ECUMENICAL MOVEMENT . The long and varied history of Christian ecumenism is reflected in the many definitions attached to the word itself. The Greek oikoumenē comes from the noun oikos ("house, dwelling") and the verb oikeō ("to live, to dwell"). Oikoumenē, which is derived from the present passive participle of the verb, suggests the land in which people live or dwell and is usually translated "the inhabited world." The word initially had no theological implications; it was a descriptive term used by the Greeks to describe the world they knew, and later by the Romans to describe the Roman Empire.
Biblical usage of the word oikoumenē is sparse. Eight of the fifteen references are found in Luke and Acts, and with the exception of two references that suggest the Roman empire (Lk. 2:1, Acts 17:6) and one that may have cosmic import (Heb. 2:5), the remaining uses are no more than descriptive references to "the inhabited world" (Mt. 24:14; Lk. 4:5, 21:26; Acts 11:28, 17:31, 19:27, 24:5; Rom. 10:18; Heb. 1:6; Rv. 3:10, 12:9, 16:14).
As the early church extended its geographical boundaries, writers begin to refer to the church throughout the oikoumenē as a way of distinguishing it from local assemblies. And when Christians from different locations began to meet together to discuss aspects of belief and discipline, such gatherings began to be referred to as "ecumenical councils," that is, councils having representation from all parts of the oikoumenē. Eastern Orthodox churches acknowledge seven ecumenical councils before the Great Schism of 1054, while the Roman Catholic Church also claims as ecumenical subsequent councils in the West, such as the Council of Trent and the two Vatican councils. The Lutheran Formula of Concord (1577) described the early creeds (Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian) as "ecumenical creeds" because they had been accepted by all branches of the Christian church. The meaning of the word ecumenical was thus extended beyond the theologically neutral notion of "the inhabited world" to include both an understanding of the church in its worldwide sense and expressions of belief that have universal ecclesiastical acceptance.
After a period of relative neglect, the word ecumenical reappeared in the twentieth century, with new meanings appropriate to a new situation. Many church bodies, disturbed by their divisions from one another, which were made particularly apparent by the competitive nature of nineteenth-century missionary activities, began to look for ways to overcome their diverse histories. Following a world conference of missionary societies in Edinburgh in 1910, the word ecumenism began to be used to signify a concern to reunite the divided Christian family. Alongside this concern for unity was a corresponding concern for mission (from missio, "a sending forth") to the oikoumenē. These twin poles of unity and mission have characterized what has come to be referred to as "the ecumenical movement." However, a broader use of the word ecumenism has also emerged to designate an attitude of active goodwill and concern for all peoples. Concerns about world hunger, racism, or political oppression are thus frequently described as "ecumenical concerns" and are often focal points of common action not only among Christians but in conjunction with all people of goodwill.
The Birth of Modern Ecumenism: Edinburgh, 1910
The fellowship of those who have been made "one in Christ" has almost always been marred by institutional division. In the earliest Christian literature, the letters of Paul, there are accounts of Paul's attempts to adjudicate between factions bitterly disputing with one another. The church at Corinth was particularly notorious in this regard. The creedal controversies in the early councils were attempts to set boundaries to the faith, and they provided canons for exclusion of heretics as well as inclusion of believers. In 1054 a radical division, the Great Schism, culminated the separation between Eastern and Western Christianity, and in the sixteenth century the Western church was further divided into the many separate denominations that resulted from the Reformation.
It is to the credit of the groups thus divided that they continued to believe that their divisions were "sinful," but not until the nineteenth century, with its missionary advance from Europe and North America to the rest of the world, was the situation recognized as intolerable. The efforts to "make disciples of all nations" (Mt. 28:19) was in fact imposing divisions of European origin on newly converted Christians in Asia, Africa, and Latin America in ways that distorted the unity in Christ that the message was supposed to bestow.
It is therefore significant that the first major attempt to begin a healing of the divisions within Christianity originated in the missionary societies. In 1910, a number of missionary societies held a conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, that by common consent is described as the birth of the modern ecumenical movement. The purpose of the conference was to develop a common missionary strategy that would not only avoid the scandal of the past but provide for a more creative and collaborative use of resources in the future.
The Three Streams Flowing from Edinburgh
As delegates to the Edinburgh conference looked ahead, they saw that some kind of structure would be necessary if the goals of the conference were to be accomplished. A continuation committee was established, and by 1921 it was clear that three concerns would need attention, continuing reflection, and structural implementation: (1) the missionary task of the church, (2) the kinds of common service the churches could render to the world even in their divided state, and (3) the doctrinal issues that were responsible for the ongoing divisions.
In response to the first concern, the International Missionary Council was established in 1921 to help various mission boards coordinate their previously separate and competing activities and to hold conferences that would enable members to think in new ways about the church's mission. During its forty-year life, the council held five conferences that dealt with the impact of secularism on the life of the church (Jerusalem, 1928); the relationship of the Christian religion to other world religions (Madras, 1938); the need to see missions as a two-way street on which the so-called younger churches would now be giving as well as receiving (Whitby, 1947); the imperative need for Christian unity, if mission was to retain its credibility (Willingen, 1952); and recognition that the time had come for missionary concern to be related structurally to those Christians already grappling with questions of unity and service (Ghana, 1957). The last conference translated into a decision to merge with the already established World Council of Churches, a decision that was implemented in 1961.
The Edinburgh-inspired concern for the church's common service to the world was embodied in a second structure, called the Commission on Life and Work. Recognizing that organic reunion was years if not light-years away, members of this commission sought to develop a consensus on matters to which divided churches could relate. "Doctrine divides, service unites" became the slogan. The first Conference on Life and Work, held in Stockholm in 1925, was widely representative—over 600 delegates from 37 countries attended and discussed the church's responsibility in such areas as international relations, education, economics, and industry.
A second Conference on Life and Work, held in Oxford in 1937, drew delegates from 40 countries and 120 denominations who discussed church and state, church and community, and the church and its function in society, while small groups dealt with education, the economic order, and the world of nations. Two realities loomed behind the Oxford discussions. One was the rapid consolidation of Adolf Hitler's power in Nazi Germany and the almost "emergency" situation it created for understanding the task of the church in such a world. The other was a realization that service could not adequately be discussed apart from considerations of doctrine. Consequently, the delegates voted that the Life and Work Commission should seek to merge with the Faith and Order Commission, the third outgrowth of Edinburgh.
This third structure provided a place for the doctrinal issues that divided the churches to be explored. The members, adopting the name Faith and Order, held an initial conference in Lausanne in 1927, with over 400 delegates from 108 churches, including not only Protestants but Eastern Orthodox representatives as well. The report of the conference exemplified a descriptive process called "comparative ecclesiology," which sought to pinpoint and describe doctrinal differences as well as similarities, without as yet attempting to resolve them. However, the commonly shared conviction at Lausanne that "God wills unity" led the delegates to project a second conference, which was held at Edinburgh in 1937, with delegates from 122 participating bodies. Unanimous agreement was reached on a statement about "the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ," although in other areas, such as church, ministry, and sacraments, awesome divergences remained. The delegates did acknowledge, however, that their task was not so much to create unity, which is God's gift, as to exhibit more clearly the unity that their empirical divisions obscured.
Members of the Faith and Order Commission realized that doctrine involves action and service, and they voted at Edinburgh (in complementarity with a similar action taken by the Commission on Life and Work) that the two groups should merge. Delegates from both groups therefore met in 1938 at Utrecht to work out proposals for "a world council of churches." World War II intervened, and until 1948 the world council was "in process of formation."
Other Ecumenical Advances
From 1910 to 1948, ecumenical activity was not limited to high-level consultations. Many denominations established international bodies, such as the Lutheran World Federation and the World Alliance of Reformed and Presbyterian Churches, so that global concerns could receive greater attention. National ecumenical agencies were created, such as the British Council of Churches and the Federal Council of Churches in the United States, which later became the National Council of Churches of Christ, providing vehicles through which Protestant groups could work cooperatively on many issues.
Another ecumenical impetus reminding Christians that "the world is too strong for a divided church" was the rise to power of Hitler, whose policies were bent on the extermination of the Jews, the suppression of any Christian groups opposing Nazi claims, and the extension of racially based totalitarian rule. The Barmen Declaration (1934) of the Confessing Church in Germany was a theological "no" to Hitler that brought Reformed and Lutheran groups together for the first time since the Reformation. Christians living under persecution from 1933 to 1945 discovered that in concentration camps or occupied territories their unity far outweighed their differences.
In 1948 at Amsterdam, the World Council of Churches (WCC) became a reality, fusing the concerns of the Faith and Order and Life and Work commissions. In 1961 the International Missionary Council joined the WCC, thus completing the structural reunification of the three areas of concern originating at Edinburgh. Some 146 churches—Protestant, Anglican, and Orthodox—were the original members of the World Council. During World War II, a skeleton staff in Geneva engaged in refugee relief and found various ways for Christians to communicate across the national barriers created by the war. The person most responsible during these interim years, W. A. Visser 't Hooft, a Dutch lay theologian, was elected the first general secretary of the WCC, and permanent headquarters were established in Geneva.
At the time of its creation, the WCC defined itself as "composed of churches which acknowledge Jesus Christ as God and Savior." From the beginning the WCC has made clear (despite misunderstanding by outsiders) that its task is "to serve the churches," not to become a superchurch itself or to be a Protestant/Orthodox counterpart to the Vatican.
The issue of membership in the WCC has been a delicate one. All churches accepting the basic affirmation of "Jesus Christ as God and Savior" have been welcome to apply for membership, and at each world assembly (held every five or six years) new churches have joined, so that after the Vancouver world assembly (1983) there were three hundred member churches representing around four hundred million Christians and including almost all the major Protestant and Orthodox bodies in the world. Membership in the WCC, however, does not imply that member churches believe that their own doctrine of the church is inadequate, nor does it mean acknowledging that other members are "fully" churches. At the New Delhi assembly in 1961, a more fully developed basis for membership was approved. It reads: "The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of Churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior according to the Scriptures and therefore seek to fulfill together their common calling to the glory of one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit."
Although the WCC has gone through several structural reorganizations since its inception and will continue to respond structurally to new situations, the emphases of all three Edinburgh streams have remained central throughout its history. A brief description of the structure as it existed after the Vancouver assembly will indicate the wide variety and scope of WCC commitments.
There are three major foci of concern in the WCC, identified as "program units." Program Unit I, devoted to Faith and Witness, is where the earlier Faith and Order Commission is housed. In its new guise, Faith and Order has continued to have an active history since the formation of the WCC, dealing with issues related to the visible unity of the church and preparing reports on such topics as accounts of Christian hope; the theology of baptism, Eucharist, and ministry; the relationship between church and state; and the unity of the church in relation to the unity of humankind. The subunit on World Mission and Evangelism is clearly the repository of many of the concerns of the earlier International Missionary Council and deals with problems raised in proclaiming the faith today, discerning the true missionary congregation, and developing ways for churches throughout the world to share their resources, both material and spiritual.
The subunit on Church and Society is one of the continuing vehicles for the concerns of the earlier Commission on Life and Work; the WCC has held important conferences in this area, most notably a conference on "The Church in the Social and Technical Revolutions of Our Time" (Geneva, 1966), which included worldwide representation and set a new direction for Church and Society concerns. There have also been subsequent conferences on the uses of nuclear energy and issues in medical ethics. The subunit on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies has been a vehicle for widening contacts far beyond the Christian arena. The subunit on Theological Education seeks to make resources available for training for ministry in as ecumenical a context as possible.
Program Unit II is concerned with Justice and Service, another place where certain Life and Work emphases continue to be manifest in concrete ways. The subunit on Inter-Church Aid, Refugee and World Service has been a conduit for specific, practical, and immediate help to people in need. The subunit on Churches' Participation in Development enables churches to be involved in economic development in their own lands through grants and other acts of solidarity such as long-term low-interest loans, along with extensive educational programs and the sharing of technical services. The subunit on International Affairs calls the churches' attention to situations of injustice and conflict, particularly in such areas as the violation of human rights. The Program to Combat Racism, through separately solicited funds, gives financial support to groups of racially oppressed peoples so that they can work for their own liberation. The Christian Medical Commission engages in programs of community health care and education, particularly in areas that are without adequate hospitals or professional medical assistance.
Program Unit III is concerned with Education and Renewal and is oriented to new thinking about Christian education and its impact on parish life. The subunit on Education sponsors programs to develop leadership, educational curricula for churches, and Bible study. The subunit on Renewal and Congregational Life provides resources for local congregations and other Christian groups. The subunit on Women is helping the entire Christian family to rethink the roles of women in both church and society. A similar subunit on Youth gives special attention to the needs of young people.
Even this cursory listing indicates the council's breadth of concern. It directs ongoing attention to theological reflection in the context of the contemporary world (Program Unit I), specific actions in various projects of service (Program Unit II), and ongoing attempts at renewing the mind for the life of the people of God (Program Unit III). In addition to a staff of about 275 persons to administer these various activities, the WCC has a Central Committee, composed of about 135 members, chosen proportionately from among the member churches, which meets annually to determine the ongoing tasks of the WCC between assemblies.
At the world assemblies, member churches meet to discuss their common task and to work on problems that have emerged since the previous assembly. The topics of the assemblies give an indication of the central themes of the WCC's ongoing life. From 1948 to 1983, six assemblies were held: "Man's Disorder and God's Design" (Amsterdam, 1948), "Jesus Christ the Hope of the World" (Evanston, 1954), "Jesus Christ the Light of the World" (New Delhi, 1961), "Behold I Make All Things New" (Uppsala, 1968), "Jesus Christ Frees and Unites" (Nairobi, 1975), and "Jesus Christ the Life of the World" (Vancouver, 1983).
The most volatile storm center of controversy in the life of the WCC has been the Program to Combat Racism. Provided for at Uppsala (1975) shortly after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., who was to have been the keynote speaker, the Program to Combat Racism assigns considerable sums of money each year to groups throughout the world who are victims of racism and are trying to find ways of escaping such repression. Small grants have occasionally been given to "freedom" groups, particularly in Africa, occasioning protest from others who feel that such gifts will foster violence. Although there have been no instances in which the charges have proven accurate, the issue has remained an emotionally charged one and has the effect of deflecting the public's attention from many of the other activities of the WCC.
The Development of Roman Catholic Ecumenism
During most of the developments described above, the Roman Catholic Church remained uninvolved. Its posture was clear: church unity could be achieved only by the return to the Roman Catholic Church of all the Christian bodies who had separated from it. Since full ecclesial reality was possible only for churches in communion with Rome, Roman Catholics were initially forbidden by Rome to participate in ecumenical activities. For example, Roman Catholic observers were not permitted to attend either the Amsterdam (1948) or Evanston (1954) assemblies of the WCC.
However, a few Roman Catholic ecumenical pioneers very cautiously began to initiate contact with non-Catholics. After World War I, Max Metzger, a German priest, founded the Una Sancta movement to foster dialogue between Protestants and Catholics. French priest Paul Couturier worked for revision of the prayers of the Christian Unity Octave of the Roman liturgy, so that Catholics and Protestants could begin to pray together. The Foyer Unitas in Rome was established for the study of non-Catholic traditions. Dominican priest Yves Congar in France, Jesuit Gustave Weigel in the United States, and other individuals trod a lonely path of seeking to put Protestants and Catholics on speaking terms with one another. After the Amsterdam assembly (1948), an "Instruction" was issued by the Holy Office in Rome in 1949, providing some cautious initial guidelines for Catholic and non-Catholic encounters; even so, an invitation to the Vatican to send Catholic observers to the Evanston assembly (1954) was declined. In 1961, however, during the pontificate of John XXIII, a similar invitation to send observers to the third assembly at New Delhi (1961) was accepted, and five priests attended.
A major ecumenical turning point occurred when John XXIII invited the major Protestant, Anglican, and Orthodox bodies to send observers to the Second Vatican Council, convened in the fall of 1962. Lasting warm and personal relationships that dissolved the frosty barriers of the centuries were established during the four sessions of the council (1962–1965).
Vatican II enhanced Catholic engagement in ecumenism in a number of ways. For one, the very calling of a council was seen as an instance of ecclesia semper reformanda ("the church always being reformed"), a concept Protestants had previously thought was anathema to Rome. Second, the inclusion of the observers demonstrated that Rome did not wish to continue to live in ecclesiastical isolation. Third, the influence of the "missionary bishops" who had often worked with Protestant missionaries brought fresh perspectives to other bishops trained in exclusivist patterns. Fourth, many of the council documents opened new doors of ecumenical understanding.
Of the sixteen promulgated conciliar documents, at least seven had significant ecumenical import. The document on ecumenism opened new doors for dialogue and understanding; the document on the liturgy restored the use of the vernacular and made Catholic worship less foreign to non-Catholics; the document on the church affirmed the "collegiality of the bishops," correcting certain one-sided emphases from Vatican I concerning the primacy of Peter that had been ecumenically counterproductive; the document on revelation gave scripture a greater prominence and authority in relation to tradition; the document on religious liberty dispelled fears about Catholic ecclesiastical imperialism; the document on the church and non-Christian religions created the possibility of dialogue between Roman Catholics and adherents of other world religions; and the document on the church and the world today indicated areas of concern, such as economics, labor unions, nuclear weapons, and culture, on which Catholics and non-Catholics could work together despite lack of full doctrinal consensus.
Assessments of the long-range impact of Vatican II are diverse. For many Catholics, the council brought the church into the modern world and made new levels of activity and dialogue possible. For other Catholics, the council created so many lines of rapport with modern thought and movements that the distinctiveness of the Catholic faith seemed to be placed in jeopardy. For most Protestants, the council unexpectedly legitimated Catholic attitudes that continue to enrich ecumenical life.
In the new atmosphere created by Vatican II, the relationship of Roman Catholicism to the WCC was raised anew. There is no theological reason why the Roman Catholic Church could not become a member of the WCC, since the basis of membership poses no challenge to Catholic faith. At the Uppsala assembly (1968), three years after the conclusion of Vatican II, the relations with Roman Catholic observers were so cordial that it seemed as though an application for membership might soon be possible, but by the Nairobi assembly (1975) such momentum had diminished. One important consideration, acknowledged by both sides, has been that, because of its size, the voting power of the Roman Catholic Church in the WCC would be disproportionate and cause alarm to member churches that have numerically small constituencies. Nevertheless, a close working relationship has been established between Geneva and Rome, not only in areas of social service projects, such as the Commission on Society, Development, and Peace, but in the theological arena as well, and Roman Catholic theologians have for some time been full voting members on the Commission on Faith and Order, contributing to discussions and reports about ministry, baptism, and Eucharist.
A further ecumenical contribution has come from Roman Catholicism. Building on the Vatican II document "The Church and the World Today," Catholics in Third World countries, particularly Latin America, have created a "theology of liberation," affirmed by the Latin American bishops in a meeting in Puebla, Mexico, in 1979, which involves committing the church to making "a preferential option for the poor." This has led to significant numbers of Catholics, frequently joined by Protestants, siding with the destitute at great personal risk in oppressive situations; Catholic-Protestant differences have paled before the awesome responsibility of ecumenical challenges to the oppressive status quo. This "practical ecumenism" provides a significant model for ecumenical involvement elsewhere.
Extending Intramural Christian Activity
Within the Christian family the impetus of ecumenical concern has not only led Christian bodies to seek closer contacts with one another and to work together whenever possible, but also led many denominations to seek organic union with one another. The motivations usually include at least a desire to respond organically and structurally to Jesus' high-priestly prayer "that they all may be one" (Jn. 17:21); a recognition that division is a "scandal" in the sight of both Christians and non-Christians, who cannot fail to perceive the hypocrisy of those who preach unity but do not practice it; and a desire to use institutional resources with more efficient stewardship by avoiding both overlapping and competition. Although not widely heralded by the secular press, there continue to be significant numbers of mergers between denominations that are members of the WCC. While the latter body does not act as the agent or broker for such reunions, its very existence has brought diverse groups of Christians into contact with one another and thereby helped to enhance the movement toward denominational reunion.
Many of the reunions have taken place among the so-called younger churches as they have sought to overcome the legacy of divisive denominationalism that the nineteenth-century missionary enterprise bequeathed to them. Although the period is exceptional, the reunifications that took place between the years 1965 and 1972 give some indication of the intensity of the concern to heal the Christian divisions of centuries. During that period, united churches were created out of two or more confessions in Zambia, Jamaica and Grand Cayman, Madagascar, Ecuador, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, Belgium, North India, Pakistan, Zaire, and Great Britain.
Other specific steps toward organic unity will be completed only after years of further discussion and exploration. A proposal for reunification of ten denominations in the United States, the Consultation on Church Union, is now, after years of high-level ecumenical discussion, moving into a time of local denominational reacquaintance at the grass-roots level before any final decisions are made.
The tender spots in negotiating denominational mergers center less on theology than on polity. Theological agreement on most, if not all, issues is increasingly reachable, but the form and structure of new denominations is rendered difficult when any of the three major polities—congregational, presbyterian, or episcopal—are being combined. The Church of South India (1947) was the first such reunification to draw all three types of church government within a single new structure.
Within all denominations, and within the World Council of Churches, a new intramural issue has emerged with a vitality not anticipated even a short time ago: the role of women within the life of the church. Not only have such issues as the ordination of women and the holding of church office by women been treated very differently by the historic Christian confessions, but cultural influences, often unconsciously appropriated by various church groups and imposed on the intramural discussions, have made this a "radicalizing" issue for many women, who have been active in ecumenical affairs and have discovered that they have been the victims of conscious, or even unconscious, discrimination within the churches. The World Council of Churches has included a division within its structure to deal with the problem in an ongoing way, and a major consultation was held at Sheffield, England, in 1981; however, equality of status is far from a reality, either ecumenically or denominationally, and ongoing discussion and action on this matter will be high on the ecumenical agenda for the foreseeable future.
Extramural Ecumenical Developments
In addition to all the ecumenical concerns that center on mission and unity, there is the further meaning of oikoumenē that calls attention to the whole of "the inhabited world" and comprises not only service to every member of the human family but also a certain way of thinking about and relating to those who are part of the human family but not the Christian family. There are at least four areas in which the inner life of the ecumenical movement has been turning outward toward appraisal of and dialogue with groups that Christians cannot avoid confronting in an ever-shrinking world, and with whom they must seek terms of mutual understanding.
One of the most important of these areas has been the new attention accorded the relationship between Christians and Jews. Christians, born of the family of Abraham and Sarah, are beginning to acknowledge that they have been at best ungrateful heirs, and at worst despicable destroyers, of a faith apart from which they cannot truly define themselves. The ongoing history of destructive relations between Christians and Jews, frequently the result of a Christian theological imperialism, has been exacerbated in recent times by the Holocaust and the murdering by the Nazis of six million Jews, with the passive complicity and at times the active involvement of the Christian world. In the emerging ecumenical discussion, a new emphasis on the eternal nature of God's covenant with the Jews (based in large part on fresh study of Romans 9–11) is beginning to challenge the more traditional "supercessionist" view—that the coming of Christ superseded the divine covenant with Abraham—which has reduced the Jews living in the common era to objects for conversion. The WCC has sponsored several consultations on the relationship between Jews and Christians. Vatican II opened some doors for the new discussion by its clear declaration that anti-Semitism can in no way be grounded in the Christian scriptures, and many Protestant denominations, including a number in Germany, the location of Hitler's rise to power, have been exploring in fresh ways the implications of a view that Christians and Jews, who have lived in such destructive tension in the past, can create a more positive future together.
A concern to understand the relationship of Christianity to other world religions is a second area that has been the object of increasing ecumenical attention. A Vatican II declaration, "The Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions" (1965), began to open doors on the Roman Catholic side, and the WCC has held a series of consultations, such as one at Chiang Mai, Thailand, in April 1977, on "Faith in the Midst of Faiths," which sought to explore new ways of dealing with the many communities of faith that exist in a world where Christians have often claimed to be the unique community of faith. The discussion goes back to a meeting of the International Missionary Council in Madras in 1938 on the Christian message to a non-Christian world. The issue is to discover a modus vivendi for all, between an attitude of theological imperialism, which implies that if one faith is the truth no other faiths really have a right to exist, and a syncretism, which implies that there are not enough differences between the faiths to pose an issue and that some amalgamating of them all can create a new faith for the future. The unattractiveness of both options means that the discussion will continue.
A third area of extramural ecumenical dialogue has had varying degrees of success and failure: the relationship between Christianity and Marxism. In the years immediately after World War II, an extended dialogue between Christians and Marxists flourished in Europe, since many Christians had been united with Russians and other communists in opposing the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini. However, the European dialogue was severely set back by Soviet takeovers in such places as Czechoslovakia. The issue of how Christians are to approach Marxism and communism is vitally important, as a matter of daily life as well as intellectual dialogue, because in many areas of the world Christians live under socialist or communist regimes. The entrance of the Russian Orthodox Church into the WCC at the New Delhi world assembly (1961) assured that the issue of Christian presence within a Marxist state would be under continual scrutiny.
The matter is rendered even more urgent in parts of the world where socialism or communism are seen as possible alternatives to oppressive governments that are perceived to be linked to imperialistic forms of capitalism. In Latin America, for example, the issue of Christian involvement in movements seeking to overthrow oppressive dictators cannot be separated from the question of the degree to which Christians are willing to work with Marxists in such situations or to accept certain elements of Marxist analysis in seeking to create a society more in keeping with their understanding of the Christian gospel. Although in the United States concern about Marxism is frequently interpreted as the camel's nose of subversion entering the tent of ecclesiology, the dialogue will remain crucial on an ecumenical level as long as Marxism represents an option for millions of people living in a world Christians are called upon to serve.
A further area of dialogical involvement centers on the appropriate relationship between Christians and those who are defined by a term such as secularism. A significant part of every world assembly of the WCC has addressed matters like international relations, racism, poverty, violence, and social embodiments of evil. Vatican II called attention to this new dialogue in its document "The Church and the World Today" (1965), which dealt with problems of culture, the spread of atheism (for which the church acknowledged some responsibility), the role of secular agencies in bringing about social change, and so forth.
But there is an even more fundamental issue, to which the Faith and Order division of the WCC has been directing attention and which is summarized in the title of one Faith and Order study: "Unity of the Church—Unity of Humankind." Recognizing that there is a unity that binds all people together as part of the human family, quite apart from the unity some of them have consciously chosen by their allegiance to Christ, how are those two kinds of unity to be related to one another? Does the former negate the significance of the latter, or vice versa? Can the two unities coexist? Is one too narrow, the other too broad?
The above are only a few examples of ways in which contemporary ecumenical concern is becoming broader and deeper. The original commitment to Christian cooperation has grown beyond issues of exclusive interest to Christians.
Some Unresolved Ecumenical Issues
The ecumenical movement is not so close to being successful that it will shortly render itself unnecessary. The three areas of mission, doctrine, and service still contain formidable obstacles to be overcome, though their formulation has shifted in some interesting ways since 1910.
In the area of mission the matter of "sending ambassadors of Christ" to faraway places must be viewed from a new perspective, since it now depends on who is deciding what is "far away." "Foreign missions" used to mean activities beyond the boundaries of North America and Europe. These continents constituted the "center," the rest of the world the "periphery." Mission was conceived of as a one-way street, emanating from the center toward the periphery. By the time of the Whitby conference of the International Missionary Council in 1947, it was clearly and even sternly affirmed that mission had become a two-way street and must remain that way. The new Christian vitality in the last half of the twentieth century seems to be coming from what used to be called the periphery, that is, the younger churches.
The real issue in the 1980s and 1990s and beyond may be the degree to which the "older churches" at the "center" can have the grace to be recipients of new understandings of the gospel that will come from the "younger churches" at the "periphery." For the time being, at least, it may be more ecumenically blessed for the older churches to receive than to give. (The WCC, which at its inception was made up almost entirely of "leaders" from North America and Europe, has responded creatively to the new situation. Increasing numbers of its staff and leadership are drawn from other parts of the world.)
In the area of doctrine there have been a surprising number of theological convergences, even though certain unresolved issues remain central to the question of church reunions. There are increasing degrees of consensus on the meaning of baptism and even on Eucharist, though the matter of ministry (i.e., who is properly validated to administer the sacraments) is far from resolved.
But Catholics and Protestants, for example, are much closer than before on such issues as the authority of scripture, the relationship of scripture to tradition, the meaning of "the priesthood of all believers," the nature of liturgy, the meaning of faith, and the necessity of social involvement on the part of Christians for the good of all. The office of the papacy naturally continues to divide Roman Catholics from the Orthodox, Anglicans, and Protestants, and the claim to infallibility of church teaching, while interpreted in different ways by the Orthodox and the Catholics, is an area where they are discernibly closer to each other than either of them is to the Protestants. The role of Mary in the economy of salvation is another unresolved area, although the Mary of the Magnificat (Lk. 1:46–55) is increasingly important to Protestants as well as Catholics.
The difference of atmosphere from earlier times, however, is marked. Rather than closing off unassailable areas from discussion, there is a willingness to reexamine and even restate deeply held truths in the light of what is learned in ecumenical dialogue. Many non-Catholics, for example, could now acknowledge the possibility of some form of papacy, if defined as primus inter pares, the pope as a "first among equals." While this is not a definition acceptable to Roman Catholics, many Catholics are nevertheless attempting to define more precisely the meaning of papal authority, especially in the light of Vatican II's conclusion that the bishop of Rome shares teaching authority with the other bishops in the "episcopal college."
Another doctrinal issue, however, will be increasingly important in the life of the ecumenical movement. It has little to do with formulations of a doctrine of the papacy or Eucharist or baptism, but a great deal to do with how doctrines are actually formulated. Protestant ecumenical theology has had a strong classical European stamp upon it, solidly rooted in the biblical heritage of Luther and Calvin. Roman Catholic ecumenical thought has likewise been nurtured by a European frame of reference, though, thanks to thinkers like Karl Rahner, it has been moving in new directions. Orthodox theologians have seen themselves as guarantors of past tradition, and their modes of describing that tradition have the stamp of centuries upon them.
But this is not the background from which Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans have come into the ecumenical movement. There is no reason, this new generation argues, why ways of doing theology in Europe should be normative everywhere. They are insisting that their own theology must now be done indigenously, arising out of their own cultures and using imagery appropriate to those cultures. Thus African Christians are drawing on images and experiences that maintain some continuity with their tribal pasts, to provide new metaphors to speak of the love of God in Jesus Christ. Asians are doing the same with a heritage more venerable than that of Europe, and "water-buffalo theology" (Kosuke Koyama) is more resonant for them than forensic images drawn from medieval courts of law. Latin Americans are insisting that theology must grow out of the experience of the poor, rather than being imposed on the poor by intellectuals in universities. A theological system arises out of human struggle, they are asserting, rather than being provided ahead of time by experts and then "applied" to specific situations. To the degree that the former "periphery" does begin to speak to the former "center"—and is heard—the issue of theological methodology will become an increasingly critical area of discussion.
In the third area, that of service, many difficult ecumenical issues have been posed for discussion, and the drawing of lines of difference bears little resemblance to the situation at the beginning of the modern ecumenical era. If, in the earlier period, it was true to say that "doctrine divides, service unites," the reverse has almost become the descriptive reality: service divides, doctrine unites.
A basic difference between two types of Christian approach to service seems to be part of a legacy that each era leaves to its successor. This legacy is a distinction between (1) those who see the Christian life as fundamentally an individual matter, in which, by giving sufficient attention to the personal and inner dimensions of life, a spirit is created that will transform the outer structures of society, and (2) those who believe that Christian faith is so incurably social that it is never enough just to change individuals and assume they will change society. This second view necessitates a simultaneous frontal attack on the unjust structures of society because they are causes of and manifestations of, as well as the results of, human sin. Almost all Christians, when pressed, would agree that both concerns must be present and that a theology containing one and not the other would be truncated and incorrect. But in practice, the matter of priority, or, even more, proportion, between the two is a significant cause of division.
What becomes ecumenically confusing is that divisions over such matters bear no resemblance to past denominational or confessional allegiances. For example, the lines between Roman Catholics and Protestants are not usually drawn on an issue such as the appropriateness from a Christian perspective of possessing nuclear weapons. Some Catholics will be closer to some Protestants than they will be to most other Catholics; some Presbyterians may be more at home in the company of Methodists on this matter than with their fellow Presbyterians. Within a Catholic religious order, the most diversified opinions may be found on the ethical responsibility of multinationals, and within member churches of the WCC similar divisions occur.
Issues of practice, then, are more often volatile sources of disagreement than issues of belief. For example, when "conservatives" attack the WCC, the issue is less likely to be a Faith and Order commission report on baptism than the allocation of funds for the Program to Combat Racism. Some Catholics appear to be more upset with the social analysis of Catholic liberation theologians than with Protestant views of the meaning of papal infallibility. Church members in the twenty-first century are better able to tolerate doctrinal differences on the meaning of the real presence in the Eucharist than to allow for two points of view on whether or not "class struggle" is a legitimate descriptive term in Christian social analysis. So it is tensions within the realm of service—how the church is to relate to the world, what it is to do in relation to revolutionary situations, how it is to make a critique of the economic order (or whether it is even appropriate to do so)—that have become the causes of the deepest ecumenical ruptures.
Beyond the focal points of mission, doctrine, and service, other unresolved, structural issues remain. For example, what should be the relationship of world confessional bodies, which are global expressions of denominationalism, to the WCC? Is the continuation of such groups as the Lutheran World Federation or the World Alliance of Reformed Churches a contribution or a detriment to ecumenism? Do they impede the cause of Christian unity, or are they provisionally necessary for the maintenance of certain doctrinal emphases and portions of a tradition that might otherwise be lost?
Coupled with such matters is the problem of size. Is there a "critical mass" beyond which concern for the Christian message will be dissipated simply because of the need to keep the wheels of a large organization running smoothly? To the degree that ecumenical dialogue brings about new understandings that render unnecessary the ongoing life of separate denominations, will the resultant mergers necessarily be vehicles for a refining of the prophetic nature of the gospel, or will bigness breed slowness and timidity? Whatever the answers to these and yet unanticipated questions, ecumenical concerns will persist in the life of the church as long as there is a discrepancy between the actual state of the church and the will of the head of the church "that all may be one."
African Religions, article on New Religious Movements; Anti-Semitism; Australian Indigenous Religions, articles on Aboriginal Christianity, New Religious Movements; Christian Ethics; Christianity; Church, article on Church Polity; Councils, article on Christian Councils; Creeds, article on Christian Creeds; Denominationalism; Dialogue of Religions; Eucharist; Faith; Holocaust, The; Marxism; Mary; Ministry; Missions, article on Christian Missions; North American Indian Religions, article on New Religious Movements; Oceanic Religions, article on Missionary Movements; Papacy; Political Theology; Reformation; Sacrament, article on Christian Sacraments; Schism, article on Christian Schism; Theology, article on Christian Theology; Vatican Councils, articles on Vatican II.
For a history of the mission and expansion of Christianity, the movement out of which modern ecumenism grew, the best overall resource is still K. S. Latourette's Christianity in a Revolutionary Age: A History of Christianity in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, 5 vols. (New York, 1958–1962). Documents pertinent to the development of the modern ecumenical movement are conveniently collected in Documents on Christian Unity, 4 vols., edited by G. K. A. Bell (London, 1924–1958), which includes Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox materials. For a full history of the ecumenical movement, with special attention to the formation of the World Council of Churches, consult A History of the Ecumenical Movement, 1517–1948, 2d ed., edited by Ruth Rouse and Stephen C. Neill (London, 1957), and its sequel, The Ecumenical Advance: A History of the Ecumenical Movement, vol. 2, 1948–1968, edited by Harold E. Fey (Philadelphia, 1970). An interpretive account of the Faith and Order movement can be found in A Documentary History of the Faith and Order Movement, 1927–1963, edited by Lukas Vischer (Saint Louis, 1963), which contains excerpts from all the Faith and Order conferences through the New Delhi assembly (1961). The closest comparable volume tracing the Life and Work movement is Paul Bock's In Search of a Responsible World Society: The Social Teachings of the World Council of Churches (Philadelphia, 1974). The reports of all the WCC assemblies contain speeches, reports of the various commissions, and other pertinent information. These are The First Assembly of the World Council of Churches: The Official Report (New York, 1949), The Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches: The Evanston Report (New York, 1955), The Third Assembly of the World Council of Churches: The New Delhi Report (New York, 1962), all edited by W. A. Visser 't Hooft; The Fourth Assembly of the World Council of Churches: The Uppsala Report, edited by Norman Goodall (Geneva, 1968); Breaking Barriers: Nairobi 1975, edited by David M. Paton (London, 1975); and Gathered for Life: Official Report, Sixth Assembly of the World Council of Churches, edited by David Gill (Geneva, 1983). My The Ecumenical Revolution, rev. ed. (Garden City, N.Y., 1969), is a history of both Protestant and Catholic ecumenism through the Uppsala assembly in 1968.
For an account of the "ecumenical pioneers" who were active before Roman Catholic ecumenism was widely sanctioned, see Leonard J. Swidler's The Ecumenical Vanguard (Pittsburgh, 1966), which gives special attention to the Una Sancta movement. Hans Küng's Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection (London, 1964) is a good example of one of the earliest serious attempts to bridge the Protestant-Catholic chasm.
Two accounts of the Second Vatican Council are of special interest: the reports from Le monde by the French journalist Henri Fesquet available as The Drama of Vatican II (New York, 1967), and Xavier Rynne's Letters from Vatican City: Vatican Council II (New York, 1963). The latter is an expansion of a famous series of New Yorker accounts, published pseudonymously throughout the council. The most easily available collection of the results of Vatican II is Documents of Vatican II, edited by Walter M. Abbott and Joseph Gallagher (New York, 1966). Since Vatican II, a series of volumes known as "Concilium," with more than a hundred titles, has been published by various publishers at regular intervals.
As an example of new theological and ecumenical understanding, Gustavo Gutiérrez's A Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, N.Y., 1973) is the best introduction to post-Vatican II liberation theology, and Paul M. Van Buren's Discerning the Way (New York, 1980) and A Christian Theology of the People Israel (New York, 1983) represent fresh attempts to reconstitute Christian theology by taking its relationship to Judaism with new seriousness.
The most useful ecumenical periodical is Journal of Ecumenical Studies (Pittsburgh, 1974–), published triannually, with articles, extensive reportage on ecumenical activities throughout the world, and book reviews of new ecumenical literature. The Ecumenical Review (Geneva, 1948–), a quarterly publication of the WCC, contains articles, extensive journals of WCC activities, and book reviews covering ecumenical contributions from all over the world. The Information Service of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, published in Rome, gives papers, digests, and summaries of ecumenical activities in which the Secretariat is involved.
Robert McAfee Brown (1987)
The word "ecumenical" is derived from the Greek word oikumene, meaning the whole of the inhabited world (Acts 17.6; Mt 24.14; Heb 2.5). In traditional Catholic usage it means a general or universal council of the Church. In the 20th century, ecumenical has come to designate the movement that seeks to overcome the scandal of divisions and achieve reconciliation among all Christians. This article deals primarily with the Catholic perspectives and approaches toward the ecumenical movement, as shown in authoritative statements and approved activities, and with the general principles involved.
Since the beginning of the Church there have been heresies and schisms. The Church's attempts to reunite them pertains to general Church history. During the first half of the 20th century, the main impetus in the ecumenical movement came from Protestant church leaders. While representatives of Orthodox churches frequently participated in ecumenical gatherings, Roman Catholic participation was officially restricted although occasionally permitted. This early 20th-century ecumenical movement has two characteristics unique in Christian history:(1) it includes the majority of Orthodox Churches and Protestant communities; (2) it centers in the world council of churches (WCC), which is itself a convergence of three organizations, the international missionary council, life and work, and faith and order.
At the Edinburgh Missionary Conference (1910), conventionally regarded as the birth of the 20th-century Ecumenical Movement, Anglican and Protestant missionaries became more deeply convinced that divisions among Christians were a powerful obstacle to the spread of Christianity. They recognized hostility, contentions, and even differences among Christians as scandals and realized that many causes of these divisions seemed irrelevant in non-Christian lands. The International Missionary Council was formed not only to spread information about effective missionary methods, but also to lessen the scandal of Christian divisions by avoiding competition in non-Christian countries. In 1925 the Life and Work Conference at Stockholm studied the application of Christian principles to international relations and to social, industrial, and economic life. Almost simultaneously the Faith and Order Conferences began to discuss doctrinal matters, with a view to unity in faith and order. From these three organizations was formed in 1948 the WCC, with headquarters at Geneva, Switzerland.
The beginnings were not free from confusion and ambiquity about assumptions and aims. The missionary movement tended to assume that "the glorious Gospel of the blessed God" was independent of all denominational tenets. The Life and Work movement coined the phrase: "service unites but doctrine divides;" and hence avoided doctrinal discussions. There was a question of whether those planning the Faith and Order Conference at Lausanne (1925) were tacitly assuming that Christians are unaware of the kind of Church unity wanted by Christ and must discover it by discussions, and whether they envisioned a league or federation of independent churches based on doctrinal compromise.
Ambiguities of this type probably accounted for Pope Benedict XV's courteous refusal of an invitation from the episcopal church in the U.S. (May 1919) to participate in a Faith and Order meeting. After the Life and Work Conference at Lausanne (1927), Pope pius XI issued the encyclical, Mortalium animos, (Jan. 6, 1928) on true religious unity, in which he asserted unequivocally that unity must be based upon acceptance of Christ's entire revelation, that doctrinal compromise is utterly inadmissible, and that the Church of Christ cannot be a federation of independent bodies holding different doctrines. The pope forbade Catholics to give any support to such ideas. He also made clear statements on the unity of the Church. The Orthodox delegation at the Lausanne Conference spoke in the same vein as Pius XI, objecting that some reports were based on compromises between conflicting ideas and meanings. This group asserted firmly that compromise has no place in matters of faith and conscience. Pius XI's encyclical caused disappointment at the time among non-Catholic ecumenists. Since then, however, some prominent ecumenists have admitted that Pius XI aided the movement, and have noted the danger of substituting well-intentioned friendliness for unity in truth.
Development. Since 1927 the movement for union among non-Catholics has developed greatly, with many repudiations of any idea of compromise in faith. Faith and Order Conferences at Edinburgh (1937) and Lund (1952) increased realization of the depth of doctrinal differences and of the tenacity of denominational traditions. Paradoxically, efforts at unity have increased denominational loyalties. World associations have been developed by Anglicans, Baptists, Congregationalists, Disciples of Christ, Lutherans, Methodists, Pentocostalists, and Presbyterians. These world "confessional" associations had the immediate effect of increasing denominational consciousness; but in the long run they may enable unions to be formed on a wider scale.
Two successful endeavors from the ecumenical movement are: (1) that of Anglicans, Congregationalists, Methodists, and Presbyterians, which resulted in the Church of South India, (1949); (2) that of the Congregationalists, Reformed, and Lutherans, which resulted in the united church of christ in the U.S. Negotiations have occurred frequently elsewhere, but actual mergers have been comparatively rare, especially between episcopal and non-episcopal churches. Part of the difficulty in arranging mergers resides in nondoctrinal factors, such as historical traditions, established institutions, and differing customs and ways; but most of it stems from divergent doctrinal convictions.
The Lund Conference of the WCC (1952) listed doctrinal differences under the following heads: definition and limits of the Church; Church continuity and unity; goal of the reunion movement; number and nature of the sacraments and their relation to Church membership; scripture and tradition; infallibility; and priesthood and sacrifice. After stating the diverse views held on all these topics, the conference concluded that the method of "comparative ecclesiology," which is one of comparing and contrasting different convictions, had been pursued to its limits and offered no prospects of arriving at reconciliation. It decided to select the following four main points and study them for at least ten years: union of Christ and the Church; tradition and traditions; ways of worship (liturgy); and institutionalism (the Church as a sociological entity, with its law and customs).
Catholic Attitude. The situation changed so radically that many of the papal strictures of 1928 were no longer applicable.
Pius XI. Pius XI had great interest in the Orthodox Churches. Between 1922 and 1939 he issued 23 documents concerning them. He reorganized the Pontifical Oriental Institute, entrusted it to the Jesuits, and provided it with a new building and a large library. He also established the Ethiopian, Ruthenian, and Russian colleges in Rome. In Catholic universities and major seminaries he instituted courses in Orthodox theology and spirituality. To the Benedictines the pope commended a special interest in the Orthodox, which they manifested by founding the monastery at Amay, Belgium (transferred to chevetogne in 1939). Repeatedly, Pius XI urged esteem for Orthodox theology, spirituality, rights, and customs. He renewed Benedict XV's condemnation of attempts at "Latinization." In his address to the Italian University Catholic Federation (Jan. 10, 1927) the Holy Father asserted principles of universal application in his references to the Orthodox when he declared that knowledge and fraternal charity are essential preliminaries to reunion and that ignorance and prejudice were responsible for past failures.
Five unofficial but approved Catholic observers attended the Faith and Order Conference at Edinburgh (1937).
Holy Office Instructions. Shortly after the formation of the World Council of Churches (1948), the Holy Office issued an "Instruction on the Ecumenical Movement" (1949). This document contained several warnings and indicated lines of conduct for Catholics. It did not attempt a systematic treatment of ecumenical problems, but accorded the movement formal recognition, declared it of serious interest to the whole Catholic Church, and encouraged Catholics, especially priests, to pray for its success and participate actively in it. The instruction encouraged pastoral letters to educate the faithful on these questions. It exhorted bishops to keep well informed on the subject, to guard against possible dangers while promoting ecumenism and appointing suitable priests to study it.
The instruction permitted Catholics, with the approval of competent ecclesiastical authorities, to meet non-Catholics as equals and discuss matters of faith and morals, each group explaining its own teachings. These gatherings were permitted to begin or end with the common recitation of the Lord's Prayer or some other prayer approved by the Catholic Church.
For interdiocesan, national, or international conferences, according to the instructions, permission of the Holy See is necessary. Within dioceses, bishops must regulate these activities and permit none but competent priests to engage in theological discussions. In dialogues, Catholics were told to present the Church's doctrines in their entirety, to avoid whittling down the faith or giving any semblance of indifference to truth.
This document marked a stage in the Church's attitude toward the ecumenical movement, which, it said, "should daily assume a more significant place within the Church's universal pastoral care."
Participation in Ecumenical Meetings. One hindrance to Catholic ecumenical activities was removed in 1950 when the Central Committee of the WCC issued at Toronto a very significant declaration, entitled "The Ecclesiological Significance of the World Council of Churches," which stated that membership in the WCC does not imply that member churches regard other member churches as "churches in the true and full sense of the word," although they do "recognize in other churches elements of the true Church." This document made clear that the WCC is a purely consultative body and allayed fears lest it make unacceptable assumptions about the nature of the Church. From the beginning, the basis of the World Council of Churches has been acceptance of Christ as God and Savior.
Catholic observers attended the Faith and Order Conferences at Lund (1952); at Oberlin, Ohio (1957); and at St. Andrews, Scotland (1960). At the General Assembly of the World Council of Churches at New Delhi, India (1961), five official Catholic observers were present. Five were also present at the Faith and Order Conference in Montreal (1963), along with 15 Catholic visitors from the North American continent, and about 30 in the press corps. The presence of these officially approved observers indicated a friendly interest by the Catholic Church in the proceedings of the World Council of Churches and its organs. The invitation extended to them, and the friendliness shown to them, demonstrated that the World Council of Churches did not intend to exclude the Catholic Church from its vision of the ultimate unity of all Christians, but on the contrary wished to include the Catholic Church in its counsels and plans.
Catholic Ecumenical Organizations. Other evidences of Catholic interest in ecumenism include the formation during the first half of the 20th century of institutes and associations to promote the union of all Christians. At first interest centered on the Orthodox, but later widened to include all divisions among Christians. This was true of the Benedictine Priory at Chevetogne; the Dominican center, Istina, near Paris; the institute of Byzantine studies in Holland; and the Eastern Churches Quarterly, published by English Benedictines at Ramsgate Abbey.
Germany. In Germany the "High Church" movement among some Lutherans; the Nazi persecution of Lutherans, Reformed, and Catholics alike; and the homogeneity of the German forms of Protestantism facilitated a rapprochement, which was brought to a focus by the una sancta movement. After World War II a group of Catholic and Lutheran scholars began meeting for theological and historical discussions under the leadership of Abp. Lorenz Jaeger of Paderborn.
France. In France Yves Congar, OP, had weighty influence, especially because of his book, Divided Christendom, translated into English (1939). Abp. Paul Couturier, who began with a special interest in the Orthodox, in 1932, propagated what he called "spiritual ecumenism," urging prayer for the sanctification of different Christian groups and "for the unity which Christ wills and by the means He chooses." This prayer proved widely acceptable. The WCC, especially its Faith and Order Commission, showed growing awareness of the intractable nature of sectarian divisions and emphasized more and more that one essential means of attaining unity lay in humble and universal prayer.
English-speaking World. In these lands enthusiasm for ecumenism developed slowly. Memories of civil and social disabilities, the hard struggle to maintain the faith and build educational institutions, Anglican convictions about the continuity of the Church of England and the ensuing controversies, a certain tradition of suspicion of "unrealistic" proposals for "corporate reunion," the outstanding service of many individual converts to the faith, lesser contact with the Orthodox, and the greater fragmentation of Protestantism in these countries all tended to perpetuate a defensive mentality and to retard appreciation of ecumenism. After the instruction of 1949, and especially after the advent of Pope John XXIII, interest quickened. Books, pamphlets, periodicals, conferences, and contacts with other churches multiplied.
In several countries bishops set up committees or institutes to foster and guide the movement. The Catholic Conference for Ecumenical Questions, founded in 1952 by the then Rev. J. G. M. Willebrands, has had an impressive though unobtrusive influence, and has worked with the Faith and Order Commission of the WCC. Several Catholics from English-speaking countries were members of this conference and cooperated effectively with it. The Friars of the Society of the Atonement at Graymoor, N.Y., have fostered the Week of Prayer for Unity annually in January, and have also published the English edition of Unitas.
Scholarly Trends. In the background of these direct efforts lay a series of developments. Biblical, patristic, and historical scholarship grew more international and freer of denominational prepossessions. Knowledge of the Orthodox increased through emigration from Russia and the foundation of Orthodox seminaries in Paris, New York, and Boston. Study of Orthodoxy, especially of the Byzantine period, deepened with the establishment of institutes in Rome, Paris, Munich, Berlin, Belgrade, Brussels, Athens, Prague, Boston, and Washington, D.C. (Dumbarton Oaks). Orthodox participation in the World Council of Churches increased understanding of the Orthodox tradition.
Catholic scholars in Germany, Holland, France, and the U.S. began to reassess the history of the reformation and to appreciate more positively the religious values that the "reformers" retained. Protestants wrote about the Catholic Church with a new understanding and appreciation of the Catholic position. The era of controversy, and the war mentality that accompanied it, showed signs of ending.
New theological trends were manifest. Theology became more biblical, historical, liturgical, and even sociological. Interest quickened in the role of the laity in the church. Catechism teaching became more kerygmatic. Appreciation of the Church's mission to all mankind deepened. The Orthodox developed a eucharistic ecclesiology and became more conscious, especially in the U.S., of jurisdictional problems. Anglicans and Protestants were much influenced by the new orthodoxy associated with Karl Barth, and they took more interest in tradition, although a "Neoevangelicalism" remained suspicious and aloof. Catholics tended to stress the element of "mystery" in the church, rather than juridical and institutional elements.
John XXIII. Pope john XXIII (1958–63) decisively promoted Christian unity. He deprecated the polemical tone used by some Catholics and frequently spoke about other Christians with respect and affection. His simplicity, openheartedness, optimism, and charity encouraged a general spirit of confidence and friendship. His encyclicals, Mater et Magistra and Pacem in terris, included statements indicative of his concern for Christian unity.
vatican council ii was summoned by John XXIII to stimulate the movement toward unity, among other things. The pope established a Secretariat for the Promotion of the Unity of Christians (June 5, 1960). Through the good offices of this secretariat, under the leadership of Cardinal Augustin Bea, John XXIII held audiences with the Anglican Archbishop Fisher of Canterbury; the presiding bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church, Dr. Arthur Lichtenberger; the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, Dr. A. C. Craig; and dignitaries of other churches.
Vatican Council II. At the sessions of Vatican Council II observers were in attendance who represented the Orthodox Churches, various Protestant groups, the Anglican Communion, and the WCC. Others were guests of the secretariat. These delegated observers had access to all documents distributed to the fathers of the council and were present at all the general sessions. Although lacking the right to speak or vote at these sessions, they communicated to the Secretariat for Unity their observations and criticism, which in some cases were passed on to the relevant conciliar commissions. Their presence in a conspicuous place in St. Peter's was a reminder of the council's ecumenical purpose. Several of these delegated observers praised the confidence and friendliness accorded them.
The council promulgated (Nov. 21, 1964) a special decree on ecumenism, that treated the principles and practice of ecumenism, and the two chief types of division in the seamless robe of Christ. As the decree explained, the unity of Christ's Church consists of unity of faith, of sacramental worship, and of the fraternal harmony of the family of God secured by the succession of bishops since the time of St. Peter and the Apostles. The document noted the continuing existence of differences among Christians concerning doctrine, discipline, and Church structure and termed these present-day divisions an open contradiction of Christ's will. The stress of the decree, however, was on the unifying elements that are found among Christians as individuals and as corporate groups. Special emphasis was placed on the gifts and endowments of the Orthodox Churches, whose power to govern themselves according to their own diciplines was recognized. Referring to the Churches in the West, where more numerous differences exist among the various Christian denominations themselves and between all of them and the Catholic Church, the council listed several points that all held in common, but it also declared that the other Churches do not share the Catholic understanding of the eucharistic mystery.
Catholics, to whom the decree was addressed, were urged to avoid anything in speech or action that would render relations with other Christians difficult. Recommended, too, was a conversion of mentality and outlook as well as of moral conduct, a willingness to appraise honestly the elements in the Church needing reform or renewal, a spirit of mutual forgiveness shared by Catholics and other Christians, and cooperation between the two in causes for the good of humanity. Catholics were further asked to recognize gladly all the endowments and gifts of other Christian denominations. With due approval Catholics may offer prayer in common with them and engage in interfaith dialogue. In the confrontation of convictions during dialogue, Catholics were counseled to distinguish carefully between the deposit of faith and formulations of faith, to keep in mind that various theological expressions of divine revelation are often complementary rather than conflicting, and to recall that there is a hierarchy of truths within revelation itself. At the same time, the council decried a false irenicism that would dilute or compromise truth.
Paul IV. The successor of John XXIII continued his predecessor's program for religious unity. paul vi's meeting in Jerusalem (January 1964) with the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople roused worldwide Catholic enthusiasm. It demonstrated the Holy Father's willingness to break with precedent, to express esteem for the Orthodox, and to move toward reconciliation with them. On Dec. 7, 1965, the pope and the patriarch nullified simultaneously the mutual anathemas pronounced by Pope leo ix and michael cerularius, patriarch of Constantinople, in 1054, at the start of the eastern schism.
As Vatican Council II drew to a close, Paul IV set a papal precedent by participating in interfaith prayer with the non-Catholic observers at the council. During the service in the Basilica of St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls (Dec. 4, 1965) a Methodist minister, a Greek Orthodox archimandrite, and a Catholic priest gave the readings, and a Lutheran hymn was sung.
Ecumenical Principles. The views of non-Catholics and Catholics on the principle of ecumenism have become clearer in the light of study and experience.
World Council of Churches. Since its foundation in 1948 this organization has become increasingly prominent in the ecclesiastical situation. The members generally agree that division among Christians is contrary to God's will and a grave obstacle to the acceptance of Christianity by non-Christians, that Church unity must be visible as well as invisible, and that the Church's unity and mission to non-Christians are inextricably connected; they believe the Church must be supranational, supraregional, and supraracial; that some prevalent organ of conference and council is required and is supplied to the member churches by the WCC itself. In addition they discern a need for closer association with the other Protestant bodies, such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Missouri Synod Lutherans, and with the Catholic Church. Members aspire to perfect Christian unity. Leaders of the WCC realized from the beginning that this goal involved the inclusion of all other Christian bodies as members of the WCC, or at least as friendly associates in consultation with it.
The conviction has grown that unity must be based upon truth and that friendliness that hides or minimizes differences is not in the long run helpful. It is appreciated, too, that the Eucharist is central to reunion, to Christian worship, and to prayer and that, consequently, there must be a ministry accepted by everyone. Moreover, it is agreed that unity must be stable, continuous, and inclusive of the whole Christian fellowship of all places and ages, but not uniform or rigid structurally, since this would extinguish the spirit. Unity, admittedly, derives from and is governed by the unity of the Word of God Incarnate. Several theologians within the World Council of Churches claim that the Church continues in a real sense the redeeming work of Christ. Catholics share fully all these convictions.
Catholic. Vatican II's Decree on Ecumenicism made it clear that promoting endeavors at reconciliation and unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council (Unitatis Redintegratio, 1). It should be noted that Vatican II intended, not to inaugurate a separate Catholic ecumenical movement, but to encourage all Catholics "to take an active and intelligent part" in the existing movement (Unitatis Redintegratio, 4).
Catholic Principles relative to ecumenism may be summed up as follows: through the fulfillment of the promises of Christ by the action of the Holy Spirit the Church has never failed and can never fail to be one in faith, in Sacraments, and in ordered, authoritative guidance through the successor of St. Peter and the successors of the Apostles. The Church, although a mystery believed by faith, is a sign lifted up among the nations, containing in itself evidence of its divine foundation. Its unity admits a large variety of languages, ritual forms, local prerogatives, spiritual currents, legitimate institutions, and preferred activities; it is not static or immobile, but dynamic and developing. The Church needs internal renewal and reform occasionally. Like holiness and catholicity, unity exists in essentials, but is not complete and perfect. As the Church's catholicity becomes fuller and more perfect through reconciliation with other Christian churches, the scandal of divisions among Christians make it more difficult for non-Christians to recognize the one true Church of Christ; and so a reconciliation of all Christians would have considerable influence in the confrontation of the Church with the great non-Christian religions and with unbelievers.
The defects and sins of members of the Church, both past and present, affect ecclesiastical institutions and obscure the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Humility is, therefore, an important element among Catholic principles of ecumenism.
Two principles regarding theological formulations are important in ecumenical dialogue. The first is that all theological formulations must be understood in their historical context; the second is that no theological formulation exhausts the fullness of truth. This does not mean that formulation is false; it does mean, however, that in the total vision of Christian truth, formulations of individual truths assume another aspect than what they do when taken in isolation.
Other Christians who have received valid baptism merit the Church's esteem and solicitude as her children and as belonging to her, although not fully. Not only as individuals, but also as corporate entities, churches, or ecclesiastical communities, other Christians share a common patrimony with Catholics. Among its treasure are faith in Jesus Christ and the grace and gifts of the Holy Spirit, who acts to preserve what is true and holy and inspires efforts toward full unity.
In the West, churches and communities that are not in communion with the Apostolic See differ considerably among themselves in doctrine, doctrinal emphasis, and manner of government. Not all are equally interested in the ecumenical movement, nor do all have the same mutual esteem that the ecumenical spirit brings. Almost all of them maintain belief in baptism and in Scripture as the word of God. Their celebration of "the Lord's Supper" is reverent, and their worship often retains elements that were conspicuous in the ancient liturgies. Their charitable works show an enormous generosity. The churches within the World Council of Churches have developed a greater appreciation of the visible nature and continuity of the Church, of tradition, of the eucharistic liturgy, of the need for an ordained ministry accepted by all, and of the need for the Church to be able to speak to the world with a concordant witness.
The ecumenical method, which is one of "dialogue," envisions frank, friendly discussions about doctrines, pastoral and missionary methods, spirituality, and the devotional life. There are large areas in which Christians can stand and act in unison to maintain Christian values in a secular environment amid the growth of unreligious outlook and conduct.
Massive obstacles bar attainment of unity in faith, sacraments, and authority. On the Catholic side there is fear of indifference that can best be exorcised by loyalty to the directions of the Holy See and by episcopal initiative and leadership. Orthodox, Anglicans, and Protestants dread "domination" by Rome and the more articulated doctrinal convictions of Catholicism. These suspicions can only be allayed by increased knowledge and experience of mutual church life and by cooperation for the defense and spread of the general cause.
The ecumenical movement is essentially a spiritual one, a call to increased holiness, zeal, and union with Christ, into which all intellectual and administrative activities must be integrated. The basis of the movement is the clear will of Christ that all his followers should be united; its method is primarily prayer, and "dialogue" in various forms; and its hope rests upon the omnipotence of God.
Social Thought. A factor of considerable importance in the Churches' search for unity has been the desire for a coherent witness and a common action making relevant the gospel message of justice and peace among men and nations; indeed, it was the original motive and basis for the participation of some of the Orthodox churches in the ecumenical movement after World War I. The forces of what were called the social gospel or "applied" or "practical" Christianity sponsored international conferences. They met at Stockholm, Sweden, in 1925 and at Oxford, England, in 1937, before the concerns they represented were officially assumed as an integral function of the WCC at its founding in 1948. Moreover, the basic interests of the World Alliance for Promoting Friendship through the Churches are expressed through the WCC's permanent Commissions of the Churches on International Affairs.
The hope of common action and of coherent witness encounters obstacle in the nature of the WCC, which describes itself as "a fellowship of churches," undertaking only such programs as the member churches authorize. Moreover, the WCC's pronouncements have only the authority of their intrinsic wisdom, the documents of its assemblies being "received and commended to the churches for their serious consideration and appropriate action." In addition, the different theological traditions represented in the WCC give rise to different conceptions of the nature of man, of law, of the state, of the relation of religion to temporal structures, and, in short, of the bases of social ethics. Thus, the attempt to work out an ecumenical consensus with the aid of dispersed and volunteer collaborators, and the need for conciliating viewpoints from opposing social systems, often make the positions taken by the WCC, the organized instrument of the ecumenical community, imprecise and tentative.
The central concept elaborated by the WCC is that of the responsible society, defined as "one where freedom is the freedom of all who acknowledge responsibility to justice and public order, and where those who hold positions of authority or economic power are responsible for its exercise to God and to the people whose welfare is affected by it." The concept envisions a social arrangement that maintains in dynamic equilibrium freedom and order, liberty and justice, while barring the road to tyranny and anarchy. The responsible society, it was noted at the Evanston Assembly of 1954, is not conceived of as "an alternative social or political system, but a criterion by which we judge all existing social orders, while at the same time providing a standard to guide us in specific choices we have to make."
The WCC has taken firm stands against racial segregation and for religious freedom; it has consistently supported the United Nations as the best mechanism for reducing tensions between nations. Because of the character of its organization and its ethical criteria, however, its pronouncements on the social order have been, perforce, generalized ones. They are not for that reason insignificant. Thus, they have indefatigably asserted the essential dignity of man who is the object of a divine and redeeming love, the source of all demands for human rights and social justice for every person. They have asserted an obligation of service to the world because of God's love for all men. They have proclaimed the spiritual solidarity of all mankind, thus challenging the pretensions of absolute national sovereignty, the myths of inevitable class conflict, and the fears of irreconcilable national rivalries. They have declared that economic processes and international affairs are neither beyond control nor self-regulatory; they are subject to norms determined by their ultimate function which is to serve man in fulfilling his destiny. They have taught the equality of all men in a common destiny and divinely certified value, thus voicing the irreducible claims of a common humanity to its common goods, and the rights of the individual to an equality of opportunity in providing himself and his family with the necessities for a truly human existence.
Dialogue. Dialogue is one of the ecumenical movement's most characteristic and important steps toward reconciliation. Replacing long-standing patterns of inter-denominational polemics, dialogue attempts to create an atmosphere in which all Christians may come to a genuine understanding of each others' beliefs and traditions. The mutual understanding gained through dialogue does not always result in agreement, for understanding another's beliefs may reveal their disparity with one's own position. Accordingly, ecumenical dialogue should not be accompanied by a false irenicism, for nothing is to be gained by pretending that basic differences do not exist or that basic differences can be overcome simply by good will. Nonetheless, ecumenical dialogue has resulted in a remarkable degree of consensus, or a recognition that positions that were previously considered incompatible, can be seen as complementary expressions of God's revelation.
Ecumenical dialogue is conducted in a variety of ways, ranging from multilateral discussions at international meetings sponsored by the World Council of Churches to informal "living-room dialogues" among a few members of different churches. Sometimes ecumenical dialogue takes the form of formal negotiations aimed at uniting two or more denominations. At any one time, several official union conversations may be under way among various churches throughout the world, under the aegis of the the consultation on church union. A number of such negotiations have proved successful; e.g., the union of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethern in 1967 to form the united methodist church.
Union conversations need to involve every level and locale of the churches participating. Many union proposals have withered for lack of popular support, while other unions have been only partial, since some local churches refused to unite. Even when a union plan is ratified, there is usually a tendency for "denominationalism" to continue in much the same way as previously; thus, a process of continuing dialogue and growing together in union is necessary. In other words, since union involves all the members of the churches uniting—not merely administrators and theologians—"grass roots ecumenicism" is a pastoral necessity if union is to be really effective.
Roman Catholic Participation in Dialogue. In accord with Vatican II's recommendation of "fraternal dialogue on points of doctrine and the more pressing pastoral problems of our time" (Decree 18), Catholics have entered into dialogue with their fellow Christians in many places and at many levels.
Noteworthy on the international level are the bilateral conversations arranged by the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity and the appropriate officials of four world confessional families: the Anglican Communion, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Methodist Council, and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. In general, these commissions have studied the doctrinal issues that originally divided the participating churches and have searched for an acceptable consensus that would overcome the legacy of separation. In addition, Catholic representatives have participated in such international meetings of the Faith and Order Commission and the General Assembly of the World Council of Churches. The Roman Catholic Church is a full member of the Faith and Order Commission, and has observer status at the World Council of Churches. In practice, Catholic organizations and individual Catholics participate in many of its projects and the feasibility of Catholic membership has been explored by both sides.
Similar conversations are taking place at national and regional levels. In the United States, seven bilateral conversations are sponsored by the Bishops' Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs and the appropriate officials of the churches involved: the American Baptist Convention, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Episcopal church, Lutheran churches, the United Methodist church, Reformed and Presbyterian churches, and Orthodox and other Eastern churches. The membership of these groups usually consists of a half-dozen or more theologians and administrators from each side. Frequently, the discussions in these groups parallel or augment the efforts of the corresponding international conversation, but in some instances, the particularities of the American religious scene give a special orientation to the dialogue.
Catholics also participate in other ecumenical conversations, such as the Consultation on Church Union, and are working on ecumenical projects, such as those sponsored by the national council of churches.
Various types of formal and informal dialogues are in operation on the local level. For example, some Catholic dioceses have joined state councils of churches, while individual parishes have become members of local councils of churches. Some Catholic priests have become members of local ministerial associations, while other priests have developed informal contacts with the clergy of other churches. Catholic laity have worked with their fellow Christians on civic projects and have participated in such interchurch activities as businessmen's prayer breakfasts and churchwomen's organizations.
While these different forms of dialogue all aim at improving relations among Christians, each dialogue is usually concerned with some specific area of interest: theology, education, social action, or worship.
Theological Discussion. The primary, although not exclusive, concern of the bilateral conversations is discussion of theological issues. Although the choice of specific topics depends on the historical and theological traditions of the churches represented, in most ecumenical conversations one or more of the following issues tend to surface: (1) Gospel, scripture, and tradition; (2) creeds and confessions; (3) church and ministry; and (4) the Sacraments, particularly the Eucharist.
Each of these topics can be discussed in a variety of ways. For example, discussions on the Church have sometimes focused on the Church in relation to the secular world or the Church's social responsibility; other conversations have centered on the Church's ministry and have treated such matters as the nature and role of the priesthood and episcopate, the validity of ordination, and apostolic succession; still other dialogues have been concerned with freedom and responsibility in the Church and have explored such questions as teaching authority in the Church, the nature and function of the papal office, and the exercise of infallibility. Similar variety enriches the dialogue on other topics, such as the spirituality of the ministry, formation of moral judgments, and the ministry of women in the Church.
A primary aim in theological dialogue is mutual understanding. Frequently, such understanding results in the recognition that doctrinal issues that were previously considered to be conflicting should really be seen as complementary. Doctrinal complementarity was accepted by Vatican II, insofar as "the heritage handed down by the apostles was received with differences of form and manner, so that from the earliest times of the Church, it was explained variously in different places, owing to diversities of genius and conditions of life" (Decree 14). Accordingly, ecumenical dialogue has benefited from both a variety of theological methods and a plurality of doctrinal expressions.
Doctrinal discussion has also been aided by the recognition of a "hierarchy of truths": since doctrines "vary in their relation to Christian faith" (Decree 11), theologians may agree on basic tenets while allowing flexibility in the presentation of related issues. Also, since doctrines have developed in the past, there is no reason to preclude the possibility of further development in the future; accordingly, ecumenical theologians are exploring ways in which doctrines might converge in an acceptable consensus.
While areas of more or less serious disagreement still remain in ecumenical theology, this should not detract from the substantial amount of consensus that has been achieved in a comparatively short time. For example, the American Lutheran-Roman Catholic and Episcopal-Catholic conversations have achieved remarkable consensus on such topics as the Nicene Creed, Baptism, the Eucharist and ministry, and even the papacy.
While manifesting the progress achieved in theological discussion, the publication of consensus statements raises two crucial questions: what degree of consensus is necessary for two churches to enter officially into some type of union? And to what extent is the consensus achieved by theologians shared by members of the churches they represent? Presently, few church officials seem to have envisioned any policy or procedures to implement the consensus emerging from the dialogues of their theologians with those of other churches.
Despite the many ecumenical advances made thus far, theological obstacles to ecumenical growth and progress still remain. Issues like the papal primacy and jurisdiction, ordination of women, sexuality, and especially homosexuality, and such Marian doctrines as the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, and so-called 'nontheological/moral' factors like the dramatic rise of conservatively-oriented groups inside the various Christian Churches, all constitute points of serious contention and barriers to be overcome.
Liturgical Sharing. The sense of Christian brotherhood created by shared experiences in dialogue, education, and social action usually leads to a desire to worship together. While participation in ecumenical prayer services encounters little or no theological objection, in contrast, there is considerable divergence in policy in regard to sharing in liturgical worship (communicatio in sacris ), particularly eucharistic sharing.
Some churches allow "open communion," inviting all Christians attending the service to receive the Eucharist. Sometimes, two churches have reciprocal bilateral agreements permitting intercommunion. Other churches ordinarily welcome only their own members to the Eucharist but do make exceptions in particular cases. Finally, some churches have a policy of "closed communion" which permits only members of that church to communicate. The practice of local churches or particular individuals, however, does not always follow denominational policy.
Present Catholic policy is basically that of closed communion with some exceptions; furthermore, Catholic policy in regard to eucharistic sharing with the Eastern churches differs from that of the Western churches.
Since a basic doctrinal and sacramental commonality exists between the Eastern (i.e., Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox) and Catholic churches, "some sharing in liturgical worship … given suitable circumstances and the approval of church authority" is officially encouraged. Accordingly, Catholics are permitted to receive not only the Eucharist but also the Sacraments of penance and the anointing of the sick from Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox clergy, and Catholics are permitted to reciprocate. In reality, however, world-wide agreement on such sacramental sharing remains to be reached, although it occurs on occasion.
In contrast, the lack of recognized doctrinal agreement between the Catholic and Western (e.g., Protestant) churches has resulted in a general prohibition against liturgical sharing, although with some exceptions: (1) non-Catholics who are rightly disposed and believe in the Sacraments in harmony with the Catholic Church are allowed to receive them for adequate reasons. While urgent situations, such as danger of death, persecution, or imprisonment, are generally acknowledged cases for allowing sacramental sharing, these comprise unusual situations and are not meant as general practice.
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The emergence of a global ecumenical movement ranks among the more remarkable religious developments of the twentieth century. Christians have been sharply divided by doctrines, geography, and various institutional factors. Likewise boundaries usually have been quite rigid between persons of different world religions. But the last century, particularly since the 1960s, has witnessed an unprecedented degree of activity focused on enhancing religious understanding, cooperation, and unity.
The Greek word oikonomos has a broad meaning, sometimes referring to "ecumenics," "economics," or the management of a "household." When used as an adjective, the word ecumenical means "universal" or "global."
Christians historically have reserved its usage exclusively for conversations among its own communions and denominations. Increasingly, however, ecumenism is being understood to be a more relational and inclusive concept that extends beyond Christians and churches to the entire human community within the whole of God's creation. Thus interreligious relationships and dialogue are integral to the ecumenical movement of the twenty-first century.
The Quest for Christian Unity
Inspired especially by John R. Mott's vision at the turn of the twentieth century for "the evangelization of the world in this generation," the modern ecumenical movement began among Protestants (Reformation and Free). The 1910 International Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, often is cited as the beginning of the modern ecumenical movement. Orthodox Christians, after World War I, became more involved, especially when the Ecumenical Patriarchate proposed a "league of churches." Founded in 1948 by merging several Protestant streams of ecumenical activity, the World Council of Churches since 1961 has included both Protestants and Orthodox in a global ecumenical organization.
A transforming breakthrough in contemporary ecumenism dawned when Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). Roman Catholicism not only joined other Christians but began providing leadership in the quest for Christian unity. Past patterns of Christian insularity and exclusivity started to erode, and new modes of community and service began to emerge.
Not all Christians have been supportive or involved in ecumenical efforts toward dialogue and/or greater unity. Pentecostals generally have not participated and evangelicals often have registered suspicion or protested certain ecumenical developments and statements.
Varieties of Ecumenical Organizations
The ecumenical movement is represented in, but not contained within, any single organization. A variety of structures exist that facilitate ecumenical life and work. These exist not only on a global scale but also in regional and local settings. Increasingly, local councils of churches in the United States include persons of other religious faiths.
Roman Catholic ecumenical activity since 1960 has been centered in the Vatican's Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, while the World Council of Churches (WCC) membership incorporates roughly 500 million Protestant and Orthodox Christians in 120 countries. Many evangelical Protestants have globally organized through the World Evangelical Fellowship. In the United States, the National Council of Churches (NCC), founded in 1950, has represented thirty-four mainline Protestant, Orthodox, and Anglican church bodies, while evangelical Protestants have formed the National Association of Evangelicals.
Ecumenical organizations have not only been concerned with matters of theology, fellowship, and church organization. Direct services such as disaster relief, care for refugees, and food for the hungry have characterized Church World Service and other ecumenical organizations. Matters of public policy and justice, both nationally and internationally, have been addressed in resolutions, forums, and direct-action programs. Illustrative are the WCC's effort to eradicate apartheid in South Africa and the NCC's involvement in the 1960s civil rights struggles and the crisis of black churches being burned in the 1990s. Contemporary attention is being given to issues of justice, peace, and the integrity of creation.
Dialogians of the Faith
Christians are moving beyond monologue, and dialogue is replacing diatribe. They are becoming dialogians, not simply theologians, of the faith. The ecumenical movement has inspired a wide range of conversations, consultations, negotiations, and organizations.
Bilateral dialogues are interconfessional conversations in which two religious groups seek to determine the degree of consensus existing in their doctrinal teaching, liturgical worship, and church order. Generally bilateral dialogues do not lead to organic union between the two bodies, but rather they serve to eliminate misunderstandings and help define how far mutual recognition of ministries is possible. Illustrative are official church bilateral dialogues such as those between Roman Catholics and Anglicans, or between Methodists and Orthodox, or between Lutheran and Reformed.
Multilateral dialogues involving more than two religious bodies tend to focus on central themes of Christian faith. Sometimes they lead to organic union, such as the creation of the Church of South India in 1947 and the Church of North India in 1970. In the United States the Consultation on Church Union (COCU) was begun in 1962 as an effort to create a "truly catholic, truly evangelical, and truly reformed" church. COCU has involved nine denominations (including three predominately African-American churches). Now known as the Church of Christ Uniting (with the same initials, COCU), it has moved away from its original emphasis on organic union toward a more covenanting, conciliar fellowship mutually recognizing one another's baptism, ministry, and so on. Special attention has been given to addressing racism and sexism in American church life.
Intrafaith dialogues focus on exploring unity and disunity within a confession or a denomination. Thus groups like the Lutheran World Federation or the World Methodist Council facilitate relationships within a particular religious heritage or "family." Increasing tensions and divisions within denominations have prompted internal dialogues between more "liberal" and more "evangelical" members. Other combinations have included dialogues such as the Wesleyan-Holiness consultation among persons from the United Methodist Church, Wesleyan Church, Salvation Army, Church of the Nazarene, Korean Holiness Church, and others.
Interfaith dialogues explore differences and similarities among world religions and movements, along with finding ways for mutual cooperation and service. Especially since the Holocaust of World War II, Christians and Jews have sought to build bridges of understanding and oppose anti-Semitism. Broad bilateral discussions between Christians and Buddhists, Jews and Muslims, and various other combinations also are occurring around the world. A loosely defined World Parliament of Religions met in 1893 and again in 1993. Particularly dramatic was when representatives of twelve major religions gathered in 1986, at the invitation of Pope John Paul II, in Assisi, Italy, to pray for world peace.
An Ecumenical Challenge for the Future
Just prior to his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr., envisioned a "world house" in which persons of various races, nationalities, and religions had to learn to live together in peace, lest they "perish as fools." This ecumenical challenge poses both the great new problem and the great new opportunity for humanity in the twenty-first century.
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Donald E. Messer