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Robert Billheimer

Condolence message by WCC general secretary Samuel Kobia

18 January 2007

Geneva, January 2007

On behalf of the World Council of Churches and all other heirs to the ministry of Robert S. Bilheimer, I write to give thanks for his life, witness and faithful engagement in the 20th-century ecumenical movement. He lives in our memory and remains a significant figure in the history of the churches' quest for unity.

Well before joining the staff of the WCC in 1948, Robert Bilheimer had become a proven leader in local churches, the Student Christian Movement at Yale and the post-war Interseminary Movement. In later years, he served his Lord through the Presbyterian church as a pastor, the US national council of churches as a coordinator of international affairs and the academic community as the visionary director of Minnesota's Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research.

In the World Council, we remember him for his practical yet pastoral, immediate yet far-sighted, approach to the great issues of his day. He sometimes described himself as an "ecumenical engineer" sorting out everyday problems of institutional organization and impediments to dialogue. Contracted to arrange a visitors' programme at our First Assembly in Amsterdam, his insight and competence quickly established him as the key administrator of the first three WCC Assemblies and all meetings of mid-level governing committees through the Council's initial fifteen years. He later wrote "Breakthrough: The Emergence of the Ecumenical Tradition," which remains one of the best treatments of the WCC in that period.

Robert Bilheimer also lives in memory as a supporter of the American civil rights movement, a courageous opponent of the war in Vietnam and an early advocate of anti-apartheid activism within the churches. As associate general secretary of the WCC, he organized and convened the historic Cottesloe consultation of 1960 that would confront Christians everywhere with the intrinsically heretical nature of apartheid. The title of one of his books suggests the theological foundation of his activism: "A Spirituality for the Long Haul: Biblical Risk and Moral Stand."

Giving thanks and glory to God, the World Council of Churches salutes Robert S. Bilheimer with profound respect, and we extend our prayers and sympathy to his wife Dorothy, to his children and grandchildren, and to all who honour him.

Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia
General secretary