The World Council of Churches—No. 1

A resume of the development and an analysis of the significance of the World Council of Churches.

By FRANK H. YOST, Associate Secretary, Religious Liberty Department

Sometime, and that erelong, a likeness to medieval Papal Power will be formed in some sort of Protestant combine to compel the conscience of men to crush dis­sent, and to perform the acts prophesied in Revelation 13:11-18. Sometime and somehow there will be a rap­prochement between Protestantism and Cat holocism, and Protestantism will be the aggressor in extending the hand of reconciliation and union. No area of reli­gious trends and developments needs to be watched more meticulously than this. We have therefore se­cured from Dr. Yost, trained historian and present-day observer, an over-all picture of the background, development, and significance of the World Council of Churches. We bespeak a most careful study of his two articles, as we need to be informed and judicious. This material is for background acquaintance rather than for public presentation.—EDITOR.

This sentence from Christ's prayer to the Father is a logical text with which to begin a discussion of the World Council of Churches : "That they all may be one." The thought of this text was in the minds of the delegates as they gathered at Amsterdam, Hol­land, on August 22 for the meeting which made the World Council of Churches a fact.

The Amsterdam meeting was the outgrowth of a series of preparatory meetings. The Fed­eral Council of Churches of Christ in America and the British Council of Churches had been formed in the years preceding the second world war. But these were merely national associa­tions.

It was a victory for those urging a union of total Christendom when a meeting of Christian leaders from many parts of the world gathered in Edinburgh in 1910. Before anything further could be done the first world war made impos­sible further sessions. It was not until 1925 that another meeting was held in Stockholm, Swe­den, where study was given to the uniting of Christian churches under the general heading "Life and Work." This was followed two years later by a meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, where plans were laid for Christian union in respect to "Faith and Order." Ten years later meetings at Oxford, England, for "Life and Work" ; and in Edinburgh, Scotland, for "Faith and Order" put the Protestant world where it began to see the problems it must face in seek­ing church unification. A committee of fourteen was created to take steps toward organization.

The next year definite progress was made at a meeting in Utrecht, Netherlands, where plans were crystallized for the formation of a World Council of Churches and the committee of four­teen became functional as provisional commit­tee of the council.

Then came World War II. Progress was again blocked. But in April, 1948, the provi­sional committee met at Buck Hill Falls, Penn­sylvania. From this meeting there went forth a call for the assembly of the World Council at Amsterdam, August 22 to September 5, 1948. In the ten-year interim the provisional com­mittee had provided a foretaste of the sort of thing a World Council of Churches might be able to do. In some places it had built chapels, rebuilt churches, hospitals, and orphanages, and provided food and clothing for the needy in large quantities.

When the World Council met in Amsterdam this August, it did so under an organization which the provisional committee had created. The purpose of the Amsterdam council was to forward the organization of the world-wide body, and to make the council functional through definition in the following areas :

I. The nature of the church.

2. The world evangelistic task.

3. "The church's message in relation to economic life in a technological age."

4. The church and international affairs.

This program of discussion would have been no small one, carried on among a diverse group of clergymen from many nations, in well-or­dered times. In such times as ours it was an ambitious program indeed, and the meeting and its purposes were viewed with grave concern by• some.

Charles P. Taft, president of the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, pointed out that this meeting would be in con­trast with the great ecumenical councils of his­tory, which usually spent most of their time in reading minorities out of meeting. "The Am­sterdam assembly," said Taft, "will not seek a basis of union, ruling out those who do not agree, but a basis of cooperation and mutual understanding, within which all may retain their own theological and ritualistic concerns." He declared that the objective of the council was (i ) "to try to make visible to all the world the church's will and determination toward unity," and (2) "to try to find some solid core of Christian understanding in which the churches may find it possible to operate to­gether while making their own decisions in the light of such practical choices as are open to them."

But all were not so optimistic. One commen­tator pointed out how little understanding there now is between different religious sects, even in America, where the sects are so numerous and have such complete freedom to rub shoul­ders with one another. This man was alarmed because of the lack of historical perspective manifested by the churches, and remarked, "For some seminaries church history stops at the Reformation; in others it starts with the Mas­sachusetts Bay Colony." There was much con­cern lest the council be involved in machinery rather than the things of the Spirit. These agreed with the observation of the late Arch­bishop William Temple of Canterbury, that "it is not by contrivance and adjustments that we can unite the Church of God. It is only by com­ing closer to Him that we come nearer to one another."

The International Council of Churches, the fundamentalist group which met also in Am­sterdam just a couple of days before the con­vening of the World Council, was much more frank. Its plan of organization required that all its members be investigated for "doctrinal standards and spiritual condition." Its avowed purpose was "to seek to awaken Christians everywhere to the insidious dangers of mod­ernism; to call them to a unity of mind and effort against all unbelief and any compromise with modernism; and against Roman Catholi­cism." It declared that it will "not seek the organic union of member bodies, nor will it trespass in any way upon their autonomy." It affirmed that the only unions worthy of support were those "based upon the word of God," and it registered a "solemn protest against the at­tempt which will be made at Amsterdam under the auspices of the World Council of Churches to unite Christians without regard for revealed truth."

The World Evangelical Alliance, just one hundred years old this year, expressed definite alarm concerning the World Council. It antici­pated that it would be no better than a World Federal Churches of Christ, and specified four points of weakness and danger in the World Council :

1. That it was not strictly evangelical, because some were already challenging as "not the best" the concept that the World Council is "a fellowship of churches which accepts our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Sav­iour."
 
2. That it will not be strictly Protestant, because it was admitting the Orthodox churches of the East, in­fected with Catholic doctrines.
 
3. It would become a superchurch, with a purpose to create "one church for one world."
 
4. It might ignore dissident churches, with the dan­ger that the council might be leading us to Rome it­self, "or to a Romanized Protestantism."

There were other meetings which furnished a background, favorable or unfavorable, to the World Council meeting. From July 8 to 18 the leaders of the Moscow patriarchate of the Rus­sian Orthodox Church met in Moscow; and although little is, of course, known of what oc­curred, it would appear that one decision ar­rived at was that the Russian church should not be represented at Amsterdam. Just as the Moscow meeting was closing, representatives of all churches of presbyterial polity, the Re­formed and the Presbyterian churches, met in Geneva, with 16o delegates representing 30 nations. Delegates from this meeting came di­rectly to the Amsterdam session. In the latter part of July the bishops of the entire Anglican communion the world over met in England for the Lambeth Conference. From this rallying of the forces of Anglicanism and Episcopalianism came the delegates of a self-conscious and confi­dent Anglican Church to the church council at Amsterdam.

When the council opened, there were 352 official delegates out of the 450 ex­pected, representing 135 member churches out of a membership of 151. Fourteen "minority" churches, mostly of the "newer," or mission, churches, which were not recognized as auton­omous, also had delegates in attendance. There were about too youth delegates from 45 coun­tries. There were also present about 150 repre­sentatives of the press and radio, and a sound film was made of the proceedings. Probably 80 percent of all Protestant and Orthodox Chris­tendom was represented in one way or another at the council. There were probably no less than 5oo church leaders, and the attendance at some of the earlier sessions ran as high as an esti­mated 3,000. It was stated, probably truthfully, that never before has there been such a gather­ing of religious leaders.

To show how completely certain communions were represented, note the delegation of the Lutheran communion. Twenty-two Lutheran bodies were represented at Amsterdam, five of them in the United States and Canada. The other 17 delegates were from 14 other countries. The Lutherans had in all 65 delegates, or about one-sixth of the total representation. It should be noted that the American Missouri Synod, which might be called the apocalyptic body of the American Lutheran Church, was not repre­sented. There was a deputation from the patri­archate of Constantinople, from the church of Greece, and from the churches of Finland. From behind the iron curtain there were dele­gations from the non-Catholic, non-Orthodox churches of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Rumania, and Yugoslavia.

Some bodies were not represented at all. The Southern Baptists had declined to send a dele­gation, but a group of Southern Baptist preach­ers sent an "unofficial observer." As might be supposed from what was said by the Interna­tional Council of Churches and the World's Evangelical Alliance, fundamentalist bodies had no representation at Amsterdam.

There were ten Roman Catholic "observers" on hand. Judging by correspondence received by those interested in the council, many more members of the Catholic communion would have been there, had they been permitted. An official pronouncement from Rome, under date of June 5, forbade participation by any Roman Catholic in any ecumenical movement without the approval of the Pope. That the timing of this papal declaration was planned cannot be doubted, and it is significant that it reasserted the standard Catholic position, that all genuine church unions must lead back to the Roman Catholic Church.

The council opened with the bold clangor of church bells. On the opening day, August 22, Amsterdam church bells rang out at 9:00 A.m., hourly thereafter until 6:00 P.M. From two forty-five until three in the afternoon, when the council convened, the bells rang continuously.

Across the American Continent too, as the hour of three o'clock came, church bells rang out their message to the American people that a great international church union was being made a reality. The opening of the session was signalized by a procession, displaying an array of ecclesiastical robes, perhaps less striking be­cause of the absence of Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic ecclesiastics.

The devotions with which the session opened were participated in by representatives of a number of different communions, presenting a variety in prayer and ritual. Prominent ecclesi­astics made introductory addresses. Dr. J. A. Mackay, president of Princeton Theological Seminary, made an earnest appeal that the council maintain a missionary vision, and that it be conscious of its task of finishing the work of the gospel in all the world. John Foster Dulles, well-known international lawyer and a lay representative at the World Council of the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, frankly faced the threat of Commu­nism in his address. He insisted that whereas every effort should be made to arrive at a peaceful way of life in the world, it must be re­membered that Communism is incompatible with peaceful change, and that the Soviets are not following a regime of peace. He admonished the nations not to abandon their position § which clash with the Communists' creed, but on the other hand not to seek to crush Communism.

Secretary Visser 't Hooft insisted that the door of membership should be kept open to the churches of Russia as well as to the other Or­thodox churches not in attendance. Carl Barth, noted Swiss theologian, urged the council not to forge ahead of God but to find God's design and line up with it, walking in God's way. The ideal of the council must "be God's kingdom, and not a kingdom of any sort of ideas and principles we approve." G. Bromley Oxnam, American Bishop in the Methodist Church, insisted that the need for unity is urgent. "Our disunity is a denial of our Lord. . . . We can­not win the world for Christ with the tactics of guerrilla warfare. . . . This calls for general staff, grand strategy, and army. And this means union."

Pessimistic notes were sounded from the council. There were lamentations concerning the indifference of laymen of the church in the face of present-day conditions. It was pointed out that the influence of the church upon so­ciety is disproportionately small compared with the church's numerical strength. One speaker declared that Christendom is as confused as the world. A Chinese delegate wanted to know whether Christianity was really rooted deeply in such countries as China Dr. Niebuhr, of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, declared that he had the "uneasy feeling" that we "cannot find the island of order from which to proceed against disorder."

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By FRANK H. YOST, Associate Secretary, Religious Liberty Department

January 1949

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