Encyclopedia of Religion
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William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Ecumenics developed into an academic discipline in the 1960s after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) when Catholic and Protestant universities in Europe began to appoint ecumenical specialists. The World Council of Churches (WCC) founded an Ecumenical Institute in 1946 (affiliated to University of Geneva, 1952). Disciplinary institutionalization is lower in Britain and North America than continental Europe, so ecumenics is often combined with theology (occasionally sociology). Ecumenists tend to be recruited from history, dogmatics, and biblical studies, which explains why sociology of ecumenism is still underrepresented in the academy. Neither the catalogues of the WCC nor Lossky's Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement (Eerdmans 1991) has entries on "sociology of ecumenism." Currie's sociological study Methodism Divided (Faber 1968) appears under "Methodist positions in the Ecumenical Movement," Wilson's Religion in Secular Society (Watts 1966) under "Social Theology," Berger's "market model" (1963) is not even mentioned. Sociology of ecumenism is still a blind spot, although Towler (1974:165) argues that "an ideology as strong and persuasive as ecumenism deserves careful study."

The first scholar to examine the sociological aspects of denominationalism and ecumenicalism was H. Richard Niebuhr. In The Social Sources of Denominationalism (Holt 1929), he identified such "sociological factors" as race and social class in explaining the tendency toward schism and the persistence of denominationalism—hence the report "The Non-theological Factors in the Making and Unmaking of Church Unity" presented to the Conference on Faith and Order in 1937. F&O reopened the discussion in 1952 after C. H. Dodd sent a letter on "Unavowed Motives" to the Central Committee. Ehrenström and Muelder's report (1963) is the only sociological analysis commissioned by the WCC.

It is a moot point whether Niebuhr's Social Sources is full-fledged sociology of religion (although it is often excerpted in sociological readers). He treated nontheological factors as the independent variable in 1929 and "the power of theology" in The Kingdom of God in America (Harper) in 1937. So it is still not clear what the independent variable is in the complex ecumenical equation (a problem now compounded by the division of labor that relegates theological factors to theologians and nontheological factors to sociologists). Mixed motivations are not uncommon. The Winnipeg Call to Union of 1902 preceding the Canadian union of 1925 is a good example. Theological statements can be used to legitimate nontheological motivations such as the quest for greater economic efficiency (see Lee 1960, Thompson 1978).

Turner (1972:242) noted that ecumenists do not define their concepts consistently. It is not always clear what they mean when they use terms such as ecumenism, ecumenicalism, ecumenicity, ecumenicality , the ecumene , the Ecumenical Movement , and Ecumenics. Ecumenism and ecumenics are often treated as synonyms, whereas the Ecumenical Movement or the ecumene are treated as blanket terms to cover the whole of the ecumenical enterprise. "Ecumenism" and "ecumenicalism" are best treated as an "ideology." Its basic form is the ideal "that all should be one" (John 17). It is elaborated in the form of Models of Unity: Organic Unity, Federal Unity, Reconciled Diversity, a Communion of Communions, Conciliar Ecumenism, Secular Ecumenism, and Spiritual Ecumenism (Lossky 1991). "Ecumenicity" is an "attitude": that is, the "affective" dimension of the processes of ecumenical dedifferentiation. It (1) denotes positive perceptions of other Christian denominations and their members and (2) presupposes commitment to ecumenical goals.

Durkheimians might object that we are dealing with psychology (i.e., the attitudes of individuals ); in practice, however, much sociology of ecumenism consists of surveys of the ecumenical and antiecumenical attitudes of affiliates, the clergy, and denominational leaders (examples in Black 1983:94 ff.; Ranson et al. 1977:76 ff.). "Ecumenism" (an ideology) presupposes "ecumenicity" (an attitude). "Ecumenics" denotes an academic discipline. It should ideally be based on the best that historical, sociological, and theological scholarship have to offer. It should also avoid the extremes of sociological and theological "reductionism." Ecumenics (like the law and medicine) is also a practical discipline, because it is relevant to the task of uniting Christian denominations. The "ecumenical elite" is distributed over such sites as (1) ecumenical bureaucracies in the network of Councils of Churches, (2) denominational "boards," (3) ecumenical negotiations, (4) universities and ecumenical institutes. (These are analytical distinctions because ecumenists often work in two or more of these sites.) Its main tasks are (1) to produce and evaluate "consensus texts" (the "diplomatic dialogue of experts"; Willaime 1989:15); and (2) to describe and explain processes of "denominational differentiation" and "ecumenical dedifferentiation" (Staples 1992). Ecumenics should not be reduced to studies of texts produced by the elite.

The "Ecumenical Movement" denotes nonofficial groups of Christians that organized themselves in the nineteenth century into "social movements" to propagate ecumenism and pursue ecumenical goals. They recruited mostly from the ranks of like-minded Protestants such as Anglo-Saxon Evangelicals and Lutheran Pietists (together with liberals) and joined forces to provide education, to found interdenominational missionary societies, to provide services for young people (YMCA and YWCA) and college students e.g., the Student Christian Movements affiliated to the World's Student Christian Fellowship in 1895), and to struggle for peace and social justice. The International Missionary Council (1921), the Life and Work Movement (1925), and the Faith and Order Movement (1927) became departments of the WCC in 1961 and 1948. All were founded by charismatic leaders or "ecumenical pioneers" (Willaime 1989:15) who emerged from the ranks of the earlier social movements.

The Ecumenical Movement is a complex cluster of "social movements" that was gradually "officialized" in the form of a network of councils of churches from the local to the global level as denominations obtained the right to appoint official delegations to the classical ecumenical conferences and to the assemblies and "boards" of the WCC (from 1948). Like the United Nations, multinational corporations, and the world economic system, it is now a "global" phenomenon; so ecumenical studies must be inserted into globalization studies. The "ecumenical process" is a sociohistorical phenomenon that subsumes all those features denoted by terms such as ecumenism, ecumenicity , and the Ecumenical Movement and also subsumes the individual and concerted actions of "ecumenicals" and "antiecumenicals" (and interactions between them) in the interlocking processes of "denominational differentiation" and "ecumenical dedifferentiation." The ecumenical process could now be treated as a "living laboratory" in which to describe, explain, and theorize a number of macro-to-micro linkages from the local to the global level such as "processes of reception" (Rusch 1988). If theologians, historians, and sociologists can learn to work together in one "interdiscipline," it could also be used as a laboratory in which to test theories that link "ideas," individual and concerted ecumenical actions ("agency"), and processes of ecumenical "structuration" (described by Giddens [1984] as that which both "enables" and "constrains"; for inherent "constraints" in the ecumenical process, see Staples 1995, Black 1993).

The "ecumene" (oikoumene ) means the "inhabited world" in Greek. It can now be analytically divided into the "little ecumene" (Christian denominations) and the "great ecumene" (all the world's religions and the interfaith dialogue among them). This raises the question of whether their members perceive each other in ways that are positive, negative, or hostile. The full range of reactions runs from religious wars and persecutions to syncretism and mergers with "peaceful coexistence," "mutual cooperation," and "federal constructions" as the middle terms (see Turner 1972:242 f). Ecumenical dialogue is the means for shifting the balance toward the positive end of the spectrum. In the "little ecumene," one aim of dialogue is to correct misperceptions.

Attitude surveys, identity studies, and inculturation studies (Lossky 1991:506 f) shed light on such perceptions. Attitudes of Jews, Christians, Muslims to each other are regularly featured in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies . The applicability of Mol's account of religious identity is limited because he did not ask how religionists with the same denominational identity interact with others in the ecumenical process. His claim that only "invasion from outer space" can unite divided denominations (Mol 1976:85) explains neither "Objective Progress" toward Christian unity nor the network of councils of churches, while he prefers group identities with firm identity boundaries buttressed by "prejudice" (1976:86 ff). A better understanding of "we-feeling" can be found in Gilbert's essay On Social Facts (Princeton University Press 1992). Mol also overlooks the possible emergence of "a powerful cultural consensus" (Turner calls this "homogenization," 1972:239 ff). A good example is Protestantism in nineteenth-century Canada (Westfall 1989). This explains why union efforts did not fail in Canada, even if they failed in the United States (Finke and Stark 1992; but they did not always fail in the United States, see Douglass 1937).

Peter Staples


P. Berger, "A Market Model for the Analysis of Ecumenicity," Social Research 30(1963): 77-93

A. W. Black "Ironies of Ecumenism," Ecumenical Review 45(1993):469-481

A. W. Black, "The Sociology of Ecumenism," in Practice and Belief , ed. A. W. Black and P. E. Glasner (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1983): 86-107

H. P. Douglass, A Decade of Objective Progress in Church Unity 1927-1936 (New York: Harper, 1937)

N. Ehrenström and W. G. Muelder, Institutionalism and Church Unity (New York: Association, 1963)

R. Finke and R. Stark, The Churching of America 1776-1990 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992)

A. Giddens, The Constitution of Society (Cambridge: Polity, 1984)

R. Lee, The Social Sources of Church Unity (New York: Abingdon, 1960)

N. Lossky (ed.), Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991)

H. Mol, Identity and the Sacred (Oxford: Blackwell, 1976)

S. Ranson et al. (eds.) Clergy, Ministers and Priests (London: Routledge, 1977)

W. G. Rusch, Reception (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988)

P. Staples, "Theory and Method in Ecumenical Science," pp. 139-173 in Ekumeniken och forskningen , ed. Sigurd Bergmann et al. (Uppsala: Nordiska Ekumeniska Rådet, 1992)

P. Staples, "Ultimates as Paradoxical Limits in Christian Ecumenical Science," URAM Journal 18(1995): 139-150

D. M. Thompson, "Theological and Sociological Approaches to the Motivation of the Ecumenical Movement," in Religious Motivation , ed. D. Baker (Oxford: Blackwell, 1978): 467-479

R. Towler, Homo Religiosus (London: Constable, 1974)

B. S. Turner, "The Sociological Expla- nation of Ecumenicalism," pp. 231-245 in The Social Sciences and the Churches , ed. C. L. Mitton (Edinburgh: Clark, 1972): 231-245

W. Westfall, Two Worlds (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1989)

J. Willaime (ed.), Vers de nouveaux oecuménismes (Latour-Maubourg: Cerf, 1989).

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