Movement toward unity or cooperation among the Christian churches. The first major step in the direction of ecumenism was the International Missionary Conference of 1910, a gathering of Protestants. Several Protestant denominations inaugurated a Life and Work Conference (on social and practical problems) in 1925 and a Faith and Order Conference (on church doctrine and governance) in 1927. After World War II the World Council of Churches (WCC) was established; the International Missionary Conference joined it in 1961. The Roman Catholic church also has shown strong interest in improving interchurch relations since the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) and, with the patriarch of Constantinople, has lifted the excommunication of 1054. The Eastern Orthodox church was active in the movement since 1920 and joined the WCC at its inception. The more conservative or fundamentalist Protestant denominations have generally refrained from involvement. Another important factor in 20th-century ecumenism was the creation of united churches that reconcile splintered sects, such as the United Church of Christ (1957) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (1988).
Learn more about ecumenism with a free trial on Britannica.com.
In its broadest sense, this unity or cooperation may refer to a worldwide religious unity; by the advocation of a greater sense of shared spirituality across the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Most commonly, however, ecumenism is used in a more narrow meaning; referring to a greater cooperation among different religious denominations of a single one of these faiths.
The word is derived from Greek οἰκουμένη (oikoumene), which means "the inhabited world", and was historically used with specific reference to the Roman Empire. Today, the word is used predominantly by and with reference to Christian denominations and Christian Churches separated by doctrine, history, and practice. Within this particular context, the term ecumenism refers to the idea of a Christian unity in the literal meaning: that there should be a single Christian Church.
According to Edmund Schlink, most important in Christian ecumenism is that people focus primarily on Christ, not on separate church organizations. In his book Ökumenische Dogmatik (1983), he says Christians who see the risen Christ at work in the lives of various Christians and in diverse churches, realize that the unity of Christ's church has never been lost (pages 694-700; also his "Report," Dialog 1963, 2:4, 328), but has instead been distorted and obscured by different historical experiences and by spiritual myopia. Both are overcome in renewed faith in Christ. Included in that is responding to his admonition (John 17; also Philippians 2) to be one in him and love one another as a witness to the world. The result of mutual recognition would be a discernible worldwide fellowship, organized in a historically new way (pages 707-708; also Skibbe, A Quiet Reformer 1999, 122-4; Schlink, The Vision of the Pope 2001).
Christian ecumenism is distinguished from interfaith pluralism. Ecumenism in this broad sense is called religious pluralism, as distinguished from ecumenism within a faith movement. Standing against ecumenism is the traditional Orthodox Church which staunchly maintains there is but one church, the historic Orthodox church. Leading the anti ecumenical movement in the 1980s was Fr. John Boylan of the OCA. The interfaith movement strives for greater mutual respect, toleration, and co-operation among the world religions.
Ecumenism as interfaith dialogue between representatives of diverse faiths, does not necessarily intend reconciling their adherents into full, organic unity with one another but simply to promote better relations. It promotes toleration, mutual respect and cooperation, whether among Christian denominations, or between Christianity and other faiths.
For a significant part of the Christian world, the highest aim of the Christian faith is the reconciliation of all humanity into a full and conscious union as one Christian Church, visibly united with mutual accountability between the parts and the whole. The desire is expressed by many denominations of Christendom, that all who profess faith in Christ in sincerity, would be more fully cooperative and supportive of one another.
Christian ecumenism can be described in terms of the three largest divisions of Christianity: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant. While this underemphasizes the complexity of these divisions, it is a useful model.
The Roman Catholic Church has always considered it a duty of the highest rank to seek full unity with estranged communions of fellow-Christians, and at the same time to reject what it saw as promiscuous and false union that would mean being unfaithful to or glossing over the teaching of Sacred Scripture and Tradition.
Before the Second Vatican Council, the main stress was laid on this second aspect, as exemplified in canon 1258 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law:
The 1983 Code of Canon Law has no corresponding canon. It absolutely forbids Catholic priests to concelebrate the Eucharist with members of communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church (canon 908), but allows, in certain circumstances and under certain conditions, other sharing in the sacraments. And the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, 102 states: "Christians may be encouraged to share in spiritual activities and resources, i.e., to share that spiritual heritage they have in common in a manner and to a degree appropriate to their present divided state."
Pope John XXIII, who convoked the Council that brought this change of emphasis about, said that the Council's aim was to seek renewal of the Church itself, which would serve, for those separated from the See of Rome, as a "gentle invitation to seek and find that unity for which Jesus Christ prayed so ardently to his heavenly Father.
Some elements of the Roman Catholic perspective on ecumenism are illustrated in the following quotations from the Council's decree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio of 21 November 1964, and Pope John Paul II's encyclical, Ut Unum Sint of 25 May 1995.
While some Eastern Orthodox Churches commonly baptize converts from the Catholic Church, thereby refusing to recognize the baptism that the converts have previously received, the Catholic Church has always accepted the validity of all the sacraments administered by the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches.
The Catholic Church likewise has never applied the terms "heterodox" or "heretic" to the Eastern Orthodox Church or its members. Even the term "schism", as defined in canon 751 of its Code of Canon Law ("the withdrawal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or from communion with the members of the Church subject to him"), does not, strictly speaking, apply to the situation of the concrete individual members of the Eastern Orthodox Church today as viewed by the Catholic Church.
One way to observe the attitude of the Orthodox Church towards non-Orthodox is to see how they receive new members from other faiths. Non-Christians, such as Buddhists or atheists, who wish to become Orthodox Christians are accepted through the sacraments of baptism and chrismation. Protestants and Roman Catholics are sometimes received through chrismation only, provided they had received a trinitarian baptism. Also Protestants and Roman Catholics are often referred to as "heterodox", which simply means "other believing", rather than as heretics, implying that they did not willfully reject the Church. However, such policies are decided by each individual church, and more traditional groups will receive all converts only by baptism and chrismation.
Despite many disagreements over ecumenism and how to approach interfaith dialog, there exists a sizable group of Orthodox Christians who are vehemently opposed to any kind of interfaith dialog, whether with other Christian denominations or religions outside Christianity. They view ecumenism and interfaith dialog as being potentially pernicious to Orthodox Church Tradition, as a kind of "weakening" of Orthodoxy itself.
The members of the Anglican Communion have generally embraced the Ecumenical Movement, actively participating in such organizations as the World Council of Churches and the NCCC. Most Anglican provinces have special departments devoted to ecumenical relations; however, the influence of Liberal Christianity has in recent years caused tension within the communion, causing some to question the direction ecumenism has taken them.
Each member church of the Anglican Communion makes its own decisions with regard to intercommunion. The 1958 Lambeth Conference recommended "that where between two Churches not of the same denominational or confessional family, there is unrestricted communio in sacris, including mutual recognition and acceptance of ministries, the appropriate term to use is 'full communion,' and that where varying degrees of relation other than 'full communion' are established by agreement between two such churches the appropriate term is 'intercommunion.'
Full communion has been established between Provinces of the Anglican Communion and these Churches:
The Episcopal Church USA is currently engaged in dialogue with the following religious bodies:
Nicolaus Ludwig, Count von Zinzendorf,(1700-1760) the renewer of the Unitas Fratrum/ Moravian Church in the 18th Century, was the first person to use the word "ecumenical" in this sense. His pioneering efforts to unite all Christians, regardless of denominational labels, into a "Church of God in the Spirit"---notably among German immigrants in Pennsylvania--were misunderstood by his contemporaries and 200 years before the world was ready for them.
The contemporary ecumenical movement for Protestants is often said to have started with the 1910 Edinburgh Missionary Conference. However this conference would not have been possible without the pioneering ecumenical work of the Christian youth movements: the Young Men's Christian Association (founded 1844), the Young Women's Christian Association (founded 1855) and the World Student Christian Federation (founded 1895), and the Federal Council of Churches (founded 1908), predecessor to today's National Council of Churches USA. Led by Methodist layman John R. Mott (former YMCA staff and in 1910 the General Secretary of WSCF), the World Mission conference marked the largest Protestant gathering to that time, with the express purposes of working across denominational lines for the sake of world missions. After the First World War further developments were the "Faith and Order" movement led by Charles Henry Brent, and the "Life and Work" movement led by Nathan Soderblom.
Eventually, formal organizations were formed, including the World Council of Churches in 1948, the National Council of Churches in the USA in 1950, and Churches Uniting in Christ in 2002. These groups are moderate to liberal, theologically speaking, as Protestants are generally more liberal and less traditional than Anglicans, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics.
Protestants are now involved in a variety of ecumenical groups, working in some cases toward organic denominational unity and in other cases for cooperative purposes alone. Because of the wide spectrum of Protestant denominations and perspectives, full cooperation has been difficult at times. Edmund Schlink's Ökumenische Dogmatik 1983, 1997 proposes a way through these problems to mutual recognition and renewed church unity.
In 1999, the representatives of Lutheran World Federation and Roman Catholic Church signed The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, resolving the conflict over the nature of Justification which was at the root of the Protestant Reformation, although some conservative Lutherans did not agree to this resolution. On July 18, 2006 Delegates to the World Methodist Conference voted unanimously to adopt the Joint Declaration.
The year 2006 saw a resumption of the series of meetings for theological dialogue between representatives of the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, suspended because of failure to reach agreement on the question of the Eastern Catholic Churches, a question exacerbated by disputes over churches and other property that the Communist authorities once assigned to the Orthodox Church but whose restoration these Churches have obtained from the present authorities.
Catholic and Orthodox bishops in North America are engaged in an ongoing dialogue. They are meeting together periodically as the "North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation". It has been meeting semi-annually since it was founded in 1965 under the auspices of the Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA). The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops officially joined the Consultation as a sponsor in 1997. The Consultation works in tandem with the Joint Committee of Orthodox and Catholic Bishops which has been meeting annually since 1981. Since 1999 the Consultation has been discussing the Filioque clause, with the hope of eventually reaching an agreed joint statement.
Similar dialogues at both international and national level continue between, for instance, Roman Catholics and Anglicans.
Organizations such as the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches USA, Churches Uniting in Christ, and Christian Churches Together continue to encourage ecumenical cooperation among Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, and, at times, Roman Catholics. There are universities such as the University of Bonn in Germany that offer degree courses in "Ecumenical Studies" in which theologians of various denominations teach their respective traditions and, at the same time, seek for common ground between these traditions.
Traditionalist Roman Catholics also see ecumenism as aiming at a false pan-Christian religious unity which does not require non-Catholics to convert to the Catholic faith. Traditionalist Roman Catholics see this as a contradiction to Catholic interpretations of the Bible, Pope Pius XI's Mortalium Animos, Pope Pius XII's Humani Generis and other documents. Some evangelical and many charismatic Christians view ecumenism as a sign of end times apostasy before Jesus Christ's return as prophesied in the Bible, and see substantial similarities between the doctrinal stance of end-times false teachers, as described in , and the theological pronouncements of certain leaders of ecumenical movements.
Many evangelical churches, particularly those in the Baptist tradition, practice congregational self-government, in which the local congregation manages its own affairs and makes decisions regarding theological questions and worship styles. Since the local congregation is seen the highest ecclesiastic authority, there is no compelling reason for these churches to seek a formal merger of denominations. Many evangelical churches do partake in church associations like the National Association of Evangelicals or World Evangelical Fellowship, and cooperate through para-church ministries like World Vision or Young Life. Evangelical churches sometimes cooperate with mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox Christians in projects such as disaster relief or political lobbying. Some of the more conservative Evangelicals, usually called fundamentalists, and Pentecostals view interdenominational activities or organizations in more conservative circles such as the National Association of Evangelicals or Promise Keepers as a softer form of ecumenism and shun them while others do not.
Many Baptists in the United States have notoriously opposed ecumenism and even cooperation with other Baptists, as illustrated by the recent example of the Southern Baptist Convention's decision to withdraw from the Baptist World Alliance. The Baptist World Alliance, while seeking co-operation among Baptists, is not specifically a staunch ecumenical body, and yet conservative fundamentalist elements within the Southern Baptist Convention have forced that denomination to withdraw from even that small effort to ecumenical cooperation. Fundamentalists within the SBC cited the BWA's acceptance of Baptist denominations which practiced the ordination of women, which the SBC officially opposes. Critical observers of the SBC noted that the SBC withdrew from the BWA when the BWA accepted the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a moderate Baptist body formed by theologically moderate Baptists alienated by the SBC's fundamentalist direction.
A considerable number of Baptists within the United States belong to loose networks of like-minded fundamentalists known as Independent Baptists. Many of these churches, as well as other fundamentalist groups, believe that modern Bible translations are heretical and that most denominations, including other Baptists and evangelicals, are apostate. These fundamentalists often believe that ecumenism may lead to an apostate counterfeit Christianity lead by the Anti-Christ, possibly in collusion with the Vatican.
In 2001 a group of Pentecostals broke from traditional opposition to ecumenical movements and formed the International Circle of Faith.
A rather large minority of Catholic opposition to ecumenism centers on Traditionalist Roman Catholics and associations such as the Society of St. Pius X. In fact, opposition to ecumenism is closely associated with antagonism, in the case of Traditionalist Roman Catholics, to abandonment of Latin (among many other issues) in the celebration of Mass, and, in the case of Greek Old Calendarists (who speak of "the arch-heresy of ecumenism"), to abandonment of the Julian calendar
While some Evangelical churches do participate in the Ecumenical movement, it is not true that all Baptists fall into this group. The Baptist Union of Wales are at the forefront of the movement with Wales, as well as the rest of the United Kingdom.
Paradigms of Ecumenism as a Spiritual Practice: Father Thomas Keating and Swami Atmarupananda Discuss the Theory and Practice of Dialogue
Jan 01, 2008; Ecumenism as a Spiritual Practice I first met Father Thomas Keating and Swami Atmarupananda in the summer of 2002 in...
ECUMENISM, A SPIRIT OF TOGETHERNESS, INFUSES CHRISTIAN CHURCHES DENOMINATIONS IN HAMPTON ROADS ARE HELPING TO HEAL CENTURIES-OLD RIFTS.(FRONT)
Jul 28, 1997; Byline: TONY WHARTON, STAFF WRITER New pacts between Christian denominations, both national and international, mean Christians...