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Ecumenical foremothers: commemorating, celebrating, and continuing their legacy.


I was delighted to receive the invitation to be the academy's banquet speaker, and then panic set in. The conference this year addresses ethics. Having dodged moral theology as much as possible during theological studies, I could not imagine what my topic would be. Relief came when N.A.A.E. President John Crossin and Vice President Russell Meyer said they would welcome a banquet address that would depart from the weight of the conference theme--something light and reflective. So, I am going to tell you a story. With the intention to replenish your energies in the search for Christian unity, as the dinner satisfies your evening hunger, I hope the end result of my storytelling is not ecumenical indigestion, but rather further nourishment--in shared reflection here in Washington, DC, and beyond.

Women committed to religious traditions stand in the forefront of many disciplines, disciplines that intersect with ecumenical and interreligious concerns. Women today in these fields are indebted to those who have gone before them. This essay tells the story of one group of such women: those engaged in Christian-unity initiatives since the early years of the ecumenical movement. It narrates their identity and contribution and the legacy left to those of us who in their stead engage in ecumenical dialogue and interchurch cooperation. In so doing, three "C's" that creatively speak of past, present, and future--Commemorating, Celebrating, and Continuing--are the lens through which this reflection views the identity, contribution, and legacy of our ecumenical foremothers. With a purpose to invite conversation, this narrative is a selective telling of a much wider story of the movers and shakers of the ecumenical movement. It was a privilege to tell this story first in a conference setting that honored a Christian woman who has been a spiritual guide and missional role model for many of us, Ruth Stafford Peale (1906-2007), a founding mother of many initiatives, including the Interchurch Center in New York City. Her motto, "Find a need and fill it," applies rather appropriately to foremothers of the ecumenical movement. (1) They found a need and filled it; to a broken and divided Christendom they brought healing and reconciliation. It is a further privilege to tell the story to this Academy, a setting in which women have not only participated from the beginning but have over the years been among its leaders.

Women are neither latecomers nor strangers to the ecumenical movement. This presentation is not about a few women who meant "well but not much" in an interchurch setting dominated by Western, white, ordained men of mainline Protestant churches. Demographically, women reflect more incisively the diversity that characterizes the Christian oikoumene than do men. (2) This is not a walk down ecumenical memory lane. It is rather an aide memoire of daring women who challenge Christians to faith-filled ecumenical discipleship, despite the asymmetry of men and women in the churches. Like any ecumenical focus, what is said here must be situated in the wider pluralistic context of interreligious understanding and cooperation.

I. Commemorating--The Portraiture: Who Are These Women? Identity

A story about a mountain village opens the portraiture. (3) As the story is told, reflect on the ecumenical movement as a mountain and ecumenists as the villagers on the mountainside.
 Once upon a time, in a remote, unfriendly village that clung to the
 side of a mountain, there lived an old woman whose habits seemed
 strange to her neighbors. Since the harsh winters kept most
 villagers huddled near their fireplaces, they did not cultivate the
 art of hospitality and rarely spoke to anyone outside their
 immediate families. The mountainside, itself bleak and barren,
 beckoned no one toward its slopes, even in the less harsh seasons
 of the year. Only children ventured to climb, ever so stealthily,
 partway up its side, a daring feat that they were cautioned not to
 do by their parents. During such adventures, they inevitably met
 the old woman. Most of the time she was bending over, digging a
 little hole in the ground, and dropping a tiny something into it.
 The braver children asked, "What are you doing?" Her reply was
 always the same: "I am changing the face of the mountain." The
 children grew into adulthood, and most left the village for the
 world of cities.

Ten ecumenical foremothers have been selected for consideration. Worldwise, they come from Europe, India, Africa, America, and the Caribbean. Demographic-wise, they portray a certain human diversity. Church-wise, they are Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant. Education-wise, they are highly educated, their studies often interdisciplinary. Profession-wise, they are archivists, dramatists, editors, educators, engineers, journalists, lawyers, missionaries, nurses, playwrights, politicians, scientists, and theologians. Formation-wise, they are protegees of the Student Christian Movement, the Y.W.C.A., and missionary societies. Issue-wise, they are activists, conscientious objectors, feminists, and pacifists. Otherwise, they might be considered trouble-makers--upsetting the status quo of ecumenical business as usual, sexist, feminist chauvinists, boat-rockers, eager to change direction mid-course.

Common among them is a passion for who they are and what they do. Their passion stems from the experience of brokenness and division within church and in society and the faith-filled conviction that God has called them to be instruments of healing and reconciliation, of advocacy and rights, of peace and justice. Their responses were played out on the multilateral field of interchurch settings, most notably conciliar ecumenism. Predominant in ecumenical action umbrellaed by the Life and Work movement, they were also informed and formed by the Faith and Order movement, in which some were directly engaged.

II. Celebrating--The Caricature: What Is Their Ecumenical Way? Contribution

The mountain story depicts the caricature:
 It came to pass, however, after several decades, one grown child
 returned to show her husband and children the harsh environment of
 her youth that she often described to them. She came back but did
 not recognise it. The mountainside was ablaze with a dazzling array
 of colorful flowers gently swaying in the breeze. Clusters of
 bushes and young trees lent their foliage as shade to the myriads
 of children and adults gathered along the base of the mountain. All
 spoke to each other, laughed, and played games. Families and
 neighbors picnicked together. The woman who had returned stopped
 one of the villagers to ask, "When did all this come about? What
 happened to the bleak and barren mountainside of my childhood?"

1. Madeleine Barot (1909-95), Chateauroux (Indre), France

While living in Italy, Madeleine Barot (4) came to know very early the nature of the Fascist regime. That experience, along with her encounter with members of the Confessing Church upon her return home to Alsace, swelled within her a radical opposition to the Nazi ideology. Inspired by Suzanne de Dietrich's love for the poor, Barot founded CIMADE (Comite inter-mouvement aupres des evacues). It became the setting in which to fulfill her desire to "anchor Christian witness firmly in reality" at the time of the Nazi occupation of France. (5) Most of her life was spent engaged in "resistance humanitaire, resistance de sauvetage." (6) An adherent of the Eglise Reformee d'Alsace, she grounded her resistance in theology and spirituality. Setting up CIMADE teams adjacent to internment camps, Barot's conviction was that one ought to live among those to whom one ministers.

2. Nita Ruth Barrow (1916-95), Barbados

Nita Ruth Barrow (7) was born into a family of civic activists whose concern was humanitarian values and their promotion in church and society. Education, health care, and politics were the arenas in which this concern was realized for Barrow. Diverse careers served a lifelong commitment to people's struggle for learning, justice, and democracy. She worked as an adult educator throughout the Caribbean and abroad as president of the International Council of Adult Education. As a public-health nurse, she was the first woman from the developing nations to come to the world stage of health care. In this capacity she was an advisor to the World Health Organization and the Pan-American Health Organization in the 1960's and served on the World Council of Churches' Christian Medical Commission in the 1970's. Entering the political arena during her term as a W.C.C. president (1983-91), Barrow was a Non-Governmental Organization convener at the United Nations, leading the U.N. Decade for Women in the 1980's. After a term as her country's ambassador to the U.N., she became governor-general of Barbados.

3. Kathleen Bliss (1909-89), London, U.K.

Kathleen Bliss (8) was one of the most influential women in the formative years of conciliar ecumenism. A transfer from Congregationalism to Anglicanism, two factors led her to the ecumenical movement: working in India as an educational missionary, and a concern to involve lay intellectuals in Christian thought. Her ecumenical engagement was carried out through the Faith and Order Commission of the British Council of Churches and in the W.C.C. Her roles therein varied. Chairperson of the committee on the laity for the First World Assembly in Amsterdam in 1948, she was the only woman chosen to be among the assembly's main speakers. Her address focused on the role and mission of Christian laity, thus connecting with the very factors that influenced her own ecumenical vocation. Shortly after the assembly, she became a member of the Council's central and executive committees (1954-68). Later, as a W.C.C. moderator, she led the commission that integrated the W.C.C. and the World Council of Christian Education. Around formal ecumenical work, Bliss maintained academic posts in public and parochial settings. Symbolic recognition of her renown, in 1967 Bliss was the first woman to preach a university sermon at St. Mary the Great, Cambridge.

4. Marga Buhrig (1915-2002), Berlin, Germany

If there is a radical feminist among the ecumenical foremothers in my listing, it is Marga Buhrig. (9) Human relationships, living for and with others, especially women, were her raison d'etre. She had little interest in institutional structures. Despite her radical and anti-institutional attitudes, Buhrig not only collaborated with the W.C.C., but this unlikely candidate also held the position of W.C.C. president for eight years (1983-91). Her ecumenical energies poured into what classically falls under the Life and Work category. Matters of Faith and Order, the gradual rapprochement of churches, were of little concern. For her, at its best ecumenism is "a movement towards the poor and oppressed" rather than a search for doctrinal unity. Conciliar efforts of justice, peace, and creation conveniently housed Buhrig's activities. She lived her motto: "to love life passionately and to seek justice passionately." (10)

5. Sarah Chakko (1905-54), Trichur, South India

Indian by nationality, Christian by faith, and Hindu by culture, the short life of Sarah Chakko made a lasting mark on international relations as it did on world Christianity. (11) A Syrian Orthodox, Chakko worshiped in the Methodist church. In a relentless struggle for ensuring equality for women in general, Chakko's attention focused on Christian women so that they might become role models for women of all faiths. Elected a W.C.C. president in 1951, she was to attend the Second World Assembly in Evanston, IL, in 1954 as a Syrian Orthodox delegate but died earlier that year. She saw in this appointment an advance in the role of women in the Syrian Orthodox Church. It establishes, she said, "the principle that a woman can work in an official capacity in the Orthodox Syrian Church. There has never been any rule against it, but it has never been done." (12)

6. Dorothy Day (1897-1980), Brooklyn, NY, U.S.A.

Founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day led a checkered life prior to her conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1927. (13) She spent her life seeking to unite traditional religious faith and radical social values. (14) Friendship Houses were established as communities of people from all walks of life whose gospel lifestyle welcomed the world's riffraff: the poor, homeless, unemployed, oppressed, prisoners. What Day called "the noblest acts of which we are capable in this life"--"worship, adoration, thanksgiving, supplication"--were accompanied by works of mercy rather than of war: defending the value of every human person, care of the sick, providing hospitality. (15) Creative nonviolence as a response to war began at home. Day lived among those she served and enveloped her Christian practice in theology and spirituality. She was once thanked for "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable." Dismissing laud, Day claimed, "If I have achieved anything in my life, it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God." (16)

7. Suzanne de Dietrich (1891-1981), Niederbronn, France

Nurtured in the Student Christian Movement and the Y.W.C.A., Suzanne de Dietrich labored in ecumenical formation and ecumenical education. (17) Her focus was biblical studies, seeing the ecumenical character of the twentieth-century biblical movement. Her aim was to render accessible to laity in general and to youth in particular the biblical foundation of a basic Christian theology from which particular theologies--Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant--develop. Her scientific background and university degree in engineering seemingly influenced her attitudes toward theology and ecumenism. In his book note on Hans-Ruedi Weber's biography of de Dietrich, Donald Miller captured her driving spirit: "Passionately 'ecumenical,' she resisted harmony achieved by reductionism. With a solid theology generally oriented toward neoorthodoxy, she welcomed truth from any quarter." (18)

8. Annie Jiagge (1918-96), Lome, Togo, and Ghana

Religion, law, politics, and economics converge in the life and work of Annie Jiagge. (19) She placed her interdisciplinary studies and expertise at the service of churches in their concern for laity, women, and racism, while at the same time advancing her position in the judicial system of her native Ghana. A president of the W.C.C. from 1975-83, Jiagge's first ecumenical meeting was the World Conference on Christian Youth in Oslo in 1947. She attended the Second World Assembly in Evanston in 1954 and every assembly thereafter until Canberra in 1991. At the Council she was moderator of the commission on the Programme to Combat Racism (1984-90) and took a lead in the development of the committee on the laity. She also served on the Commission of the Churches on Inter-church Aid, Refugee, and World Service (CICARWS). Much of her ecumenical work found a parallel in the secular sphere. A counselor of Ghana's Christian Council and chair of the country's commission on the churches' participation in development, Jiagge was president of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women. A risk-taker, this African woman spoke out against apartheid, despite South Africa's constant threats to crush any opponents.

9. Janet Lacey (1903-88), Sunderland, U.K.

An unlikely ecumenical prototype, Janet Lacey was first and foremost a playwright. (20) Devastated by the contrast between her life's ease and the disease of Durham miners during the 1926 strike, she found her way to ecumenism by sharing her drama talents in ecumenical circles--the Y.W.C.A. and the British Council of Churches. Performing arts became her way to widen participation and membership in the groups she served and to increase their fund-raising capabilities. For sixteen years Lacey directed Christian Aid, the relief and refugee service of the British Council of Churches. She helped Christian Aid become an internationally recognized service agency by raising millions of pounds each year through performing arts and entertainment. Lacey's talents were also appreciated by the W.C.C. She wrote a play for the 1954 Evanston assembly and produced a film for the 1961 New Delhi assembly. She was also impresario for a play performed at the 1966 Geneva World Conference on Church and Society, of which she was the only woman president. While at British Christian Aid, she was vice chairperson of the W.C.C.'s Division of Interchurch Aid, Refugee, and World Service.

10. Cynthia Clark Wedel (1908-86), Dearborn, MI, U.S.A.

Cynthia Clark Wedel understood spiritual life and devotion as the agent for ecumenical engagement. (21) Such was the presupposition that sustained a lifetime in leadership positions in the national office of the Episcopal Church, in Church Women United, and in conciliar ecumenism. A psychologist and educator, Wedel was interested in Christian education, the laity, and the role of men and women in the church. She was a member of the Commission on the Cooperation of Men and Women in Church, Family, and Society (1952-641). The first woman to serve as president of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. (1969-72), Wedel came to leadership in the Council while serving as Associate General Secretary from 1960 to 1969. During this time she also served on the W.C.C. committee on the laity (1961-68). As N.C.C.C. president, she dealt with specific issues that confronted the Council: membership and goals of the N.C.C.C., racial issues, and relationships with conservative churches. Wedel then returned to the W.C.C., as a president (1975-83). Responsibilities there included the W.C.C.'s relationships with the Roman Catholic Church and with the Russian Orthodox Church and participation in a study exploring the historical basis for ecumenism. She served as an official Anglican observer at Vatican II, 1962-65, and one of three women consultants at the Anglican Communion's Lambeth Conference of 1978.

III. Continuing--Expenditure: How Do They Resource Women in the Twenty-First Century? Legacy

The mountain story reveals the expenditure:
 The villager replied: "Do you remember the strange old woman who
 lived here, the one who would wander up and down the mountainside?
 It was she who planted all the seeds of this growth. She went out
 every day intent on her sowing, believing all the while the results
 would bear fruit." The woman did recall the image of this old and
 bent figure from her childhood. At last she understood the meaning
 of the words, "I am changing the face of the mountain."

"Without vision, the people perish" (Prov. 29:18). The search of new ways for women to live in the church continues. Some of us in the room are evidence of this quest. Marga Buhrig said, "I have always wished to belong to movements and groups that will continue when I am gone." Suzanne de Dietrich resisted a unity of least common denominator. Madeleine Barot stressed how folks were looking for a new, more community-focused lifestyle for the Christian world.

Dorothy Day said, "Don't call me a saint--I don't want to be dismissed so easily." (22) And it was Kathleen Bliss who crafted the oft-quoted phrase from the Amsterdam assembly, "We intend to stay together"--although the official report of the assembly makes no mention of her. (23)


Perhaps it is leadership driven by intuition that women offer--that, and continuing passion for what they do. (24) Surely this is present in "society," secular settings. So much more is it evident in "church," religious settings. This presentation, a litany of ecumenical foremothers, proclaims this. Intuition refers to that extra something that makes happen what happens. Intuition is as affective as it is cognitive. It is as doxological as it is dialogical. Our foremothers thought this, sensed this, communicated this, and praised this. None of this happens without the will to "ecume."

I close with insights, from two unmentioned ecumenical foremothers, which symbolize such will. Referring to the unity vocation of the Society of the Atonement, Graymoor's Founder, Lurana Mary White (1863-1935), believed that only in the context of a "life to be lived" is "a work to be done." (25) Sr. Maria Gabriella Sagheddu (1914-39) offered her life in a Cistercian monastery for the fulfillment of the prayer of Jesus, "that all may be one, ... that the world may believe" (Jn. 17:21). (26)

These women, our ecumenical foremothers, have changed the face of the ecumenical mountain. We commemorate who they were; we celebrate what they did; we continue that which they passed on.

(1) This motto of Ruth Stafford appears in many of her writings. These can be found on the website of Guideposts,

(2) See the entries on men and women in Nicholas Lossky, Jose Miguez Bonino, John Pobee, Tom F. Stransky, Geoffrey Wainwright, and Pauline Webb, eds., Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, 2nd ed. (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2002). A foundational source for this essay, this book is cited hereafter as DEM. For each of its entries DEM provides a select bibliography.

(3) My source for this story is Sr. Christine Vladimiroff, O.S.B., Prioress of the Monastery of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, who told it during her presidential address to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in 2005. Vladimiroff provided no bibliographical reference for the story. The story is told at the opening of the three main sections of this essay: Commemorating, Celebrating, Continuing.

(4) DEM, pp. 99-100.

(5) Ibid., p. 99.

(6) This expression of resistance is the foundational spirit of CIMADE; see

(7) DEM, pp. 100-101.

(8) Ibid., p. 123.

(9) Ibid., pp. 130-131.

(10) Ibid., p. 131.

(11) See ibid., pp. 158-159. The observation was made by C. Alex Alexander in his review of Sarah Chacko: A Voice of Women in the Ecumenical Movement by M. Kurian (Thiruvella, Kerala: Christbava Sahithya Samithy, 1998), available at

(12) Alexander review of Kurian. Sarah Chacko.

(13) DEM, pp. 289-290.

(14) See Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness (New York: Harper, 1952).

(15) James H. Forest, Love Is the Measure: A Biography of Dorothy Day, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994), pp. 71ff.

(16) DEM, p. 290.

(17) Ibid., pp. 325-326.

(18) Donald G. Miller, book note on Hans-Ruedi Weber, The Courage to Live: A Biography of Suzanne de Dietrich (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1995), in Theology Today 53 (April, 1996): 134

(19) DEM, pp. 619-620.

(20) Ibid., pp. 657-658.

(21) Ibid., pp. 1202-1203.

(22) Ibid., p. 290.

(23) Ibid., p. 123.

(24) So claims Oprah Winfrey in an article in the international edition of Newsweek, November 14, 2005, "How I Got There," pp. 38-39.

(25) Found passim in her writings, the concept of "a life to be livedm not a work to be done" describes the ideal Lurana Mary White upheld in the foundation of the Society of the Atonement. One of its earliest extant appearances is in "The Birth of the Idea," chap. I in History of the Society of the Atonement (Peekskill, NY: The Lamp Publishing Co., 1926). The following is quoted from its republication in The Graymoorian, Historical Number 1928, 3rd ed., where on p. 7 White wrote: "The beginning of every Religious foundation ... will be found to have had its human inception in an ideal. The primary and fundamental concept that underlies all such ideals is not that of doing a work, but that of living a life: it is not a matter of doing, but of being, and this is especially prominent in the lives of the two great Saints of the West, St. Benedict, the Father of Monks, and St. Francis of Assisi, Patriarch of the Poor." Special gratitude goes to Mother Mary Celine Fleming, SA, for making this source available.

(26) This is recounted by Martha Driscoll, OCSO, in A Silent Herald of Unity: The Life of Blessed Maria Gabriella Sagheddu (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1990); see Chap. VI, "Prayer for Unity at Grouaferrata," pp. 57-69.
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Author:Fuchs, Lorelei F.
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2010
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