The Complex Nature of Late-Colonial Christian Ecumenicalism

Ben Ashbridge is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, who was a bursary holder for the 2019 EHS summer conference. His research explores evangelical faith mission networks during decolonization across the globe.

Christian ecumenicalism as a concept invokes images of ecclesiastical concord, with denominational divisions put aside for the purpose of presenting, and indeed operating as, a united Christian front. The reality however, would appear to be much more complex than that. Notably during the late-colonial and decolonization periods ecumenicalism operated as an arena in which to contest spiritual authority, to express national identity or to posit a political perspective. Late-colonial ecumenicalism, in short, meant different things depending on who or where you were.

Whilst by the twentieth century there were numerous non-denominational and interdenominational Protestant organizations who eschewed ecumenical links, in the formal sense at least, the majority of Protestant missions and Churches were arranged in denominational groups which began drawing closer together during the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A vast amount of scholarship has been directed towards the emergence of the ecumenical movement, in particular the Edinburgh Conference of 1910, as well as the progression of ecumenicalism throughout the century.[1] Yet only in the last year or two has ecumenicalism’s nature in relationship to the political shifts of decolonization become a subject of focus.[2]

Edinburgh Conference, 1910

A year and a half ago, when I started research for my master’s degree on the intersection of religious and ethnic identities in 1950s Malaya, ecumenicalism was not on my radar. Once in the archives however, it quickly became clear that ecumenicalism would not merely feature in the thesis but be a central aspect. Indeed, I am currently working upon an article based upon this research positing Malaya as a fascinating case study for the contested meanings of ecumenicalism (an idea which hopefully won’t be stolen from here!). It seems pertinent then to briefly elaborate upon some of these meanings as argued by other scholars, to demonstrate the variety of ecumenical positions at play during the late-colonial period.

To begin with, scholars of European ecumenicalism such as Udi Greenberg have made the case that whilst ecumenicalism was born in the spirit of high imperialism, with the imperial expansion of the West allowing Protestants to believe that world evangelization was within reach and attainable by Christian unity, the ecumenical movement was nonetheless one of the first European forces to turn against empire and advocate decolonization.[3] In his Chester Penn Higby Prize-winning article Greenberg argues that following World War One and fearing the spread of European secularism Protestants attempted to utilise the international ecumenical networks they had built in their metropolitan centres.[4] In doing so they saw Afro-Asian liberation as a spiritual source for the re-conquest of Europe, as they perceived that the Christian faith was spreading quickly in the global South. For members of the ecumenical movement in Europe then, ecumenicalism during the late-colonial period was prompted by fears over growing secularism in the West and was used to posit distinct political stances in favour of European integration and imperial decolonization. These arguments however, whilst noting the importance of empire and the colonies to the development of ecumenicalism, primarily focus upon European Christians operating within Europe itself, and though there is no reason to doubt these conclusions there are alternate perspectives on the meaning of ecumenicalism to consider.

David Thompson, commenting on the Indian theologian, P. V. Devanandam, notes the discrepancy of ecumenical ideals between the global North and South, with the North viewing ecumenicalism as inter-denominationalism, whilst for the South it was more concerned with internationalism.[5] For most Christians in the global South, such as Cheng Ching-yi at Edinburgh in 1910, that internationalism was characterised by national Churches free from foreign interference holding equal sway in the World Church, whilst the inter-denominationalism of the North implied co-operation, yet without a real shift in spiritual authority at the heads of the Churches.[6]

Chinese ecumenical leader Cheng Ching-yi

In the Chinese Church for example, Christians found it necessary to rid the faith of Western connotations from the 1920s onwards due to rising anti-imperialist sentiments and nationalism.[7] As such, the National Christian Council of China was founded in 1922, shortly followed by the interdenominational Church of Christ in China in 1927. The slogan for this body was that of “church unity in the spirit of self-ruling, self-supporting and self-propagating”, with Christian ecumenical unity in this context tied indelibly to the expression of a Chinese national identity independent of Western and imperial authority. This model of a formation of an indigenous national Christian council of Churches can be seen in numerous instances in Asia and in other locations across the global South. When faced with the characterization of Christianity as a foreign imposition at odds with nascent national identities in the late-colonial period, indigenous Christians such as in China attempted to shed this image through an ecumenicalism which propounded a unified national Church which stood on equal footing to those national Churches in the global North. Like those Christians in Europe, ecumenical unity was prompted by political circumstances such as anti-colonial nationalism, and was imbued with the expression of a particular identity, often national in character in line with the political shifts of the time.

International Missionary Council delegates in 1928, a forerunner organization to the World Council of Churches prior to the formation of national Churches

This assertion of a national identity and indigenous Church through ecumenical unity however, was by no means unchallenged in the nascent nation-states of the global South. Coorilos Geevarghese for example argues that missionary ecumenicalism in the aftermath of Edinburgh was characterised by colonial thinking, retaining strong elements of paternalism which justified continued missionary authority over indigenous Churches.[8] Furthermore, Charles F. Keyes asserts that the ‘domestication of a universal religion’ always creates a tension between the meaning of that religion to the indigenous peoples and the meanings which are asserted by an authority ‘as constituting the “authentic” truths of the religion’.[9] In the instance of Western Christian missionaries operating throughout the global South, and in particular those associated with the ‘classical’ Protestant denominational missions which were most closely intertwined with ecumenicalism, those authentic truths of Christianity were too often amalgamated with the imperial values enshrined in the civilizing mission. In colonial states, where Church leadership was commonly dominated by missionaries, rhetoric which advocated national ecumenical structures led by indigenous Christians was often more of a smokescreen, as ecumenical bodies remained under mission control and propagated stances which were parochially Western rather than truly universal.[10] Often ecumenical indigenization, despite being nominally supported by missionary leadership, was postponed due to a lack of ‘suitable’ candidates, comparable to Dipesh Chakrabarty’s notion of the ‘waiting room of history’. Whilst ecumenical unity and national Churches were established in the vast majority of colonies, often it was a means of solidifying and perpetuating Western spiritual authority in the face of decolonization and the loss of imperial support structures, as missionaries across denominations co-operated to that end. Despite stemming from the same Protestant denominations as those ecumenical operating in Europe and holding the same Western values and theological stances, the fact that missionaries were operating in the global South meant that in general their colonial paternalism instigated a very different meaning behind their ecumenicalism.

Founding meeting of the World Council of Churches, a global ecumenical body, in 1948

Whilst this is by no means a detailed or comprehensive account of ecumenicalism during the late-colonial era, containing several broad generalizations, hopefully this goes to show the complex and interpretable nature of Christian theology and structures when faced with times of political and social upheaval. Ecumenicalism as a concept may have meant Christian unity, yet the precise form and meaning of that unity was dependent on who or where you were in the world.

[1] Metropolitan Coorilos Geeverghese, ‘Towards and Beyond Edinburgh 1910: A Historical Survey of Ecumenical Missiological Developments since 1910’, International Review of Mission, 2010, Vol. 99 Issue 1, p.8

[2] Charles F. Keyes, ‘Christianity as an Indigenous Religion in Southeast Asia’, Social Compass, 1991, Vol. 38 Issue 2, p.178

[3] Elizabeth Engel, James Kennedy & Justin Reynolds, ‘The theory and practice of ecumenism: Christian global governance and the search for world order, 1900–80’, Journal of Global History, 2018, Vol. 13 Issue 2, p.161

[4] Theresa Carino, ‘Chinese Churches and the Ecumenical Movement from an Asian Perspective’, The Ecumenical Review, 2017, Vol. 69 Issue 4, p.544

[5] Udi Greenberg, ‘Protestants, Decolonization, and European Integration, 1885-1961’, Journal of Modern History, 2017, Vol. 89 Issue 2, pp.314-354

[6] Ibid, p.353

[7] David Thompson, ’Ecumenism’, in Hugh McLeod (ed.) The Cambridge History of Christianity Vol.9: World Christianities, c.1914-c.2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) p.54

[8] Alexander Chow, ‘Protestant ecumenism and theology in China since Edinburgh 1910’, Missiology: An International Review, 2014, Vol. 42 Issue 2, p.168

[9] For example, see: Brian Stanley, The World Missionary Conference, 1910 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2009)

[10] I would sincerely recommend last year’s Vol. 13 Issue 2 of the Journal of Global History to anyone who has an interest in both world history and Christianity. The issue focuses upon the intersection of ecumenicalism and political developments across the globe in the twentieth century and is a great read.

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