Ecumenism – A brief history

A work in progress…(many books written on this topic!)

Psalm 133:1: “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1)

Maintaining “the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace” (Ephesians 4: 3)

Ecumenism (Oikoumene in Greek) refers to the movement for the unity of the church. The Greek word oikoumene carries the sense of wholeness or completeness and can refer not just to the household but also to the whole of the inhabited world. In either case, it speaks of unity.

“Ecumenism” includes a focus on dialogue and mutual understanding between Christian Churches.

Ecumenism recognises that unity in Christ outweighs the diversity in practice and beliefs in Christianity and that there are many things the Churches can do together rather than apart. Through ecumenism, Christians can celebrate diversity whilst also embracing and honouring diversity.

Ecumenism creates opportunities to work, pray with and for each other, worship together, and dialogue together.

A common misconception is that Churches lose their distinctive identity and practice, and that the desired outcome is that denominations become one. This is not the intention of ecumenism, which values the integrity of each tradition, while learning from, with and alongside each other.

Ecumenism is quite distinct from interfaith dialogue.

NCCA Statement on Ecumenism (NCCA Faith and Unity 2021)

A BRIEF history of ecumenism with particular reference to the ecumenical movement in Australia

The history of the modern ecumenical movement appears, overwhelmingly in the accounts of scholarly ecumenists, to be a big story of leadership, conferences, meetings and milestone councils, notably the 1910 Edinburgh Missionary Conference, the founding of the World Council of Churches in 1948 and the Second Vatican Council of 1962–65.

A catalyst for the Christian churches in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s were many revivals across Europe and America. The intention was to evangelize the world in their generation.

Missionary work until this time was exclusively a denominational enterprise. But “the challenge of a common task in a context where confessional identity was something transplanted from afar convinced many missionaries that division among Christians was a scandal.”

Student Christian movements (and the establishment of the World Student Christian Federation in 1895), along with Church mission agencies, played a key role in the foundation of ecumenism at the turn of the 20th century.

1896 Australian Student Christian Movement established

January 1901 The federation of the Australian colonies to form the Commonwealth of Australia – a great political achievement.
At the time, there was a great deal of optimism about the human capacity for cooperation.
At the same time, church leaders were facing the challenges of modernisation and the pressures of theological liberalism.

24 July 1901 Federation of the various Presbyterian Churches of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia, which joined together to form the Presbyterian Church of Australia. The structure was similar to the Federation which formed the Commonwealth of Australia on January 1 of that same year. In his inaugural moderatorial address, John Meiklejohn made it clear that the ecclesiastical union consciously reflected the political union of the Australian colonies: “We have, by forming this Assembly, formed a Court whose jurisdiction is, as regards territory, equal to, and coterminous with that of the Federal Parliament, and like it, is representative in its character.”

This union linked churches of the same denomination in different locations into one body without forming a monolithic national church. The individual state churches also kept their individual identities, rights, and privileges.

1 January 1902 Five Methodist denominations in Australia – the Wesleyan Methodist Church, the Primitive Methodists, the Bible Christian Church, the United Methodist Free and the Methodist New Connexion Churches came together to found a new church, the Methodist Church of Australasia.

April 1902 Melbourne Simultaneous Mission
(see Trove article)
Historian Stuart Piggin describes the one-month Mission as “probably the greatest evangelistic campaign in Australia’s history prior to the 1959 Billy Graham crusade.” Instigated by the Evangelisation Society of Victoria, the Mission drew in 214 churches, along with a large number of parachurch organisations. In addition to the massive city-centre events at the Town Hall and Exhibition Building in its second week, it also included fifty mission sites across Melbourne. Over 117,000 participated in prayer meetings in the six weeks prior to the Mission, over 250,000 attended the Mission events themselves (about half of Melbourne’s population at the time) and 8,624 made a profession of faith. After the first two weeks, the suburban events gave way to the city events for the last two week. The meetings were held in the Town Hall and the Exhibition Building, the latter seating 8,000 people. Up to 15,000 were trying to get in nightly.
The Southern Cross editorial, immediately before the Mission began, reads: [S]o many different Churches – Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, Baptists – agreeing for a moment to forget the things in which they differ, and to remember only their own common and supreme duty. The fact is itself a concrete and luminous prophecy, a witness to the essential and permanent unity of all Protestant Churches, a pledge of combinations in the future even greater in scale and happier in promise than that which the world now witnesses. We have a right to believe that we are on the verge of a great spiritual movement. (‘Editorial: All Things Are Now Ready’, The Southern Cross, 11 April 1902, XXI.15 edition, National Archives of Australia, State Library of Victoria)

Church leaders were positive about the vast demonstration of ecumenical cooperation.

1908 The practice of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was introduced by Fr Paul Wattson. Read about the history here.

14 to 23 June, 1910 Edinburgh Missionary Conference held in Scotland, presided over by John Mott (future WCC Honorary President), beginning modern Protestant ecumenical cooperation in missions. This inaugurated another aspect of ecumenism by dramatizing the necessity of unity and international cooperation in fulfilling the world mission of the church. Participants were from mission-minded evangelical Protestant mission societies, not churches, and mainly focussed on work among non-Christian people. Some have seen it as both the culmination of nineteenth-century Protestant Christian missions and the formal beginning of the modern Protestant Christian ecumenical movement, after a sequence of interdenominational meetings that can be traced back as far as 1854. Edinburgh is described as “one of the great landmarks in the history of the church,” and is often cited as the birthplace of the ecumenical movement.

January 1920 The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, published an encyclical “addressed ‘To all the Churches of Christ, wherever they may be’, urging closer co-operation among separated Christians, and suggesting a ‘League of Churches’, parallel to the newly founded League of Nations“. This was the first official ecclesiastical proposal for an institution expressing a worldwide ecumenical collaboration and was instrumental in the foundation of the World Council of Churches (WCC).

[As a result of this initiative, almost all Eastern Orthodox churches are members of the WCC and “Orthodox ecclesiastics and theologians serve on its committees”. Kallistos Ware, a British metropolitan bishop of the Orthodox Church, has stated that ecumenism “is important for Orthodoxy: it has helped to force the various Orthodox churches out of their comparative isolation, making them meet one another and enter into a living contact with non-Orthodox Christians”]. 

1920 Joseph Houldsworth (known as J H) Oldham, a Scottish missionary in India, and unaware of the encyclical letter referred to above, issued a memorandum for a meeting of mission leaders which stated that for any organization to coordinate international Christian mission would “probably have to give way to something that may represent the beginning of a world league of Churches’.

J H Oldham became a significant figure in Christian ecumenism. 

1921 The International Missionary Council was established in London. J H Oldham served as IMC secretary from 1921 to 1938. The IMC had its roots in the 1910 World Missionary Conference in which J H Oldham was heavily involved, and which he helped found and make effective (along with John Mott, William Paton and Abbe Livingston Warnshuis). He then played a major role in the formation of the World Council of Churches.

The IMC was instrumental in building up the structures of regional and national ecumenism. The IMC joined the WCC in 1961 when it became the Division of World Mission and Evangelism.

1925 World conference on Faith and Order at Lausanne (Switzerland), Edinburgh (1937), Lund (Sweden; 1952), and Montreal (1963) guided the process of theological consensus building among Protestants, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics, which led to approval by the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches of the historic convergence text Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (1982). The approach used in the document has been called ecclesiology of communion by ecumenical theologians, in that the sacraments are presented as a means to achieve greater Church unity.

1926 The National Missionary Council established in Australia

1937Conference on Church, Community, and State”, known as the Oxford Conference of 1937. It was at this conference that the first official decision was made to form the World Council of Churches and a committee was formed for the merger of Life and Work, and Faith and Order. The plan was for the formation to take place quite soon after 1937, but war once again intervened. It has been said that the origins of the ecumenical movement were in common Christian efforts to avoid war. It failed to do this in the years before 1914, but the Christian youth movements and the missionary movement worked incessantly during and after the WW1 to maintain contacts across the lines of battle and to help heal the wounds inflicted by war.

1937 Second World Conference on Faith and Order in Edinburgh.

1937 Church leaders agreed to establish a World Council of Churches, based on a merger of the Faith and Order Movement (under Charles Brent of the Episcopal Church of the United States) and Life and Work Movement (under Nathan Söderblom of the Lutheran Church of Sweden) organisations.

July 1939 Geneva Thirty leading Christian laymen and church leaders met and produced a document, “The Churches and the International Crisis”, which was sent to the churches and served as a basis for the ecumenical discussion on peace aims and international order in the following years. Visser’t Hooft noted that it was remarkable that already at that time an international conference spoke of “the responsibility of the whole of mankind for the whole earth”, saying, “all peoples have an interest in the wise use of the resources of individual countries and in the planning ahead for future generations”. The document also expressed the conviction that “the collective will of the community shall be used to secure the necessary changes in the interests of justice to the same extent that it is used to secure the protection of nations against violence”.

August 1941 the first meeting of the World Council of Churches in August 1941. (The outbreak of World War II delayed the formation of the WCC for seven long years)

February 1946 The Provisional Committee of the World Council of Churches, in the year after WW2 ended. The commitment to unity and peace that was offered through the World Council of Churches was considered timely.  It was decided to create a Commission on International Affairs, so that the churches could bear witness in the most united manner possible to the significance of the Christian faith for the life of the nations, at a time when the political world was in chaos “because of its failure to follow the teaching of our Lord”.

During World War II, the Geneva office of the provisional WCC enabled churches to maintain and even deepen contacts, and after WW2 this facilitated reconciliation with the German churches. The ongoing concern for the victims of war laid the foundations for the programmes of the newly constituted WCC.

1946 Establishment of the Australian Committee for the World Council of Churches which developed into the Australian Council of Churches (and in 1994 became the National Council of Churches in Australia).
The movement for Christian unity in this country was, initially, an Anglican and Protestant affair. [Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches came in, in strength, during the 1960s and 70s]

1947 The Church of South India union ceremony took place at St George’s Cathedral in Madras on 27 September 1947, a month after India achieved its independence from the Britain. The CSI was formed from the union of the SIUC, (South India United Church – itself a union of churches from the Congregational, Presbyterian and Reformed traditions); the southern provinces of the (Anglican) Church of India, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon; and the Methodist Church of South India.

1948 The World Council of Churches (WCC) met in Amsterdam from 22 August – 4 September, and was constituted on 23rd August 1948.

“Delegates from 147 churches, who had come to Amsterdam from around the world, unanimously approved a resolution `that the formation of the World Council of Churches be declared to be and is hereby completed.”

This was the result of many years of dialogue, negotiation and paperwork, and patient work.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, considered the formation of the WCC as an “act in the faith of Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

The WCC merged two arms of the International Missionary Conference – Life and Work, and Faith and Order. The focus of Life and Work was in the area of social, economic and political issues. The focus of Faith and Order was to facilitate doctrinal compromise and dialogue.

The WCC includes more than 300 churches – Protestant, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox – which “confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the Scriptures and therefore seek to fulfil together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

The Roman Catholic Church was not represented, because in June 1948 the Holy See announced that no Roman Catholic was permitted to attend the Amsterdam Assembly even when several of them were invited as observers.

The first general secretary of the WCC was Dutch theologian Willem A. Visser’t Hooft. He held this post until his retirement in 1966.

The ecumenical movement was the catalyst for the birth of united churches around the world.

1948 Formation of the Victorian Council of Churches, Australia

1952 World Conference on Faith and Order (Lund, Sweden)

‘The churches should act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately.’ 


“Should not our churches ask themselves whether they are showing sufficient eagerness to enter into conversation with other Christians and whether they should not act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately?”

1954 Second Assembly of the WCC, Evanston, Illinois, USA 15–31 August 1954

1961 Third WCC Assembly, New Delhi, 19 November – 5 December 1961

“The achievement of unity will involve nothing less than a death and re-birth of many forms of church life as we have known them. We believe that nothing less costly can finally suffice”.

1962 – 65 Second Vatican Council (Vatican II)
Pope John XXIII (+1963) and the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) brought a shift. The conciliar Decree on Ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratiom, one of the classic ecumenical teaching documents, stated that the ecumenical movement was a sign of the work of the Holy Spirit in our time, opening the way for the ecumenical movement and highlighting the importance of dialogue with separated brothers and sisters and with separated churches and church communities. This gave the ecumenical movement new hope.

Another result of Vatican II was the establishment of a wide variety of international theological dialogues, commonly known as bilateral conversations. These included Roman Catholic bilaterals with Lutherans (1965), Eastern Orthodox (1967), Anglicans (1967), Methodists (1967), Reformed (1970), and Disciples of Christ (1977). Conversations were also held with the Oriental Orthodox churches and the Assyrian Church of the East, resulting in joint statements (1992 with the Oriental Orthodox; 1994 with the Assyrian Church of the East) that resolved many of the ancient Christological disputes, although they did not result in full communion.

Another conciliar Decree, Orientalium Ecclesiarum, dedicated to the Eastern-rite Churches in full communion with the Apostolic See, made clear that the longed-for goal of full unity must not lead to a dull uniformity, but rather to the integration of all legitimate diversity in an organic communion.

1963 World Conference on Faith and Order in Montreal.  The various World Conferences on Faith and Order in Lausanne (Switzerland), Edinburgh (1937), Lund (Sweden; 1952), and Montreal (1963) guided the process of theological consensus building among Protestants, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics.

For Catholics, the 2nd Vatican Council opened up fresh possibilities for relationships with other Churches.

1969 Fourth Assembly of WCC, Uppsala (Sweden), 4 – 20 July 1968

1972 Ecumenical Dialogue between the Anglican Church and the Lutheran Church began

1975 Fifth Assembly of WCC, Nairobi (Kenya) 23 November – 10 December

22 June 1977 Formation of the Uniting Church in Australia (the churches that came into union were the Methodist and Congregational Churches and most of the Presbyterian congregations). The Basis of Union is the document that set the platform for how these churches came together. It was issued in nearly its final form in 1974. The union is notable in that the Congregational and Presbyterian churches came from a strong theological tradition of Calvinism, while the Methodist tradition was Arminian. The union of these churches therefore required a decision on the part of both sides that the issues underlying this difference were not vital to the life of the church. Expressing this in a form acceptable to the members of all three uniting denominations was one of the many challenges faced by the writers of the Basis of Union

1977 Ecumenical Dialogue began between the Uniting Church in Australia and the Roman Catholic Church.

1977 Ecumenical Dialogue began between the Lutheran Church of Australia and the Roman Catholic Church.

1978 Ecumenical Dialogue began between the Uniting Church in Australia and Churches of Christ.

1979 Ecumenical Dialogue began between the Anglican Church and the Uniting Church in Australia.

1979 Ecumenical Dialogue began between the Uniting Church in Australia and the Lutheran Church of Australia.

1981 Ecumenical Dialogue began between the Uniting Church in Australia and the Greek Orthodox Church in Australia.

These dialogues have done much to draw the Christian Churches together in Australia. See also an article Beyond Ecumenical Dialogue by Thomas Hughson.

1982 Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (approved by the Faith and Order Commission of the WCC). The approach used in the document has been called ecclesiology of communion by ecumenical theologians, in that the sacraments are presented as a means to achieve greater Church unity.

1983 Ecumenical dialogue commenced in Australia between the Anglican Church and the Churches of Christ

1983 Sixth Assembly of the World Council of Churches, Vancouver BC, Canada, 24 July – 10 August

1991 Seventh Assembly of the World Council of Churches (Canberra), 7-21 February.

The calling of the church is to proclaim reconciliation and provide healing, to overcome divisions based on race, gender, age, culture, colour, and to bring all people into communion with God. Because of sin and the misunderstanding of the diverse gifts of the Spirit, the churches are painfully divided within themselves and among each other. The scandalous divisions damage the credibility of their witness to the world in worship and service. Moreover, they contradict not only the church’s witness but also its very nature. We acknowledge with gratitude to God that in the ecumenical movement the churches walk together in mutual understanding, theological convergence, common suffering and common prayer, shared witness and service, and they draw close to one another.

The Canberra Assembly lamented those situations where “churches have failed to draw the consequences for their life from the degree of communion they have already experienced and the agreements already achieved. They have remained satisfied to co-exist in division.”

1994 Transition from the Australian Council of Churches to the National Council of Churches – NCCA (when the Roman Catholic Church joined as a full participant in the national ecumenical body).

NCCA works in collaboration with state ecumenical councils around Australia. It is an associate council of the World Council of Churches, a member of the Christian Conference of Asia and a partner of Pacific Conference of Churches and other national ecumenical bodies throughout the world. It operates through various commissions each of which deals with a specific sphere of influence.

“The National Council of Churches in Australia gathers together in pilgrimage those Churches and Christian communities which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the Scriptures and commit themselves to deepen their relationship with each other in order to express more visibly the unity willed by Christ for his Church, and to work together towards the fulfilment of their mission of common witness, proclamation and service, to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

January 21 1996 Pope John Paul highlighted the need to unite together as one body in Christ.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
We are in the ‘Week of Prayer for Christian Unity” and I gladly take this opportunity to call the attention of all believers to the ecumenical commitment that marked the Second Vatican Council. This commitment was particularly evident in the Decree Unitatis redintegratio. The Council rightly defined the division among Christians as a ‘scandal’ that ‘openly contradicts the will of Christ’ (Unitatis redintegratio, n. 1). In fact, through the gift of the Spirit, Jesus made his disciples one body, of which he himself is the Head. The Council Fathers felt the need to beg pardon of God and of their brethren for the sins committed against unity, and together they promised forgiveness for the sins of others (Unitatis redintegratio, n. 7). They urged Catholics ‘to take an active and intelligent part in the work of ecumenism’ (Unitatis redintegratio, n. 4), so that the imperfect communion which already exists between the Churches and Ecclesial Communities might soon be brought to its fullness. Above all, the Council asks us to cultivate an authentic “spiritual ecumenism”, which consists in a continuous effort of prayer and conversion (Unitatis redintegratio, n. 8).

1998 The Lutheran Church of Australia joined the NCCA.

1998 Eighth Assembly of the WCC in Harare, Zimbabwe, from 3-14th December.

2006 Ninth Assembly of the WCC (Porto Alegre) under the theme “God, in your grace, transform the world”

The Assembly noted that the churches need each other to help bring about renewal and reform.

“The relationship among churches is dynamically interactive. Each church is called to mutual giving and receiving gifts and to mutual accountability. Each church must become aware of all that is provisional in its life and have the courage to acknowledge this to other churches.”

The Statement encouraged them to “maintain dialogue in the face of differences, refusing to say ‘I have no need of you’. Apart from one another we are impoverished.”

2006 Conference entitled “Receptive Ecumenism and the Call to Catholic Learning”, setting out a new lens for ecumenical relationships.

January 2009 Conference entitled “Receptive Ecumenism and the Call to Ecclesial Learning”.

2013 Publication of the document The Church Towards a Common Vision (Faith and Order Paper No. 214)

2013 The 10th Assembly of WCC was held in Busan, Republic of Korea, from 30 October to 8 November 2013

2019 Come and See Statement (NCCA Faith and Unity)
The Statement highlighted the link between common action and the church that was born ecumenical.

“Walking together, even now while not yet fully united, can and often does build community among Christians. Very importantly, it can help to overcome a characterization of the ecumenical movement which has sometimes placed efforts to seek unity in ‘doctrine’ in competition with efforts to collaborate in ‘service’. Being together on pilgrimage implies that Christian service is rooted precisely in our common faith in God’s saving and renewing plan for the world.”

2022 The 11th Assembly of the World Council of Churches took place in Karlsruhe, Germany, from 31 August to 8 September 2022, under the theme “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity”

Various ecumenical events are supported including the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which provides a focus for shared worship and prayer. In the Southern Hemisphere, this is usually held between Ascension and Pentecost. The practice of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was introduced in 1908 by Fr Paul Wattson. Read about the long history of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity here.

Receptive ecumenism (Prof Paul Murray, Durham)
The central idea requires that churches make a programmatic shift from asking ‘what do our dialogue partners need to learn from us’, to asking ‘what do we need to learn and what can we learn from our dialogue partners’. Or simply, what can my church learn from the other? Framed this way, the question is about a willingness to be self-critical and to be open to grow through learning from others.
A paper on receptive ecumenism by Dr Gerard Kelly, NCCA Faith and Unity

“Old-style ecumenism, built on relations between representatives of various denominations, undergirded by the work of theological commissions, and aimed at visible unity, is in serious trouble today. When we look at the situation globally, more new churches are founded every day than can come together as they did in the 20th century, even assuming the best intentions, hard work, and ecumenical enthusiasm on all sides. But the situation is far more positive at grassroots level. Old denominational barriers are being broken down. New divisions are being created too, of course. The most troubling to me is the widening divide between Western and in particular American Christians, especially of the Protestant kind, and their co-religionists in other parts of the world. We need to pay much more attention to what non-Western Christians tell us, not only about the character of faith, but also about what it has to say about the neediest of this world. In any case, the future of Christianity belongs primarily to them, not to us”. (Miroslav Volf – Faith and Reconciliation: A Personal Journey)

Further reading
History of the 20th century ecumenical movement

Historical archival documents held at Deakin