In the nonreligious vernacular, the word “ecumenical” means “general in extent or influence.” It’s rarely a good idea to be fetishistic over the etymology or even the present meaning of terms, but in this instance the definition lands right on the mark. In short, ecumenism is the antidote to what comes off as narrow, and even dogmatic, sectarianism.

As a priest in the Church of England and later the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple (1881–1944) proclaimed, “The ecumenical movement is the great new fact of our era.” What was it that excited him so? The promise of the movement was that after centuries of separation and hostility, Christians had begun to capture “the simple biblical truth that the church of the people of God and the body of Christ must exemplify in the world how God gathers people together from the ends of the earth to live as a new humanity.” Cooperation, not separation, was the operative concept.

These words were not idle; the ideal of unity bore fruit. In time, churches representing over 1.5 billion members are now engaged with one another in councils of churches, theological dialogues, various forms of collaborative missions, common prayers, and other expressions of ecumenical life.


Ecumenism has its roots in several religious groups that crossed denominational barriers in the mid-nineteenth century. These groups include the Evangelical Alliance, founded in England in 1846. The Americanbranch of the same was formed by Phillip Schaff in 1867. Others that crossed denominational barriers were the Young Men’s Christian Association (1844), the Young Women’s Christian Association (1884), and the Christian Endeavor Society (1881). Composed of larger Protestant denominations, the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ was organized in 1908 and sought to represent Protestant opinions on religious and social matters. In addition, the movement known as Church Reunion in Great Britain and as Christian Union (1910) in the United States was attempting to achieve a creed behind which all Christians could unite.

Despite these historical precursors, the movement took flight with the 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh. That movement spawned four seminal ideas, establishing a set of interfaith priorities going forward. These ideas included:

  • Common Service: The Life and Work Movement, whose inaugural movement occurred in Stockholm in 1925, led to interchurch aid for the victims of war, poverty, oppression, and natural disasters. In addition, the churches were called to oppose economic and social injustice, including racism and sexism.
  • Common Fellowship: The first world conference for church unity was part of the Faith and Order movement. The conference was in Lausanne in 1927.
  • Common Witness: Concerns over cooperative mission and evangelism were voiced in the International Missionary Council, first held in Jerusalem in 1928. Here the priority was interfaith relations, a priority still in the forefront today.
  • Common Renewal: This final element shows that ecumenism is not some feel-good call for democratic tolerance or simple matters of interchurch cooperation. The stress is not merely on Christians getting along, but that churches be renewed and transformed to the point where they are open to the gifts of other religions.

Christian ecumenism cannot be confused with interfaith pluralism. Pluralism claims that faiths with mutually exclusive doctrines are equally valid. This view emphasizes the elements common to various religions. Ecumenism encourages dialogue between faiths but does not intend to reconcile their adherents into some religious unity. Rather, ecumenism seeks mutual respect across faiths, not to mention toleration for other views.
The World Council of Churches has met periodically since 1948. During that time, the Eastern Orthodox Church, Roman Catholics, and Pentecostalists made the council representative of various forms of Christianity. But the Council did not embrace Fundamentalism. Its embrace of liberation movements, including Liberation Theology, was not without controversy.


Ecumenism and the Second Vatican Council

A turning point in the Catholic Church — and thus a turning point for the ecumenical movement — was reached with the advent of Pope John XX III (1881–1963). He was responsible for the seismic shift in the church by calling the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), though he did not live to see its fruition. The upshot of the Council brought about a different approach to a twentieth-century world, part and parcel of which was a stronger emphasis on ecumenism.

According to A Concise History of the Catholic Church,

“The Second Vatican Council (1962–65) urged Catholics to work and pray for greater unity among the churches. It especially recommended dialogue with other Christians as a way of achieving unity.”

Before the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church was merely on the periphery of the ecumenical movement. But the Council contained a new vision of the church’s role, which would now seek greater unity with all men. One result was a period of self-scrutiny in the church.


One More Ecumenical Perspective: Religious Inclusivism

Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902) was a follower of Sri Ramakrishna, the leading nineteenth-century Indian mystic and spiritual leader. In 1893, Vivekananda traveled to the United States to attend the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, and then in England and Europe. He made quite an impression there, speaking with wit and great intelligence. Vivekananda espoused the virtues of Hinduism for being “inclusivist” and how it accepted “all religions as true” save for those that make exclusivist claims about other religions.

When he addressed the audience, he said:

Sisters and Brothers of America … I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation that has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth. I am proud to tell you that we have gathered in our bosom the purest remnant of the Israelites, who came to Southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny. I am proud to belong to a religion which has sheltered and is still fostering the remnant of the grand Zoroastrian nation. I will quote to you, brethren, a few lines from a hymn which I remember to have repeated from my earliest boyhood, which is every day repeated by millions of human beings. “As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.”

Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilizations and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honour of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecution with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.

Several days later Vivekananda spoke again:

Why we Disagree
I will tell you a little story. You have just heard the eloquent speaker who has just finished say, “Let us cease from abusing each other,” and he was very sorry that there should be always so much variance.

But I think I should tell you a story which would illustrate the cause of this variance. A frog lived in a well. It had lived there for a long time. It was born there and brought up there, and yet was a little, small frog. Of course the evolutionists were not there then to tell us whether the frog lost its eyes or not, but, for our story’s sake, we must take it for granted that it had its eyes, and that it every day cleansed the water of all the worms and bacilli that lived in it with an energy that would do credit to our modern bacteriologists. In this way it went on to become a little sleek and fat.

Well, one day another frog that lived in the seas came and fell into the well.

“Where are you from?”

“I am from the sea.”

“The sea! How big is that? Is it as big as my well?” and he took a leap from one side of the well to another.

“My friend,” said the frog of the sea, “how do you compare the sea with your little well?”

Then the frog took another leap and asked, “Is your sea so big?’

“What nonsense you speak to compare the sea with your well!”

“Well, then,” said the frog of the well, “nothing can be bigger than my well; there can be nothing bigger than this; this fellow is a liar, so turn him out.”

That has been the difficulty all the while.

I am a Hindu. I am sitting on my own little well and thinking that the whole world is my little well. The Christian sits in his little well and thinks the whole world is his well. The Mohammedan sits in his little well and thinks that is the whole world. I have to thank you of America for the great attempt you are making to break down this little world of ours, and hope that, in the future, the Lord will help you to accomplish your purpose.

It cannot be denied that an invaluable achievement of Ecumenism has, at times, been the rapport, cooperation, collegiality, and philosophical and practical discussion that developed between the main Christian churches since the mid-twentieth century. Progress could be counted among the mergers of individual churches, such as the first union between Episcopal and Nonepiscopal churches. In 1960, a proposal was made to bring together the American Methodist, Episcopal, United Presbyterian, and United Church of Christ denominations.

It was Edmund Schlink, a leading German Lutheran theologian in the ecumenical movement, who offered a guiding principle by insisting that Christian ecumenists focus on Christ, not their separate church organizations. There are larger, overarching issues over which there should be no disagreement, despite the petty differences between denominations. “No one’s spiritual myopia should come at the cost of the larger truths of the faith,” Schlink said wisely. “The idea is to see the risen Christ at work in the lives of various Christians or in diverse churches.”


Opposition to Ecumenism

While the frequency of ecumenical dialogues has been awe inspiring, major divisions between Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox continue. The issues of papal primacy, the Marian dialogues (relating toMary’s Immaculate Conception and Assumption), and apostolic succession remain as important doctrinal differences.

One group opposed to the ecumenical movement is the traditional Orthodox Church, which insists there is but one church and that church is orthodox. Leading the antiecumenical movement in the 1980s was the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). Christian ecumenism comprises the three largest divisions of Christianity: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant. While the Roman Catholic Church has always desired full unity with estranged communities of fellow Christians, it also has rejected what it saw as a promiscuous and false union that would mean being unfaithful to or glossing over the teaching of Sacred Scripture and tradition. In 1964, Pope Paul VI stressed that unity cannot be bought at the expense of truth. That is, in matters of faith, “compromise is in contradiction with God who is Truth.”

Some Eastern Orthodox churches commonly baptize converts from the Catholic Church, thereby refusing to recognize the previous baptism of the converts. By contrast, the Catholic Church has always accepted the validity of all the sacraments administered by the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches.

What is an ecumenical council?
It is a conference of bishops of the entire Christian Church who are brought together to discuss and resolve issues of church doctrine and practice. For many, the Second Vatican Council — the twenty-first such council — is the one that forever changed the Church’s relation to the modern world.

Aside from differences in doctrine, another substantial obstacle to union is found in the differences between Protestant and Catholic churches over ethics. There are seemingly unconquerable differences between the churches over abortion, the death penalty and euthanasia, active homosexuality, premarital sex, women’s rights, birth control and new reproductive technologies, and economic and peace issues.

North American Protestants regard pluralism, freedom for theological inquiry, and a regard for democratic decision making as important values. Rome, in the view of Protestants, has been authoritative and rigid and threatens to grind the ecumenical movement to a complete halt. James A. Nash, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, summed up how dim matters now stand: “In the absence of structural changes, what kind of unity, if any, is possible for relatively democratic and pluralistic church with a church that stresses hierarchy and homogeneity?”


Further Developments of Ecumenism: Liberation Theology

Liberation theology has been a significant addition to the landscape of the ecumenical movement. Who needs to be liberated? According to liberation theology, the answer is the poor.

In attending to thefortunes of the dispossessed, this movement has been called “a new way of doing theology.” More than just “getting along,” liberation theology seeks a kind of theological metamorphosis. It aims at transforming the fortunes of the poor. It echoes Karl Marx’s famous dictum that the task of philosophy is not merely to understand the world but to change it.

Liberation theology contends that African Americans suffer from several forms of bondage: social, political, economic, and religious. According to liberation theology, the goals of Christian theology are and must be connected with liberation of oppressed classes of people.

Christ preached a message that favored the poor. Thus, “A rational study of the being of God in the world in light of the existential situation of an oppressed community, relating the forces of liberation to the essence of the gospel, which is Jesus Christ,” James Hal Cone writes. Cone, a distinguished professor of Systematic Theology at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, is grounded in systematic theology and holds no punches in explaining what the ideals of Christianity ought to be. In his book A Black Theology of Liberation he wrote,

Cone’s views came to the forefront during the 2008 Presidential campaign, when Barack Obama’s pastor, The Reverend Jeremiah Wright, claimed that he had been personally inspired by Cone’s theology. Because Reverend Wright was being called a black separatist, Obama was branded with the same label. Wright claimed that his church, which didn’t preach black superiority or black inferiority but did espouse self-determination, was singled out because of its presidential candidate association.

The black theologian must reject any conception of God which stifles black self-determination by picturing God as a God of all peoples. Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience, or God is a God of racism …. Liberation is not an afterthought, but the very essence of divine activity.

Cone has persistently criticized the “white church” for ignoring or failing to address the problem of race. He has been publishing on the matter since 1969 and says, “Theologically, Malcolm X was not far wrong when he called the white man ‘the devil.’”

Leonardo Boff and Liberation Versus Traditional Theology

In 1968, a meeting of Latin American bishops in Medellin was a crucial event for the liberation theology movement. At that meeting, documents were delivered under the title Justice and Peace. Injustices visited on the people of Latin America by neocolonialism and imperialism were discussed, not to mention the liberation from various forms of servitude and the kingdom of God in this world. Leonardo Boff was the leader representing Brazil.

Boff named five points distinguishing liberation theology from traditional theology:

  • The primacy of the anthropological element over the ecclesiological, since their focus is primarily on the person to be helped and humanized rather than on the church
  • The utopian perspective is placed over the factual — the future over the past, since they see the social process as permanently open to transformation — a possibility opened up by Jesus
  • The critical over the dogmatic, to counteract the tendency of institutions to fossilize
  • The social over the personal, in view of the increasing misery of the masses
  • Orthopraxis over orthodoxy — Christ didn’t come to give us a set of intellectual concepts to master but a way of acting and living in the world

The Vatican issued its critique of liberation theology in April 1986 in a document entitled “Instruction of Christian Freedom and Liberation.” The document warned against “collectivist solutions to poverty.” It also took the stance that sin was individual, not social. The concept of sin refers primarily to the individual who is free to violate the moral law. Only in a secondary sense can it be applied to social structures in the sense of “social sin.” It also reminded liberationists that poverty assumes many forms, and that the Church’s love and compassion must extend toward all manner of poor — including the infant in danger of being aborted, the elderly, the abandoned, and the lonely. Finally, it made clear that the clergy must steer clear of direct involvement in the political process.

Boff did not see eye to eye with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), who singled out Boff for attempting to apply liberation theology to the Church itself. Boff, who was the cardinal’s student, saw the solution to the ills of the church as a decentralized church, but Ratzinger thought the church needed to be more centralized. He once likened the church to a construction site where the blueprint had been lost and each worker was doing his own thing.

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