Movement fostering unity

A HISTORY OF THE ECUMENICAL MOVEMENT IN ASIA — Vol.I: Ninan Koshy; Co-published by World Student Christian Federation- Asia-Pacific Region, Asia and Pacific Alliance of YMCAs and Christian Conference of Asia, Hong Kong SAR, China. Distributed in India by ISPCK, Delhi; Modern Book Centre, Thiruvananthapuram and C.S.S. Tiruvalla, Kerala. Rs. 330.

"ECUMENICAL" IS not a frequently used English word. It is derived from the Greek word oikoumene and denotes the whole inhabited earth. However, of late, it is a widely used term among certain Christian circles. They give it a two-fold meaning. First it is a coming together of Christian denominations, particularly Protestant denominations that had emerged during the past five or six centuries and are now scattered throughout the world. Organisationally the World Council of Churches located in Geneva symbolises this worldwide gathering, which also includes many of the ancient orthodox churches. The emphasis here is the restoration of the broken unity of the church.

Secondly, and more importantly, the ecumenical movement means for the churches a continuing articulation in the contemporary context of the mission of the church to proclaim the good news, which in the Christian understanding is meant for all human beings throughout the world.

Thus, for the Christians the "ecumenical movement" implies, as is repeatedly stated, unity and mission. What Koshy has done in this book is to trace the history of this movement in Asia from the earliest times to the present with the accent on the 20th Century during which ecumenism became a recognised and rapidly spreading movement.

At the outset Koshy points out what is obvious, but is often forgotten, that like all other major religions of the world Christianity is also of Asian origin and hence not a Western imposition on Asia. He also corrects a widely held misconception that churches in Asia are "younger churches" (compared to those in Europe). It is fairly well known that the church in India is one of the oldest in the world, tracing its origin, according to tradition, to the arrival in 52 A.D. of Saint Thomas, one of the 12 disciples of Jesus. Historians like K.M.Panikkar have noted that before the arrival of Western powers and missionaries there were churches in many parts of Asia including Ceylon, Burma, Indonesia, China, Korea and Japan.

Another pertinent observation is that the origins of the modern ecumenical movement are not to be traced to ecclesiastical efforts, but to the activities of laypersons. For instance, it was the founding of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) in the early decades of the 19th Century that first consciously brought together Christians of different denominations. The YMCA held its first World Congress in Paris in 1855. It led to the formation of the World Alliance of YMCAs followed by the World's YWCAs and the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF).

Unity of Christians was initially the fruit of these worldwide organisations. Their activities related to mission as well. The YMCAs and the YWCAs encouraged its members to consider what it meant to be a Christian in ordinary walks of life and day-to-day life. The WSCF took its mission in the world of knowledge seriously. It is natural that those who take their faith (or ideology) seriously consider whether and in what manner it makes a difference to their lives and vocations.

Hence a substantial part of Koshy's ecumenical history consists of the activities of the YMCA, YWCA and the WSCF in different parts of Asia and their periodical gatherings to review their roles in a changing Asia. But, of course, a major part of the work is about ecclesiastical history. As is usually done, Koshy goes back to the World Missionary Conference of 1910 and subsequent world gatherings, including the one in Madras in 1938, the founding of the World Council of Churches in 1948, the formation of the East Asia Christian Conference in 1957 and its transformation into the Christian Conference of Asia in the early 1960s. The history that Koshy chronicles consists largely of the themes dealt with at the many gatherings of these organisations, especially the Asian ones — from the preparatory materials, the speeches, the pronouncements and the reports. Those who have interest in these matters will find well-documented accounts in the volume.

I shall comment only on one issue that may be of general interest. What does the ecumenical movement consider to be the "mission" of the churches in Asia? In spelling out its mission in Asia the movement was quite clear that it must address the specific Asian situation from involvement and participation in it. Two aspects of Asia define that situation. First, traditionally Asia has been the home of many faiths, each one with its own ways of approaching the Ultimate Reality. Second, in recent decades Asia has been experiencing rapid and tremendous changes — colonialism and its decline, industrialisation and technological change, social and political revolutions, national pride and rivalries, globalisation and economic transformation.

The ecumenical movement has tried to respond to most of these. Holding them together has been the conviction that the mission of the church has an important social dimension and that the Christian concern is not and cannot be the welfare of only those who profess the Christian faith, but the entire human community. People, all people, are to be the church's constituency. However, the church has a special responsibility towards those who are neglected, marginalised and oppressed by the social processes — "the least", that is. Serving them is an important aspect of the mission of the church.

Koshy's pioneering effort is not without gaps. It concentrates on the mainstream and leaves out many of the controversial attempts at "wider ecumenism." But he has provided a valuable source book for those who wish to gain an understanding of a fascinating movement and to proceed further.


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