Oct. 19 marked the 100th anniversary of the Faith and Order movement, which for a century has sought Christian unity through theological dialogue among representatives of various churches.

The beginnings of Faith and Order are closely linked to the World Missionary Conference of June 1910 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

The focus of the Edinburgh Conference was cooperation in global Christian mission. Questions around church-dividing issues and controversial points of doctrine were intentionally avoided during public discussions in Edinburgh, yet they were in the minds of many who attended.

One participant in the conference was Charles Brent, a Canadian by birth who was serving as  a missionary in the Philippines on behalf of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America. The idea of a Faith and Order conference began with Brent, who made the link between the Edinburgh Conference with its call for Christian unity and the need to resolve issues of faith and order in the divided churches.

He recognized that the “self-denying ordinance” not to discuss questions of difference was a good one in the context of missionary strategy, but that questions of faith and order needed their own appropriate forum, and in such a forum they might be discussed and resolved through dialogue.

At the end of the Edinburgh Conference, Brent said: “During these past days a new vision has been unfolded to us. But whenever God gives a vision He also points to some new responsibility, and you and I, when we leave this assembly, will go away with some fresh duties to perform.”

Brent returned to the United States in 1910 for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, held in October of that year. He prepared a resolution for that body that would have major consequences for the nascent ecumenical movement.

On Oct. 19, 1910, the General Convention unanimously passed a resolution calling for a world conference of the representatives of all the churches “for the consideration of questions pertaining to the Faith and Order of the Church of Christ”. 

This action of a church — not a theological faculty or missionary society — ensured an ecclesial commitment to overcome past histories by means of theological dialogue and to prepare the way for the Church’s unity in faith, order, life, work, worship and mission so that the world may believe in Christ.

As Günther Gassmann, a former director of Faith and Order for the World Council of Churches (WCC), has written: “Faith and Order was and is a movement of and in the churches. All theological efforts on all levels within churches and between churches towards closer and, finally, full communion are, in a way, Faith and Order efforts.”

There were other significant American calls for the resolution of church-dividing issues around the same time as the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, notably from the National Council of Congregational Churches and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), both on Oct. 18, 1910.

However, the date of 19 October 1910 marks the institutional beginning of the Faith and Order movement that would lead directly to the First World Conference on Faith and Order in Lausanne, 1927.

Brent presided over the 1927 event. Faith and Order, along with the Life and Work movement, became a constitutive element of the WCC at the inauguration of that body in 1948. The Commission on Faith and Order continues to be a vital dimension of the work of the WCC and now includes the Roman Catholic Church, though it is not a formal member of the WCC.

The Rev. John Gibaut is the director of the WCC Commission on Faith and Order.