The WCC and the ecumenical movement

The modern ecumenical movement began in the late 19th and early 20th century, when Christians began to pray and work together across denominational boundaries. By the close of the 1920s, several pioneering movements had been formed to advance the cause of church unity worldwide.

In 1937, church leaders agreed to establish a World Council of Churches, but its official organization was deferred by the outbreak of the second world war until August 1948, when representatives of 147 churches assembled in Amsterdam to constitute the WCC.

Since then, a growing number of churches on every continent has joined in this search for Christian unity. They have built new bridges over ancient chasms separating believers from one another.

WCC member churches today include nearly all the world's Orthodox churches, scores of denominations from such historic traditions of the Protestant Reformation as Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist and Reformed, and a broad representation of united and independent churches.

The world's largest Christian body, the Roman Catholic Church, is not a member of the WCC, but has worked closely with the Council for more than four decades and sends representatives to all major WCC conferences as well as to its Central Committee meetings and the assemblies. The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity appoints 12 representatives to the WCC's Faith and Order Commission and cooperates with the WCC to prepare resource materials for local congregations and parishes to use during the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

The goal of the World Council of Churches is not to build a global "super-church", nor to standardize styles of worship, but rather to deepen the fellowship of Christian churches and communities so they may see in one another authentic expressions of the "one holy, catholic and apostolic church". This becomes the basis for joining in a common confession of the apostolic faith, cooperating in mission and human service endeavours and, where possible, sharing in the sacraments. All these acts of fellowship bear testimony to the foundational declaration of the WCC that the Lord Jesus Christ is "God and Saviour according to the Scriptures".

The ecumenical movement encourages cooperation and sharing, and common witness and action by churches. It seeks to renew the church through activities and networks among clergy and lay people, especially women and youth. It seeks visible unity, not as an end in itself, but to give credible witness "so that the world may believe", and to serve the healing of the human community and the wholeness of God's entire creation.

While it shares in other forms of international, intercultural and interreligious cooperation and dialogue, the ecumenical movement is rooted in the life of the Christian churches. And while it has worldwide scope (oikoumene means "the whole inhabited earth"), it is particularly interested in the true being and life of the church as an inclusive community, in each place and in all places. 

What are some of the ecumenical movement's major achievements?

  • New councils of churches and other ecumenical bodies in different countries and regions have created a genuinely worldwide ecumenical network of which the WCC is an integral part. The creation of this network has inspired its members to share an extraordinary number of resources of all kinds - theological, liturgical, spiritual, material and human.
  • The Roman Catholic Church is a full member of many national ecumenical and several regional ecumenical organizations and has a regular working relationship with the WCC.
  • Shared convictions on faith, life and witness are increasingly enriching theological reflection undertaken from strictly confessional perspectives. For example, theologians from different church traditions working together in the WCC's Faith and Order Commission produced a statement on baptism, eucharist and ministry that has led to new worship patterns within churches, and to a greater understanding and changed relationships between churches of different confessional traditions.
  • During the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Christians are drawn together into the prayer of our Lord that all may be one so that the world may believe. This Week, whose theme is developed each year by the Faith and Order Commission with the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, draws churches at the local level into deeper fellowship.
  • Since its creation, the WCC has supported and inspired church participation in struggles for justice, peace and creation. One example is the highly-valued support given by the churches, through the WCC's Programme to Combat Racism, to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Support to efforts to bring about an end to the two decades-long civil conflict in Sudan, or to reunification of North and South Korea, or to the defence of human rights in Latin America during the decades of brutal military dictatorships in that region are three among many other examples.
  • Recognition of the importance of inter-religious dialogue and relations with other faiths, as well as of the churches' responsibility for the integrity of creation, have been particular hallmarks of the ecumenical movement.

Today, both the ecumenical movement and the WCC are changing. New forms of ecumenical commitment are emerging; young people are finding their own expressions (and thus assuming ownership of) ecumenism and church; amidst the multiplicity of ecumenical bodies, the WCC is redirecting its energies to doing what it does best and is uniquely equipped to do.

The WCC shares the legacy of the one ecumenical movement and the responsibility to keep it alive. As the most comprehensive body among the many organized expressions of the ecumenical movement, the Council's role is to address global ecumenical issues and act as a trustee for the inner coherence of the movement.