“Truly catholic, truly reformed, truly ecumenical” For those who have read concerning developments in the church-world of our day, the letters COCU have been observed with ever increasing frequency. The letters indicate the “Consultation on Church Union.” Just recently we have read of its fifth meeting held at Dallas, Texas. There have also been comments on the possibility of the breaking up of the merger talks between the Reformed Church in America and the Southern Presbyterian Church because the latter decided this spring to become full participants in the COCU discussions. What is this COCU which claims to be seeking the realization of the church which is “truly catholic, truly reformed, truly ecumenical?” What does the development of COCU mean in these last days?
THE ORIGIN OF COCU
According to its own documents, COCU began in December of 1960 when the Rev. Eugene Carson Blake, stated clerk of the United Presbyterian Church preached a “sermon” in Grace Cathedral of the Episcopal Church in San Francisco on the subject, “Toward the Reunion of Christ’s Church.’ (This sermon is available in print from 520 Witherspoon Bldg., Philadelphia 7, Pa. for 20 cents.) In this sermon Blake suggested “a plan of church union both catholic and reformed on the basis of the principles I shall later in this sermon suggest. Any other churches which find that they can accept both the principles and plan would also be warmly invited to unite with us.”
Blake suggested that the United Presbyterian Church ask the Episcopal Church to issue a joint invitation to the Methodist Church and to the United Church of Christ to “explore the establishment of a united church truly catholic, truly reformed, and truly evangelical.”
The above plan was called the “Blake-Pike’ proposal for church union. It is noteworthy, I think, that the names of these two men should be originally associated with this “merger” plan. Both are regarded as “liberal” in their own churches. In fact, not long ago there was an attempt to remove Pike from his position in the Episcopal Church because of what was termed his “heresy.” Blake is about as suspect as Pike. The one newspaper reported Blake’s position as follows:
Regarding his own faith, Dr. Blake said that the heart of the matter is that Jesus Christ is the son of God and that absolute adherence to the doctrine of the Virgin birth is not necessary to be a Christian.
Asked about other religions, he answered that God is the one to decide questions of salvation and that “I am not one to say.” He urged that “we are humble in our judgment of others.”1
Pike also makes his position known in his own writings:
I had a good conversation with Martin Buber in Paris several months ago, and I am with him in thinking that all the verbiage associated with the Trinity is quite unnecessary. He understands what we Christians are trying to say about the remarkable, and for Christians, unique, revelation of God in Christ. But as sophisticated about Christian thought as he is, he cannot understand why we had to develop the Trinity concept. I understand why we had to at the time of its formulation, but can’t see its permanent value. I stand in the tradition that requires all doctrine to be under the standard of the Bible, and I see nothing in the Bible, as critically viewed, which supported this particular weak and unintelligible philosophical organization of the nature of God.
. . .I am more broad than the church. This means that I am more liberal in theology than I was ten years ago. When Norman Pittenger and I were writing THE FAITH OF THE CHURCH, he did not find reason to accept the historical virgin birth; I thought I did. Our wrestling over the matter — not only a personal wrestling but a wrestling with both theological professors and bishops in our church — resulted in the book’s leaving an opening for people like Pittenger. Now I am with him. While neither he nor I would deny the possibility of the miracle, the Biblical evidence and the theological implications seem to be in favor of assuming that Joseph was the human father of Jesus. . . .2
My point is not first of all that these men are heretics in light of the historical confessions of the church, and in light of Scripture itself, but that these are the men who propose union of the major protestant denominations in adherence to the “will of God” that they “may all be one.” If such men are the moving forces behind the rush toward unity, one begins to get “Can a corrupt tree bear good fruit?”
THE DEVELOPMENT OF COCU
Of course, Blake’s proposal attracted widespread attention. It became the Number One religious news story of the year in the secular press. In May of 1961 the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church enthusiastically asked the Episcopal Church to issue a joint invitation to the Methodist Church and the United Church of Christ. Each participating church would appoint a committee of nine to work out plans of union. The combined committees could also invite other churches to join them in the discussions.
At its first meeting, COCU invited also the Disciples of Christ and the Evangelical United Brethren to join the conference — and these accepted. Two other denominations subsequently jointed the discussions: the African Methodist Episcopal and the Southern Presbyterian Church. Other denominations have observers present.
Some five meetings have been held. The first was in 1962 at Washington, D.C. In 1963 the meeting was at Oberlin, Ohio; in 1964 in Princeton, N.J.; in 1965 in Lexington, Ky.; and in 1966 in Dallas, Tex. I hope, D.V., to give a brief review of the progress made at each of these meetings.
After the last meeting, participating church leaders are optimistic concerning the possibility of one grand union. The press release read:
The Rev. Dr. Eugene Carson Blake. . .said Monday he is more optimistic than ever before about the prospects for achieving a merger of eight Protestant denominations with 24 million members. . . .
Dr. Blake’s optimism is shared by leaders of other denominations. . . .
Episcopal Bishop Robert F. Gibson of Richmond, Va., chairman of the meeting, called attention to a public opinion poll which indicated that rank-and-file members of the eight denominations favor the proposed merger by a 2-to-1 majority. . . .
Dr. James I. McCord, president of Princeton Theological Seminary. . .said he was not surprised by the poll.
“God has been preparing the way for this union for many years,” he said. “What we have to do is simply to catch up with Him”3
THE GOALS OF COCU
Obviously, the first goal of COCU is the union of the, eight denominations presently involved in the Conference. Discussion of differences, the possibility of working together in limited areas, — this is not enough. The denominations have to become one organization. Paul A. Crow, Jr., associate professor of church history at Lexington Theological Seminary and associate executive secretary of COCU, writes:
If visibility in such intimate terms is the mark of the church’s unity, mere co-operation of separated churches in councils of churches is insufficient. Though the councils have brought us “out of isolation into conference,” and still continue as creative forums for interchurch conversation and action, they do not reflect brotherhood at its deepest level. With all their accomplishments — and their records furnish an astounding chapter in modern ecumenical history — the councils leave unchallenged the radical separation between the churches. When therapeutic surgery is needed to make the church whole, councils can give only light medication.
. . .Through church union, whatever its eventual shape, we must seek unity so visible and intimate that the Church can be seen and experienced as truly one body.4
But the aim of COCU, or at least some of its driving leaders, is higher yet. They envision the eventual union of all churches into one grand organization. Two quotations ought to show this.
Notice that “truly reformed” and “truly evangelical’ are descriptions of the united Church we seek. Our real problem is to see what these terms ought to mean: for the new Church we hope to bring into being. We therefore have to do our thinking together, never separately. Moreover, if we really wish to be responsible to the whole Church of Jesus Christ, we must do our thinking as if all other Christians were present at these union discussions: Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, Baptists, and the rest.5
Moreover, we cannot consider the accomplishment of union — if it is accomplished — as the final end we seek. On the contrary, that will be only the beginning. The achievement of unity will mark a step toward clearing away some residual ecclesiastical problems which have little relevance in the twentieth century. We shall then be free to turn toward even wider efforts at union, and toward an ever fuller and richer sharing of the life God gives the world through his Son.6
And what must one say? Is the above the seeking of the unity of the true Church of Jesus Christ? One cannot help but see in this mad rush toward union that here are the beginnings of the antichristian church in the United States. That “church” is not here yet, but the time is at hand. Denominational walls are crumbling. Old, tried-and-true, confessions are being discarded. “Winds of change” are blowing through churches which were once staunchly Reformed. One must say with Scripture, “Watch;” and, “Hold fast that thou hast, that no man take thy crown.”
1. Quoted from Santa Barbara News-Press, March 20, 1961
2. Christian Century, December 21, 1960
3. Grand Rapids Press, May 3, 1966
4. Where we are in Church Union; edited by George L. Hunt and Paul A. Crow, Jr.; pgs. 31-32
5. ibid.; pg. 56
6. ibid.; pg. 65 .