South India: Ecumenism's One Solid Achievement? Reflections on the History of the Ecumenical Movement

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Abstract

This article is a primer for understanding the history of the ecumenical movement by focusing first on one of its greatest institutional successes, the Church of South India in 1947, and then assessing the difficult relationship between ecumenism and missions. In the second half the article takes a broader view of ecumenical history, asking whether or not Christian ecumenism is still, in the words of Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple, "the great new fact of our era". Focusing on various achievements and failings in the 20th century, the article asks throughout whether or not Christian ecumenism has already reached its height. The conclusion of the essay argues that in order to move forward in this time of transition, the World Council of Churches must take a careful look back at its successes, failures and very reasons for existence.

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According to historian David Carter, when the World Council of Churches (WCC) was formed in 1948, there was "only one really solid achievement to celebrate"--the 1947 formation of the Church of South India. (1) Carter's article appeared in 1998, during the fiftieth anniversary of the WCC. He took a rather bleak view of ecumenical history, pointing to the "Great, but largely disappointed hopes" that had come and gone. (2) Insisting that ecumenism, historically, was rooted in Christian missions, he reasoned:

   ... It was the effect of the Indian mission field that had the
   greatest importance in changing traditional attitudes in certain
   Churches, and allowing [ecumenical] advances unparalleled
   elsewhere.... The missionary movement developed the strongest sense
   of the ecumenical imperative. (3)

One of the ironies of the modern ecumenical movement is that while it was historically rooted in mission--and its greatest successes were in the mission field--there is a high degree of ambivalence regarding the relationship of missions and ecumenism today. Carter noticed that irony. Outside of India, ecumenism "attained little genuine popularity". (4)

This article is a primer for understanding and evaluating the history of the ecumenical movement. In the first half we focus on the missions-born Church of South India and assess the difficult relationship between ecumenism and missions. In the second half we ask whether or not ecumenism is still, in the words of Archbishop William Temple, "the great new fact of our era". Carter believed Temple's famous pronouncement was "a gross exaggeration". (5)

The Union of South India's Christians

Carter's emphasis on the successful union of the South Indian churches is justified. Unlike most ecumenical unions, it was "transconfessional" rather than "interconfessional". It included Methodists, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians. This is not what set it apart, however. It was the Anglican commitment that made this union unique. (6) A brief survey of this landmark accomplishment in ecumenical history may shed light not only on the history of the ecumenical movement, but also on its present purpose.

At the risk of oversimplifying, there were three general phases in the modern history of European missions in India. First, there was a fatherly role played by the early European missionaries who went to India: they were admired, they were shepherds to native parishioners, and they were respected. The second phase was one of tension. Missionaries had established successful mission points, but Indians began to see their own leadership abilities were often far superior to the colonial clergy's. In the third period, Indian leaders became more active and prominent while European missionaries realized their own diminishing role. Ultimately, most missionaries returned to their homelands for good, leaving a church that was fully sustainable. No longer was foreign oversight necessary, or desired. Of course there were, and are, exceptions to this, but for the sake of brevity we can point to this general trajectory that played out repeatedly. …