America historically has sprouted church denominations almost as fast as church buildings. Instead of a single body of believers, the nation grew Baptists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians. Ecumenists say the result has been a denominational mindset. Ask someone to define “the Christian church” and the answer probably will be “the denomination with about one million members, also known as the Disciples of Christ.”
Leaders of COCU, the Consultation on Church Union, one of the longest-running ecumenical shows in the U.S., still think they have the answer. For nearly two decades, they have been selling the idea of merging America’s many church bodies into a single Church of Christ Uniting. After a meeting last month in Cincinnati, COCU delegates believed their organization and its ecumenical vision crossed a hump on the bumpy way to visible church unity.
Representatives of the 10 participating COCU denominations, with a combined membership of more than 20 million, voted to approve a theological consensus on ministry: chapter seven of their larger 10-chapter document, “In Quest of a Church of Christ Uniting.” Its intended effect would be the mutual recognition of ministers. In other words, a minister of one COCU church body could transfer to, and perform all the functions of, the ministry of another.
The ministry chapter was received enthusiastically at last year’s fourteenth plenary session in Cincinnati. However, some delegates wanted further reworkings, and they agreed to break their biennial meeting routine in order to study and, they hoped, approve a revised ministry statement during this special adjourned session.
COCU denominations already have reached agreement on various doctrinal and worship rites, which allow mutual recognition of members. Now that the sticky question of ministry has been resolved, COCU officials believe the theological obstacles to union have been cleared away.
From its beginnings, COCU has struggled to find acceptable language and structure for a common ministry. Five of the COCU church bodies have bishops: the United Methodist and Episcopal churches, and the predominantly black denominations—the African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, and Christian Methodist Episcopal churches. Two Reformed communions, the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and the Presbyterian Church U.S. (Southern), give prominence to ruling elders. The three other COCU churches—the United Church of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and the small National Council of Community Churches—are congregational and the least structured, giving more authority to laypersons.
The COCU theology commission, chaired by McCormick Seminary dean Lewis Mudge, has had the difficult task of incorporating these various traditions into a common ministry for a united church. The commission has tried to retain the distinctive elements of each COCU denomination, so that no one would feel swallowed up, slighted, or otherwise angry enough to leave COCU talks for good.
The final document, which has been revised a number of times (during denominational meetings and plenary sessions in Cincinnati), defined the ordained ministry as comprised of bishops, presbyters (local clergy), and deacons. Its most distinctive feature, however, is its emphasis on the ministry of all believers—not just those set apart. The ministry statement reads that all Christians are “in a certain sense ordained to the whole corporate ministry,” as part of the “priesthood of believers.”
Theology commission member Jorge Lara-Braud of the PCUS called the document the “least clericalized” of any he has seen on six continents. High church delegates, however, criticized the ministry statement for that reason—saying it diminishes the role of ordained clergy.
Other difficulties and ambiguities surfaced during plenary session discussions. The United Methodist delegation wanted the document to state clearly that bishops should be chosen from among the presbyters. They also wished for laypersons to be allowed to function as clergy only in a pinch, or under “unusual circumstances.” The congregational churches, however, wanted as many options left open to laypersons as possible.
Another question to be resolved before there is a united church concerns who can preside over the sacraments. Episcopal delegate John Paul Boyer said that “to suggest that a deacon can preside over the sacraments is utterly unacceptable in the Episcopal Church.”
The Disciples give deacons sacramental leadership privileges and would have liked specific approval of this in the ministry document. The church’s delegates proposed revisions that would clearly place the bishops under the authority of the church assemblies. However, they did seem willing to allow bishops in a united church structure. Delegate Albert Pennybacker joked, “We’ve had a lot of experience with the self-appointed bishops, and we’re looking forward to the constitutionally-defined kind.”
In general, the COCU mood in Cincinnati was just this congenial. After final passage of the ministry statement, COCU president Rachel Henderlite suggested that the delegation sing the Doxology in celebration. “If I thought we were up to it, we’d sing the ‘Hallelujah Chorus,’ ” she said.
But then, nothing yet was vitally at stake. Final implementation of the ministry section will depend on approval of each denomination’s general assembly. Chapter seven, along with the document’s first six chapters, has been referred to the denominations for feedback and final revisions before the end of 1981.
In addition, most COCU delegates operated from the same theological perspective. Most agreed that there are no evangelicals—as the term is popularly understood—among them. (While the united church is described as catholic, reformed, and evangelical, theology commission chairman Mudge said the latter term implies only what it means in the Greek, “of or pertaining to the Gospel.”)
COCU traditionally has built into its theology a variety of social justice and equal rights positions. In Cincinnati, COCU delegates changed the ministry statement from a reference to his (God’s) people—to them, obviously sexist—to “the church.” One passage defines God as something like an equal opportunity employer: it says God gives gifts for ministry “without regard to handicap, race, sex, age, social, or economic status.” During their brief three-day meeting, leaders of several COCU denominations found time to publish a signed statement opposing reinstitution of military draft registration.
Still, the COCU concept has found increasing sympathy among more theologically conservative churchmen. This year, for the first time, the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) sent observer/consultants. (Also sending observers were the American Baptist and Roman Catholic churches, the Lutheran Council of the U.S.A., the National Council and World Council of Churches, and several Canadian denominations and parachurch groups.) Conservatives criticized COCU in the past for diluting the gospel as a way to build a broad support base; but some of them like its contemporary emphasis on theology and Scripture, COCU president Henderlite, the first ordained woman in the Southern Presbyterian Church (1965), says her devotion to ecumenism stems from Christ’s prayer that believers become “one” (John 17).
The next step for COCU, and its biggest, is drafting an acceptable plan of formal union. An earlier plan of union was rejected in 1973; that, along with the United Presbyterians’ temporary withdrawal from COCU in 1972, spawned “COCU is dead” talk. Since 1973, COCU has been revising its entire plan of union, and has opted for building support for ecumenism at the local and regional church levels, rather than with the hierarchy. In recent years, COCU has experimented with model unified churches and interdenominational worship communities in several U.S. cities.
The consultation grew in response to a sermon in 1960 by Eugene Carson Blake. Then the stated clerk of the UPCUSA (and later a general secretary of the World Council of Churches), Blake suggested union talks between his United Presbyterians, the United Church of Christ, and the Episcopal and Methodist churches. He chose those churches first “because I thought they would say yes,” he said.
Blake’s idea caught on with several other church bodies, and representatives of each held a first meeting in 1962 in Washington, D.C. Blake was feted as the father of COCU at the Cincinnati meeting. He said in an interview that generally he is pleased with the “intent” of the current COCU movement, but that “the sooner we get a plan of union before the body, the better.” People are still asking whether COCU is still alive, and the time has come for participating churches to say either “yea or nay” to joining a united church, he said.
COCU officials advise patience, however. COCU general secretary Gerald Moede said similar church unions have taken 30 to 40 years, and that one can’t really expect formation of the Church of Christ Uniting until the year 2000. (Worldwide there have been 65 church unions since 1925, involving 180 churches, said Moede.)
COCU officials stress that they are creating an entirely new structure, not just merging the old. However, several questioned, “What is the shape of the unity we seek?” One COCU executive said privately that the bottom line of the united church’s structure must be a single means for ordaining clergy and a single decision-making structure.
Critics regard the vision of a multichurch merger as idealistic, if not naive. There will be disputes over what to do with each denomination’s property, finances, and bureaucracy. Many grassroots pastors and churchmen don’t care about COCU, and others don’t even know it exists, say the critics. A Southern Presbyterian said privately that, at best, COCU will become just another denomination on the crowded church scene—that some churchmen will leave their denominations to join the Church of Christ Uniting, while others will remain in each continuing denomination.
Former COCU general secretary Paul Crow said that many laypersons are misinformed about ecumenism; some, in fact, regard it as “demonic.” His task, as chairman of the COCU Church Order Commission, will be that of drafting a union plan that will win over the skeptics. Crow, 47, the chief ecumenical officer of the Christian Church, has been called “Mr. Ecumenical” for his many involvements—including ecumenical leadership posts in both the National and World Councils of Churches. He got interested in ecumenical work as a church historian at Lexington Theological Seminary (Ky.).
He stresses the importance of the COCU concept: “People outside the church say, ‘I don’t see Christ pulling you [churches] together—so how can he be the reconciling influence in my life?” ’
The 100 COCU delegates (10 representing each denomination) came to Cincinnati expecting passage of their ministry statement, and more or less supportive of the COCU concept. Many of their 20 million constituents remain unconvinced. One conservative observer said he fully endorses Christian unity—“that’s why I’m here”—but still questioned whether COCU is the proper vehicle for it.
In a speech, ecumenist Crow asked the delegates whether they can be as creative at “nurturing and educating” the churches in ecumenism as they have been at “proclaiming” it.
The Postmaster Puts His Stamp on Dallas College
W. Marvin Watson accepted the presidency of Dallas Baptist College last summer, at the time promising to make the school “more Bible oriented” than any other in the area. Now all 128 employees at the school, one of eight Southern Baptist-supported colleges in Texas, are learning what he meant. They have been required to sign—as a condition of their further employment—an explicit doctrinal statement supporting biblical inerrancy.
Watson, a former postmaster general, drafted the statement, which is identical to the denomination’s Faith and Message Statement, but with two additions. The first addition affirms the Old and New Testament Scriptures as “verbally inspired by God and inerrant in the original writing, and that they are of supreme and final authority in faith and life.” The second states that “man was created by a direct act of God in His image, not from previously existing creatures, and that all of mankind sinned in Adam and Eve, the historical parents of the entire human race.”
Dallas Baptist’s “Articles of Faith” apparently was written in order to close any loopholes in the denomination’s statement that might allow views favoring evolution or that certain Bible characters and stories are symbolic, not historic.
Watson, who was hired in hopes that he could remedy financial woes at the 1,000-student college, said the school previously had a broadly-worded statement of faith in its catalogue. The more explicit statement makes the school “uniquely Christian” in line with Texas Baptists’ expectations, and Watson. He said it would be helpful to parents and prospective students: “If I were paying my way … I’d want to know what the school believes.”
Dallas First Baptist pastor W. A. Criswell, a leader of conservatives in the ongoing inerrancy debate in the Southern Baptist Convention, endorsed, as chairman of its trustee board, the college’s doctrinal statement. Criswell, who last month was recovering from a mild heart attack, even suggested that other Texas Baptist colleges might institute the same kind of faith statement policy.
Seven Dallas Baptist employees (six faculty members) still had not signed the doctrinal statement last month. The greatest controversy focused on use of the term “verbally inspired,” Watson told the Baptist Press. He indicated the term meant “correct,” not, as some had feared, a process of inspiration by mechanical dictation. Four staff members signed revised versions.
Watson pledged to stand behind his doctrinal statement, even though it resulted last month in the temporary suspension of more than $70,000 in tuition grants for Dallas Baptist students. When he implemented his plan, Watson was not aware of a 1974 state ruling, which declared ineligible for state tuition grants and the federal government’s matching student incentive grants those institutions requiring that employees adhere to a particular religious belief.
Dallas Baptist attorneys sought a solution with the state attorney general’s office last month. The earliest blocked funds could be released is in June. In the meantime, the school was honoring students’ grants with funds raised from donors.
While this was going on, the academic affairs committee at nearby Baylor University in Waco continued study of its own doctrinal stance. The religion department faculty had requested guidance after department chairman H. Jack Flanders was criticized for having a liberal interpretation of Scripture. Elsewhere, the executive committee of the Georgia Baptist Convention reaffirmed editor Jack Harwell of the convention’s news journal, The Christian Index. Harwell had survived an ouster attempt at the Baptists’ state meeting. Conservatives said Harwell believed, among other things, that Adam and Eve are symbolic of mankind, not actual historical figures.
In order to accept a faculty position with Baylor University, James E. Wood, Jr., has resigned as executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs. The Washington, D.C.-based agency monitors public policy issues on behalf of nine Baptist bodies. Wood previously had taught at Baylor (Southern Baptist) for 18 years, and has been a Baptist spokesman in various human rights and ecumenical programs.
Pope John Paul II has appointed Cardinal William Baum, archbishop of Washington, as head of the Vatican group that supervises Catholic schools, universities, and seminaries around the world. In his post with the Sacred Congregation for Education, Baum becomes the highest ranking American in the Curia (administrative arm of the Vatican). He enters at a sensitive time, during debate over academic freedom in Catholic institutions. Baum generally is regarded as a conservative on doctrine and loyal to Rome, but not necessarily a hard liner.
George Buttrick, 87, respected liberal Bible scholar and Presbyterian preacher; president from 1939 to 1941 of the old Federal Council of Churches and an editor of The Interpreter’s Bible; January 23 in Louisville, Kentucky.
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