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NCC centennial observances
New York, October 9, 2008 -- The National Council of Churches is posting a series of monthly "Ecumenical Moments" on its Web page as one of several ways of celebrating it's 100th anniversary this year.
The NCC, which was formed in 1950, traces its origins to the founding of its predecessor council, the Federal Council of Churches in America, in 1908.
Most of the "Ecumenical Moments" retrace familiar NCC activities in Bible publishing, religious education, and peace and justice work. But there have been surprises.
For example, historians remember the occasionally bellicose foreign policy of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in the early days of the Cold War. But the devout Presbyterian layman was a devoted peace activist when he was active in the Federal Council of Churches in the 1940s.
In March 1942, after the outbreak of World War II, Dulles was the author of a Federal Council paper, "Bases of a Just and Durable Peace," which called for a radical restructuring of the world. The paper called for a universal system of money, international control of armies and navies, worldwide freedom of immigration, the elimination of tariffs, the abandonment of colonial systems (including the American oppression of Negroes), and a democratically controlled international bank to make development cash available to nations that needed it.
After the war, most colonial systems collapsed under their own weight, but virtually every other Dulles proposal was abandoned. The world that Dulles faced when President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed him Secretary of State in 1953 remained hostile and dangerous.
The Federal Council of Churches also weighed in at the end of the Second World War, following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Rev. Dr. Samuel McCrae Cavert, Federal Council general secretary, wrote to President Truman to deplore the "indiscriminate" destructive power of the bombs, and to warn that "their use sets (an) extremely dangerous precedent for (the) future of mankind." President Truman, never known for his diplomacy, shot back, "When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast."
The Eisenhower years (1953-1961) were known for their social conservatism, but another Eisenhower cabinet appointee became one of the National Council of Churches' most eloquent leaders during the American Civil Rights Movement.
Dr. Arthur S. Flemming, a Methodist and life-long Republican, was Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare in the 1950s, and President of the National Council of Churches in the turbulent year 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
"We must confess the guilt of racism, ... ask for forgiveness and proceed to do do everything possible to rectify the conditions that confront us as a result of our sins," Flemming said on behalf of the NCC and millions of Americans. "The time for action is now. There is not time for gradualism. The Negro people, especially the young, will wait no longer for justice – for opportunities and the means to participate fully in American society. The National Council of Churches believes that there is no time left for business as usual – in the nation and in the life of the churches."
Other events in ecumenical history are less surprising but no less important. The Federal Council of Churches was founded in a spirit of Christian social action. The Rev. Frank Mason North, also a Methodist, introduced to the Federal Council a report on labor conditions in America that became "The Social Creed of the Churches." It was a first step toward relieving harsh and primitive conditions in mines and factories, and outlawing child labor.
The translation and publication of the Revised Standard Version of the bible in 1953 was also a key event in ecumenical history. An ecumenical moment reports that the RSV was on the nation's best seller lists by June that year -- ahead of Arnold Toynbee's The World and the West, and behind Major Campaign Speeches by Adlai Stevenson.
Other ecumenical moments have recorded the career of Episcopalian Cynthia Wedel, a psychologist who was the first woman president of the NCC, the activism of civil rights icon W. Sterling Cary, a United Church of Christ clergyman and the NCC's first African American president.
The current ecumenical moment, coinciding with the Hispanic Heritage Celebration in October, honors the contributions of the late Dr. Jorge Lara-Braud, assistant general secretary of the National Council of Churches for Faith and Order from 1972 to 1980
NCC General Secretary, the Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, said the ecumenical moments have played an important role in the NCC's centennial celebration because every member communion has played a role in NCC history. "We believe deeply that this history will illuminate our future paths." He urged communions and their congregations to post links to the ecumenical moments "so they can be shared as widely as possible."
NCC News contact: Philip E. Jenks, 212-870-2228, NCCnews@ncccusa.org
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