Ecumenical History Under the Radar | Sojourners

Ecumenical History Under the Radar

The same week that President Donald Trump was meeting with Pope Francis in Rome, another historic event was taking place, as the Global Christian Forum facilitated a groundbreaking encounter with major global bodies representing most every part of world Christianity.

The unprecedented meeting — which gathered leaders from the World Council of Churches, the World Evangelical Alliance, the Pentecostal World Fellowship, and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity to talk, eat, plan, and pray together — was the result of groundwork laid over decades.

In 1955, Billy Graham, already well known as a young evangelist, traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, to meet with Willem Visser ‘t Hooft, the first general secretary of the newly formed World Council of Churches. A picture in the lobby of the WCC’s Ecumenical Institute at the Chateau de Bossey, where last month’s meeting was held, shows Graham and Visser ‘t Hooft meeting and talking over coffee. But in the years following, relationships between the WCC and the evangelical community went south.

Global meetings of the WCC were met with angry fundamentalist-led protests. When Orthodox churches, including those in the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries, joined the WCC during the height of the Cold War, allegations of ecumenical collusion with communist governments found their way into Reader’s Digest and even the popular news show 60 Minutes. American evangelicals maintained a harsh theological and political critique of the WCC and other ecumenical organizations, maintaining loyalty to their parallel structures like the World Evangelical Fellowship and the National Association of Evangelicals.


Professor H. H. Wolf in conversation with Dr. W. A. Visser't Hooft and evangelist Billy Graham. June 1955. WCC photo courtesy Wes Granberg-Michaelson

The day I began as director of church and society for the WCC in 1988, I was appointed as moderator of the WCC’s Task Force on Relations with Evangelicals, a staff group working to propose and build bridges between these estranged bodies. But the gap was wide and suspicions deep. It felt at times like establishing a détente between hostile parties, and it took six months to negotiate a simple meeting between officials of the WCC and World Vision International.

Yet the atmosphere soon began to thaw.

Patient efforts by WCC colleagues and willing evangelical partners began to build some trust and find common ground. And in 1998, then-WCC General Secretary Konrad Raiser convened a quiet conversation about establishing a “forum” that would be a safe space for genuine encounters between evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Catholics — all of whom were largely outside the WCC — and churches comprising the WCC. This led eventually to the establishment of the Global Christian Forum, a fresh initiative designed to bring all the branches of world Christianity into ongoing relationship with one another, to strengthen Christian witness in the world.

So, how did we manage to get here, after decades of division? Three new realities have contributed to these possibilities.

First, the world evangelical community has gone south — literally, to the global South. A century ago, 90 percent of the world’s evangelicals were found in the U.S. and Europe. Today that figure is no higher than 25 percent. Evangelicals are now centered and growing the fastest in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Freed from the dominance of American evangelicalism, they now resonate with concerns around economic justice, peace, and care of creation as well as religious freedom, evangelism, and mission. Old generations of hostility between ecumenical and evangelical leadership in the global North feel different in regions now shaping the future of global Christianity.

Second, Pentecostalism has emerged on the world stage with confidence and surging growth, also driven by churches in the global South (and reflected in patterns of immigration back to the U.S. and Europe). Today, one out of four Christians is a Pentecostal or is charismatic. While historically deeply suspicious of other Christian traditions who often marginalized them, today the growing strength of the Pentecostal community makes them more confident to be equal players in the changing landscape of world Christianity.

Third, the Catholic Church’s ecumenical commitments, rooted in Vatican II, have made steady, though often cautious, progress. Official dialogues have been held through the years with most every part and tradition of Christianity, including with evangelicals and Pentecostals. While there are vast regional differences, half of the global Christian community is now far more open to relationships with those previously severed and separated from fellowship. Pope Francis has remarkably accelerated this process.

The “space” provided by the Global Christian Forum became particularly valuable in the past decade as two major global gatherings were held, one at Limuru, Kenya, in 2007 and a second in Manado, Indonesia, in 2011. An international conference on “Discrimination, Persecution, and Martyrdom” was convened in Tirana, Albania, in late 2015. All these were efforts to bring the newer and rapidly growing churches in the global South, many of which are Pentecostal and evangelical, into genuine encounters with historic Protestant and Orthodox churches in the WCC and with the Catholic Church.

Last month’s historic gathering in Geneva made no headlines. Meetings, especially those involving church leaders and without conflict, are rarely stories in the media. Yet history was being made far more important than President Trump’s meeting in the Vatican, which dominated the headlines. When Christian traditions long separated by hostility and judgment come together in mutual trust and respect, fresh possibilities emerge for how the power of the gospel can break through barriers of suffering and injustice and heal pain and division in the world.

At that meeting in 1955, Billy Graham and Willem Visser ‘t Hooft most likely dreamed of how the power of a unified Christian witness could be a vehicle used by God to address the brokenness and summon hope for the global community. Persistent divisiveness among Christians has marred and damaged those dreams, with enough blame to be widely shared. But now, in the face of so many global trends that threaten to propel humanity into defensive enclaves of fear, nativism, and hatred, something fresh and hopeful is happening among Christians that has consequences for the world. May it grow and flourish.

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