Several years ago Brian McLaren published his book A Generous Orthodoxy. In that book he, like many before him, called for developing a broad appreciation for the gifts of the whole church to the contemporary church. We are enriched when we imbibe the gifts of Baptist, Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed, Anglican, Restorationist, and Pentecostal/Charismatic traditions. That vision has appealed to many and expresses the mood of our time, one that is less institutional and more open to engaging with multiple strands of faith. But is there need of more? Could it be that we would be wise to revisit an earlier vision, even if in the end it did not produce the intended fruit?
What I am speaking of here is the vision first expressed in a sermon by Eugene Carson Blake, Stated Clerk of the United Presbyterian Church (Northern Presbyterians) at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, on December 4, 1960. I should note that there is a slight possibility that I was in attendance, though at the age of two I likely would not have caught the finer points of a rather long but important sermon at the church my parents had become members. My thoughts are driven by my reading of a book that I think needs a wide readership -- Keith Watkins' The American Church that Might Have Been: A History of the Consultation on Church Union. A full review of this important book will be forthcoming later, but in the meantime I would like to contemplate the overarching principles that informed the creation of what became the Consultation on Church Union, an entity that was conceived in this sermon, born in a gathering of seven churches in 1962 and brought to a conclusion forty years later in 2002.
In the sermon Eugene Carson Blake proposed that a union of churches (initially United Presbyterian, Protestant Episcopal Church, United Church of Christ and Methodist) be pursued on the basis of catholic and reformed principles. To these two was added evangelical at the suggestion of the Methodists. The evangelical principle reminds us that mission is central to the work of any church. As to catholic and reformed, Blake had very specific ideas, which I think are worth considering.
The first principle was that the united church should be catholic. What did this involve?
- It would "have visible and historical continuity with the Church of all ages before and after the Reformation." This would be symbolized by the acceptance of the episcopate as a sign of apostolic continuity. The emphasis here needs to be on visible and continuity. It is easy to talk of the invisible unity of the church, but experiencing visibly unity has always proved elusive.
- It would "clearly confess the historic trinitarian faith received from the Apostles and set forth in the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds." I should note that the Disciples, a historically non-creedal church would embrace this principle as price of admission to the group.
- It would "administer the two sacraments instituted by Christ, the Lord's Supper ... and Baptism." Central to this was the conviction that these are means of grace -- though Blake insisted that no specific doctrinal agreement would be necessary. The key was the principle not the agreement on all points.
As for the reformed part, that would entail the following:
- The united church would "accept the principle of continuing reformation under the Word of God under the guidance of the Holy Spirit." The concept of semper reformada was inviolable, so that all tradition might be judged by Scripture, but reformation could happen under the guidance of the Spirit.
- It would be "truly democratic in its government, recognizing that the whole people of God are Christ's Church, that all Christians are Christ's ministers, even though some in the church are separated and ordained to the ministry of word and sacrament." A nod given here to the congregationalists and others who affirmed that the people of God should have a voice in the governance of the united church, and have freedom of conscience within it.
- It would find new ways to "recapture the brotherhood and sense of fellowship of all its members and ministers." This is an interesting point because while the catholic principle of episcopacy suggests hierarchy, in this principle Blake suggests equality -- calling for the avoidance of ostentatious dress (cassock versus cope and mitre) and titles of rank, even offering to jettison reverend, but especially titles such as very, right, and such. Simplicity was to be the hallmark.
- Within the proposed catholicity, Blake proposed that the united church "include within its catholicity (and because of it) a wide diversity of theological formulations of the faith and a variety of worship and liturgy including worship that is non-liturgical." On the first -- the theological formulations, he was thinking about the various formulas that were drawn up from time to time such as the Heidelburg Confession, which needed to be received as a witness, even if not imposed on the believer as a test of fellowship. As for worship, while there was room for creating liturgies to express unity, there should also be freedom to explore other forms of worship. Blake declared that the new church should avoid theological legalism and liturgical uniformity.
For the entire sermon, Keith Watkins has provided a transcript to be found here.
Blake offered his vision as an answer to the needs of his day. He believed that a divided church offered a weakened witness to the world. While times are very different, is not our witness today weakened by our inability to create a visible face for the gospel that can bring a word of hope and peace and justice to our own context? Could it be that this vision from 1960 might offer us a pathway forward? Can we not envision the blessings of a church that is "truly catholic, truly evangelical, truly reformed"?