Friday, May 28, 2010

The Ecumenical Movement

Ecumenicalism denotes an "ideal of universality". It is a movement promoting union between religions. It begans as a doctrine of Christianity that promotes cooperation and better understanding among different religions and denominations. It was originally applied to those church creeds and councils which were universally accepted as opposed to local creeds.

I became aware of and interested in this movement when I first became President of the Amalgamated Baptist Youth Groups of Winnipeg in the 1960's. Our Baptist youth organizations came together drawing membership from the most conservative to the most liberal of the Baptist churches locally.

Not surprisingly the World Student Christian Federation (1895) was one of the earliest ecumenical movements following on the Evangelical Alliance of 1846.

I was early a member of the Young Men's Christian Association and this too, while not being specifically religious, was an outgrowth of the trans-denominationalism of the 19th century.

The missionary movement was another prong of the development of the Ecumenical Movement as missionaries as minorities in foreign lands came together themselves drawn by their similiarities rather than differences. The Ecumenical Movement, as known in Christianity today, indeed dates from the International Missionary Conference held in Edinburgh in 1930.

Another prong of the Ecumenical Movement was known as "Life and Work". Here the question was how Christian's faith bore on the general life of society, in politics, industry, education, international relations, etc. This was expressed in the Christian Socialist movements and the American 'social gospel' . Nathan Sodeblom (1866-1931) appointed archbishop by King of Sweden was the inspiration and architect of the Universal Christian Conference on Life and Work held in Stockholm 1925.

Here the division in Christianity between the 'world-renouncing' and 'world-affirming" stood out with those wanting to save souls from the world of evil and prepare them for eternity compared to those who saw the task of the church as including the transformation of the world. The latter were concerned about the church's role in 'social justice'.

In 1924, William Temple presided over the Conference on Politics, Economics and Citizenship (Copec) in which all the churches of England including the Roman Catholics met to address Christian social thinking of the day.

The third prong was known as 'Faith and Order', the initiator being the American episcopalean, Charles Harold Bent (1862-1929), Bishop of the Phillipines and later of west New York. He initiated the World Conference on Faith and Order held at Lausanne in 1927. Here the Roman Catholic Church did not attend but the Orthodox Churches of the East met with the Western churches sharing frankly their differences and the sense of underlying unity.

From these three prongs conferences continued to develop. The Missionary Conference held at Jerusalem in 1928 introduced the terms 'Older' and 'Younger' churches. Indians, Chinese and Africans were now partners.

Alongside the revelation of God to Israel, there was the special revelation in Christ. German Catholic, Otto Karrer, Religions of Mankind (1936) wrote, "It is unreasonable to believe in a special revelation in Christ, if we refuse to believe in a universal revelation of God to the human race, a revelation, that is to say, accessible to the human race, though in diverse degrees to all men."

As the Biblical Old Testament has been shown to preface and elucidate the New Testament so the Younger churches looked at the the local experience of God as it brought them individually to Christ.

In the 70's I'd joined the Fort Gary United Church, the United Church of Canada being the product of 4 groups of Canadian churches putting aside their differences.

Dr. Carl Ridd was my mentor and teacher at the University of Winnipeg which had been a United Church Seminary. Dr. Carl Ridd taught both theology and English, treating the Bible as great and sacred literature. He introduced us to it's study, history and poetry. In off campus coffee shops with groups of truth thirsty students we'd reflect on Kierkegaard and Doystoyevski's interpretation of good and evil. Dr. Ridd literally took the Bible off the shelf and put it into our lives and showed it as being at the very centre of our thought and culture.

In the University of Winnipeg Theology library I found Autobiography of a Yogi, the life of Paramahansa Yogananda. To Yoganada Christ was the Son of God and yet in his Hinduism he saw all of us as children of God. While Vivekanada met Emerson and Whitman at the First Congress of the World Religions in Boston, Yogananda was India's next representative attending the ecumenical World Congress in the 1920's and establishing an ashram or monastery in California.

Life and Work and Faith and Order conferences took place in Britain in 1937 when J.H. Oldham (1874-1969) was a chief organizer. It was increasingly realized that theologians by their training or ecclesiastics by their interests were not qualified to say how politics, or industry or international relations should be conducted. Beneficial changes in society must be brought about by lay people who were experts in these increasingly technical and complicated modern times.

The Oxford Conference therefore turned against 'vague generalizations' and 'abstract resolutions' and instead promoted 'lay institutes' and 'frontier movements' in which Christian laymen together addressed questions of social responsibility in their areas of speciality.

Evangelical academies developed after the war in Germany brought groups of lay people, journalists, technicians, doctors, to attend Academies for advanced courses concerning how their faith affected their jobs. The Ecumenical Institute at Bossey in Switzerland developed.

Professor James Houston, former Chancellor of Regent College, over dinner lamented that that Christian lay scientists and secular leaders were one of the principal concerns of the original founders of Regent College but that increasingly the College was being pressed to meet the needs of the clergy. It was his goal to ensure that Regent would not lose it's evangelism within UBC. The Regent College "Under the Green Roof" lectures are just one of the ways that this process continues today.

The Alpha Course run in Christian churches was started by Reverend Charles Marnham and popularized in the 1990's by Reverend Nicky Gumbel. It's been attended by over 13 million people , Anglicans, Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans , Baptist etc. It essentially explores the basics of Christian faith and is especially open to laity.

The World Council of Churches was inaugurated in Amsterdam in 1948.

Bishop Michael Ingham's book, Mansions of the Spirit: the Gospel in a Multi faith World, Toronto, AnglicanBook Centre, 1997 speaks to the present day ecumenical movement.

Now Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is held each January.

Finally, William Temple called the ecumenical movement the "great new fact of our era.'

It brings to mind the chorus line from a Third Day song, "we all come together."


The Church in an Age of Revolution, Alec R. Vidler,Penquin Books Ltd, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1971

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