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Ecumenical Movement - Timeline Movement

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As the Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th century demonstrate, the United States has a long tradition of various Christian groups attempting to unify under some shared goal.

However, many trace the origins of the modern ecumenical movement to the early 20th century. In 1908, the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America (FCC) officially organized in Philadelphia, composed of 29 different denominations concerned with social problems. The 1910 World Missionary Conference brought together U.S. delegates from different denominations who desired to evangelize the world, including the future Nobel Peace Prize winner John Mott.

By the mid-20th century, the ecumenical movement continued with the founding of the World Council of Churches in 1948 as well as increasing ecumenical efforts among Catholics, including the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and the Joint Catholic-Orthodox Declaration (1965).

Today, ecumenical efforts continue among various religious traditions, reflecting a persistent desire for religious unity.

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Ecumenism is the effort to foster understanding and cooperation among divided Christian churches, the ultimate goal being their reconciliation in some form of unity. The most concerted efforts in these directions are found in the modern ecumenical movement, which refers to the structures, institutions, and practices organized for these ends.

Rise of National and International Councils of Churches

A watershed gathering in which many U.S. delegates participated was the World Missionary Conference (WMC) in Edinburgh in June, 1910. 1,200 representatives, largely Anglo-American, assembled around the missionary theme "The Evangelization of the World in This Generation." Eight commissions reported to the conference concerning different aspects of mission work, and leadership for the conference came largely from the lay Student Christian Movement: American Methodist John R. Mott and Scottish Free Churchman J. H. Oldham led the meeting, and Alexander Bruce, sixth Lord Balfour of Burleigh and Church of Scotland layman, served as president of the WMC. Though Roman Catholics and Orthodox were not invited to the WMC, the meeting galvanized Protestant forces and opened the way for other ecumenical projects even as it modeled the shape of other world councils to come across the twentieth century that would be broader in scope and participation.

The Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America (FCC) arose out of a meeting of 29 denominational representatives at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1905 and was officially organized in 1908 in Philadelphia. The Federal Council gave voice to the ideals of the Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century, with its stress on issues surrounding labor, social inequality, urbanism, and poverty. Though the Federal Council’s leadership endeavored to spread these Social Gospel priorities, its influence on grassroots Protestant church life was minimal. The FCC changed its name to National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States (NCC) in 1950 with the FCC’s merger with 12 other ecumenical groups in the United States. It presently includes 37 member denominations. Individual members of traditions not among these churches do participate, such as Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, Missouri Synod Lutheran, and others. While continuing the aims of its predecessor bodies, the NCC has been involved in antiwar protests, the promotion of the 1989 New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, world hunger, agricultural development, and publication of statements on issues from human trafficking to evangelism in a pluralistic world.

Another conciliar-type agency unique to the United States was the Consultation on Church Union (COCU), coming on the heels of a 1960 sermon on unity preached by Presbyterian leader Eugene Carson Blake at Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco. Formally organized in 1962, COCU brought together nine denominations oriented toward organic reunion in a church "truly catholic, truly evangelical, truly reformed." However, the proposal lost steam by the early 1970s when member churches objected to some of the terms of union. Consequently, COCU changed its objectives to mutual recognition of member church’s baptisms and ministries and the sharing of worship and resources where possible. The newer platform was outlined in the COCU Consensus document issued in 1984. As with the NCC, COCU fostered concern for racism, poverty, and inclusivity. COCU was dissolved in 1999 and reconstituted at a 2002 ceremony held on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee as Churches Uniting in Christ (CUIC). Use of the motel was meant to symbolize that COCU’s commitment to counteracting racism would continue to be among its objectives (the location was where civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated). The churches presently active in CUIC include: African Methodist Episcopal Church, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Church, International Council of Community Churches, Moravian Church (Northern Province), Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ, and United Methodist Church. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is a partner in mission and dialogue.

Development of the World Council of Churches

Between the 1910 WMC and the first assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1948 were several developments contributing to the WCC’s founding. One such force was a 1920 encyclical published by the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, titled "Unto all the Churches of Christ Everywhere." The statement is unique as a call for unity and cooperation issued by one church to all other churches, calling for an end to bitterness, mistrust, and proselytism, as well as a beginning to extensive theological dialog and practical cooperative witness. This proposed "League of Churches" would come to be embodied in the Faith and Order and Life and Work movements that shortly took their rise.

Another proposal for a world ecumenical body came from Archbishop Nathan Soderblom (1866-1931) of Sweden who convened the first Life and Work Conference in Stockholm in 1925. With the motto "Doctrine divides, service unites," Life and Work sought to continue the practical form of cooperation found in earlier world conferences, but with key differences. For one, there were 610 official representatives sent from a wide variety of churches (as opposed to church agencies), including Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant. However, tensions arose at the meeting when German delegates balked at what they heard as a mandate to build the kingdom of God on earth in the discourse of Anglo-American delegates who spoke optimistically of the possibilities of social transformation. The German critique was reflected in the 1937 Oxford, England, meeting of Life and Work with its concerted effort to include a more theological background in the form of papers and studies presented in anticipation of the meeting by a wide variety of constituents. German representatives, however, were unable to attend due to restrictions placed on them by the Nazi government.

Meanwhile, the Faith and Order movement grew out of efforts by Bishop Charles Brent of the Protestant Episcopal Church. Brent had attended the WMC in 1910 and saw the need for ecumenism to move beyond cooperation in common missionary interests to dialog over doctrine and ministry. Brent proposed the Conference on Faith and Order in 1911 to world church leaders -- Anglican, Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox -- all churches "which confess Our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour." It was not until 1927, at Lausanne, Switzerland, that the first Faith and Order meeting was held, including 400 participants representing 127 church bodies from the Anglican, Protestant, Old Catholic, and Orthodox traditions. The Lausanne meeting exposed as many theological fault lines as had the Life and Work conference two years earlier in Stockholm. Evangelical Protestants clashed with Orthodox, Anglicans, and Old Catholics over the status of the Nicene Creed, leaving little room to hope for an accord. As had become customary between large annual world gatherings, a continuation committee worked in intervening years to publish research papers and prepare for the next meeting, which was held in Edinburgh in 1937. Both the Edinburgh meeting and the Life and Work meeting at Oxford that same year proposed that the two bodies should merge and form a World Council of Churches (WCC). However, the onset of World War II delayed the first meeting of the council until 1948.

The World Council of Churches brought together Faith and Order, Life and Work, and later, the International Missionary Council (1961) and the World Council of Christian Education (1971). A committee of 14, composed of seven representatives each from Faith and Order and Life and Work devised foundational principles and called Archbishop William Temple of the Church of England and W. A. Visser‘t Hooft of the Netherlands as chairman and general secretary, respectively. The 1948 WCC assembly was held in Amsterdam, attended by representatives of 44 nationalities from 147 churches. The Roman Catholic Church declined to participate. The nature of the WCC’s relationship to member churches was clarified in 1948 and following years. Basically, the council, it was stressed, was not a super-church or even a prototype of a future world church. It was, by official definition, "a fellowship of churches which accept our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour." The WCC was not designed to legislate or speak on behalf of member churches; rather, in Archbishop Temple’s words, "All authority the council will have consists in the weight which it carries with the churches by its own wisdom." The council’s self-understanding since 1948 has continually evolved, and statements of its nature and purpose have become more explicitly Trinitarian and assertive about the quest for visible unity among churches. However, member churches remain free in their confessional norms and their judgments of the ecclesial status of other churches.

The WCC meets about seven to eight years as an assembly. Of the 10 assemblies held to date, only one -- Evanston, Illinois, in 1954 -- has been held in the United States. The assemblies have, over the years, become less North American and Eurocentric, as more constituents from other continents and nationalities have come to participate. The council has often referred to these as "younger churches," those emerging from Euro-American missionary activity, and has encouraged leadership from among them. Just as older world organizations featured continuing committees to carry on work between meetings, the WCC has a central committee overseeing interim activities, along with a presidium of leadership chaired by a general secretary. Presbyterian Eugene Carson Blake is the only American to have served in this role (1966-1972). Roman Catholic observers are now regularly present at meetings and are involved in the work of the WCC in ways short of official membership. One of the WCC’s most significant achievements was the Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (BEM) document, approved at the 1982 Faith and Order plenary meeting in Lima, Peru. The work of a panel of theologians from Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions, BEM illustrated the consensus possible on these historically divisive issues. BEM is the most widely translated and studied document produced by the WCC.

Roman Catholic Ecumenism

Negativity by the Roman Catholic Church's leadership toward Protestant communions was underscored in various papal encyclicals and Vatican pronouncements issued during the ecumenical movement’s development. Pope Leo XIII’s 1896 encyclical Apostolicae Curae, condemned Anglican orders as "absolutely null and utterly void," complicating any recognition of Anglicanism’s ecclesial status on the part of the Catholic Church. While church officials, including the pope, were often kept apprised of gatherings sponsored by Protestant and Orthodox colleagues, Pope Benedict XV, when approached by Bishop Charles Brent and others about joining Faith and Order in 1919, summarily expressed the church’s policy. The pope listened intently to the proposal, offered his prayers and good wishes, but followed up with a firm no to Roman Catholic participation and invited the Protestant guests to consider that the Catholic Church opened wide its arms to welcome them to the reunion. The stance was further enshrined in Pius XI’s 1928 Mortalium Animos, and the 1949 Vatican pronouncement De Motione Ecumenica, which prevented Catholics from participating in ecumenical gatherings without official permission. "Return to Rome" was, in effect, the Catholic Church’s prevailing form of ecumenical outreach prior to the Second Vatican Council, convened by Pope John XXIII and lasting 1962-1965.

John XXIII had already formed a Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity in 1960 to facilitate relationships with other Christians, a practice that would be given theological shape by the council a few years later. The new form of ecumenical commitment that sprang from this council was most evident when Protestant and Orthodox observers were invited to be present during the proceedings. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church set forth an ecclesiology of communion in which the church was defined as the "People of God" by baptism before it was identified with its clerical hierarchy. The boundaries of the church were defined in more generous terms than usual in the council’s Decree on Ecumenism, which identified the non-Catholic baptized as "separated brethren" who are "imperfectly incorporated into the Catholic Church." Non-Catholic churches and communities, according to the Dogmatic Constitution and the Decree, share "numerous elements of sanctification and of truth" with the Catholic Church, namely "the written word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, and visible elements too." The true church was described as "subsisting in" the Catholic Church, meaning that while the "fullness" of the Church resides in the Catholic Church, other Christian communities have an imperfect share in the full means of salvation the Catholic Church professes itself to possess. Following Vatican II, the Catholic Church has been a strong participant in long-term bilateral dialogs across the denominational spectrum and present in unofficial capacities in many international conciliar meetings such at the WCC.

Other National, Regional, and Local Councils and Grassroots Activities

Though the FCC/NCC is the oldest and largest consultative body in the United States, other national ecumenical organizations have been founded to represent other constituencies. Among these are the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), founded in 1942 to give voice to social and political concerns shared among evangelical Protestants, and the Christian Churches Together (CCT), chartered in 2006. CCT is the only pan-denominational body in the United States to which the Roman Catholic Church belongs.

Just as the NCC, NAE, and CCT assemble churches for common study and action on a national level, there have been state and local councils, the oldest being the Massachusetts Council of Churches, organized in 1902. The nature and activities of state and local councils vary by time, place, and need.

Church Women United, founded in 1941, brings together Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox women for shared reflection and action in 1,200 local units. Human Rights Day, May Friendship Day, and World Community Day are celebrated annually, and the organization has historically focused on issues of peace, justice, reconciliation, and relief efforts around the world.

The Graymoor Ecumenical Institute, North American Academy of Ecumenists, and National Workshop on Christian Unity are three more organizations that have contributed to ecumenical dialog in the United States. The Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute in New York is supervised by the Roman Catholic Franciscan Friars of the Atonement who have traditionally maintained a vocation to pray and work for Christian unity. Graymoor Institute has sponsored the monthly publication of Ecumenical Trends and the celebration of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

The North American Academy of Ecumenists (NAAE) was formed in 1967 by persons involved in Faith and Order work to provide a forum and fellowship for theological reflection among clergy, laity, academics, and others involved in ecumenical dialog. International in scope, the academy has joined United States and Canadian ecumenists in its annual meetings and encourages participation by rising generations of young ecumenists from among seminary and graduate students. The Journal of Ecumenical Studies is affiliated with NAAE.

Since 1963, the National Workshop on Christian Unity has offered an annual national gathering for all people interested in ecumenism. The workshop features a variety of speakers and topics and facilitates networks of national, regional, and local ecumenical officers.

Yet other venues for ecumenical encounters are small groups of varied denomination recovering monastic traditions, notably among urban young adults engaged in ministry to the poor and homeless. These small groups, somewhat similar to house churches, have features of the contemporary evangelicalism from which many constituents come combined with practices derived from ancient monasticism, such as the daily prayer offices and disciplines of fasting and self-denial. While the ecumenical monastic community at Taize, France, may be the most widely known such group, several Protestant monastic foundations in the United States and elsewhere have among them clergy and laity living under a rule and maintaining contacts with Catholic and Orthodox colleagues, while some Catholic monastic communities welcome non-Catholics to affiliate with them as oblates, or those who do not take full vows but live the ideals of the order within their worldly lives.

Ecumenical Shared Ministries

Local ecumenism also has taken the form of shared churches and ministries. Scarcity of numbers and resources have dictated that local congregations in some places join together in a common building, sharing worship, education, outreach, and clergy. Just as Anglicans, Lutherans, and Reformed made common cause where needed as early as pre-colonial times, a number of "Ecumenical Shared Ministries" are found today across the United States. Similarities in liturgy and ethos have made joint Episcopal-Lutheran congregations attractive options for both where they are needed. Others have involved a wide array of mainline Protestants, and at least two have involved Roman Catholics: Mission of the Atonement (with Lutherans) in Beaverton, Oregon, and Church of the Holy Apostles (with Episcopalians) in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Two or more denominations also have sponsored numerous campus ministries, one or each providing a minister, and offering student participants opportunities to live and work together with Christians of one or more traditions while they attend college.


Blake, Eugene Carson
Mott, John Raleigh

Related Dictionary Terms

Affiliation Change, Measure of, Archbishop, Atonement, Attendance at Religious Services, Measure of, Baptism, Bible, Christian, Cathedral, Catholicism, Roman, Christianity, Christians, Church, Clergy, Communion, Congregation, Creed, Denomination, Doctrine, Ecumenism, Encyclical, Eucharist, Friar, Grace, Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ, Laity, Liturgy, Merger, Monasticism, Patriarch, Proselytism, Protestantism, Religious Tradition (RELTRAD), Salvation, Social Gospel, Theologian, Vatican Council II, Worship (Christianity)


World Missionary Conference in session- Internet Archive- from Echoes from Edinburgh, 1910 by W. H. T. Gairdner
World Missionary Conference in session- Internet Archive- from Echoes from Edinburgh, 1910 by W. H. T. Gairdner

First meeting of the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America- Hathi Trust- from Report of the First Meeting of the Federal Council, Philadelphia, 1908
First meeting of the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America- Hathi Trust- from Report of the First Meeting of the Federal Council, Philadelphia, 1908

Mosaic of Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I- Wikimedia Commons- photo by Abraham
Mosaic of Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I- Wikimedia Commons- photo by Abraham

Te Deum Ecumenico 2009 in the Santiago Metropolitan Cathedral, Chile- Flickr- photo by Eduardo Frei (CC BY 2.0)
Te Deum Ecumenico 2009 in the Santiago Metropolitan Cathedral, Chile- Flickr- photo by Eduardo Frei (CC BY 2.0)

Ecumenical Tree- Hathi Trust- from The Story of the World Council of Churches by Paul Griswold Macy
Ecumenical Tree- Hathi Trust- from The Story of the World Council of Churches by Paul Griswold Macy

Book/Journal Source(s)

Kurian, George Thomas, and Mark Lamport (Eds.), 2016. The Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

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