The prospects are “bright.” Before very long the possibility exists that seven large Protestant denominations, maybe more, will merge into one large superdenomination containing 24 million members. That is what “COCU” is about (Consultation On Church Union). The “Consultation” which has been in progress for the past five years is a gathering of nine representatives from each of the seven participating denominations. These men annually discuss various aspects of the difference between the denominations. They have been coming to conclusions. The pattern is being set forth of the large, presently unnamed (as far as I know), super-denomination which they hope and pray (?) will emerge as a fruit of their consultations.
And as I pointed out last time, the goal of those seeking such merger is not merely to form this one super-denomination of seven existing denominations, but to work towards an organization consisting of all the churches of the land. Then there will be one united “church” proclaiming that “unity’ of which Christ spoke in John 17 — so they say.
But what problems, what differences, are being ironed out by the representatives to COCU? One can well imagine that denominations ranging from Presbyterian to Methodist and Episcopalian would have many doctrinal and confessional differences. But is this what concerns them?
I will be quoting in this article from a paper-back book entitled, “COCU — The Reports of the Four Meetings,” published by Forward Movement Miniature Books. This book summarizes what has been discussed and decided at the first four meetings of COCU during 1962 through 1965.
It becomes readily evident that the concern of COCU is neither doctrinal nor confessional. They recognize that different denominations do have different creeds, these appear to be included in what are called “traditions of the church”, but very little is done with the doctrines taught in these creeds. At the first meeting in Washington in 1962, the gathering stated these to be the issues before them:
We have sought to isolate issues that need further study and clarification. Among these are: (1) the historical basis for the Christian ministry that is found in the Scriptures and the early church; (2) the origins, use and standing of creeds and confessional statements; (3) a restatement of the theology of liturgy; (4) the relation of word and sacraments. (Pg. 18)
However, not much is done with point 2 above. Rather, there is the deliberate attempt to minimize all differences on doctrinal issues. At the Lexington meeting in 1965 the following was stated: (pg. 57ff)
The issues which divided us were not the profound ones of theology and traditions. Indeed, what we have learned together in these three years, and our greatest source of hope, is that old theologies and traditions of a separate nature has given way in this ecumenical century to an amazing consensus….
Our disagreements a year ago (admitting that we have all too politely, and even carefully, skirted around some of the hardest questions) were really on scheduling and time; one might say on caution versus commitment, which is a hard alternative for any serious man.
To encourage “ecumenism” on the local, grassroots, level, the following advice is given: (pg. 33)
In interchurch groups of this nature, little is to be gained from arguments about old points of difference between churches; each side is likely to fall back into extreme positions that have generally been outgrown. Members of the various churches need to discover and appreciate what they have in common before they can tackle their differences creatively.
What must interchurch study groups talk about?
People from several neighboring churches could meet, as members of the Christian Church in the community, to study and discuss matters of common concern in that community. Recent experiments in this kind of ecumenical action have been highly successful. An inter-church group could direct its attention to such community problems as: the local health services; public school policies; high school drop-outs; labor management relationships; civil rights; or public transportation.
THE ISSUES OF CONCERN
In what was COCU most concerned? First, they did concern themselves with Scripture and its place in the church. At their Oberlin meeting of 1963 COCU addressed itself to the question of Scripture and Tradition. Among many statements made is found this concerning Scripture: (pg. 23)
The six churches represented in the Consultation On Church Union recognize and acknowledge that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments have a unique authority. (italics mine)
The Holy Scriptures 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 by which God has called into being and sustained his people and by which God calls all men to unite in his service and share in his reconciliation of the world to himself.
There appears to be no clear-cut declaration that Scripture is the infallible, inspired Word of God.
The second subject for discussion, and considered to be their chief problem, was the question of the ministry. At the first four meetings of COCU no final, conclusive decision was made. COCU stated, “The ministerial orders should include the historic ministries of bishops, presbyters, (elders) anddeacons although we acknowledge that the particular functions of these ministries require further clarification… ”
The proper administration of the two sacraments also was subject of papers and discussion. Concerning the one baptism, the following was affirmed: (pgs. 45- 46)
1.The understanding of baptism as a means of grace. The primacy of grace must be stressed, whether infant or adult baptism be practiced. The primary significance of baptism lies not in what we do but in what God has already done for us in Jesus Christ, to which faith is our response.
2. The understanding of baptism as the decisive work of God leading to the continuing life in God.. . .
3. The meaning of baptism as a corporate act of the Church under the authority of the living Lord. Baptism is not a private affair. At each baptismal service the faith of all the baptized members is continuously reaffirmed and proclaimed.
4. The particular witness of infant baptism. Infant baptism is the manifestation of our helplessness and of God’s grace on our behalf. It is also a witness to the corporateness of the Christian life. In the nurture of the covenant community it always anticipates confirmation or personal confession of faith. Thereby, parental and congregational vows uttered in behalf of the baptize and are fulfilled.
5. The teaching emphasized in adult baptism. Here the stress is on the conscious dedication and commitment of awakened faith… .
6. The common search for fulness of spiritual life. In spite of tensions within our communions, and weaknesses of practice, infant baptism and adult baptism both seek to express and fulfill the same spiritual life. Both seek to include infants within the one fold of Christ’s Church, and both seek to nurture these little ones in one faith which thereby can reach mature, responsible expression.
SO COCU has neatly included both infant and adult baptism (take your pick) and has lost sight of the idea of the covenant in this sacrament. The differences with respect to the Lord’s Supper are also solved by presenting general conclusions to which most denominations could apparently agree. (cf. pgs. 52-53)
1. In the Lord’s Supper, symbols and symbolic actions are used. However, the Eucharist is an effective sign; the action of the Church becomes the effective means whereby God in Christ acts and Christ is present with his people.. .
2. Christ is the minister, the high priest of the Eucharist.. . . .
3. Christ is present as the Crucified who died for our sins and who rose again for our justification, as the once-for-all sacrifice for the sins of the world who gives himself to the faithful.. . .
4. The Holy Communion is the presence of Christ who has come and who comes to his people, and who will come in glory….
The final problem of major concern for COCU was liturgy, or, the manner of worship for the church. Recommended here is: (pgs. 29-30)
The living Tradition of the Church implies certain basic elements of Christian worship but does not confine worship to a single plan or form. Unity does not preclude freedom nor require uniformity.. . .
To encourage both unity and freedom it would be desirable to have three or four orders of service set forth as approved forms in a united church, with an agreed upon statement of the elements which are necessary for a whole and proper worship.
The above represents a very, very brief summary of COCU in its first four meetings. It would seem obvious that COCU does not intend to treat matters of doctrine, the matters which originally led to separation of the denominations. It is very unlikely that COCU would ever define its idea of infallible Scripture, of the virgin birth of Christ, of the Trinity, and such like doctrines. Rather it would forge a unity based on that which is outward: seeking consensus of opinion on baptism, eucharist, the ministry, and liturgy. Such unity, based merely on that, will of necessity be only external and will not be that unity of which Christ speaks in John 17: that the church may be one even as Christ and the Father are one.