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. Xviii + 244 pages.
In December 1960 John F. Kennedy had recently been elected as the first Roman Catholic President of the United States. To this point in American history the levers of power had lain primarily in the hands of men who were members of what we call Mainline Protestant Churches. Living as we do in an age where denominations and religious institutions do not fare well, it might be difficult to conceive of the power and influence exerted by these Mainline Churches, led by the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ (Congregationalists had recently merged with the Evangelical and Reformed Church), the Presbyterians (still divided north and south), and the Methodists (they had yet to merge with the United Evangelical Brethren to form the United Methodist Church). In terms of numbers, these denominations taken together rivaled the Roman Catholic Church and in terms of influence had few if any rivals in the religious community. While the Ecumenical Movement has faded from our attention in 1960 it was in the realm of possibility for the leader of the United Presbyterian Church (northern branch) to dream a dream of a united Protestant church that would bring together Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, and the UCC (along with any others who were of like mind). That vision found its voice in a sermon preached at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. It was a sermon that caught the imagination of the nation and launched a movement.
The preacher that day in December 1960 was Eugene Carson Blake. The Bishop who invited him to preach was James Pike. They were liberals and visionaries. They believed that the time was ripe for a new church, one that could stand tall and continue to influence the nation and the world. They believed that a united church was better equipped for mission in the world. There were, after all, models, like the Church of South India, already in existence. This new church would be both catholic and reformed (later evangelical was added at the behest of the Methodists). Eventually nine denominations would join together, among them three African American Methodist denominations. My own denomination would also be a major contributor to what became the Consultation on Church Union.
The story of the Consultation on Church Union (COCU) is an important one, but also in danger of being forgotten. While COCU failed to create the church envisioned by Blake and Pike, the journey taken by these churches has left us with significant gifts, from the Revised Common Lectionary to agreements on baptism and membership. They didn’t accomplish everything, and the churches involved no longer stand at the center of our culture exercising influence over the direction of the nation. In keeping with the Advent season during which the vision was first announced (and this review being written), these churches have become in many ways voices crying in the wilderness.
We are fortunate that a participant in this journey has chosen to tell the story of COCU. Keith Watkins is Professor Emeritus of Worship at Christian Theological Seminary, and a participant in COCU’s Worship Commission. In many ways this Keith’s own history. He writes as a historian, but a historian who lived the story. I should note two things – first Keith is a friend and mentor; and second, my parents were members of Grace Cathedral at that time, so it is conceivable that I was present at the Cathedral that day, though at age two I would not have been able to understand the momentous nature of the occasion.
The vision enunciated on December 4, 1960 led to the creation of COCU in 1962. The consultation would continue its existence for forty years, until in 2002 when COCU became Churches Uniting In Christ (CUIC). During those forty years 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, while the churches never could 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 began to wane. Churches found themselves giving their attention to other issues, including the beginnings of decline. Nonetheless they continued to forge ahead, hoping that the Plan of Union that was agreed upon in 1970 would receive support from the churches. That support would never be forthcoming, so in time new ways of bringing the churches together without full merger were considered. By the 1980s the attention of the Consultation was given to the idea of covenanting together to live together as one church, even if they continued as separate entities. The hope was that memberships and ministries could be reconciled, even if churches continued to worship separately. With union more and more fading in to the background, the churches began looking at each other to discern whether their partners were truly apostolic churches (as stated in the creeds). They did believe, however, that they could work closely together in areas of mission, especially social justice actions.
One of the most significant components of this work, as Watkins lays out the history of the Consultation, is the contribution of the three African American denominations. They brought in a dimension to the conversation that had rarely ever been considered prior – 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. As Watkins points out:
During the midcentury, virtually all members of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government across the United States, and leaders in business and education and cultural institutions, held at least nominal membership in one of the ecumenical Protestant churches (p. 186).
While time would undermine the hegemony of these denominations, the broadening of the COCU partners helped break through the socio-cultural homogeneity of the Ecumenical Movement. It is fitting that this would occur even as the Civil Rights Movement was emerging as a force in the nation.
The injection of race into the conversation also made the work of the Consultation more complex, for as the work of the Consultation proceeded, it had to take into consideration this dynamic. The churches were forced to reckon with the way racial injustice was 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.
The conversations produced a number of important successes, including new liturgical expressions and a Protestant common lectionary -- the predecessor to the Revised Common Lectionary. The conversations raised the question of how local churches/congregations would relate to each other – reintroducing the concept of parish. While they largely agreed to use the primary creeds as a theological foundation and even agreed on the centrality of the two sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist, they could not come to agreement on reconciling ministry. Episcopalians remained committed to the episcopacy (with a sacramental vision of apostolic succession), while others were willing to accept a version of episcopacy, as long as there was freedom to define that in non-sacramental terms. At the same time the Disciples wanted to keep the lay eldership in the conversation. These conversations, while not leading to a reconciliation of orders, did open the way for further conversations about ways in which ministry might be recognized across denominational lines.
The turn toward covenanting from union had potential to move the conversation forward. The churches might remain a communion of communions, but they would do so knowing that their neighbors were fully church and their ministries fully acknowledged. The same would be true of transferal of memberships, acceptance of baptisms, and sharing together at the Lord’s Table. While softer than merger, this effort fell short in large part because there ultimately was no binding commitment to continue in ministry together. There was no mechanism to keep the churches accountable to each other. Thus, while it was proposed that the churches should engage in regular Eucharistic fellowship across the traditions, this rarely occurred. Additionally, as time passed the churches became more interested in bilateral conversations and partnerships rather than multilateral ones. Therefore, the interest in the vision first shared by Eugene Carson Blake faded.
Of course, today we live in a different time when the value of institutions and structures are increasingly called into question. Still, the work of COCU does invite us to consider how we can best express our unity in Christ in visible ways. That is, how do we recognize each other as true churches with valid ministries and sacraments? In addition, how do we work together to deal with matters such as racial reconciliation, which are still with us? After all, our churches remain largely segregated and reconciliation still seems far off.
This is a scholarly text. It is not a bed time read. It demands much of us. But, it is also a story that needs to be told and considered carefully. We need to ask why this vision caught the attention of the world. What was at the heart of it? Are there any parallels to our own time and place? In other words, is there a future for the ecumenical movement? As we consider these questions we are blessed to have this work of historical scholarship that explores in great depth one of the most important ecumenical experiments in American history. Its eventual demise should not be taken as a sign that nothing of value occurred. Indeed, it seems likely that this effort paved the way for the ease with which people cross denominational boundaries today. Rarely if ever do we bar one another from the Table or require rebaptism. We still struggle, of course, with reconciling our ministries. That may always be true, but perhaps a day will come when it will be easier to move across traditions, or at least preside at each other's tables.
This is an important book written with great care and passion by one who not only studied the movement, but participated in it (he served on the Commission on Liturgy for many years). In many ways 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. It is my belief that if you are clergy and committed to expressing a united faith visibly, then you will need to read this book.