Connecting Faith and Life

Snaitang: History of the Ecumenical Movement

The word ‘Ecumenical’ is a widely used term among some Christian circles today. Many think that ecumenism as a movement within Christianity is a new movement which has come into existence recently. Sometimes, it is regarded synonymously with the World Council of Churches (WCC) at Geneva. Moreover, the liberal overtones of the WCC in the recent years have made some evangelical groups suspicious of the very word ‘Ecumenical.’ In some conservative evangelical groups, ecumenical Christianity is even considered as the antithetical of all that evangelicals stand for. Therefore, it is an appropriate subject for an enquiry – What is the meaning of the term Ecumenical? What does ecumenical movement stand for? How has been the response so far? O. L. Snaitang’s book, A History of Ecumenical Movement: An Introduction, is an attempt to answer these sort of questions.

The book follows a certain chronological pattern in tracing the history of the ecumenical movement from the beginning to the twentieth century. During the course of this survey, Snaitang has successfully distinguished important motifs, ideologies, persons, and structures, related to the movement and has dealt them succinctly under clearly defined chapters.

I found the second and third sections of the book more useful and engaging than the rest. They trace the struggles that the Church underwent in the first seventeen centuries. At the very beginning of the second section, Snaitang addresses the issue of unity from a biblical point of view. Biblical unity is not seeking uniformity but unity in diversity. According to the author, this is most evident in the event of the Pentecost. To my disappointment Snaitang fails to elaborate on this point. Before stressing further from the Bible the imperativeness of Christian unity, he jumps to the historical survey straight away. Thus, the question, why unity is needed, is not dealt adequately. A right understanding of biblical unity is essential for someone to appreciate the ecumenical venture.

Nevertheless, in the first section, although Snaitang does not comment explicitly, he makes the readers realize by recounting the history of Christianity that being dogmatic about doctrines and ecclesiastical rightness cause divisions among Christians. The story of the countless divisions that happened in the Church (in East and West) during the early centuries and later among Protestants clearly demonstrates the above stated point. The author deserves our commendation for his sharp analysis of the events like the Great schism of 1054 and Protestant reformation. It helps us to identify the less obvious factors which caused separation among Christians in the past. Personality clashes, national interests, and cultural differences are some of the things to which Snaitang draws our attention. It is sad to notice that even the great reformers and theologians of the 16th century were not motivated towards true ecumenism.

The force that initiated the coming together of divided sections of Christianity, particularly Protestants, is undoubtedly the great commission of Christ. This is well discussed in the third section of the book. Snaitang has highlighted the ecumenical spirit found in some of the early modern missions like Tranquebar and Serampore missions. He is right in pointing out that these early missions and missionaries set a model for others to follow. It is heart-warming to read how mission boards representing diverse doctrinal positions set aside their differences in order to achieve mission goal. I was particularly impressed by William Carey’s ecumenical venture in India. He was certainly a broad-minded missionary whose sole aim was to reach to the people of India by uniting Christians together in mission. Similarly, Snaitang points out the influence of pietism and evangelical awakening which enhanced the coming together of people across denominations, cultures and nationalities. These movements apart from having a direct impact on reviving mission focus, they also fostered unity among Christians on the basis of some Scriptural principles.

Throughout the first seventeen centuries, although one can see some efforts taken here and there by Christians to bring unity in the Church, no substantial effort was taken towards forming a structure that would initiate a movement. This came about during the later part of the 19th century. Sections four and five deal with the development of ecumenism in Christianity as a movement. Snaitang gives a good summary of all the important events and conferences that took place in the two centuries which shaped the course of the movement hitherto. The efforts of many Christian leaders towards the growth of ecumenical movement, especially of J. R. Mott, is well highlighted in the book.

However, it is unfortunate to observe the decline of mission focus and negligence of the centrality of God’s word in some of the ecumenical organizations like WCC today. Moreover, this situation has led some of the evangelicals pull out of the WCC, causing a division again. This raises some crucial issues – How to strive towards unity without compromising on fundamental truths of the Scripture? Ecumenism at what cost? Unfortunately, Snaitang evades these issues. Though the book mainly deals with the development of ecumenical movement among the Protestants, Snaitang gives us sufficient information regarding the response of the Roman Catholic church to the movement. This part of the book is long, detailed and involves tedious reading but very informative. Thus, this work can also be treated as a handbook of the ecumenical movement.

Another merit of the book is the amount of  material it has about the Ecumenical movement in India. Nevertheless, it would have been good if all material concerning India was put together into one section. The author’s account of the Church union movements in North and South India is written well. The author’s expertise is evident clearly when he writes about the Indian scenario. One major disappointment for me in the book is the lack of information on inter-religious dialogue, which is considered to be one of the major activities of the ecumenical organizations like WCC today. Moreover, there are some repetitions in the book, and this could have been avoided if the materials were arranged more systematically. Overall, this book is a good introduction to the ecumenical movement world-wide and in India.

Bangalore: BTESSC/SATHRI, 2007. Pp. 1-248.

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