In contemplating a first WCC assembly in continental Europe, organizers faced the question of how fellowship could be reestablished among citizens of countries so recently at one another’s throats. Protestant leaders meeting in October 1945 debated and adopted the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt, confessing that shared suffering among the people of a nation implies there also is shared guilt. In the words of the declaration, “We accuse ourselves for not witnessing more courageously, for not praying more faithfully, for not believing more joyously and for not loving more ardently.” Among the ecumenical leaders who argued in favour of this basis for reconciliation were W. A. Visser ‘t Hooft, Karl Bath, Martin Niemoeller and other former activists in the Confessing Church.
Attempts to attract Assembly participation from Orthodox Churches in the evolving Eastern Bloc countries were not as successful. And the process would be disrupted by developments in China, Korea and throughout the international community. It would take more than a decade of church diplomacy, and a relaxing of national anxiety, before Eastern Orthodox Churches would join the WCC at the Third Assembly in New Delhi.
Ramifications of war have been among the key forces that shape the direction of the modern ecumenical movement. The Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910 was a seminal event in the birth of this movement, and there was widespread enthusiasm afterwards for the formation of a council for the coordination of missions; however, the First World War shifted the focus of Christians over the coming decade. In a parallel experience, plans for a world council of churches, combining responsibilities for “Faith and Order” and “Life and Work”, were laid in 1937 and 1938; because of another global conflagration, the First Assembly of the WCC had to wait until the summer of 1948.
The founding member churches numbered 147, represented at the First Assembly by 351 voting delegates. The great majority of these churches were located in Western Europe and North America. Only 30 of the founding churches were from Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Planners had adopted the assembly theme “Man’s disorder and God’s design”. The chaotic state of postwar conditions was evident all around, but what message might the churches have regarding a divine purpose and role in daily life?
Encouraging study of the contemporary situation in the light of Christian traditions, the World Council of Churches in Process of Formation produced volumes of scholarly articles for study in churches and
theological faculties. The areas of discussion, mirroring the Sections that would deliberate at the Assembly, fell into the categories (1) the universal church in God’s design, (2) the church’s witness to God’s design, (3) the church and the disorder of society, (4) the church and the international order.
Some conclusions on these topics now seem rudimentary, often calling for further dialogue among the churches. Perhaps the underlying theme of this first assembly was that there was much more to be done, and that it must be undertaken by Christians pledged to unity.
Although women delegates to the First Assembly were few in number, Kathleen Bliss of the Church of England chaired the assembly committee on the laity and was a member of the Message committee. The Amsterdam Message deserves its place in the collection of essential ecumenical documents. Early in the discussion of its drafting, Bliss suggested a phrase that became the best-known line to come out of the First Assembly: “We intend to stay together.”
Studies on the nature of the church would provide rich opportunities for ecumenical theology, and ecclesiological progress would continue with the WCC’s Toronto Statement of 1950. The call for unity in mission, evangelism and the education of lay people explored a dimension of unity that would be formalized years later with the union of the WCC, the International Mission Council and eventually the World Council on Christian Education. The ideal of a “responsible society” was one step along the way of ecumenical social thought, leading toward additional insight as the demographics of the fellowship broadened. We continue to ponder the implications of First Assembly statements in the social sphere, not least the assertion that war is “contrary to the will of God”.
War in Europe was in the minds of ecumenists at Amsterdam: a recent, terrible war and the looming potential for violence between East and West. The Eleventh Assembly of the WCC, the third held in Europe, convenes in the shadow of a devastating war between Russia and Ukraine. Once again, people and churches are arrayed on opposing sides. As in Amsterdam, those attending the assembly ask themselves, “What can we say? What can we do? Can we hope to make a genuine difference? In the face of such disorder, how are we to proclaim God’s design?”