“Ecumenism” is a word that, within the church, usually refers to the effort to unite Christians around the world into common witness and mission. On the most basic level, ecumenism aims at ensuring that Christians recognize one another and embrace one another; and that the world is able to look at people professing to be Christians and see no apparent contradictions in their claims to all be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. Of course, that is the most basic way of understanding the term. It gets complicated quickly, however.
Before looking more closely at the intricacies it is helpful to note that the word has an origin in the Greek word oikoumene that refers to “the whole inhabited earth.” When the church has used another form of the word, ecumenical, it is saying the thing being described as ecumenical relates to the whole church throughout the world. A common application of the term ecumenical is found in the designation of an ecumenical council — a council of church leaders composed of representatives from (and/or having authority over) the whole inhabited earth. Perhaps the best known of the ecumenical councils was the Council of Nicea in the year 325. Throughout most of the history of Christianity the word is used to describe that within the church that has universal authority, representation, and/or application.(1)
In relatively recent times — within approximately the past two centuries — ecumenism has emerged as a variant of the Greek word that refers to the efforts to unite the church, or, with different emphasis, to unite Christians. Here is where things get more complex; because there are multiple points of origin for present-day ecumenism and there are even multiple end-game objectives — all of these tending to share the same jargon terms (while often not agreeing on the meaning).
One of the key points of origin for the present-day efforts at ecumenism (often referred to as the “ecumenical movement”) is found in the mission activities of various Protestant Christian churches during the 19th and 20th centuries. As Europeans (and Americans) moved outside of their borders and expanded with economic, and sometimes political, empires, they took their religion with them. While each nation either officially, or unofficially, claimed to be “Christian,” what they sometimes discovered was that those who were colonized (and evangelized) by Europeans and Americans criticized the so-called Christians for not being members of the same religion. Indeed, sometimes the same people heard European and American missionaries preaching against other Christians (with whom they saw themselves in competition for converts). These negative messages about the errors of the other Christians, often countered by messages from those “others” that were no less caustic against the one’s who had just preached against them, sometimes made a mockery of the claim by those same Christians that all Christians are one in Christ Jesus.
In Europe, especially, official churches (those sanctioned by the government and the law) gave monopolies, or great privileges, to one church in each country. Outside of their home borders, though, there was a less rigidly enforced boundary on the activities of other churches and the lands of empire became lands of religious competition. Not since the Reformations Period (during roughly the two centuries following the beginning of the Lutheran Reformation in 1517) had European Christianity (and with it Euro-American Christianity) found itself struggling so much for the allegiance of the general population of large geographic areas.
As empire-builders sought to create a stable system of economic relationships and administrative control, there was intense pressure to make sure that the religious differences between those empire-builders did not spark conflict and lead to war. The official Christianities of each European nation functioned as a de facto cultural agent for particular European states. Thus, the Anglicanism of the United Kingdom could, in some parts of Africa, find itself in conflict with the Lutheranism of the northern portions of the new German Empire.(2)
To make this even more complicated, the areas of expanding imperial domination were also mission fields with opportunities for so-called “free church” traditions (churches that were not officially sanctioned by governments — and, which very often, were legally suppressed or disadvantaged in Europe). Here we find Baptists, Methodists, and many other traditions that had tenuous legal standing in the British Isles and on the European Continent. Then, when we factor in the American churches, things get even more interesting. The Americans had had few, if any, notions that the rule of a particular government implied that there should also be a particular preference for the control of a certain church. Free churches like the Methodists and Baptists became the Christian denominations with the largest number of adherents in America. And even some of those churches that were nominally connected to “mother churches” in one European country or another sometimes felt that lands newly added to empires were “fair game” for religious groups willing to commit the time, energy, and money to the effort to make converts for Christ.(3)
Some parts of Asia and Africa, in particular, were destinations for simultaneous and uncoordinated missionary efforts. These were wrapped in complex sets of concerns that often included political allegiance to one nation or another, adherence to different doctrinal outlooks, sponsorship by one church or another, and the constant challenges of how to fund the efforts of missionaries who, most often, were sincerely risking their lives in order to save souls.
Let’s pay special attention to that point. While it is true that every missionary came from someplace — and carried with them a cultural identity and predispositions that led them to see ways of living in particular ways (many of them unconsciously assuming that their culture was “Christian” — with the imparting of “civilization” as being one of the means of improving the lives of converts), most missionaries were seeking to save souls. Making non-Christians into Christians was seen as the way of doing this. When one looks at the records of early missionary placements and the numbers of missionaries who suffered horrible illness and often death in the effort to make converts in the parts of the world where they went, one finds it hard not to take their claims that they wanted to take Christ to other people very seriously.(4)
The disunity that many non-Christians witnessed among the missionaries, that caused some of them not to take the competing Christians seriously, was a deep challenge to those motivated to mission by faith. It led to heartfelt self-reflection and self-questioning. How could the missionaries give a common witness to Christ Jesus? How could they not undercut one another in the sacred task of calling people to Christ?
Pressures for unity of witness and mission came in confluence with institutional interests for avoiding religious competition in the mission field and empire. Protestants, then, found a variety of reasons for coming together, cooperating with one another, and even theologizing together about what it means to be Christians. One of the most important gatherings of Christian missionary leaders focusing upon these questions was the 1910 Edinburgh Missionary Conference. This conference is used by many as the milestone marking out the beginning of the present-day ecumenical movement (although I think this date is far too late to encompass an accurate understanding of the movement’s origins and development).(5)
Now, let us consider those whose chief points of reference were the Great Schisms between the Orthodox and Roman Catholics (usually — although not necessarily accurately — dated to 1054) and between Roman Catholics and Protestants (usually dated to the start of the Lutheran Reformation in 1517). Certain faithful members of each of these three major groups of (then mostly) European Christians saw these church divisions as great tragedies that called into question the creedal claim that we are all members of one holy, catholic (meaning “universal”), and apostolic church. For these Christians, institutional disunity marks out the brokenness of Christ’s church. Some of these see the whole church’s legitimacy brought into question by this disunity; others see the loss of once fellow-members of the church as the loss of souls for those who are separated from the true church. For Christians with this understanding of what unity means, the purpose of ecumenism is to “reunite” Christ’s church.(6)
The portion of the ecumenical movement that has been most closely associated with efforts at reuniting the church contributed greatly to the development of the early 20th century movements relating to “faith and order” and its related movement focusing upon “life and work.” These coalesced into councils of churches at the world and national levels in the middle of that century.
In both the case of Protestants in competition in the mission fields of empire and of Orthodox, Protestants, and Roman Catholics who seek to reunite Christ’s church, a broad number of motivations, filled with myriad nuances of purpose and understanding, bring them to the project of ecumenism. In terms of theological motivation and assumptions, these two main groups are like the large branches of a river system. From each of these major branches there are a number of smaller tributaries with different emphases and concerns. There are some commonalities. All claim Christ as the head of the church. All claim to be disciples of Jesus. All claim to seek to live out his teachings. There the commonalities often give way to differences. How each of these churches (and other Christian groups) see themselves living out their lives as Christians varies. But there is no diminishing the heartfelt desire to be true to God in Christ.
What most Christians who see themselves as ecumenists — or who at least see ecumenism as an integral part of the mission of the church — say to themselves and others is that they feel called to be one in Christ Jesus. This is, from my perspective, a very important thing to note: The impulse to express the ministry of ecumenism is more than just an intellectual proposition, an institutional desire, or a doctrinal claim. It is one of the parts of the life of the church in which many feel they are motivated and led by the Spirit of God.
One of the great challenges of ecumenism is that it is an activity of the church that itself leads us to ceaselessly reflect upon its meaning. What does it mean to be one in Christ? What does it mean to be one with each other? These are questions that persist and are not put away with easy answers. At this most basic level, trying to understand what ecumenism is leads those who value its importance to the challenge to faithfully ponder a whole series of questions as a part of Christian discipleship itself.
Asking and pondering these questions is part of the motivation for writing Perfecting Unity. Each question in the book is intertwined with the others. On some levels it is, perhaps, frustrating — but we are called to a life of spiritual maturity; not one of immature simplicity. Easily packaged answers will answer none of the questions before us well. Being a disciple of Jesus means throwing off all comforts and striking out with him, not knowing what challenges and adventures await us from one day to the next or from place to place.
(1) For a discussion of the origins and definition of the word “ecumenism” and terms related to it, please see the Merriam-Webster dictionary online at merriam-webster.com; For a good general introduction to the history of Christianity, please see Alister E. McGrath, Christianity: An Introduction (Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons, 2015).
(2) For a general introduction to the history of Christian mission, please see Stephen Charles Neill and Owen Chadwick, A History of Christian Missions (New York, NY: Penguin, 1990).
(3) For a look at Methodism’s expansion, please see David Hempton, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005).
(4) A very good example is that of Melville B. Cox who, suffering from a prolonged illness, decided to give the last that he had of life to seeking the salvation of the people of Liberia. He died almost as soon as he arrived. Please see, Melville B. Cox, Remains of Melville B. Cox: Late Missionary to Liberia: With a Memoir (Boston, MA: Light and Horton, 1835).
(5) For a history of the Edinburgh Missionary Conference, please see Brian Stanley, The World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910 (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009).
(6) A good history of ecumenism from this perspective is Thomas E Fitzgerald, The Ecumenical Movement: An Introductory History, (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004).