Touchstones With History: Communion of Churches

11/20/2015

HARTFORD (11/20/2015) -- Our Connecticut Conference has entered into a season of discernment about the possible merger or sharing of ministries with the conferences in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. This may seem to be a radical departure from our way of being church, even a threat to independence and autonomy. But that's the way it was in the good old days of the 17th century. In the 1600s there were actually four Synods to deal with issues of cooperation in ministry and maintenance of doctrine, to assure all worship and church government were done "decently and in good order." These four Synods were all held in the Boston area, but ministers from the various churches in New England were invited to attend, including the ministers in Hartford, New Haven, New London, and others. The most famous of these was the Cambridge Synod and Platform of 1648, which affirmed the Westminster Confession of Faith as our creed and allowed for the independence and cooperation of our churches.

This year is the 350th anniversary of the publication of the book "Communion of Churches" by the Massachusetts divine John Eliot. The title page states it was "a means of uniting Presbyterians and Congregationalists." What does that to do with JohnConnecticut? Much, in many ways. First, John Eliot was led to the ministry in England by Thomas Hooker, later pastor of Hartford. Also his descendants became pastors of our churches in Guilford, Lebanon, Killingworth, and Fairfield, so the Eliot influence is prominent in our history. In the Communion of Churches he spoke of the need of the members and churches to cooperate with one another on four levels- the congregational, provincial, national, and ecumenical. So the four synods in the 1600s reflect the desire for the communion of churches on a provincial level- for all of New England.

But Connecticut took this even a step further. The Cambridge Platform was seen by many as too loose a communion of churches. They wanted a closer communion. So the Saybrook Platform was adopted in 1709. This is the genesis of our General Association, associations and consociations. The Saybrook Platform provided for a close cooperation and communion of ministers and churches. It also provided for the oversight and discipline of ministers and churches who were seen to be departing from the Congregational Way. To be sure, not all our churches subscribed to the Saybrook Platform, preferring the looser association of the Cambridge Platform. Yet the Saybrook Platform was our guiding framework for over 150 years, until the formation of the Connecticut Conference in 1867. I would say that the close cooperation of our churches has been a distinctive style of our conference over the years. When our Ecclesiastical History was written in 1861, the famous pastor of First Church in New Haven- Leonard Bacon (who was a strict Congregationalist) spoke of our heritage as the Communion of Churches.

So in our journey over all these centuries, the importance of the Communion of Churches continues to guide us in various ways.

The Rev. John Van Epps is Archivist of the Connecticut Conference UCC.