World Council of Churches

Founded in 1948, this is the main international agency of cooperation between the Christian churches. Its membership includes virtually all major autonomous Christian churches from both East and West, except the Roman Catholic Church and the most confessionally minded or separatist of evangelical bodies. Progressive steps in the formation and development of the WCC are symptomatic of the march of the ecumenical movement* itself in this century.

The point of origin is usually taken to be the Edinburgh (Missionary) Conference* in 1910. This was not specifically concerned with matters of Faith and Order, but with the cooperation of societies conducting missions to non-Christian peoples. The conference, however, led some to a vision of a united church, and this necessitated the facing of differences of belief through further forms of conference. Within weeks, movements were started which led to the formation of Faith and Order. World War I caused delay, and the first conference met at Lausanne* in 1927. The second was at Edinburgh* in 1937, from which came a proposal (which was accepted) made by the Life and Work Movement to form a “World Council of Churches.”

Life and Work was a similar international agency, but its concern was the social program and political responsibilities of the churches. The stimulus came from Christian efforts toward peace in the decade 1910-20 (marked particularly by the World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship through the churches, and a conference it held on the eve of World War I). In 1919 a committee for Life and Work took on an existence independent of the World Alliance, and they convened a conference at Geneva in 1920 (which spent some energies on questions of war guilt). From there the movement went to its first Life and Work conference proper at Stockholm* in 1925; in the process the committee quoted approvingly the dictum “Doctrine Divides, but Service Unites.”

At the second conference at Oxford* in 1937, proposals were received for the formation of a WCC, and were passed on with approval to the Faith and Order conference at Edinburgh that year. When both conferences had approved, a joint committee was appointed to bring the WCC into existence. In 1938 at Utrecht a provisional constitution was agreed, and a provisional committee of the “World Council of Churches in process of formation” set up, with headquarters at Geneva. World War II prevented the inaugural assembly from happening until 1948, when at Amsterdam* the delegates of 147 churches from 44 countries resolved that the formation of the WCC was now completed. The WCC has since held assemblies at Evanston* (Illinois) in 1954, New Delhi* in 1961, and Uppsala* in 1968, while its own departments, such as Faith and Order, continue their own conferences under the direction of the WCC itself and of its central committee.

The third strand of ecumenical work deriving most directly from the 1910 Edinburgh conference was the International Missionary Council.* This was formed in 1921 and was kept in touch with the formative stages of the WCC, without wishing to integrate with it, but it finally joined the WCC at New Delhi in 1961.

The basis of WCC membership, as amended at New Delhi, is: “The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God the Saviour according to the Scriptures and therefore seek to fulfil together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

National councils of churches (which used to be the delegating bodies to the International Missionary Council) do not send delegates to the WCC themselves, but are recognized by the WCC as “Associated Councils.” The delegates are from member churches, and at Uppsala in 1968 there were 704 delegates from 235 member churches. Observers were also admitted at Uppsala, and the Roman Catholic Church, which until then had had no form of presence at all, participated in this way.

The year 1968 saw also a swing from the “Faith and Order” emphasis of the first two decades to a stronger “Life and Work” emphasis (often of a radical sort). A new leadership was also starting to emerge, and the long ecumenical careers of J.R. Mott,* J.H. Oldham,* and many others belonged to history. Actual progress toward union schemes was either being consummated or was in the doldrums. The needs of a torn world and the possibilities of a reformed Roman Catholicism predominate in the current thinking.

See R. Rouse and S.C. Neill (eds.), A History of the Ecumenical Movement 1517-1948 (2nd ed., 1967); H.E. Fey (ed.), The Ecumenical Advance: A History of the Ecumenical Movement Volume Two 1948-1968 (1970).