Daniel Webber on 'Doomed from the start? The Edinburgh Conference of 1910'
The Edinburgh Conference generated a huge sense of expectation. It was not a church conference, but an event for Missions and Missionaries. It is now remembered as the precursor of the World Council of Churches, rather than for its missionary vision.
A concern for world mission was inspired by the Evangelical revivals of 18th century. Similar gatherings had met since since 1854, dedicated to the evangelisation of world. Later meetings were more ecumenical in character, although the word "ecumenical" not used of the 1910 Conference as it was a Protestant event to the exclusion of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
Student leader, John Mott, who later helped to found of the World Council of Churches.
Organiser and scholar, with a gift for diplomacy, Joseph Oldham.
Edinburgh 1910 was a conference like no other. A kind of business meeting for missions. Its focus was not on education and inspiration, but the study of missionary policy. Reports were commissioned and discussed. Evangelistic action was to be based on analysis of factual reports. A new science of missiology was in the making.
Eight comission papers were prepared for discussion on subjects like 'The Gospel to the World', 'Preparation of Missionaries', 'Unity and Mission'. The decision was made that there was to be no discussion of doctrinal and church differences. In the USA contingent there were high hopes for church unity. Provision made to discuss this matter.
There were 1215 official delegates.
3. Conference sessions
Scottish Minister Alexander Whyte attended the opening session, which began with Lord Balfour reading a message from the King. This led to the spontaneous singing of the National Anthem. Quite what the American delegates made of singing "God save our gracious King", I don't know.
Balfour hoped that the desire for unity on the mission field might lead to greater unity at home.
Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson raised the expectation of a new era of worldwide evangelisation. He hoped that the centrality of mission might lead to coming of kingdom with power. Missionary conquest of world was within the grasp of the churches.
Commission reports were discussed, with Mott chairing the meetings in Napoleonic style. Responses were limited to 7 minutes. There were also times of prayer.
A resolution was made to set up continuation committee to consider whether an international missionary was to be body formed. The Conference closed with the singing of the Doxology.
Mott acted as chairman of the continuation committee, with Oldham as secretary. A framework of ecumenical structure was set up, which led to the founding of WCC in 1948.
Edinburgh 1910 was doomed from the start to be remembered as catalyst for ecumenism rather than for its vision for mission.
1) Divergence of views
When it came to the Commission Reports there were differences over the self-government of indigenous churches and the issue of cultural sensitivities. The world was divided between Western Christendom and Eastern Heathendom. It was not regarded as legitimate to evangelise in predominantly Roman Catholic or Orthodox countries. This reflected the Anglo-Catholic influence on the Conference.
There was a naive optimism on the part of Mott. He wanted to get things done with little thought of the cost in terms of doctrinal faithfulness. The scope of mission was changed from all the world to the non-christian world. There was no clarity on the gospel or on what it means to be a Christian in the New Testament sense.
2) No consideration of theological matters.
2) No consideration of theological matters.
The Ango-Catholic delegates insisted that the Conference would involve no doctrinal discussion. In Comission 2 on Native Churches, dependence on Western Creeds and Confessions was deprecated in favour of 'self- theologising'. Conference leaders were theological liberals. John Mott was a 'Liberal Evangelical'.
Theological indifferentism was the order of the day. This was not a distinctly Protestant Conference, holding to the 'Solas of the Reformation'. Evangelicals attended, but non-Evangelicals controlled the event.
3) Preoccupation with unity
The key sub-plot of 1910 was a call for unity, which featured in each Commission. Commission 8 was devoted entirely to unity. Evangelicals wanted more interdenominational co-operation, but the leaders of the Edinburgh Conference wanted a broader approach, with the inclusion of Anglo-Catholics. Leaders went to great lengths to keep the Anglo-Catholics on board. Objection was made to regarding Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Churches as non-Christian. It was said that 1910 could not be a truly ecumenical gathering without without RC and EO delegates. There was no room for the evangelisation of RC's and EO's.
The New Testament has a lot to say on Christian unity, but not at expense of gospel. We must face the questions: What is the gospel? What is a Christian? What is a Church? What is our mission to world? Edinburgh 1910 offered a new vision for ecumenical mission. With its focus on institutional unity, it was doomed from the start to be remembered as the forerunner of the WCC, rather than for its missionary vision.
The assembly was not sufficiently focused on mission. It was sidetracked by the ecumenical agenda. With the involvement of Anglo-Catholics and theological liberals there was no agreement on the gospel. This diverse theological outlook was reflected in the commission papers. Evangelicals who participated did not stand out against this, or threaten to withdraw. But within decades, most Evangelicals would separate themselves from WCC-style ecumenism.
The 1910 Edinburgh Conference led to two developments. The founding of the WCC in 1948, and the specifically Evangelical assemblies for world mission, beginning with the Lusanne Conference in 1974.