It would have overcome the increasingly dysfunctional aspects of the denominational system that even yet hampers the effectiveness of these churches. It would have transformed long-standing patterns of prejudice, privilege, and power that still distort American life.
Although the Consultation on Church Union ended in January 2002, without accomplishing its major goals, its history needs to be preserved. The contributions to American life of this last (by which I mean the most recent) comprehensive plan of union in the United States need to be remembered and honored. Despite its failure, the reverberations of the work done by the churches over this extended period of time continue to be felt. Many of the issues on which the Consultation worked so diligently remain with the churches, and their future activity can benefit from an understanding of what went on before.
Last has a second and more important meaning. If one conclusion can be drawn from COCU’s history it is that the century-long pursuit of multilateral church mergers can no longer be regarded as an important way to manifest Christian unity in the United State. It is hard to imagine any combination of theological and social factors, save the virtual collapse of existing ecclesial systems, that could inspire a new effort to achieve a comprehensive American plan of church union in the decades immediately before us.
For this reason, it is especially important for church people–laity, clergy, workers for justice and mercy, professors–to reflect upon the history of the Consultation on Church Union, America’s last and greatest example of old-style Christian unity.