Reviewing Ecumenical History

By Wieser, Thomas | The Ecumenical Review, April 2000 | Go to article overview
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Reviewing Ecumenical History


Wieser, Thomas, The Ecumenical Review


Two years ago, the 50th anniversary of the founding of the World Council of Churches was celebrated in various parts of the world in various ways, academic and liturgical, culminating in a ceremony of recommitment at the eighth assembly in Harare. But expectations that such a jubilee might generate some major assessments of the history of the WCC remain unfulfilled. The Memoirs of W.A. Visser 't Hooft conclude with the New Delhi assembly in 1961. The second volume of A History of the Ecumenical Movement: The Ecumenical Advance, edited by H. Fey, leads up to 1968, thus covering only the first twenty years of the Council's existence (a third volume is in preparation). Major changes occurred in the Council's life and work in the 1960s and 1970s. Their implications have been and continue to be disputed and deserve critical examination.

Two publications on WCC history have recently appeared in Germany, prompted not by the ecumenical anniversary but by the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. They focus on the cold war period, which coincides with the first forty years of the WCC. The first, Nationaler Protestantismus und Okumenische Bewegung,(1) consists of three essays followed by a postscript on the Harare assembly; the second, Der Okumenische Rat der Kirchen in den Konflikten des kalten Krieges,(2) contains papers and summaries of discussions from a consultation at the Protestant Academy in Muhlheim, Germany, in 1999. The two books differ greatly both in size and in orientation.

The first is based on years of research in archives in different parts of the world -- Geneva (the WCC and the Lutheran World Federation), Philadelphia (the US National Council of Churches) and Germany (the files of Stasi, the state security agency of the former German Democratic Republic). In effect, the book is three independent monographs, each signed by one of the authors: Armin Boyens, a WCC staff member from 1961 to 1966, Gerhard Besier, professor at the University of Heidelberg, and Gerhard Lindemann, research assistant at the same university.

This volume of more than 1000 pages, accompanied by innumerable footnotes and forty pages of bibliography, suggests a truly comprehensive undertaking. However, the reader learns already in the preface that the authors, while writing independently from one another, are united in their concern "to lay bare ... the political and spiritual errors" committed by the churches and the WCC during the cold war period. Such a warning may be useful in dispelling any false expectations, but it also bares the authors' intention not to open up the debate but close it, to separate saints from sinners.

Of the three essays, the one by Boyens deals most directly with the WCC. For Boyens, the history of the WCC is basically divided into two periods. The first is the period from 1948 to 1966, when W.A. Visser 't Hooft was general secretary. It is the period of grace, the golden age of the ecumenical movement. The titles of Boyens' chapters on these years are all positive, speaking of the construction, defence and enlargement of the fellowship. The titles of the next three chapters call the ecumenical fellowship into question: "Facing Tests", "Showing Fissures", "Enduring Conflicts".

The fall from grace happened for Boyens under Visser 't Hooft's successor Eugene Carson Blake. Boyens accuses Blake and the subsequent general secretaries of having abandoned the carefully balanced stance regarding East and West that allowed for vigorous defence of those whose human rights were violated in communist-dominated countries of Eastern Europe. While the troubles started already in the early 1960s, in the wake of the admission of Eastern European Orthodox churches, particularly the Russian Orthodox, into WCC membership at the New Delhi assembly, Visser 't Hooft succeeded in maintaining the balance. For Boyens, the inclusion of liberation theology into the ecumenical debate and the establishment of the Programme to Combat Racism are the unmistakable signs of diminishing interest in human rights issues in Eastern Europe, and growing interest in maintaining good relations with church and state authorities rather than in defending the rights of dissidents.

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