On Sunday, December 4, 1960, the National Council of Churches convened its triennial assembly in San Francisco. Leaders of the nation’s major Protestant churches, as well as representatives of other churches and councils of churches from around the world had gathered for this multi-day conference.
On his way to the assembly the most prominent Presbyterian leader in the nation, Eugene Carson Blake, was interviewed by a reporter from the New York Times and announced that he was preparing to make a major proposal about Christian unity just as the assembly was about to meet.
Word leaked out to the nation’s news media and to many of the denominational officials as they were making their own journeys to San Francisco.
Blake made his bold proposal in a long sermon at the Sunday Eucharist in one of the nation’s most storied churches, Grace Episcopal Cathedral, where another nationally known church leader, James A. Pike, was diocesan bishop. The sermon made national headlines and generated widespread interest. Church leaders around the nation were divided in their response, but those in favor of the idea were clearly in the majority. The opening paragraphs of the sermon announce what Blake would say:
Text: Romans 15:5-7
“Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be like-minded one toward another according to Christ Jesus! That ye may with one mind and with one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Wherefore receive ye one another as Christ also received us to the glory of God.”
This is a significant occasion. When I received the gracious invitation from your Dean and Bishop to preach in this pulpit, on this particular morning, it became clear to me at once that the occasion demanded not only as good a sermon as God might enable me to prepare and preach, but also a sermon that would deal with the unity of the Church of Jesus Christ realistically—neither glossing over divisions with politeness nor covering them with optimistic generalities.
Led, I pray, by the Holy Spirit, I propose to the Protestant Episcopal Church that it together with The United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America invite The Methodist Church and the United Church of Christ to form with us a plan of church union both catholic and reformed on the basis of the principles I shall later in this sermon suggest. Any other Churches which find that they can accept both the principles and plan would also be warmly invited to unite with us.
I hasten to make it clear that at this stage this is not an official proposa1. My position as Stated Clerk of my Church’s General Assemb1y gives me no authority to make such a proposal officially on behalf of my Church. I speak this morning as one of the ministers of my Church privileged and required to preach under the Word of God. I speak as a minister especially privileged—and therefore under a special requirement—especially privileged to have represented my communion for the past nine years in many formal and informal relationships with other communions both inside and outside the ecumenical movement. I speak as one minister of Jesus Christ who believes that God requires us to break through the barriers of nearly 500 years of history, to attempt under God to transcend the separate traditions of our Churches, and to find a way together to unite them so that manifesting the unity given us by our Lord Jesus Christ, His Church may be renewed for its mission to our nation and to the world “that the world may believe.”
Before setting forth the basic principles of the union propose, it is, I think, important to make clear the compelling considerations that have moved me to believe that union ought now to be sought by us and to clear away some possible misunderstandings of reasons and motives for seeking it.
To read the entire sermon and response click A Proposal Toward the Reunion of Christ’s Church.
My new book, The American Church that Might Have Been tells the 40-year story of this serious effort to create a new and better church to serve Christ and the needs of people across the nation. It can be purchased from the publisher Wipf and Stock or from Amazon.