The following appraisal was written for CHRISTIANITY TODAY by Dr. Cary N. Weisiger III, minister of Menlo Park (California) Presbyterian Church, who has been a representative to the Consultation on Church Union since its inception.

The first question some will ask is whether a giant restructuring of American Protestants really touches people where they live today. Some renewalists as well as some traditionalists have greeted the Consultation on Church Union with a bored yawn. Both feel that institutional churches with their elaborate structure, ponderous machinery, and official programs have little chance of making a dent upon the world for Christ.

Even Dr. Charles Spivey, currently the secretary of COCU, has asked what the group has to say about poverty, disparity, discrimination, and depersonalization. Yet Spivey supports the consultation because it is “the only creative institution presently existing in the United States where people—Negro, white, Christians all—can come together in terms of their common commitments to Jesus Christ and … come to grips with the real basic, crucial, critical problems that beset us all.”

The major problem in the consultation itself has been to find a new way, if possible, between conflicted positions of the past. At this point I believe that the consultation has done as well as could be expected. I do not see how a dedicated group of eighty or ninety people from different denominations could have done much better. There have been no blowups or walkouts, though there have been dark moments and suppressed anger. This does not mean that strict adherents to past positions will be satisfied. It is manifestly impossible to have a union if two conflicting viewpoints will not budge.

Among those who have been in the consultation from the beginning, I am not alone in feeling that there was a high point of the Holy Spirit’s presence and power in Oberlin in 1963. That was when the consultation worked on authority in Scripture and Tradition. The consultation said then:

The United Church acknowledges that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments have a unique authority. They witness to God’s revelation, fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and to man’s response to the divine revelation.… They are the inspired writings which bear witness to the divine deeds in our history.… Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, the living Lord and head of the Church, is the center of the Holy Scriptures.… Because we confess Christ alone (sola Christus), in this way we affirm Scripture alone (sola Scriptura).… The united church recognizes that there is a historic Christian Tradition. Each of the churches in the Consultation inevitably appeals to that Tradition in matters of faith and practice. By Tradition we understand the whole life of the Church ever guided and nourished by the Holy Spirit, and expressed in its worship, witness, way of life, and its order.
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This section makes Scripture normative for Tradition. Yet it calls for recognition that God used Apostolic Tradition to form Scripture and that no denomination, however strenuously loyal to sola Scriptura, is without its treasury of ways of stating the faith and practicing it. For example, Presbyterians who regard the Westminster Confession as the summum bonum of theology adhere thereby to Tradition.

Critics will say that the Principles of Church Union, the most important document produced by the consultation so far, contains deliberate ambiguities. This is true, for restraint calls for stopping short of positions pressed hard in the past.

According to the Principles, the united church will “use” the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. It will also recognize cherished confessions of the uniting churches but will not, however, “permit the use of any single confession as an exclusive requirement for all.” The consultation has also determined that no one must use a creed if it is against his conscience to do so. Thus, by way of holding up a standard of the faith once for all committed to the saints, the proposed united church will be creedal. There will be liturgical consensus and in some sense a standard of doctrine. Yet in a binding sense the church will not be creedal.

There will definitely be bishops in the new church. COCU has simply received the episcopate as a gift and as an instrument of God in the Church since early centuries. The powers of bishops will have constitutional checks and balances. The consultation proposes to delay the writing of a full constitution until after union, but a definition of the episcopacy probably will have to be part of the pre-constitutional Plan of Union now being developed. No reordination of those non-episcopally ordained will be required; rather, an initial uniting act is proposed.

The announced goal is a church that is “truly catholic, truly evangelical, and truly reformed.” COCU sees catholicity largely in terms of a restrained version of what Episcopalians call the Lambeth Quadrilateral: the historic episcopate, Scripture, early creeds, and two sacraments. In baptism there will be the options of infant or believers’ baptism.

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A church “truly evangelical” is seen to mean a recognition of all members in the uniting churches, a recognition that “presupposes man’s response to God’s gracious call.” The grace-faith way of salvation clearly informs all the chapters of the Principles of Church Union. The word “reformed,” however, is not used descriptively of events in the sixteenth century but philosophically as a principle of church life: a reformed church must always keep on being reformed.

In this very difficult day when there is so much confusion in the churches, one yet must ask whether or not the Spirit of God is leading in the consultation. It is undoubtedly true that God’s Spirit wills that Christians show the oneness God has already given to the body of Christ. The New Testament emphasis upon communion among believers is remarkable.

It is at this point that evangelicals find their rationale for sharing in all responsible ecumenical effort. If they are to be true to the Lord of the Church, they must be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).

Most people reason pragmatically about a proposed union. Will it work? Will it solve problems? Will it bring renewal? Will it bring black and white Christians closer? Crucial as these questions are, there still remains a New Testament compulsion for Christians to do their best to show that oneness which Christ has given to all who accept him as Saviour and Lord.

Few will deny, moreover, that there is a new urgency toward visible unity today. Dr. Charles Malik has said, “The greatest service that the Church, in being the Church, can render in and for the international order is to try to bring about an effective spiritual unity among all those who have been baptized in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”

Some 25,000,000 American Christians, therefore, will probably face this question in 1970: Is the Spirit of God in the COCU Plan of Union? If it seems presumptuous to assert that the Spirit is in the plan, it may also be presumptuous to assert that the Spirit is not in the plan. If the churches participating in the consultation are not ready to accept the plan, they could possibly agree to a reconciling action that will establish mutual recognition of ministers and members, and intercommunion.

If sufficient time is provided—several years—for all church members to study, debate, and decide in the same context of nine-church fellowship that has characterized the consultation, the final decision will be made more responsibly and probably with more sensitivity to the leading of God’s Spirit.

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