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Friday October 6 2017

Looking Back: Edinburgh 1937

An account of an ecumenical conference held in the Scottish capital which brought together church leaders from all over the world.

THE disunion in the Christian Church has long been a cause of profound grief to all sincere Christians and an opportunity for taunting reproach to unbelievers.

It is accordingly a matter for rejoicing that an impulse from the great missionary movement should have stirred the Christian Churches through the whole world to do something definite to overcome their divisions. The condition of the world before, and more especially, after the war added urgency to the imperative call of the Spirit for the restoration of united fellowship among the different branches of Christ’s Church. So the Faith and Order and the Life and Work movements came into being with the object of enlisting every separate Christian Church in a concerted effort to rediscover the way to unity.

The particular province of Faith and Order was doctrine and worship. It held its first great conference in Lausanne in 1927, the result of which was firmly to establish the movement and encourage its sponsors to cherish their ambitions and persevere in their endeavours. The ten years that have elapsed since Lausanne have been full of quiet but constructive work in preparation for the Second World Conference, which was held this year, in August, in Edinburgh.

From many Lands and many Churches

This Edinburgh Conference brought together 414 delegates from 122 Christian communions in 43 different countries. It had therefore some right to be termed “œcumenical.” But its strength was not merely in numbers and variety. Among the delegates were many of the leading theologians of the day, and its proceedings were directed by one who has earned the respect and confidence of Christians of all denominations – Dr. Temple, Archbishop of York. The Roman Catholic Church declined the invitation to send representatives, though it had an observer present; and another notable absentee was the German Evangelical Church. The Germans were anxious to attend; but their government refused them the necessary passports.

For fully a fortnight this Conference deliberated on the great questions of faith and order. The arrangements made for effective discussion and frank expression of every point of view were admirable, and reflected much credit on those responsible. Where there was divergence of views, no attempt was made to conceal it. But it was most heartening to see candour coupled with charity. It should be generally admitted that this was a Conference of generous-minded men.

The Measure of Agreement

Taking a broad view of the Edinburgh Conference, surely it can be said to have fulfilled every hope build upon it. None but the wildest optimist can have expected it to conjure any complete plan for Reunion out of its deliberations. In effect, no such plan emerged, even in outline. What did emerge was something quite different, but something without which any plan of this sort would not be worth the paper it was written on.

As the Conference proceeded, it became more and more apparent that underlying and permeating all the differences within the Church of Christ there was a real unity of spirit. This Conference, so variously compounded, embracing bodies so dissimilar as the Orthodox and the Friends, or the Chinese and the Americans, triumphantly demonstrated that in the deepest matters of God and the soul, Christians the world over are atone.

It is perfectly true that there are still important points on which there are differences of opinion not to be minimised or disguised; nor until these are resolved, or at least reduced, will all Christians be completely at ease in each other’s company. But, in the main, these refer to matters of Church constitution, such as the interpretation and administration of sacraments and the qualifications for the ministry. The man-in-the-street will not hold it seriously against the Edinburgh Conference that it reached no complete agreement on points like these, when he is able to set over against them the measure of unanimity it did reach on the profound issues that confront him as a human being with a life to live and a soul to be saved.

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