World Council of Churches Is Formed Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The formation of the World Council of Churches marked the culmination of a growing recognition that Christianity could be more effective and more consistent with its own theological vision if historical and doctrinal divisions were minimized. The council created a forum in which Christian churches from around the world could dialogue, create understanding, promote a common vision, and take common action on pressing social problems.

Summary of event

On August 22, 1948, members of 147 Christian church bodies from forty-four countries, and representing the major denominations (except the Roman Catholic Church but including most of the Orthodox traditions), voted to join in a cooperative movement called the World Council of Churches (WCC). This cooperation marks perhaps the most important event in the history of Christianity’s ecumenical movement. (“Ecumenical” is derived from the Greek oikoumenikos, meaning the “inhabited world.”) World Council of Churches Religious organizations Christianity;interdenominational cooperation [kw]World Council of Churches Is Formed (Aug. 22, 1948) [kw]Council of Churches Is Formed, World (Aug. 22, 1948) [kw]Churches Is Formed, World Council of (Aug. 22, 1948) World Council of Churches Religious organizations Christianity;interdenominational cooperation [g]Europe;Aug. 22, 1948: World Council of Churches Is Formed[02610] [g]Netherlands;Aug. 22, 1948: World Council of Churches Is Formed[02610] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Aug. 22, 1948: World Council of Churches Is Formed[02610] [c]Organizations and institutions;Aug. 22, 1948: World Council of Churches Is Formed[02610] Mott, John R. Visser ’t Hooft, W. A. Temple, William

The hope for Christian unity and a commitment to an organization that would embody that unity had been building, representing the confluence of a number of currents. Churches that had been involved in missionary activity discovered that persons outside Europe could make little sense of, and had little interest in, the doctrinal and cultural differences that divided the Europe-based churches. Informally, many missionary groups had begun cooperating to more efficiently carry out their work, resulting in the World Missionary Conference World Missionary Conference (1910) in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1910, chaired by John R. Mott, who was later named honorary president of the WCC. This conference was followed by the formation of the International Missionary Council International Missionary Council (IMC), an organization that would later formally join the WCC.

Another impetus for unity was the belief by theologians and church leaders that there should be “one church.” Because all Christians acknowledge faith in the same Christ, they believed, Christians therefore should ideally share a common fellowship. Informal conversation about overcoming doctrinal differences led to the formation of the Faith and Order movement Faith and Order movement at Lausanne in 1927. The movement held a series of meetings that included an important gathering in Edinburgh in 1937, where discussion focused on forming the WCC.

A third influence on unification was modern urban life and its related social problems. Christians responded to the poverty, violence, and social dislocation of urbanization by forming social programs to aid those in need. The cross-denominational and theological Social Gospel movement arose in Europe and the United States, stressing Christian responsibilities to embody Christian love by providing aid to the weak and impoverished. This common theology led to the formation of the Life and Work movement Life and Work movement in which Christians from all backgrounds developed programs to address and mitigate common social ills.

A final influence was World War I, a horrific war between Christian nations that convinced many how necessary it was to work toward Christian unity, as well as global peace. It was in this context that the Holy Synod of the Church of Constantinople (Orthodox Church) met in January, 1919, and proposed that Christian churches around the world consider forming a league of churches, similar to the political call for a league of nations.

By the 1930’s, these influences began to converge, leading to the merger of the Faith and Order and Life and Work movements into a common council. A fourteen-member committee (seven members from each organization) was appointed in 1937 to begin work on establishing such a council. William Temple, the archbishop of York and a leader in the Social Gospel movement, was appointed council chair. The group developed a structure and mission and sent out invitations to 196 church bodies in 1938, asking them to join the council. The council was on the verge of formation just before the start of World War II, but for the next ten years, plans were put on hold. The committee continued to meet under the leadership of W. A. Visser ’t Hooft in Geneva, and became actively involved in aid to Jewish and other war refugees. Planning resumed after that war, with meetings held in Geneva in 1946 and Buck Hill, Pennsylvania, in 1947.

Beginning on August 22, 1948, the first council assembly met in Amsterdam for twelve days to formally establish the structure and goals of the WCC. Delegates from 147 church bodies were represented; they came from forty-four different countries. Between 1946 and 1948, an effort had been made to expand the original vision of the WCC, which had a largely European membership, to be truly ecumenical. Representatives would come from twenty-two Asian churches and a handful of African and Latin American churches. The gathering included representatives of most of the world’s Protestant church bodies and most of the Orthodox church bodies. The Roman Catholic Church was invited to attend, or to send observers, but it declined.

A number of issues had to be resolved over the twelve days of the assembly. The assembly had to structure the organization, decide the relationship between member churches and the WCC, and determine its primary mission. The assembly created the position of secretary general (Visser ’t Hooft) and a variety of departments and programs. It established its headquarters in Geneva and anticipated income from member contributions. The WCC was founded as a voluntary-membership organization in which its members are not bound by the organization’s statements and programs. The WCC has a joint mission of promoting unity through dialogue on issues of faith and practice and also of embodying Christian love through its worldwide programs, which focus on issues of justice, peace, and environmental stewardship.

Significance

The WCC has grown to more than 340 denominations and church fellowships from more than 100 countries and territories, and it includes more than 550 million Christians. The Catholic Church is not a formal member, but it has regular nonvoting representation at WCC gatherings and works with some of its programs.

The WCC has an annual budget of approximately $50 million. The programs of the council are determined by assemblies held every six to eight years. The council traditionally emphasizes inclusiveness and has worked to include women’s voices and to increase representation from developing countries. Churches in the developing world make up a significant majority of member churches.

The WCC also has been a strong voice for religious tolerance, actively promoting dialogue with non-Christian religious traditions. It has also been a voice for, and has financed programs related to, issues of economic justice, human rights, women’s rights, world peace, and environmental issues. Because of its international makeup it is more able to provide a global forum on important issues. World Council of Churches Religious organizations Christianity;interdenominational cooperation

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beek, Huibert van, comp. A Handbook of Churches and Councils: Profiles of Ecumenical Relationships. Geneva: World Council of Churches, 2006. A compilation of information on WCC member churches and other ecumenical bodies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Briggs, John, Mercy Amba Oduyoye, and Georges Tsetsis, eds. A History of the Ecumenical Movement, 1968-2000. Geneva: World Council of Churches, 2004. Volume 3 in a collection that discusses the ongoing work and changing nature of the World Council of Churches.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">FitzGerald, Thomas E. The Ecumenical Movement: An Introductory History. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004. A comprehensive history of the ecumenical movement and ecumenism from a perspective outside the World Council of Churches.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Knitter, Paul F., ed. The Myth of Religious Superiority: Multifaith Explorations of Religious Pluralism. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2005. Addresses the critical issue of religious pluralism in a world of increasing globalization and cultural interrelations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lossky, Nicholas, et al., eds. Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement. 2d ed. Geneva: World Council of Churches, 2002. More than three hundred authors representing almost as many Christian traditions discuss the work and significance of the World Council of Churches.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rouse, Ruth, and Stephen Charles Neill, eds. A History of the Ecumenical Movement, 1517-1948. 4th ed. Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1993. A collection of articles that present the history of ecumenical activity leading up to the formation of the World Council of Churches. Special attention is given to the Faith and Order and Life and Work movements.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sperber, Jutta. Christians and Muslims: The Dialogue Activities of the World Council of Churches and Their Theological Foundation. New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2000. Discusses interfaith relations between Islam and Christianity in the context of the World Council of Churches and ecumenism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">VanElderen, Marlin, and Martin Conway. Introducing the World Council of Churches. Rev. and enlarged ed. Geneva: World Council of Churches, 2001. A concise treatment of the formation of the World Council of Churches and its work.

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