von John C. Wood

Photograph of the 1937 Oxford Conference on "Church, Community, and State", photographer/source uncredited, originally appeared in The Listener, 21 July 1937, p. 137.
Photograph of the 1937 Oxford Conference on „Church, Community, and State“, photographer/source uncredited, originally appeared in The Listener, 21 July 1937, p. 137.


1 International ecumenism and „Oxford 1937“ (constellation)
2 Defending individuality and diversity against totalitarianism and „mass“ society (differences)
3 Oxford 1937’s post-war legacy: the World Council of Churches (significance)
4 Weiterführende Literatur
5 Einzelnachweise
6 Zitierempfehlung



International ecumenism and „Oxford 1937“ (constellation)

The relationships between Christians and non-Christians, among different Christian denominations, and the place of religion itself in increasingly „secular“ societies have been key issues in dealing with difference throughout the modern period. Since the early twentieth century, Christian Churches and related organisations have sought to engage in constructive „ecumenical“ dialogue across denominational boundaries and to more effectively cooperate in social and political contexts in response to the churches‘ changing position in cultural life. The period between the two World Wars was a particularly important phase in the evolution of an institutionalised „ecumenical movement“. It developed through conferences where delegates discussed specific sets of issues, resulting in published reports and statements.

There were different wings of the movement: „Faith and Order“, which had a strictly theological focus, and „Life and Work“, which was concerned with the applied social relevance of Christian principles. The two main Life and Work conferences in the inter-war period were held in Stockholm in 1925 and Oxford in 1937. The Stockholm conference had focused on ways of maintaining peace in the wake of the First World War. The Oxford conference had a broader agenda and took place in a context of increasing political peril. Titled „Church, Community and State“, it can be seen as the culmination of decades of Christian thinking about the social order, and its significance was increased by its direct engagement with one of the dominant political issues of the era: the rise of totalitarian movements and regimes. Over twelve days in July 1937, over 400 delegates (and a similar number of visitors) from approximately 120 churches in over 40 countries met and, in thematic sub-committees, discussed pre-circulated draft resolutions. After the conference, an official report and seven thematic volumes were published.

The conference was far from fully representative of global Christianity: the Roman Catholic Church, significantly, refused to participate with the ecumenical movement until the 1960s, thus what became known as „Oxford 1937“ involved only Protestant and Orthodox denominations. Moreover, while African, Asian, and South and Central American delegations attended, European and North American Christians predominated. Finally, the German „Church Struggle“ between factions of Protestants who supported the Nazi regime („German Christians“) and those seeking to retain their independence from it (the „Confessing Church“) meant that no official German delegates from the main Protestant churches attended. There had been efforts in the years leading up to the conference to enable a joint delegation from both sides in the struggle. It seemed that agreement had been reached; however, shortly before the conference the state had turned toward a policy of increasing suppression of the churches. Hitler personally ordered that no German delegation could attend the conference.

Defending individuality and diversity against totalitarianism and „mass“ society (differences)

Oxford 1937 was deeply influenced by the need to respond to the „totalitarian“ movements and regimes – Communism, Fascism and National Socialism – that had developed in the preceding two decades with the aim, as a conference report put it, „to control the totality of human life in all its individual and social aspects“.[1] State-dominated conformity was accompanied by (often violent) efforts at suppressing „outsiders“ to – or dissenters from – the social orders thus created. The conference publications, however, saw similar, if less acute, symptoms in liberal-democratic societies, with growing state power, large-scale capitalist enterprises, and „mass“ culture and politics.

The underlying cause of such threats to freedom, individuality, and diversity were presented in conference reports as „the general secularization of life and thought“. [2] It was argued that the decline of religious (i.e. Christian) belief and the destruction of community life through urbanisation and industrialisation had led to cultural „disintegration“: individuals were left adrift, without firm ethical guidelines and meaningful human relationships. Totalitarianism was seen as a reaction to this moral, cultural and social vacuum. In this way, unlimited individualism had led to the suppression of individual difference and a demand of absolute conformity.

But while „nationalism“ was a problem, national difference was to be respected: a distinction was drawn between a „fundamentally healthy“ form of „nationality“ – i.e. identification with and even love for a particular national community – and a „nationalism“ linked with „egotism“ and „fear and hatred of or indifference toward other nations“.[3] In contrast, it was argued that Christianity offered a „universal“ community that respected to individual and national diversity: moreover, „atomistic“ individualism was to be replaced by a holistic „personalism“ based upon love of God and neighbour.[4]

Oxford 1937’s post-war legacy: the World Council of Churches (significance)

Alongside its importance as forum for discussing the particular issues looming over Europe in the 1930s, the 1937 Oxford Conference contributed to longer-term developments in the international efforts by Christians to come to terms with global diversity and the perceived threat of an increasingly assertive and dominant secularism. Together with a Faith and Order conference held in Edinburgh the same year, Oxford 1937 passed a resolution establishing a more permanent institutional structure for international ecumenism: the World Council of Churches (WCC).

The disruptions of the Second World War meant the WCC did not hold its founding assembly in Amsterdam until 1948. Since then, it has held conferences once or twice every decade. Alongside promoting inter-denominational cooperation and the relevance of faith in secular societies, the WCC has sought to come to terms with another form of difference: the global diversity of Christian belief beyond the European and North American contexts that predominated in Oxford in 1937.

The conference can also be seen as having influence beyond organised Christianity per se. Some of the delegates and visitors to Oxford 1937 were (or later became) important figures in academia and government, such as Alfred Zimmern (the first professor of international relations at the University of Oxford), Philip Kerr (who became British ambassador to the United States), and John Foster Dulles (American Secretary of State in the 1950s).

weiterführende Literatur

Kenneth C. Barnes, Nazism, Liberalism and Christianity: Protestant Social Thought in Germany and Great Britain, 1925–1937, Lexington, KY 1991.

John C. Bennett, Breakthrough in Ecumenical Social Ethics. The Legacy of the Oxford Conference on Church, Community and State (1937), in: The Ecumenical Review 40 (1988), pp. 132–146.

Keith Clements, Faith on the Frontier. A Life of J.H. Oldham, Edinburgh 1999.

Graeme Smith, Oxford 1937. The Universal Christian Council for Life and Work Conference, Frankfurt/M. 2004.

Michael G. Thompson, For God and Globe: Christian Internationalism in the United States between the Great War and the Cold War, Ithaca 2015.


  1. The Churches Survey Their Task: The Report of the Conference at Oxford, July 1937, on Church, Community and State, London 1937, p. 80. URL: http://www.archive.org/details/churchessurveyth012036mbp (16.08.2016).
  2. The Churches Survey Their Task, p. 139
  3. The Universal Church and the World of Nations, London 1937, p. 4.
  4. „This personalism of Christianity must not be confused with individualism.“ The Churches Survey Their Task, p. 40.



John C. Wood, Oxford, in: Ortstermine. Umgang mit Differenz in Europa, hg. für das Leibniz-Institut für Europäische Geschichte (IEG) v. Joachim Berger, Irene Dingel und Johannes Paulmann, Mainz 2016. URL: http://www.ieg-differences.eu/ortstermine/john-c-wood-oxford, URN: urn:nbn:de:0159-20161020320.

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Photograph of the 1937 Oxford Conference on „Church, Community, and State“, photographer/source uncredited, originally appeared in The Listener, 21 July 1937, 137.