Heaven and earth: An intra-Christian gap has closed a little

FOUR decades ago, global Christian bodies were riven by rows over where their main duty lay—changing the world or saving souls. The Geneva-based World Council of Churches (WCC), dominated by liberal Protestants and Orthodox churches from communist lands, stressed "liberation" and social justice. That was one reason why America’s Billy Graham and other top evangelicals went to Lausanne in 1974 to set up a new body that would focus more on winning the 2.7 billion people who, by its calculation, had yet to hear the Christian message.

The so-called Lausanne movement remains ebullient. Its gathering of 4,000 evangelicals from 200 countries, which ended in Cape Town on October 25th, was billed as the biggest and broadest Christian meeting in history. But coming from a body that stresses the spiritual, parts of the meeting’s final statement were quite earthly. Humanity must "repent of our part in the destruction, waste and pollution of the Earth’s resources, and our collusion in the toxic idolatry of consumerism," it said. Also, the WCC’s new head, Olav Fykse Tveit of Norway, was invited to Cape Town, despite his roots in liberal Nordic Lutheranism.

Are evangelicals becoming more open to changing the world? Or are Christians of all hues mending fences as they cope with secularism and Islam? Both explanations have a grain of truth. But if the ecumenists of the WCC and certain evangelicals are getting on better, it’s probably because Christianity’s centre of gravity is moving south—to Africa and other poor places, where the ideological rows of the northern hemisphere often ring hollow, and churches dare not neglect either the spiritual or the material.

In any case, intra-Christian rows rage on—especially over how to treat different faiths. In Geneva on November 1st, Mr Tveit and other WCC luminaries will meet Muslim leaders for a high-level encounter between the worlds of liberal Protestantism and Islam. One Muslim participant, Jordan’s Prince Ghazi, thinks Christians and Muslims must discuss theology, not just "safe" topics such as peace and poverty. That Geneva event will be watched warily by evangelicals in nearby Lausanne.