“Editorial Correspondence,” by Reinhold Niebuhr
April 28, 1947
I have just spent a week in the Ecumenical Institute, situated a few miles outside of Geneva, Switzerland. This is the Institute founded by the World Council of Churches and was made possible by a generous gift from Mr. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The week has been a most satisfying experience and has convinced me that this is one of the most creative undertakings of the World Council.
The Institute sessions of nine weeks are designed to bring new guidance and inspiration to pastors and church leaders from all the churches of Europe. In the present session, the closing week of which I had the privilege of attending, the student body numbered 37. These were drawn from 15 different nationalities. Courses intended to point to the problems of the renewal of the church’s spiritual life, its leadership among the youth, its relation to social and political problems were conducted with leaders from various parts of Europe coming in for special courses of a week or two weeks.
In this particular conference the presence of ten students and pastors from Germany, the largest single national contingent, was especially significant. I am told that at the beginning there were some tense moments between Czech and German members, for instance, when for the first time some of the Germans were fully acquainted with the devastation wrought in the occupied countries. But by the time I arrived many of these problems, dividing enemy nations, had been subjected to long and searching discussion and a genuine bond of Christian fellowship had been established.
Naturally some of the most valuable education of such a conference proceeds through informal discussion among the students, who exchange experiences and viewpoints on the work of the church. It was for instance, quite wholesome that the students of Western Europe, for whom communism is a terrible bogey, learned from the Czech pastors that some of their pious church members were active socialists, and even communists, and that Czechoslovakia has a very vital church life, despite its inclusion in the orbit of Russian power.
Among the leaders who had made a particularly deep impression upon the students were: Professor Prenter of Denmark, one of the ablest of the young theologians of the continent; Professor Erich Wolf, a member of the Confessional Church of Germany and a professor of law at the University of Freiburg; and Father Florowsky of the Orthodox Institute in Paris.
These men, representing various viewpoints and theological positions, enriched the thought and life of the young leaders of the churches. I myself had the opportunity of listening to accounts of many different types of church and religious problems characteristic of the several nations represented. I was glad to find that the students were very critical of the established church principle, though most of them came from established churches. There was a wholesome desire to find a way of creating a more unique church life and a more genuine church community so that not everybody (and hence nobody) would belong to the church, as is the practice in some continental established churches.
There was at the same time a very critical attitude toward the idea of “Christian” political parties. These parties have been, in my opinion, the bane of continental political life and have helped to create the wide rift between the churches and the working masses of the continent.
Naturally an American, while appreciative of the Bible-informed piety of continental pastors, sometimes wishes that they would not split so many Biblical hairs and would allow themselves to be swept away by the majesty of the whole Biblical truth, rather than to become lost in the maze of exegetical niceties. But we undoubtedly have much to learn from them, as they from the Anglo-Saxon world.
Such an institute is a more valuable ecumenical adventure than many short term conferences. It will bring great blessings to the church life of the world.