When I tell people about the vision of uniting major Protestant churches into a new church that combines catholic, evangelical, and reformed patterns of church life, a second question often pops up. What happened? These churches—Presbyterian, Episcopal, Method, Disciples, and the others—are stilll here. If it was such a good idea, why didn’t the venture succeed?
My short answer is that during the first decade—the 1960s—this unity movement was promising. It grew from four to ten participating churches, attracted wide support in the United States and elsewhere, achieved a working consensus on some of the long-standing theological debates, and wrote a plan of union. At that point new challenges in American life and underlying resistance in the churches, especially over organizational issues, derailed the movement and it slowed to a virtual stop, where it still remains.
My longer answer begins by reporting that for a decade the proposal to establish this new Protestant looked as though it would succeed. From the outset it caught the attention of many people. It was written up in major news sources around the country. The initial organizing effort included four denominations, soon six, then ten, with several other churches involved as observer-participants. It was given a name—the Consultation on Church Union (COCU)—and church representatives met annually to discuss substantial research papers on the theological and historical issues that had to be resolved.
More quickly than people had expected, COCU reached agreement on matters such as membership, ministry, worship, and mission. Principles for a united church and then a plan of union were created. COCU published important new orders of worship for the churches to use along with the modes of worship with which they were already familiar.
The Consultation was criticized both from within the churches and from the outside, some arguing that it was moving too fast, some arguing that conditions in the world were moving far too fast for COCU to be of any value.
During the 1970s this second criticism seemed to be the stronger of the two. Since the 1950s, American culture and public life had been changing rapidly. New ideas and issues about sexuality emerged. New music developed that became the leading edge that youth cultures used to veer away from the traditional modes of life in the nation.
More important was the Civil Rights Movement which challenged American self-understanding and the deeply ingrained racism in personal and public life as well as in all public institutions, including the churches. COCU responded to these new issues by taking them on as theological factors as important as older issues such as the nature of ministry and principles for Christian worship.
It became clear that these social-theological challenges would be more difficult to resolve than classical doctrines that had been the focal point of division in previous generations. Social turmoil because of the Vietnam War and unrest, especially in universities and other traditional institutions, also affected COCU. Although church leaders moved with hesitation, it became clear that they were sympathetic to the new currents—more so than were the rank and file of church members. Patterns of resistance developed and COCU slowed down.
As the Consultation moved toward resolving these problems, the more traditional critics became increasingly vocal and active. Creating one new national system of church governance to replace ten turned out to be more complicated than most people had expected. Old ideas and ways of doing things were more precious to many members than the early consensus had indicated. Each step along the way to creating final documents and securing action by the churches took longer than the earlier steps had taken. The first generation of leaders, who had been inspired by the vision and energized by early progress, were gradually replaced by a new generation of leaders who learned COCU’s ways only slowly.
When it became clear that “A Church of Christ Uniting,” the name proposed for this new church, would not come about on the timetable, the decision was made to bring COCU to a close and entrust the vision and process to a new mode of relationship. In 2002, this transfer took place in solemn ceremonies in Memphis: The Consultation on Church Union gave birth to Churches Uniting in Christ (CUIC), which for more than a decade has kept alive the vision of a new church for a new American.
By this time in the conversation, most people are ready to change the subject. Some of them persist, however, with another question. If this new church never got going, why should we pay any attention to its history? What can we learn from COCU that can be useful to churches more than half a century after the movement started? I’ll write about this another time. Read the full story in my new book: The American Church that Might Have Been: A History of the Consultation on Church Union . You can buy it from Amazon. Better yet, click to access my author’s page at Wipf and Stock, publishers.