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Life and Work


Like the Roman Catholic social movement of the late 19th century, the ecumenical movement for "life and work," involving a united Christian witness on social issues among Protestants and Orthodox, had its antecedents in the increasing concern for the economic and social problems of an expanding industrial age. After World War I, these hitherto scattered Christian social movements were gathered into an international Christian effort for human welfare and world peace. This movement developed into the Universal Christian Council on Life and Work, largely through the work of Nathan sÖderblom.

The Universal Christian Council on Life and Work was active from 1920 to 1938, when the provisional committee of the World Council of Churches in process of formation came into being. This period of social history included the difficult and fruitless effort of interwar reconstruction, the encounter with revolutionary social movements and ideologies accompanying the economic depression and mass industrial unemployment of the '20s and '30s, the German church struggle, and the deepening international crisis prior to World War II. The ideas that were developed in ecumenical study and discussion provided insight and vitality for a new type of Christian witness and concern that continues to influence Christian thought and action.

The development of Life and Work is best seen through its two great conferences, at Stockholm (1925), and at Oxford (1937). The former was the first contemporary ecumenical conference on social questions. This meeting clarified the need, the possibilities, and the difficulties of an international ecumenical attitude on social issues. It revealed also a lack of theological understanding and agreement on the Christian view of man and society. The Oxford Conference of 1937 went far beyond the 1925 meeting in theological acumen and depth of social analysis. This is reflected in its pronouncements, especially in its Report on Church, Community, and State in Relation to the Economic Order. This statement emphasized that the church must exercise its transcendence of all social systems in order to guard its moral and spiritual integrity, and to render a true critique, especially of those Western social systems that it may be inclined to accept or defend uncritically.

This viewpoint became later the basis for a world council of churches (WCC) definition of the responsible society as a guide for Christian thinking in relation to all social systems. The more subtle statement of Christian social thinking could come about only through an adroit use of the best theological and lay minds in the churches. The preparatory studies directed by J. H. Oldham are classics of ecumenical social thinking.

Life and Work was almost exclusively Western in outlook, a weakness that characterized ecumenical social thinking until 1955, when the WCC, using the Life and Work method, launched a new study program to draw the churches and the social problems of the new nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America into the ecumenical debate. In WCC these concerns continued to be addressed by the Department on Church and Society and the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs.

Bibliography: Universal Christian Conference of Life and Work, The Stockholm Conference, 1925, ed. g. k. a. bell (London 1926). World Conference on Church, Community and State, The Churches Survey Their Task: The Report of the Conference at Oxford, July 1937, ed. j. h. oldham (London 1937). r. rouse and s.c. neill, eds., A History of the Ecumenical Movement, 15171948 (London 1954). e. duff, The Social Thought of the World Council of Churches (New York 1956). World Council of Churches, Statements on Social Questions (Geneva 1955).

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