At its last meeting at Dallas, Texas on May 2-5, 1966, the eight churches engaged in the Consultation on Church Union adopted a document entitled, “Principles of Church Union.” This document was to be distributed within participating denominations for study and comment. Copies of these “Principles” are available at 25¢ a copy, and can be obtained from the Forward Movement Publications, 412 Sycamore St., Cincinnati, Ohio 45202. I intend to quote from this document in the present article. The entire book proceeds from the conviction that the church must necessarily manifest itself in outward unity. It declares, “We are convinced that the characteristics of the Church, which are God’s gifts to it, can be fully seen only as the Church becomes visibly one.” (p. 11).
PRINCIPLES CONCERNING ECUMENISM
First, a united church must eliminate “overlapping and duplication so that greater energies can be released for the common task.” (p. 14) This will mean, of course, that the original denominations and its members can expect to sacrifice something of that which they formerly had. For, “the costs of a wider unity will doubtless require sacrifices on the part of all, including the acceptance of new limitations for the common good. Structures of authority are necessary….” (p. 16)
Secondly, at every level the united church will be expected to be “ecumenical.” Repeatedly, this is emphasized. As far as the “parish-congregations” are concerned, “each local unit will be obligated to work in ecumenical cooperation, as far as possible, rather than separately.” (p. 69). This will be expected on every level: “We heartily endorse the principle that at every level the united church will commit itself ‘to do its work in ecumenical cooperation in so far as possible, rather than separately.’ ” (p. 76)
Thirdly, the united church “must be a uniting as well as a united church. This means emphasizing the united church’s incomplete and provisional character, its own desire to press steadily forward toward wider unity, both national and international. The separate churches desire not merely to form a new and larger denomination, but to embark on a pilgrimage whose only ultimate goal can be the unity of the whole Body.” (p. 17) Even in the present consultation, the churches intend to study the creeds of other, non-participating denominations, and to join in them where possible, “enhancing the strength and richness of our common faith and expressing the fuller unity of the Body of Christ.” (p. 25)
PRINCIPLES CONCERNING THE MEANS OF GRACE
One of the central concerns of the last gathering of COCU delegates was the question of the means of grace. At COCU there is the realization that denominations have different views concerning the sacraments. The gathering was much concerned in the matter of resolving problems of this nature. The “solutions” are rather interesting. These solutions in effect combine all views so that each is acceptable. It also seems to be true that there is the strong tendency towards approving the Roman Catholic position on the sacraments. First, the sacraments are set forth as being of central importance (“The sacramental rites of baptism and communion are at the heart of the Church’s worship, being commanded by the Lord and uniquely expressive of the root relationships between mankind and God.”). Secondly, Baptism is set forth as that which itself gives spiritual life:
Since the earliest days, baptism has been the door of the Church, the apostle Paul, for example, presupposing as self-evident the baptism of all Christians.
The new life given in baptism transcends mortal life and death; it is a foretaste of the eternal life promised by Christ. Therefore baptism constitutes an entrance into his Kingdom. (p. 38)
The latest decision of COCU reaffirms their former stand that both infant and adult baptism are acceptable and may be performed by either immersion, pouring, or sprinkling; evidently, COCU sees no principle involved in any of these divergent views. They state:
Both infant baptism and believer’s baptism shall be accepted as alternative practices in the united church. Neither shall be imposed contrary to conscience. In the united church, baptism shall be administered in water (whether by immersion, pouring or sprinkling) in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, after appropriate instruction and preparation. (p. 39)
The position of COCU on the Lord’s Supper is similarly compromising. Both the question of the use of wine and that on the presence of Christ are presented in such a way that it could include almost any view.
This one table through the bread and the fruit of the vine proclaims the reconciliation accomplished by the death and resurrection of Christ, the longed for consummation of his victory, and the oneness of the redeemed community. (p. 41)
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. His life and death and resurrection are not only remembered by the Church but also become, by God’s action in Christ, present and efficacious realities. (p. 43)
COCU calls preaching an essential element in the worship service but, it appears, of lesser importance than the sacraments:
The preaching of the Word of God (is) an essential element in every form of public worship, save for urgent cause…. It shall be the responsibility of the preacher to apply the gospel to contemporary life and awaken, inform, and enlist the conscience of the hearers. (p. 33).
PRINCIPLES CONCERNING CHURCH ORDER AND CONSTITUTION
First, COCU has accepted as part of the order of the proposed united church the office of bishop. This is in harmony with the position of some of the denominations participating in COCU. It also brings these denominations more than one step closer to Rome. This was one point where it became impossible to adopt the differing positions at the same time. Concerning this bishop, COCU declares:
The united church accepts the office of bishops. Because this office is a principal symbol and means of continuity and unity of the church, we therefore provide that bishops shall be chosen, consecrated, and governed in their ministry by the constitution of the united church. We understand that the episcopate historically came into existence without reference to any single doctrine or theory of its being or authority. We do not, therefore, set forward any such interpretation to the exclusion of others. (p. 48)
Finally, of course, even the order of the church is determined by its confession of Scripture. What does “united” church believe? Which confessions of which denomination or church will be acceptable to the whole? Two ancient creeds it is willing to accept: the Apostles’ Creed, and the Nicene Creed (p. 23). Beyond that, the united church would allow any to hold to what it pleases — provided this does not interfere with the belief of others:
It (the united church) will not, however, permit the use of any single confession as an exclusive requirement for all or as a basis for divisions within the new community. As we unite, we agree to recognize all those confessions which are cherished by the uniting churches, as accepted by them, and to listen attentively to the truths embodied in them. (p. 24)
But what will the “new” church believe? It implies that points of difference which separated the churches in the past are outdated: “One century’s divisions may be pointless in another century; the theological questions of one generation may not be those of another. Indeed, such divisions, cultural or confessional or whatever, may have become simply the excuses we use for retaining separateness which have little or nothing, to do with the gospel in our day.” (p. 61)
The “united” church is not yet ready to state what it, as a church, will believe. These are things which must develop over a period of time. Possibly, within a generation a new confession can be made for the entire church. In the meantime, the church must not hinder the development of “new” truths.
The responsibility of the united church as guardian of the apostolic testimony includes its obligation, from time to time, to confess and communicate its faith in new language and in new formulations, under the authority of the Scriptures and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. (p. 24)
Perhaps this title (Preparation for a Constitution) is a misnomer, for the writing of a final, formal constitution is, in our view, of much less crucial a character than the process of mutual discovery and sharing which should characterize this stage. We do indeed feel that a better and wiser constitution can be written after a period of experience in unity, for we shall then have had the chance which only time can give to solve small problems, learn other ways, discover one another, lose suspicions, and gain a sense of the single mission which commands us all gifts we must have if the Constitution is to be anything save a safeguard of compromise and prejudice.
. ..Step 5, the definitive adoption of the constitution, might be deferred a generation or more — whatever length of time seems necessary to the Provisional Council to provide the experience and confidence required to make the Constitution what it should be…. (p. 87)
So moves forward this plan for the union of the churches of our land. Apparently the movement will no longer be stopped. What will the end of it be? In the midst of this enthusiastic endeavor to unite all churches into one large, powerful body, the assurance of God to us remains: “Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)