This Living Church editorial from the end of 1950 addresses the founding of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America (almost always today called the National Council of Churches or NCC) on Nov. 29, 1950, and the election of the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Henry Knox Sherrill, as its first president. The NCC brought together a large number of interchurch agencies as a representative ecumenical body of Protestant and Orthodox churches.
TLC took a stance of cautious welcome, criticizing some of the activities and positions of predecessor bodies, but hoping and praying that “it will justify the high hopes that are placed in it by the millions of members of its constituent bodies, and we wish it long life and the blessings of the Lord and Saviour in whose Name it is set up, and to whose service it is dedicated.” This statement stands out as indicative of the churchmanship and ecclesiology articulated by a good number of Episcopalians at the time and — still: “The Episcopal Church is both protestant and orthodox; but it is also and primarily Catholic, and is not a ‘denomination.’”
Today, the National Council of Churches — with its headquarters in Washington, D.C. — brings together 37 American church bodies for common advocacy, mutual communication, dialogue with Muslim and Jewish communities, education, service, publishing, and leadership formation. It also encourages local ecumenical collaborations and interfaith conversations. The NCC holds copyright to the Revised Standard Version and the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, both of which it makes available widely in many formats for the use of English-speaking Christians.
From The Living Church (Dec. 10, 1950), pp. 14-15.
The inauguration of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA is news of first importance to American Christians. And the election of our own Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Henry Knox Sherrill, as its first president, is a signal honor to our own Church, as well as a recognition of Bishop Sherrill’s personal leadership and ability. We congratulate him, and we feel that the NCCCUSA is also to be congratulated on its choice of a leader. We hope that our churches generally will give thanks for the formation of the NCCCUSA. It would also be well if the rector of each parish would explain to his congregation just what this new organization is, and the relationship of our own Church to it. First, it would be well to clear away some misunderstandings that may arise, and to set forth plainly what the NCCCUSA is not. It is not a super-Church, a United Church, or any kind of Church at all. It has no power to deal with doctrinal questions and no governing authority over its constituent bodies. It cannot dictate to the Episcopal Church, or to any other communion, in any way whatever. It has no control over the General Convention or the National Council of our own Church, or over similar organs of other members.
Moreover, membership in the NCCCUSA does not in any respect alter the ecclesiastical position of the Episcopal Church, or affect its doctrine, discipline, or worship. It does not commit this Church to recognition of the orders, sacraments, or practices of any other religious body, Orthodox or Protestant, nor does it commit them to recognition of ours. It does not involve us in any form of intercommunion, open communion, or other sacramental relationship. It does not mean abandonment or modification of any doctrine of the Church, nor the undermining of the authority of the Book of Common Prayer. It does not commit us to the determination of our missionary policies by a super-agency, nor does it restrict us in any of our parochial, diocesan, or Church-wide policies and programs.
The constitution of the NCCCUSA specifically provides that the Council shall have no authority or administrative control over the Churches which constitute its membership. Specifically, it is declared that it shall have no authority to prescribe a common creed, or form of church government, or form of worship, or to limit the autonomy of the Churches cooperating in it.
So much for the negative side. What, then, is the National Council of Churches, and what is the relationship of the Episcopal Church to it?
The purpose of the National Council of Churches is to create a representative cooperating agency wherein the member bodies may consult and make plans for coordinated activities in the areas of home and foreign missions, of the Christian education, and of Christian life and work. It will unite, continue, and extend the activities formerly sponsored by eight interdenominational agencies, in most of which the Episcopal Church has long played an important part. These agencies, which have now ceased to have separate existence, were the Federal Council of Churches, the Foreign Missions Conference, the Home Missions Council, the International Council of Religious Education, the Missionary Education Movement, the National Protestant Council on Higher Education, the United Council of Church Women, and the United Stewardship Council.
The National Council of Churches is set up on a thoroughly representative basis, with its members and even its executive committee composed of officially appointed representatives of the member communions, roughly in proportion to their respective sizes. Between sessions of its General Assembly, which will presumably meet biennially, its work will be carried on through four divisions under the supervision of the General Board. This body alone is authorized to make “pronouncements,” and those only in the form of recommendations.
There are some things about the NCCCUSA that we do not like, but we hope that the membership of the Episcopal Church will exercise an ameliorating influence as the new organization “shakes down.” We frankly disapprove the tendency of many of its officials to refer to the NCCCUSA as a federation of “Protestant and Orthodox denominations.” The Episcopal Church is both protestant and orthodox; but it is also and primarily Catholic, and is not a “denomination.” We are not willing to abandon the term “Catholic” to the Church of Rome, which in fact has almost ceased to merit it by its unscriptural additions to the Catholic faith. We do vigorously protest to the NCCCUSA against this loose terminology; we trust that our representatives in the General Board will bring the matter up at its next session, and insist that the Council’s publicity representatives find some more accurate descriptive phrase. We have ourselves suggested “cooperating Christian Churches,” leaving those who do not cooperate to describe themselves in any way they see fit. The NCCCUSA will be weakened, not strengthened, if it seems to acquiesce in being considered as merely a super-Protestant agency.
And we also want to take this opportunity, at the outset of the NCCCUSA, to caution it against invading the rights of its member Churches to exercise missionary jurisdiction and control, at home or abroad. One of the things that caused the Episcopal Church to hesitate so long about joining the Federal Council of Churches was its sponsorship of a “United Church” in the Panama Canal Zone, in direct rivalry to the long-established work of the Episcopal Church in its missionary district of the Canal Zone. The Episcopal Church cannot permit the funds that it contributes to this cooperative agency to be used to undermine its own work, or to set up a rival jurisdiction. If that were done, the NCCCUSA would instantly forfeit the support of a considerable body of Churchmen. We know that Lutherans and members of other centrally-organized communions share our convictions in this respect.
These, however, are words of caution spoken from within the fellowship, not criticisms from without.
We rejoice in the formation of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. We are glad that our own Church is one of the charter members of it, and we rejoice that our Presiding Bishop has been elected its first president. We hope and pray that it will justify the high hopes that are placed in it by the millions of members of its constituent bodies, and we wish it long life and the blessings of the Lord and Saviour in whose Name it is set up, and to whose service it is dedicated.
Richard Mammana is the Archivist of the Living Church Foundation.