The American Church Union—A Rebirth.
By C. Clarke Kennedy.
From The Living Church (Milwaukee), June 6, 1936, p. 729.
ON WHITSUNDAY, May 31st, the Catholic Congress of the Episcopal Church became the American Church Union.
Beyond all question the congresses and conferences of the past several years have done much to stimulate the zeal of convinced Catholics and to make others aware of the power and depth of the Catholic Movement. Undertaken with none too great confidence, the Priests' Convention of 1924 surprised its promoters, and gave an impulse to the congresses which followed and reached their climax in the great Oxford Centenary with its ten thousand attendants. But it was soon discovered by those concerned that there was need and demand for something more permanent and more continuous in its activity. Enthusiasm so great must not be allowed to evaporate but must conduce to practical good. Hence came into being the Priests' Institute, the School of Sociology, and other schools, the Cycle of Prayer, the linked Altars, the many local conferences, the quarterly bulletins, and the various tracts to which the Congress committee gave its imprimatur. Hence also the necessity for a central office and for a secretary who should give his whole time to the work, and carry on the correspondence which had now become formidable in amount. This unanticipated development is now familiar to the members of the Congress.
But numerous weaknesses have become apparent in. a structure hastily reared to meet situations and demands as they presented themselves. The executive committee, which formed its base and which elected the working Congress committee, was made up of bodies of widely varying nature and size, and could only imperfectly reflect Catholic opinion and judgment. By force of circumstances its membership was drawn from a small section of the country, namely that within easy reaching distance of New York. Moreover—and this was probably its most serious defect—it was wholly clerical in makeup, since the various societies from which it was formed were all organizations of priests. It was therefore only in the immediate preparations for the congresses and conferences, and to a small extent at the time, that the laity of the Church had any real share. Yet the laity furnished the larger part of the Congress membership, their cooperation was in every way essential, and without their financial support the whole work was impossible.
There have been other grave difficulties. Congresses and conferences are in their very nature occasional affairs, and can only be held at intervals and in certain localities. Their astonishing success has resulted in the great size of these gatherings, and this in turn has made them more infrequent than was at first proposed. There are few places where such enormous meetings can be accommodated, and the labor and expense of arranging for them is often prohibitive. The inevitable consequence of these facts has been the lengthening of the intervals between congresses, the lessening of interest, and the consequent falling off in contributions. Experience has shown that a large proportion of the membership is active only during the year of the holding of a meeting. This may be natural but it is certainly inconvenient. It has long been evident to the leaders of the movement that some means must be found to enlarge its constituency and to secure for it greater permanency. The need will not be filled by spasmodic exertions, and laymen can hardly be expected to take a profound interest in an enterprise in which they have no real share and of which they hear only infrequently.
SIMILAR forces appear to have been in operation in England. For many years past the English Church Union, composed largely of laymen, has been a tower of strength to the Catholic cause. The late Lord Halifax was its president for a long time, and other men of standing have been prominent in its councils. Much later the project of an Anglo-Catholic Congress arose and drew its support mainly from the clergy. It was there as here that other activities necessarily followed in its train. Recently, after years of negotiations, the two movements were merged in one great society which embraces numerous forms of work. The example thus set has commended itself to many in this country. For a year past the executive committee of the Central Conference of Associated Catholic Priests—to use the long title of the parent body from which the committee springs—has been considering the matter and has consulted the societies which form its constituency. Finally, on April 29th, they formally voted to dissolve the C. C. A. C. P., and to found "The American Church Union" to be made up of clergy and laity, men and women. The date fixed for the beginning of the work was Whitsunday, May 31, 1936, the day being chosen in recognition of the fact that the enterprise must find its life and power in the Holy Spirit of God, and that without Him all effort must be in vain. We ask your prayers.
The purpose of the Union is declared to be:
To uphold the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church, to extend the knowledge of the Catholic Faith and Practice of the Church at home and abroad; to seek thereby to bring everyone to worship and serve our Lord Jesus, Saviour and King.
The result of the decision thus made will not be the cessation of the Congress Movement, but rather the losing of its individual identity in something larger and more comprehensive. It is hoped to give increased vitality to the Congress. Congress membership, Congress activities, and Congress property will all become part of the American Church Union. For the present, and until a new committee of both priests and laymen can be chosen, the present executive committee and Congress committee will continue to serve as officers of the new body.
In October or November an executive committee will be chosen by ballot, and thereafter this procedure will be followed. In the meantime a simple constitution is being formulated to be presented to the executive committee for approval. All Congress members of record on June 15th (that is with dues paid up to date) will be taken over into the American Church Union and will be entitled to vote for the executive committee in the fall.
All the present activities of the Congress will be continued. The School of Sociology (August 31st to September 4th) and the Priests' Institute (September 7th to 11th) will be held as usual, and conferences are planned for the fall.