Adjournment of the ten-day meeting of the World Council of Churches’ Central Committee held in Enugu, Nigeria, came shortly before noon on January 21. Within twenty-four hours, Dr. Franklin Clark Fry, chairman of the Central Committee, was in New York giving reporters his version of what had taken place. The big item:

Within a few months, machinery will be established for continuing rapprochement between the WCC and the Roman Catholic Church.

At its meeting in Enugu, the 100-member Central Committee approved plans for a “Working Group” composed of eight persons appointed by the WCC and six named by Roman Catholic officials. The group will be expected to foster greater cooperation and collaboration.

Fry, looking fresh and acting amiably despite his having spent the entire night cramped in a jet, showed considerable restraint in reflecting upon the development.

“This is not a great milestone,” he said. “All of us are rather keeping our hopes in suspense.… One has to wait to see how the course of history flows.”

There seems to be some uncertainty about the level in the Roman Catholic hierarchy from which approval of the Working Group must come. Fry was confident, however, that the Catholics would win complete sanction for their side of the compact. Thus far, the World Council has been dealing with the Vatican Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, probably the most free-wheeling agency in Rome.

Fry gave no background on the events leading up to the formation of the Working Group idea, beyond saying that key roles in negotiations were played by Dr. W. A. Visser ’t Hooft, WCC general secretary, and Roman Catholic Bishop Jan Willebrands of Holland, secretary of the Vatican unity secretariat.

“They’re both Dutchmen,” he quipped, “and they discussed it in Dutch.”

What will the Working Group discuss? Fry observed that there would be “something to be gained” if the first talks do not touch on “too complicated” subjects but rather explore topics where “results” are likely to be produced. One possible area for exploration, he said, is the setting of a fixed date for Easter.

Why the eight-six ratio in the makeup of the group? Fry would only say that it had been arranged in preparatory meetings and that, although “we would have been happy with an equal number,” the Catholics recognized the “dissimilar” nature of the two parties. There is no presumption, he added, of negotiations on equal terms.

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Not nearly so dramatic as the initiative shown by the WCC toward Catholics but noteworthy in its own right is the new bid for evangelicals. Fry commented that “churches of this character” are welcome in the World Council but contended that the organization is “never in the business of soliciting members.”

The touchiest questions put to Fry concerned the battle within the World Council over who is to succeed the retiring Visser ’t Hooft as general secretary. The Central Committee had given its fourteen-member Executive Committee the job of nominating a successor, and the Executive Committee came up with the name of the Rev. Patrick C. Rodger, a Scottish Episcopal priest who has been executive secretary of the WCC Faith and Order Department. Rodger’s nomination was then publicized as if it were tantamount to election, and a storm of criticism rose up in WCC ranks. The Central Committee did not act upon the Executive Committee’s recommendation. Instead, it appointed a special nominating committee of eighteen to recommend a candidate.

Although Rodger formally withdrew his candidacy, Fry said he could be renamed. Fry conceded that there are political considerations in the choice of a new general secretary. Other qualifications being comparable, a person from a “neutral country” is more likely to get the post, Fry declared.

Enugu: No Fixed Position

While Enugu’s air-conditioned $3 million Hotel Presidential kept out the Harmattan dust blowing down from the Sahara, the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches meeting in the Eastern Nigerian capital was conscious of the shifting sands of the ecumenical movement.

“The whole position of church relations is upset,” Dr. Lucas Vischer, research secretary of the Department of Faith and Order, told a CHRISTIANITY TODAY reporter. “There are no longer any fixed positions.”

Dr. Vischer, who has been a liaison in dialogues with the Vatican, reported on the changing positions which came from the Second Vatican Council. He felt it was now up to the World Council to take the initiative in responding. “The non-Roman churches cannot look at the Roman Catholic Church as impassive observers,” Dr. Vischer told delegates. “Whether they like it or not, they find themselves in fellowship.” The Central Committee enthusiastically approved setting up a fourteen-man joint “Working Group” with the Roman Catholic Church to study methods of collaboration.

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Significantly, a proposal to strengthen relations with “conservative evangelicals” immediately followed the Vatican discussion, although Dr. John Marsh, head of the Division of Studies, asserted that this was “not a means of setting off or counterweighing the approach to the Roman Catholics.” There was significant reaction to an introductory paragraph that defined the conservative position with surprising candor: “One of the vital movements of our time is found among Christians who may be called Conservative Evangelicals. This name is used for Christians who differ from one another at many points, but lay their own distinctive emphasis upon Scriptural authority; the experience of the new life in Christ; purity in the Church, and missionary zeal.”

Dr. Ernest A. Payne, WCC Executive Committee member from Great Britain (Baptist Union), objected to the definition, which he felt implied that others lacked these elements.

Jumping to his feet, Dr. Martin Niemöller, a WCC co-president who celebrated his seventy-third birthday during the sessions, exploded: “If we included this paragraph, fundamentalists in my country would say, ‘Now you have confessed yourselves!’ ” However, Professor H. Berkhof of the Netherlands Reformed Church defended the paragraph, pointing out that church purity is the main evangelical concern.

Sir Kenneth Grubb of the Church of England thought the paragraph should be deleted. “It is a highly delicate subject,” he told the committee. “Only recently have we been able to come out into the public with some of the informal discussions being held with conservatives.”

The Central Committee eventually agreed to substitute for the entire statement an earlier one made by the Executive Committee calling on the WCC to strengthen relations with conservative evangelicals and to give more expression to such elements in their member churches.

The committee also took note of evangelical activity in the distribution of the Scriptures and Bible correspondence courses and in the formation of “little congregations”—cells of Christians gathered in homes and factories for witness and service. These are people living “an authentic Christian life where they live.” The committee felt this was an answer to the increasing secularization of the world and asked whether the parish structure of missionary work limited Christian witness.

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Although there were only five Africans on the Central Committee (compared with twenty-two from the United States), siting of the sessions in Africa pointed up the WCC’s increasing interest in the continent.

The committee approved an appeal for a $1 million African fund chiefly to aid refugees, youth, and rural development. A committee report on race singled out South Africa and the United States for censure, and made no reference to the Congo massacre.

Expressing “deep appreciation” for missionary work, Sir Francis Ibiam, governor of Eastern Nigeria and a president of the World Council, appealed to the Church to continue sending missionaries. “The Commission of Jesus Christ will not be complete until he returns again,” he stated. He also pointed out the need for missionaries to integrate themselves fully with the life of the people and not to represent their own culture.

Looking to the future, the committee (1) discussed plans for next year’s World Conference on Churches and Society; (2) laid plans for the next World Assembly (August or September, 1968) with the theme, “Behold I Make All Things New”; (3) appointed a committee to renominate a successor for retiring General Secretary W. A. Visser t’ Hooft. Strong opposition, mainly from the Orthodox churches, to the first nominee, the Rev. Patrick Rodger, deadlocked the sessions for two days.

The increasing influence of Orthodoxy on the World Council was noticeable. With the committee’s acceptance of the Serbian Orthodox Church (eight million), only one of the fourteen autocephalous Orthodox churches remained outside the WCC. On the one hand Orthodox members brought more respect for the Word of God (“We feel closer to the fundamentalists than the liberals,” said one); but on the other hand they increased the accent on sacramentalism and ecclesiology (“Talk about ending up in Rome—we are already there!” said one evangelical observer). Orthodox members feel that the Church in the future will take on their pattern.

In their zeal to woo conservative evangelicals as well as Roman Catholics, committee members obviously did not understand the evangelical viewpoint—that unity must be based on doctrinal veracity, not the desire for dialogue.

“The WCC is a club for debating,” Dr. D. T. Niles of Ceylon explained. “If you don’t agree with it, you should come inside and make your point. We don’t bother about doctrine—that should not keep a person out.”

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Surveying The Road To Merger

Back in the pulpit of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral where four years ago he issued his dramatic call for a super-denomination embracing more than 20 million Americans, Dr. Eugene Carson Blake reflected on what has happened since. He also talked of “the developing insights from the Gospel as to what Jesus Christ requires of any church which would bring its whole life under subjection to his Word.”

Blake, the ecumenist par excellence, noted the enthusiastic response his call had elicited in many church circles. Significantly, however, he made no attempt to allay the apprehensions of other ecumenical leaders such as Dr. John Mackay, who casts a wary eye on “the dramatic approach to unity” and asserts that “the pursuit of unity can be mere escape from reality and from concern about the Church’s mission.”

Blake voiced obvious disappointment over the “clear tendency upon the part of all churches to become more and more engaged in world-wide confessional relationships.… This development, if it continues, will make any widespread reunion of Protestant and Anglican churches in North America less and less likely.”

A key figure in the civil rights lobby during 1964, Blake said the racial issue has had an ambiguous effect upon his plan of union for United Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, and the United Church of Christ—and now also the Evangelical United Brethren and Disciples of Christ.

The effect of the crisis in race relations, he declared, gave to some “hope that church union could come by moral renewal of the churches’ relevance to real life. For others, it gave pause, wondering whether ecumenical and racial integration would divide parts of denominations from those in the same denominations who were ‘evangelical’ and ‘conservative’ on all social matters, including race.”

Blake said unity must not be achieved at the expense of truth, nor should acquisition of power be a motive. But he offered no guidelines on how to reconcile the patent unitarianism of Bishop James A. Pike with the evangelistic zeal of Harry Denman. Nor did he suggest how a 20,000,000-member denomination can resist power.

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