In 2000, after fifty years together, Church World Service and the National Council of Churches separated their organizations. These two ecumenical bodies, devoted to Christian unity, decided to do so after more than thirty years of intra-organizational tension had evolved into irreconcilable differences. This essay explores the long history of their troubled relationship and illustrates how profoundly political culture affects religious life and work. It asserts that the causes of their divorce were rooted in constituent and structural differences that became especially problematic during politically polarized eras. In spite of a mutual devotion to Christian unity based upon the expectation that ecumenism requires transcendence of worldly self interests, the NCC and CWS could not easily transcend the political culture of their times nor the self interests of their constituents if they wished to survive as organizations. Awareness of this reality is now a factor in the reshaping of national ecumenical organizations in the United States, which are moving more toward a multi-centered satellite model of ecumenism. The NCC/CWS split is also part of a global trend, for councils of churches and their service wings in several nations have been divorcing in recent years. Due to the influence of American ecumenical organizations internationally, the outcome of the NCC/CWS efforts to redefine themselves and their relationship will affect the future of ecumenism both within and beyond America's borders.
- ©© 2004 by The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture. All rights reserved.