We have examined the Confession of the Church of Christ Uniting and have found it vague and inadequate at best. It is a sad example of the trend toward doctrinal imprecision and latitudinarianism, written in such a way that one can read into it what he wants to find there. Similarly, the ecclesiology of the new church is laid out in a way designed to impress each member body that it has lost nothing and that the new form is a blend of all the good points of the uniting churches. The effort is less than convincing, although it may have been thought essential to COCU’s success.
The nine churches now engaged in the merger proceedings are undergirded by three general ecclesiological traditions: congregationalism, presbyterianism, and the episcopacy. The majority of the participating churches and by far the largest numerical bloc in the proceedings fall within the tradition of episcopacy. (Only one of them, however, claims a share in the historical episcopacy of the Catholic and Orthodox churches.)
In congregationalism, the local church is fully autonomous, and each congregation is fully and truly not simply a congregation but a church, with all the marks and attributes of a church. All decisions are made by the congregation in democratic fashion. The local church has the right to call a minister, elect and dismiss its officers, ordain men to the gospel ministry, and exercise discipline. No one stands above the local church; its decisions are final and not subject to appeal to any person, synod, assembly, or other body.
In presbyterian polity, the church, which may number many congregations, is governed by representatives who legislate for the membership. The church has a general assembly, synods, and presbyteries. The presbytery has immediate jurisdiction over all the churches within it. It ordains ministers and deposes them. It must approve the establishment and dissolution of ministerial relationships; if a congregation wishes to call a minister and the presbytery does not agree to the call, the congregation cannot install that man. The actions of each church are subject to the approval of the presbytery, and, on appeal, the synod, and finally, the general assembly. Members are voted in and out of the congregation by the ruling elders, not by direct vote of the congregation as in congregationalism.
In the episcopacy, the bishop is at the center of the stage. He has charge over all the churches in his diocese and is responsible for ordaining men to the ministry and for settling and removing clergy. A Methodist bishop, for example, determines what minister goes to what church. The bishop also assigns the churches quotas of money to be raised. No one can be ordained to the ministry without the laying on of the hands of a bishop, and bishops consecrate other bishops. The Episcopal Church goes beyond the Methodists in its claim to an unbroken continuity of the office of bishop from the days of the apostles. Traditionally (although there were some exceptions) no man, however called and ordained, was thought a true minister of the Gospel if the hands of a bishop had not been laid on him. Therefore no Congregational or Presbyterian clergyman, for example, used to be considered as holding “holy orders,” nor could he rightly, in this view, dispense the sacraments.
Since denominations from these distinct ecclesiological traditions will be brought together in the new church, the pressing questions are: Which tradition will be dominant? And will any of the traditions lose much? Despite minor concessions to other polities the new church will be episcopal and in the historic episcopacy at that. Of that there is no doubt. Never have the Protestant churches of the Reformation (the Anglican church has not ordinarily considered itself a true Reformation body, and neither have many of the Baptists) claimed “visible historic continuity with the church of all ages, before and after the Reformation” (p. 49 of the Plan of Union; subsequent page numbers will refer to this document also). This is precisely what the new church will do. The plan affirms plainly that “the bishops together personify the continuity of the Church’s trusteeship of tradition and pastoral oversight” (p. 49).
It is important to note that in the historic episcopate, where there is no bishop there is no church. Nor can there be ministerial succession without a bishop. Provision is made that in the new church, all ordination candidates will have hands laid on them by deacons and presbyters as well as a bishop. But this slight concession cannot hide the fact that the validity of holy orders depends on the laying on of the hands of a bishop.
This point must be stressed and its implications made plain. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says:
Traditional theology also holds that the Sacrament of Orders can be validly conferred only by a duly consecrated Bishop, acting as the minister of Christ and the successor of the Apostles. The episcopate is thus held to create a historical link between the Church of Apostolic times and that of today and is both the means and assurance of the continuity of office and of the transmission of grace; and on these grounds the episcopate is held to be of the esse of the Church [p. 989, italics added].
In the Act Uniting the Ministries, a part of the formal inauguration of the new church, it is so worked out that ministers who have not previously had the hands of a bishop laid on their heads will now experience this. The service of inauguration provides that hands—including those of a bishop as well as those of deacons and presbyters—must be laid on participating ministers “until all in the circle have laid hands on all others and all have had the hands of all others laid on them” (p. 89, italics added). If the historic episcopate, which the new church will accept, includes (as it does by traditional definition) the view that ordination or holy orders “can be validly conferred only by a duly consecrated Bishop,” then it follows that those ministers who before entering the new church did not have the hands of a bishop laid on them did not really have valid ordinations. Even if the inauguration service did not provide for the laying on of hands, all new candidates after the official launching of the church would be required to have a bishop’s hands laid on their heads, and in not more than one generation the church would then be episcopal.
For those who believe in the tradition of the historic episcopate, much will be gained, nothing lost. For those who believe in other polities, the Union will mean that they lose their unique identities. And it goes further than that. The terms of the agreement make it necessary for those who do not presently stand in the tradition of the historic episcopate to commit themselves to it. Some will find they can do this readily. But for others, such as those who remain convinced Disciples or Presbyterians, the problem may be traumatic. They will be asked to assent to what they do not believe. This can make false witnesses out of them. But as we saw when we examined the theological basis of the union, acts of divisiveness, even for conscience sake will not be allowed.
Had provision been made for churches and ministers to remain outside the union and still retain possession of their church property, there could be continuing churches composed of those who wished to remain true to their heritage. But there is no such provision. Instead, churches and ministers will be permitted to leave the Church of Christ Uniting not more than one year after the formation of the permanent district organization. What this will mean, of course, is that some churches and ministers will have to unite, for the sake of expediency, in a church from which they expect to withdraw in a few years; to take part in a union to which they are opposed in principle; to assent for a time to propositions they do not believe. There have been some objections expressed to the provision of any “escape clause” at all, but it still is a part of the uniting document. Its inclusion will probably avoid the rash of litigation that might otherwise rise out of the merger arrangements.
How firmly committed the new church will be to the historic episcopate may be seen from its statement on future relationships to church bodies not included in this union. Its goal is one visible church. It “shall seek communion and union with other churches in the United States and elsewhere in the world, including other uniting churches” (p. 73). The further qualification that “the united church will not regard the absence of episcopal ordination as a de facto barrier to communion and fellowship” has been deleted from the latest document. But in the future, when any minister is accepted for service in the Church of Christ Uniting, he must “be received in a rite comparable to the rite of unification of the ministry” (p. 74). Thus the basis for the ministry is that of the historic episcopate, no matter how cleverly this is concealed.
With the episcopate as a foundation, the church will not find it hard to move toward union with the various Anglican bodies around the world. Nor should it have great difficulty working for reunion with Rome, which is always ready and eager to receive the “separated brethren” back into the fold. The episcopate in the new church will be a genuine barrier, however, to those who stand firm in the Presbyterian, Baptist, or continuing Congregational tradition. So long as Presbyterians and Baptists resist the idea of the historic episcopate, there will be little likelihood of their union with the Church of Christ Uniting.
Perhaps the most devastating changes to be wrought by the new church are those having to do with the structure of local congregations. What is involved is not simply an overhaul of old procedures but a revolutionary shakeup. No doubt most churches could stand a vigorous jolt; their programs are often ineffective and obviously need reworking. Sunday-school programs and particularly Sunday-school literature in some of the uniting denominations are so theologically liberal that for them almost any change would be an improvement. But what the restructuring will radically alter is the external form of church life.
At the heart of the new church will be the parish plan, said to be a “distinctive and fundamental focus of this Plan of Union”—“the competitive drive at present for every existing congregation, no matter how limited the resources, to attempt a full program of worship, education at every level, fellowship, and action will be minimized in this new framework” (p. 56). The full ministry will be in the hands of the parish, which will include a number of churches. “In order to insure racial and socio-economic wholeness, the parish may include congregations of uniting churches that are some distance apart” (p. 57), while churches next door to each other will not necessarily be part of the same parish.
“The parish program shall be the program of the church at the local level.… The parish program may be conducted in several different places as may be most expedient.… It will not be necessary that all elements of the program be carried out at each place” (p. 90). In other words, the worship services of the parish (comprising a number of local congregations) might be limited to one of the former church sanctuaries. Another might be used exclusively for community programs. Still another might be used only for educational purposes.
Some parts of the parish program have been designed to solve two particularly pressing problems. One is the problem of integration. Perhaps 20 per cent of the membership of the new church will be black. In most churches today, de facto segregation continues, often because of housing or geographical distribution. The parish plan can break this pattern by combining white churches and black churches in the same parish. This may mean, of course, that a parish will include churches from different geographical areas, and that three or four white or three or four black churches very close to one another might be assigned to different parishes that would include churches some distance away. This part of the plan will enrage any who entertain racist views, but it is an appropriate manifestation of the biblical truth that in Christ there is no east or west, no white or black. Yet it does mean that the neighborhood church within easy walking distance of children whose parents will not bother to transport them by automobiles will cease to be.
The second pressing problem is the need to break up denominational patterns. A parish will contain an assortment of churches, formerly of different denominations, which will be wedded together in the parish form and thus lose their original identity. If this were not done and if local congregations were permitted to continue as they are, then the union would be connectional and fraternal rather than integrative.
Can the parish plan succeed? Will the people cooperate? Will they be willing to put the welfare of the new church ahead of personal convenience and desires? Will they be able to rise above a feeling that they are being arbitrarily maneuvered? Will the parish plan create problems worse than those that presently exist? Only time will answer these questions. It takes no great insight, however, to discern that the period of transition will be arduous, the loss of active members great, the disaffection deep and in some cases, perhaps, insuperable. The uniting churches will have to face some grim days in the future.
The fate of congregations that might desire to withdraw from the united church and retain their property and identity is left in gravest doubt. In the March, 1970, meeting, the Plan of Union presented to the delegates included the statement, “At any time within one year after the Service of Inauguration, any local congregation may determine to withdraw from the united church by a majority vote of its communicant members. If such action is voted, the congregation may retain the church property used by it at the time of the Service of Inauguration” (italics added). This has now been altered radically and reads: “At any time within one year after the formation of the permanent district organization, any local congregation may determine to withdraw from the united church by a majority vote of its communicant members” (p. 81, italics added). But COCU officials estimate that it will take at least five years after the Service of Inauguration for the permanent district organization to be formed. Does this imply that it may take ten years or longer? What is clear is that no congregation will be able to vote itself out of the united church until it has been in at least five years and probably more. During that time the parish plan will alter the local situation so significantly that for any congregation to retain its identity will be virtually impossible. Thus the one-year escape clause is a cruel farce and in reality fulfills the desires of those who were opposed to the inclusion of any withdrawal provision at all. If enough local congregations realize the full import of this change, the framers of COCU may discover they have a full-scale revolt on their hands. And they deserve it.
Reactions to COCU among ministers and laymen vary widely. Some are convinced that no price is too high to pay for visible unity and are willing to set aside doctrinal and ecclesiological concerns. Some are sure that the Church of Christ Uniting is the Spirit’s dream, that the reality of a visibly undivided church is the Holy Grail, worth whatever sacrifice it requires. On the other hand, strong lay and clerical movements have arisen whose purpose is to defeat the plan. There are ministers whose convictions will not allow them to permit the hands of a bishop to be laid on them as a validation of their ordination. And many ministers and laymen are convinced that the merger will further dilute the expression of evangelical views and further diminish the evangelistic outreach of the churches. They point to studies that show that membership, missionary manpower and income, and spiritual vitality seem to diminish after church mergers.
Furthermore, some see in COCU leaders the desire to produce a single church with a large membership that will be politically powerful. They feel that the intention in part is to politicize the church further and use it as a lobby to change economic and social structures. In the Roman Catholic Church, these critics say, the Protestant establishment sees a convincing example of how a monolithic body can exert influence, and the COCU plan is designed to produce a similarly effective Protestant structure.
Now that the Plan of Union is to be studied in the local churches, it will be interesting to see whether that which has been devised at the top can win acceptance at the grass-roots level, among people whose religious convictions and “lifestyles” are strikingly varied. If it does, and the union takes place, what ought evangelicals do? We will consider this important question in a subsequent article.
One toy, one joy, we received as children,
a pebble among the bikes and skis,
Parchesi, Authors, Erector sets,
a sort of marble but flatter, smaller,
hard with conviction, pale as the eyes
of whitefish, live as a cat’s.
Some of us lost it, pawned it, sold
it for next to nothing, watched it fall
through subway gratings with easy grace.
But those lucky enough to hold
onto it learned that it was a pearl
we’d been given, and one of great price.
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