St. Paul’s Cathedral is one of the historic birthplaces of the worldwide ecumenical movement.
This is where Charles Henry Brent, fourth bishop of the Diocese of Western New York, planted seeds of what would become the Faith and Order Movement, a movement leading later toward the World Council of Churches.
All around the Cathedral are fragments he brought back from World War I, when he was the senior chaplain to the American Expeditionary Force in Europe. The fragments, from medieval cathedrals and town halls in France and Belgium shattered during the First World War, were the context of Brent’s prayer and thinking as symbols of the terrible price of human and Christian disunity.
Brent was born in 1862 just across the river, in Ontario, Canada, and came to this country because he could not find a position in the Diocese of Toronto. He became organist and curate at St. John’s here in Buffalo, and a year later he moved to St. Andrew’s mission in Buffalo, but he left after a dispute with his bishop. Brent favored the use of altar candles, but Bishop Arthur Cleveland Coxe objected to their use and overruled him.But Brent would be back.
Brent departed for the second city that shaped his ministry and his thinking on ecumenism: Boston. There he served as assistant to the rector of St. Stephen’s in South Boston, the great Irish neighborhood. He was there in the 1890s, at a significant moment: the time when Boston was transitioning from the patrician city of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Unitarians to the city of powerful Irish politicians and a dominant Roman Catholic Church, the world into which John F. Kennedy would be born. Brent welcomed this transition.
In 1901 Brent moved to the third city that would shape his ecumenical thinking: Manila, in the Philippines, as our first Missionary Bishop. Brent made a conscious decision not to try converting the majority Roman Catholics to Anglicanism. He felt cooperation was more productive than conversion. He took the lead in battling the opium trade, which he viewed as an international problem, and became a worldwide crusader against the narcotics trade, working closely with other Christian denominations.
Brent was elected fourth bishop of Western New York in 1918 but delayed beginning his episcopate until 1919 so he could continue to serve as chaplain in Europe.
The crowning moment of Brent’s ecumenical work was the First World Conference on Faith and Order, held in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1927. More than 400 participants represented 127 Orthodox, Anglican, Reformation and Free churches. Brent’s goal, he said, was “visible unity in one faith and one Eucharistic fellowship expressed in worship and in common life in Christ, and to advance toward that unity in order that the world may believe.”
Eventually the Faith and Order movement became the World Council of Churches, where his legacy endures in the importance of mission, of prayer, and of theological research that leads to doctrinal accords — exactly the reason that this international group is gathered here this week in Buffalo.