13 February 2016

Church History (Readers 2014, 2016)
Preparing for the third millennium

Some faces of the Church in the 20th century

Patrick Comerford,

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

Reader Course, Day Conference

Church History

Saturday 13 February 2016:

11.00 a.m., The Jenkins Room

Preparing for the third millennium:

The Modern Church, including the missionary and ecumenical movements, the growth of Third World (liberation/black) theologies and the new voice of women in the Church.


It is said more Christians died for their faith in the 20th century than in all previous centuries combined. It is impossible to disentangle Church history from secular, social, political and artistic history. For Christians, the major themes running through the 20th century include:

● Two World Wars that pitted nominally Christian nations against each other.
● The Holocaust, and Christian responses to anti-Semitism.
● The emergence of the charismatic movement within the churches and in separate denominations.
● The unfolding of the ecumenical movement.
● The revision of the liturgy, particularly in Roman Catholic and Anglican churches
. ● The expansion of mission work throughout the world and the spread of Christianity in non-Western regions.
● New Bible translations: in English this included the NRSV, the NEB and the NIV, in French the Jerusalem Bible; in other languages, the Bible was translated into the languages of 95% of humanity.
● The accelerating secularisation of Western society, which began in the 19th century.
● The rise of Communism, Fascism and Nazism in Europe.
● The role of the Church in challenging racism in North America and South Africa.
● The development of Liberation Theology, especially in Latin America.
● Hearing the voice of women in the Church, through the ordination of women and the development of feminist theology and women’s reading of the Bible.

World War I and its consequences:

Karl Barth … post-World War I response to defeated optimism

World War I (1914-1918) began 100 years ago as a war between what were seen as Christian monarchies.

The war shattered the belief that humanity was evolving towards a socially better society. As the war came to a close, the challenges it posed to faith and our theological thinking were taken up by many theologians, most noticeably the Swiss Reformed theologian, Karl Barth (1886-1968), who published his Commentary on Romans in 1918.

Neo-orthodoxy is often used as a label to describe the theology of crisis or dialectical theology that developed in Europe in the aftermath of World War I in reaction to 19th century liberal theology and as a re-evaluation of the teachings of the Reformation. Although Barth was uneasy with the term, it is primarily associated with Barth, Emil Brunner (1899–1966), Paul Tillich (1886-1965), Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) and others who drew on the approaches of earlier theologians such as Søren Kierkegaard.

Pentecostalism, ‘Fundamentalism’ and Evangelicalism:

Billy Graham, rose to prominence is the 1940s … what do we mean by ‘fundamentalism’?

The Pentecostal revival movement at the beginning of the 20th century began out of a passion for a greater outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In 1902, two American evangelists, Reuben Archer Torrey and Charles M. Alexander, conducted meetings in Australia, resulting in more than 8,000 conversions. Torrey and Alexander were involved in the beginnings of the great Welsh revival (1904).

News of this revival travelled fast, and in 1906, the modern Pentecostal Movement was born at Azusa Street in Los Angeles in 1906. From there, Pentecostalism spread around the world.

The publication in 1909 of Scofield’s Bible, annotated by Cyprus Scofield (1843-1921), was a stimulus to millenarianism, dispensationalism and what has become known, perhaps dismissively, as “fundamentalism.”

The movement takes its name from The Fundamentals, a collection of five books first published in 1910. These depend on believing in:

● The divine inspiration of the Bible and the inerrancy of scripture;
● The Virgin birth of Christ;
● Belief that Christ’s death was the atonement for sin;
● The bodily resurrection of Christ; and
● The historical reality of Christ’s miracles.

How we use the term ‘fundamentalism’ in later generations often reflected where we stood ourselves. What is the difference between conservative evangelicalism and fundamentalism? Where do you place Billy Graham or Jerry Falwell? What about evangelicals on the social left, such as Jim Wallis and Sojourners?

The rise of Communism:

The demolition of the Church of the Annunciation in Leningrad in 1929

Initially, the Russian Revolution appeared to bring hope to the Russian Orthodox Church. From the 18th century, the Russian Church had been run by the Most Holy Synod, which was made up of bishops and lay bureaucrats appointed by the tsar.

With the Russian Civil War, an independent Patriarchate of Moscow was re-established briefly in 1917. But after the October Revolution, there was no place for the Church in Lenin’s classless society. In the first five years after the Bolshevik revolution, 28 bishops and 1,200 priests were executed. Among the martyrs revered in the Russian Church is the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna who was a nun.

In the decades that followed, many of the bishops and priests were jailed or killed, churches were confiscated or demolished, leading Church thinkers went into exile, and atheism was promoted by the state, although most forms of organised religions were never outlawed. As a consequence, the Church was transformed into a persecuted and martyred Church.

During the Mexican Revolution between 1926 and 1934, over 3,000 priests were exiled or assassinated. In the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), the Roman Catholic Church came close to being identified with Franco’s anti-democratic putsch, and in 1937, in Divini Redemptoris, Pius XI identified Communism as the main adversary of the Roman Catholic Church, blaming Western powers and media for a conspiracy of silence on the persecutions carried out by Communist, Socialist and Fascist forces.

The rise of the Nazis:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer … a leading light in the resistance to the Nazis

The relationship between Nazism and Protestantism, especially the German Lutheran Church, was complex. Though the majority of Protestant Church leaders in Germany supported the Nazis and their anti-Jewish activities, some such were strongly opposed to the Nazis.

As early as 1934, the Barmen Declaration issued by the Confessing Church opposed the Nazi-supported “German Christians” and their anti-Semitism and extreme nationalism. More specifically, the Barmen Declaration rejects the subordination of the Church to the state and the subordination of the Word and Spirit to the Church.

Karl Barth, who was the principal author the Barmen Declaration, later returned to Switzerland as an exile. Perhaps the best-known opponent of Nazism to continue living in German was the Lutheran pastor and theologian as Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), author of The Cost of Discipleship and Letters and Papers from Prison.

In the encyclical, Mit brennender Sorge, Pope Pius XI warned Roman Catholics that anti-semitism is incompatible with Christianity. The encyclical, which was read from the pulpits of all German Catholic churches on Passion Sunday, 14 March 1937, included a veiled attack on Hitler, criticised the elevation of one race above others, condemned pantheistic confusion, neo-paganism, “the so-called myth of race and blood,” and statolatry.

During World War II (1939-1945), the Nazi persecution of Jews and of the Church extended through the Netherlands and Poland across many parts of Europe. In Poland, the Nazis murdered over 2,500 monks and priests, and many more were sent to concentration camps. In Dachau alone, the Priester-Block or priests’ barracks held 2,600 Roman Catholic priests.

Bonhoeffer was later found guilty in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler and was executed in 1945.

The Post-War Church:

Archbishop William Temple … advocated the Welfare State

Many Roman Catholic lay people and clergy helped to shelter Jews during the Holocaust. But after World War II, many historians accused the Church of encouraging centuries of anti-Semitism, and accused Pope Pius XII of not doing enough to stop Nazi atrocities, although others contested these criticisms and spoke highly of Pope Pius’s efforts to protect Jews.

The Nobel prize-winning writer Elie Wiesel raised major questions for both Jews and Christians that challenged post-Holocaust thinking. In many ways, this challenge was taken up by theologians such as Jürgen Moltmann.

The conscience of Christians responded to post-war sufferings in Europe in ways such as the formation of aid agencies like Oxfam, founded by Oxford academics and Quakers, and Christian Aid. Later in the 1960s, similar responses to famine and poverty in Africa would give birth to agencies such as Concern in Ireland and Cafod in England.

Decolonisation in Africa and Asia saw the emergence of Autonomous churches in the former colonies.

The post-war Church also saw new approaches to Biblical studies, stimulated in part by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, and the unfolding of the modern ecumenical movement.

In many European countries, the welfare state is a response to the war-time and post-war demands of the Churches, articulated in Britain particularly by Archbishop William Temple and in Continental Europe to the demands of the Churches and of both Christian Democrat and Social Democrat politicians.

The Ecumenical Movement:

Bishop George Bell … a foundational figure for the World Council of Churches

The modern ecumenical movement traces its foundations to the International Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910, which set the goal of “the evangelisation of the world in this generation.”

The Edinburgh conference gave rise to a number of movements that came together when the second conference of the Life and Work Movement in Oxford, and the second World Conference on Faith and Order in Edinburgh, both in 1937, approved the proposal for a World Council of Churches.

This ecumenical ideal faded with World War II, but the hopes for a World Council of Churches were kept alive by theologians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany and Bishop George Bell in England.

The World Council of Churches was formed in 1948. At the same time, united and uniting churches were being formed in Canada (1925), South India (1947), and later in North India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (1970), and Australia (1977).

Ecumenism also found expression in the monastic movements, with the formation of the Taizé Community by a Swiss Reformed pastor, Brother Roger Schütz, in 1944, and later with increased co-operation between monastic traditions such as the Benedictines and Franciscans.

The post-war Roman Catholic Church and Vatican II:

Pope John XXIII … called Vatican II in 1962

The Dogma of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary was proclaimed in 1950, and half way through the 20th century it may have appeared that the Roman Catholic Church was going to continue in a conservative mode, remaining isolated from the other Christian traditions and the developments in the ecumenical movement.

However, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) accelerated the pace of the ecumenical movement. Vatican II was called by Pope John XXIII with the task of making the historical teachings of the Church clear to a modern world. Its debates and documents discussed the nature of the Church, the mission of the laity, religious freedom and liturgical revisions most noticeable in the introduction of local languages.

Vatican II reaffirmed papal primacy and infallibility, but it also developed a conciliar view of the Church. This collegiality holds that bishops are not to be seen as “vicars of the Roman Pontiff,” but in their local churches they are “vicars and legates of Christ,” and together they form a body, a “college,” whose head is the Pope.

Vatican II also made Christian unity a priority for Roman Catholics. In addition to finding common ground with Protestants, the Roman Catholic Church became open to reunion with the Eastern Orthodox Church. In 1965, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras issued a joint expression of regret for the events that had led to the Great Schism and lifted the mutual excommunications dating from the 11th century.

Pope Paul VI also met Archbishop Michael Ramsey in the Vatican, and since then there have been meetings between every Pope and every Archbishop of Canterbury.

Vatican II also gave a new stimulus to the Liturgical Movement, which had been developing among Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Protestants. But for some Roman Catholics, Vatican II went either too far or not far enough. Hans Küng and Charles Curran had their authorisation to teach theology on behalf of the Church withdrawn, while others clung tenaciously to the old Tridentine Mass and rites, taking hope in 2007, when Pope Benedict XVI reinstated the old Mass as an option.

Latin America and Liberation Theology:

Archbishop Óscar Romero … murdered in San Salvador while he was saying Mass in 1980

The election of Pope Francis I, who was born in Argentina, was a reminder that Latin America historically was predominantly Roman Catholic.

In the 1960s, growing social awareness and politicization in the Latin American Church gave birth to liberation theology. Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez became its primary proponent,[ and in 1979 the bishops’ conference in Mexico officially declared the Latin American Church’s “preferential option for the poor.” Archbishop Óscar Romero became Latin America’s most famous contemporary martyr when he was murdered in San Salvador by government troops on 24 March 1980 while saying Mass.

Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI (as Cardinal Josef Ratzinger) denounced Liberation Theology. The Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff was twice ordered to cease publishing and teaching. While Pope John Paul II was criticised for his severity in dealing with proponents of the movement, he maintained that the Church, in its efforts to champion the poor, should not do so by resorting to violence or partisan politics.

The movement is still alive in Latin America, although the Roman Catholic Church there now faces the challenge of Pentecostal revival in much of the region. In recent decades, Latin America has also experienced a large Pentecostal revival and growth. For example, Brazil, which is Latin America’s largest country, is the largest Roman Catholic country in the world but is also the largest Evangelical country in the world.

Social and sexuality issues:

The Revd Dr Martin Luther King … murdered in 1968

Pope Pius XI issued Quadragesimo Anno in 1931, 40 years after Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum. Leo XIII addressed the conditions of the working class in industrial society, while Pius XI concentrated on the ethical implications of the social and economic order. He called for the reconstruction of the social order, but warned against both unrestrained capitalism and totalitarian communism.

The social teachings of Pope Pius XII repeated these teachings and applied them in greater detail not only to workers and owners of capital. Going beyond Pius XI, he also defined social teachings in the areas of medicine, psychology, sport, television, science, law and education.

The Church faced new challenging issues with the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968) reaffirmed traditional Roman Catholic teachings on marriage, marital relations and contraception, affirming the sanctity of life from conception to natural death and condemning abortion and euthanasia.

That same year, the Revd Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated (1968), just as the civil rights movement was coming to a climax in the US, where the churches, and especially the black churches, helped to empower the movement for black voting rights and black civil rights.

It took more than another two decades to end apartheid in South Africa, where the leading figures in the struggle against racism included church leaders such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Allan Boesak, John de Gruchy and Beyers Naudé. Drawing on the principles first expressed in the Barmen Declaration, many South African theologians proclaimed apartheid a “confessing” issue for the Church and declared apartheid is a heresy.

The collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe:

Pope John Paul II meets Lech Walesa

By 1957, about 22,000 Russian Orthodox churches were active. But in 1959 Nikita Khrushchev initiated a campaign against the Russian Orthodox Church, forcing about 12,000 churches to close. By 1985, there were fewer than 7,000 active churches.

However, in Poland the election of Pope John Paul II helped to stimulate a movement that grew with the Gdansk shipyard strike and the rise of Solidarity. The Churches in East Germany were active in weekly protests, especially in Leipzig and through the ‘Swords into Ploughshares’ movement before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The Russian Church was assured of a new freedom when the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991. Later, many parts of China became more tolerant of religious expressions, so that today it is said there are more Church members in China than there are members of the Chinese Communist Party.

Feminist theology and the ordination of women:

The ordination of women priests in Philadelphia in 1974

The ordination of women predates the emergence of feminist theology in the 20th century.

The first three women priests ordained in the Anglican Communion were in the Diocese of Hong Kong and Macao: Li Tim-Oi in 1944 and Jane Hwang and Joyce Bennett in 1971. In 1974, three Episcopal Church bishops in the US ordained 11 women as priests in an “irregular” ceremony and their ordinations were approved eventually in 1976. The first Anglican woman to be ordained a bishop was Barbara Harris (1989).

Pope John Paul II issue two documents reaffirming Roman Catholic teaching on women’s ordination: Mulieris Dignitatem (1988) and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994).

Post-Vatican II ecumenism:

Patriarch Bartholomew I with Pope John Paul II in the Vatican in 1995

Although there has been progress in seeking to reconcile the schism between the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox churches., concerns over papal primacy and the independence of the smaller Orthodox churches has blocked any hopes of a resolution. Some of the most difficult questions that remain in areas including: doctrine, (for example the Filioque clause), understandings of Scholasticism, asceticism and Hesychasm, the legacy of the Crusades and the Latin Empire, and the Uniate churches.

Patriarch Bartholomew I, who was elected as the 273rd Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in October 1991, visited the Vatican for the first time in June 1995, and took part in the inter-religious day of prayer for peace at Assisi. Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Bartholomew I explicitly stated their mutual “desire to relegate the excommunications of the past to oblivion and to set out on the way to re-establishing full communion.”

The future

Pope Francis I welcomes Patriarch Bartholomew I at his installation

We have seen the installation of a new Pope and a new Archbishop of Canterbury in recent years, almost at the same time.

In May 1999, Pope John Paul II visited Romania, becoming the first pope since the Great Schism to visit an Eastern Orthodox country. Greeting Pope John Paul II, the Romanian Patriarch Teoctist said: “The second millennium of Christian history began with a painful wounding of the unity of the Church; the end of this millennium has seen a real commitment to restoring Christian unity.”

But what does the new millennium promise the Church and the churches?

In Europe, there has been a general move away from religious observance and belief in Christianity and towards secularism. The secularisation of society, attributed to the Enlightenment and the thinking that followed, is largely responsible for the spread of secularism. For example, the Gallup International Millennium Survey showed that only about one sixth of Europeans attend regular religious services, less than half gave God “high importance,” and only about 40% believe in a “personal God.”

Nevertheless the large majority considered that they “belong” to a religious denomination.

It may be too early to tell, but statistics appear, at the moment, to show that the “de-Christianisation” of Europe has slowly begun to swing in the opposite direction. There is renewal in some quarters of the Anglican churches, and among the Protestant churches in Continental Europe. But is this enough to signal an initial step towards the reversal of the secularisation of Europe?

In North America, South America and Australia, the other three continents where Christianity is the dominant professed religion, religious observance is much higher than in Europe.

Throughout this module, we have been asking ourselves whether history shapes us or we shape history. History helps us to understand how we became who we are today as we face the future.

And so, at the end of this module it is appropriate to ask: What is the future for the Church?


(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This lecture on 13 February 2016 was part of the Church History Module on the Reader Course.

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