The ecumenical movement in Asia in the context of Asian sociopolitical realities

S. Wesley Ariarajah


The word 'ecumenical' has many shades of meaning and is used in a variety of ways. Therefore, it is important to understand the special meaning it has acquired in the Asian context. The original Greek word 'oikoumene' in the Roman world simply meant, 'the whole inhabited earth'. At the height of Roman power, the occupied territories of the empire were equated with 'the whole inhabited earth'. Ecumenism, therefore, had to do originally with what happened in the territories of the empire. However, ever since the church became a prominent part of the empire, successive emperors had to deal with the problem of divisions within the church over the interpretation of the Christian faith. They feared that disunity and divisions within the church would harm the unity and coherence of the empire itself. Thus, the emperors themselves wanted to preserve the unity of the church and from time to time brought the bishops of the oikoumene (the occupied territories) together, if need be by the use of force, and put pressure on them to come to agreements on questions of doctrine so that the 'unity of the oikoumene' might be preserved. These councils that the Emperors organized were the ancient 'ecumenical councils' that drew up many of the classical doctrinal statements and the Creeds - like the Nicene Creed.

Since these ecumenical councils were organized to maintain and at times enforce the unity of the church, the word 'ecumenical' came to be associated with the search for church unity. The modern ecumenical movement, in its early expressions as the Missionary and Life and Work Movements, for instance, were primarily concerned, respectively, with 'unity' among Christian mission agencies for the spread of the gospel and for the churches to speak with 'one voice' on issues faced in the world.

The Faith and Order Movement, which eventually became the primary symbol of the ecumenical movement in the western world, concerned itself almost exclusively with the search for the visible unity of the church. It is significant that when the World Council of Churches came into existence in 1948, incorporating Faith and Order and Life and Work (the Missionary Movement was to come in later), the mottoes that were chosen were from John 17:11 (RSV) 'that they may be one' and from John 17:21 'that the world may believe'. The concern was for Christian unity so that 'the world may believe' the Christian message. The ministry of the World Council of Churches, of course, developed into something much larger and the WCC has an impressive record of concern for the world and its unity. But it had become difficult to disassociate the word 'ecumenical' from the internal life of the church.

Wilfred Cantwell Smith points out the distortion that had taken place. The word that was intended to mean the unity of the peoples on the earth, he says, has 'been appropriated lately to designate rather an internal development within the ongoing Church'.1 He argues that the word should apply to the search for the wider unity in a religiously plural world. The word, as we have seen, however, originally meant much more than even the unity and harmony among religious traditions.

As we shall see in the discussions that follow, it is significant that it is in the Asian context that the word 'ecumenical' has gradually begun to recover its original meaning of concern for 'the whole inhabited earth'. Christian unity has been one of the dimensions of the understanding of the 'ecumenical' in Asia as well; but the emphasis has more clearly been on the peoples, social movements, economic realities and socio-political revolutions in the Asian continent. It could be said that the ecumenical movement in Asia is about 'the People of God in the midst of All God's People', and its mission is about the 'healing of the nations'. This reality gives a new flavour and a solid grounding to Asian ecumenism.

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