The Church Faces Its World

by Winfred Ernest Garrison

Winfred Ernest Garrison, church historian and for over three decades literary editor of the Christian Century, writes here of the World Conference on Church, Community and State held in Oxford in July, 1937.

This article was published in the Christian Century, August 18, 1937. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


To ask the members of an ecumenical conference to give, within a fortnight, a diagnosis of the world’s ills, an evaluation of the church’s previous and present efforts to cure them, a statement of the rights and duties of the church in relation to political and cultural organizations, and a prospectus for future action which will satisfy the legitimate claims of both and promote the welfare of all mankind — that seems to be asking the impossible. The Oxford Conference; with certain limitations, made significant advances in these directions.

At such a gathering as the World Conference on Church, Community and State -- the title currently used almost to the exclusion of "Life and Work" - in such a place as Oxford, it requires a little time for the mid-American participant, even if he is not unfamiliar with the scene, to adjust his mind to the serious and urgent issues of the conference. Oxford always works magic on any visitor who is worthy of the privilege of being a visitor. Its beauty and its history conspire to weave a spell. And the personnel of the conference, though mostly clad in the common garments of international commerce and convention, has its sartorial highlights -- Eastern Orthodox archbishops with flowing robes and patriarchal beards, Russian priests with towering headdresses, Anglican bishops in aprons and gaiters, Lutheran bishops who wear their gowns and pectoral crosses even at the breakfast table. It is well to have these visible symbols of the variety of cultures within the one church. They reveal the problem of making it effectively one as at once more difficult and more significant than it appears in a conference among those who wear identical clothes, have their hair cut in the same style and speak the same language.

Diversities of language are indeed a serious hindrance to mutual understanding. English, French and German were the official languages of the conference, and the interpreters were wonderfully competent in both translation and condensation. But a two-minute translation of a ten-minute speech comes under suspicion of incompleteness. The explanation that "we translate only the ideas, not all the words" is sometimes but not always adequate. Seldom was a speaker who understood the three languages quite satisfied with the version of his speech in the other two. But we must continue to pay for the presumption of the builders of Babel.

Languages may diverge in discussion, but they converge in worship. The services of devotion, held morning and evening in St. Mary’s Church, have been a vital factor in the conference. There the Una Sancta becomes a reality. The three languages are used in rotation, without translation or the need of it. Even the Russian choir spoke intelligibly to all, though in an unknown tongue. In prayer and hymn the miracle of Pentecost is repeated, and each hears in the language in which he was born.

The range of concrete materials with which the conference deals is suggested by the titles of the five sections into which the delegates were divided for simultaneous sessions of intensive discussion: "The Church and the Community" (meaning by "community" what the Germans mean by Volk, society in its larger units viewed with reference to its cultural and racial coherence rather than its political organization); "Church and State"; "The Church and the Economic Order"; "Church, Community and State in Relation to Education"; "The Universal Church and the World of Nations." It is evident that these comprehensive categories could easily cover discussions and pronouncements upon every phase of the church’s function and responsibility in relation to the modern world. They were indeed intended to do no less. It is equally evident that the treatment of these topics could not proceed without some critical scrutiny both of the social facts and of the past and present behavior of the church in relation to those facts as well as of the secular powers in relation to the church.

This is a very large order, even for four hundred learned delegates assisted by an equal number of no less learned associates, having the advantage of careful preliminary studies and giving undivided attention to the problems for a period of two weeks in the congenially contemplative atmosphere of Oxford. The difficulty of mobilizing the intellectual resources of such an assembly is very great. A new U. S. Congress does not get much done in the first two weeks, even with the advantages of a continuing organization, a body of guiding precedent, a fairly general mutual acquaintance and a single language. To ask the members of an ecumenical conference to give, within a fortnight, a diagnosis of the world’s ills, an evaluation of the church’s previous and present efforts to cure them, a statement of the rights and duties of the church in relation to political and cultural organizations, and a prospectus for future action which will satisfy the legitimate claims of both and promote the welfare of all mankind -- that seems to be asking the impossible. Yet something like that was what was asked of the Oxford Conference; and something like that, it may be said subject to certain limitations, is what the conference accomplished. At least it made significant advance in that direction.

No achievement whatever would have been possible without the careful groundwork that had been done in advance -- largely by Dr. Oldham, Dr. Shillito, Mr. Henriod and, for the American section, Dr. Leiper, and their colleagues too numerous to name—and without the technique of procedure that was chiefly in the hands of Dr. Mott. The preparatory work made possible findings which were studies rather than improvisations. The technique of the conference, while it had some steam-roller qualities, gave the maximum opportunity for the expression of the widest variety of opinions, kept the business moving and brought the discussions within the necessary limits of time. Doubtless many a delegate is leaving Oxford with undelivered speeches curdling within him. Doubtless most of these would have been good speeches. But let those who thought the chairman cruel remember the U. S. Senate and reflect upon the horrors of unlimited debate.

The complexity of the problem faced by the conference is not fully stated when mention has been made of the range and magnitude of its topics. There is the added fact that to every important question there were two contrasting lines of approach. They may be called the dogmatic and the pragmatic; or the a priori and the empirical; or the theological and the sociological; or, as one speaker defined them, a dogmatism which makes an absolute separation between the world and God and refuses to let the church be held responsible for anything that happens in the world, and a "pseudo-religious activism" which would make the church the servant of every benevolent or reforming impulse.

Let us suppose that some phase of the relation of church and state is to be considered. One approach insists upon beginning with definitions and general concepts. What is the chief end of man? What is the essential nature of the church? Is the state a gift of God or a human instrument? It tends to answer these questions in terms of complete divine transcendence, a mystical and pre-existent church (Una Sancta) which can do no wrong though its human agents can and do, and a sinful world in which the only absolute duty is to choose the course that is least wrong. The other approach, considering church and state as concrete phenomena sufficiently defined by their observable characteristics, asks: How may their relations be adjusted so that human liberty may be safeguarded, social order may be preserved and religion may have its proper place in life?

I offer no commentary upon the relative merits of these two types of approach, but it can scarcely be denied that the attempt to satisfy the demands of both of them at once was the source of no little difficulty in the discussions and of some confusion in the reported findings. But since both points of view exist within the churches which have here been trying to express and deepen their unity, a body of findings which ignored either would fatally misrepresent the situation.

In view of the conviction of so large an element -- including all the Eastern Orthodox and most of the Continentals and Anglicans -- that the relation of the church to the world, or of the Christian man to society, can be profitably discussed only after a sound theological foundation has been laid, it is doubtless wise that steps should be taken toward the merging of "Life and Work" and "Faith and Order" in a permanent organization which shall constitute a single ecumenical federation of churches. Such steps were taken at Oxford by the appointment of seven representatives to confer with an equal number who, it is hoped, will be appointed at Edinburgh.

Any attempted summary, in a few paragraphs, of the findings of the Oxford Conference in its five fields of study would be too fragmentary to be serviceable. Only a few detached and striking items can be mentioned.

The relationship of men in communities and races was viewed as a gift of God; but the elevation of Volk into an object of supreme devotion and the claim of superiority for one race over another and discriminations on the ground of race or color were declared to be contrary to the spirit of Christ. (A Dutch delegate from South Africa said that the denunciation of racial discriminations would give great offense to his people, but his protest fell on deaf ears.) Anti-Semitism was specifically repudiated.

Any totalitarian program for the state was declared to be hostile to the liberty of the church and, what is more, hostile to the liberty of human personality. The church is under no less obligation to protest when the rights of others are invaded by the state than when its own rights are denied. An attempt was made to secure the adoption of a clear-cut statement that the church has no rights for which it can properly demand recognition by the state except such as can be stated in terms of the rights of citizens to freedom of thought, expression, assembly and organization; but the idea of special rights for the church as a divine institution was too strongly entrenched. It was declared that the church has a right to demand from the state "freedom to determine the nature of its government and the qualifications of its ministers and members, so far as it desires." Even this guarded statement, as amended by the addition of the final clause, was held by a Swedish Lutheran delegate to be a demand for what is impossible in an established church. He may be right. It is an inescapable fact that when free-church men and established-church men undertake to frame a joint statement about the relations of church and state, they can come to agreement only by a studied ambiguity or by a cautious avoidance of controversial aspects of the question. There was not much ambiguity in the statement as adopted, but there was plenty of avoidance.

The absence of the German delegates was deeply regretted. A message of sympathy was adopted and a delegation was authorized to convey this message in person and carry a report of the conference. The spirit which prompted this action is above criticism, but it may reasonably be doubted whether the coming of such a deputation from Oxford to visit those who were not permitted to go to Oxford will not exasperate the German government and provoke reprisals.

But there were German delegates at Oxford -- three representing the federation of evangelical free churches. On the platform of the conference Methodist Bishop Melle testified to the gratitude of the free churches of (Germany for the "full liberty" which they enjoyed; following the injunction of St. Paul they pray for all who are in authority, and they are grateful "that God in his providence has sent a Leader" who was able to "banish the danger of Bolshevism in Germany and to rescue a nation of from sixty to seventy millions from the abyss of despair to which it had been led by the World War and the Treaty of Versailles and its wretched consequences, and to give this nation a new faith in its mission and in its future." Before this speech there had been whispered rumors that if these free-church delegates spoke their sentiments they might not be permitted to return to Germany. After it, there seemed no reason to doubt the cordiality of their reception by the department of propaganda upon their return.

The declaration on war was eagerly awaited. It did not fail to declare war is "a particular demonstration of the power of sin in this world" but it did not say that any specific war is a sin or that participation in it is sinful. Man is "caught in a sinful situation," in which "the best that is possible falls far short of the glory of God and is, in that sense, sinful." Avoiding commitment as to any specific attitude which the church and Christian men ought to adopt toward war when war comes, the conference report contented itself with exhibiting the various views which Christians actually hold on that subject and with saying that while the church could neither affirm that any one of these was right and the others wrong nor acquiesce in the permanent continuance of these differences, it should promote the study of the problem with a view to a better understanding of the purpose of God.

From the pacifist standpoint, this was a pretty weak outcome of the deliberations. It represents no advance. "Dick" Sheppard, Canon of St. Paul’s, was quite willing to be quoted as saying that, whether considered as the statement of a Christian attitude toward war, as an announcement to governments of the church’s judgment upon war or as a guide for Christians in deciding what their own course should be in case of war, it is a total loss. When asked what he and his fellow pacifists would do about it, he replied, with characteristic smiling earnestness: "Blow it up! In a debonair manner, of course."

One cannot but feel that on this as on many other points the theologians considered the doctrine of original sin as a very present help in trouble. "To all human institutions clings the taint of sin." "Each man must bear his share of the corporate sin which has rendered impossible any better course." "Some . . . believe that in a sinful world the state has the duty, under God, to use force when law and order are threatened." The apology for doing un-Christian things for the defense of Christian principles in a sinful world is called being "realistic." But the sections on international relations contain also many strong affirmations of the duty and opportunity of the church to serve as a unifying force among the nations and as an advocate of those principles of justice and liberty which, if generally observed, would prevent the clash of arms.

Limitations of space do not permit adequate comment on the findings of the commission on "The Church and the Social Order." It should be read in full, and there will be early opportunity to read it. It contains much enlightened and liberal social doctrine, and countenances no complacency with things as they are. It warns against being "deceived by the utopian promises of new social faiths," for "because of the sinfulness of the human heart and the complexities of social life none of the programs for the reconstruction of the economic order can be trusted without qualifications." The report as prepared by the commission and adopted by the conference has the appearance of having been written by men who, rather radical themselves, were aware that it would have to be adopted, if at all, by the votes of those less so.

A list of the pioneer leaders whose faith and vision created the first conference on Life and Work and paved the way for this second was presented in a memorial. To these deserving names I venture to add another the absence of which leaves a wide gap in the record -- the name of Peter Ainslie. He was neither patriarch nor archbishop, and it is not always easy for those who direct the affairs of assemblies involving high ecclesiastical dignitaries to estimate adequately the services of those who have been the prophets rather than the high priests of such a movement.

The conference has closed, leaving in the mind of every member a more vivid sense of the ecumenical character of the church even now, in spite of its divisions. "Our unity in Christ is not a theme for aspiration," says the closing message; "it is an experienced fact." There is a large measure of truth in these words. There was no unseemly argument about a joint communion service, as in the final days at Lausanne. It was avoided by the expedient of having an Anglican service, conducted by Anglican ministers, to which "all baptized believers" were invited. This is something less than perfect "unity in Christ." Non-Anglicans were present as guests, rather than as members of the family. It was an act of gracious hospitality, duly appreciated as such; but it was a symbol of the separateness of churches as well as of the unity of Christians. There are important aspects of unity which are still a theme for aspiration.