Sixty years is a short time in the church calendar, but the six decades since the founding Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in August 1948, have marked incalculable changes, the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches said today.
U.S. churches played an important role in the founding of the WCC and continue to share its history, said the Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon. "This is an important anniversary for all of us."
Kinnamon called on member communions of the National Council of Churches to offer prayers of celebration for the WCC during worship services on Sunday, August 24.
The WCC was officially voted into existence on August 23, 1948, with delegates declaring, "We intend to stay together."
Kinnamon noted that the 20th century saw many ecumenical developments, including the founding of the Federal Council of Churches in America in 1908. The Federal Council became the U.S. National Council of Churches in 1950.
The ecumenical movement formed when imperial monarchs ruled much of Europe and Asia and the peoples of the southern hemisphere were dominated by foreign colonial powers, Kinnamon said. The movement saw the rise and fall of Communism, and its leaders played a decisive role in the Civil Rights movement when America was rescued from the murderous clutches of Jim Crow.
The WCC and NCC formed an important partnership during the liberation struggles of the 20th century, Kinnamon said,
The WCC's second general secretary was a U.S. Presbyterian, the Rev. Eugene Carson Blake. Blake was an activist in the American Civil Rights movement and he was instrumental in creating the WCC's Program to Combat Racism (PCR) following the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. The Rev. Dr. M. William Howard, an American Baptist and later president of the National Council of Churches, chaired the PCR.
Years later, in 1998, South Africa President Nelson Mandela came to the 8th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Harare, Zimbabwe, to declare the worldwide ecumenical movement had been instrumental in removing the scourge of apartheid from southern Africa.
Years before the WCC was officially formed, American churches helped keep the spirit of the WCC alive, Kinnamon said.
"The founders of the World Council of Churches thought the WCC would be launched 10 years earlier than it was," said Kinnamon, an ecumenical scholar and former member of the WCC's Faith and Order staff. "In September 1939 the churches of Europe ran for cover when their countries went to war against one another. It took years for the dust to settle."
During the Second World War, most of the records of the "World Council of Churches in Formation" were held in the United States for safe-keeping, by what later became the U.S. Conference for the WCC.
"The U.S. churches have the unusual distinction of being a component part that predates its parent body," Kinnamon said. "From the very beginning, the U.S. churches made it clear they believed we were all together as members of Christ's universal Church."
When delegates to the first assembly of the WCC gathered in Amsterdam in 1948, church leaders from Germany, Italy and Japan sat together with church leaders from former belligerents England, France, Canada and the U.S.
"It couldn't have been easy," Kinnamon said, "but they managed to put animosities aside in the name of Christ and church unity."
Present in Amsterdam was German Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemöller, who had been imprisoned in a concentration camp as a "personal guest" of Adolf Hitler. A founder of the anti-Nazi Confessing Church in Germany, Niemöller eased tensions at the opening assembly by persuading German delegates to confess their sins of silence or complicity during the former regime.
Influential American church leaders who reached across the aisle to former enemies included Methodist layman and Nobel Peace Prize laureate John R. Mott and Presbyterian layman and future U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles.
"From that time on, the U.S. churches -- most of them member communions of the NCC -- followed the same historical paths as our international counterparts," Kinnamon said. "Many of our Orthodox members relate to churches with headquarters in other nations -- for example, the Armenian Church of America rela tes to the the Armenian Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin in Armenia, which is a WCC member."
The president of the National Council of Churches, Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, is diocesan legate and ecumenical officer of the Armenian Church in America and a member of the World Council of Churches Central Committee, Kinnamon noted.
The Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul, whose sees include the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, is one of the world leaders paying tribute to the WCC on the occasion of its 60th birthday.
"Structurally, the National Council of Churches USA and the World Council of Churches are not related," Kinnamon said. "Spiritually, we are inseparable in our history and our goals for the future. God has blessed us with 60 productive years in the World Council of Churches, and we celebrate with gratitude and hope for the future."
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