Ecumenicity: Rx for Urban Health

by David F. Cox

Dr. Cox is associate professor of philosophy and urban studies at the University of Akron.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 12, 1974, pp. 633-637. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Consolidation and centralization would serve to reduce costs and increase productivity in urban church life as well as in the business world, but denominations have long resisted this trend: they continue to maintain numbers of small, weak churches — "loss operations" that drain the financial surplus from larger, healthier congregations.

Cities are a vehicle through which large numbers of people come together to solve problems and create the good things of life. This coming together has a multiplier effect on human productivity. Great libraries, symphony orchestras, universities, factories, hospitals, even wonderful things like professional football teams, require an urban base. And given the urban base, such good things are likely to develop. But it is essential in the city that communication be maximized and human interaction facilitated.

The view that cities are, par excellence, a means of human communication and cooperation is be-clouded, of course, by the fact of urban conflict and division. Some might conclude that cities are more often an arena for confrontation and vicious competition than a vehicle of cooperation. Certainly the conflict is there; but is it not evident that whatever productivity cities have achieved and they have achieved enormously -- has occurred where people have come together in orderly, cooperative, sustained relationships? The very survival of cities depends upon nurturing such relationships.


At issue in this question are very practical matters. The front page of the November 2, 1973, issue of the Wall Street Journal carried the headline, "Detroit Mayoral Race Pits Two in a Contest Many Tried to Avert -- Some See City as the Loser in Black-vs.-White Election"; and the accompanying story quoted a plain-spoken top city official as saying: "If Nichols wins, the blacks will take every opportunity to trip him up. If Young wins, a lot of whites will just move out . . . In both cases, business may be afraid to invest here."

Of course, business is not the only kind of activity that is blighted by urban conflict. Everything else suffers too -- including schools and churches -- when people lean away from rather than toward each other. And while race conflict may be the most conspicuous and poisonous form of urban antagonism, it is not the only one. It follows that whatever can be done to establish orderly communications and harmonious working relations in the city will help the city, and will enhance productivity and the quality of life.

There is a question for the churches here. To what extent have they worked to achieve higher levels of organized unity? It would be foolish to claim that strong ecumenism among the churches could solve all the city’s problems. At the same time, the churches’ failure to organize for unity could well be a real source of ill health in the city and in the churches themselves.

Not so long ago it was thought that the second half of this century was going to be a golden age of ecumenism. In the ‘50s, those of us who worked for ecumenical organizations felt we were riding the wave of the future. The church seemed generally to be prospering. Morale was strong and the outlook was bright. As the ‘60s approached, the warm spirit of Pope John was quickening Protestant-Catholic relationships, Protestants were talking church union, the American conciliar movement was vigorous and growing. The prospects for real breakthroughs in religious unity seemed excellent at the very time that America was becoming a predominantly urban nation.

Who could have guessed that by the end of the ‘60s the spirit of Vatican II would have waned, denominational merger talks would be petering out with little accomplished, much of the machinery of the conciliar movement would be dismantled and forgotten, and the income of local congregations would be declining? Meanwhile, the cities had become battlegrounds and the country was torn by conflict.

Many writers undertook to reveal the source of the church’s difficulty. Harvey Cox urged that the church has not understood the city. Gibson Winter noted that the churches most able to lead and unite all the people were identified with the middle class. Stephen Rose called attention to the church’s neglect of opportunities for service. These and other analysts and critics were illuminating and helpful. But none of them gave enough attention to a matter I think should have been emphasized; namely, the need for wholeness expressed in united, cooperative effort. For instance, Gibson Winter called on the church to "affirm community by forming a ministry to the whole metropolis" (The Suburban Captivity of the Churches [Macmillan, 1962], p. 201), yet the terms "ecumenical" and "council of churches" do not appear in the book’s index. Perhaps these commentators of the ‘60s did not sense the need for greater cooperative effort because at that time everyone thought that the ecumenical and conciliar movements were thriving -- as indeed they were, in some ways and by some standards. But the fundamental strategy of the Protestant churches in America has been one of competitive separatism, not of cooperative mission.


Cooperation and consolidation are the two broad types of organization for unity among the churches. By cooperation I mean simply joint effort through some formal or informal organization by otherwise separate churches or denominations. (The council of churches is an example of this.) By consolidation I mean the merging of two or more organizational structures into one. Both approaches should have been used more extensively in the past few years.

Consider, first, consolidation. In my years as a church planner, in Massachusetts in the 1950s and in the St. Louis area in the 1960s, nothing seemed plainer than the unwisdom of maintaining large numbers of small congregations. It has often been said -- but apparently it needs to be said over and over again -- that American Protestantism has proliferated congregations beyond all reason. Actually, the problem of the small church was recognized early in this century, even in rural areas (the rural "larger parishes" were an attempt to deal with it). But we still have churches in plenty. The 1970 Yearbook of American Churches reported a total of 318,866 churches and synagogues (p. 93) in the country. Leave aside the Roman Catholic and Jewish congregations, and there are nearly 300,000 Protestant churches for about 150 million non-Catholic, non-Jewish Americans, or one for every 500 people. Hence the larger number of very small congregations.

Now, virtually no one thinks small churches are a good thing (though of course they are necessary in sparsely populated areas). Indeed, nearly all small congregations wish they had more members. They want to grow, to "succeed." So they compete, often fruitlessly. In the relatively small city of Akron, Ohio (population 275,000), the churches spend nearly $100,000 per year on competitive -- and probably useless -- newspaper advertising (upwards of two full pages each Saturday at $6.09 per column inch). The same amount of money spent on cooperative effort could accomplish enormous good.

Few Protestants seem to realize how very many small churches exist, and what a drain they are on the resources of the larger congregations. In almost any denomination, in any part of the country, one finds a similar pattern: a few large churches with strength and resources to spare, and a big number of extremely small, weak churches.


One way to see this picture in its stark reality is to select -- by geography or by denomination, or even at random -- any group of churches and note how many of the smallest in the group it takes to equal the membership of the largest. For example, one administrative unit in the "heartland of Methodism" -- the Cleveland (Ohio) District of the United Methodist Church -- has 54 congregations. In 1970 the largest of these had more members than the 21 smallest together (3,449 as against a total of 3,389). Some might say that the largest is too big, but who would advocate breaking it up into 21 congregations? (To be sure, within that large congregation there are probably 21 small groups that give people the advantages of smallness and informality.)

I once advised a denominational planning committee in New York state to close some 100 of the approximately 300 churches in its jurisdiction. I argued that the closing would affect only about 10 per cent of the total membership, many of whom could find other and more conveniently located churches to attend; and that in any case the net membership loss would be negligible while the increase in effectiveness and fiscal health would be great. But the committee did not like my advice. So the maintenance of these 100 "loss operations" continues in one way or another to absorb the financial surplus of the solvent churches. There just is no way that American Protestantism can support thousands of unnecessary local churches and have many resources left for special mission and service tasks.

The past 50 years or so have seen a trend toward consolidation and centralization in practically every sector of American life. This is called the trend to "bigness," and is sometimes lamented. But there is a reason for it. Improvements in communications make consolidation possible; this in turn makes possible great cost reductions and large increases in productivity. Thus the corner grocery yields to the supermarket and the supermarket to the chain. The phenomenon is seen not only in business but also in education, medicine, social services, government, etc. The churches, however, have resisted the tendency in certain important respects.

Through the years a principal argument for denominational mergers has been the need to eliminate "overchurching." But local congregations do not necessarily merge just because their denominations have merged. In fact, there are cases where two churches of the same denomination are located across the street from each other years after their parent bodies merged. The resistance to local mergers is very strong. Church people, like everyone else in America, have grown up on an ideology of competitive individualism coupled with a sense of loyalty, and the local congregation has been the focal point, of effort.

The result is disastrous for churching the city, in two ways especially. First, the dollars that ought to be spent for "helping’’ ministries of various kinds are spent instead in maintaining competitive, unnecessary churches. Second, the larger congregations which are required to create and sustain the form and substance of community in urban neighborhoods often do not exist (except, of course, in Roman Catholicism).


Consider now the other approach to organization for unity: cooperation. This has a long history in America. One of its important creations is the metropolitan council of churches. Though the pattern varied, most of our large cities, especially in the north, developed councils of churches as instruments of cooperative ministry, and these were ready for use when the final phases of the urbanization of America began. Typical church-council undertakings were hospital and campus chaplaincies, teacher training, women’s activities, social services planning, radio and television production, and research and planning. Each council had its own special interest and thrusts. The base membership was usually the individual congregation, and the main workers and supporters were laypeople and parish clergy.

As an instrument for service to the metropolis, the council of churches had some unique advantages. First, it was the only piece of ecclesiastical machinery whose service boundaries corresponded with the metropolis itself. As has often been pointed out, when the metropolis became the significant unit of life, America was caught with organizational structures -- governmental, religious, etc. -- that did not fit the metropolitan pattern. But the urban council of churches did not have this problem.

Second, unlike many ecclesiastical structures, the council had no large investments in real estate or apparatus of one kind and another to absorb its resources and so constrict its activities. Of course, it did have some personnel and some long-established patterns and programs, which some might regard as vested interests. But these were minimal compared with those of most ecclesiastical structures.

Third, the council’s organizational style was simple and democratic -- the only style which could make it possible for churches with widely varying polities to participate. There was no need of arguments over presbyters, bishops and presiding elders, as there must be when denominations talk merger.

Fourth, though not perfect, the pattern of participation was broadly inclusive in representing varied ethnic, social, economic and racial groups (not to mention varied denominations). No other ecclesiastical entity in American Protestantism has ever come close to the representativeness achieved by urban councils of churches. As a means of communication, therefore, the councils were unique. On the negative side, it should be recognized that the strongest supporters of this conciliar movement over the years were the ‘free" church people, especially Baptists, Congregationalists and Methodists (though more recently Presbyterians and Lutherans have also been in the forefront). Most of the council executives were Baptists or Methodists.

Still, the plain fact is that the councils had a "style" which was not congenial to some. The manners and mores of the evangelical were manifest in both ways of doing things and selection of tasks. Moreover, the councils were always on somewhat precarious ground financially -- though this was no obstacle to anyone’s efforts to expand the base of support or the range of undertakings.


On balance, it would seem that the councils of churches were strategically situated to be of important service as an instrument of the churches in the city as America entered the urban era. Unfortunately, instead of being a period of growth, the 1960s turned out to be a period of decline for the conciliar movement. By the end of the decade some major metropolitan councils of churches were all but dismantled.

The problem presented itself, of course, mainly in the form of financial distress. In the later ‘60s those of us who had final administrative responsibility in ecumenical organizations lived from payday to payday. We were in constant fear of not being able to meet the next semimonthly payroll. We were caught in a squeeze between inflation-caused cost increases and eroding financial support from constituents.

Now, the first, and sometimes overlooked, fact about declining support of the councils of churches is that the constituency itself fell on hard times in the ‘60s. Many a local church found itself with a static income while costs increased. Something had to be cut. Given the natural priorities of the local congregation (local program first, denominational program second, cooperative program third), it was certain that some congregations would reduce their support of ecumenical enterprises. A good many did, and the number reducing exceeded the number increasing. But though I dealt with a constituency of several hundred churches, I do not remember a single congregation’s cutting its support of my council of churches while it was itself solvent and growing. I know of a few congregations that explained their reductions on the ground that the council had been maladroit or misanthropic, but in every such case the congregation was itself short of resources. In brief, the decline in support of councils cannot believably be explained as due to genuine disenchantment with their performance.

Yet the polemicists of the right have been having a field day. The allegation has been made that the councils’ propensities for radical social action displeased the public, which consequently withdrew support both of them and of the churches generally. Certainly the charge that the churches were run by communists found ready ears. I remember that on several occasions my talk to a local church group was repeatedly interrupted by tirades about Red China and Angela Davis. This sort of thing was indeed disturbing and did influence some individuals to discontinue their contributions. But to say that councils dug their own grave by their excessive social activism certainly is an oversimplification. The real problem is the people who think that any expression of social concern beyond zero is radicalism. Most metropolitan councils in fact have been essentially conservative, white-dominated, establishment-run organizations that engaged in nothing more radical than sponsorship of the training of clergy in hospital visitation or publication of a hesitant statement on some controversial issue.


In 1967 and 1968 a movement to "restructure" metropolitan councils gained considerable momentum. Among the fundamental changes proposed, one -- a change in the basis of membership -- was critical. Most metropolitan councils were organized on the basis of membership by local congregations. The new approach called for membership by "judicatories" -- the districts, presbyteries, associations, dioceses and other such denominational units. The assumption was that this approach would remove control of the ecumenical machinery from the hands of laity and parish clergy and place it in the hands of denominational officials. A number of councils have for years operated with this style of membership -- notably some state councils, but even some city councils, such as Detroit’s. The other critical proposal called for a change of name. "Council of churches" was out, and "metropolitan interchurch commission" or some variation thereof was in.

The arguments for "restructuring" were several. The denominational membership base would make the ecumenical effort more "official," more "legal," more "authoritative." Instead of centering on a voluntary association of interested individuals, ecumenism would be officially structured into church life. In turn, financial support would be more secure, with funding from denominational treasuries. The change of name would help because "councils of churches" has a bad image. Both changes, it was said, would facilitate participation by Roman Catholics, since they operate hierarchically. Furthermore, Roman Catholics, while hesitant to join councils as Johnny-come-latelies, would participate in forming a new structure which they could share in from the beginning. Finally, such a strengthened ecumenical effort would be much more effective and relevant in dealing with the crucial issues of the day -- poverty, race, urban decay, etc. The councils were too "tradition-bound," too absorbed with such out-of-date activities as training clergy and church school teachers, providing hospital chaplains, organizing women volunteers, and televising religious services. The church, it was said, needed to be truly ecumenical and "out where the action is." (This was an interesting period for the council administrator, who was told by some that his organization was too tradition-bound and conservative and by others that it was too radical.)

Incidentally, it seemed at the time (1) that the pressure for "restructuring" was coming almost exclusively from the officialdom of two denominations; and (2) that what was going on was to some extent a power struggle between denominational officials and conciliar officials. In the past, councils had been more or less respected but hardly prestigious. But the 1960s were a time of great ecumenical fervor, and ecumenically the council of churches had the only game in town. Furthermore, the cooperative way is a less expensive way to get things done, and this was a time of financial strain. Denominational officials too were being urged to develop "inner-city missions and service programs." Both financially and politically there were advantages in doing this cooperatively, if the denominational authorities could be sure of retaining control.

Anyway, some of the city church councils were restructured, with very mixed results. Some -- Cleveland’s, for example -- found to their dismay that it is much easier to turn off an old source of income than to turn on a new one. An "interchurch agency" in New York state was being cut off financially by some of its founding denominations less than two years after it was formed.


Ecumenical fervor or no, in the ‘60s denominations were in no position financially to plunge into a major new venture. The fervor was not that strong. Besides, the organizational logic of the change in style is dubious at best. To abandon an organization whose geographic boundaries are coterminous with the metropolis in favor of an amalgam of organizations whose boundaries run haphazardly hither and yon is less than brilliant. Anyway, the wave of restructuring does not appear to have ushered in a new era of ecumenical accomplishment.

In sum, the ecumenical movement has faltered at precisely the time when it is most needed. An urbanized, highly technological, conflict-ridden society requires orderly, well-organized, effective institutions. The church simply cannot do its job in the city if its members are divided among hundreds of little congregations, each absorbed in itself and its problems. The church must become a vehicle of communication in the metropolis, a means of achieving wholeness, an instrument for creating community. The obvious route to that end is the ecumenical route, traveled in dead earnest, directed, wherever possible, toward merging of church structures, but, short of that, toward cooperation among all.