The American Church That Might Have Been

The American Church That Might Have Been: A History of the Consultation on Church Union. By Keith Watkins with Foreword by Michael Kinnamon (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014). I am grateful to the editors of the newsletter published by the Association of Reformed & Liturgical Worship for publishing a new review of my book recounting the forty-year history of a serious attempt to reunite Protestant churches in the United States. This review appeared in the AR&LW Newsletter, Fall 2017 and is reprinted with permission.

In December 1960, shortly after John F. Kennedy was elected as the first Roman Catholic President of the United States, an event that brought to an end the Protestant political hegemony (at least at the Presidential level), Mainline Protestantism remained a powerful force in American life. In an age when Mainline Protestantism and the ecumenical movement has moved into the shadows of our culture, it might be difficult to imagine the power and prestige of that these denominations had in their grasp as a new decade began, but such was the case when the leader of the United Presbyterian Church and an Episcopal bishop announced their dream of a truly united church. The dream was for Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, and the United Church of Christ to unite as one church. For a moment in time, it seemed as if such a united church could emerge here in the United States.

This ecumenical moment took place on December 4, 1960, when the Stated Clerk of the United Presbyterian Church, Eugene Carson Blake, at the invitation of Episcopal Bishop James Pike, preached a sermon at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. In this sermon Blake laid out a vision of Christian unity that caught the imagination of the nation. Blake and Pike believed that the time was ripe for birthing a Protestant church that could stand tall and influence the nation and the world. There were, after all, models like the Church of South India, already in existence. In the minds of these founding figures, this new church would be catholic, reformed, and evangelical. Eventually nine denominations would join in this venture, and among them would be three African American Methodist denominations.

The story of the Consultation on Church Union (COCU) is an important one, but it is in danger of being forgotten. I occasionally hear younger clergy call for the unification of Mainline Protestantism, along much the same lines as COCU, yet they show little knowledge of this movement for unity. As time passes and the memory of this effort fades, the story needs to be told. Keith Watkins, Professor Emeritus of Worship at Christian Theological Seminary, has taken on that mission, producing an in-depth history of the COCU.

This book should be of special interest to members and friends of AR&LW, for while COCU failed to create the church envisioned by Blake and Pike, the work done by the consultation had significant impact on the worship and liturgy of these churches. These included the Revised Common Lectionary and agreements on baptism and church membership.

As for COCU, while the vision was articulated in 1960, it was not until 1962 that the consultation finally got underway. It would continue in existence until 2002, when COCU evolved into Churches Uniting in Christ (CUIC). During the forty years of COCU, representatives of participating churches gathered on a regular basis, including nearly annual plenary sessions. Those involved in this work explored points of agreement and disagreement on matters theological, liturgical, and structural.

Interestingly, the consultation came to agreement on a basic theological foundation early on, agreeing to ground their work in Scripture and the witness of the creeds. They found agreement on baptism, allowing for both infant and believer’s baptism. There would be freedom in terms of form and understanding of baptism, though the participating denominations were to refrain from requiring rebaptism for those moving from one denomination to another. It took much longer to come to agreements on the Eucharist. Significantly, the participating churches could never agree on what constituted the ministry of the church. Episcopalians held tightly to the belief that the Episcopacy was not simply an administrative entity, but a sacred entity. At the other end, non-episcopal churches were not willing to accede to the requirement of being reordained by bishops in apostolic succession.

While early on it appeared that the merging of the churches would be accomplished by the end of the 1960s, by the end of the decade interest in actual union began to wane. Churches found themselves giving their attention to issues other than the ones that were the focus of the consultation, including the early signs of decline in membership and attendance. Despite the many distractions, the participating churches continued to forge ahead, hoping that the Plan of Union that was agreed upon in 1970 would receive support from the churches. That support, however, would never be forthcoming. With waning support for union, the churches began to look for ways to come together without moving toward full merger. By the 1980s the churches began speaking in terms of covenanting to live as one church, while keeping their separate identities intact. The hope was that memberships and ministries could be reconciled, even if churches continued to worship separately.

One of the most significant components of this work, which Watkins highlights, is the contribution made by the three historically black churches that were involved in the consultation. They brought in a dimension to the conversation that had rarely been considered in ecumenical conversations—and that was the issue of race in America’s churches. It needs to be remembered that the original four original denominations, while differing in their polity and at points in their theology, were rather culturally homogeneous. The addition of the Disciples and United Evangelical Brethren didn’t change that very much. The injection of race into the conversation also made the work of the Consultation more complex. The churches involved in the conversation were required to deal with the reality of racial injustice embedded in church structures. It also had to make sure that “the new church order its life so that people of color would be able to maintain the dignity and freedom of action that they had enjoyed in their separated churches” (p. 188). In other words, the price of union for churches of color could not be willingness to be assimilated into a church defined by white values and experiences.

Despite the failure to fulfill the original vision, the COCU served to push Protestant denominations to consider ways to express Christian unity visibly and recognize each other’s ministries and sacraments as valid. It also lifted up the issue of race and the possibility of moving toward reconciliation. We may have a long way to go on all these issues, but we benefit today from these efforts, especially the contributions made to conversations about liturgy, preaching, and the sacraments.

This is an important book written with great care and passion by one who not only studied the movement, but participated in it. Watkins served on the Commission on Liturgy for many years, and brings that experience into the conversation. Therefore, this is both history and memoir, even if the more personal aspects are sublimated into the broader story. It is scholarly, but very accessible for readers willing to engage in the conversation. While AR&LW might be Reformed in its orientation, there is considerable overlap between it and the vision espoused by COCU. It might be the story of an American church that might have been, there is much to learn from the efforts undertaken by COCU that can inform our current conversations as we forge ahead in an increasingly complex and diverse nation, one that looks very different from the one that existed in 1960, when Blake and Pike shared their vision. Having a thoughtful guide is mandatory, and Watkins is just that needed guide.








3 Responses to The American Church That Might Have Been

  1. Elva Anson says:

    A strong endorsement of your book, Keith. I hope it gets the publicity it needs to appeal to readers who are concerned about unity.

  2. bobr42 says:

    I was glad to read this Keith and found myself thinking about what guidance COCU can be for the mission of the contemporary. Increasingly, I muse from the sidelines but it is still a passion.

    • Thank you for your comment, Bob. I’m on the sidelines, too, but have been wondering, too, about what might be learned from COCU. While the relations between the churches are better now than they were when COCU started, we have stayed largely unchanged. I’ve been trying to write down some of my reflections but have set that project aside for a while. When I get back to it, I will try to share my ideas.

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