The last one hundred-plus years has been rightly called “The Age of Ecumenism.” This movement for unity began in the nineteenth century, but most trace its most impactful modern form to a missionary conference held in Edinburgh in 1910. This event, albeit one with many limitations because of who was there and not there, gave impetus to answering a vital question: “How can we effectively make disciples in non-Western lands when we are so divided from one another?” As missionaries from the West arrived people would ask, “What kind of Christian should we be?” They asked, “Should we become Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian or Anglican?” Those men, almost entirely white males at the time, earnestly sought to address this question for the sake of the gospel and the mission work of the Church.
Thus, in a missionary context, the modern ecumenical movement had its beginning. One of the great leaders who emerged from the Edinburg Missionary Conference was John R. Mott. Mott, who would be given the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946. Mott end recognized for his work for humanity but his heart burned for evangelization and mission. Here is what he said about the impetus of Edinburgh 1910, several decades later:
“Genuine cooperation seems to be absolutely essential to ensure the giving of full-orbed expression to the message of the Church of Christ. Christ has not revealed himself solely or fully through any one nation, or race or communion, still less through any one individual or group. No part of mankind has a monopoly of His unsearchable riches. The help of all who in any part of the world bear His name and who have experience of Him, is necessary to adequately reveal His excellencies and to communicate His power.”
Mott added that we need a “deeper confidence, a realizing sense of interdependence and a genuine solidarity.” And, “The larger evangelism we long to see will result inevitably from a large unity.”
My own journey to ecumenism was deeply impacted by the life and teaching of John R. Mott. I believe he lived the vision I now seek to emulate. He kept truth and love together and sought the evangelization of the world in a proper spirit and with a passion for the person of Jesus Christ. He was a peacemaker and a lover, of both Christ and mankind. He was the consummate ecumenist, thus he attracted men and women from all Christian backgrounds to his global cause.
Besides Edinburgh 1910, the most seminal event in the history of modern ecumenism was Vatican Council II. It was at this council that the Decree on Ecumenism was written and adopted by the Catholic Church. This decree, a binding and official Catholic statement of faith and practice, led Catholics to embrace other Christians as “brothers and sisters because “they believe in Christ and have been properly baptized.” Such believers are in “an imperfect communion” with the Catholic Church, but they are inside the Church, not outside it. Differences exist, but these are differences of degree, not different faiths. Therefore, non-Catholic Christians “have the right to be honored by the title of Christian, and are properly regarded as brothers and sisters in the Lord by . . . the Catholic Church.”
We have come a long way since 1965 but in some ways we have just begun. Some years ago I told my dear friend, Fr. Tom Baima, I sometimes grew weary of how slow this work for unity progressed. He reminded me, correctly, that “Ecumenism, as we know it, is but a baby, John.” He’s right. I now see the new ecumenism as a movement that is slowly growing much as the seed grows in a vast field. The harvest is coming even though the work seems new to so many.
ACT3 This Week
- This week 65 other adults join with me at Green Lake, Wisconsin, for the first gathering of The Initiative. After two years of planning, my single request today is for your prayer and support if you believe in this vision of unity in Christ’s mission.
- We still need donations for scholarships for Green Lake. Any gift you give will help us help those in need and cover our final expenses. Go to https://act3network.webconnex.com/greenlake2018donations and give whatever you can, even a small amount.
John H. Armstrong