Consultation on Church Union

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The Consultation on Church Union (COCU) is "a venture in reconciliation" by U.S. churches exploring the formation of a united church. At the beginning of the 21st century, there are nine active members within COCU:

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
Presbyterian Church (USA)
United Church of Christ
United Methodist Church

Origins. The originating impetus for COCU came from a sermon, "A Proposal Toward the Reunion of Christ's Church," delivered by Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, then stated clerk of the (Northern) United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., in Grace (Episcopal) Cathedral, San Francisco, on Dec. 4, 1960, the eve of the fifth triennial assembly of the National Council of Churches. Blake proposed that his own church enter discussions with the Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, and the United Church of Christ, in view of uniting in a church "truly catholic, truly evangelical, and truly reformed." Blake's proposal envisaged a union of churches of widely different theological and historical traditions; in contrast, previous church unions in the United States involved churches of the same confessional families.

After these four churches officially approved discussion of the proposal, representatives were sent to a plenary meeting in Washington, D.C. (April 910, 1962). The meeting established the Consultation on Church Union and explored the theological and other issues that needed to be resolved in view of union. The Washington plenary invited the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the Evangelical United Brethren (which were already, respectively, in union conversations with the United Church of Christ and the Methodist Church) and the Polish National Catholic Church (which is in communion with the Episcopal Church) to become COCU participants; the Disciples and Brethren accepted in 1962. A second invitation urged other North American churches to send observer-consultants to future meetings; about 20 church bodies subsequently sent official representatives. The Roman Catholic Church was first represented in 1964 by two observers: Msgr. William Baum (later Archbishop of Washington) and George Tavard.

Principles of Church Union. At the second plenary at Oberlin, Ohio (March 1921, 1963), the possibility of union was enhanced when unexpected consensus was achieved on the authority of scripture and tradition in the church. Further consensus was reached at the third plenary in Princeton, N.J. (April 1316, 1964), on Baptism and the Lord's Supper, and at the fourth plenary in Lexington, Ky. (April 48, 1965), on the form on the ministry. The Lexington meeting created a special committee charged with drafting a set of principles of church union that would incorporate the theological agreements and serve as a basis for future union. The fifth plenary at Dallas, Tex. (May 25, 1966) approved these Principles and commended them to the churches for study and comment.

Meanwhile, the number of participating churches temporarily increased to ten with the membership of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (1965), the (Southern) Presbyterian Church in the U.S., African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (1966), and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (1967). The union of the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren Churches (as the United Methodist Church) in May 1967 reduced the number of member churches to nine. Except for the temporary withdrawal of the (Northern) United Presbyterians in 1972 and 1973, the nine participants have remained the same.

Organization for the United Church. During its first five years, COCU was primarily concerned with theological issues, which were resolved, after considerable discussion, with widely accepted consensus. Subsequent plenaries focused on practical problems in structuring the proposed united church. The sixth meeting at Cambridge, Mass. (May 14, 1967), adopted preliminary "Guidelines for the Structure of the Church." The seventh plenary at Dayton, Ohio (March 2528, 1968) authorized a commission to draft a plan of union within two years. A preliminary outline of the plan was submitted to the eighth plenary at Atlanta, Ga. (March 1720, 1969), which adopted "Guidelines for Local Interchurch Action." One of the principal speakers at the Atlanta meeting was Bishop (later cardinal) Jan Willebrands of the Vatican Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity.

A Plan of Union for the Church of Christ Uniting was approved at the ninth plenary in St. Louis, Mo. (March 913, 1970), for transmission to "member churches and to all Christians for study and response. The Plan presents doctrinal provisions (on scripture, the church, worship, ministry, etc.), procedures for organizing the "Church of Christ Uniting" (a name proposed to emphasize that union is a continuing process), a "service of inauguration," and an ordinal (for the ordination of presbyters, bishops, and deacons). Subsequent response to the Plan indicates broad acceptance of its doctrinal basis but considerable disagreement regarding its organizational procedures.

The plenaries at Denver, Colo. (Sept. 2730, 1971), and Memphis, Tenn. (April 26, 1973), were concerned with engaging all church members in the study and implementation of the Plan. The Denver meeting recommended "interim eucharistic fellowship on a regular basis" and "programs leading to the achievement of racial justice and compensatory treatment for minorities in the church and nation." The Memphis plenary, besides mandating further revision of the Plan, encouraged active cooperation and contact at every level of church life as a mounting process toward union.

In 1988 the Seventeenth Plenary of COCU approved the document Churches in Covenant Communion: The Church of Christ Uniting, as a blueprint for the eventual establishment of a covenant communion of churches. This proposal received a mixed response from the nine members of the consultation. Seven of the member communions [African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, International Council of Community Churches, United Church of Christ, and United Methodist Church] approved the proposal with added provisos concerning several issues that needed further reflection and clarification. Although the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) approved the covenanting proposal, its presbyteries had rejected the constitutional changes concerning the ministry of ecclesial oversight and episcopate that would have necessitated a significant change in the historic roles of elders in the Presbyterian Church. The 1994 General Convention of the Episcopal Church made it clear that the Episcopal Church had major reservations about the COCU Consensus and Churches in Covenant Communion and declared that although the Episcopal Church would remain a full member of COCU, it was not prepared to enter into covenant communion with the other member churches.

Based on the responses from its nine members, the Eighteenth Plenary of COCU recommended to the participating churches that they agree to enter into a new relationship to be called Churches Uniting in Christ (CUIC), to be inaugurated during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in 2002. The Presbyterian Church (USA) has already voted to become part of this new relationship. Other members were considering the implications of CUIC, especially the thorny issue of mutual recognition of ordained ministry.

Bibliography: Digest of the Proceedings of the Consultation on Church Union, 10 v. (Princeton 196271). A Plan of Union for the Church of Christ Uniting (Princeton 1970). COCU: A Catholic Perspective (Washington, D.C. 1970). Church Union at Midpoint, ed. p. a. crow, jr., and w. j. boney (New York 1972). e. teselle, "Ecumenical Reflections on the COCU Plan of Union," Jurist 31 (1971) 629637.

[j. t. ford/eds.]