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A word of farewell to Philip Potter - a pilgrim of justice and peace

Speech by WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit at the funeral of Rev. Dr Philip Potter in Lübeck, Germany.

16 April 2015

A pilgrimage of justice and peace--this phrase can describe the life of Philip Potter, a pilgrim who moved out of faith, in hope, with love. He moved, in his life and in his approach, always forward, closer to those who needed him and his leadership and closer to Christ. He not only moved himself, but moved the churches and the World Council of Churches. Most of all, he moved hearts, challenging and comforting, collaborating and calling. This is what Philip Potter continues to do - to me - and to many of those who come after him.

A pilgrimage of justice and peace--this is the theme, the unifying motto for all we do as World Council of Churches in this period after the 10th Assembly. Our theme could very well have been formulated by him. More and more, I feel how the Spirit who filled and guided him, through this theme is leading us, as we carry Philip’s legacy forward in our time and in the work for which I am responsible. I am proud, but even more greatly inspired to literally follow Philip. We develop further his vision of the ecumenical movement as a movement of faith, always searching for how we can change the realities of the churches and the world through a transformation of justice and peace, these costly gifts of salvation.

The first woman and first African serving as moderator of the central committee of the WCC, Dr Agnes Abuom, sends her warmest condolences and assurance of her prayers today. We were together 2 days ago to explore together with the church leaders of South Sudan how they can lead their young nation towards justice and peace, with accompaniment by the WCC. She also sends her words that express how she has been inspired by Philip Potter to be a pilgrim and to lead this pilgrimage of today and tomorrow:

“The church for him was a pilgrim people with a prophetic mandate proclaiming the new humanity in Christ. Philip Potter remains for us a towering symbol of the ecumenical movement.

By retracing the life and times of Philip Potter in the ecumenical movement, we encounter the richness and depth of his own spirituality and discernment. We are today witnessing a new historical moment of new problems and promises in the ecumenical movement. It would be so much more difficult to address these realities without the inspiration the new generation of ecumenists continue to draw from the wealth of knowledge and legacy of Philip Potter. During the time of his leadership at the WCC, he drew from the ethical resources of a pilgrim church under captivity. He spoke and stood against blind obedience and absolute loyalty to the tyranny of racist regimes. Philip’s own narrative of pilgrimage was not just exemplified in traversing the globe from his origins in the Caribbean Islands and cross cultural relationships through marriage but also the lonesome struggle embodied in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. This self-giving and service to the Church and the ecumenical movement was at the heart of his mission and calling in this world.”

Philip attended the first 9 assemblies of the WCC. This fact and many other facts presented in tributes to him show how he became such a significant person for the life and the work of the WCC for decades. The whole family of the WCC, whose representatives in Taiwan, Korea, Addis Ababa and many other places I have met the last days, ask me to convey our common word of thanks to God who called and gifted Philip him for this ministry. On yesterday, His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew added his expressions of thanks to God for Philip’s vision and passion for the unity of the church.

In the preparation of the 10th Assembly, I benefited from an evening’s short walk and talk with Philip, feeling strongly and warmly how he affirmed my calling and our work of today. He reminded me again and again that “we cannot do this work without a strong sense of humour”. With profound and lasting joy we celebrate his life and what he gave us for our own pilgrimage of justice and peace.

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit
WCC general secretary