A 1967 article in The Ecumenical Review signaled high expectations for this assembly, claiming it would be “the most representative Christian assembly ever to have gathered in one place in the history of the Christian church.” The Russian Orthodox and other Eastern Orthodox national churches had joined the WCC in New Delhi, but they had not been so fully represented there as they would be in Uppsala. Ecumenical advances proceeding from the Second Vatican Council meant the advisors and observers from Rome would participate officially in greater number than in New Delhi. The decline of colonialism meant not only the independence of countries in the global South but also the multiplication of self-governing churches, many of which were joining the WCC. And deliberate efforts were being undertaken by Assembly organizers to encourage WCC member churches to include the laity, women and youth in their delegations.
Followers of the ecumenical movement had some idea what might be coming to the ancient cathedral and university town of Uppsala. In July 1966, a wide range of Christians from diverse countries and confessional traditions met in Geneva at the WCC’s world conference on church and society, addressing the theme “Christians in the technical and social revolutions of our times”. This event came to be seen as an incarnation of the spirit of change abroad in “the Sixties”, a call to question old truths and embrace visions of alternative possibilities. Most significantly, the Geneva conference demonstrated the broader representation expected of Uppsala.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was to have been the keynote speaker at the Fourth Assembly. He visited Geneva in 1967 during the planning of the event, but he was assassinated three months before the Assembly convened. Eugene Carson Blake, the new WCC general secretary, was a US church leader who was deeply involved in the civil rights movement. He moved to ensure that the issues King was to address would not be forgotten. The African-American novelist James Baldwin gave lectures in Uppsala, decrying the sin of white racism around the world. President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, long active in Christian student and lay movements, was there to draw attention to the sin of apartheid in South Africa. Oppression based on race was a recurring theme on the agenda, laying the groundwork for what would develop into WCC campaigns to combat racism, not least in southern Africa.
D.T. Niles, who as a young man had preached the opening sermon at Amsterdam, was called upon to take King’s place as a speaker in Uppsala. He called attention to the potential for great changes amid the tumult of the times. “Everywhere in our world today,” he said, “events are taking place, big and small, which reveal that God is doing a new thing among us.” In the programme of the Assembly, attention was paid to changes in the domains of communication, governance, education and public protest.
The sessions for discussion within the Assembly were formally laid out as (1) the Holy Spirit and the catholicity of the church, (2) renewal in mission, (3) world economic and social development (greatly aided by the reflections of British economist Barbara Ward), (4) towards justice and peace in international affairs, (5) worship, (6) toward new styles of living.
But in aging minds of veterans of the Fourth Assembly, principal memories today are of being engaged by a spirit of protest and change, of Baldwin and Kaunda, of economist Ward, anthropologist Margaret Mead and folk singer Pete Seeger.
Younger participants demonstrated, calling for greater involvement of young people in church decision-making. Former WCC general secretary W. A. Visser‘t Hooft remarked, “Youth performs its historical mission of confronting us brutally with the question of the meaning of our common life. When young people all over the world ask searching questions about the ultimate meaning of life, the churches should prick up their ears.” The war in Vietnam was protested, too, never far from the common mind.
Art infused the event. Nightly café performances featured stand-up comics, musicians, and dancers. Czech films produced during the “Prague Spring” challenged church dogmas and secular ideologies alike. Swedish television and BBC filmmakers worked openly on documentaries that clearly raised confrontational questions for the churches, and this at the direct invitation of the WCC’s artistic staff. One correspondent wrote, “Although words, spoken and written, dominated the assembly, the visual was evident as in no previous ecumenical gathering.”
Beyond all that, the conciliar spirit was alive at Uppsala. In the aftermath of the expansion of Orthodox participation, the inclusion of post-colonial churches and the potential for Catholic cooperation, Christians from a range of backgrounds and doctrinal emphases were learning to appreciate one another’s insights and contributions to the common cause. The ecumenical ideal seemed to be inching forward toward something like a lived unity.