A HISTORICAL SKETCH OF THE ECUMENICAL MOVEMENT

by Bishop John (Kallos) of Amorion

 

During the past decade a great deal of interest has been generated by both clergy and laity in the Ecumenical Movement. This world-wide Christian Movement has found its expression within the structural framework of the World Council of Churches. Consequently, the whole Christian world watches very closely all the deliberations, actions and statements of the W.C.C.

At the outset, it is only fair to say that the Ecumenical Movement is not a fantasy, but rather it is an actuality. It is not an abstract idea, but rather it is a living and dynamic reality. The Ecumenical Movement has a dual purpose: the solution of the moral and social problems which confront mankind today and the unity of divided Christiandom.

The Orthodox Church is one of the founders of the W.C.C. as is evidenced by the Synodical Encyclical of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the Churches of Christ throughout the world in 1920. This encyclical suggested in precise language many ways leading to an improvement of relations between Christian Churches some of which are as follows: 1) by the acceptance of all the great Christian feasts on the same day by all the Churches, 2) by the exchange of brotherly letters on the great feasts of the ecclesiastical year, when it is customary to do so and on other exceptional occasions, 3) by a more friendly intercourse by the representatives of theological science, 4) by the exchange of students between seminaries of the different Churches, 5) by the convening of Pan-Christian conferences to examine questions of a common interest to all the Churches, 6) by the impartial and historic examination of the doctrinal differences, 7) by mutually respecting the custom and usages prevailing in each church, 8) by allowing to each other the use of places of prayer and of cemeteries for the funeral and burial of persons belonging to other confessions dying in foreign lands, 9) by the settlement of the question of mixed marriages between the various confessions, 10) by the mutual support of the Churches in the work of strengthening religious beliefs, love and the like.

In its embryonic stage, the Ecumenical Movement was nurtured within the framework of the Commission on Life and Work and the Commission of Faith and Order. The former Commission was concerned with the practical sphere of Christianity and the cooperation between Christian Churches in the application of Christian principles to the ethical and social problems of modern man. The latter Commission was concerned with the matters of faith and sought the discovery of agreement and appreciation of differences.

As the years passed, it became all the more apparent that these Commissions on Life and Work and Faith and Order could not and should not remain separate organizations but they should be united into one ecumenical body. In 1936, a committee known as the Committee of Thirty-five met at Westfield College, London on July 8, 1937, to explore this possibility. It was realized at this meeting that 1) if the Ecumenical movement is to become a reality it is necessary that there be one movement of Churches, 2) the time was most suitable for closer relationship between Churches and 3) the Commissions on Life and Work and Faith and Order should be integrated into a World Council of Churches. The Oxford Conference on Life and Work which convened on July 12, 1937 and the Edinburgh Conference on Faith and Order which convened on August 3, 1937, accepted this resolution introduced by the Committee of Thirty-five. As a result of the adoption of this proposal, a Committee of Fourteen was appointed by these two commissions to put this plan into effect.

The Utrecht Conference, which convened on May 9, 1938, laid the structural foundation of the W.C.C. It was decided at this Conference that the W.C.C. should not have any exterior authority, but that it would exercise ‘spiritual’ authority. In no case was the W.C.C. to become a super Church. The basic formula for membership suggested was that “the World Council of Churches is a fellowship of Churches which accept our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour.” It was also decided that the representation to the Central Committee should be appointed according to regional system as opposed to the confessional system. A Provisional Committee was also created to serve during the interim period prior to the General Assembly of the W.C.C. Elected to this Committee were: Archbishop Temple of York as chairman; Archbishop Germanos of Thyateria; Dr. John R. Moth and Dr. Marc Boegner as Vice Chairman; Dr. W.A. Viss’t Hooft as General Secretary; Dr. William Platon and Dr. Henry Smith Leiper as Associate General Secretaries. At the second meeting of this Provisional Committee at St. Germain in January 1939, it was decided that the first General Assembly of the W.C.C. be held in August 1941.

However, World War II made it impossible for the first General Assembly to be convened in 1941. In the meantime, the Provisional Committee set up three offices — one in Geneva, the second in London and the third in New York. From these offices, the Provisional Committee kept in contact with the churches throughout the world. The Ecumenical Movement prior to World War II was a movement of persons committed to the reconciliation of divided Christiandom. Following the Great War it became a Movement of Churches. The W.C.C. to come, during the war years, undertook to assist the prisoners of war and the refugees, plus many other charitable projects. With the conclusion of World War II, the Provisional Committee met so as to solve some of the problems which had been created as a result of the war.

The first meeting of the Provisional Committee was held at Geneva in February 1946. Among other things it was decided that the first General Assembly of the W.C.C. be held in 1948 in Amsterdam. Also, the creation of the Ecumenical Institute was approved thanks to the gift of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. In September 1946, the Ecumenical Institute housed at the Chateau de Bossey in Celigny, Switzerland, opened its doors officially. At this meeting in February 1946, five presidents were chosen — Archbishop Fisher of Canterbury, Archbishop Germanos of Thyateria, Archbishop Eidem of Uppsala, Pastor Marc Boegner and Dr. John R. Mott.

In February 1947, a delegation was sent to the W.C.C. to visit the ecclesiastical heads of the Orthodox Churches of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Cyprus and Athens with the purpose of Orthodox participation within the ecumenical movement and in order to personally invite them to the first General Assembly of the W.C.C. in Amsterdam in 1948. The delegated returned to Geneva with the results of its mission. However, at the Conference of Heads of the Orthodox Churches in Moscow in July 1948, it was decided “to refuse the invitation to participate in the Ecumenical Movement in its present form”. This decision was not signed by the representatives of Constantinople, Jerusalem, Cyprus, Greece and Finland.

The first General Assembly of the W.C.C. was finally realized in Amsterdam, Netherland on August 22, 1948. This Assembly was attended by 351 delegates and 230 alternates representing 144 Churches and 44 Countries. The Orthodox representation to this Assembly was primarily from the Churches of Constantinople, Cyprus and Greece. This Assembly approved the formation of the World Council of Churches, adopted the constitution of this organization and the proposals of the Provisional Committee. The basis of the Utrecht Conference was adopted as presented with the exception that it was decided that the representation of the Central Committee and to the Assembly would be according to the confessional system, as well as to the regional. Thus, the W.C.C. had finally come into existence constitutionally.

The Central Committee at its meeting in Toronto, Canada in 1950 made a complete announcement which clarified the relationship of the W.C.C. to the Churches. It declared that the W.C.C. — 1) is not and must never become a superchurch, 2) has not as its purpose to negotiate union between Churches, but to bring Churches into living contact with one another and to study the issues of church unity, 3) cannot and should not be based on one conception of the Church and, 4) does not by necessity accept a specific doctrine concerning the nature of church unity. The W.C.C. is composed of Churches which accept the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour. The function of the W.C.C. is to 1) carry on the work of the two world movements — Faith and Order and Life and Work, 2) facilitate common action by the Church, and 3) to promote the growth of the ecumenical consciousness in the members of all the Churches.

The Second General Assembly of the W.C.C. was held at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois on August 14, 1954. This Assembly examined the mission of the Churches in the light of its theme “Christ, the Hope of the World”. The Third General Assembly met in New Delhi, India on November 18, 1961, and had for its theme, “Christ, the Light of the World.” In this Assembly, the Orthodox Churches of Russia, Bulgaria, Romania and Poland were admitted to membership.

Since the inception of the W.C.C., the Orthodox Church has on many occasions and in different ways manifested her continued concern and commitment to the Ecumenical Movement by offering direction and avenues by which unity within diversity may be attained. In addition to the late Archbishop Michael, who was later succeeded by His Eminence, Archbishop Iakovos, as one of the presidents of the World Council of Churches. Archbishop Iakovos likewise was the first permanent representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate at Geneva’s W.C.C. headquarters. Also of great significance was the delegations of observers from the Roman Catholic Church at the Third General Assembly of the World Council of Churches.

When the late venerable Pope John XXIII invited representatives to participate as observers at the Vatican Council II in 1963, he opened the window of further expressions of involvement in the Ecumenical Movement by the Roman Catholic Church. They were to be realized in his successor, Pope Paul VI, who journeyed to Jerusalem to exchange the ‘Kiss of Peace’ with the late Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I on January 6, 1964. This historic milestone bridged the Roman Catholic Church for the first time in some 500 years. God’s will was manifested once again in the pursuit of rapprochement between Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy when on December 7, 1965, a most dramatic and historic act took place simultaneously by Pope Paul VI at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and by Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I at St. George Patriarchal Cathedral in Constantinople. This was the joint statement issued nullifying the excommunication of 1054. By mutual consent, the ‘anathemas’ were consigned to oblivion. As a further expression of their commitment to Christian Unity, Pope Paul VI called on Patriarch Athenagoras I in Constantinople on July 25, 1967, and Patriarch Athenagoras I called on Pope Paul VI in Rome on October 26, 1967. Herein lies the roads and crossroads of today’s pilgrims in search for church unity. This moving of one to another is none other than a movement of love — ecumenism.

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