The architect of the ecumenical movement of the twentieth century

Photo: Ivars Kupcis/WCC

There is a saying that “people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots”. There are undoubtedly many things we could aspire to learn when it comes to the possibilities of learning from history and the people that left a legacy of their work, setting foundations for the future in which is now our present.

On 4 June I attended a seminar on Nathan Söderblom, who is internationally best known as the architect of the ecumenical movement of the twentieth century. The seminar was held at the Ecumenical Centre and the majority of the audience were students and staff from the Bossey Institute. A statue of Söderblom was also present in the room, which created a perfect illusion of the man himself being present to listen in on what was being discussed about his life, work and achievements.

Soderblom's countryman Bishop Emeritus Jonas Jonson, who has written a biography about him, delivered a keynote speech, which was followed by a panel discussion with World Council of Churches general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit and Rev. Dr Simone Sinn, professor of Ecumenical Theology at the Ecumenical Institute and programme executive for Faith and Order.

Bishop Emeritus Jonas Jonson reflected that the Stockholm Conference in 1925, which brought together Anglican, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians, was the culminating event in Söderblom’s ecumenical efforts and perhaps also what inspired the founding of WCC in 1948.

A room full of students only meant that it was a room full of curious minds, ready to ask questions when given the chance to, while absorbing all the information. One student asked the panellists to point out which of Söderblom’s ideologies they believed were adopted by WCC.

Rev. Dr Simone Sinn responded to this question by reminding the audience that “Söderblom’s commitment to peace and overcoming nationalism while bringing people together is very similar to WCC’s strong commitment to peace, justice and no violence. These are some of Söderbloms legacies”.

Adding onto Sinn’s response, Tveit remarked that “Söderblom’s work sent the message of the need of unity and contributing to it, and this is similar to WCC’s movement”.

Jonson added the cherry on top of the other responses by stating that “always expressing love and respecting differences were the foundation of his work”.

Though he died 17 years earlier before the founding of WCC, it is evident that some ofSöderblom’sideologies indeed are applied to WCC’s work and commitments to the ecumenical movement of peace and justice.

Rev. Dr Nyambura Njoroge, programme executive of the Human Dignity, Health and Healing, Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy, posed a question to the panellists which caught my attention as she wondered that “the conference in 1925 had no women present, so how does his work of ecumenism inspire women of today who are part of the ecumenical movement? Also, when many of us share our stories of how we came to faith, many of us talk about our mothers or grandmothers. Were there any female pillars in his life that helped to articulate his faith as a young person?”

Jonson responded by saying that “Söderblom’s wife Anna was the most supportive wife but she was also a very independent person as she did not quite share his faith enthusiasm, but she admired him and kept a certain distance and never took communion in the cathedral. She was a woman of high integrity and very intellectual and she was the caretaker of Söderblom’s heritage after he died in 1931. At the age of 23, Söderblom had his own born again experience under the guidance of a woman.” This just confirms the saying “history is herstory too”. Jonson further shared that Söderblom had 10 children who really felt his absence due to his commitment to the ecumenical movement. Without a patient and supportive wife, Söderblom’s history would be different.

It was amusing to learn that there were women figures that were a part of his faith, support and achievements in the genesis of the ecumenical movement, with his overarching desire in seeking the unification of Christian churches as being a woman in today’s society, we strive for equality, justice and no discrimination, not only under the ecumenical umbrella but also in other matters which are also a part of WCC’s programmes.

The seminar concluded on a musical note with a song by Söderblom and also a song by Jonson. It was a walk down into the history of ecumenism, peering into the past and picking out nuggets that can help strengthen the ecumenical movement today through reflections on the legacies of Söderblom. Indeed, there is no life that does not contribute to history.

About the author :

Rhoda Mphande is an Australian Malawian-born who has recently relocated to Geneva. While integrating into the new community, coming from a Business and Fashion background, she joined WCC as a Communications intern, contributing to the voice of peace and justice.


The impressions expressed in the blog posts are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the World Council of Churches.