World Council of Churches

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Councils of churches

The following article is the entry on Councils of Churches: Local, National, Regional from the revised edition of the Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement published jointly by the World Council of Churches and the Wm. Eerdmans in 2002.

12 January 2002

The following article is the entry on Councils of Churches: Local, National, Regional from the revised edition of the Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement published jointly by the World Council of Churches and the Wm. Eerdmans in 2002.

A council is a voluntary association of churches within a defined geographic area which, without compromising the distinctive identity and authority of its members, enables their sharing in common reflection and action on matters of Christian unity, faith and ethics, and in programmes of common Christian witness and service.

Councils are among the most pervasive and significant expressions of the ecumenical movement. They vary greatly in size, number of members and staff, and scope of programme, and the terminology used of them is inconsistent. Historically, many local and national councils have included cooperative missionary organizations, interchurch or non-denominational Christian organizations such as the YWCA or Bible Society, or Christian "action groups" working on specific issues such as world hunger. Such broadly based bodies are properly (though not always in practice) termed "Christian councils" or "Christian federations" rather than councils of churches.

Because councils are, properly speaking, the churches joining together in reflection and action, the tendency today is to emphasize the unique authority and role of the councils' member churches, with other bodies having associate membership or observer status. Most regional councils refer to themselves as "conferences" of churches; their membership may include also national councils and other Christian bodies. Finally, the term "local" may refer to any level from suburb or town to federal state, while "regional" indicates a large, culturally coherent geo-political area such as Africa, Latin America or the Pacific.

In principle, councils exist as servants of their member churches and have no authority apart from that granted to them by these churches. For national and regional councils these are autonomous, usually national, churches; for local councils, congregations or city or local denominational structures. The various levels of councils are structurally independent; they do not form a hierarchy in which local councils are "branches" of their national councils, which in turn make up the regional ecumenical bodies.

Modern councils must be distinguished from the "ecumenical councils" of the ancient church. These were authoritative deliberative and decision-making bodies, among churches which understood themselves to be one, on matters of doctrine and practice; modern councils are organs for common reflection, consultation and joint programming among still-separated churches. (In French and German the first meaning of the English word "council" is indicated by the terms concile and Konzil respectively, the second by conseil and Rat.)

The origin and development of modern councils

Several essential elements of modern councils were heralded by Philip Schaff in his address on "The Reunion of Christendom" to the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago; he called for a "federal or confederate union" between churches, each retaining its independence "in the management of its internal affairs" but recognizing the others as having "equal rights", and all "cooperating in general enterprises" in areas of evangelism, apologetics, social services, and social and moral reform.

The earliest national council-like structure appears to have been the Protestant Federation of France, formed in 1905; this added the dimension (crucial to councils in difficult cultural and political situations) of providing a channel for the churches' common action to preserve freedom of religious expression, and "to uphold with public authorities, where necessary, the rights of the churches in the federation". The formation of a council in Puerto Rico in 1905 is also reported.

The modern council with the most extensive programme and largest staff was also founded in this era: the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America, founded in 1908. Its constitution was typical of those of many later councils: it sets careful limits to the council's activities; it seeks actively to promote the "spiritual life and religious activities of the churches"; and it "recommends a course of action in matters of common interest". By 1910 its membership of 31 denominations encompassed the majority of Protestants in the USA. Its successor in 1950, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, subsumed the Federal Council and seven other national religious bodies (such as the National Protestant Council of Higher Education and the United Council of Church Women).

The origins of many national councils are rooted in the efforts in the early 20th century to strengthen the identity and independence of missionary-founded churches in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Cooperation between mission agencies and the new national councils enjoyed the enabling support of the International Missionary Council (IMC) at its founding meeting in 1921. (Indeed, John R. Mott considered his greatest contribution to the IMC to have been enabling the formation of these national Christian councils.) The IMC also provided the newly formed national councils with access to other international ecumenical structures.

For example, in India in 1922 the National Missionary Council became the National Christian Council of India, Burma and Ceylon, which required that 50% of the churches' representatives be nationals of their countries. In Japan a federation of churches, continuing impulses from the Conference of Federated Missions (1902), led in 1922 to the National Christian Council, which soon became an IMC member. The need for a common Christian voice in dealing with governments often provided a powerful impetus towards the formation of councils. Thus in Indonesia a "missions consulate" (1906) represented virtually all Protestant mission bodies in the Netherlands Indies in their relations with the state, and this proved to be the forerunner of the National Council of Churches in Indonesia, founded in 1950.

The number of national councils has grown steadily from only 2 in 1910 to 23 in 1928 and at least 30 by 1948, including 9 in Asia, 3 in Africa and the Near East, and 5 in Latin America. By 2001 there were at least 103 national councils, including some 25 in Africa, 15 in Asia, 10 in the Caribbean and Central America, 20 in Europe, 2 in North America, 4 in Latin America and 8 in the Pacific.

Local councils of churches exist in most towns or rural areas with a sizable mix of Christians. They have often developed to provide a more structured cooperation among local church leaders, or to sustain the initiative of laypersons who, impatient with denominational divisions, sought broader forms for fellowship and cooperation with other Christians. Such councils have played a vital role in enabling - and sometimes legitimizing - contacts across denominational lines: indeed, for many Christians, "ecumenism" means the annual Week of Prayer observance or the "interchurch food pantry", both typically sponsored by the local council of churches. Far more than national or regional councils, local councils offer opportunities for lay ecumenical leadership. One can only loosely estimate the number of such councils by "tens of thousands".

Regional councils exist in all major geo-political areas except for North America, where there are separate councils for the US and Canada. Their principal aims include helping their members to shape a common Christian response to issues of regional concern and serving as a bridge between churches and national councils in the region and global issues and worldwide organizations.

Many regional councils also have roots in the contacts fostered by the missionary and Christian youth movements in the early decades of the 1900s. On the basis of regional encounters through the World Student Christian Federation in 1907 and 1921, Asian Christians called at a 1922 WSCF meeting (Peking) for a regular "international conference in the Far East... to promote cooperation" and mutual understanding. In response to this need, the IMC proposed an East Asia regional committee; but the Asian Christians themselves preferred a more independent "East Asia conference, whereby representatives of the church can share their experience and concern, join in meditation and prayer and make common plans for participating more fully in the life of the ecumenical church". Such a conference met first in Bangkok in 1949; from its second meeting in 1957 in Prapat, Indonesia, its three secretaries worked each from their home countries of Burma, New Zealand and Ceylon, and in 1959 the East Asia Christian Conference (EACC) held its inaugural assembly in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. In recognition of its true scope its name was changed in 1973 to the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA): now headquartered in Hong Kong, it encompasses nearly 100 churches and 14 national councils of churches in 18 countries from Korea in the north to New Zealand in the east to Pakistan in the west. Its traditional concerns include justice and the healing of divisions in the human community; since 1990 it has increasingly been concerned with (the related!) issues of church unity.

The All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC), inaugurated in 1963 and based in Nairobi, has focused on issues of worship and evangelism, the search for a Christian family life in the African context and indigenization of the gospel (e.g. in 1966, a first consultation of African theologians on biblical revelation and African belief). In recent years it has worked extensively on issues of violence (especially in relation to regional wars) and justice (particularly in relation to debt relief and slavery).

The Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC), founded in 1966 and headquartered in Suva, Fiji, has emphasized themes of education, citizenship, and the relation of gospel to culture, with an increasing engagement with issues of justice (especially immigration and nuclear testing) and the protection of the environment. The Caribbean Conference of Churches (CCC), founded in 1973 and based in Barbados, includes 34 "Christian denominations" and works in 32 countries in the pan-Caribbean region. It has focused upon "the decisive action of God in Christ in terms of [Caribbean] culture, experience and needs", and the search for both unity and renewal among the churches. The Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI), founded in 1982 and based in Quito, Ecuador, culminates a long history of cooperation among Protestant missions and then indigenous churches. Including more than 150 churches and "Christian organizations" (working in areas such as youth and theological education) from 21 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, it has supported its members especially in evangelism and in their search as Christians for "a system based on justice and brotherhood". The Middle East Council of Churches (MECC), founded in 1974 and based in Beirut, with regional offices in Cyprus, links some 27 churches in a "[confessional] family" structure. It has emphasized promoting understanding and cooperation among its member churches, inter-religious relations with the predominant Muslims, and links with the global ecumenical family, as well as making a common Christian witness on issues of regional concern such as violence and justice, as well as the need for a common date of Easter. The special calling of the Conference of European Churches (CEC), founded in 1959 and headquartered in Geneva, has been enabling the churches' common participation in the spiritual and material rebuilding of a Europe shattered by the second world war. It includes some 123 churches and 25 associate organizations in all the countries on the European continent. Since 1999 the European Ecumenical Commission on Church and Society, with offices in Brussels and Strasbourg, has been integrated into CEC.

In some regions, councils with a sub-regional focus have become an important part of the ecumenical scene (e.g. the Nordic Ecumenical Council, based in Uppsala, Sweden). These help groups of churches linked by historic and cultural factors to express their distinctive identity and witness within the larger regional framework.

Regional councils have also been an important factor in indigenizing the church and developing a Christian identity rooted in local culture. Thus in 1959 retiring EACC general secretary D.T. Niles spoke of the EACC as an expression of the "growth of the church in Asia into selfhood..., the instrument of our resolve to be churches together here in Asia". And voicing their sense of "coming of age" over against the Western missionary agencies which had "planted" them, Niles called this regional council "the means by which we [Asian churches and Christians] enter into a meaningful participation in the missionary task of the church".

Membership, organization and programme of councils

Most councils began as pan-Protestant organizations (though there are early examples of Orthodox membership, such as the four Eastern Orthodox churches which entered the Federal Council in the US in 1940). Councils today typically encompass the classic "ecumenical" Protestant churches (from Brethren through Methodists, Disciples and Presbyterians to Lutherans and Anglicans) and often Orthodox churches. Others, such as Seventh-day Adventists and the Salvation Army, are also sometimes involved. There is often a significant presence of churches whose members are predominantly from minority groups (for example, the black-led churches, with their Caribbean roots, within the former British Council of Churches). Many councils today are making serious efforts to include a broader range of members, particularly from the Pentecostal and evangelical churches.

The formal basis for membership in most councils reflects the Christocentric orientation of the Protestantism of the first half of the 20th century, broadened by a Trinitarian allusion and by references to the scriptures and to the churches' divine calling to common witness and work. The following statement (used by national councils in such diverse countries as Zambia, Tonga and Austria) is typical: "The council is a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the scriptures and therefore seek to fulfill together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit". Other themes may be mentioned, such as the imperative to work for unity (as in the basis of the Council of Churches of Malaysia).

Two negative principles have helped many councils to encompass churches with very diverse theological, ecclesiological and cultural profiles. The first is that council membership does not imply that a church accepts the doctrinal positions - or even full ecclesiological status - of other member churches: councils exist precisely to help the still-divided churches understand one another and work together. Second, membership does not commit a church to specific statements and actions taken by the council: the churches retain their autonomy of judgment and action in each case. In practice, the process for shaping common statements on public issues and determining their status remains among the most complex and difficult issues faced by councils.

Though there were occasional instances of cooperation, Roman Catholic membership in local, national and regional councils was out of the question before the recognition, heralded by Vatican II's Decree on Ecumenism, that other churches are in some sense "ecclesial communities" and that it is imperative to seek cooperation with them. Roman Catholic participation is defined by the 1975 text Ecumenical Collaboration at the Regional, National and Local Levels: initiating "formal doctrinal conversations" is the prerogative of the churches themselves in their "immediate and bilateral contacts"; procedures for making public statements must leave room for member churches to define their own distinctive positions; representatives of churches "should be clearly aware of the limits beyond which they cannot commit the[ir] church without prior reference to higher authority". Within these limits, there is clear approval for the fullest possible RC involvement in councils. The decision whether to join rests with the "highest ecclesiastical authority in the area served by the council" (for national councils, the national bishops' conference); in reaching this decision there "must necessarily be communication" with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The 1993 Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism emphasizes that RC membership is not possible in councils "in which groups are present who are not really considered to be ecclesial communities".

In 1971 there was RC membership in 11 national councils; this had increased by 1975 to 19, by 1986 to 33, and by 2001 to no fewer than 58, including membership in NCCs in 16 countries in Europe, 12 in Africa, 12 in the Pacific and 11 in the Caribbean, with the remainder divided across Asia, Latin America and North America. The RCC has observer or consultant status in four countries. In addition Roman Catholics are members of three regional conferences of churches (the Caribbean, the Pacific and, as of January 1990, the Middle East). There is increasing Roman Catholic involvement in local councils of churches; for example, in 2001 an informal survey of 21 of the 41 state councils of churches in the US revealed that the Roman Catholic Church had membership in 13 and observer status in 6.

Nevertheless, councils which actively relate to the ecumenical movement incorporate only a portion of the churches within their area (for example, in the 1980s the AACC - with its 117 member churches and 19 associate Christian councils in some 38 countries - encompassed about 35% of African Christians.) Most Pentecostal, evangelical and fundamentalist churches have not sought membership, fearing inevitable association with council statements or actions with which they disagree, or generally distrusting the ecumenical movement as being "too progressive" theologically in matters of social witness, or believing that councils tend towards the creation of a "super-church", so that membership would inevitably compromise their own freedom of judgment and witness. Often such churches form their own organs for agreed forms of Christian witness and action, and these may cooperate selectively with councils and with other churches in specific areas, for example in making a common Christian representation on matters of religious freedom (e.g. the Christian Federation of Malaysia, which includes the Council of Churches of Malaysia, the Roman Catholic Church, and an alliance of evangelical churches).

Councils have adopted many forms of governance. Typically there is a general assembly, meeting every one to three years to set broad programmatic guidelines; a governing board of church representatives meeting every year or two for detailed programmatic and personnel oversight; an executive committee; and steering committees in such areas as faith and order, evangelism, world service and family life. Council staffs range from a few volunteers to 100 or more full-time ecumenical professionals. Councils are usually financed by contributions from their member churches, though some receive significant funds from government or other secular sources in support of "community service" programmes. Most councils receive insufficient support to provide the programmes and services which their member churches ask them to provide.

Council programmes and activities vary greatly. Almost every council promotes common worship and spiritual life among their members. A few councils in the most affluent countries conduct extensive national and even international operations; they have a larger programme and staff than some of their member churches. Others with more limited financial and personnel resources restrict themselves to specific areas. Many councils emphasize programmes of aid or relief in the face of natural disasters, or the continuing social disasters of chronic poverty and unemployment, drug abuse or juvenile delinquency. Councils have been very active in common witness where a divided Christian voice would be less effective (e.g. prison and hospital chaplaincies). Many councils encourage evangelism (though its practice is understood to be the prerogative of the churches themselves, hopefully working in consort); and many have publishing programmes, particularly of worship materials and Christian analyses of local issues. Some councils promote interfaith dialogue, helping their churches relate responsibly to other faith communities; others are called upon to represent their member churches in dealings with the government. Sometimes councils feel duty-bound to speak out in support of human rights, or to criticize unjust social structures; such prophetic witness often has its price (a dramatic example being the 1987 expulsion of the CCA from Singapore).

Some councils have traditionally dealt more zealously with the divisions of society than with the theological and cultural divisions within and among their own member churches. But recently, many councils are giving more attention to the "difficult" questions of faith and order, and to helping members to discuss their differences of doctrine, church order and moral teaching. This has been an important point of contact with the broader ecumenical movement, as for example many councils have used the WCC's Faith and Order text Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry as a basis for shared reflection.

Councils have developed extensive contacts with one another for sharing of information and for mutual support. Regional councils have sought close working relationships with the WCC; and many national councils have sought "associate council" status with the WCC. Three international consultations for national councils of churches have been held, in Geneva in 1971 and 1986, sponsored by the WCC, and in Hong Kong in 1993, held under the auspices of the national councils themselves, with strong WCC and RC participation. In 1982 the WCC, together with the Roman Catholic Church, held an important consultation on the ecclesiological significance of councils.

Enduring issues and future challenges

Councils at all levels face certain enduring issues. First is the nature of their relationship to their member churches: do the councils exist only to serve the churches, enabling their more effective witness in certain carefully defined areas; or must they sometimes lead the churches by calling them prophetically back to the search for unity, common witness and service? The churches have an essential and legitimate concern for their unique ecclesial status, and the councils must remain their servants. But if the churches cling to their present structures and divided identities or fail to bring a common Christian witness to bear on crucial issues of the day, then is it not the councils' duty - precisely as their faithful servant - to challenge them to a deeper and more costly ecumenical commitment?

This issue often comes to sharp focus on issues of participation in councils (e.g. the controversy in the early 1990s around the application of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches for observer status in the US National Council of Churches) or over council statements on controversial public and ethical issues such as abortion.

A second, related issue is that of the ecclesiological significance of councils of churches. Recent ecumenical discussion has placed this squarely within the context of the churches' search for unity. The first international consultation of national councils in 1971 emphasized that theological work for unity is not an "extra" beside the practical work of councils, but is "the real basis for their common witness and action"; and that although councils lack an independent ecclesiological status, they are nevertheless "instruments" which enable crucial ecclesiological developments to occur among member churches. The 1982 consultation emphasized the role of councils as instruments of the churches' "irreversible" commitment to unity among themselves; councils are but "interim expressions of unity" shared by churches already committed to each other and to their common search for unity. The subsequent consultations of councils of churches have re-inforced these ideas, emphasizing the need for common reflection and action appropriate to the local context.

Councils, then, offer an environment in which churches and ecclesial communities "provide each other with the means to grow together towards full ecclesial status, each helping the other to acquire what it lacks"; in their "communion of mission, witness and prayer the full koinonia [of the churches in a truly conciliar state] is seen in profile and forecast". This means that membership in a council "expresses a commitment to practise some real measure of mutual recognition and reconciliation at every level of church life". This ascribes to councils a real, though carefully limited, ecclesiological significance, one unthinkable a few decades ago. But such a purely "instrumental" understanding does not satisfy those Christians who have experienced their foretaste of unity through the life and work of councils rather than - if not in spite of - the structures of their still-divided churches.

A third issue confronting councils is the continuing search for a truly adequate form for their life and work. In the past 25 years several national councils have entered adventurous schemes of re-organization. For example, in Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia, Britain and Canada, one major aim was to enable the fuller participation of the Roman Catholic Church. In some cases, most strikingly the USA, the need to re-align programmatic and financial aspects of the council's life has been an insistent factor.

Such re-organizations may yield creative new insights for councils of churches. In Britain, for example, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland is the coordinating body for regional ecumenical instruments in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. This grew out of a broadly inclusive process, "Churches Together in Pilgrimage", launched in 1985 as a response to the failure of several church union schemes and the positive experience of many Christians worshipping and working together across denominational lines in local ecumenical projects (now partnerships). It is rooted in churches' resolve to move, in Cardinal Basil Hume's words, "quite deliberately from a situation of cooperation to one of commitment to each other". Given this, the new ecumenical instrument need not be a force "outside" the churches, but an expression of their own will towards unity. It was suggested that the new instrument would not develop its own "programmes", but rather ensure that the churches' existing programmes were pursued together rather than separately. Thus there could be a shift from "ecumenism as an extra which absorbs energy" to "ecumenism as a dimension of all that [the churches] do which releases energy, through the sharing of resources" (Robert Runcie).

The new Conference of Churches in Aotearoa New Zealand (1987) raises a fourth issue: the proper participation of the whole people of God in their life and work. This was a major theme at the second international consultation of national councils (1986), which went so far as to refer to an "imperative towards participation" and to identify as an "urgent challenge" the need "to create a context within which their member churches may challenge each other [towards] fuller participation... in their koinonia of confession, worship and action". This challenge was taken up boldly in Aotearoa New Zealand; its new ecumenical body sought a much greater participation of persons normally under-represented in church decision-making structures, particularly laypersons, women and youth, and has committed itself to inclusive and participatory styles of work, to consensus styles of decision making, and to a decentralized structure.

The results and implications of these new ventures are not yet clear. The British scheme has been very successful in expressing the churches' desire for unity and their understanding of councils as servants of their members (to the point that the new council should not issue public statements in its own right at all, but only "enable" the churches themselves, when they agree, to speak a common word). This raises the question of how independent a council must be in order to maintain its own identity, and to challenge its members should their enthusiasm for unity and prophetic witness falter. The new body in Aotearoa New Zealand has been very successful in expressing the desire of the people of God for fuller participation (to the point that its first three presidents were all laypersons, and its first three co-general secretaries women), but through the 1990s this bold alignment has come under severe strain. This raises the question of how independent a council can be and still maintain sufficient contact with its members' traditional structures to be taken seriously by them.

In a complex and changing ecumenical situation, three developments are of special interest for the future. First, many councils are emphasizing anew the fact that they "belong to", and exist "for", their member churches; councils understand more clearly that their role is not to exist apart from the churches but to encourage and enable them to express their common faith, life, witness and action within the local, national or regional context. While councils continue, and indeed intensify, their engagement with issues of justice and witness, this has been complemented by an increased concern for related issues such as church unity and common worship. Second, in a few cases, particularly in Europe and North America, a council's diaconal programmes of social relief and development work have separated themselves from the council, forming a new structure. These function increasingly as independent aid agencies, with the council on longer serving to channel and coordinate the churches' efforts in this area. It is unclear whether this trend will spread, and what its long-term implications will be. Third, many councils are finding interfaith issues to be an increasingly important part of their agenda. Depending on the context this may involve engagement in interfaith dialogue, working with other living faiths to promote reconciliation, or seeking common cause on issues of mutual concern (for example, freedom of religious expression, human rights, or the protection of the environment). In some contexts, particularly in Europe and North America, this has re-opened the debate about the nature - and membership - of councils of churches.

The future of councils of churches is at once uncertain and hopeful. They often face unclear or even conflicting expectations about their identity and role. They may become frustrated at what seems the snail's pace of the churches towards unity. And finally they are dependent upon the ecumenical enthusiasm, commitment and (sometimes severely) shrinking financial means of their members. Particularly since about 1990 many councils have faced increasing, sometimes severe pressure as their member churches could not maintain earlier levels of support. This has led some councils to "re-structure" or "rationalize" their finance and operations, often according to then-current secular management principles, usually with the result that the same programmatic load has to be carried by fewer staff.

Yet councils are an essential expression of the ecumenical movement. Ecclesiologically speaking, they embody (in however imperfect a form) the divided churches' calling to be together the church in each place. Practically speaking, they enable the divided churches to reflect together on issues which divide them, and to work together day-by-day. They will remain necessary as long as the churches remain divided, for they provide a precious "space" in which the churches' common life, reflection, witness and work is "normal", and it is their continuing state of division which is the "problem". They confirm the words of the great ecumenical pioneer J.H. Oldham, who wrote in 1922 of the nascent national Christian councils around the world: "If our unity is real, and we have a common purpose, these must express themselves through some visible organ."

THOMAS F. BEST

A. van der Bent, "National and Regional Councils and Conferences of Churches", in Handbook of Member Churches of the World Council of Churches, A. van der Bent, ed., WCC, 1985 / T.F. Best ed., Instruments of Unity: National Councils of Churches within the One Ecumenical Movement, WCC, 1988 / M. Conway, "Kirchen- und Christenräte", in Ökumene Lexikon: Kirchen, Religionen, Bewegungen, H. Krüger, W. Löser & W. Müller-Römheld eds, Frankfurt-am-Main, Lembeck & Knecht, 1987 / Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Vatican City, 1993, paras 166-71, pp.79-80 / Directory of Christian Councils, 4th ed., WCC, 1985 / Ecumenism at the National Level: The Hong Kong Consultation [of National Councils of Churches], ER, 45, 3, 1993 /"Rethinking the Role of Christian Councils Today: A Report to Churches and Councils", ER, 23, 4, 1971 / R. Rouse, "Movements of Formal Ecclesiastical Co-operation", in HI-I / F. Short, "National Councils of Churches", and H.-R. Weber, "Out of All Continents and Nations: A Review of Regional Developments in the Ecumenical Movement", in HI-II.

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