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Dr Marga Bührig (1915 - 2002)

15 February 2002

The World Council of Churches (WCC) mourns the passing of Dr Marga Bührig, who died in Binningen, Switzerland, during the night of 12 February, aged 86.

From 1983 till 1991, Marga Bührig was one of three women among the WCC's eight presidents. As moderator of the preparatory group for the WCC's World Convocation on Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation, she played an active role in planning the Convocation held in Seoul, Korea, in 1990.

Born in Berlin, Marga Bührig grew up in Switzerland. She studied German language and literature and history before going on to study theology. Marga Bührig was one of the founders of the Swiss Protestant Women's Federation and of the "Women for Peace" movement. From 1959 to 1981, she worked at the Protestant conference and study centre at Boldern, becoming its director in 1971. From 1976 till 1982, she was also president of the Ecumenical Association of Academies and Laity Centres in Europe.

A few years ago, when she was already over 80 years old, Marga Bührig spoke at a public gathering of what she called her two "living streams": "the women's movement in its different phases" and the "the firm foundation and liberating movement of divine love, even in a world full of cruelty and destruction, the vision of a human community following the example of Jesus Christ".

She said then: "I have always wished to belong to movements and groups that will continue when I am gone, almost as if I wanted to prove that all that I have tried to do along with others has not been in vain. I believe this wish has been fulfilled."

The general secretary of the World Council of Churches, Dr Konrad Raiser, paid the following tribute to Dr Marga Bührig:

It is with sadness, but also with a deep sense of gratitude, that the World Council of Churches bids farewell to Dr Marga Bührig, who died aged 86. Marga Bührig had close links with the World Council of Churches and the ecumenical movement ever since she attended the WCC's second assembly in Evanston in 1954 as a guest. She was appointed to the staff of the Evangelical Academy in Boldern in 1959, becoming its director from 1971-1981. In this capacity and through her involvement in the Ecumenical Association of Academies and Laity Centres in Europe, of which she was president from 1976-82, she played a decisive part in shaping numerous ecumenical developments in Switzerland and in Europe. Her commitment, marked by great independence, was first and foremost to the women's movement and the active pursuit of justice and peace. The assembly of the World Council of Churches in Vancouver (1983) elected Marga Bührig as one of its eight presidents; then, for the first time, the WCC's highest representative body had three women members. In the period from 1988-90, she was also moderator of the preparatory group for the WCC's World Convocation on Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation in Seoul, and in February of 1990 she served as co-president of that conference.

No list of official functions and honorary positions, however complete, can convey the extraordinary force that radiated from Marga Bührig. Human relations were all-important to her; she lived for and with other people, especially women. Institutions and structures were not really for her; even at an advanced age, her life was in constant movement. She described the basic tenet of her life as being "to love life passionately and to seek justice passionately". This passion, which enabled her to disregard many conventions and prejudices, was a liberating and encouraging gift that she passed on to several generations of women. With her autobiography published in 1987 under the title "Spät habe ich gelernt, gerne Frau zu sein" (I learned late to like being a woman), she gave countless women far beyond church and ecumenical circles the courage to live their lives confidently as women. From very early on, she was thus one of the pioneers of feminist theology and women's search for new ways for women to live in the church.

Her life-long commitment to the work of ecumenical formation with lay-people fuelled her passion for justice and peace. Her basic view of life as human relationships made her deeply distrustful of power structures in church and society. As one of the founders of the "Women for Peace" movement in Switzerland, she drew criticism from politically influential circles in her own country. She firmly believed that, with their own experience of life, women have a unique contribution to make to conflict resolution that has not yet been fully appreciated. The conciliar process for justice, peace and the integrity of creation was the last great cause in her eventful life. In face of much opposition, she threw herself into defending this great ecumenical vision which, for her, was intimately linked to the biblical vision of the kingdom of God.

Marga Bührig never sought a public leadership role. At first she was even ready to refuse her election as a president of the World Council. It went against the grain for her to be part of any structures exercising power and authority over others. But it was precisely because of this essentially independent and generous attitude, accompanied by a deep spirituality, and the willingness to share power and open the way for equal opportunities and participation for all, including those on the edges, that she has left such a deep mark in the lives of so many people - women and men - for whom her life will continue to be a source of inspiration. Those who were her companions on the ecumenical journey will remember her with gratitude.