The good ship Oikumene, its sails somewhat tattered, pulled slowly out of Montreal harbor, navigated the St. Lawrence Seaway, crossed Lake Ontario with little difficulty—cargo having been lightened by unloading of Faith and Order in Montreal—and came to port in Rochester, New York, where the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches disembarked. The natives there showed them no little kindness, but the voyage was marred by Orthodox soldiers’ shooting neoorthodox seamen in the legs to prevent their escaping overboard with definitive blueprints of the ship. For the problem of defining the ecumenical movement and the World Council had not been jettisoned in Canada but had been reloaded and marked as Rochester cargo as well.
On a quiet hilltop where Colgate Rochester Divinity School had been enjoying summer somnolence, the 100-member policy-making committee listened, in late August, as Dr. W. A. Visser ’t Hooft, able general secretary of the WCC, addressed them on “The Meaning of Membership” in the WCC. Their responses underscored the tentative nature of the address, which noted the conviction of several theologians that the experience of fellowship in the WCC has forced admission, beyond official definitions, that “the nature of the Council should be described in ecclesiological categories.” But strong objections to this conception were noted at the Montreal Faith and Order Conference on the part of Eastern Orthodox delegates especially. It was not different in Rochester.
Dr. Visser ’t Hooft cautioned against confusion of WCC’s “provisional unity” with “the unity which belongs to the Church Universal.” He disclaimed any WCC identity with Church or Super-Church, but spoke of “a deeper understanding” of the Church’s nature and “new opportunities to manifest its true meaning,” which accrue through “common life in the Council.” For the immediate present, the churches would have to “live with a reality which transcends definition.”
In ensuing discussion a German Lutheran bishop enthused: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the World Council became a church?” But the majority of other spokesmen were opposed to this. Metropolitan Nikodim, head of the delegation from the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, asserted that Orthodox churches always react to any attempt to give an ecclesiological element to the WCC, but “in all justice” he did not believe that the council regarded itself as “having ecclesiological significance.”
A Swiss Protestant maintained that a probing operation was useful toward an attempt to “say what stage we’re at,” but a Coptic Orthodox bishop said that “mere mention of this subject makes the work of Orthodox churches difficult.” Father Paul Verghese, Syrian Orthodox priest who heads the WCC’s Division of Ecumenical Action, described the ecumenical experience as being “not only one of enrichment but of loss of the wholeness we, of the Eastern churches, especially find in our own churches.” During recess, Central Committee Chairman Franklin Clark Fry remarked, “It’s quite clear we should attempt no further definition for some years.”
In response to floor discussion Dr. Visser ’t Hooft stated, “The World Council must decrease in order that the Church may increase. It is our hope that one day we can scrap the World Council as not necessary—because the Church is in its unity.” The committee voted to send his paper and a resume of the discussion to member churches for their responses.
When black-bearded Orthodox spokesmen would sweep to the microphones in flowing black robes, their steps were accompanied by the clatter of earphones as delegates prepared to hear them via translation to English, German, or French. Underlying East-West political differences came to the surface in one debate in which Dr. Klaus von Bismarck, head of the West German broadcasting network, indicated that some Eastern churchmen are used as “Trojan horses” for Communist ideology. Russian Orthodox response was denial and reminder of the need for Christian repentance that the Church had not done some things in the area of social justice that the Communists have done.
Variations in the concept of freedom in relation to Orthodoxy of the non-Russian sort were footnoted as the committee commended a Bible-distribution project of the United Bible Societies. A metropolitan of the Ecumenical Patriarchate supported the measure but said that such activities had in the past been related to proselytism. He indicated that the church authorities in a given area should always be contacted prior to distribution of Bibles.
Debate on a statement on racial tension which centered on the United States and the Union of South Africa afforded a Russian Orthodox churchman the opportunity to strike at a point of U. S. vulnerability. Alexander Shishkin spoke of the supreme “crying injustice” of racial discrimination and asserted that countries guilty of the disgraceful practice “should be condemned without mercy.” After all, he said, “this is the twentieth century.” An African committee member felt that the penalty for discrimination should be exclusion from the WCC, but others warned against trying to exercise the power of excommunication. The committee finally settled for describing Christians who favor segregation as betrayers of Christ and “the fellowship which bears His name.” Dr. Martin Niemoller, one of six WCC presidents, felt the statement should show how Christ was thus betrayed, but such was not done. Some observers felt the theological implications were left somewhat obscure. Another president, India’s Dr. David G. Moses, had noted the common association of betrayal with Judas, while defending the strength of the language.
East-West agreements and differences in the area of social ethics will doubtless be explored at a 1966 WCC conference on church and society. The committee commended plans for dealing with subjects such as “responsible government in a revolutionary age” and “economic growth and technology.”
With virtually no basic debate, the committee approved a statement urging worldwide support for the limited nuclear test ban treaty as a “first step” on the road to peace. Copies were sent to heads of state of the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States. President Kennedy had sent word of the importance of the treaty through Averell Harriman.
But vigorous debate did come on the question of church-state separation as related to a WCC division committee’s proposal that church social service projects for helping developing nations should accept money—amounting to many millions of dollars—from the West German government. The proposal was referred back for further study.
Central Committee Chairman Dr. Fry, scintillating master of parliamentary procedure, reported WCC’s extensive aid to earthquake victims in Iran and Yugoslavia, and to nation-builders in Algeria, health and social services being provided in the latter country. More than $1,600,000 was subscribed in 1963 by WCC churches to meet various emergencies arising from disasters.
With regard to WCC relations with the Roman Catholic Church in light of the Vatican Council, the committee expressed a longing for dialogue as between churches which recognize one another as confessing the same Lord, sharing the same baptism, and participating in a common calling.
The committee provisionally admitted nine churches to WCC membership, and one to associate membership. Most were young churches, the fruit of missions. Report came of the withdrawal in the past year of one body, the Union of Baptist Congregations in the Netherlands. With finalizing of these actions, the WCC will embrace 209 full member bodies and three associate churches.
The Lay Approach
Hopes are rising in the Philippines for a more tangible manifestation of the ecumenical spirit generated by local church dignitaries who attended the first session of the Vatican Council and World Council of Churches functions.
The movement took on a fresh, new vigor a few weeks ago when lay leaders of the Philippine Federation of Christian Churches met with their lay counterparts of the Knights of Columbus societies. The PFCC is a large national council of churches from different communions, and the K of C is the most prominent propagation-of-the-faith arm of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the Philippines.
Squarely in the center of this grass roots ecumenical movement is Dr. Gumersindo Garcia, Sr., PFCC president who initiated exploratory talks at a meeting with K of C officials. Garcia expressed confidence that the ecumenical spirit would achieve considerable success if pursued by laymen. He said Protestant and Catholic lay people have little to talk about in theological matters anyway. Church leaders, on the other hand, know too much about theological differences and are more keenly aware of deeply rooted religious bickerings, he added.
The PFCC president is a layman whose services and prestige as a well-known physician and civic leader have earned for him the leadership and patronage of many social, civic, cultural, and religious organizations of different religious persuasions. Because of his stature as an “ecumenical figure,” many believe that the current dialogue might eventually lead to a more intimate understanding of ecumenicity.
Amidst this seemingly favorable wind are strong undercurrents of objections and doubts from other church officials and denominational lay leaders. Spokesmen of conservative evangelical groups view the movement as without scriptural warrant and are having nothing to do with it. Other evangelical lay leaders strongly doubt the sincerity of the K of C officials. They base their doubts upon the long controversy between evangelicals and Catholics in the Philippines which has produced so many undesirable manifestations. The conflict took a sharp turn recently when an archbishop of the hierarchy issued pastoral letters warning Catholic parents not to send their children to Protestant schools.
VATICAN II, ACT II
About this time last year, reports were rife that the forthcoming Vatican Council was geared for rapprochement with the Eastern Orthodox. It turned out, however, that most of the major Orthodox communions refused even to send observers.
On the eve of the council’s second session, due to begin September 29, the Orthodox seemed more aloof than ever. The Synod of the Orthodox Church in Greece announced it would do all it could to prevent a proposed Pan-Orthodox conference from taking place on the Greek island of Rhodes. The Panhellenic Orthodox Union warned that the meetings could lead “to a split in Orthodoxy and bring us into contact with the Papists, who are treacherously working for the enslavement of the Orthodox Church.”
The Rhodes conference reportedly had been called to decide whether the Orthodox churches should be represented at the Vatican Council and whether possible unity talks should be explored.
The council under Pope Paul VI will have plenty to worry about even without the Orthodox. The strife between Roman Catholics and Buddhists in Viet Nam will tend to focus attention on the issue of religious liberty. Serving to complicate the problem is the fact that tensions in Viet Nam are political as well as religious. And some say that Communists are helping to foment unrest.
Tightening The Bonds
The Reformed Ecumenical Synod, hitherto a rather loose federation of twenty-two churches (embracing 2,500,000 members in twelve countries), tightened its bonds of fellowship last month.
At a ten-day meeting in Grand Rapids, Michigan, delegates decided to establish a permanent secretariat and to coordinate missionary efforts of member churches. A central missionary agency will be set up.
Moreover, delegates “looked with favor” on the formation of an International Reformed Agency for Migration and adopted a set of resolutions encouraging the formation of separate Christian organizations in the social and political field.
The synod was organized in 1946 and has met every five years since 1949. Its churches are intimately related by historical ties. Among the larger of the churches are the two Reformed churches of South Africa, two independent Reformed churches of The Netherlands, the Christian Reformed and Orthodox Presbyterian churches in North America, and the Free Church of Scotland. Most of the others are either young churches born of the missionary activity of the larger groups or churches sustaining close ties to them.
The synod is ecumenical in that it embraces Reformed churches from many lands, but it is not in essence an exclusive ecumenical grouping which regards itself as standing in opposition to larger affiliations. Reports on ecumenicity have been considered at previous synods, and at this one—the fifth—a committee was appointed to analyze opportunities which can help member churches determine their total ecumenical obligations.
The synod also prepared a statement on the race problem which enjoyed the endorsement of both the Nigerian and South African delegations. The statement declared that “where members of one ethnic group or nation permanently live together with other ethnic groups or nations within the same country, all individuals, groups, and nations shall be equally accorded God-given rights under the law.”
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