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Memorial obituary of Philip Potter, by the Very Rev. Georges Tsetsis of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople

It is difficult, if not impossible, to express in just a few words what Philip Potter of blessed memory meant to the Ecumenical movement, to the WCC and to me personally.

19 May 2015

(Ecumenical Centre, 18/5/2015)

It is difficult, if not impossible, to express in just a few words what Philip Potter of blessed memory meant to the Ecumenical movement, to the WCC and to me personally.

I was fortunate to have been able to collaborate with him not only during the meetings of the Staff Executive Group, in which I was sitting as Moderator of the Orthodox Task Force, but also, and particularly, in a small informal and indeed very confidential group of staff members close to him, called the “fondue group” (some colleagues present here today certainly remember it). We were about a dozen persons, coming from different horizons and church backgrounds, regularly meeting with him in the nearby Café du Raisin over a fondue and a glass of Chasselas, in order to exchange ideas about developments in the world, in the Churches, but also within the HQ of the World Council of Churches. And it was amazing to see how our elder brother Philip was able to touch us on a deeply personal level, while at the same time inspiring us with the model of leadership he had adopted on the ecumenical and international spheres.

A man truly filled with a “strength from above”, he stood and acted as a charismatic ecumenical leader. I think that for Philip, Ecumenism was the hope for inter-Christian, inter-faith and international understanding, for true peace based on justice and dignity, for God’s continued presence and involvement in modern history. For this rich and multidimensional work of Philip some other ecumenical veterans will speak.

Therefore allow to say few words only about his relations with the Orthodox and his efforts to make their presence in the WCC more meaningful and efficient.

It is interesting to note that Philip’s will to involve the Orthodox more efficiently in the life of the WCC was manifested much before his election as General Secretary in 1972. Shortly after his appointment in 1967 as director of the Division (and later “Commission”) of World Mission and Evangelism, he took the initiative to create the office for “Research and relations with Orthodox” and invited an outstanding missiologist, Fr. Anastasios Yannoulatos, the Present Archbishop of Albania, to lead the office. Since then, many other Orthodox theologians led this Office, such as Ion Bria of blessed memory, Yorgo Lemopoulos, Ioan Sauca, Kwame Labi.

On many occasions, speaking with Orthodox leaders and scholars, Philip recognized the invaluable contribution of Orthodox Churches to the ecumenical movement, in the areas of spirituality and liturgical life, missiology and common witness, Christology and ecclesiology related to the search for visible unity. He was believing that “the Greek patristic writings, one of the sources of inspiration for the renewal of the Church, could provide an answer for doing ’theology in context’, linking reflection to action for justice, and thus defining the Orthodox concept of ‘liturgy after the Liturgy’ “.

Yet, Philip Potter was not so happy with some ambivalent attitudes of several Local Orthodox member Churches vis-a-vis the WCC. It is true that, in spite the Toronto Declaration of 1950, the presence of the Orthodox in a predominantly Anglican and Protestant organization was not so easy. Neither for the WCC, nor for the Orthodox Churches.

Therefore, in 1982 he took the initiative to met delegates of the 15 Autocephalous and Autonomous Eastern Orthodox Churches in order to openly exchange with them views and find ways of responding to their “desiderata”, such as their representation in commissions and working groups, their involvement in the process of preparation of documents, the appointment of Orthodox in leading staff position, the crucial issue of voting on issues that relate the doctrinal identity of a Church.

Philip’s promise was that the WCC would do everything that is possible to meet the desiderata of the Orthodox Churches. Unfortunately, the Council’s mechanisms did not allow the immediate implementation of the desiderata. Philip’s pledge however, became the basis of decisions taken several years later, during the General Secretaryship of Konrad Raiser. (But this is another story!!)

Let me stop here, beloved sisters and brothers.
A giant, literally and figuratively, left us. All of us, who have been so blessed with his presence, will remember him with respect, gratitude, dignity and love.

May his memory be eternal, and his soul reside with the Saints in God's embrace.