One of the best known contributions on unity that has powerfully helped in the modern development of ecumenism is called the Lund Principle. It is commonly believed that this principle says, very simply, that “whatever we can do together we should do together.” While this statement is partially right, if you read it in the original context it is not entirely right. Let me explain.
On August 27, 1952, the third world conference on Faith and Order held a meeting at Lund, Sweden. The delegates gathered there agreed on a text titled: “A Word to the Churches.” This text was released to the press immediately for world-wide publication. A key sentence posed the following question:
Should not our churches ask themselves whether they are showing sufficient eagerness to enter into conversation with other churches, and whether they should not act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately?
It is the second half of this question that evolved into what is now called the Lund Principle in ecumenism. Morris West, writing in The Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement (Eerdmans, 1991), notes that “this is probably the most quoted (and sometimes misquoted!) sentence from any F & O document.” It is also provided one of the most compelling questions for Christians that was asked in the twentieth century: "Why should we act together rather than separately?"
The Lund Principle is often misunderstood because it is taken as an exhortation rather than, as is clearly evident in its original context, a question. The original intention was to challenge the churches to talk together so that they could act together as widely and effectively as possible.
The historical context of Lund is important if we are to grasp the context of the Lund Principle. In 1947 several historic churches in South India came together to form a new union that became known as the Church of South India (1947). The momentum for this was the persistent question of mission and its relationship to unity. The churches in India believed that their divisions were an open scandal to their particular culture. Their new union was a result of deep missiological concern. The first bishop of the new Church of South India was none other than Lesslie Newbigin, my personal patron saint of missional theology. I use Newbigin more than any single source to introduce church leaders to missional-ecumenism.
Different interpretations of the Lund Principle arose quickly after this oft cited paper was read. Morris West believes that some of these interpretations “weakened its impact.” As an example, it became a favorite quotation for ecumenical orators who used it rhetorically, somewhat like a general principle. If you check out the one line entry on this at Wikipedia you find the following: “The Lund Principle is an important principle in ecumenical relations between Christian churches. It affirms that churches should act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately.”
While this statement is true it misses some of the nuance found in the original context. Many churches, particularly in local contexts, took this statement as the basis for limited and occasional relationships that avoided the full scope of the original question. Such Christians thought/think in terms of the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (January) and believe that by sharing in it they have done their part in pursuing unity. As good as this week is, and it is very good and very important, it is not what the Lund Principle envisioned at all.
The Lund Principle was intended “to be applied to the ongoing, day-to-day life of the churches,” adds Morris West. If the question is answered affirmatively, whether we have in view the church nationally or locally, the concern was for more permanent change.
But isn’t this a mere “pipe dream” for unity? I would argue that you have to dream before you wake and when you dream deeply and then awake truly refreshed you are ready to act in significant ways. The reason so few of us are interested in deep ecumenism is because we have not dreamed about it deeply enough, at least not yet. We are still in a state of fitful sleep. In local situations, where churches and people really live and do Christ's mission, the possibilities are endless. By developing relationships (understood in biblical terms as "covenantal relationships") we can then determine how to answer the question put to us by the Lund Principle.
I would further argue that this “pipe dream” is alive and well. More churches and leaders are now asking this question than I’ve known in my own lifetime, at least in America. And younger Christians are asking it with greater urgency and understanding than was done by my generation. This is one reason why I believe that missional-ecumenism provides a strong and compelling answer to the question posed by the Lund Principle.