Ecumenical Conferences

Source of ideas: Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement

N Lossky, J Miguez, J M Bonino, J Pobee, T Stransky, G. Wainwright, P Webb, editors, Geneva, Switzerland: WCC, 1997.

This listing highlights thirty-six major conferences, not including the World Council of Churches Assemblies between 1910 and 1990. Most conferences were planned by organizations like: International Missionary Council, or programs of WCC: Life and Work, Faith and Order, Division on World Mission and Evangelism, or Christian Education. Others centered on more specific aspects, such as: ICA (Interchurch Aid), ecumenical assistance to development, or sharing ecumenical resources; the world conference of Christian youth or of Church and Society; dialogue with people of living faiths and ideologies; and a world convocation on JPIC (Justice, Peace & the Integrity of Creation).

Note: [I first gathered this information in 2001 for a booklet titled Toward Wholeness & Unity within Diversity, Resources to Enable Ecumenical Thought & Worship as part of an ecumenical project that I completed in the town of Goshen, IN, funded as a Worship Renewal Grant from Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Grand Rapids, MI, funded by Lily Endowment Inc.] While many Conferences pursued more issues than are noted here, only efforts related more directly to Christian unity and ecumenical issues appear here. [For example, a reference to “the eighth commission or group” means that seven other groups examined themes less or non-related to unity]. Also, know that all statements inside quote marks appear in the Dictionary . . . account.

Edinburgh, Scotland, 1910 – World missionary conference – Participants were mostly Anglo-American Protestants. Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches were not invited. The eighth commission examined: “co-operation and the promotion of unity.”

Stockholm, Sweden, 1925 – Life and Work (The Universal Christian Council on Life & Work was committed to united practical action in response to social, economic, and political problems.) – The sixth main subject focused on “methods of co-operation and federative efforts by the Christian communions.” Following WWI and aware of the weakness of divided Christianity, this event failed to “produce any ecumenical social creed or solve any controversial problems.” With the slogan: “Doctrine divides, but service unites,” participants discovered that Christian fellowship transcends denominational and national conflict. A strong delegation from the Orthodox churches and Roman Catholic observers were significant additions.

Lausanne, Switzerland, 1927 – Faith and Order (The World Conference on F & O discussed issues of doctrine and church order that have divided churches.) – Three of seven sections at this event discussed unity: “the call to unity; the church’s common confession of faith; and the unity of Christendom and the relation thereto of existing churches.” The last group objected to working with Life and Work and the World Alliance for Promoting Friendship through the Churches. Such cooperation could be at the expense of unity in faith and order, it said. Encouraged to note both agreements and disagreements, members of some different communions ended the conference by declaring their separate positions.

Jerusalem, Israel, 1928 – International Missionary Council – The first of seven sections dealt with “the Christian message in relation to non-Christian systems of thought and life.” Participants both feared the growing, worldwide threat of secularism and encouraged that an agency be set in place for two years later: called the International Committee on the Christian Approach to the Jews.

Oxford, England, 1937 – Life and Work – One of five sections focused on “the universal church and the world of nations.” I wonder if any ecumenical reflection since this conference has matched the quality of discussion here. Participants considered the continuity between history and the kingdom of God; a Christian social order; the place of power in the struggle for justice; the interplay of liberal democracy and communism; and the church’s difference from political/social power blocs: it is for, not of the world.

Edinburgh, Scotland, 1937 – Faith and Order – One of four sections considered “the church’s unity in life and worship.” Since the first F & O meeting, participants had grown in understanding confessions other than their own. Friction surfaced over whether to merge F & O and Life and Work. An assigned committee met in July and recommended work toward such a world council of churches.

Tambaram, India, 1938 – IMC – With the major emphasis being on the church that had become worldwide, issues centered on authority, growth, evangelism, church life, economics, and church and state. [Some writers clarify the controversy begun by Hendrik Kraemer’s book The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World—a seriously questioned approach for Indian Christians who live constantly with people of varied living faiths.]

Amsterdam, Netherlands, 1939 – World Conference of Christian Youth – Within a growing context of war, the main theme identified “Christus Victor.” Different bases surfaced when discussion moved to more theological or practical issues. The “problem of different services of holy communion had to be faced.” Many delegates became the ecumenical leaders for the decades that followed.

Oslo, Norway, 1947 – Conference of Christian Youth – With a main theme of “Jesus Christ Is Lord,” the eighth group (of nine) discussed “the Christian faces the situation of the Jew.” World realities brought a sober quality to this meeting.

Whitby, Canada, 1947 – IMC – The general theme was “Christian Witness in a Revolutionary World” with a complement of slogans: “Expectant evangelism” and “Partnership in obedience.”

Willingen, Federal Republic of Germany, 1952 – IMC – One of four major themes was “the indigenous church—the universal church in its local setting.” While theological tension surfaced between a church-centered view of missions or relating missions to signs of Christ’s sovereignty in the secular world, the final statement was titled: “The Calling of the Church to Mission and Unity.”

Lund, Sweden, 1952 – F & O – Four sections built on study groups that had been appointed fourteen years earlier: “Christ and his church; continuity and unity; ways of worship; and inter-communion.” Convinced that one church exists to be made visible on earth, participants anticipated the time when all Christians would share in unrestricted communion. The question that came to be called the Lund principle asked the churches “whether they should not act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately.”

Kottayam, India, 1952 – Christian Youth – For the first time, youth from other parts of the world met in Asia to discuss ecumenical questions—movements for political independence, a new emergence of other living faiths, communism, and re-thinking the church—all within the theme of “Jesus Christ the Answer.”

Accra, Ghana, 1958 – IMC – One of five groups discussed “The Christian church and non-Christian religions.” Serious reservations lingered about whether IMC and WCC might integrate.

Montreal, Canada, 1963 – F & O – Of three groups, one studied worship and another Tradition and traditions. Despite differences, participants agreed that the eucharist is a “sacrament of the crucified and glorified Christ, until he come, and a means whereby the sacrifice of the cross, which we proclaim, is operative within the church.” While North Americans had a more historical view of scripture and Tradition, Europeans approached it more dogmatically. The final report clarified that Tradition refers to the church’s transmission of the gospel through Christ, and tradition refers to both diverse forms of expression and particular confessional traditions, like Lutheran.

Mexico City, Mexico, 1963 – WCC Division on World Mission and Evangelism – In this first meeting with the IMC and WCC united, all four sections dealt with Christian witness in six continents—noting unique problems of mission in Europe and North America. One section dealt with other living faiths (not coming to consensus on dialogue) and another on national and confessional boundaries (moving toward greater international and ecumenical action).

Swanwick, England, 1966 – Interchurch Aid – For the first time, the Roman Catholic Church was represented – among the 239 from 78 countries. To partner and share became more ecumenical.

Geneva, Switzerland, 1966 – World conference on Church and Society – The first worldwide Christian event to consider social issues and responsibility had a direct impact on ecumenical social thought. For the first time, churches in the Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries contributed, as well as Roman Catholic theologians and lay people newly energized by Vatican Council II. “The demand that the ecumenical movement support the revolutionary struggle for justice in the third world intensified and dramatized” former controversies about the church.

Bristol, England, 1967 – F & O – Four of five sections discussed matters related to the expansion of the ecumenical movement: “creation, new creation and the unity of the church; the eucharist, a sacrament of unity; ministry, church union negotiations, and Tradition and traditions.” Decisive questions focused on understanding church unity, full communion, and proper theology and methods useful to serve unity.

Montreux, Switzerland, 1970 – Ecumenical assistance to development projects – One of five groups discussed “structure and organization of ecumenical assistance to development projects.” Groups agreed that all such programs should promote community social justice and self-reliance.

Louvain, Belgium, 1971 – F & O – Of a dozen committees, four examined “baptism, confirmation and eucharist; beyond intercommunion; the ordained ministry; and [councils] and the future of the ecumenical movement.” The overall theme: “The Unity of the Church—the Unity of Mankind” found that “confessional differences alone no longer call into question the unity of the church.”

Lima, Peru, 1971 – WCC of Christian Education – This event, actually dispersed to seventeen Latin American capitals, was the final meeting of this ecumenical federation founded in 1924; the WCC and WCCE [World Council of Christian Education] had joined. Less focused on teaching, to educate had come to mean to be “committed to a reality in and with people” and to liberate people from a bondage that limits God’s image.

Bangkok, Thailand, 1973 – WCC world conference on Mission and Evangelism – The meeting emphasized the solid “connection between the individual and social aspects of salvation.” Participants faced the theme of liberation, affirmed cultural identity, and urged churches to respond to God’s calling through distinct theology, liturgy, practice and community—all aspects rooted in particular cultures. Concerned that missionary relationships reflect genuine equality between partners, this ecumenical event was both oriented to distinct contexts and interdisciplinary.

Bucharest, Romania, 1974 – Church and Society – (The first major WCC meeting to be held in a socialist, predominantly Orthodox setting) The last in a series of ecumenical, science-based study conferences convened by WCC, this one evaluated, from an ecumenical perspective, the “social and human implications of modern scientific technology.”

Accra, Ghana, 1974 – F & O – Believing that churches could overcome their divisions only by starting from the center of their faith, this event focused on “the hope that is within and the unity of the church.” In moving toward unity, churches must recognize that each Christian person lives within a specific situation yet proclaims the same faith as others do. However, they practice unity as a “committed fellowship of particular people in a particular place.” A draft statement on baptism, eucharist and ministry was discussed.

Chiang Mai, Thailand, 1977 – Dialogue with people of living faiths and ideologies – Sponsored by the WCC sub-unit on Dialogue, this consultation (which continued a difficult discussion begun at Nairobi in 1975) was titled “Seeking Community: The Common Search of People of Various Faiths, Cultures and Ideologies.” To clarify the Christian basis for seeking community within a pluralistic world and to suggest guidelines for authentic communication/witness were seen as essential to counter fears: fears of betrayed mission, compromised commitment to Christ, and syncretism. Two years later the WCC central committee, meeting in Kingston, Jamaica, would approve Guidelines on Dialogue . . .

Bangalore, India, 1978 – F & O – Repeating Accra’s main focus, theme groups discussed “the meaning of ‘conciliar fellowship’; towards communion in one faith; growing into one eucharistic fellowship; the discipline of communion in a divided world; and new ecumenical experiences and existing ecumenical structures.” After difficult debate—on whether to refer to Jesus Christ as the hope or to Christian hope as expressed through concrete human hopes—a document emerged: “A Common Account of Hope.” Its nugget: the more common the fact of hope despite divisions, the more churches grow in unity. Not merely a distant goal, some unity followed.

MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Cambridge, MA, USA – 1979 – Church and Society – Issues regarding the relation of faith to science had grown more complex and controversial since 1966 and 1977. This conference helped churches to understand the promise and threat of modern science and technology alongside the challenge posed to traditional Christian thinking.

Melbourne, Australia, 1980 – World mission and evangelism – Orthodox churches helped prepare this event with the theme “Your Kingdom Come,” and many Roman Catholic theologians participated. Related to ecumenism, the fourth finding affirmed the central role of the eucharist in church life and the fifth stated: “unless churches move toward visible unity in the one God, one Christ and one Holy spirit, the mission entrusted to them remains incomplete.”

Lima, Peru, 1982 – F & O – Of the eight sections, four related to ecumenism: “baptism, eucharist and ministry; towards the common expression of the Apostolic faith today; steps towards visible unity; and the unity of the church and the renewal of human community.” For the first time the F & O met in South America. The final text, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, was unanimously approved for distribution to churches; it soon was known as BEM. Discussion of the implications of Christian unity for service and current mission endeavor was to follow.

Stavanger, Norway, 1985 – F & O – Three program areas: baptism, eucharist and ministry; apostolic faith; and unity and renewal were processed along with the on-going concerns of F & O and ecumenical spirituality. The 75th anniversary of the F & O movement was noted.

Larnace, Cyprus, 1986 – Interchurch Aid – The optimism of the mid-1960’s consultation on this theme had given way to frustration and a sense of loss in the global struggle for justice.

El Escorial, Spain, 1987 – Sharing of ecumenical resources – With the theme: “Koinonia: Sharing Life in a World Community,” this meeting “climaxed a ten-year ecumenical discussion of ‘resource sharing,’” In addition to material wealth and power, it said, resources include “the churches’ rich theological understandings, spiritualities, cultures, expressions through music, prayer, song and dance, and perhaps most important of all, the testimonies of those who are suffering.”

San Antonio, Texas, USA, 1989 – World mission and evangelism – For the first time, consultants of other living faiths added to the diversity of participants. For the theme “Your Will Be Done: Mission in Christ’s Way,” two trends were focused: “the spirit of universality (catholicity) . . . and concern for the fullness of the gospel.” Discussion of the tension between dialogue and witness was keen.

Budapest, Hungary, 1989 – F & O – BEM responses—reflecting a new ecumenical situation—were a major agenda item. Disagreements persisted on the relationship of word and sacrament, aspects of ministry (threefold, succession, and the ordination of women), the relationship of men and women, the relationship of scripture and Tradition, and basic views on unity and diversity within the church.

Seoul, Korea, 1990 – World convocation on justice, peace, and the integrity of creation – Ten affirmations provided a “basic direction for Christian commitment to JPIC.”