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Ecumenical Movement

The original Greek word oikoumene meant “the inhabited world” (as in the decree of Caesar Augustus, Luke 2:1), being derived from the verb oikeo, “I dwell.” From this concept of the whole world it was but a short step to the idea of ecumenical councils* such as those of the fourth and fifth centuries. The distinctive feature of these councils was specifically that the bishops of the “whole world” were present, whereas provincial or other councils would involve only the bishops of a small area. In the sixteenth century, when the Roman Catholic Church had convened the “Ecumenical” Council of Trent,* Cranmer wrote to Calvin that the Protestant Churches should arrange their own council to meet (and if necessary oppose) the claims of that council. The appeal to a future council, bringing together representative leaders of all the churches, has been a minor part of the Anglican atmosphere ever since.

It is but a further short step to the twentieth-century use of the word “ecumenical.” Any such gathering must bring together not only those who are scattered geographically, but also those who belong to different churches or denominations. The non-Roman churches would be unhappy to allow the title “ecumenical” to the general councils of the Roman Catholic Church just because such councils do not include representatives of all Christians. “Ecumenical” has come to mean “uniting.” Indeed, by an etymological paradox, it is possible to have “ecumenical” trends in one small country or area, and in Britain today the British Council of Churches* sponsors “areas of ecumenical experiment.”

The ecumenical movement itself is normally dated from the Edinburgh Missionary Conference* of 1910. This was the first really international conference of a multidenominational character, and, although its theme was “mission,” it was inevitable that the degree to which the various bodies represented could cooperate, converge, or even merge was never far off the agenda. From this conference sprang further international organizations, which eventually merged into the World Council of Churches* in 1948.

The whole concept of “ecumenism” has been a source of theological division, some of which remains. Those bodies which have made exclusive claims to truth have been unable to meet with others in any such way as to suggest that they recognize the others as holding the truth. This has meant that the Eastern Orthodox, the Roman Catholics, and a large part of the evangelical churches stood aside from the movement initially. The Orthodox are now involved fully, the Roman Catholics are participating in various ways short of actual membership (even the latter had seemed likely in Britain in 1973), and evangelicals remain divided on the issue. It has been a very live issue in English evangelicalism, with Anglican evangelicals working out a theology of involvement without compromise, and of dialogue without sell-out, and expressing this in the Keele Congress Statement of 1967 and in later writings. This stance has seemed frankly incredible to non-Anglican evangelicals and has led to a thorough polarizing. A similar tension has been felt among evangelicals in the Presbyterian churches in Wales and Ireland, and in other historic, more mixed denominations in America. At the same time, some of the bodies which have been traditionally most separatist, e.g., the Salvation Army and some Pentecostalists, are becoming involved with the ecumenical movement at every level from the World Council downward.

W.A. Visser 't Hooft, The Meaning of Ecumenical (1954); J.D. Murch, Cooperation Without Compromise (1956); M. Villain, Introduction à l'oecumenisme (1958); P.A. Crow, The Ecumenical Movement in Bibliographical Outline (1965); N. Goodall, The Ecumenical Movement (2nd ed., 1964); R. Rouse and S.C. Neill (eds.), A History of the Ecumenical Movement 1517-1948 (1967); S.C. Neill, The Church and Christian Union (1968).