The Church as an Ecumenical Society
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[ 497 The Church as an Ecumenical Society TSE delivered this unpublished address as a delegate to the World Conference of Churches, held in Oxford from 12 to 26 July 1937 on issues concerning its theme, “Church, Community and State.” Invited to be a delegate and speaker by organizer J. H. Oldham, TSE was the first of three plenary speakers under the session title “The Ecumenical Nature of the Church and its Responsibility toward the World,” presented in the Town Hall, 5:00-6:30 p.m. on the fifth day of the Conference, 16 July. The Rt. Rev. V. S. Azariah, the first Bishop of Dornakal, South India, presided. TSE’s address was reported in The Times of 17 July under the heading “The Church and the World / Problem of Common Social Action” (18), and in the Church Times of 23 July in an article entitled “Church, Community and State / A Busy Week at the Oxford Conference” (83). I have been asked to speak on “The Church as an Ecumenical Society,” with special reference to the admirable mise au point by Dr. Visser ’t Hooft in pp. 88-95 of the book “The Church” by himself and Dr. Oldham.1 In speaking to this question, one might equally well be speaking with concern for “Faith and Order” and for “Life and Work.”2 What I have to say bears upon the relation of these two fields of exploration. What is the relation of “Faith and Order” to “Life and Work”? What is the relation of re-union to social action? I wrote: “I prepare these words without knowing what subjects will have been threshed out during the first four days of the conference; and I must therefore risk saying what may have already been said.” My question is: what is the relation of common belief to common social action? It is perhaps worth mentioning at the beginning something that is when mentioned quite obvious, that the question of common action amongst various communions is preceded by the question of common action within one communion. For I do not believe that there is a single Christian community to-day – not excepting the Roman Catholic – which has, within the realm of social action, solved the question: to what action are we all as common believers committed? and in what are differences of private judgment permissible? The question of War and Peace, of absolute and relative Pacifism, is the most conspicuous. Not one communion, I venture to say – and my own is not one of the least divided – has any unanimous opinion about the relation of the temporal and the spiritual power. I only mention this, to remind you of the obvious fact that before the various communions Essays, Reviews, Commentaries, and Public Letters: 1937 498 ] can agree completely, each must agree with itself. Each must decide for itself what is obligatory for its members, and what may be left to private judgment. But meanwhile, we may still ask, what cooperation is possible between the various branches of the Christian Church? There are two kinds of cooperation which I think should be clearly distinguished . First, when Christianity is persecuted as such. I have no need to give instances, and indeed it is better not. In resistance to oppression which bears upon all because of what all have in common – however difficult it may be to formulate in theological terms what that common belief is – different communions may be drawn together. I would not say that under such continued oppression, these different communions might not tend to divest themselves of unessential differences between themselves; I would not say that under such continued pressure, if continued long enough, they might not tend towards a common mentality and temperament. Nevertheless, I would say that the cooperation and sympathy of churches under positive oppression, is a phenomenon limited by these circumstances anddependentuponthem;andthatitisaverydifferentthingfromthesearch for common grounds of action when all are enjoying liberty. Combinations formed against a common enemy, may only last as long as the enemy remains strong – and common. Let us therefore ignore the possibilities of common action under oppression , and ask: what common social action is possible for the churches in a condition of freedom when none has any great advantage over another in relation to the secular world? What I wish to insist upon is the absolute difference between common action in a crisis, that is, at a moment when all Christianity seems threatened, and common action of a steady and positive kind...