The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was born in the early nineteenth century out of the search for catholicity and unity. Believing divisions among Christians are a denial of Christ’s reconciling love on the cross, Thomas Campbell and his son Alexander, Barton Warren Stone and others gave voice to the biblical call for reconciliation and wholeness in the body of Christ “so that the world may believe.”
So That the Word May Believe.
From then until now Christian unity has been foremost in the Disciples’ doctrine of the church and in their witness to the kingdom of God. We believe the visible unity is centered in the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist), rooted in the scriptures, embraces a diversity of Christian theology and practice, and open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. God requires unity of faithful people.
The Council on Christian Unity (CCU) was created as an instrument of the church to keep this ecumenical vision before the Disciples of Christ and the wider ecumenical movement. Its origins came at the 1910 National Convention (now General Assembly) of the Disciples at Topeka, Kansas. The Church’s president for that year was Peter Ainslie III, the 43-year-old minister of Christian Temple, the vital Disciples congregation in Baltimore. In his presidential address, entitled “Our Fellowship and the Task,” Dr. Ainslie spoke candidly to this church about the loss of its original vision of a united church and called it to renew its commitment to the ecumenical life.
Following his address Ainslie and others called a special session of the convention to make concrete decisions which would reclaim the Disciples’ original purpose and plea for unity and union. The outcome was the creation of a permanent organization, the Council on Christian Union, to give leadership throughout the ecumenical movement. Peter Ainslie was elected the first president, an administrative position which he voluntarily filled while continuing as the minister of the Christian Temple. In 1913 the name was changed to the Association for the Promotion of Christian Unity; in 1954 it became the Council on Christian Unity. In the act the Disciples became the first church in the U.S. to establish a permanent church instrument working for Christian Unity.
The purpose of the Council on Christian Unity, expressed in its constitution by those early ecumenical pioneers, still speaks courageously of a catholicity in mission and methodology: “To watch for every indication of Christian unity and to hasten the time by intercessory prayer, friendly conferences, and the distribution of irenic literature, until we all attain unto the unity of the faith.”
In 1911 an ecumenical journal, The Christian Unity Quarterly, was launched. Soon dialogues were set up with the Episcopal, Presbyterian, Baptist, Congregational, and Christian Connection churches (the last two united in 1931 and in 1957 became constituent parts of the United Church of Christ.) Communications and relations were established with unity movements in South India, Australia, Great Britain and Europe. Through the CCU, the Disciples participated in the first multilateral proposal for church union in America in the 20th century, the Philadelphia Plan (1918-1920), officially known as the American Conference on Church Union, and in the Faith and Order movement, leading to the first World Conference at Lausanne (1927). No indication of Christian unity was ignored by the Disciples’ newly formed Council. The first generation of the Council on Christian Unity was lived out in an effective, prophetic, spiritual presence.
Later generations of CCU leadership vigorously guided the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the U.S. and Canada and Disciples throughout the world toward their destiny in the one holy, catholic and apostolic church. Its leadership has been uncompromising in the call for the visible unity of the church as a sign of the unity of humanity.
After Peter Ainslie III resigned the presidency of the Council in 1925, two generations of administrative leadership were given by H.C. Armstrong and George Walker Buckner, both working only part-time at the Council due to the lack of operational funds. The presidency was resumed in 1960 when George G. Beazley, Jr. became the chief executive officer of the Council, and served with distinction until his premature death in Moscow in 1973. The next year Paul A Crow, Jr. continued the succession when elected as the president of the Council on Christian Unity and ecumenical officer of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Robert K. Welsh, current Council on Christian Unity president, succeeded Crow in 1999. In 2015, the Board has selected Seung Un (Paul) Tche as president-elect who will succeed Robert Welsh upon his retirement.