COCU eyes an uncertain future
Presbyterian News Service, November 13, 1998
ST. LOUIS – Representatives of an almost 40-year-old dialogue of nine U.S. Christian denominations will gather in here Jan. 20-24 to consider whether their churches are ready to take a major step toward Christian unity at the beginning of the 21st century. Among the nine are three historically African American church bodies.
Planners of the upcoming 18th Plenary of the Consultation on Church Union (COCU) say that the St. Louis meeting is crucial for the future of the ecumenical movement in the United States. Plenary delegates will seek to craft a document suggesting to the churches the next steps for COCU, whose quest for a workable, acceptable model of “visible unity” began in the early 1960s. It has been a full decade since the convening of a Plenary, COCU’s top legislative body. During those 10 years, member churches have studied and acted on COCU proposals, as well as engaging in other ecumenical dialogues and unity efforts.
One of two proposals
The COCU initiative is “one of two proposals for full communion of churches now on the American table,” said the Rev. Diane Kessler of Boston, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches and chair of the Plenary’s program and planning committee. The other proposal involves the Episcopal Church, a COCU member body, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), a non-member body.
The consultation is also significant, Kessler said, because it is currently the only multilateral dialogue in this country working toward an eventual goal of “full communion.” The ELCA, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ (UCC) and the Reformed Church in America recently completed their “formula for agreement” establishing full communion between them.
“There is no other table like this one,” added the Rev. Thomas E. Dipko of Cleveland. Without COCU’s continuing life, no other multilateral unity conversation among different theological traditions would exist “at which African American churches could negotiate on an equal footing with predominantly white churches,” said Dipko, a UCC official and that church’s representative on the consultation’s executive committee.
COCU dialogues involve Episcopal, Presbyterian, Disciples, United, Community and Methodist bodies, including the three predominantly African American denominations.
‘Churches in Covenant Communion’
According to the Rev. Lewis H. Lancaster Jr. of Louisville, a PC(USA) minister who is interim general secretary, representatives of member denominations will report to the Plenary on official responses taken by their churches on “Churches in Covenant Communion.” That proposal was unanimously approved by the 17th COCU Plenary in 1988 in New Orleans and sent to member churches for their endorsement.
Eight of the nine church bodies have approved the document. Though the PC(USA) approved the document, enabling amendments to the church’s “Book of Order” to implement it failed. Planners say the St. Louis meeting will address racism as a “church-dividing issue,” considering a paper titled “A Call to Christian Commitment to Combat Racism.” Among other initiatives, the document proposes that churches “claim Martin Luther King Jr. Day observances . . . for dialogue leading to systemic change.”
Delegates will also have in their preparatory materials a report from COCU’s Theology Commission, which offers recommendations for a way forward for the consultation. The commission is chaired by the Rev. Cynthia Campbell, a Presbyterian and president of McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.
Much of the work of the meeting – in both small-group conversations and plenary deliberations – will employ a style described by Kessler as a “discerning process” that is “less juridical, more dialogical and reflective” than standard parliamentary procedure. The meeting will also revert to traditional rules of debate and decision-making when necessary for taking votes, she said. Named as “process leaders” for the meeting are Bishop Susan Hassinger, leader of United Methodism’s Boston Area, and the Rev. Canon Edward Rodman, canon missioner for the Western Michigan Diocese of the Episcopal Church. Both have extensive experience in guiding process for decision-making groups, including bodies of bishops, Kessler said.
A four-member drafting team of experienced ecumenical writers has been appointed to craft a document reflecting the collective thinking of Plenary delegates and to suggest COCU’s next steps toward “visible unity.”
A new relationship
If a document is approved by the Plenary and subsequently endorsed by the denominations’ highest decision-making assemblies, the outcome could lead, early in the 21st century, to a new relationship for expressing unity among the churches. Various models of unity have been studied, debated and revised repeatedly by the consultation’s dialogue participants since the early 1960s.
COCU leaders emphasize that current thinking in no way envisions a structural “mega-merger” or the creation of a “superchurch” by the multiracial body of denominations – an assurance that has in past years often been misunderstood or mistrusted at the grass-roots level of the churches. Some COCU participants say new ideas for COCU’s next steps were sparked in part by the progress made in other ecumenical dialogues – notably Lutheran-Reformed and Lutheran-Episcopal.
COCU, which held its first plenary in 1962, has written successive proposals to bring into being what founders envisioned as “the Church of Christ Uniting.” The 1988 “Churches in Covenant Communion” describes the unity sought as a “covenanting” among churches that would preserve current denominational structures while enabling shared mission, ministry and sacraments, and mutual accountability.
COCU had its origins in a proposal made by the late Rev. Eugene Carson Blake, a high-ranking Presbyterian leader, in a historic sermon preached Dec. 6, 1960, at Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco. Blake had been invited to the cathedral pulpit by the late Bishop James K. Pike, then head of the Diocese of California.
Blake’s sermon, which became front-page news, envisioned a new church that would simultaneously be “truly catholic and truly reformed.” Two years later, at the consultation’s first Plenary, participants agreed to add a third description, “truly evangelical,” to Blake’s formula. The three words catholic, reformed and evangelical describe attributes regarded as central by particular theological traditions. In the context of the consultation, Lancaster explained, the words have these meanings:
Catholic: an emphasis on sacraments and the threefold ministry (bishop, priest and deacon).
Reformed: an emphasis on the sovereignty of God, the centrality of Scripture, and representative government.
Evangelical: an emphasis on mission and witness.
Since the start of the movement spearheaded by Pike and Blake (who died in 1969 and 1985 respectively), a full generation of church leaders has led COCU’s deliberations, and younger generations of leaders have moved into key positions.
Lancaster noted that consultation leaders are fond of quoting a saying of a noted ecumenist, the late Bishop Lesslie Newbigin. To those who asked why it took 40 years to form the Church of South India, Newbigin would respond: “Because we were in such a hurry.”
At COCU’s organizational genesis in 1962, four churches were represented. Other bodies have since joined, two separate mergers involving member churches have taken place. The consultation, whose offices are in Princeton, N.J., now has nine member denominations: African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, Episcopal Church, International Council of Community Churches, PC(USA), UCC and the United Methodist Church.
Each denomination will have 10 official delegates at the St. Louis Plenary. A number of ecumenical observers will attend from church bodies that are not COCU members. Plenary sessions will be open to the press and public.
(Jean Caffey Lyles, an award-winning free-lance journalist, is press officer for COCU.)