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General secretary's report

In his report delivered on Tuesday 13 September 2011, WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit spoke about an emerging discussion on the role and commitment of the churches in peace and justice. He also reported on the ongoing work of the WCC and his visits and interactions with member churches around the world over the past six months.

13 September 2011

World Council of Churches
Executive Committee
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
13-16 September 2011

Document No. 05

For information

Moderator, dear members of the Executive Committee,

1.      Introduction

The period after the last meeting of the Executive Committee and the Central Committee has been an active period of work following up decisions from the meeting, planning and budgeting for the next year and the period up to the assembly, planning the assembly itself, addressing important financial and structural questions, doing the program work itself, nurturing the contacts with ecumenical partners and member churches and facing the challenges of the peoples in different parts of the world as a matter of  concern for our ecumenical fellowship.  This is then my tribute to my hard-working colleagues, some of them here; and, it is with my heartfelt thanks and deep respect for the hard and committed work hereby recognized.

In addition to all this, we have prepared, organized and celebrated the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC).  Many of you participated in this marking and celebration of the end of the Decade to Overcome Violence, a demanding enterprise but no less important for all of our work.  We are called to have peace in our hearts and at the heart of our common Christian witness and ministry.  Violence is not overcome; and, this summer I had a new and drastic experience of that in my own country.  We are, as we gather as Executive Committee for the World Council of Churches here in Addis Ababa these particular days after September 11, called to lead our work so that we can identify and address violence everywhere and wherever it is, to prevent and to overcome it – whether it is caused by individuals, groups, systems, or even those in power in a country, thus bringing a vision of the kingdom of God and its signs:  righteousness, peace and joy (Romans 14:17).

Personally, this period has been another opportunity for getting a deeper sense of the work and understanding better the details and the wholeness of the organization and of the fellowship of churches I am representing.  As we will go through the agenda items of this meeting one by one, you will see how the different issues have been developed.  We are in a challenging period for the WCC but also one of great opportunities and for setting a new momentum for the WCC and our response to our common calling. 

2.      A new commitment to the work for Just Peace

The decision we made in the CC for the theme of the assembly was done in a modus of great consensus, and is uniting us now on our way towards Busan.  Let me, as I report to you, share how I see that we are already on our way towards a deeper reflection and a stronger commitment to justice and peace.  We now have a new momentum given through the moment we had together in Jamaica.  It is materialized in the strong message from the convocation supported by the texts prepared before it, leading us to a deeper commitment to our legacy and to our call.  The sharing of what churches and our partners are doing around the world gave mutual empowerment. A focus on this dimension of our mission strengthens the fellowship of our churches and has made it clearer how this is at the heart of our Christian faith and calling.

Let me start in our common legacy.  In July I visited the former general secretary of the WCC, Philip Potter, one month before his 90th birthday.  It was a blessed time together, and together with his dear wife, Bärbel, they strengthened my joy and courage to serve this organization.  When I shared my impressions from the recent experience from São Paulo with them, where I handed over to the Attorney General of Brazil thousands of copied pages from the WCC archives about torture during the former Brazilian military regime, his memory and participation in the conversation was revitalized.  The project of 25 years ago bringing all this documentation out of the country, presented in the book Brazil Nunca Mais! (Brazil, Never More!), was pursued by brave advocates, supported by clear-minded national church leaders, understanding the significance of ecumenical cooperation, and a strategic leadership in the WCC at that time supporting the project morally and financially, even outside ordinary budgets for a while.  For me, the story and the meeting with some of the actors and the victims 25 years after was a reminder of how the call to work for just peace has been shaping the WCC’s witness and ministry and has also been a great inspiration for our daily work.  There is no peace in any context without some tangible and real level of justice.  The easy access for anybody to the truth about the time of torture might now contribute to the healing of the nation of Brazil.

The event coincided with the meeting of the board of CLAI and gave inspiration to their work in the wider Latin American context, as they now take the responsibility to lead an accompaniment program in Colombia with the support of the WCC.  As with the EAPPI programme, a common and wide knowledge of the truth about what happens is an important step to promote justice and peace.

We have a new phase in our work after the IEPC as we now are embarking fully on the way towards Busan.  The search for justice and peace can help us to see beyond our internal questions as churches and as a fellowship and bring us together for those who need the united witness and ministry of the church.  It will deepen our quest for unity, standing together as one addressing what attacks the justice and peace needed by God’s creation, and what our sisters and brothers in Christ around the world face every day.

There are many expectations of what we can do as a fellowship of churches in this realm.  When I visited the minister of culture in Seoul in March this year, he asked what we could do in our preparations and celebrations in Busan to bring unity and peace to the divided Korean peninsula.  In Beirut in June, I met the same type of question from church leaders and others:  How can the WCC support an ideal and a culture of non-violence for our youth and for our governments?  Can justice be established without violence and bloodshed, serving the peace of all?  Somebody has to believe in it and act accordingly.  In Egypt, we have seen radical political change happen through non-violent action.

The President of Tahiti, also called French Polynesia, gave me a new understanding of how colonialism is still a reality in the practices and minds of many around the world.  Their experience of having a great power from the North doing what is called “clean” nuclear testing but too unclean to be done in France belongs to the great issues of the WCC advocacy work in the past decades, yet the struggle for freedom and justice continues.  Their recent experience of how economic interests of one country and its companies overrule them and even exploit their resources give us reasons for great concern, compelling us to support their call for justice to the UN.  Our office in New York is following this process and is ready to be of support.  Their case is one among many showing the importance of the existence, credibility and moral authority of non-governmental institutions like ours.

However, I am afraid that the situation for the Maohi Nui people also serves as a grave example of how the effects of the mechanisms of the global markets today lead to mechanisms and situations where many people experience economic colonialism again.  The international institutions to strengthen the economies of poor countries need to be challenged and equipped to address these realities.  The work to follow up the important discussions in our last assembly about the challenges to economic justice is proceeding well, coming towards a concluding event in China in June next year, in which I will participate.

We have to recognize that ideas of “holy war” exist in different contexts, even where some people call themselves Christians.  The events of terror this summer in my own homeland certainly are still a matter hard to believe.  Now we see how these events might be linked to discussions in grey areas of European politics, where certain groups are stigmatized and banned because they come from another continent, have other cultures and religions.  This cultural racism has to be addressed by a common approach against any violent religious extremism.  What we can see and what gives hope is that religious leaders in all camps again manifest their condemnation of making innocent people part of any war misleadingly called “holy”. US Christian leaders have made impressive statements, dismantling the authority of political or church leaders  justifying anything said or done in the name of Christianity in that direction. They did so 10 years ago and have repeated it several times.  Religion used as ideology to support certain political interests must be met with a common faith in the value and dignity of each human being.  I was impressed by how Muslim leaders in Norway expressed this the days after the terror attacks. The visit of all the bishops of my church to Geneva recently (scheduled a year ago) gave us an opportunity to reflect on how the church can witness to the justice we all need through the peace-giving and healing actions of counselling, preaching, praying and sharing the signs of communion given to us in Christ across any border and human difference or division.

The value of rituals as peace-keeping and peace-establishing powers became also very clear to me as I visited Samoa in the last weeks. The one-hour long Kava ceremony to welcome guests is a strong action of welcoming, creating relations and unity through drinking from the same cup, sitting in the same circle, receiving the full attention of the hosts.  You do not receive or create enemies in that way!  Visiting Cyprus in early March also helped me see very clearly how the Orthodox church – in this case – can be an active partner in political processes to call for justice and peace in a divided country, representing its people and giving leadership and a connection to a wider ecumenical fellowship that offers more perspectives and hopefully also more inspiration to the work for reconciliation and justice.

In several church visits, either to Geneva or me visiting churches, I have had chances to discuss openly and constructively our concept of Just Peace.  In the Kirchentag in Dresden just after the IEPC we were reminded how this concept is based on what the churches have been involved in over many years in contexts riddled by war or forced division of people.  The demand from many German participants in Jamaica to spend more energy on our discussions on our understanding of the shift of focus from discussing “just war” to “just peace” deserves a serious follow up, and I try wherever I am to raise a discussion of what challenges Just Peace in this context and what can we contribute through our focus on that.  The parameters of the Just War theories could be used to be war-preventing, arguing for the immorality of a war, as we saw in the discussions before the last invasion of Iraq.  However, as churches our focus should not be on legitimizing actions of war but on how non-violent actions can replace the use of military force, how we can build peace from below and from within, and how we can give political leaders moral support and standards to protect their own citizens without using violence.  We need strong and clear ideas and concepts to guide us to address the many contexts in which we are a fellowship of peacemakers, but we also need to work, to act, and to create just peace in all places as we go on with our reflections and discussion, also to give the reflections realistic and constructive inputs and direction. 

Listening to the concerns expressed by churches and peoples in different contexts has helped me to understand that the concept of Just Peace itself needs further reflection.  The concept can only be understood properly if we realize that in concrete situations there needs to be a dynamic relation between on the one hand the struggle for justice and on the other peace building.  Promoting justice becomes top priority in situations where human rights are violated and the suffering of people becomes almost endless because of unjust economic or political structures.  In such situations justice becomes a precondition for peace.  Peace without justice will not last long.  I am also fully aware that this debate includes difficult questions such as whether from the Christian perspective only non-violence means are allowed in the struggle for justice.  In the ecumenical movement, we have been debating these fundamental questions for several decades.  It is an unfinished debate which will not lead to easy answers which are disconnected from the day to day realities in which many churches wrestle with their Christian calling for justice and peace. Being aware of this, I have issued statements about the situation in Libya, Syria and Cote d’Ivoire to reiterate and clarify in different contexts what our governing bodies have said earlier about overcoming violence and seeking peace with justice in countries of growing conflicts.

As in the Pacific, in the German churches and in many others I see and hear there a strong church movement for peace with the earth, to the extent that I believe we are part of processes that are changing policy.  As we are close to areas of the world where people now are suffering from new and drastic changes of climate, starving from drought, we see how we need to be firm in our call for a binding and sustainable international protocol to effectively reduce emissions causing climate change.  The Christian reflections should not only be on moral and political standards, but also how we deal with the fact that there are victims of this misbehaviour which we have to address as sin against other human beings, nature and against God the Creator of all.  In my address to the Pacific Conference of Churches, I raised the question of what does Christ bring as new in a world that knows and knew the concept and the reality of sin before and without any Christian church.  The real newness Christ brings is not a new concept, but a new reality of a power to forgive sin and thus to break the evil circle of sin, evil, violence and death.  The meaning of the cross and the resurrection of Christ should be brought into our particular contributions as churches when we gather to work for Just Peace. 

It is precisely this being gathered around the cross of the resurrected Christ that we experience the unity given to us by God.  As Christians we are part and parcel of a divided world which seeks justice and peace.  We cannot ignore the fact that, as I said earlier, religion is many times a factor in ongoing injustice and lack of peace in the community.  That is also true for the Christian religion and the churches.  Our deep faith in God’s reconciling love through the cross helps us to seek the unity among Christians and churches in which justice and peace are rooted.

In this respect I am deeply convinced of the high value of the work of Faith and Order.  The work this commission is doing on moral discernment and on the mission and unity of the church is of great importance for the wider agenda of the Council, including the work for justice and peace.  It will help us to develop a deeper self-understanding of what it means to be church in realities of injustice and violence.  It will also help us to discern what the unity among churches, sharing the same faith and hopefully the same cup, can mean in the promotion of justice and in peace building.  Therefore, I very much welcome also the work on the restructuring of Faith and Order so that it can effectively support the work of the Council in the future.

We launched as WCC a short but very significant ecumenical document:  Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct. This was done in June this year together with the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCIRD) and the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA).  It is a sign of how joint work on common challenges in a shared understanding of our call and the world in which we live can lead to new signs of unity.  We are addressing the complex contexts in which we are called to give witness of our faith in Jesus Christ.  We are calling upon Christian wisdom and Christian attitudes for the presentation of the Christian witness.  We do it together; we do it publicly.  The role of the WCC convening this process, this difficult discussion, and this launching shows that there is a great need for our contribution to coherence in the ecumenical movement but also for our ability to give strategic leadership.  In humility and with commitment to our calling we proceed further.

This strong interrelation between the work on the unity and mission of the church and the work on justice and peace makes clear that the approach so well worded in the assembly theme ‘God of Life, lead us to justice and peace’ forms a relevant framework for the work of the Council in the coming years.  It is our task also in this meeting to bring these different dimensions together, in the programme work as well as in the structure of the organisation.

3.      Our presence in the African context these days

As we meet here in Addis Ababa in the Horn of Africa these days we are reminded of the reality of terror as violent actions preventing innocent civilians from access to food and drink.  This is used for political purposes.  I have addressed the situation in a statement.  I think we should continue to condemn current crimes against human beings and against humanity when children have to die in these political calamities.  These actions also have to be countered, as they are in the work of Actions of Churches Together (the ACT Alliance), supported by many churches, their members and their institutions.

Some weeks ago, I received an important letter from African church leaders about the role of National Councils of Churches which we have taken seriously and are addressing together with ACT Alliance to promote a constructive cooperation between these two global instruments of the ecumenical movement and other regional and national ecumenical expressions.

The WCC in partnership with the AACC responded to the request of the Liberian Council of Churches for a solidarity visit of religious leaders to reduce the building tensions as the country moves toward its general election in October.  The team made the visit in August and has issued a report, offering recommendations related to further accompaniment of the Liberian churches and people in their work to maintain peace.

Having lunch last Friday with my predecessor, Samuel Kobia, I was updated on the positive development and the new challenges for the new state of Southern Sudan.  The ecumenical partners have monitored and supported the peace process towards the new status of just peace in this particular part of Africa.  The WCC was one of the first international partners involved for more than 40 years.  We celebrate the new freedom and peace together with the people and the leadership of Southern Sudan.  The AACC, the Sudan Council of Churches (SCC), ecumenical partners and churches here in Africa and elsewhere have played an important role in the long way towards these new developments.  The African Union (AU) together with the UN, and some particular countries, has taken a lot of responsibility to support the peace process.  Now is not the time to pull back but to ensure that the peace can lead to new stability in the region, to progress and a better future for the people of Southern Sudan and other countries.  The Ethiopian Prime Minister is leading the IGAD process for peace in Sudan now, and we call upon his leadership and the willingness of other countries, including my own government in Norway, to do what they can to support the peace keeping work and the further development of this country. 

The situation in North Africa and the neighbouring region of the Middle East, is of great relevance for the whole continent of Africa.  I appointed a small team of living letters, led by Bishop Samuel Azariah, to visit the churches in Egypt in May, and to explore how the global fellowship can support the process of democratization and establishing security in a framework of just peace for all, and with a particular concern for the churches and the Christians.  They report of great changes in Egypt that have to be consolidated in new institutions, and that the lack of clarity of the future of the church in a dominant and changing Muslim context is a great concern.  Their meetings with prominent Muslim leaders were giving signs of a will to build security and peace or all citizens of the country.

In June this year, I made a visit to Beirut, the neighbouring context to North Africa, to meet with church leaders in the Middle East with whom I had not yet had a chance to meet or discuss the present development in the region.  I was received by HH Catholicos Aram II, also president of the MECC, as well as Protestant church leaders and with the Maronite Metropolitan Boulos Matar, one of the presidents of MECC, as well as the general secretary of the MECC, Mr Guirgis Saleh.  It was not a proper time to visit Syria; but, I had the privilege to meet with HB Patriarch Ignatius IV of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East in their seminary in Balamand, as well as with representatives from the Syrian Orthodox Church in Beirut.  The purpose was to discuss the situation of growing tensions and violence in Syria but also the challenges in the whole region, including the future of the MECC.  The churches are challenged by three major problems at the same time:  a) The emigration of Christians from several countries, particularly from Iraq b) the unclear and difficult political situation in some countries, leading to violence and acute economic problems and c) the needs for changes and reforms to establish just peace in several countries, including the unresolved relationship between Palestine and Israel.  In all this, the presence of the church is at stake in the whole region, but also the prophetic witness for just peace for all peoples, not only the churches and their members.  The global fellowship is asked to do whatever we can to support the future of the living church in this region of our holy land and history of our holy Bible.  We are continuing our plans for a church leader consultation on the situation in the Middle East to be hosted by HH Aram II in January 2012 (postponed so that it can be after the MECC Assembly at the end of November 2011), and a wider consultation with ecumenical partners in late 2012.

4.      The planning of the Assembly and the programme work of 2012 and 2013

We are progressing well towards the assembly in 2013.  I visited Korea with a significant group of colleagues in March, and established a lot of important contacts for the planning process.  I was encouraged by how the assembly is seen as a means to strengthen the ecumenical relations in Korea.  There are important challenges for the process so that it involves the churches, the ecumenical institutions and youth and women in a united and strong process.  Some more clarity has been reached after that about the structure of the planning in Korea.  I am very pleased that our member churches and the NCCK as well as other churches in Korea so strongly support the planning process and want to be involved.  I am very pleased that I now can report to you that we have the confirmation that our two CC members, Dr Seong Won Park and Ms Hae Sun Jung are appointed to work full time for the preparations of the assembly, reporting to me and our staff leading the process in Geneva.  The upcoming meeting of the APC in Busan is now well prepared and it will be a meeting of great significance in the planning process (cf. the report to this meeting).  We are here to discuss and confirm the direction of this planning process, both of the event itself and the processes we want to pursue towards the assembly.

5.      The development of the organization

The development of our organization has claimed a lot of my attention in this period since we last met; and, we are going to deal with different aspects of that in our meeting.  We have to be realistic in a time and an environment when several member churches, partners, donors and sister organizations also have many challenges.  At the same time, we have to define problems as challenges, and challenges as opportunities for changes.

I have thanked our staff for their hard work related to the IEPC, for their patience and constructiveness as we have had to do several adjustments to our budget due to changes in our context such as drastic effects of the financial crisis and the exchange rates of the Swiss Franc.

I am also encouraged by clear signals from member churches, their leaders and related groups, that there is keen interest in the WCC.  Particularly as they have visited our ecumenical centre, I have really appreciated the comprehensive sharing and discussions we have had.  Many of them show a clear positive response when I present our discussions of changes, particularly when I address the policy to involve member churches and ecumenical partners more in the programme work of the WCC.

6.      Conclusions

Welcome to another important meeting for the WCC. In this report, I have tried to articulate the themes and priorities that I see as critical for our common witness and work during this period leading to Busan. During our time together here in Addis Ababa, you as members of the Executive Committee will play a crucial role in the discernment process which will help us define our priorities, methodologies, and corresponding structures that will give flesh to our global fellowship’s common mission and vision.