Peter Ainslie, then minister of the Christian Temple, Baltimore, and former president of the Association for the Promotion of Christian Unity, gives firsthand account of the the World Missionary Conference in Lausanne in 1927.
This article was published in the Christian Century, September 22, 1927. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
The Christians groups of the world are pleagued by sectarianism, which is the affirmation by one particular communion that it is right and all the others are wrong. This attitude shows how completely the pride and opinion of men, rather than the Holy Spirit, rule in the consciousness of Christian people. Would that all communions might stress penitence, rather than pride!
The Lausanne Conference was the opening door toward wider Christian fellowship. It registered the fact that there is a movement in the whole church for the unity of Christendom which the love of our separate communions will not be able to suppress. We appear to have gone the limit in our divisions. Any other divisions in the church will likely be of minor consequence. The tide has definitely turned toward unity. The Lausanne conference had two main roots — one in the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in the spring of 1910, which revealed how widely on the foreign missionary fields the spirit of federation and unity was operating, and the other in the General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the fall of 1910, which called for a commission on a world conference on Faith and Order, having to do with the whole church, at home and abroad. Other communions in America, notably the Disciples and Congregationalists, took similar action in their general conventions at the same time, as did the Eastern Orthodox in their general synod in Constantinople.
During these seventeen years the churches began to rephrase their thinking and slowly to readjust their attitudes. The Protestant Episcopal Church organized an interdenominational commission, which made approaches practically to the whole church. Most of the non-Roman Catholic communions, representing about one-half of the Christian world, responded by the appointment of commissions to co-operate in preparation for the conference. The Roman Catholic half declined co-operation, to our regret, but the pope has taken a friendly interest, and Roman Catholic publications have recently had many articles bearing on unity. Two of their priests — one from Austria and the other from Breslau — sat throughout the conference as unofficial observers.
Such a conference is at once entangled with difficulties. To begin with, there are the linguistic barriers. Translations do not always convey the same meaning. Then there are the results of denominational isolation, by which traditional impressions have been handed down from generation to generation without revision, so that a person of one communion thinks of a person of another communion as being something which he is not. Denominationalism sets up hard and fast prejudices and creates an unbrotherly atmosphere through which it is difficult to discover that which is real in others.
All denominationalism, whether Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican or Protestant, has about it an unwholesome atmosphere, not Christian at all but pagan, especially where there is sharp isolation such as has obtained between many of the Christian communions. In the conference the Eastern Orthodox delegates explicitly claimed infallibility for their church, and a like claim of infallibility was more or less present in the minds of many delegates of other churches. At the same time it is well to remember that all the churches are under the ban of excommunication. The Eastern Orthodox excommunicated the Roman Catholics; the Roman Catholics excommunicated the Eastern Orthodox and, a few hundred years later, the Protestants and Anglicans; and these, in turn, continued the same policy of excommunication, until today every communion is under the ban — either it went out on the threat of excommunication, or was put out. This, of course, would be childish if it were not so tragic. It reveals how completely the church has been ruled by the pride and opinion of men rather than by the Holy Spirit.
Up to this time there has been little indication of penitence on the part either of the excommunicator or the excommunicated. Out of all this historical tangle and the scramble for orthodoxy, infallibility and spiritual superiority there was, of course, not much place for humility and penitence. The distinctive denominational claims of all — catholic and protestant — have grown less spiritual with the years and therefore more foreign to the religion of Christ, so that the world has judged the religion thus set forth as in large part fictitious, and from it the multitudes are slowly turning away.
The Lausanne conference came at an opportune time. Both the church and the world are weary — the church weary in its unnatural and unspiritual struggle, the world weary for God whom the church has eclipsed with its denominational rivalries. Inevitably the past would project itself into the conference — too much so — but it was unavoidable with groups as conservative as were the delegations from so many churches. They were mostly officials, sensitive to upholding the communions from which they came. There was a marked concern for the institution at home, which our forebears founded and which we are still building. It is not too much to say that most of the delegates who spoke looked backward. However, in their back-gate look there was usually a tolerance and forbearance, sometimes a pathos, all of which indicated that vast changes were already under way.
The personnel of the conference was of unusual interest. There were representatives from all the continents and from many of the islands of the sea — England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, Poland, Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Slovakia, Greece, Armenia, Egypt, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, India, China, Japan, South America, Canada, United States and elsewhere. There were patriarchs from Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria; archbishops from the Eastern Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran communions; bishops from these communions and from the Old Catholics, Methodists and Moravians; members of the supreme courts of Germany and Scotland; deans, canons, professors, executives, editors, ministers, priests, missionaries — and seven women! It was a fine company of Christian people, many of whom had traveled thousands of miles to confer on the great task of a united Christendom.
The mere fact of such a conference was a vast achievement. The addresses revealed the depth of earnestness in the hearts of the delegates as they sat through the sessions from the beginning to the close. A wide variety of views crowded every day’s discussion, but a most commendable spirit prevailed. This was due largely to the chairman, Bishop Charles H. Brent, and to the deputy chairman, Dr. A. E. Garvie. With three languages — English, German and French — as channels of expression in every session and with traditional misunderstandings and sectarian prejudices, there would be, of necessity, some critical moments, but the chairmen always so wisely steered the conference out of troubled waters that those instances which did occur were of trifling consequence by the side of the spirit of gracious fellowship which pervaded the delegates both in the conference sessions and in the university halls and hotel lobbies. All these experiences tend to make friendships, and friendship, after all, is the highway to a united church.
Bishop Brent’s opening sermon in the cathedral was the call of a prophet. He was calm and courageous, but, out of several hundred speakers, perhaps not more than two dozen followed in his prophetic path. He was not afraid to say that “the hundred missionary societies in China today are as suicidal for Christianity as the civil divisions are to the national peace and prosperity.” Missionary appeals are losing their power through our sectarianism, being resented by the natives among whom missionaries work and, at home, falling upon the indifferent ears of a denominational church. It is far more important to the cause of Christianity that the missionary boards in the homelands should get together and form definite plans for co-operation than to encourage the growing protest from the foreign missionary fields against imposing upon them a denominational Christianity. A few men on missionary boards would lose their positions by taking such a stand, but they would hasten the unity of the church and the conversion of the world. Which is more important?
The conference discussions divided into six subjects, each being considered for an entire day, beginning with two thirty minute addresses, followed by four or five fifteen-and ten-minute addresses, and the rest of the day being given to open discussion. The subjects were: “The Church’s Message to the World — the Gospel,” “The Nature of the Church,” “The Church’s Common Confession of Faith,” “The Church’s Ministry,” “The Church’s Sacraments” and “The Unity of Christendom and the Relation Thereto of Existing Churches.” Then the conference was divided into small groups of twenty or twenty-five, so that everyone had an opportunity to contribute to the discussion, which enriched the findings that came out of these discussions, representing, as far as possible, the general mind of the gathering. These findings were received and will be sent to the various churches represented. Upon the action of the churches the continuation committee will consider plans for another conference, for Lausanne is only the beginning. As to how many conferences will be necessary, that depends upon how fast the churches travel toward unity.
The report on the church’s message was received with the support of the whole conference. The Eastern Orthodox delegation asked to be excused from voting on the other reports; but they heartily supported this one, which affirmed that the message of the church to the world must always remain the gospel of Jesus Christ — the gift of a new word from God to this old world of sin and death, being the prophetic call to sinful men to turn to God as the only way by which humanity can escape from those class and race hatreds which devastate society, and fulfill humanity’s longing for intellectual sincerity, social justice and spiritual inspiration.
The report on the nature of the church was a little more difficult. It affirmed that the church is constituted by the will of God’ not by the will or consent or beliefs of men, whether as individuals or societies. God is its creator, Jesus Christ its head and the Holy Spirit the source of its continuous life. The church is the communion of true believers in Christ Jesus, according to the New Testament, built upon the foundation of apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone. Recognizing various views as to the nature of the church, the report expressed sorrow in consequence of our divisions and urged the unity of the church.
The report on the church’s common confession of faith brought to the front the creedal controversy. The majority of the communions represented hold to the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds; others, such as Baptists, Congregationalists and Disciples, recognize these as witnesses in past generations, but do not hold them in the same reverence, emphasizing instead a personal faith in the living God through the living Christ. The report sought, with much difficulty, to cover both of these positions, recognizing, as it affirmed, that the creeds are our common heritage from the ancient church and, at the same time, leaving on record the unanimous testimony that no external and written standards can suffice without an inward and personal experience of union with God in Christ.
The report on the ministry was one of the longest of all the reports. It affirmed that the ministry is a gift of God through Christ to his church, and is essential to the being and well-being of the church, that men gifted for the work of the ministry, called by the Spirit and accepted by the church, are commissioned through an act of ordination by prayer and the laying on of hands. Various forms of ministry have grown up according to the circumstances of the several communions and their beliefs as to the mind of Christ and the guidance of the New Testament. These have been abundantly used by the Holy Spirit, but the differences which have arisen in regard to the authority and function of these various forms of ministry have been and are the occasion of manifold doubts, questions and misunderstandings to the distress and wounding of faithful souls. Consequently the provision of a ministry, acknowledged in every part of the church as possessing the sanction of the whole church, is an urgent need. The episcopal, presbyterial and congregational systems, being believed by many to be essential to the good order of the church, must have an appropriate place in the order of the reunited church. Each communion, recalling the abundant blessing of God vouchsafed to its ministry, should gladly bring to the common life of the united church its own spiritual treasures.
In the report on the sacraments it was agreed that they are of divine appointment and that the church ought thankfully to observe them as divine gifts, baptism being administered with water in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, for the remission of sins, not ignoring the difference in conception, interpretation and mode which exists among us, and the holy communion being the church’s most sacred act of worship, in which the Lord’s atoning death is commemorated and proclaimed. The report closed with a prayer that the differences which prevent full communion at the present time may be removed.
The report on the unity of Christendom and the relation of existing churches thereto was severely and unnecessarily attacked; nevertheless, it was a most satisfactory report, being divided into four sections: (1) fellowship in Life and Work, as expressed in the Stockholm conference of 1925; (2) fellowship in Faith and Order, as expressed in the Lausanne conference; (3) ways of approach emphasizing appreciation of each other, prayer for one another and working together; (4) completed fellowship, which would be realized by all God’s children joining in communion at the Lord’s table, closing with the prayer that God would give us wisdom and courage to do his will.
It was an admirable report with which to close the conference — cautious, practical and hopeful. It was prepared chiefly by the Archbishop of Upsala and the Archbishop of Armagh and reviewed by Bishop Brent, the Bishop of Gloucester, Canon Tatlow and others. It ought to have passed with an enthusiastic vote. Inasmuch as all the findings had to pass the conference unanimously, this report was referred to the continuation committee. It furnished another instance of a sectarian outburst, which must be expected so long as sectarian attitudes hold priority over penitence in a divided church. In this instance the protest came from the Anglo-Catholics. It might have come from any other, for many Christians regulate their interest in Christian unity upon whether it comes their way. The Anglo-Catholics are not alone in this by any means, but their cause was greatly discounted by such an unreasonable protest, which looked as if it was the last chance, coming at the close of the conference, and they wanted to make use of that chance.
But the results of the conference exceeded the expectation of many. It is a great advance when men who differ widely can sit down together and discuss frankly and patiently their differences and arise with understanding and appreciation, if not agreements. This was the victory of Lausanne.
It would have been a still greater victory if the conference could have closed with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. It really lacked that seal of fellowship. And the fact that it could not be done left an ugly picture. But it could not be done, showing us how far we are from possessing the badge of Christian discipleship, which is love. Long ago for love the church substituted orthodoxy, which is very much less expensive. The council of Nicaea, in 325 A.D., confirmed the transfer. Orthodoxy is a word, however, which no dictionary can define, there being several hundred meanings, depending upon which communion one is a member of.
Out of this confusion has come sectarianism, which is the affirmation by one particular communion that it is right and all the others are wrong. It is common for the episcopal communions, such as the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican, to speak of themselves as the “church” and all the other communions as the “sects” or the milder term “denominations,” which means the same thing. A somewhat similar position is taken by several Protestant communions. To affirm that the Roman Catholics or Anglicans are the church and that Presbyterians and Methodists are sects — that is to say, spiritually inferior to them, and outside of the church; or that one of the Protestant communions is the church and the Roman Catholics and Anglicans are sects, belongs in the same small business of excommunication. It shows how completely the pride and opinion of men, rather than the Holy Spirit, rule in the consciousness of Christian people. Would that all communions might stress penitence, rather than pride!
Lausanne marked the passing of uniformity and the coming of diversity within unity. Rebaptism and reordination must gradually fade out in any plan for unity. The equality of all Christians before God must find its embodiment in the ecclesiastical order. The next conference will go beyond this conference. If there could be a conference without officially appointed delegates and constituted of younger groups, the interpretations would go far in advance of our denominational conservatism. There is room in these times for adventurers, and the adventurers will come.