Race, religion, and old-style ecumenism

August 10, 2013

Brandon“Old-style ecumenism” refers to several modes of inter-church activity that dominated Christian unity conversations throughout the twentieth century. The culmination of this approach to overcoming church divisions in the United States was the Consultation on Church Union, a serious effort to unite nine Protestant churches at the center of American culture.

Since 2002, when this forty-year venture came to a close and bequeathed its heritage to a new organization, Churches Uniting in Christ, traditional approaches to Christian unity have languished. I am especially sensitive to this fact since I am in the final stages of writing a book on this subject, with the working title The American Church That Might Have Been: A History of the Consultation on Church Union.

One of the central features of COCU, as this venture is commonly called, was its contribution toward overcoming the history of institutional racism in American culture and in the churches at the center of that culture. Three predominately black Methodist churches were participating members of COCU.

John E. Brandon, a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, served for a time as Associate General Secretary of the Consultation, and a decade later wrote wrote a DMin dissertation at Boston University entitled “Three Black Methodist Churches in the Consultation on Church Union: Problems and Prospects for Union (completed in 1986). Brandon emphasizes the importance of the participation of these churches in COCU when he writes:  “While recognizing the difficulties yet encountered in the union of black churches and white churches, there is no place where the issue of race is faced more squarely than in the Consultation on Church Union.”

In the early 1960s, when COCU was established, the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. The challenges of racism were increasingly important topics among the churches, including members of the National Council of Churches (NCC), headquartered in New York City. The classic Protestant churches that were developing COCU were also central to the strength of the National Council.

In fact, the NCC assembly in San Francisco that convened in December 1960 was the occasion on which Eugene Carson Black preached the sermon that launched COCU. A notable action of the NCC assembly was that it elected its first lay president: J. Irwin Miller, an industrialist from Columbus, Indiana. Miller and his family in previous generations had been prominent leaders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which was one of COCU’s participating churches.

During Miller’s presidency of the NCC, he was instrumental in organizing a conference that helped focus the attention of church people upon racism. It was conducted in Chicago January 14–17, 1963, with 657 delegates. In addition to Miller himself, speakers included Abraham J. Heschel, Albert Cardinal Meyer, Rabbi Julius Mark, R. Sargent Shriver, Dr. Franklin Littlell, Very Rev. MSGR John J. Egan, Dr. Daniel Dodson, Rabbi Morris Adler, and Rev. Martin Luther King.

Their speeches and other conference papers were published later that same year under the title Challenge to Religion: Original Essays and an Appeal to the Conscience from the National Conference on Religion and Race (edited by Mathew Ahmann; Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1963).

While giving his full support to developing legislation and specific programs in church and society to combat racism, Miller was especially interested in the spirit that nourishes racism. Two sentences are especially worthy of note:

“We must take care not to arrive at solutions and programs which leave beneath an apparently healed surface remaining germs of the old evil.”

“As always, the task begins with you and me who are not ourselves free from guilt, nor ever without need of rediscovering God’s truth in our own lives.” (Miller’s statements appear on pp. 135–141 of Challenge to Racism.)

In addition to the speeches and documents that were developed within the Consultation on Church Union, several books are shaping my understanding of religion, race, and old-style ecumenism, especially COCU. In addition to the two volumes mentioned above, the following should also be noted:

Burnley, Lawrence A. Q. The Cost of Unity: African-American Agency and Education and the Christian Church, 1865-1914. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2009.

Murray, Peter C. Methodists and the Crucible of Race. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 224.

Sommerville, Raymond R., Jr. An Ex-Colored Church: Social Activism in the CME Church, 1870–1970. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2004.

Watley, William D. Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land: The African-American Churches and Ecumenism. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1993.