In the hours before he was arrested on the night before he was crucified, Jesus gathered the disciples together to celebrate the Passover feast. The dramatic events that would unfold over the next days must have weighed heavily on his mind–he knew the importance of this Last Supper. He spent the meal giving comfort and instruction to his disciples, and, before it was over, he lifted up a prayer to his Father. Knowing that the disciples would remember his words and carry that moment into their ministries, he prayed for himself, that he would complete the work that he had set before him. He prayed for the disciples, that they would be protected and made holy. Then, as his prayer turned to include all who would believe in him, Jesus focused on one specific request “That they all may be one”. In those intense moments, on a night that followers of Christ forever look to as a model for guidance and self-sacrifice, the message Christ gave was of the importance of unity. He prayed for believers to be one with him as he is one with the Father, so that the world would know and experience the Father’s love.
Believing that the time has come in the providence of God for the followers of Jesus Christ to cooperate more effectively for the progress of the Gospel, we, representatives of the evangelical churches in Virginia, do herewith establish a State Council of Churches.
Preamble to the Virginia Council of Churches Constitution, 1944
On July 6, 1944, thirty-one representatives from fourteen denominations gathered in the Washington Room of the John Marshall Hotel in Richmond, Virginia. Their purpose was clear—to declare publicly their commitment to Christian unity by formalizing their relationship with one another. As representative after representative voted yes for the formation of the Virginia Council of Churches, each agreed to join together to strengthen each others’ ministry and purpose. The goal of this coming together was not simply for unity itself, but rather that, through the coming together of the body of Christ, the mission of Christ could be fully lived out in Virginia.
The term ecumenism describes the concept of Christian churches coming together in understanding and in action. In the early 1900’s churches began to embrace this idea of Christian unity and to believe that churches could work together, regardless of denomination. The growth of Virginia’s ecumenical movement began through Sunday Schools, as Sunday school workers united across denominational lines for support and instruction. Gradually Virginia’s church leaders began to believe that, rather than letting differences between denominations be a cause of separation, a particular unity existed in diversity. Each denomination brought with it a unique, special aspect of Christianity, and each was needed to give an accurate picture of the complete body of Christ.
At the time of the formation of the Virginia Council of Churches, Virginia, and the country as a whole, was in a time of flux. World War II brought with it hardship and devastation at home and around the world. Women who had taken over many traditionally male roles during the war were reluctant to return to the status quo. Soldiers faced returning home to a changing society. Questions of race and racial injustice plagued a society resistant to embracing equality for all. People turned to churches for support and answers, and increasingly, individual churches and denominations recognized their own need for support. The circumstances were ripe for the Church to come together, and leaders emerged to guide this process along. On that July day in 1944, Dr. W. T. Sanger was voted first General Chairman of the Council. In 1945, the Virginia Council of Religious Education merged into the newly formed Virginia Council of Churches, and Rev. Henry Lee Robinson, Jr. became the Council’s first General Secretary.
At its inception, the Council had two main goals; first to be a place for churches to come together for support and understanding, and second to help equip its members to practically live out the mission of Christ in Virginia. It was radical to think that denominations once focused on each other’s differences would be able to have a conversation together. Through meetings, forums, and retreats, the Council provided opportunities for dialogue that had never before existed. Great support and encouragement grew out of these discussions. Issues of Faith and Order, once obstacles to understanding, now had a place where they could be examined critically and thoroughly. This in turn gave the Church a unified voice with which to speak of these issues to their congregations and to the people of Virginia.
The Council’s second goal was to facilitate unity and justice in church and society through programmatic means. The Council undertook this Life and Work mission by joining with specific like-minded organizations and entities.
- The Virginia Commission on Interracial Cooperation joined the Council and became the Council’s Department of Interracial Cooperation, dedicated to working for the rights of Virginia’s African-Americans and other racial minorities. Throughout the Council’s history, the churches have played a significant role in advancing civil rights for; African Americans, Hispanics, VA Indians, Armenians, Refugees and other minority citizens. Advancing just policies in local communities as well as the state.
- Church Women United joined with the Council to strengthen its ministry of providing women organized means to fellowship together and to advocate for justice.
- Virginia’s Weekday Religious Education program came under the direction of the Council, and continued its work to provide religious instruction for the children of Virginia.
- Work with migrants and refugee resettlement gradually became a part of the mission of the Council as well, as Virginia’s member churches sought to care for the neediest individuals in their midst.
The thirty-one men and women who originally formed the Virginia Council of Churches could not have known the strength and purpose that would grow out their mission. They simply drew together in a spirit of unity with a desire to be faithful to Christ’s call for the Church to be one.
The Virginia Council of Churches is now the oldest and largest ecumenical agency in Virginia, and it includes thirty-eight governing bodies of eighteen Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox denominations. The Council has lived out its mission in Virginia for over sixty years, and has itself grown and evolved over the course of its history. Throughout its lifetime, one thing has remained constant—its mission to be an instrument of Christ’s love in a broken world.
Today’s Virginia Council of Churches
The Virginia Council of Churches is a community of communions, which, in response to the gospel as revealed in the Scriptures, confess Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God, as Savior and Lord. Therefore, we covenant with one another to manifest ever more fully the unity of the Church. Relying upon the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, we gather in common mission, serving in all creation to the glory of God and our neighbor’s good. VCC Covenant Statement, September 2003
As in the beginning, today’s Virginia Council of Churches works relationally to build unity among member denominations and programmatically to give churches opportunities to serve in their communities and around Virginia. The Council seeks not to be an organization in itself, but rather to be a conduit through which the Church in Virginia can come together to be strengthened and unified, and from which it can then go out to serve. One way that this is accomplished is by simply acting as a place of care and support for religious leaders around the state. Through regular meetings, communications and the Executive Retreat, the Council acts as a leader’s support group. As Jon Barton, the current General Minister states, “We are able to nurture one another, and learn and grow from one another.” The importance of this connection is great, as it plays a key role in maintaining the emotional health and well being of Virginia’s church leaders.
The Council brings together religious leaders from across Virginia to discuss issues of concern to the entire faith community. Current scientific advances, medical technologies, and governmental decisions have far-reaching moral implications, and the Church must increasingly speak out as a guiding voice of wisdom and authority. The Council’s unique position allows it to invite members of the larger Church to engage in dialogue, greatly facilitating the possibility that its members will be able to speak out with a unified voice. This is true not only for issues affecting the fabric of society, but also for more internal church issues. For example, in early 2005 a bill introduced before the Virginia Senate that would have given congregations the right to leave their denominations while keeping their church building and its land. This bill would have negatively impacted many of the Council’s membership and allowed the state to interfere with Church law regarding the ownership of church property. The Council, acting as a central communication center, worked to inform all of its members of the pending bill. Once they were aware of Senate proposal, clergy from around the state joined to speak out in opposition to the bill, which was soon withdrawn from the Senate floor. This is a simple but clear example of how the Council’s ability to contact and disseminate information among its members empowers the Church to join together and take decisive action.
Programmatically, the Council’s work has expanded to meet the needs of a changing Virginia, and it has remained faithful to its commitment to “the least of these.” Through a variety of programs, the Virginia Council of Churches works with churches and ecumenical organizations around the state to reach out to undeserved segments of society.
Like the communions, it brings together, the true strength of the Council lies not in each of its individual programs, but rather in its unified mission and vision. No other organization or entity could bring the Church together as the Virginia Council of Churches does—no other entity could mobilize the Church to work and act as one body. The history and longevity of the Council speaks to it value. The Council has been a voice of reason, compassion, strength, and hope in Virginia for over half a century, and has proven itself a trustworthy steward of the call it has embraced. Just as society in 1944 faced daunting challenges, today’s society struggles with intense issues of faith, justice, and value. The Church must be open and proactive in its response, and must draw together to rise to the on-going challenge of the moment. The Virginia Council of Churches is uniquely and irreplaceably equipped to guide this process. Simply stated, the work of the Virginia Council of Churches is needed now more than ever.