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 / The ecumenical chance of the year 2017 - review - proposals - perspectives

The ecumenical chance of the year 2017 - review - proposals - perspectives

The ecumenical chance of the year 2017 - review - proposals - perspectives, by Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, WCC General Secretary.

25 August 2017

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, WCC General Secretary

Dear colleagues and friends, sisters and brothers in Christ,

1. But where the danger is, also grows the saving power

We are living in a very dangerous phase of human history, but we are witnessing at the same time also a moment of renewed hope for life. Since January this year, nuclear scientists have moved the doomsday clock to two and a half minute to midnight – they saw the world in January 2017 almost as close to a nuclear war as in 1953 when both Soviet Union and the United States of America where testing hydrogen bombs in the earth atmosphere. The tensions around the Korean Peninsula have brought us even closer to a nuclear stand-off during the last weeks. In addition, the denial of global warming and its consequences and the violence and war in the Middle East and other regions are other factors darkening the horizon of the future of humankind.

In contrast to this bleak picture, however, more and more people are waking up; they realize that this situation requires of them not to remain silent bystanders, but to express their hope for the life of God’s creation through concrete acts and actions turning the situation around. “But where the danger is, also grows the saving power” – this verse of Friedrich Hölderlin’s poem “Patmos” is not self-evident in difficult times like ours, but it is true for all those who believe in the God of life and listen to God’s call and claim on their lives despite the violence and despair that surrounds them.  When- and where-ever we meet them and allow them to motivate us, we will see the light of hope illuminating a way forward that leads to life, justice and peace despite all obstacles.

Was this not the case for so many who were moved and motivated by Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli or John Calvin at the time of the reformation? “Post tenebras Lux”/”After darkness light” is the motto written on the Reformation wall in Geneva together with the Christogramm (IHS). The liberating message of the Gospel of Christ and God’s grace inspired and resourced this movement for change.

Of course, we learned that this momentum can get lost, can even be turned upside down as a legitimization of human power and a justification for violence and war. “Ecclesia semper reformanda” – the need for reformation and metanoia does not stop – never, and surely not today.

Yes, I do see signs of hope on my travels throughout the world. I just visited the people and churches in the Pacific who still suffer the consequences of nuclear testing in their region and see their islands threatened by the consequences of climate change. But they continue to celebrate life and to look out for the solidarity of their sisters and brothers worldwide that is so important for them.

Yes, I do see signs of hope, not least after my visit to Rome yesterday where Dr Agnes Abuom, the moderator of the WCC central committee, and I met with Pope Francis for a private audience.

So many, who were waiting for a clear prophetic voice of the church, welcome and embrace both his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” and his Papal encyclical “Laudato Si”. And we all remember with joy the joint prayer on the reformation day last year in Lund with Pope Francis and the leadership of the Lutheran World Federation. If there was an ecumenical chance for encouraging steps on our way to unity during the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, than Lund comes to mind, but also the joint worship of the EKD and the German Roman Catholic Conference of Bishops in Hildesheim and similar events in various countries with the mutual confession of guilt as important step towards the healing of memories. The healing of memories is a necessary pre-condition for the visible unity of the church that needs to compliment bilateral theological dialogues and active cooperation on the burning issues of today’s world.

2. Grace, repentance and unity

Reviewing the Reformation memory, we cannot overlook that the dynamics of change that it introduced played an important role in the emergence of the modern world with a worldwide, but divided Christianity and with global competition for economic and political power. Colonialism, neo-colonialism and - in our days - economic globalization led to growing inequalities, economic injustice and claims of hegemonic political and military power. We find ourselves today in a situation that requires developing new forms of sharing, cooperation and ecologically sound life styles, but in which - quite to the contrary - the capacity and the will to do so is weakened by reactions against global trends and powers often amplifying cultural and religious particularities. This is a common feature of populist political movements, religious fundamentalism and other justifications of violence that affect also groups in the churches. They all refuse to be held accountable by others who do not belong to their particular group.

The ecumenical movement underlined against this background that peace and justice for people and the Earth are necessary conditions for the survival of humankind. There is only one common future and hope for all or there is no hope for the future at all. We have seen in the ecumenical movement how repentance and mutual accountability have contributed to the deepening of the fellowship and the capacity to address the dividing powers of this world.

“God unites, the enemy divides”. This was the title of one of the speeches (of the bishop of Oslo, Eivind Berggrav) at the first Assembly of the WCC in Amsterdam, August 1948. The speech described how the work for unity belongs to the characteristics of God. The dividing powers of the two world wars were again visible in new divides and an iron curtain. We should not focus on who are our enemies, I think, but we should pay attention to the forces that make people enemies to one another. We have to analyze how the polarizing and dividing powers that lead to conflict and war today are working against the will of God in this world.

In a Faith and Order study on the unity of the church and the unity of humankind” (Faith and Order, “Unity of the Church – Unity of Mankind (1973)”, in G. Gassmann (ed.) Documentary History of Faith and Order 1963-1993. Geneva, WCC, 137-143), one of the clear conclusions was that the unity of the Church is a sign and foretaste of the unity of humankind. This is not an easy task and a comfortable journey. There was a very tough lesson to be learned in the Programme to Combat Racism. The struggle against racism became also a battle within and between the churches. The racial division of human beings created in the image of God, divided also in the church. This reality of exclusion and division is not over. We have to be aware of how it plays out also today. Not only in the matter of race, but also in issues of gender, sexual orientation, etcetera we have to be aware of how these are complicated issues to deal with.  As WCC we have been addressing racism again in different ways. We have established a reference group on Human Sexuality that provides a space for the challenging conversation about how the churches deal with the many issues related to human sexuality, and how they also affect the quest for unity.

After the ground-breaking consensus text on “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry”, the commission on Faith and Order presented more recently its second consensus text on the underlying ecclesiological questions: The Church – towards a common vision was sent to the member churches and ecumenical partners for study and reflection. We are receiving now many responses that are being carefully analyzed by the commission. This is a major undertaking that will contribute to establishing a common floor for future dialogues and discussions similar to BEM.

The churches are in many ways affected by the divisions of our times. In theological terms the lack of the capacity to relate to the other or the neighbour in responsible ways reflects the brokenness of community with the other and with God. Such brokenness of the most basic set of relationships is called sin in the Biblical tradition. Sin is a reality that disrupts and diminishes human relationships and destroys the life given to us as human beings in God’s creation. It is a destructive reality in our own lives. To build up our lives and new relationships, a kind of conversion towards the other is needed – a new more inclusive understanding of identity that includes the material, moral and spiritual dimensions of life.

In many of my speeches during the Reformation anniversary, I have addressed this underlying dimension of contemporary challenges using categories of sin, grace and repentance according to the reformation heritage. In view of the deep conversion that is needed, I referred to Luther’s first of the 95 thesis against the indulgences:

“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent’, he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” (Mt 4:17)

Sin is real. It undermines life of individuals and communities. There is no way to avoid the reality of sin through money, power, ignorance, pious practices, church doctrines, offices, or through any other means. There is no way to get around the need for repentance, conversion and the renewal of life.

Repentance is the way to receive justification by grace and to be liberated from the shackles of sin. It is a consequence of justification by grace. Repentance leads to a conversion that involves all dimensions of our identity. Its horizon is the renewal of life in the death and resurrection of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Luther argues that the notion of repentance is not a once-for-all action or word. It is an attitude – a way of being, representing alertness to the critical voice, an understanding of the dimension of tragedy, and willingness to acknowledge the reality of what is wrong. It is also the attitude of hearing carefully the voice of God’s total forgiveness - not as accepting a deal, but as openness to change the direction of life in order to focus on the needs of the other; particularly the poor, those in need of safety, of justice, of having their rights and dignity recognized. The way towards justice and peace is a way of repentance, conversion and renewal. Anticipating the goal that qualifies already the way, our way becomes a pilgrimage of justice and peace, which is the main programme emphasis of the WCC after the tenth assembly 2013 in Busan.

True repentance establishes accountability to our past, as individuals and as fellowship, in the churches and as peoples (confession). True repentance means a real willingness to change, listening well to the other’s and particularly to the less privileged and the victims of what we have done – past and present (contritio). True repentance means real actions of transformation, and an ongoing willingness to be in a process of transformation that focuses on how the other - the other human beings, the other churches, as well as the whole of creation - are affected constructively or destructively by my and our attitudes and actions.

Transformation is the essence of our pilgrimage of justice and peace towards the unity of humankind and all creation. We concluded that the unity of the church and the unity of humankind are interconnected. The unity of the church is to preconfigure the unity of humankind and all creatures as planetary community in its diversity (“God’s Gift and Call to Unity – and our Commitment”, Unity Statement adopted by the WCC 10th Assembly on 8 November 2013). But still the dominating thinking that guides peoples’ action is based on the opposition of “us” and “them” in mutually exclusive ways in the conflicts of our time.  Searching for the visible unity of the church includes the commitment to addressing the needs of the poor, in a wide sense of the term, including the less privileged, the victims, the oppressed in mutual accountibility.

3. Growing together in mutual accountability

Mutual accountability refers here to an attitude and form for our life together, trusting the power of the Gospel to address the needs we all have of liberation from the powers of sin and for the transformation into the life and the values of the Kingdom of God.

To be realistic, we need to acknowledge there is never a time in the life of a human being, a nation, or a culture when the need for the attitude of repentance can be considered obsolete. The continuing existence of injustice, racism, war, killings, persecution and despair driving people to flee from their dear homes and families reminds us that these are not just matters of history but remain a reality for Europe and the world today.

Americans discuss racism these days as America’s original sin. They face the dimensions and expressions of racism that permeate their society, and which have been exposed to the world most publicly these last few years. As Europeans, we should see ourselves in that mirror: What is our original sin? Actually, we have to admit that what is seen in the US is a consequence of European immigration policy rooted in Eurocentric ideas of white superiority and privilege. How can we dismantle and resist the seemingly normal reaction of self-preservation and self-protection manifested in suspicion towards the stranger and those of different faiths? How do we arrive at a modus of real and constructive repentance opening to the way forward in mutual accountability?

This is about making the best values of the Reformation a living reality today. We protect our values best by using them as the basis and source for serving the lives of other human beings today. Our present realities must be shaped by and rooted in a vision of how we shall live together as One Humanity tomorrow. Values are of no worth if they are solely about the past. That is also true about our understanding of sin and repentance. The Reformation’s call to repentance is not a call to despair, pessimism or misconceptions of the possibilities of human life and efforts. Rather to the contrary, it is a call to take these opportunities to serve more seriously and be inspired by the liberating word of the Gospel to do so.

I am confronted with these realities again and again in my work and during my travels. This experience shows me that it makes a lot of sense to consider the challenges we face today as one humanity in the light of the legacy of the Reformation. Not as a general pessimism or condemnation of everything that is human, but as an alertness to the reality of sin and the reality of the need of others.  It rather gives me hope. There is a sign of hope in every repentance and conversion that follows.

A test case for our solidarity these days are surely the concerns for peace and unity in the Korean peninsula. This very special unsolved and unsettled situation, still defined only by an armistice treaty, not a peace treaty, is an increased threat to the people of Korea, the North East Asia region, but also to the peace of the world. This has increased by the escalation of military activity and the building of the capacity to have and use nuclear weapons in North Korea, but also the increased military activity, the enormous American military presence in the peninsula and the threat to respond with the nuclear capacities of the USA. My deep conviction is that the churches – and civil society – have a huge potential in building trustful relations, opening the doors for cooperation and dialogue, and to advocate for peaceful, diplomatic and political solutions to the escalating conflict. The new president of South Korea affirmed this strongly in the meeting we had with him recently in Seoul. The churches and the ecumenical bodies, NCCK, WCC, and the WCRC, are significant in the history of democratization, peacebuilding in the Korean peninsula, and should pursue their way for justice and peace with the parties, particularly at this new opportunity given with the new democratic beginning in South Korea. We should use all our influence as the WCC and as member churches in our respective countries to support political initiatives for political processes that can lead to reduced tensions, normalization of relations, to a new time of unity in diversity for the people of Korea.

We see the close link between both our search for unity as reconciliation and just peace, as well as our theological reflection on unity in faith and in solidarity with one another as churches especially in the conflict concerning past and future of Israel and Palestine. This year we remember the war in June 1967 that has led to 50 years of occupation of the land of the Palestinians. We have as the WCC been constantly working for justice and peace in Israel and Palestine. As was noted already in 1948, “…the churches are in duty bound to pray and work for an order in Palestine as just as may be in the midst of our human disorder” (W. A. Visser ‘t Hooft (ed.), The First Assembly of the World Council of Churches. London, SCM Press, 1949, 163). We continue to do so with different initiatives. There is no way to defend this occupation, which has developed more and more into colonization of an area outside the internationally recognized borders of Israel. To let this occupation to continue like this, shows a fundamental lack of understanding of what it means to be the neighbour to others, a lack of will to understand what it means to be in the shoes of the occupied, and a lack of courage to take the consequences of this as a serious moral problem by those who accept the situation.

What is at stake is our commitment to basic values that can come from a deeper understanding of God’s call to unity for humankind; a call to unity in diversity but in just peace, not only within and for one group, one people, or one religion, but for all. We have to continue to work and pray that faith in one God will bring another type of relations of justice and peace, one day. This day should come soon, before it is too late.

4. On our way to unity – a pilgrimage of justice and peace

There are many other examples where the solidarity, the prayers and support of the ecumenical family are required as the list of priority countries for the WCC shows. In addition to the Korean Peninsula and Israel/Palestine we are active in the peace process of Columbia, in the DRC, Burundi, Nigeria and South Sudan on the African continent, Syria and Iraq in the Middle East, Pakistan in Asia and the Ukraine in Europe.

We see what we do there as part of our pilgrimage of justice and peace to which we were called by the tenth assembly of the WCC in Busan. In 2015 we focused our work in the context of the pilgrimage on climate justice and the climate change conference in Paris. In 2016, we were concentrating on peace-building in the Middle East and Israel and Palestine. This year, our journey continued with activities for peace and inter-religious cooperation in Nigeria and for peace-building in South Sudan, the DRC and Burundi. Next year, the focus will be on Columbia and the region of Latin America and the Caribbean.

We want to show that the fellowship of churches in the WCC is a reality that responds to the urgent needs of the member churches. It is in these realities where the unity of the churches and the credibility of their mission and common witness to the world is at stake, but also meaningful. These are no abstract concepts. They have very concrete meaning in the life of the churches worldwide.

The message of the Busan assembly introduced a decisive shift compared to previous assemblies. The churches together declared 1948 in Amsterdam that they intended to stay together. This was a remarkable statement only three years after World War II. Since then, subsequent assemblies of the WCC have affirmed this statement. The tenth assembly at Busan, however, introduced a new step. The delegates of the Busan assembly stated that they intend to move together with all people of good will. They emphasized that ecumenism is not a static, but a dynamic reality in the cooperation of the different churches and in inter-action with people of good will of other communities. We are deepening our fellowship and cooperation beyond the boundaries of our respective communities on the way!

This has important implications for all aspects of the life and work of the WCC and its member churches. But even more so, it corresponds extremely well to the statements made by Pope Francis when he speaks of the unity of the churches on the way underlining the need for very practical cooperation for the benefit of all human beings and creation. The Lund event expressed  this relationship when it combined the worship with the signing of a commitment to cooperation by the Lutheran World Service and Caritas Internationalis.

The common witness and action of the churches needs to go hand in hand with the theological dialogues and the commitment to unity. Nothing can advance without the other. I want to stop here to leave time for questions and discussion. I trust that you see the value of the proposal of moving forward together on our way as churches. As WCC we speak of a common pilgrimage of justice and peace while Pope Francis speaks of the unity on the way and the need of the churches to go out to streets and those at the margins of society.

We do have an extraordinary ecumenical chance at this point in history. Let us pray that we don’t miss it.

Thank you very much.