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Celebrating a Century of Ecumenism: Exploring the Achievements of International Dialogue

Celebrating a Century of Ecumenism: Exploring the Achievements of International Dialogue

by John A. Radano (Editor), Walter Cardinal Kasper (Foreword by)

Modern ecumenism traces its roots back to the 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh. Celebrating a Century of Ecumenism brings readers up to date on one hundred years of global dialogue between many different church traditions, including Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Evangelical, Orthodox, Baptist, Disciples of Christ,


Modern ecumenism traces its roots back to the 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh. Celebrating a Century of Ecumenism brings readers up to date on one hundred years of global dialogue between many different church traditions, including Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Evangelical, Orthodox, Baptist, Disciples of Christ, Oriental Orthodox, and more. Eighteen essays by authors representing a wide spectrum of denominational interests outline the achievements of this movement toward unity.

The first part of the book focuses on multilateral dialogue that involved a variety of churches attempting to delineate common ground, with considerable progress reported. The second part describes bilateral discussions between two churches or groups of churches. Celebrating a Century of Ecumenism is one small marker along the way to the unity that many Christians desire, and the report it provides will encourage those involved in ecumenical discussions.

S. Wesley Ariarajah
Peter C. Bouteneff
Ralph Del Colle
Lorelei F. Fuchs
Donna Geernaert
Jeffrey Gros
Helmut Harder
William Henn
Margaret O'Gara
John A. Radano
Cecil M. Robeck Jr.
Ronald G. Roberson
William G. Rusch
Mary Tanner
Geoffrey Wainwright
Jared Wicks
Susan K. Wood

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
International Bulletin of Missionary Research
“A road map for the future, making it thought-provoking for interested readers, including ecumenical scholars.”
Ecumenical Trends
“An important book for ecumenical studies today. The essays by seasoned ecumenists open up an extraordinarily rich exposition of agreements reached, differences still to be overcome and signposts that help chart a map for the ecumenical journey into the future.”
Catholic Books Review
“Well worth reading for anyone interested in Christian doctrinal developments.”
Theological Studies
“A great resource for scholars and students of ecumenism who wish for excellent summations of all the bilateral dialogues with the Catholic Church.”
Reviews in Religion and Theology
“A good overview. . . . For the historian and the ecumenist alike, this is a very helpful volume.”

Product Details

Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

Celebrating a Century of Ecumenism

Exploring the Achievements of International Dialogue

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2012 John A. Radano
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6705-6

Chapter One

Achievements and Limits of the World Council of Churches

S. Wesley Ariarajah

Edinburgh 1910 and the Ecumenical Movement

It is appropriate that we have this assessment of the ecumenical movement, and of the achievements and limits of the World Council of Churches (WCC) within it, as we celebrate the centennial of the first World Missionary Conference of 1910 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Although Edinburgh was inspired by John R. Mott's vision of evangelization of the world in that generation, there are clear indications that the Edinburgh Conference inspired the birth of both the Faith and Order and the Life and Work movements. These two movements, alongside the International Missionary Council, constitute the core of the WCC. Charles H. Brent, the pioneer of the Faith and Order movement, was at the Edinburgh Conference. He was so impressed with the ecumenical possibility that the Edinburgh Conference demonstrated in the area of mission that on his return from Edinburgh in 1910 he spoke at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, USA, of the need for church unity and of his own conviction that "a world conference on Faith and Order should be convened." In response to his call the Convention resolved "that a joint commission be appointed to bring about a conference for the consideration of questions touching Faith and Order." Several other churches were also encouraged to pass similar resolutions, and the work of the newly appointed commission would result in the first World Conference on Faith and Order in Lausanne in 1927.

J. H. Oldham, another pioneer of the ecumenical movement, was also at Edinburgh and served as the Executive Secretary of the Conference. At the end of the Conference he became the secretary of the Continuation Committee, and was instrumental in the creation of the International Missionary Council (IMC), which he led as its secretary. Even though the roots of the Life and Work movement lie in the early peace movements following the First World War and in the passion for unity, peace, and justice on the part of Archbishop Nathan Söderblom of the Lutheran Church of Sweden, it is not difficult to trace the ecumenical impact of Edinburgh on this movement as well. Söderblom's own early ecumenical involvement can be traced to his friendship with John R. Mott and his participation in the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF) already in the early 1900s. Oldham, the Executive Secretary at Edinburgh, got deeply involved in the Life and Work movement as well, and in 1934 became the Chairman of the research committee for the Universal Christian Council on Life and Work.

The roots of the formation of the WCC itself lie in the unprecedented and visionary encyclical "Unto the churches of Christ everywhere" issued by the patriarchate of Constantinople in 1920, calling for the establishment of a "league of churches" (Koinonia ton Ekklesion) in the manner of the League of Nations (Koinonia ton Ethnon) to confront the challenges facing the churches following the war. Metropolitan Germanos, who was the prime influence in the issuing of the encyclical, was also closely associated with John R. Mott through the WSCF.

It is significant that quite independent of the encyclical, and before becoming aware of it, both Oldham and Söderblom were also feeling the need for some kind of "ecumenical council of churches" so that the Mission, Faith and Order, and Life and Work movements would have some rootedness in the life of the churches. All these sentiments would converge in the eventual decision to work towards establishing the World Council of Churches.

I have engaged in these reflections for a special reason. It is commonly assumed that the designation of Edinburgh 1910 as the "beginning of the modern ecumenical movement" has to do with the success Mott had in bringing a wide ecumenical constituency of some 1200 persons to reflect on and strategize for his vision of evangelization of the world in that generation. In fact, there are deeper reasons; all the three major movements that would eventually become part of the WCC drew their inspiration and motivation from Edinburgh, making it a significant landmark in the history of the ecumenical movement.

I should now turn to the topic of examining the achievements and limits of the WCC as one of the instruments of the ecumenical movement.

Issues Related to Its Nature and Constituency

Even though only 147 churches, mainly from the Western Hemisphere, constituted the WCC at its founding assembly in Amsterdam in 1948, today the WCC includes over 350 member and associate-member churches from within the Orthodox, Protestant, and Pentecostal traditions from well over one hundred countries. It had incorporated into its programmatic life all the major global streams of the ecumenical movement: Faith and Order, Life and Work, International Missionary Council, World Council for Christian Education, and the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (founded in 1946). It had also succeeded in gaining the full participation of the Roman Catholic Church in the Faith and Order and the Mission aspects of its work, and established a Joint Working Group with the Vatican to further, monitor, foster, and promote WCC-RCC relationships. It is in this sense that the WCC is a "privileged instrument" of the ecumenical movement. No other ecumenical expression of the church is as comprehensive in its constituency, the breadth of the issues addressed, and the network of relationships it fosters across ecclesial traditions, plurality of cultures, political ideologies, and nationalities. This is no mean achievement, and something that could never have become a reality without the faith and faithfulness, the courage and conviction, and the hope and vision that characterized the early pioneers of the modern ecumenical movement.

Yet, the WCC has some serious limitations based on the way it constituted itself. It could have been conceived as a comprehensive global ecumenical movement of movements, like Faith and Order and Life and Work; it could have become the global ecumenical family of the confessional families of churches; it could have been constituted into a World Council of the National Councils of Churches around the world. However, for theological reasons, the decision was made that it should be a council of churches, with the local/national expressions of the church universal as the constituency for its membership. In order to make it possible for the maximum number of churches to join its membership, the Council was defined simply as a "fellowship" of churches, with a minimal "basis" that defined its membership as "churches that confess Jesus Christ as God and Savior according to scriptures, and therefore seek to fulfill together their common calling, to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit." Yet, despite sustained efforts from both sides, the Roman Catholic Church, which constitutes a major part of the Christian constituency of the world, chose not to become a member. Further, a number of churches in the evangelical tradition also chose to remain outside the fellowship.

With more than half of the Christian constituency outside its immediate fellowship, the WCC's claim to be the "World" Council of Churches is more notional than real, and can only be justified by the reality that it has always been and continues to be an open fellowship into which those outside could come in, if and when they decide to do so.

The second limitation has to do with the question of its "nature" and its "teaching authority." From the beginning, the Council was seen as an instrument of the ecumenical movement that serves the churches in their search for unity. The Amsterdam assembly adopted a resolution on "the authority of the Council" stating that the "Council is far from desiring to usurp any of the functions which already belong to its constituent churches, or to control them, or to legislate for them, and indeed is prevented by its constitution from doing so." It went further to say that "the Council disavows any thought of becoming a single unified church structure independent of the churches which have joined in constituting the Council."

While the statement was necessary and is in the right spirit, it still raised questions about the nature of the Council as a fellowship of churches. What is a "Council of Churches," and what is its ecclesial character? And since it does speak and act as a body, what authority do its actions and statements have for its member churches and the world?

These questions prompted the need for a more elaborate statement, referred to as the Toronto Statement, on "the Church, the Churches, and the World Council of Churches" that was received by the WCC Central Committee gathered in Toronto in 1950. Here too the Council disavowed any intention to become a "superchurch" and the tradition was established that the churches together in Council will have the authority to speak and act, but that its actions and what it says do not commit or bind the churches, and that the teachings of the Council will stand or fall based on the wisdom they carry in themselves and the power they carry to convince the churches.

Given the diverse and complex understandings of the church and its teaching authority within the member churches, this was perhaps the only option that was open to enable the churches to stay within the fellowship. This, however, placed enormous limits on the WCC both in promoting the unity of the churches and in speaking on matters of faith. Thus, although the WCC over its sixty plus years has made enormous contributions in drawing the churches closer together in unity, in enabling common reflection, witness, and service, and in facilitating their capacity to speak together, it remains a body that does not possess the capacity to "implement" its mission. It has to leave the churches to draw the consequences of their life together as Council for their self-understanding and their relationship to other churches. The failure of the churches to do so is often seen as the failure of the WCC.

In the 1970s and 80s attempts were made to give some ecclesial significance to the WCC by opening up discussions on Conciliar Fellowship and to see the life of the churches together in the WCC as some kind of Pre-Conciliar life. But the nervousness on the part of some of the churches resulted in those discussions running into dry ground.

Issues Related to Its Vision of Unity

As the result of having the three primary movements of Faith and Order, Life and Work, and the IMC within its embrace, the WCC has made enormous contributions in the areas of unity, mission, and social responsibility. I am sure that in the session that follows, Mary Tanner would recount for us the great strides made within Faith and Order on the nature of the unity we seek, the convergences and consensuses that have been reached, and most importantly how the work of the WCC through this Commission has so radically changed the ecumenical scene at the local, national, and regional levels.

Following the tradition of IMC, the WCC Commission on World Mission and Evangelism has facilitated major paradigm shifts in mission thinking through its periodic World Mission Conferences and the numerous studies it has facilitated on mission and evangelism and issues related to them. Faced with the reality of resurgent religions and persistent plurality in the postcolonial era, the WCC instituted a SubUnit for Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies. The sustained work of this program, also in collaboration with the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, has again made enormous and measurable changes in the way Christians and churches relate to peoples of other religious traditions.

Perhaps the best known, because of the public face it carries, is the way the Life and Work movement flourished within the WCC in the form of programs that captured the imagination of people in all parts of the world. WCC's programs in relation to Apartheid in South Africa, racism in general, human rights, religious freedom, economic justice, poverty, indigenous peoples, sustainable development, science and technology, Christian education, theological education, environment, migration, AIDS, disability, spirituality, renewal, laity, youth, etc., animated theological reflections, debates, and disagreements and touched peoples in all parts of the world. The consultations, workshops, conferences, convocations, and assemblies that the WCC facilitated among its member churches number in the thousands and have touched hundreds of thousands of people over the last sixty years. The WCC, as the largest NGO attached to the organs of the United Nations, is active in the areas of peacemaking, disarmament, conflict resolution, advocacy for human rights, etc., and is one of the major voices of the churches on international affairs. It has also mediated interchurch aid to meet emergencies and for development work in poorer countries in billions of dollars over these decades. I am resisting here the temptation to list some of the highlights because of time constraints, and also because you are aware of this aspect of its work. The achievement of the WCC in this respect is very impressive indeed.

From the very beginning, already at its first assembly in Amsterdam, the WCC decided to set up desks that would later become programmatic emphases on issues related to women in church and society and on the place and role of youth in the church. The Council also took courageous decisions on the levels of participation of women and youth in its own structures, including its staff levels at its headquarters in Geneva, in its decision-making committees, commissions, conferences, and assemblies. It instituted a four-year study process on the "Community of Women and Men in the Church" within the Faith and Order Secretariat to take up such subjects as scripture, tradition, language, and leadership as they relate to women in the traditions of the church and a special exploration of the question of Ordination of Women. These culminated in a major conference in Sheffield, U.K., in 1981. It also devoted a Decade for Churches in Solidarity with Women.

Yet, looking back at this impressive history one also sees a serious limitation that continues to plague the Council to this day. The early pioneers of the ecumenical movement were troubled by the reality of Faith and Order, Life and Work, and the missionary movement developing as separate movements independent of each other. The missionary movement was sowing the seeds of the European divisions of the church all over the world by planting denominational churches in the mission fields. Already in 1910 at Edinburgh, the two Chinese delegates at the Conference challenged the missionary movement for disregarding the Chinese culture and for transplanting denominations into China. The disquiet over this reality led the Chinese churches to launch the Three-Self Movement of Self-Governance, Self-Support, and Self-Propagation.

Again, the work of the Faith and Order movement tended to look at divisions of the church on doctrinal matters in isolation from social and ethical church-dividing issues, and the role of the churches in human affairs. The Life and Work movement, for its part, concentrated on social, political, and ethical issues without the recognition of the deep divisions in the church on doctrinal questions. The primary purpose of bringing the three movements together was to integrate the three movements for mission, unity, and social concerns so that they would be seen as part of the one obedience to Jesus' prayer that "they may all be one so that the world may believe."

The most serious limitation of the WCC is that it was unable to integrate these three movements in any meaningful way. Each of these movements made some gestures from time to time that indicated their awareness of this issue and the presence of the others. The Faith and Order Commission, for instance, instituted studies such as "Unity of the Church and the Renewal of Humankind," "Giving an Account of the Hope That Is in Us," "Confessing the Faith around the World," etc., which were intended to broaden the base of Faith and Order culturally and on issues. However, they did not sufficiently serve the purpose of bringing some of the Life and Work agenda into the concern for church unity. In the early periods some of the same leaders participated in all three movements in their attempt to shepherd them into the same fold.

As someone who served on the staff of the WCC for sixteen years and worked with three of the six former General Secretaries, I have watched several attempts to restructure the programs of the WCC to bring about this desired integration, but none of them succeeded. The constituencies of the three movements, as also their visible representation in the structure of the Council as separated entities, could not be changed—a reality present to this day. This is a limitation that the Council has had to live with for the past six decades. Happily, its patience and flexibility have enabled the three emphases, if not united, to at least cohabit under the WCC umbrella without too much dissension.


Excerpted from Celebrating a Century of Ecumenism Copyright © 2012 by John A. Radano. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

John A. Radano served on the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Vatican City, from 1984 to 2008 and was head of its Western Section, participating in many international bilateral and multilateral dialogues. Author of Lutheran and Catholic Reconciliation on Justification (Eerdmans) and of many articles, he is currently adjunct professor in the School of Theology at Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey.

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