The birth of the ecumenical movement resulted from the growing interest of denominational spokesmen in the problems of religious division. The term ecumenical signifies universal and describes the movement that has attempted to unify at least in some degree on a world wide basis. While forces advancing the idea of unity have never agreed on what measures of unity is desirable the movement has nevertheless been revitalized in recent years.
The modern ecumenical movement began in 1795. The meeting of the London Missionary Society in that year brought together unofficially representatives from the Church of England, England Independent and Methodist bodies. The reason for the collaboration was to form a more effective discharge of missionary responsibility. Although originally inter-denominational, it eventually became an agency primarily for the English Congregationalists. In the U. S. a parallel movement started in 1810 - the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions which later came under the control of the Congregationalists. Organizations of Bible societies helped pave the way for greater unity -- British and Foreign Bible Society formed in 1804 and the American Bible Society in 1816.
Later in the century there appeared other conferences that indicated that the ecumenical movement possessed some vitality. Conferences of individuals from various denominations occurred, like the great inter-denorninational missionary conference in New York in 1854, followed by Liverpool in 1860, London in 1878. Another conference in New York at the end of the century formed with the others the basis for the Edinburgh Conference of 1910, a highlight in the ecumenical movement.
Church unions, such as the Church of Scotland consummated in 1929 to which the bulk of Presbyterians adhere, have been the object of many, efforts for unity in the past. Since 1800 there had been no fewer than 13 separate Presbyterian churches in Scotland. In 1860 Canada had 21 different denominations of Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational affinities. By 1925 there was the formation of the United Church of Canada. Most of the church mergers were of closely related bodies and occasionally of those which had earlier separated. Some involved comparatively small groups.
Acknowledgment of the church's social responsibility has been a prime factor in the movement for inter-denominational cooperation on a world-wide scale. The sufferings of the Christians who resisted Nazism, particularly in occupied countries, the problems of war-prisoners, of refugees, of reconstruction all of these served to elicit a deepened sense of world-wide community among Christians, as well as concrete joint action for the alleviation of suffering and world reconstruction.
The problems raised by the ecumenical movement have been problems (not solved) since the time of the Church Fathers. Before the denominations can come to a desired relationship of churches, the meaning of the word "Church" must be solved. Since there are variant meanings of the English word "Church" among the different faiths, some type of criterion is needed. Most faiths hold several different meanings for the word church:
(1) A congregation of believers in Christ in a local community.
Then there are groups that consider all faiths as holding part of the truth and their definition of the word church is the people of God in all ages, within and beyond Christianity - the Family of God, which would logically go into a pan-religious movement if all faiths combined.
In the present time there is a difference of conviction regarding the relation of the church to the Kingdom of God and to the Communion of Saints. Some stress that the church and the Kingdom of God are akin. The Bible holds that they are more than akin, that they are one (Col. 1-18; Heb. 12:28). Others say that there is a vast distinction between the Kingdom of God and the church. These hold that the Kingdom of God can be known only through faith and that it will come in glory through the victory of Christ at the end of this age.
Van Dusen (Henry P. Van Dusen, World Christianity. New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1947. p. 219.) lists some of the more important technicalities of the differences with regard to the church among the denominations. Although some may regard them as trivial, they are the realities of the problem of Christian unity as the denominations envision it.
(1) Whether Christ is present to the Christian mainly (a) through the ministry and sacraments, (b) through his Word truly preached and received by faith in the Church, (c) through the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit, or (d) through all of these.
(2) Whether the relation of the Church and the Kingdom of God should be interpreted as one of kinship or of contrast.
(3) Whether the Church and the Communion of Saints are identical or distinguishable.
(4) Whether the term "Church" should be applied to both the visible and the invisible redeemed community or the visible community only.
(5) Whether the progress of the Kingdom of God can already be seen in the world, or the Church knows the Kingdom of faith only.
(6) The precise membership and relationship in the communion of saints.
(7) Whether or not prayer should be offered to, for, or through departed saints.
The question also arises as to "the relation of the visible church to the invisible church, and indeed, is it scriptural and right to think of the invisible church at all?" (Robert S. Billeimer, The Quest For Christian Unity. New York: Haddam House, 1952. p. 62.) A few hold that the invisible church is not a scriptural description of the church and that it must be thought of as visible. Of course, some would disagree with this and say that it does not provide for the possibility of salvation outside of the church, which is correct. The question of sacraments revolves around the question of a visible and invisible church. If the sacraments are necessary for salvation then there is not an invisible church; or, if man is redeemed outside the visible church, then the sacraments are not necessary. There is a difference over whether or not it is proper to administer baptism to infants and adults or adults only. This again falls back to the disagreement concerning the membership of the visible church. Regardless, there is nothing concerning the baptism of infants in the Bible nor of original sin which infant baptism is partly based on. All those baptized were adults who were able to discern what was the will of God and then obeyed it.
Another problem hindering unity today is the authority of the ministry, to denominations, determines the validity of the sacraments. Most protestants and Catholics will agree that the minister must stand in a recognizable succession of the church from the time of the Apostles down to the present. Some hold that there is a passing of succession through the act of laying on of hands to those to be ordained by bishops. This has been an impediment to the Episcopal Church, because they cannot unite with others on any basis that would involve the surrender of the chain or succession in which its ministry stands. Others hold that presbyters are the vehicle through which the apostolic succession is handed down while still others hold that it is the congregation. In the New Testament the local church is invested with complete independence and autonomy and rejects every form of connexionalism which involves an ecclesiastical union between local congregations and the church as a whole.
These factors hindering unity, have not been settled by the denominations though they have been, to some degree, working on them for over one hundred years. The World Council of Churches met at Evanston, Illinois in 1954 to discuss the "Christian Hope." Almost every Evanston speaker appealed to the Bible, but each with a different conception of its authority and a different principle of its interpretation. Successive assemblies will continually be crossed up unless the World Council turns its attention to an understanding of the Scriptures. The function of the conferences are commendable, but the aims of the council will never be reached until denominationalism is abolished with all its organizations, creeds, or worship. If the denominations would put into practice the saying of one of their great leaders, Gustaf Aulen, Bishop of Strangnas, Sweden -- "The Bible is the common ground of all Christians and theology as far as it is truly Biblical - will undoubtedly promote Christian unity," (Gustaf Aulen, "The Church In The Light of The New Testament," Man's Disorder and God's Design. (The Assembly Series), New York: Harper, 1949. p. 30).-these factors which hinder unity will be overcome.
Truth Magazine II:2, pp. 8-9, 12