A charter bus rumbled through the outskirts of Atlanta last March taking participants in the eighth annual plenary session of the Consultation on Church Union to visit the grave of Martin Luther King, Jr. En route an official observer from the African Methodist Episcopal Church shared his views about the giant merger proposal with a reporter. “There has been just a rearrangement, not anything fresh or new,” he said.

“This year we simply have the timbers and material,” continued Dr. Andrew White, executive secretary of his denomination’s Division of Christian Education in Nashville. “Next year we’ll ask, ‘Is this the house in which I can live?’ ”

Delegates to the ninth session, held in St. Louis this month, began looking at the first draft of a plan of union for nine denominations that would put one-third of America’s Protestants under one roof: the Church of Christ Uniting. And they began deciding whether the house could be home for 25 million—with an open door for other Christian bodies to join later. The “unity of the whole church” is the ultimate goal of the plan of union, according to the 147-page draft released last month from COCU’s Princeton, New Jersey, office.

If delegates in St. Louis give the plan a green light, it will go to the nine denominations for further study and refinement. Revised details may then be approved by subsequent COCU plenary sessions, perhaps by 1972 or 1973. Finally, each denomination must vote acceptance or rejection. No timetable for such action has been set, but COCU spokesmen say they hope union can take place by 1980.

After all denominations have voted, merger can begin if at least two favor it. Presumably a constitution would then be drafted. The document to be voted upon in St. Louis contains services for ordaining presbyters and deacons and for consecrating bishops, as well as a service of inauguration.

At any time within a year after the national service of inauguration, any local congregation of a uniting denomination could withdraw from the united church by a majority vote of its communicant members. The departing congregation would retain local church property, according to the plan.

The new church, as proposed, would have an episcopal form of government, with bishops the chief executive officials (a black bishop must be the first presiding officer), and other ministerial offices of presbyters and deacons. But laymen would be able to outvote clergy delegates in decision-making units; the plan provides a two-to-one ratio favoring laymen.

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The plan permits women bishops—something none of the present COCU partners has—and stresses that “all minority races, various age groups, and men and women shall participate fully.”

The basic unit would be the parish, not the congregation. A member would belong to a parish unit, consisting normally of at least several congregations—not necessarily geographically contiguous—and a number of task groups. These task forces would be made up of loose, ad hoc associations of persons committed to particular social and religious projects.

Nationally, some 75,000 congregations will be affected if the COCU plan is adopted by all nine churches. Each cluster of about seventy-five parishes and task groups would be lumped into “districts,” and six or eight districts into “regions.” There would be about 200 regions throughout the country.

The plan was prepared by a fifteen-member drafting commission headed by Dr. William A. Benfield, Jr., a Charleston, West Virginia, Southern Presbyterian pastor. The commission began its work in the summer of 1968.

“We have met with liberals, conservatives, black-power people, radical renewalists, organizational-theory people, youth, and a wide range of others,” said Benfield in describing the commission’s work. “We have tried to devise a structure which will enable the Church to spring loose from antique practices and fulfill the mission given it by the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Doctrinally, the draft plan calls for the united church to confess the Trinity and “Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior,” acknowledge “the unique authority of the Holy Scripture,” and accept the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds “as witnessing to the mighty acts of God recorded in Scripture.”

Both infant and believers’ baptism would be practiced, and persons eligible to receive Communion in other churches could take that sacrament in the united church.

A key test for evangelicals is an examination question to be asked at the ordination of presbyters (now known as priests, pastors, and elders in COCU member churches): “Are you persuaded that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments convey the Word of God needed for teaching our faith and nurturing the life in Christ?”

The Service of Inauguration of the Church of Christ Uniting will signal actual union and will be based on one central service. The part that would unite the ordained ministries “is not to be described as a service of reordination, or of conditional ordination,” the plan of union points out.

This has been touchy among high churchmen who are sensitive about the apostolic succession. The inauguration service goes to great lengths to avoid any inequality: “The setting for the central and regional services will be spaces large enough and properly shaped so as to accommodate the assembling of the people all the way around a circular table. Acts of unification within this service are planned in such a way so as to affirm the equality of the participating churches by arranging representatives of them in a complete circle.”

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Noted ecumenist Bishop Lesslie New bigin of South India, a Presbyterian who is bishop of the Madras diocese, was scheduled to conduct study sessions and preach at a Communion service during the St. Louis sessions. But a man whose name is a COCU household word was not expected to appear this year. The press of his job as general secretary of the World Council of Churches probably would keep Dr. Eugene Carson Blake from attending, COCU communications officer Robert Lear told CHRISTIANITY TODAY.

In December of 1960, Blake kicked off the COCU movement, then as stated clerk of the United Presbyterian Church, with a famous sermon in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. He has appeared at most of COCU’s annual meetings, started in 1962.

Blake reportedly indicated during a press conference in San Francisco this January that he had “about lost all interest” in COCU, saying that organizational concerns had overrun the original intent of “spiritual renewal and fervor.” Blake later denied any disaffection with the Consultation.


All Souls

In one week last month. All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D. C., was the rallying point for the National Council of Negro Women, the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus (BUUC), and leaders of the Conspiracy, a group supporting the “Chicago Seven” in their much publicized trial.

The women’s group (not church-affiliated) plugged unity among black women, and the black caucus—representing 90 per cent of the 1,000 Negroes in the 283,000-member Unitarian Universalist Association—voted to withdraw from its parent organization. The move was seen as a plan for black Unitarians to retain control and autonomy of the caucus while still keeping ties with local congregations of the church.

At its 1968 conference, the General Assembly of the UUA took what many called a most progressive step: it allocated $1 million to the caucus without strings, to be paid in $250,000 allotments over four years. The 1968–69 total UUA budget was only $2.7 million. Among other grievances cited by BUUC leaders for the disaffiliation—which may set a trend that black caucuses in major Protestant denominations will follow—was the allegation that UUA directors cut off $50,000 of the $1 million allocation.

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Church officials said that the full $1 million would be paid but that budgetary problems made it necessary to spread the allotment over five years instead of four. The $50,000 would be made up the final year, they said.

The Chicago Seven rally was attended by about 200 persons, and plans were laid for two demonstrations in the capital that followed over the Washington’s Birthday weekend. Some 230 persons were arrested then during skirmishes with police, more than at any other post-trial demonstration for the Chicago Seven defendants by that date. An assistant minister at All Souls Church said “groups of all persuasions” are allowed to use the church facilities, but “that doesn’t imply [church] endorsement.”

Fasting And Picketing

“This kind never comes out except by prayer and fasting.” According to many ancient biblical texts, this was Jesus’ reply when the disciples asked why they could not cast an unclean spirit out of an epileptic boy.

Anti-war protesters who are stationing themselves in front of the White House daily are convinced that there are demons about, and that a Lenten-Passover fast of seventy-five days may help to drive them out. They began the fast on Ash Wednesday to protest the Viet Nam war, and spokesmen say they hope for “a positive response for peace” from President Nixon.

Most of the approximately one hundred demonstrators fast only about eight hours a day, but a few—including the Reverend Richard R. Fernandez of Philadelphia—plan to consume only water until April 28. Fernandez, nominal leader of the group, heads the sponsoring Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Viet Nam. The Fellowship of Reconciliation is co-sponsor.

Before marching to the White House on Ash Wednesday, participants held a service at a nearby church. There they daubed their foreheads with ashes from the charred remains of tax forms, armed forces recruiting posters and identification tags, and other “symbols of repression.” About fifty persons, mostly young and mostly white, then walked from the church to the executive mansion. Among those who manned the picket line there on subsequent days (the average size of the line between nine and five o’clock was ten persons) was the treasurer of the United Church of Christ, James Davis, and the newly elected Episcopal bishop coadjutor of New York, Paul Moore, Jr.

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Leaders of the fast and picket promise the pace will pick up as Easter approaches: vigils and fasts in front of federal buildings in various cities every Wednesday noon; a “religious procession” on Good Friday to places that are “signs of death”; pulpit readings on Easter of a pastoral letter signed by some fifty national religious leaders; and a “freedom seder” near the end of Passover in which Jews and Christians will participate.

Meanwhile, the New Mobilization Committee to End the War in Viet Nam mounted a “winter-spring” offensive for peace this month. The coalition of about 100 civil, religious, and youth groups that engineered the October and November demonstrations in Washington planned teach-ins, withholding of income tax, turn-in of draft cards, and poster campaigns.

Most unusual, however, is a design to clog draft-board files with Bibles mailed in by Selective Service registrants. United States law requires that all correspondence with registrants be kept. Draft-resisters may be boosting Bible sales, but how many copies of the Good Book will be read is anyone’s guess.

Mcintire-O’Hair Debate: Bruised But Unbowed

Excited conversations rippled through the packed television studio as the portly middle-aged woman, her fading blond hair tied into a pony tail, stepped into the room and flashed a smile at the two men she was about to debate.

Mrs. Madalyn Murray O’Hair, a World War II WAC and former social worker who is now America’s most prominent atheist, placed her worn leather case beside her chair, faced Dr. Carl McIntire (fundamentalist minister and head of the International Council of Christian Churches), and launched the first of two debates that would be televised locally in late February and early March.

Perhaps because of a light touch of flu or a facial bruise that earlier in the day had prompted her to file aggravated-assault charges against her husband, Mrs. O’Hair was caught off balance by Dr. McIntire’s humor and by the debating skill of her second opponent, Dr. Edward Bauman, progressive theologian and host of a nationwide television series on the Bible.

“Atheism is the religion of the future,” she argued. “simply because it is relevant. It is the religion of life. It gives them a new kind of freedom, an independence of spirit.”

Before loosing his attack, Dr. McIntire drew laughter and applause when he quipped: “The way is open to go to the Supreme Court and have atheism ruled out of public schools as a religion.” It was the first of many jabs at the Poor Richard Universal Life Church, a non-profit organization that Mrs. O’Hair and her husband recently organized in an effort to have the tax-free status of churches abolished. She named herself bishop and her husband—who was arrested minutes after the taping session for assaulting her—the prophet.

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Drawing out his black King James Bible, Dr. McIntire quoted Scripture to “prove” the existence of God and explain the “first principles” of Christianity. Taking the offensive, a tack that disarmed Mrs. O’Hair, the grey-haired, barrel-chested, Bible Presbyterian minister lectured her on sin and told her she needed to be born again. “Atheism has no messiah, no savior.… What hope do you have for eternity? You’re wasting your life now.… Lady, you need to be born again,” he declared.

“What I’m doing,” she replied, “is gambling that there won’t be any eternal life. I don’t want it. What I want is life now … and let the devil take the rest.” The audience roared.

She “applauded” Dr. McIntire, host of the “Twentieth Century Reformation Hour” radio program, for “at least having the intellectual honesty and courage to stand by those absurd ideas … without exception fallacious, erroneous, and a little bit ludicrous.”

Old women in the studio shook their heads as Mrs. O’Hair dismissed Jesus as “horrendous, intolerant, hate-filled and anti-sex. I would have appreciated Jesus Christ if he had found a woman, married, and had a beautiful love af-fair.” When Dr. McIntire began equating Christianity with patriotism and atheism with Communism, Mrs. O’Hair retorted: “Communism cannot equal the horrendous atrocities of Christianity.”

Mrs. O’Hair’s exaggerations and generalizations—about Jesus’ brutality, for example—kept atheism from “winning” the debate. And Dr. McIntire’s soft voice, willingness to smile at himself, and occasional jests prevented fundamentalism from “losing.”

Mrs. O’Hair launched the second debate by calling Dr. Bauman, pastor of Foundry Methodist Church in Washington, D. C., a liberal who “draws the circle of religion so large that you include even people who don’t want to be entrapped. Progressives and liberals just coat the pill differently.”


Ethel Waters: Study In Inspiration

In a beautiful little theater in Chicago last month, an aging and ailing Ethel Waters came back. Young America knows her best from Billy Graham’s television crusades. But show business acclaims her most as the stage and screen star in The Member of the Wedding. It is in that role that she returned for a six-week stint at Chicago’s new Ivanhoe Theater.

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“I’m prayin’ that I’ll be able to hold out,” said Miss Waters. It was a remark typical of her lifelong determination and dedication. She was born under the worst of conditions at the turn of the century and has been flying in the face of adversity ever since. But few in the entertainment world have soared higher longer.The New Yorker has said that “there is every reason (voice, technique, originality) to believe” that Ethel Waters “is the one truly great, compleat popular singer this country has produced.”

Miss Waters is associated most widely with the gospel song “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” She learned it as a girl while her grandmother pumped out a one-finger version on the organ. It is the song she sings in The Member of the Wedding, the play in which she made a big hit on Broadway. The title is also that of her autobiography, a 1951 Book-of-the-Month Club selection.

“Wedding” won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award twenty years ago. Reviving it was a risk, however, for today’s theater audience seems to favor moral perversion over sentiment. Miss Waters plays a Negro housekeeper and substitute mother to a girl who finds the transition from 12 to 13 a traumatic experience. The drama is an adaptation of a novel by the late Carson McCullers.

Miss Waters was born in Chester, Pennsylvania, an industrial town on the Delaware River just south of Philadelphia. She was conceived out of wedlock and grew up in an area where poverty and crime flourished. She knew all about life in the raw and “just ran wild as a little girl,” she says. “My mixed blood explains this, partly, I think.” Her maternal great-grandfather was a native of India. Her grandmother on her father’s side was Dutch.

Through it all, Miss Waters retained her principles. She never drank, smoked, or took dope. At the age of 6, while lying seriously ill, she was baptized by a Roman Catholic priest. When she was 12 she was converted at a revival meeting. She now says:

“I don’t say I’m a religious person. I say I’m a born-again Christian. And that is the most important thing in my life because I’ve found my living Saviour.”

Miss Waters launched her career as an entertainer when she was 17. It was in the Lincoln Theatre in Baltimore, and the song that got her started was W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.” She obtained special permission to sing it, and was the first woman and the second person to do so professionally. Other songs that helped to make her famous were “Dinah” and “Stormy Weather.”

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Miss Waters did not become interested in evangelistic work until 1957, the year Graham held his first big meetings in New York. Then she sang in the choir and did solo work. “I felt a rekindlin’ I hadn’t felt since I was 12,” she recalls. Since then she has appeared at numerous crusades, despite diabetes, heart trouble, and high blood pressure.

It is through crusade television, interestingly, that Miss Waters has performed for her biggest audiences. And there are some ironies in that fact. Her autobiography records that she was mistreated by white people many times during her life. For some years she was understandably indignant. Thus it is a gratifyingly Christian reflection that what she considers the most significant work of her life should come in partnership with a Southern white evangelist. Movie producers who want to depict her life should take note.


Celibacy Vows: Mandate Or Mistake?

As Maundy Thursday (March 26) nears, Roman Catholic priests around the world are debating whether they will accept an invitation to renew their vows of celibacy and priestly obedience. The strong suggestion that every priest should do this on Holy Thursday morning was made in a circular letter to the heads of the national episcopacies by John Cardinal Wright, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy. Public announcement of the policy last month marked a hardening of papal defense of the Latin Rite celibate priesthood (see February 27 issue, page 39).

By month-end national hierarchies were lining up in a way that boded ill for Pope Paul’s authority and the seamless church he heads.

Among those who backed priestly celibacy were the U. S., German, and French bishops; Paul Cardinal Zoungrana of Upper Volta, West Africa: and Julius Cardinal Döpfner of Munich.

But eighty-four professors of theology in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria appealed to their bishops for a dialogue on celibacy—a request previously voiced by the Dutch hierarchy (who issued the initial challenge to the rule). A group of French priests—despite their bishops’ stand—thanked the Dutch bishops for “taking a realistic position.” And 140 priests in Switzerland supported optional celibacy; so did 155 in Münster, West Germany.

While Spain’s ninety-five bishops affirmed celibacy, a poll showed that 61 per cent of seminarians there did not want it compulsory. In the Archdiocese of Toronto there won’t be an obligatory oath of celibacy for priests this year.

In the Netherlands, meanwhile, the whole subject seemed largely academic. A classified ad in the progressive Dutch weekly De nieuwe linie recently asked: “WHAT PRIEST of approximately 50–55 years wishes further contact with high-school teacher of 49 years in order to be a help to each other and to grow toward a happy marriage. Letters under No. L. 996 at address of thit paper.”

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