A church that trusts the past as it moves into the future

June 13, 2011

During the 1960s, one of the most widely covered stories in religion was the concerted attempt to create a comprehensive form of mainline Protestantism for the United States. Throughout the process’s creative period, the churches’ theologians were at its center because the primary focus was to address issues of ecclesial and sacramental theology that had kept the churches separated from one another for nearly 400 years.

As I reported in a recent column, some theologians registered unfavorable responses to the theological aspects of the documents that the Consultation on Church Union (COCU) published. Other theologians, however, came to strongly positive conclusions as is illustrated in a series of essays published in the Austin Seminary Bulletin: Faculty Edition (December, 1970). The entire edition was devoted to A Plan of Union for the Church of Christ Uniting.

Rather than summarizing these essays as a single document, I am highlighting ideas presented by Professor James A. Wharton. His standing among Presbyterian colleagues is indicated by the fact that he served as a member of his church’s committee to draft a new Confession of Faith and a Book of Confessions.

In his analysis of the theological affirmations of the Plan of Union, Wharton concludes that its drafters “have depended heavily upon the classical Christian formulations as these are embodied in the traditional heritages of the consulting churches. The drafters “reach back behind contemporary faith statements current in some of the consulting churches to a point at which the older traditions of some participants and the current traditions of others can be seen to derive from similar classical rootage.”

Wharton is convinced that this use of language was not a tactical ploy designed to “pacify conservative sectors among the consulting churches.” Rather, the Plan of Union is built on the principle that “the theological base, the identity-ground, of the uniting church stands in direct solidarity and continuity with the church of Jesus Christ throughout all ages.”

These ideas, Wharton suggests, had fallen out of fashion in some of the denominations and the crisis of “combining these traditions into one uniting church has compelled the drafters to look at the church again from an historical perspective to which we had grown quite unaccustomed.”

This same Plan, however, was also marked by theological openness, Wharton continues. He sees this characteristic in the stance taken toward creeds as they would be used in the united church. Classical creeds would be used persuasively, not coercively. Furthermore, the new church, “with the guidance of the Holy Spirit” would be free to develop new confessional forms in contemporary language. “The basic principle is that only after the united church has been formed and begun to share a common life will it be appropriate to undertake a new expression of the faith it holds in common.”

Wharton suggests that the Plan has refused to push the proposed new church in the direction of any of the “sectarian options currently in vogue” which would have “rendered the plan almost immediately obsolete.”

He declares that the Plan is an exercise in trust. It takes the theological traditions of the participating churches seriously, but it gives even greater support to the “judgment that the common rootage in the classic Christian tradition of all the consulting churches is a thing to be trusted and relied upon in the future theological course of the church’s life.”

Having introduced the idea of trust, Wharton carries it further and in so doing affirms the theological principle upon which any serious discussion of Christian unity ultimately depends. Here is the way he states this position:

The Plan of Union “supposes that a church constituted as the plan provides will seriously weigh its varied testimony to the classic Christian tradition in any decision or new formulation it may be called upon to make. It assumes the integrity of the consulting churches toward the theological traditions which each brings to the union. Then it assumes that the church born of the union of these churches will show equal integrity toward the broader and richer theological base which the union provides.

“But, above all it trusts. It trusts not in the everlasting adequacy of the combined traditions, and certainly not in the potential wisdom of the united church to provide more adequate traditions of its own. Basically, it trusts the Lord of the church attested in Scripture and in derivative ways in these various traditions to keep the faithful witness to him alive in a church constituted in this way.”

The variegated trust that Wharton describes broke down as the churches moved toward the time when decisions about unity had to be made. The old churches, with their levels of trust diminished even more, remain. Their members and the nation which they have been called to serve in Christ’s name still await the new church that COCU sought to engender.