On St. Patrick’s Day in Atlanta, ecumenical engineers unveiled a tentative framework for linking 25 million American Christians. The twenty-four-page outline, printed appropriately if coincidentally on green paper, builds the big new denomination upon multi-congregational “parishes” that are racially and economically inclusive but not necessarily geographically defined.
It promises the biggest shakeup in American Protestant history. As the project coordinator put it, “there is no more exciting possibility for the renewal of the Church at this historical moment.”
The outline, though not formally adopted, was the major development of the eighth annual meeting of the nine-denomination Consultation on Church Union. Guidelines came from the Principles of Church Union approved by the consultation three years ago. The outline itself was the product of a year’s work by COCU’s eighteen-member Plan of Union Commission. It was subjected to an intensive review in Atlanta, and delegates heartily backed the “parish” focus. The outline is scheduled to emerge as the final, full-fledged charter next year.
“Something irreversible” has begun in the life of the consultation, said Dr. Paul A. Crow, Jr., new COCU general secretary. “The matter of going out of business is not an option.”
COCU’s ninety participating delegates (ten from each denomination) continue to resist full commitment to historic creeds, despite pressures from non-participating communions. As some see it, the aim of becoming a uniting church may be doomed at this point. Dr. C. Thomas Spitz, Jr., general secretary of the Lutheran Council in the U. S. A., declared recently that COCU avoidance of confessional commitment makes it “increasingly difficult” for Lutherans and other historic confessional communities to participate. Spitz, who headed the first Lutheran Council observer delegation to COCU last year, passed up the 1969 session altogether, citing the press of other duties. He sent cordial greetings, however, and noted that “while elements of the detailed process which you have followed toward church union are new to us and foreign to our pattern, there is much that we have to learn from you.”
A Roman Catholic observer, noted historian Father George H. Tavard, indicated at a COCU news conference that he agreed with Spitz. “The first way to have unity is to have doctrinal agreement,” he said. But there was no sign at Atlanta that COCU would reconsider its decision to regard the historic creeds in a less-than-binding sense. Indeed, the subject never came up at the plenary level.
The most troublesome issue in the Atlanta sessions was how to achieve racial inclusiveness and balance in the new church. There have been rumors that the three black denominations in COCU—AME, AME Zion, and CME—might pull out. Insiders say this is unlikely.
Nevertheless, black churchmen registered a number of complaints on issues ranging from seating to representation. Some said flatly they do not trust white churchmen. A black bishop said “there certainly is anxiety and concern over grass-roots acceptance of Negro Christians in a united church.” Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference delivered a brief, inflammatory address at an after-hours meeting called by radicals. He charged that “the Church deals with symptoms, not with causes,” and that a reversal must begin in seminaries.
COCU Chairman James K. Mathews, a Methodist bishop, responded sympathetically, stating that the predominantly white churches need blacks more than the blacks need the whites. COCU delegates hope to build a racially inclusive church but realize that no amount of careful structuring will guarantee it.
Some see real hope in the “parish” idea. The name may be changed, but the idea of making the primary local unit a cluster of churches rather than individual congregations seems destined to characterize the new denomination. Membership will be in the parish, and a parish council will determine the mission and program of the constituent congregations. The parish is described as being “composed of one or more of the congregations of the uniting churches,” and the context places obvious emphasis on the plural.
The parish idea is not new, but it is quite revolutionary for denominations in which local autonomy has been a controlling principle. At the present time such congregational groupings are largely limited to sparsely populated and depressed areas where lone congregations are unable to make the financial grade by themselves.
“The parish may use several of the church buildings or plants of the congregations composing the parish,” the outline says, “but a full ‘church program’ will not necessarily be carried out in each of these ‘places.’ The full program at the local level of the united church shall be the parish program, consisting of those traditional emphases (worship, Christian education, etc.) which are essential to the mission of the church and of new forms of mission to be discovered and developed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
The sharing of ministers, and especially of specialists (music, Christian education, youth), will undoubtedly be a feature of the parish plan. Most other questions, however, are yet to be answered: Who will select the ministers? How shall “sick situations” be identified and resolved? Who should hold title to property?
There are even more issues to be resolved at the higher levels. For one thing, although “mission” is referred to repeatedly in the new outline, it is never defined or described. The purpose of both the Church universal and the new denomination is left unclear.
“Our greatest single problem is to involve the grass roots,” Bishop Mathews told newsmen. To this end, if participating denominations contribute enough funds, the consultation hopes to hire soon a $15,000-a-year publicist. COCU spokesmen are well aware that after the consultation’s first decade perhaps fewer than one in ten of the prospective members know what the initials stand for. There is also believed to be some submerged distrust of the laity, as evidenced by the fact that of the ninety COCU representatives fewer than twenty are lay people in secular vocations.
Critics of COCU contend that the biggest pitfalls are yet to come. A constitution for the new church will not be drawn up until after the merger is consummated. Also to come after union is a “new affirmation of faith.” Either or both of these could conceivably embrace principles unacceptable to evangelicals who feel they can live under present COCU standards.
The man responsible now more than any other for steering the American ecumenical course through all the turbulence is General Secretary Crow, a 37-year-old former Disciples of Christ pastor and church history professor. Alabama-born Crow, soft-spoken father of three, took over the post last September. His small COCU secretariat has offices in Princeton, New Jersey.
This summer Crow will get the help of a second executive. The Rev. W. Clyde Williams of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta has been named associate general secretary. He is a former Christian Methodist Episcopal pastor who served as a student missionary to Cuba.
COCU showed maturity in taking criticism in stride. At a protest rally attended by Georgia Governor Lester Maddox and some 2,500 others, the Rev. Carl McIntire and a local colleague sang a polemic ditty branding COCU “a monstrous dream.” At a COCU banquet Bishop J. G. M. Willebrands, key Vatican ecumenist, warned that “a national church, as a limit of Christian concern, is as unthinkable as a national god. If the Roman Catholic danger is the universal at the expense of the local, yours is the danger of the local or national at the expense of the universal.” Eugene Carson Blake, from whose 1960 sermon COCU originated, said working out church union is not easy “and it ought not to be.”
In the end it was the hope of renewal that spurred the delegates on. The closing prayer by a black bishop came at high noon on the first day of spring. Outside the sun shone warmly. Inside there were doubts that winter was over.
Missouri Synod Adventures
The Council of Presidents of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod voted 25–13 last month to recommend that the denomination’s July convention in Denver formally declare fellowship with the American Lutheran Church. As tension mounts over this issue, the Missourians are also involved in other ecumenical adventures. Like:
• After an intensive four-year study, a church commission has prepared a favorable report on affiliation with the Lutheran World Federation—a second issue on the July agenda. The committee says the LWF doctrinal basis is “proper and sufficient,” and Missouri could withdraw if a member denomination changes its confessional basis or compromises it in an ecumenical merger.
Two major problems are cited: There is definite variation in the way member churches apply their official confessional commitments to their actual “teaching and practice.” Also, some extend “the limits of intercommunion” beyond normal Lutheran practice.
Calming other fears, the committee says the LWF doesn’t legislate for member bodies, exercise churchly functions, or interfere in members’ affairs. And the report says the LWF’s work over twenty-two years “has greatly stimulated the doctrinal and confessional awareness of world Lutheranism.”
• National and district presidents of Missouri Synod, the ALC, and the small Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, met in Minneapolis on issues relating to theology and fellowship. The group unanimously passed a statement that “we all yield willingly to the authority of Holy Scriptures.” The ALC’s Charles Anderson and Missouri’s Herbert J. A. Bouman presented “theses” on biblical inerrancy and inspiration that were unanimously agreed upon “in substance” and commended to the constituency for study.The Anderson-Bouman paper takes a generally conservative stand on the Bible as a “normative authority” and “the Word of God, given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” It states that “the Lutheran Confessions did not express interest in certain externals concerning the Scriptures, such as extent of the canon and certain attributes, e.g., inerrancy, considered in isolation, as is sometimes done today. The Confessions were interested in the content of Scripture, as Law and Gospel, and as designed to perform God’s two chief works, ‘to terrify and to justify and quicken the terrified’.”
• Missouri’s President Oliver R. Harms held his second “unofficial” meeting with the president of the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), the biggest U. S. Lutheran body.
• In the continuing debate over the ALC issue, 300 Missouri laymen and 100 clergymen issued an “Affirmation” in favor of fellowship. President J. A. O. Preus of Concordia Seminary in Illinois, one of Missouri Synod’s two theological schools, said the ALC’s declaration of fellowship with the LCA last year makes it “a whole new ball game,” and Missouri can’t evaluate it by July.
New Episcopal Splinter
The new American Episcopal Church, which splintered from the Protestant Episcopal Church last May, has selected Cincinnati as its headquarters site.
The schism was caused by the usual conservative-liberal syndrome. AEC adherents believe the “management of the Protestant Episcopal Church has fallen into the hands of those who have permitted the faith and practice of Christianity to deteriorate in favor of forcing their own political and sociological concepts upon the Church.”
Bishop James H. George, Jr., executive of the young denomination, states it more succinctly: “The faith of the apostles has been watered down.”
George, formerly an Episcopal rector in Charleston, South Carolina, was consecrated a bishop in Cincinnati December 29. The service was conducted in a Masonic Temple chapel by the Most Reverend K. C. Pillai, primate of the AEC, who is also archbishop of the Indian Orthodox Church, thus in succession of the Old Catholic and Antiochean communions.
The AEC was organized at Mobile, Alabama, last May 18, largely the result of a lay movement.
JAMES L. ADAMS
“A man is responsible for his friends, not for his choice of relatives,” said Southern Presbyterian activist Dr. J. Randolph Taylor of his first cousin, Dr. G. Aiken Taylor, editor of the conservative Presbyterian Journal. The remark had significance beyond the immediate family.
As Randy Taylor added, it points up the family nature of the squabble now encircling the Presbyterian Church, U.S., with the “restorers” on the right and the “reformers” on the left. Theological polarity is mounting. Among other things, Aiken Taylor’s controversial Journal is up for possible censure by the denomination at its General Assembly in Mobile this month for asserting that the church-school curriculum is heretical.
Randy Taylor is former chairman of the liberal Fellowship of Concern—officially dissolved but operating informally. He and Warren Wilson, lay field director of the conservative Concerned Presbyterians—a group that was also asked to disband last year but refused—squared off on Presbyterian polarity problems at the annual meeting of the Religious Newswriters Association in Atlanta.
Wilson charged that half of the Southern Presbyterians’ 4,000 congregations will bolt the denomination to form a new one if the church goes into the proposed Consultation on Church Union merger. “We’re having difficulty persuading churches not to pull out now,” he said. But Taylor thought the estimate was exaggerated and added that he sees “at least eight or ten” alignment groups within the church, not just liberals and conservatives.
Wilson accused Taylor’s group of secretly plotting to “take over the political machinery of the church” through a clandestine group known as the Fellowship of St. James, which he said came out into the open in November, 1963, as the Fellowship of Concern and “took over the boards and agencies of the church.”
Both Wilson and Taylor agreed on one thing: the FOC was “unashamedly political.” Taylor conceded: “We sought to put pressure on” in the form of “thunder on the left.… We need to be much more seriously involved in the life of the world.”
Wilson said that presbytery meetings are clergy-dominated (some churches haven’t been represented by elders for a year or so, he claimed) and that 70 per cent of Southern Presbyterians aren’t aware of COCU. His group stresses the authority of Scripture and “bringing people to Christ.” He denied any “racist tints” in Concerned Presbyterians.
Eight millionaire Presbyterians have backed his organization to a total of $90–100,000 annually, Wilson told the religion writers, “and we have no trouble getting it.”
Earlier this year, four student pastors of the Dutch Roman Catholic Student Church collided with their bishops and came out on the better side by persuading the primate to permit engaged Father Jos Vrijburg to continue preaching after his marriage. It was agreed, however, that he would not celebrate Mass. This was in Amsterdam.
Last month, in Utrecht, Bernard Cardinal Alfrink blew the whistle on three other student pastors when the youthful congregation invited “heretical” Dutch Reformed, Reformed, Mennonite, Lutheran, Baptist, and Arminian student ministers to serve Mass during Lent. With two services behind them, in which they used a form quite compatible with the average Protestant service, the student pastors received their comeuppance.
In conscience, Cardinal Alfrink said, he could not allow their continuance. In conscience, they rejoined, they would continue.
Alfrink had the more convincing conscience. Under a church law forbidding the holding of services with heretics, the three Utrecht priests were suspended.
JAN J. VAN CAPELLEVEEN
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more