The Southern California Christian Forum is the latest iteration of a century-old ecumenical body, connecting churches and believers across the region. The organization has changed with each generation according to the needs and mission of the churches in Southern California.
The history of organized ecumenical relations in our region dates back to 1913, with the founding of the California Church Federation in San Francisco. The organization was led by Edwin Ryland, pastor of Hollywood Methodist Church who previously initiated the Los Angeles Church Federation in 1906. Denominational councils and synods were determined to carry on the legacy of the Edinburgh World Missionary Conference by acting together. Churches partnered together for evangelistic programs and sponsoring chaplains for the First World War. The statewide Federation also advocated causes of women’s suffrage, prohibition, and labor unions. By the 1920s, the Federation began to sponsor National Park ministries and supported Dust Bowl refugees and migrant workers alongside the Council of Women for Home Missions.
The following generation of church unity work led churches to specialize in their approach. In 1943, the California Church Federation reconfigured itself into the triplets of the statewide California Council of Churches and the two regional Northern and Southern California Councils of Churches. At the same time, the Councils coordinated resistance efforts to the internment of Japanese Americans across California during the Second World War. After the war, the Southern California Council of Churches served as the platform for churches to develop curricula for Christian educators and to contribute to the National Farm Worker Ministry. The Council’s Department of Church Women would eventually become the Southern California chapter of Church Women United, and the Council’s partnerships expanded in 1969 with the founding of the Interreligious Council of Southern California.
Churches in Southern California during the latter part of the twentieth century saw the reception of the Second Vatican Council and the study project of Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry from the World Council of Churches. These changes in church relations were reflected in the organization’s transformation into the Southern California Ecumenical Council in 1982. The Council spent the rest of the century addressing refugee resettlement, hunger relief, and environmental concerns in our region.
The centennial of the ecumenical body in 2012 initiated a season of transition. Churches in the region were undergoing changes in their size, demographics, and social concerns. Increased polarization and social strife weakened ecumenical relationships in Southern California, only heightening the importance of reconciliatory work among churches. With the retirement of the long-term Executive Director, Al Cohen, the Board of the Southern California Ecumenical Council inaugurated a discernment process on what God was doing in Southern California and how to reinvent the organization. The Board’s taskforce conducted research on trends in the ecumenical movement and interviewed local leaders on what Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17 meant to them. The consensus that emerged was an acknowledged need to build relationships between divided Christian communities, praying for and learning from each other. The Board also recognized the call to broaden the table of interchurch engagement to those Christian communities historically outside of ecumenical bodies.
The organization relaunched itself as the Southern California Christian Forum in 2015, modeling its mission after the Global Christian Forum. The Southern California Christian Forum builds upon previous generations of church unity work by maintaining its theological dialogue commission and its Week of Prayer for Christian Unity gatherings alongside ministerial retreats and monthly Bible studies. In 2022, the Forum received a grant from the Pacific Network for Mission Education to expand its internship program to promote ecumenical formation among students from Christian universities and seminaries in the region. Each generation of ecumenism in Southern California brings new gifts and challenges, but our mission has remined the same. As we stated at the organization’s relaunch:
“We know next to nothing about what the future will bring. We do know that we will be changed by all this, and, happily, we know by Whom we will be changed. This we also know: That our unity in love is the central desire of the heart of God, just as it is the central need of the world in which we live. That, in the end, must be enough motivation for us.”