The Quest for Unity

by Charles Clayton Morrison

Charles Clayton Morrison was editor of the Christian Century for much of the first half of the twentieth century.

Morrison gives an account on the Conference on Faith and Order held in Edinburgh in August, 1937. This article appeared in the Christian Century, September 1, 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.


Our most realistic minds have become aware of the fact that the church has been giving away both itself and its treasures in its compromises with secular philosophies. Others have seen this surrender as due mainly to the preoccupation of the divided churches with their fractional apprehension of Christian truth, which left each sect an easy prey to the encroachment of an aggressive secularism.

The Conference on Faith and Order which has been in session in this city since August 3 seems, in outward appearance, like an adjourned sitting of the Oxford Conference on Church, Community and State. I would guess that more than one-half of the personnel is the same. The vice-chairmen, representing, as well as four men can be said to do so, the larger units of world Christianity -- Orthodox, Anglican, Presbyterian and Free Churches -- are the same. The chairmanship alone is different. At Oxford, the presiding officer was the Archbishop of Canterbury, but after the opening formalities he relinquished his duties to Dr. John R. Mott, who managed the deliberations of the conference and directed its procedure. Here in Edinburgh this function is discharged by the Archbishop of York (Dr. William Temple), who presides at all sessions. But there is the same picturesqueness of dress and tonsorial adornment (?) which made the Oxford assemblage a happy hunting ground for photographers.

There is, however, an inward difference between the two gatherings. This difference has to do with the subject matter of the conferences. At Oxford the church was considered in its relations with the secular order -- the nation, the state, the economic system and the educational process. At Edinburgh our problem is found within the church itself. It arises out of the fact of the church’s disunity. We stand at the end of a long era whose most conspicuous feature has been the proliferation of schisms. But the world is too strong for a divided church. The church cannot perform the task envisaged at Oxford unless it can recover its lost unity. Yet how can such diverse elements, ranging all the way from the Eastern Orthodox to the Congregationalists -- not to mention the Quakers -- join together in anything worthy to be called one church? At first blush it seems like a hopeless undertaking. But there is a conscience in the churches which refuses to allow appearances to decide the possibilities. It is determined to explore below the surface of our variety and see if there are not great stretches of agreement sufficiently fundamental to afford a foundation for a genuine and a visible unity.

In this conscience the Edinburgh Conference has its roots. Twenty-seven years ago -- in 1910 -- by a coincidence so singular that many of us regard it as a providence -- three American denominations, the Protestant Episcopal, the Disciples of Christ and the Congregationalists, in the same month, in two instances on the same day, in their respective general assemblies, without advance knowledge of one another’s purpose, proclaimed that the hour was come to do something on a wide scale to recover the lost unity of Christendom. The Episcopalian manifesto was the most definite. It called for a world conference on the subject of Christian unity. Certain of its leaders, notably the late Bishop Charles H. Brent, were set apart to undertake plans for such a conference. This movement materialized in 1927 as the Conference on Faith and Order held at Lausanne. The outcome was none too encouraging. Indeed there were elements of unhappiness in the aftermath of that gathering. Other churchmen had meantime come to believe that the approach to unity through faith and order was a wrong approach. They held that a more promising approach was through the church’s life and work. Led by Archbishop Nathan Soderblöm of Sweden, a conference had been held, in 1925, at Stockholm, from whose deliberations the matters of creed, sacraments and orders were excluded. The deliberations centered upon the practical questions of interchurch co-operation in life and work. The results of this effort were none too inspiring. A general mood of discouragement set in, and though both Lausanne and Stockholm were kept alive by means of continuation committees, there was little enthusiasm among the churches.

Within the past three years, however, a wholly new mood has been defining itself throughout Christendom. With a suddenness which is unprecedented in Christian history the whole body of Christian believers in every part of the Western world has awakened to the consciousness that the entire secular order of the modern world, instead of moving steadily toward the acceptance of Christianity, has been for centuries moving steadily away from it. The whole domain of Western culture, in its political, economic, intellectual and ethical aspects, is seen as ruled by ideologies which have no affinity with the Christian faith. Our most realistic minds have become aware of the fact that the church has been giving away both itself and its treasures in its compromises with secular philosophies. Others have seen this surrender as due mainly to the preoccupation of the divided churches with their fractional apprehension of Christian truth, which left each sect an easy prey to the encroachment of an aggressive secularism.

In the preparations for the Oxford Conference, which has just been held, the Faith and Order movement took on new life. It became clear that the church could not assume a functional responsibility of the magnitude envisaged at Oxford while its faith and order were broken into sectarian compartments. Christianity could not presume to speak an authoritative word to a broken and dismembered civilization if its own body was dismembered. A sectarian church could not mend the sectarianism of society. Thus the world situation forced home to the Christian intelligence the anomaly and sin of a divided church. The lonely prophets of Christian unity whose voices have cried in the wilderness of our sectarian complacency for many decades now began to be heeded. The forthcoming Conference on Faith and Order thus took on a more realistic character in the minds of those engaged in preparing for it. But even so, there was a general disposition to discount the significance and promise of the Edinburgh Conference which was to open one week after the adjournment at Oxford.

With deep gratitude I am able to say that the doubts and misgivings which many of us took to Edinburgh have entirely vanished. The Conference on Faith and Order is proving to be in no respect second to the Oxford gathering in significance and promise. Instead of eclipsing Edinburgh, Oxford has vitalized it. By defining the task of the church in terms of Christianity’s social responsibility, Oxford has turned the church’s mind inward upon its own condition. Edinburgh sees the Christian Church as a chaos of regional and sectarian provincialism. Such a church is not only impotent in the face of a civilization which worships the many gods of humanistic secularism, but its own life is threatened. Again and again this note of desperation is being struck. The Bishop of Lichfield in his sermon at St. Giles last Sunday said plainly that the Christian Church has its back to the wall. Its divisions have weakened its character. They render it susceptible to the seductions of secularism on the one hand, or push it into a sterile pietism or hollow formalism on the other. The situation was described in the opening address of the conference by the Archbishop of York. He said:

How can the church call men to the worship of one God, if it calls them to rival shrines? How can it claim to bridge the divisions in human society -- divisions between Greek and barbarian, bond and free, between white and black, Aryan and non-Aryan, employer and employed -- if, when men are drawn into it, they find that another division has been added to the old ones -- a division of Catholic from Evangelical, or Episcopalian from Presbyterian or Independent? A church divided in its manifestation to the world cannot render its due service to God or to man.

Dr. Temple went on to admit for himself that he belongs to a church which still maintains a barrier against completeness of union at the Table of the Lord. "But I know," he said, "that our division at this point is the greatest of all scandals in the face of the world. I know that we can only consent to it or maintain it without the guilt of unfaithfulness to the unity of the gospel and of God himself, if it is a source to us of spiritual pain, and if we are striving to the utmost to remove the occasions which now bind us, as we think, to that perpetuation of disunion."

It should be "horrible" to us, he concluded, to speak or think of any fellow Christian as "not in communion with us." "God grant that we may feel the pain of it and under that impulsion strive the more earnestly to remove all that now hinders us from receiving together the one Body of the One Lord that in him we may become One Body -- the organ and vehicle of the One Spirit."

I quote at length from the Archbishop of York because of the penetrating insight which his words disclose, and also because he announced the theme or motif which has run through the entire conference up to this hour. There is no squeamishness here about the phrase "organic unity." That specifically and confessedly is the goal to which this conference is oriented. Nothing will satisfy the spirit of Edinburgh short of a visibly united church. This does not mean that co-operation or federation of our denominations is unesteemed, but all such measures are seen as way-stations toward a unity that is both spiritual and structural.

What Edinburgh is seeking for is ecumenical faith and the ecumenical body. This word "ecumenical," and its substantive, "ecumenicity," are on all our lips. We are an "ecumenical movement"; both Oxford and Edinburgh are its expression. It is an old ecclesiastical word, of course, used commonly by the Roman and Orthodox churches, but new in the ordinary nomenclature of Protestantism. It represents the very opposite of Protestantism, which has been an expression of centrifugal and separatist rather than centripetal and unitive impulses. "Ecumenical" means about the same as "catholic," and I suppose has gained popular usage as descriptive of the present movement because it is free of the ambiguity attaching to the word "catholic" which, besides being a description of the whole body of Christ, is also the name of a particular branch of the church.

The use of this word "ecumenical" gives a measure of the magnitude of the task which the church of our time confronts. We are in search of the ecumenical or catholic church. Some say it already exists and only needs to be made manifest. Others say that it has been broken by our divisions and must be recreated. I incline to the latter conception. But my view has few supporters here. Edinburgh is under the spell of the idealistic philosophy which is able to treat ideals as actual existences. The question is not important, however, at this stage, and it would be both academic and pedantic to make a point of it. The important thing is that the church shall become conscious of its unity and build a structure which shall embody that unity. This Edinburgh is striving to do.

As at Oxford, it was difficult to choose one’s section, because the subject matter of every section was so intriguing. Take the first section, for example. Its specific theme was "The Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ." This was the title under which the basic faith of the church was to be expounded. Here was a new approach to the ecumenical faith. I am aware that the category of grace was held to be fundamental at the Lausanne Conference ten years ago, but it was not put forward as the comprehensive concept presumed to contain the essentials of the Christian revelation as we have it here in Edinburgh.

The more I reflect upon it, the more am I convinced that the whole of our gospel is involved in this concept of divine grace, that it plumbs the depths of Christian truth and leaves out nothing that is truly ecumenical in Christian belief. True, the historic creeds -- Apostles’ and Nicene -- are presupposed in all our discussions, but there is profound significance in the fact that when a modern ecumenical conference goes in search of a conception which will set forth the essential content of historic Christianity, it does not expect to find it in a philosophical speculation about God, but in a revelation of his character and his disposition toward man. God’s grace revealed in Jesus Christ -- can you imagine anything more fundamental and all-inclusive? I hear that section number one has been able to reach a unanimous formulation, and that it adjourned its final session last night by singing, "Now thank we all our God"!

So much for "faith." One hardly dares to hope that there will be such unanimity or such progress toward unity when it comes to "order." This involves the conception of the church itself, its ministry and its sacraments. It is here that the really acute issues arise. Yet I believe that my own section is in process of making a distinct contribution, and I hear that section two is drawing the two wings of catholicity and evangelicalism together in a statement concerning the church. There is a vast gulf to be bridged between Western Protestantism and the rest of Christianity on the question of the church. Our American conception is local and pragmatic, for the most part, and its representatives feel modest and unaggressive in the presence of the scholarship of the Orthodox and Anglican communions. Besides, we know in our hearts that our ultra-congregational conceptions are totally inadequate both as a reflection of historic Christian reality and as a basis of competency in face of the world situation. There is a kind of wistfulness in the minds of leaders of the so-called free churches, and a disillusionment with respect to their irresponsible independency. This keeps them from putting forward their "system" as a possible basis for the ecumenical church.