One of the foundational moments in the modern ecumenical movement is an encyclical letter issued 100 years ago by the Ecumenical Patriarchate on 1 January 1920. As its opening words state, it was addressed “Unto the Churches of Christ everywhere” and sent as a letter to the leaders of key Christian churches. Its first words are an appeal to “Love one another earnestly from the heart,” quoting from 1 Peter 1:22.
The thrust of the letter is the suggestion that doctrinal differences among Christian churches do not, or at least should not, prevent “rapprochement” between Christians. Though making clear their concern about intra-Christian proselytization, the authors of the letter then go on to speak warmly and positively about the need for Christians of different churches to consider each other not as strangers, but as members of the same family and body of Christ – spelling out a number of practical ways in which this might be demonstrated publicly.
Several references in the letter make it clear that the authors were influenced in part by the then recent establishment of the League of Nations. They considered this presented a challenge that religious authorities needed to keep up with; religious leaders should not “continue to fall piteously behind the political authorities, who, truly applying the spirit of the Gospel and of the teaching of Christ, have under happy auspices already set-up the so-called League of Nations in order to defend justice and cultivate charity and agreement between the nations.”
In turn this letter from the Ecumenical Patriarchate clearly influenced some other significant Christian traditions. One of the recipients of the letter was the Archbishop of Canterbury and at the meeting of the Lambeth Conference later in 1920 an “Appeal to all Christian People” was issued by the bishops of the Anglican Communion in a resolution headed “Reunion of Christendom.”
The motif of penitence for the division of the Christian Church strongly underpinned the content of the Anglican appeal, as it spoke of “our share in the guilt of . . . crippling the Body of Christ and hindering the activity of his Spirit.” It argued that “The times call us to new outlook and new measures. The faith cannot be adequately apprehended and the battle of the Kingdom cannot be worthily fought while the body is divided, and is thus unable to grow up into the fullness of the life of Christ.” Rather more definitely than the document of the Ecumenical Patriarchate the Lambeth Appeal argued for the formal reunion of churches (though explicitly seeing the conservation of episcopacy as a condition of such reunion). Undoubtedly it gave an impetus to the schemes that eventually led to the formation of the united churches, first in South India, then in North India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Looking back on both documents from the perspective of 100 years one can give thanks for what has been achieved. Many – though not all – of the practical suggestions offered in the letter of the Ecumenical Patriarchate have formed a regular part of the programmatic work of the World Council of Churches (WCC) since its establishment in 1948, Indeed a key architect of the Patriarchate’s letter, Metropolitan Germanos of Thyateira played an ongoing role in both the Faith and Order and Life and Work movements of the 1920s and 1930s, and was elected as one of the first six presidents of the WCC at its foundation in 1948. And although the steam seems slightly to have run out of organizational unity schemes, such as were envisaged by the Lambeth Appeal, the united churches, which were part of its initial fruit, continue to bear institutional witness to the importance of Christ’s prayer of John 17, “that they may all be one . . . that the world may believe.”
Just as there were connections made between the Letter from the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the establishment of the League of Nations (something also true, though less explicit, with regard to the Lambeth Appeal), so later there would be a congruence between the establishment of the WCC and the United Nations, and to this day the WCC works closely and in partnership with many of the UN agencies.
But I note this with a certain wry sadness. Back in 1920 the hoped for secular spirit of internationalism provided an impetus to Christian unity. There were – and still are – many hurdles on both roads ahead. But now in 2020 so many countries, including my own (which in January this year left the European Union), are turning towards forms of nationalist populism, the churches perhaps need to repay that original debt from 1920, by continuing to hold before the eyes of the world an expansive vision, which summons the secular world to a generous inclusivism, “for the healing of the nations.”
* Clare Amos is a former programme coordinator for Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation at the World Council of Churches, and a former director of theological studies in the Anglican Communion Office in London.