World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

You are here: Home / Resources / Documents / WCC general secretary / Speeches / International Ecumenical Forum "Pilgrimage of the Holy Robe"

International Ecumenical Forum "Pilgrimage of the Holy Robe"

Speech by Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, at the International Ecumenical Forum, 30 January to 3 February 2012 in Trier, Germany.

01 February 2012

1. Ecumenism is alive

Your Eminences, your Excellencies, Sisters and Brothers in Christ, dear friends,

When God creates life, God creates unity.  This wholeness is an intrinsic and intricate part of the gift of life.  To illustrate this point, I would like to show you a photo that I took near our summerhouse close to the sea.  I keep it in my office in Geneva because it tells me something important about the churches and our quest for the visible unity of the Church.

The photo shows “lichens” (German: Flechten) growing on rocks in a circle and continuing to follow this shape of a circle even where the rocks are split and interrupt the circle – a strong symbol for the unity that God wants despite all what separates human beings from each other – Where are the churches in this image?  How much do they participate in the cold and hard splits dividing human communities, which seem to be insurmountable?  Or are they – like the lichen – vital signs of a new and reconciled reality to come, life in relationships.

I have chosen to show you this photo, of course, because it resonates with the symbol of the beautiful woven fabric of the tunic – the Holy Robe - the Bible is speaking about in John 19:23: The soldiers also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top.  Even the soldiers recognized the beauty of this cloth and did not tear it into pieces; they rather cast lots to see who would get it as one.

Divisions between churches remain a scandal that we have to overcome – and even when they go deep as the splits in the rocks, we would like to see that life can grow beyond these splits like the circle of the lichens.

There are those among who are frustrated that very little seems to move forward and that sometimes the splits seem to deepen:

- Surely, there are different approaches towards the goal of visible unity of the Church and agreements concerning the ministry seem to be further away than a couple of decades before.

- Painfully we admit: new divisions are surfacing about ethical choices and moral values.

- There is no one, clear cut concept for the institutional expressions of the fellowship of churches in different contexts.  Christians and churches struggle to respond to the changing environment in developing different models of councils of churches, churches together or more recently also inter-faith councils.

- There continues to be a lively debate on the relationship between mission and unity as we have seen during the Edinburgh Centennial celebrations in 2010.

- Still relationships between churches from the ancient tradition of the early Church to newly emerging communities of Christians who experience the power of the Holy Spirit as transforming reality are weak and fragile.

- More work needs to be done that churches respond together with clear proposals to the  financial crises and , for instance, the blockade in climate change negotiations.

- We have been divided in the past over the doctrine of just war and the search for just peace.  The future of Jerusalem has been probably the most important focal point of these debates.

- And yes, we still have not arrived at a shared theological basis for inter-religious dialogue and cooperation despite the urgency of the matter.

All of this is true; but, for couple of years now as the General Secretary of the WCC, I have had the privilege to meet representatives of churches, ecumenical partners, secular organizations and states from all over the world who come to Geneva.  I have visited many churches and listened to both stories of hope and despair.  I have seen the ecumenical movement at work.  I am also amazed by the expectations regarding the forthcoming WCC assembly that are expressed by our partners.  Within the preparatory process for the assembly, we have identified the value of togetherness and the ethos of fellowship and consensus as distinctive marks.  Partnership between churches, solidarity, mutual accountability and shared advocacy are not empty words but expressions of reliable and trustworthy relationships among churches in all continents.  All together they tell me: Ecumenism is alive.  All together they are valid steps towards unity that are needed because of the old conviction of the Life and Work movement which says: The world is too strong for a divided church!

2. Unity remains the goal

The common witness of the churches and the search for unity among them are two sides of the same coin.  The Bible shows us that unity of the Church is not an end in itself, but an essential quality of the Church as the one body of Christ, crucified and risen.

Unity among the churches is a gift of God and a calling to be received so that the churches are the living mystery, the sign and instrument of God’s reign to come and contribute through their very being to reconciliation and healing of the world that is suffering from injustice, war, and environmental destruction.  Overcoming their own divisions and the dividing walls of hostility that destroy human community by the grace and love of God, the churches participate in the wide horizon of the ongoing and new creation of this world. Unity is not an instrument for another goal, but a basic value of the Church.  It is always renewed through the bonds of Baptism in the name of the Triune God.

I am very glad about the progress made here in Germany regarding the common recognition of baptism – by all the churches represented here around the table! While continuing to search for such unity also regarding the sharing at the table of the Lord, we should not minimise the importance of such a step forward.  Only when we strengthen the bonds of baptism and come closer together, the common witness of the churches to Christ and their participation in God’s mission can be credible and effective as the salt and leaven of the world.

Such progress is a result of the ecumenical movement in the 20th century. Ecumenism has deeply transformed relationships between churches that were divided for generations and has brought Christians of all traditions closer to each other.  Having taken the more easy options for cooperation and change in the past, we are now left with the more difficult steps forward.  Progress is at times less dramatic and more cumbersome to achieve.

However, the common witness carries the promise of the transformative power of the life-sustaining and life-renewing Holy Spirit and contributes to justice, reconciliation and peace for humankind and all of God’s creatures on planet earth. Oikoumene understood as God’s household of life points to this wide horizon and the eschatological expectation of God’s reign to come (Col 1.15 ff, Rom 8:18 ff.) and describes this wider horizon in which the churches live out their faith in the context of different cultures and religions.

There are clearly new challenges around us:

- The impact of the continuing financial crises on people and whole countries together with the lack of action concerning climate change and other environmental concerns;

- The longing for peace with justice in so many places of this world, but especially in and around Jerusalem;

- The rising economic wealth of middle income countries like China, India and Brazil, suggesting a geopolitical shift of power;

- The growth of Christianity in the global south and the changing ecclesial landscape with the ever increasing importance of Pentecostal and charismatic churches and communities that we have begun to address through initiatives like the Global Christian Forum;

- Divisions between and within churches on moral and ethical issues which affect both the search for unity and common action for human rights;

- And the implications of religious pluralism in all parts of the world with many positive, but also very difficult aspects to it.

Addressing these changes in an effective way requires ecumenical dialogue among those, who hold different opinions and interests, in order to foster strategic cooperation.  It requires the will to stay together and to search for unity.  Visible unity must remain our goal.  We should not and cannot shy away from more recent difficulties that seem to jeopardise previous efforts of developing common ground between different church traditions and models of unity.

I have always been fascinated how the apostles addressed the first tensions within the early Church in Act 15.  They do not avoid the difficult questions; exactly in doing so, they found the strength to open up to the universal horizon of the Gospel message.  Most of us who are of the Gentiles would have never become Christians if this agreement to extend the mission of the Apostles to the oikoumene, the known inhabited earth, had not been taken.

3 God of life, lead us to justice and peace – Busan 2013

We are struggling today to address the even wider horizon of God’s creation.  The theme for the next assembly of the WCC invites us to take this step for both the future of life on Earth and the future of the churches together.  Our theme reads: God of life, lead us to justice and peace.

Let me share with you some thoughts concerning the first part of the theme, our call to the God of life!

According to the first creation story, God creates life by creating light, and by bringing order- separating light from darkness, day from night.

God wills life and order, by creating life--new life.  We are invited to be part of this ongoing movement of creation.

God is the God of the life-giving word.  The first words of the book called Genesis, the beginning, are about the power to create light and order in darkness and chaos by words.  Reading the first chapter of the Gospel according to John, we hear that the Word was with God and the Word was God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. We are invited to participate in the use of the creative words, words giving life, to communicate light and order in the midst of darkness and chaos.

God is the God of the Spirit, the omnipresent Spirit, able to be present everywhere, present even in all kinds of chaos.  The breath of God is giving life to our entire world.  The Spirit of God is moving the whole world, the oikoumene, and therefore also the churches, which are us, the women and men in the churches.

The first to be said about this world, about life, is to be said about God; God the will of life, God the word of life, God the Spirit of life. In this Trinity of the God of life is everything potentially present and bound together in the unity of diversity.

The wonderful poem about the beginning in the first chapters of the Bible involves us, human beings, most profoundly in relation to everything that is.  We are drawn into the good news, into the gospel of creation: Life is a gift of light, a gift from God. Life can only be received as a gift: a gift to be given--to others--for others.

The texts of creation are not neutral; they include us, and do not leave us as outside spectators.  They call for humility, a stronger love to everything created, and a new will to order our lives for the purpose of life – faith and order in the deeper and comprehensive sense of the word of creation.  The ecumenical movement points to God’s movement of creation.  It is meant to be a fellowship where the churches see their common role in participating in the wholeness of God’s work.  It is, indeed, a movement with great ambitions.  Not only to be Church together, but to improve the churches’ witness in the world in the horizon of God’s creation.

Turning to the God of life, we are drawn into this movement, leading us to God’s reign of justice and peace.  Despite brutal and scandalous consequences of sin and unjust relationships, there is the promise that life finds its meaning and purpose in God.  In this way, the assembly theme is a liberating statement at a time in history when part of humanity has accumulated the power to alter and destroy life on planet earth as we know it – with a single strike from a nuclear weapon, over decades through climate change and the loss of biodiversity, and every day through conflicts and wars, through poverty and hunger that kill millions of people.

Praying that the God of life will lead us to justice and peace as one fellowship, the churches are giving account of their hope that the divisive and deadly power of sin can be overcome by the reconciling and transforming grace of the Triune God that was revealed to us in Christ, suffering on the cross and resurrected in glory.  The ecumenical movement of creation will always also be the ecumenical movement of the cross.  In all creation there is darkness and a shifting between light and darkness.  In all creating activity there is a moment of giving life, even to the extent of death, for others.  The law of life is the law of the seed.  Something has to be given to give life.  In this way, the assembly theme is a statement of hope and light in the midst of darkness.

These characteristics of the theme are encouraging me to share with you my hope for a vital future of ecumenism. All what I can do, I will do in contributing

- to the deepening of the fellowship among the churches;

- to finding renewed energy to move forward together and

- to winning the hearts of those who stand aloof because they have been disappointed in the past or cannot see the relevance of this task for our times and the future.

I want the WCC to become an effective instrument for the fellowship of churches, the koinonia in faith, life and witness, on our way to the goal of full visible unity, that can live up to this task.

I end as I began, reflecting on the truth to which this photo of the lichen- covered rock points, God creates life and unity to be intrinsically  and intricately together.  We are called to build on this unity and koinonia as the signs of life, growing in a circle, crossing divisions and rifts. We are called to unity even where there are existing splits, moving forward together and praying as we go, “God of life, lead us to justice and peace.”

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit
WCC general secretary