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Ecumenical Movement

April 30, 2021

Ecumenical Movement, movement for worldwide cooperation and unity among Christian churches. The term ecumenical is derived from the Greek oikoumen? (“inhabited”); thus, ecumenical councils of the church, the first of which was held at Nicaea in 325, were so designated because representatives attended from churches throughout the known world. In the 19th century, the term ecumenical came to denote to the Roman Catholic church a concern for Christian unity and for a renewal of the church. To Protestants who have pioneered in and advanced the modern ecumenical movement since the early 20th century, the term has applied not only to Christian unity but, more broadly, to the worldwide mission of Christianity.

Until the 20th century, only sporadic efforts were made to reunite a Christendom shattered through the centuries by schisms, the Reformation, and other disputes. Pressure toward unity was aided in the 19th century by the development of such organizations as the missionary and Bible societies and the Young Men’s Christian Association and Young Women’s Christian Association, in all of which Protestants of varying denominations joined in support of common causes. In the early 20th century, the unity movement was almost exclusively Protestant.


The World Missionary Conference of 1910, held in Edinburgh, marked the beginning of modern ecumenism. From it flowed three streams of ecumenical endeavor: evangelistic, service, and doctrinal. Today, these three aspects are furthered through the World Council of Churches, constituted in 1948; in the early 1980s it included more than 295 churches in more than 90 countries.

The evangelical concern of modern ecumenism brought about the formation, in 1921, of the International Missionary Council, comprising 17 national mission organizations. It coordinated mission strategy and aided new churches.

The service efforts made by Christians across denominational and national boundaries came to fruition in 1925, in Stockholm, when the Universal Christian Conference on Life and Work was convened to study the application of the gospel to industrial, social, political, and international affairs. This movement proceeded under the slogan “service unites but doctrine divides.”

The movement toward doctrinal ecumenism resulted in 1927 in the convening of the First World Conference on Faith and Order. The conference concluded that “God wills unity … (and) … however we may justify the beginnings of disunion, we lament its continuance.” A second Conference on Faith and Order met in Edinburgh in 1937, the year in which another Life and Work Conference met at the University of Oxford. Delegates to the two conferences agreed that their work should be coordinated, and in 1938 a provisional committee was named to establish a “body representative of the churches.” Formation of the World Council of Churches, which was to have come about in 1941, was delayed for seven years by World War II. In 1961 the missionary stream of Protestant ecumenical endeavor joined with the service and doctrinal currents as the International Missionary Council merged with the World Council of Churches.

The impulse to unity was acted on almost solely by Protestants until 1920, when the ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople issued an encyclical summoning all Christians to reunion. Eastern Orthodox churches have been members of the World Council since it was constituted.

Ecumenism continued to flourish among Protestants and the Orthodox; for example, in 1950 the National Council of Churches was formed by 29 denominations in the U.S. The Roman Catholic church, however, remained uncompromising in its rejection of the movement. From the Roman Catholic viewpoint, church unity could mean nothing less than the return of schismatic “sects” to the “one true church.” An encyclical issued in 1928 by Pope Pius XI had reemphasized this position, and as recently as 1954, Roman Catholics were forbidden to attend the second assembly of the World Council of Churches.


Change came in 1959, when Pope John XXIII proposed the calling of a second Vatican Council to complete the work of the first Vatican Council of 1870. Renewal and reunion were high on the agenda, and the world followed the proceedings closely. The pontiff created a Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. Breaking precedent, in 1961 he permitted Roman Catholic observers officially to attend the third assembly of the World Council of Churches.

Also through his influence, when Vatican II opened in Saint Peter’s Basilica in 1962, Protestant and Orthodox observers were accorded places of honor and included in all working sessions. The 2500 Roman Catholic bishops who attended the four council sessions (1962-65) dealt with Christian unity. Their decree on ecumenism, promulgated in 1964, spoke not of “schismatics” but of “separated brethren,” and it deplored sins against unity committed over the years by Roman Catholics and Protestants alike.

On the death of Pope John, in 1963, his successor, Pope Paul VI, made known his intention to continue ecumenical advances, describing unity as “the object of permanent interest, systematic study, and constant charity.” The policy was emphasized by several major gestures. In 1964 the pope and the Orthodox ecumenical patriarch had a warm, historic meeting in Jerusalem, the first meeting of the heads of their two churches in more than 500 years. In 1966, the archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Anglican Communion, visited Pope Paul, and in 1967 the pontiff visited the Orthodox patriarch in Turkey.

At the close of Vatican II, a Joint Working Group was established between the Vatican and the World Council of Churches. Numerous official dialogues were started in many countries between Roman Catholics and Protestants. Significantly, the Joint Working Group declared in 1967 that not two but only one ecumenical movement exists. Furthermore, at the fourth assembly of the World Council, in 1968, a Jesuit theologian spoke of Roman Catholics as partners with other Christians in the quest for the unity “that is Christ’s will for His Church,” and broached the possibility of Roman Catholic membership in the World Council. That had not occurred by the end of the 1980s, but the Roman Catholic church continued to have a good working relationship with the World Council, regularly sending observers to its sessions.


Ecumenism is changing. Consolidation of Protestant churches has progressed rapidly. During the 1980s, the ecumenical movement was characterized by increasing consensus on doctrinal questions that had once been highly disputed, and by growing cooperation at all levels. This was due largely to the bilateral dialogues that took place between the various Christian churches—Anglican, Orthodox, Protestant, and Roman Catholic—during the 1970s.

In areas such as peace, international development studies, and disaster relief, the Roman Catholic church and World Council churches pooled their resources. Furthermore, in the U.S., the urban crisis caused Christian churches to join with Jewish groups to achieve racial justice.

Ecumenical leaders make clear that they are not seeking a Christian unity that would gloss over basic theological differences. There remain many obstacles, such as the ordination of women, papal authority, Mariology, contraception, and even a general fear of “bigness.” Ecumenists believe, however, that much progress can result from a continuing stress on the many points on which the churches agree.

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