The development of The United Church of Christ could be the most significant achievement in practical ecumenism in American Protestantism. It derives special interest from the coming second synod of the merging Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church in July at Oberlin, Ohio, at which a constitution will be adopted.
It is our purpose to consider the United Church (1) as a merger of these denominations and (2) as a proposed answer to ecumenical problems at the local level.
The merger of the Congregational Christian Churches (1,400,000) and the Evangelical and Reformed Church (800,000) to form the United Church of Christ has had a stormy journey so far.
In Congregationalism the first poll on the merger was taken in 1948. When the deadline date was reached that summer only 65.5 per cent of the voting churches had responded affirmatively. The General Council voted an extension of seven months in the hope of reaching the recommended standard of 75 per cent. In February, 1949, the favorable parishes numbered only 72.2 per cent but the Council voted to proceed. To prevent the merger, dissident churches then initiated a lawsuit resulting in great conflict and dissension throughout the denomination. Despite these evidences of unrest the General Council repeatedly voted to advance the merger without again referring the matter to the churches.
When the General (National) Council was established in 1871 its functions and powers were strictly limited in order to safeguard the historic autonomous powers of the local congregation. Despite these safeguards there has been an increasing centralization of authority in the Council. Its leadership has been drawn largely from the liberal wing of the denomination.
The Council’s Oberlin meeting in 1948, acting on the assumption that it was “competent to approve the basis of Union solely by itself,” proceeded to declare the Basis of Union ratified. This Basis called for a compromise polity which partook of the presbyterial system of the Evangelical and Reformed body and of the congregational system and provided “that the autonomy of both these bodies is respected in its own sphere, each having its own rights and responsibilities” but responsive to necessary denominational controls.
Without having attained the 75 per cent standard the Congregational Council met in Cleveland in February, 1949, and formally declared the merger consummated. The general secretary of the national council, Dr. Douglas Horton, later (1950) declared that there were in reality two Congregational polities, the first involving the autonomy of the local congregation and the second which accorded to the General Council an autonomous character within its own sphere of action. This revolutionary decision transferred the decision on the merger from the local churches to the General Council. Later, Dr. Horton implemented this view by declaring that the General Council is a church and thus possesses the same powers which historic Congregationalism had ascribed to the churches on a local level.
The Cadman Memorial Church of Brooklyn, New York, had brought court action against the Council in 1949 which resulted at first in a victory for the plaintiff church. As the suit progressed all further proceedings of the Council based on the Horton interpretation were forbidden by the court. The Council appealed this verdict, which disapproved the Oberlin-Cleveland actions, to the court of appeals of the State of New York, which threw out the injunction and proceeded with the drafting of a constitution for the merging denominations.
Many who opposed the merger refused to join the dissidents, however, and still sought some means of unity with the Evangelical and Reformed Church which would preserve the Congregational freedoms. At Claremont, California, in June, 1952, the General Council by a vote of 964 to 55 adopted the famous “Claremont Resolution”—the only nearly unanimous action ever taken by a General Council meeting. The resolution looked forward to a united fellowship with the E. and R. denomination and asked the joint executive committees to draft the proposed constitution for the General Synod of the united fellowship. It provided for “representatives of the different points of view among us on all important committees dealing with the union …” and required that “every effort be made to preserve all the spiritual and temporal freedoms and rights now possessed by the Churches” and other bodies. All groups agreed that this was sound churchmanship, representative of the great spirit of the Claremont meeting under the gracious, firm, and fair leadership of Moderator Vere Loper. But the General Council has done little to properly implement this resolution. As a result, no middle ground exists today between the demands of the E. and R. and the concessions of the General Council on the one hand and those who still cling to traditional Congregational principles.
At this point it is important to note the strong stand of E. and R. President James E. Wagner (see his Cleveland paper of October 12, 1954) for “the full connotations of organic union” as against “a top-level administrative merger.” He made it plain that he and his people were interested in merger only if the new constitution would bind all the local Congregational Christian churches as well as the General Council. The Council evidently realized that this was a virtual ultimatum, and that if merger was to be achieved they must bow to Dr. Wagner’s demands. This they did without frankly confessing the nature of their agreement to their constituency. Indeed, they so interpreted the ennabling acts of the Councils of 1942, 1952, and 1954 as to accomplish their purpose. Furthermore, they in effect ignored the findings of their own Committee of Free Church Polity and Unity. This Committee, composed of representatives of all viewpoints in the denomination and headed by Dr. L. Wendell Fifield, as general chairman and Dr. Henry David Gray, as Congregational polity chairman, had produced after four years of study a report based solidly on actual historic Congregational documents, in the hope that their work would preserve and perpetuate Congregational freedoms.
The fears of dyed-in-the-wool Congregationalists were further aroused by Dr. Wagner’s statement in Omaha in June 1956, evidently intended to pacify dissident elements: “The United Church will not be presbyterianism since it specifically disavows and guards against the unwonted and arbitrary exercise of authority. Such a church will not be Congregationalism [italics ours], since it has set itself to the task of describing in black and white the inter-relatedness of local church, association, conference, and general synod, so that each may operate in deference and obligation to others, things may get done ‘decently and in order,’ and that, in Christ its head, ‘the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love.’ ” Dr. Howard Conn, pastor of the 2,000-member Plymouth Congregational Christian Church in Minneapolis, discussing this statement in Christian Herald (August, 1957), said bluntly, “when these ecumenicists speak of ‘doing things in order,’ they do not mean doing things politely, graciously and efficiently. They mean rather doing them in recognition of an objective ecclesiastical organization whose welfare they believe has priority over the spontaneous movements of the Holy Spirit in local congregations.”
Dr. Conn reflects the widespread unrest that exists among Congregationalists as the time comes for the adoption of a permanent constitution. They believe, as a British Congregationalist puts it, “in the Holy Local Church, the communion of real dissent, the crown rights of the Redeemer and the regularity of ordination vouchsafed to our communion by God Himself.” They are not ready to bow to bishops, moderators, councils, or settlement committees.
It is only fair to state, however, that the moderator of the 1957 Uniting Synod assured his fellow Congregationalists that “in the United Church there will be no abridgement of Congregational polity and freedom; nor will any existing doctrine or polity be imposed upon us. None of our long-cherished freedoms will be lost. Congregations will be free to call their own ministers, write their own covenants, regulate their own worship, keep their present names, own and control their own property, handle their own finances. They will not be bound by a general Church creed, nor governed by an over-all constitution.…” But the dissenters say this statement is merely “an unctuous platitude” and, taken in the light of official commitments, serves only to heighten the confusion of an already confused situation.
Here is another interesting angle: Some Congregational Christian churches insist that they did not legally unite with the Evangelical and Reformed Church at Cleveland. They contend that no legal action of the Council has authorized any such union, nor has the constitution of the Council been legally altered to claim any such relationship. Furthermore, it was admitted under oath in the Cadman lawsuit (1949–50), and again in the answer to the pleadings in the case now pending, that the General Council has no power to take the local churches into any union. The Committee for the Continuation of Congregational Christian Churches of the United States, which is concerned with opposing lawsuits, initiated by local churches and individuals, holds that E. and R. Church officials mistakenly assume that this so-called merger is similar to the union of 1934, between the Evangelical Synod of North America and the Reformed Church and that they are bound for disillusionment when they discover that Cleveland is no “repeat performance.”
Coincident with grass-roots discontent, the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches in the United States has been formed. It has enlisted some 200 churches, some very prominent, such as First Church, Los Angeles, California (largest Congregational church in America)—Dr. James W. Fifield, Jr., minister—and Park Street Church, Boston, Massachusetts—Dr. Harold John Ockenga, minister. Despite a wide diversity of theological conviction, all are determined to preserve the Congregational principle of freedom of the local church. They believe that the assurances of absolute congregational autonomy by Council leaders are little more than unctuous platitudes.
Doctrinal motives have caused other churches to form the Conservative Congregational Conference and such regional bodies as the Eastern Indiana Association of Congregational Christian Churches. Dissatisfaction of these churches with the Council’s liberal leadership in missions, publication, education, evangelism, and social action predated merger issues and long ago provoked their noncooperation. Recent developments in matters of doctrine and practice have, of course, served only to intensify divergence and swell the ranks of the Conservative Conference.
Another organization known as the League to Uphold Congregational Principles is particularly concerned to preserve Congregational Christian endowments and trust funds for their original purposes. A lawsuit now pending in Federal District Court, New York City, involves $132,500,000.
Most observers believe that the Oberlin meeting will adopt the new constitution of the United Church and that the merger will soon be declared accomplished. It has been voted by both denominations and they are treating it as an accepted fact.
If this eventuates, Congregationalists opposed to the merger foresee the development of a centralized, authoritarian type of church government, with judicatories and with certain authorities over local congregations. They say this has already been evolving in Congregational conferences where superintendents have been assuming and exercising growing authority. In a matter of time a centralized hierarchy would determine ordination and placement of ministers and possibly even the theological convictions of the local church. Next would be the control of local church property and eventual loss of individual freedom and congregational autonomy.
It would appear that after Oberlin there will not only be a United Church of Christ, but also two or three new denominations of Congregational persuasion.
Probably more important than the event transpiring at Oberlin are its overtones. Beyond the merger of the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church loom the ecumenical vision and the initial step in practical achievement.
Framers of the Constitution to be presented to the General Synod not only are aware of this but make their intentions clear in the Basis of Union. Article I, referring to the name United Church of Christ, says: “This name expresses a fact: It stands for the accomplished union of two church bodies, each of which has arisen from a similar union of two church bodies. It also expresses a hope: That in time soon to come, by further union between this church and other bodies, there shall arise a more inclusive United Church.”
Already the International Convention of Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) has gone on record as favoring exploratory conferences looking toward joining the United Church of Christ.
First, a little background: About the time of the Cleveland constituting convention of the National Council of Churches in 1950, The Christian Century (issue of Nov. 15, 1950) revealed a meeting in Cincinnati aimed at putting some realism into the ecumenical vision. Said the Century: “Once (the National Council) has been formed, the separate denominations will begin to learn by experience how to carry on most of their large scale responsibilities—missions both at home and overseas, religious education, higher education, the cultivation of stewardship, special work of and for women—under a common leadership and in cooperative fellowship.” Then “at Cincinnati … the plan for a United Church of Christ” will be proposed and “a road will thereby be marked out by which, not in some vague and misty future but in the lifetime of the present Protestant bodies, those bodies may travel straight on to the realization of union in organization and entity, as well as in spirit and intent. Cleveland first, then Cincinnati—and ‘the sound of a going in the tops of the mulberry trees.’ ”
As far back as 1949 an overture originating in the General Council of the Congregational Christian Churches and supported by the International Convention of the Disciples of Christ had been made to all those denominations which “recognize one another’s ministries and sacraments” to send official delegates to a common meeting place to consider the possibility of effecting a union of their churches. This eventuated in the Conference on Church Union in Greenwich, Connecticut, December 4–11, 1949. As a result a definite blueprint for union was presented at a second Cincinnati conference in January, 1951 (the meeting referred to by the Century). After a long debate, the plan for a new “United Church of Christ” was adopted:
The local church: The united Church would recognize and respect the freedom of each local church in the discharge of its local responsibilities. No fundamental changes in the structure of procedure of local churches would be required as a condition of entrance into the united Church.
Each local church would determine its worship and how to administer baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
New members would be received on profession of faith in Jesus Christ as divine Lord and Saviour. Letters of transfer from other churches would be honored in accordance with the practice of the receiving church.
Local churches which hold title to their own property would retain that title.
The ministry: Ministers would be ordained “to the ministry of the Church of Jesus Christ” and not to a single denomination. The act of ordination would be performed by the presbytery on recommendation of the local church and a presbytery examining committee. The bishop would preside at the ordination, “thus signifying that the one ordained is a minister of the whole Church.” The presbytery also would be involved in the engagement or dismissal of a minister and would install him in the local church.
The united Church would accept “a reasonable and just share of responsibility” for the continuous employment of its worthy and qualified ministers during their active years and for the continuous pastoral care of its local churches “without … infringing upon the freedom of the minister or of the local church.”
The Presbytery: To provide for the “fellowship of mutual counsel and cooperation,” a presbytery would be constituted by 10 or more “contiguously located” churches of the united Church, including the minister and a lay representative from each.
Meeting annually, the presbytery would recruit, prepare and ordain ministers, have oversight and aid of ministers and churches, elect delegates to the conference and general council and “set in order” and promote spiritual welfare and cooperative work.
The conference: This unit would embrace at least three presbyteries and would be comparable in function to a state convention, state association, synod, diocese, or annual conference of existing denominations. It would be composed of both ministers and laymen and would meet at least once a year, with an elected presiding officer to be called a moderator. Each conference would elect a bishop who would serve as “a spiritual counselor and guide of its churches and ministers and its administrative superintendent.”
The conference would be responsible for the administration and promotion within its boundaries of the work of the Church as a whole. It would review the records and work of the presbyteries, constitute new presbyteries and divide old ones, and propose measures to the general council. Some 60 conferences, each with a bishop, might be required.
The general council: Responsibility of this unit would be to “foster and express the substantial unity of the united Church in faith, polity, purpose and work.” Specifically, it would “do and promote the work of the whole Church in its national, international and ecumenical relations,” and in general carry on the functions of the national convention, general assembly, general synod, general conference, or general council of the uniting denominations.
It would be composed of approximately 1,200 delegates, with ministers and laymen in equal numbers. Newly elected bishops would be consecrated by the general council. The bishops would be ex officio members with the right to speak but not to vote. Meeting regularly once in two years, the council would have a presiding officer known as a moderator.
Among work which the general council would coordinate and administer would be evangelism, home and foreign missions, ecumenical activity, Christian education, stewardship, publishing, pensions, and social action. It would have power to create such corporations, boards, and committees as are needed.
In the section of the document devoted to “the ecumenical evangelical faith” to which the united Church should bear witness, the drafters cited “a common belief by the participating denominations in God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the Scriptures and life everlasting.”
While many difficulties face any comprehensive merger, veterans of the ecumenical movement counseled National Council leaders against being discouraged about the time it may take to achieve it.
Dr. George W. Richards, of the Evangelical and Reformed Church, said, “There is no defeat of great causes, although there may be temporary setbacks.” Methodist Bishop Ivan Lee Holt of St. Louis, chairman of the Conference on Church Union, hailed the Cincinnati convocation “as one of the most important meetings ever to be held in American Protestantism.”
This is essentially the plan upon which the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church are uniting. The plan is also involved in the discussions which are already taking place between Disciple and United Church leaders. Other communions are seriously considering joining this United Church.
It would seem, therefore, that there is an ecumenical church already in existence and that it is eagerly seeking the inclusion of all Protestant bodies.
Local churches may be made up of members of all denominations. Its doctrinal and denominational loyalties—if any—are considered secondary to the larger ecumenical church, although subject to guidance from some central authoritative body. The program of the local church will be the program of “the United Church” and its doctrine the doctrine generally accepted by the ecumenical church.
The pastor of the church must consider himself the local representative of the larger ecumenical church and be prepared to serve in whatever sector of the United Church he may be assigned.
In due time all local churches will be subject to merger or relocation until there is, in the judgment of the proper authorities, adequate coverage of a given community, without overlapping. The territory of a local church may be reduced or enlarged.
The ultimate relationship of the United Church of Christ and its local congregations with councils of churches is not clearly spelled out, although there is constant emphasis on “the coming Great Church,—one Church for one World.”
It is interesting to note that the new United Church of Christ leaders are already using ecumenical language in their pronouncements. Dr. Fred Hoskins of New York City and Dr. Wagner, now co-presidents of the UCC, last year issued a “joint official call” to “Christians throughout the world” to take a new stand regarding Holy Communion. The statement read in part, “It is the Lord’s Table, not ours. We are not his hosts, but He is and it is He who has invited us. Since He, our Lord, has invited us to sup with Him, we cannot presume to bar from His table for any reason those who, like themselves, have accepted His invitation to partake of it. Therefore, so early in our united life, we are moved to bear this witness.” The “call” then proceeded to proffer “access to UCC’s pulpits and altars.… to all in your fellowships who love the Lord Jesus Christ and who seek the establishment of His will and reign.”
Delegates to the Oberlin meeting in July may be so occupied with the subjects at hand that they will not realize a delicate orientation is taking place that may affect the future of all American Protestantism. But many ecclesiastical leaders are fully aware that Oberlin’s action may contribute strategically to the fulfillment of the ecumenical dream.
We devoutly hope that the great principles which have made Congregationalism a driving force for good in Christendom may not be lost amid its new ecclesiastical patterns. The Church of the Pilgrims has stood for full liberty of conscience, an open Bible, freedom to preach the truth, Christian piety, the autonomous and self-governing local church, and a broad ecumenical fellowship. The men of Scrooby, Leyden and Plymouth were sincere in a desire to return to the simplicity of the New Testament Church and Congregationalism cannot afford to lose the loyal, adventurous spirit of that quest.
James DeForest Murch is an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), former managing editor, Standard Publishing Company, member of the International Convention’s historic Commission on Restudy (1942–49) and is currently active in the organized life of the church.
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