A Quick Primer on the National Council of Churches
The modern ecumenical movement, of which the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA is a major leader, began some 150 years ago with the advent of youth organizations such as the Young Women’s Christian Association, the Young Men’s Christian Association, and the World Student Christian Movement.
This was the idealistic side of the movement for Christian unity. Young people saw no good reason not to work in a unified manner rather than through denominational entities, and they believed Christians should be one in Christ.
There was another side, as well. When the Congress of Berlin convened in 1885 to divide up Africa, Latin America, the Pacific Islands, the Caribbean, and Asia among the nations of Europe, churches followed along in order to Christianize the ‘heathens.’
Protestants, too, divided up the world among their denominations. This required ecumenical cooperation and sparked a huge missionary movement. In the United States, denominations assumed responsibility to Christianize various Indian tribes and immigrant groups. Little thought was given to the attitudes of cultural superiority and degrees of implicit racism involved in this effort.
Is it harder to be idealistic today? I do not know, but I pray that the ecumenical movement can be transformed by a new wave of commitment to ideals that are not wrong for being difficult.
The ecumenical movement spawned two streams known as ‘Faith and Order’ and ‘Life and Work.’ The Faith and Order stream studied church-dividing issues such as interpretations of baptism, eucharist, and ministry, while Life and Work stressed interdenominational collaboration to alleviate hunger and poverty and to achieve social progress, guided by the vision of God’s kingdom or reign.
Joint denominational efforts led to the creation of councils of churches at local, regional, and national levels, forums in which dialogue and partnership could take place. In 1908, the Federal Council of Churches came into being. The Social Creed adopted at the same time represented part of the Social Gospel’s approach to that ‘Christianizing’ mission, focused on protecting bodies as well as saving souls. Those concerns for labor rights, full employment, and social security grew through two world wars and the Great Depression in between. In 1950, the Federal Council of Churches and nine other organizations such as the International Council on Religious Education, the Foreign Missions Conference of North America, and the Home Missions Council of North America came together to create the National Council of Churches (NCC).
In addition to owning and administering the copyright of the Revised Standard Version and the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the NCC, through its Committee on the Uniform Series, produces a Sunday School curriculum. Updating the King James Version was a major scholarly achievement and one that deepened ecumenical cooperation at the seminary and university levels. Christian Education, through the aforementioned Sunday school curriculum, was to reflect those gains in understanding.
In the 1950s, the Council began to confront its own racism and its complicity in the racism that plagued the nation.
In the 1950s, the Council began to confront its own racism and its complicity in the racism that plagued the nation. African-American Baptist and Methodist denominations pushed the NCC to become active in the civil rights movement.
During these same years, international concern over the nuclear arms race arose, and the churches assumed a front-line stance in favor of disarmament. As in the case of civil rights, efforts that questioned the Cold War framework were not undertaken casually. Study, debate, and more education were required. Opposition to nuclear weapons remains a major concern of the Council, even as gun violence and terrorism have also become serious concerns.
In the 1960s, the tragedy of the Vietnam War gripped the nation and the churches. The NCC steadfastly opposed the war and worked for its end. The churches have been pillars of the movements for civil rights and peace; for environmental justice; against apartheid; for the rights and dignity of all persons; for an end to mass incarceration; and for the rights of refugees, immigrants, and working people.
Our churches worship God, educate children and youth, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked refugee, and seek to free the oppressed. We recognize that mercy and justice go hand in hand.
Today, we work closely not only with one another but with people of other faiths who comprise a growing percentage of the United States population.
Today, we work closely not only with one another but with people of other faiths who comprise a growing percentage of the United States population. In recent months, the US and Cuban Councils of Churches have celebrated a new era in US-Cuba relations; the US, Canadian, and World Councils of Churches held a consultation on evangelism in North America; the NCC worked closely with the Black Methodist Coalition in response to the tragic shootings in Charleston, SC; and a major gathering of Bible publishers and the NCC took place to begin work toward a further revision of NRSV Bible translation, which remains the scholarly standard.
Writing for a publication supported by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I want to express my gratitude to your church for being a central actor in the ecumenical movement and in the life of the NCC. It is in the DNA of Presbyterians to work closely and well with other Christians. At this time, too, your denomination and others have begun to work more with people of other faiths. But what is the inspiration for this cooperative work going forward?
I would end by looking to the idealism of many young adults today, remembering the internationally-minded young people who sought to change the world for Christ in the 19th century and who founded many ecumenical organizations. The world has indeed changed in many, many ways, and God’s redemptive energy is still present, calling to the church to serve in Christ’s way. Is it harder to be idealistic today? I do not know, but I pray that the ecumenical movement can itself be transformed by a new wave of commitment to ideals that are not wrong for being difficult. And I pray that our churches may stand together, receptive to God’s Spirit, to help our whole society bend toward God’s reign, on earth as it is in heaven.
AUTHOR BIO: Jim Winkler, United Methodist by tradition, is the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.