Conference Report: “Ecumenical Cooperation and World Politics”. The 2016 Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte/Contemporary Church History Conference

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Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 22, Number 4 (December 2016)

Conference Report: “Ecumenical Cooperation and World Politics”. The 2016 Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte/Contemporary Church History Conference, Helsinki, October 26-28, 2016

By Robert P. Ericksen

On Oct. 26-28, 2016, Professors Aila Lauha and Mikko Ketola of the Theological Faculty at the University of Helsinki hosted an international conference on the topic, “Ecumenical Cooperation and World Politics.” This conference also served as the annual meeting of Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte, with the papers to be published in that journal in 2017.

Sessions at this conference focused primarily on the twentieth century, a time when conflicts ranged from World War I and World War II to the Cold War and its occasional outbreaks of considerable violence. This also was the period in which Christian churches struggled to overcome centuries of bickering among themselves with a push toward international ecumenism. Could Christians working together reduce the scourge of war? Could ecumenical Christians help resolve the problems of racism, colonialism, or the social and cultural changes embodied in Western modernity?

These would have been very large questions to resolve in a two-day conference. Within those constraints, however, sessions probed a few specific examples within the ecumenical experience. Also, given the setting in Helsinki, there emerged a slight Nordic tilt to the proceedings, with four of the fourteen presenters describing Nordic actors within the broader ecumenical movement. One further distinction within the program bears mention. The two main days of the conference were divided between a first day focused on “Ecumenical responsibilities—dreams, utopias and realities,” and a second day on the more sobering subtheme, “Ecumenism facing the challenges of nationalism, chauvinism and extremism.”

Andrea Strübind delivered the first paper of this conference, “The International Fellowship of Reconciliation as an ecumenical and interfaith forerunner for human rights.” Two founders of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FoR), the German pacifist Friedrich Siegmund-Schultze and the English pacifist Henry Hodgkin, met on 3 August 1914, the day before Great Britain entered World War I. These two men committed themselves to the principle that Christian nations should not turn to war against each other. Although they had little or no chance of stopping the carnage to come, they created an organization that still exists and now can be seen as a precursor of and participant in the broader ecumenical movement. Strübind focused her paper on a little-researched aspect of the FoR—its influence on the American Civil Rights Movement. As early as the1930s, the FoR began bringing Gandhi’s tactic of non-violent civil disobedience to questions of civil rights and economic rights in the United States. Bayard Ruskin, for example, a later ally of Martin Luther King, Jr, began working fulltime for the FoR in 1942 and pursued this theme. In the mid-1950s, Glenn Smiley, a Methodist pastor and a representative of the FoR, moved to Montgomery, Alabama. He and the FoR helped develop and train activists in the non-violent tactics that proved successful in the Montgomery bus boycott and then spread across the South.

Gerhard Besier followed with a paper on “80 Years WCC—Theological, Political and Societal Ambiguities.” The “ambiguities” involve the ways in which ecumenism gets caught up in issues that seem unavoidably political and/or cultural, rather than simply religious. For example, when the interwar ecumenical movement tried to deal with German Protestantism after 1933, it first tried to work with the official church leadership. Gradually, however, Barth, Bonhoeffer, and others convinced ecumenists to accept the point of view of the Confessing Church, with its rejection of radically Nazi elements within the official Protestant Church. That led to the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt in 1945, followed by early postwar efforts to rebuild and strengthen ecumenism. Quickly, however, the Cold War impinged and once again ecumenical Christians faced political questions. John Foster Dulles, an active lay person and son of a Presbyterian minister, imagined the Federal Council of Churches (FCC, later the NCC) working within the WCC toward “a just and durable peace” in the American mold. The Czech theologian, Josef Hromadka, argued that socialism should be understood as the truly Christian stance. Some theologians in Eastern Europe both collaborated with their own regimes and critiqued the WCC as a voice for NATO. Participation by the Russian Orthodox Church established in the 1960s added further questions about the mix of politics and religion. On the one hand, one might hope that ecumenical Christendom could find a prophetic voice based upon Christian values. In the worst case, however, some might see Christian ecumenism as a theology of convenience, bent to the need for getting along.

Gerhard Ringshausen’s presentation gave a partial answer to Besier’s question. On the topic, “George Bell’s political engagement in ecumenical context,” he describes the Bishop of Chichester’s response to the “German question” before and during World War II as both theological and political. Totalitarian restraint on freedom to preach must be opposed, he said. An “ethic of peace” should include equal dignity for all. Bombing policy should make a distinction between military and civilian targets. While consistent with Christian values, these choices can also be built upon natural law. Bell gave the November Pogrom of 1938 a theological response, however, with the suggestion that non-Aryan pastors and their wives should be welcomed in England as members of the Christian community in need.

The next session grew out of a research program for PhD students directed by Aila Lauha at the University of Helsinki, “The Ecumenical Movement and Cold War Politics.” The title of this session expressed the essence of an underlying theme for ecumenism: “Can the World Council of Churches Change the World?” The conditional answer presented by products of Lauha’s program seems to be, at least in limited ways, yes. Juha Meriläinen presented on “The Reconstruction of European Churches as a WCC Programme.” War had left Europe with massive destruction. Early American attitudes exacerbated this, with, for example, a sign at a U.S. military canteen in 1945 in Berlin: “Do not feed the civilians. Put what you do not eat into the garbage can.” The Americans soon changed their minds, however, as President Truman worried about saving Europe from the USSR. One result was the Marshall Plan, which poured American aid into postwar Europe. W.A. Visser ‘t Hooft and the WCC also saw human need in postwar Europe. The WCC did its part, with a program that invested $6.2 million, a sort of counterpart to the Marshall Plan. Matti Peiponen spoke on “The Commission of the Churches on International Affairs,” judging it a success, especially in the early postwar years. It had a voice in the WCC and also in the UN. In the latter case, this commission made sure that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights included the right to freedom of thought, expression, and confession, rather than merely the “freedom to worship,” as preferred by the USSR. Antti Laine spoke on “The Programme to Combat Racism.” Here he brought the story forward by two decades, reflecting on the WCC Assembly at Uppsala in 1968, a meeting where Martin Luther King’s place on the list of speakers fell to his assassination that spring. The turbulence implicit in King’s assassination spoke to a new world, with widespread activism among young people and with questions about racism in the United States as well as other parts of the world. The WCC focus on race advocated action, not just discussion, and the action included controversial grants made to sometimes radical organizations opposed to racial injustice. These sessions on WCC programs provoked a lively discussion in the Q and A, especially involving the question of theology, which was de-emphasized (if not actually banned) at Uppsala in 1968. According to Laine, however, leaders of the WCC considered their program against racism a success, proving the Christian ecumenical movement to be a credible player amidst the widely accepted idea that racism represented an evil to be opposed.

Katharina Kunter stayed in the decade of the Uppsala Assembly for her final presentations on this first day, “Revolutionary Hopes and Global Transformations: The World Council of Churches in the 1960s.” She actually called her timeframe the “long decade” of the 1960s, beginning as early as the mid-1950s and continuing well into the 1970s. Uppsala in 1968 represented a turning point. A Theology of Liberation developed in the 1970s. White men in the WCC were replaced by increasing numbers of women and people of color. Collective human rights replaced the Western emphasis on individual human rights. The geographical locus began shifting from west to east and from north to south. Some conservatives in Europe and the United States viewed this as the end of Christianity in Christian ecumenism. Some churches withdrew their membership. Under the theme for this first day of the conference, “dreams, utopias and realities,” this stage reached by the WCC in the 1970s seemed to contain a little bit of each.

Morning sessions on the second day included papers on ecumenism in Finland presented by Aila Lauha and Mikko Ketola. Professor Lauha described the early years of the Reformation when Finland was a Swedish possession, with the Lutheran faith declared the one true faith and Catholics known primarily as opponents during times of war. Even during the nineteenth century, when Finland was a province of Russia, the legal role of the Russian Tsar did not impinge on the dominant place of Lutheranism within Finland. By the 1920s, 95 percent of Finns remained within the dominant Lutheran faith and an ecumenical group formed in 1917 primarily involved Lutherans talking with each other. With a very strong nationalism in 1920s Finland, newly granted autonomy in 1917, ecumenism was seen largely as a threat of foreign influence, and the very few Catholics in Finland were widely suspected of disloyalty. After World War II, Lutherans in Finland gradually moved toward an acceptance of ecumenism. This was based upon the development of cross-denominational theological conversations. Also, suspicions against Catholics diminished with the dramatic changes developed at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. A Joint Declaration on Justification in 1999 helped solidify the Finnish respect for Catholics, so that by the turn of the century a modern, multicultural acceptance of ecumenism became the norm in Finland. Mikko Ketola picked up on this story of rapprochement between Finnish Lutherans and the Catholic Church in his paper, “Finland—Ecumenical Wonderland?” He noted that a small conversation began in 1967, when representatives of the Roman Catholic and the Finnish Orthodox Churches were invited to the Finnish celebration of the 450th anniversary of the Reformation. More importantly, three Finnish Lutheran bishops made a first visit to Rome in 1985, during the papacy of John Paul II, and Finnish bishops have returned to Rome annually since. These past three decades have marked a period in which Finnish acceptance of and enthusiasm for ecumenism has increased dramatically.

Anders Jarlert began the afternoon session with “Nathan Söderblom and Nationalism—Riga, Uppsala, and Ruhr.” Many scholars view Söderblom as an internationalist, rather than a nationalist. Jarlert acknowledged that Söderblom worked for international cooperation and peace, especially in Europe, and that he was an important figure in the international ecumenical movement. However, Söderblom also had a very strong sense of his Swedish roots and a concern for the wellbeing of Sweden. Using numerous examples, Jarlert showed how these two realities can coexist in one person. Historians make a mistake when they try to find the right box into which to place a complex figure, he argued. Historical actors rarely fit so precisely into those boxes where we are tempted to place them.

The final session in this conference included three somewhat disparate topics. Aappo Laitinen spoke on “Religion and politics in Malta during the interwar years: between ‘Protestant’ Britain and the Holy See.” This story involves a complicated Catholic-Protestant clash, with a largely Catholic population on Malta, but British political control since the Napoleonic wars. Hanna-Maija Ketola spoke on “Strengthening the Alliance through Church Connections: The Church of England and the Russian Orthodox Church during WWII.” This involves a side story to the British-Soviet alliance during World War II, an unexpected alliance occasioned by Hitler’s decision to invade the USSR. A Church of England delegation visited their Russian Orthodox counterparts in 1943, hoping to use an ecumenical conversation as part of the connection that would solidify the political and military alliance of the two nations. This visit produced press reports that exaggerated the extent of religious freedom in the USSR, the sort of misunderstanding perhaps useful during the war itself, but part of the rapid separation between Russia and the West after Allied victory in 1945. Finally, Villa Jalovaara spoke on “Nordic bishops’ meetings during the Cold War.” Beginning in the 1920s, bishops from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden began meeting every third year. World War II interrupted this practice, as Danish and Norwegian bishops necessarily saw Germany as their enemy, but Finland most feared the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, these nations divided up between Norway, Denmark, and Iceland as members of NATO, with Sweden and Finland non-aligned, and with Finland maintaining a “friendly” relationship with the USSR. Although these differences of alignment made it difficult to produce joint statements, at least these bishops continued to meet regularly throughout the Cold War.

I would encourage readers interested in these topics to look for the fall edition of Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte in 2017, when refined versions of these papers will be available in print.

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