ecumenical movement (ĕk´yōōmĕn´Ĭkəl, ĕk´yə–), name given to the movement aimed at the unification of the Protestant churches of the world and ultimately of all Christians.
During and after the Reformation Protestantism separated into numerous independent sects. An early attempt to reverse this tendency was the Evangelical Alliance founded in England in 1846; an American branch was formed by Philip Schaff in 1867. Other organizations that crossed denominational barriers were the Young Men's Christian Association (1844), the Young Women's Christian Association (1884), and the Christian Endeavor Society (1881). In 1908 the Federal Council of Churches of Christ, composed of the larger Protestant denominations in the United States, was organized and strove to represent Protestant opinion on religious and social questions. The movement known as Church Reunion in Great Britain and as Christian Unity (1910) in the United States was active in seeking a creed and polity behind which all Christians could unite.
On an international scale the ecumenical movement really began with the World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh in 1910. This led to the establishment (1921) of the International Missionary Council, which fostered cooperation in mission activity and among the younger churches. Other landmarks in the development of the movement were the Universal Christian Conference on Life and Work (Stockholm, 1925), inspired by Nathan Söderblom of Sweden; the World Conference on Faith and Order (Lausanne, 1927); and the first assembly of the World Council of Churches (Amsterdam, 1948). The World Council, bringing together Protestant, Orthodox Eastern (including the Russian Orthodox Church), and Old Catholic bodies, is now the chief instrument of ecumenicity; in 1961 it united with the International Missionary Council.
Progress has also been made in mergers between individual churches; notable examples include the Church of South India (see South India, Church of), established in 1947, the first union between episcopal and nonepiscopal churches, and in the United States, where there have been many mergers, the United Church of Christ. A proposal was made in 1960 to bring together the American Methodist, Episcopal, United Presbyterian, and United Church of Christ denominations; this led to the establishment (1962) of the Consultation on Church Union, whose discussions continued into the 1970s. A proposed merger between the English Methodists and the Church of England was rejected by the Methodists in 1969. The Anglicans did, however, reach several doctrinal accords with the Roman Catholic Church in the early 1970s. Several American Lutheran churchs united to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1988, which agreed in 1997 on a full communion (an arrangement by which churches fully accept each other's members and sacraments) with the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, and the Reformed Church in America. The Lutheran group reached a similar agreement with the Episcopal Church and the Moravian Church in 1999. Under the terms of the full communion, the churches involved can hold joint worship services, exchange clergy members, and collaborate on social service projects.
The Vatican did not give formal recognition to the existence of the ecumenical movement until 1960, when it established the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. Protestant and Orthodox Eastern observers were invited to the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), and the Decree on Ecumenism (1964) promulgated by that council encouraged new dialogues with Protestant and Orthodox churches. In 1969, Pope Paul VI visited the headquarters of the World Council of Churches in Geneva; the Catholic Church now sends observers to the World Council and is a full member of some of its committees. In 1995, in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed the Roman Catholic commitment to Christian ecumenism; in 1999, he became the first pope to visit Orthodox nations. Catholics and Lutherans signed a joint declaration in 1999 on the doctrine of justification that resolved some of the issues that led to the Reformation in 1517.
See B. Leeming, The Churches and the Church (1960); N. Goodall, The Ecumenical Movement (3d ed. 1966); J. Desseaux, Twenty Centuries of Ecumenicism (1984); R. S. Bilheimer, Breakthrough: The Emergence of the Ecumenical Tradition (1989).