(See also Renewing Ecumenism and An ecumenical timeline)
It is often difficult in a particular era to imagine that core assumptions about what it is to be church could be so very different in other eras. It may be surprising to some that church union was considered a gospel imperative, and to others that the roots of the ecumenical movement including the World Council of Churches are an evangelical outworking of the missionary movement.
Presbyterian history is marked by notable schisms, particularly the Disruption of 1843, but it is also marked by an at least equal sense of the importance of uniting churches around a shared understanding of what it was to be Christian. If there is a discomfort between what is sensed to be be the ethos of the church and what it is to be truly Christian, there is also a discomfort at being out of communion with those clearly part of the same religious family. Every generation has to rework these imperatives.
Dimensions of Ecumenism and the National Council of Churches (1941-1988)
The NCC founded in New Zealand during the war, was wound up in January 1988 to make way for the Conference of Churches in Aotearoa New Zealand. The CCANZ was designed to include Catholics, but its leadership generally failed to attract those with serious responsibility in its partner churches, and its rhetoric retained a capacity for alienating evangelicals who were becoming more prominent in most denominations.
In Malaysia when the time came for it to be possible to include Roman Catholics, it was achieved by the old council of churches (CCM) allowing an evangelical representative group (NECF) to emerge and function alongside it, and together they formed an overarching group, the Christian Federation of Malaysia. Groups who had difficulty working with one another were spared the challenge, and the format ensured that old networks were maintained as new ones were established. It was the sort of pragmatic wisdom which seemed to pass New Zealand ecumenical leadership by as it created a new instrument without a solid constituency after having prematurely dissolved the old.
In the history of the NCC was encapsulated the difficulty of establishing a sense of limitation around the scope of joint activity actually possible given the diverse membership and values of New Zealand Christians. These differences were cultural not just just theological and denominational.
Was the NCC to be primarily
i) a council in which churches shared their commonalities and differences seriously, where the council only spoke out of the unity of the church
ii) a mission organisation committed not only to co-ordinating the mission efforts of its member churches to avoid overlap (as in church planting in new suburbs), but to mission initiatives.
iii) a prophetic organisation exercising Christian leadership by pointing the way in justice issues.
iv) a group facilitating the union of as many of its member churches as possible
Initially the sense that being a council enabled conversations and agreed actions in all four areas, but serious caution was exercised in the sort of mission activity and the sorts of social or political comment which was made. The NCC was a Council of Churches, not a church. Despite its accusers, whatever the sympathies of its leadership for the cause of church union, other "ecumenical instruments" were created to pursue those goals.
Some leaders in the NCC has a strong commitment to pacifism, social justice, and awareness of the seriousness of the racial failures of New Zealand society. The actual views of the NCC have worn better than their ability at the time to convince rather than alienate more socially and political conservative Christians. Whether they were right or not (as over support for the WCC program to combat racism), the frequency and tone of their positions were generally assessed in terms of whether people agreed or otherwise, and the larger question as to whether the NCC was itself the appropriate vehicle for these concerns was assumed. This remains an issue for the WCC, though statements in the last decade have become more measured. The larger question is the aim of the organisation and limitations needed. Churches need a council, they also need a common voice where that is possible and appropriate. However it needs to be asked whether these two functions are compatible - a reckless commitment to the prophetic is not necessarily the answer of faith.
Need to appreciate the ecumenical currents outside New Zealand which may or may not influence New Zealanders interested. We also need to ask whether there is anything distinctive about the New Zealand patterns and what this says about our theology and culture. A number of New Zealanders have been prominent in the World Council of Churches and the Christian Conference of Asia. Have they also been influential?
Ecumenism is more than proposals for church union, it includes attention to theology as well as to practical issues of cooperation. It is more than the fellowship of the like-minded. Parachurch movements such as Youth for Christ and InterVarsity Fellowship and cross-denominational evangelical enterprises such as Scripture Union and Bible College have ecumenical functions in terms of bringing contact and understanding between churches of different traditions, even when those groups or institutions and their constituencies are more likely to show antipathy than appreciation of what the contemporary ecumenical movement is about.
Theological assumptions colour the questions we ask. If the church is an eschatological reality only and the institution is no real validity that suggests a different attitude than if one believes that the Church is the primary means by which God has chosen as the place where people discover the presence of Christ. If the eschatological church has a present reality then perhaps we are required to do more now to make that apparent.
A number of world-wide currents flow into the movement:
Missionary ecumenism from evangelistic motives and recognition of the inappropriateness of exported denominationalism. Experience of the Bible Society, later of the Temperance Movement, the theological basis of the YMCAs and YWCAs. The influence of Keswick ("All one in Christ Jesus") and faith missions such as China Inland Mission and Worldwide Evangelistic Crusade. Student Volunteer and Student Christian Movements. More recently the Billy Graham Crusades, and Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements. The openness of the Roman Catholic church to cooperation and dialogue after Vatican II.
Some of these more successful than others at connecting grass-roots ecumenism with church leadership. Continues to prove difficult to find common theological ground between different views of the church. It became easy for ecumenical leaders to live in their own world and not appreciate why good people in the pews could be with them or quite somewhere else. Not all made the transition in vision from cooperation through the National Council of Churches to a commitment to Church union.
Thoughts on the period since 1980
When the final attempts at union failed a number of difficulties were created. The Methodist Church in New Zealand had invested heavily in union, including its participation in cooperating parishes and shared theological education with the Anglicans on the St John's site in Auckland. The process of rediscovering Methodist identity is ongoing, and radical commitment to causes such as biculturalism could not sustain that role for the church, however important Methodist witness on that issue might be for other churches, especially Presbyterians. One by one the denominations who saw their future together have dismantled joint ventures like Crosslink and COMEC in the case of Methodists and Presbyterians sharing together in religious journalism and overseas mission, and St-John's Trinity as a joint facility for theological education for Anglicans and Methodists in Auckland. Those with significant ecumenical experience who can share the exhilaration and challenge of working with other Christian traditions seem more rare, and yet the majority of cooperative ventures continue.
The National Council of Churches seemed to lose a sense of what was required to make it possible to earn the loyalty of church members. A belief that the church should be prophetic translated into positions on social issues which whatever their merits confused their role as a council of churches and alienated Christians who saw things differently. The bewilderment was mutual, but the strategic failure was avoidable. It fed the hostility of those who easily saw the NCC as about politics not the Gospel.
As the CCANZ itself faded, an attempt was made and continues for a New Zealand Churches Together Strategic Thinking Group, but it seems difficult for the group to tap into a sense that this is something that churches in their leadership or membership really want to commit to. The compelling theology and scriptural passages which roused generations to action for decades no longer seem to speak into the beliefs now held about what sharing in the one body of Christ might actually require of its members.
Ian Breward, Ecumenism in New Zealand, typescript.
Allan Davidson and Peter Lineham, Where the Road Runs Out.
Allan Davidson, Christianity in Aotearoa, 2nd edition, 1997, pp.117-127, chap 12, "Bringing the churches together - ecumenism and church union"
David I. Ross, Forum of Cooperative Ventures - Aorearoa/New Zealand Ecumenical Review, July, 2002.
Alan Brash, Wikipedia; Brash interview part 1 and interview part 2.
Catholic National Commission on Ecumenism
Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, 1966, National Council of Churches, Inter-church council on public affairs
New Zealand Churches Together
Uniting Congregations of Aotearoa New Zealand (UCANZ)
World Council of Churches