Celebrating the Origins of the Ecumenical Movement
Thomas Ryan, CSP
The world-wide ecumenical movement will celebrate a 100-year birthday of sorts in June. It was, you might say, an unexpected birth.
On June 14-23, 1910, 1.200 delegates, mostly white and male, gathered in Edinburgh, Scotland for a World Missionary Conference, the third in a series of international missionary conferences involving Protestant and Anglican missionary societies. There were no Roman Catholic or Orthodox representatives.
It was conceived as a major moment in the church’s missionary effort to bring the world to Christian faith. How it came to be identified as the precursor of the ecumenical movement as we know it today makes for an interesting story.
First, a profile of the participants and their working agenda. It was an English speaking conference. There were 509 British delegates, 491 from the United States, and 169 from continental Europe. While there were 27 from White South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, there were only 19 from today’s “majority world”, all except one of them from Asia. There were no Latin Americans or Pacific Islanders present.
There were eight working commissions, and their areas of focus covered a broad range including preaching the gospel in non-Christian lands; education; non-Christian religions, the life of local churches, and Christian unity. The Christian Century magazine reported that “Everyone feels the presence in the conference of a power not ourselves, deeper than our own devices, which is making for a triumphant advance of Christianity abroad. And not less are the delegates thrilled by the sense that the conference foreshadows a new era for the church at home.” It was a time of “dreams and visions”.
Is it a misconstruing of history to see the Edinburgh 1910 conference as the birthing event of the modern ecumenical movement? Rev. Dr Steven Bevans, a professor at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, said in his talk on the origins of the ecumenical movement at the U.S. National Workshop on Christian Unity in Tampa, Florida, April 19-22, that the answer is both “yes” and “no”.
“It represents a decisive moment in the origin of the ecumenical movement, culminating in the founding of the World Council of Churches in 1948,” said Dr. Bevans. “But in many ways, that is the product of an ‘elective memory’. To a possibly greater extent than any other event in modern Christian history, the conference has been subjected to reinterpretation.”
Even the Conference’s organizer, Joseph H. Oldham, hoped that the eight preparatory volumes of the conference would be standard missionary references for years to come. Yet in 1960 at age 84 Joe Oldham, said Bevans “did not hesitate to interpret the event primarily in terms of its significance for subsequent ecumenical rather than missionary history.”
Brian Stanley, the author of The World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910, also admits that the assessment of subsequent scholarship is in some ways very accurate. At the Conference a certain atmosphere was developed, certain ideas were expressed and a particular decision was taken that, in retrospect could be understood as the beginning of that “great new fact of our era,” the modern ecumenical movement.
Entry by the Back Door
To be sure, there were concerns for Christian unity at the conference. The focus of Commission #8 was precisely that. But the way the emphasis on the importance of Christians working together in the mission of the church entered in was more by way of the back door.
One of the proposals as to whom to invite to the conference involved the exclusion of delegates from Latin America and from any other places where Protestant missionaries were working to convert Catholics to Protestantism. Many American Protestants opposed this idea, because they too were working in some countries for the conversion of Catholics to Protestantism.
In the end, the churches involved in organizing the conference decided in favor of cooperating with other churches-- including the Roman Catholic Church-- in the missionizing effort. Leading voices were those of American Episcopalian Bishop Charles Brent, working in the Philippines, who was in favor of collaboration with Roman Catholics, and Anglican Bishop Edward Talbot, who said, “There is no complete Christian unity without Catholics and Orthodox.”
The World Missionary Conference of 1910 thus foreshadowed a new era of cooperation among the churches. Conference records reported frequent calls for unity both in the mission field and at home, and many intercessions in the daily prayer services “that they may be one so that the world may believe.” Lord Balfour of Burleigh, England stated “We are drawing together now, as perhaps we have never been drawn together before.”
Commission 8 members saw the need for international cooperation in the missionizing effort, and for a coordinating body to facilitate it. To this end, they brought a proposal for a Continuing Committee before the General Assembly. It passed by acclamation, with a spontaneous singing of a prayer of praise. The moment was later seen to be a critical one in the birthing of the modern ecumenical movement.
36 hours after the Conference ended, the Continuing Committee was put in place. It was eventually to become, in 1921, the International Missionary Council (IMC). Back home in the U.S., Episcopal Bishop Brent brought the idea of a Faith and Order movement whose aim would be "to proclaim the oneness of the Church of Jesus Christ and to call the churches to the goal of visible unity". He said that Edinburgh had made him “an apostle of church unity”.
Another Movement started in 1925 with the universal Christian conference on Life and Work in Stockholm. By its emphasis on the contribution of the laity, the Life and Work movement vastly enlarged the field of ecumenical support and endeavor, reaching into the worlds of the university, government and life together in society with focus on such issues as racism, economic justice, democracy, human rights and religious liberty.
When the World Council of Churches (WCC) was constituted at the first general assembly in Amsterdam in August 1948, it became the most visible international expression of varied streams of ecumenical life in the 20th century. Two of these streams - Life and Work, Faith and Order - merged at the first assembly. A third stream - the missionary movement, as organized in the International Missionary Council - was integrated with the WCC at its third assembly in New Delhi in 1961.
So, though Edinburgh wanted to be and is remembered as a great missionary conference, it has come to be remembered even more as the event where we can trace the origins of the modern ecumenical movement.
The focus of the centenary meeting June 2-6, 2010 will nonetheless be missionary with the theme of “Witnessing to Christ Today”. Of the nine study areas, Christian unity will be one, and it’s focus will be practical ecumenism. There will be some notable differences from the 1910 meeting. The World Council of Churches is one of its sponsors , and all those not part of the 1910 conference—like Catholics and Orthodox--will be active participants.
And thanks to the ecumenical movement, they all agree: unity is for mission.
Thomas Ryan, CSP, directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, DC.