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Homily by the Ecumenical Patriarch H.A.H. Bartholomew

20 February 2008

 at the 60th anniversary of the World Council of Churches


Saint Pierre Cathedral, Geneva, 17 February 2008

"I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose". (1 Cor. 1:10)

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Paul was exasperated by the internal quarrels and divisions in the church at Corinth, which he had founded some years earlier. So, in this first letter sent to the members of that young fellowship, he made the appeal that we have just heard. The Apostle to the Gentiles took that step, because he realized that in an environment dominated by a pagan culture - as was that Greek city, where several schools of thought flourished - the Christian faith, that he had revealed to them, would run the risk of being reduced to human philosophical wisdom, if each of them claimed to belong to such or such a master, and not to the Master, Jesus Christ. He asked them the crucial question, "Is Christ divided?". In so doing he was wishing to remind the Corinthians that division in the Church contradicted its nature, damaged its witness and caused its mission in the world to fail.

It was precisely that Gospel truth that, at the beginning of the twentieth century, was the inspiration for the mobilization of our churches, who, confronted with the scandal of division, gave their attention to the pressing question of Christian unity, by establishing bonds of fellowship between divided churches and by building bridges to overcome their divisions.

One of those bridges was without doubt the World Council of Churches, whose 60th anniversary we are, with due solemnity, celebrating today.

It is, dear sisters and brothers, with great joy and deep thankfulness to our Triune God, that my church, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and I myself, are taking part in this anniversary.

It is an anniversary that provides the World Council of Churches, its member churches and its governing bodies with an opportunity to review the work done so far, but not only that. It also gives us, above all, a unique opportunity to turn together to the future and give new impetus, a new vision and a renewed mandate to this fellowship, which is what our sixty-year-old Council is.

Who would have then imagined that one day this appeal by the Church of Constantinople in 1920 "Unto the Churches of Christ Everywhere", inviting them after the fratricidal First World War to form a "League of Churches" would take concrete form? It would be a "koinonia/communion of churches", after the pattern of the League of Nations (founded in that same year in this welcoming city of Geneva), with the aim of overcoming distrust and bitterness, drawing the churches together, creating bonds of friendship between them, and thus fostering their cooperation. As that encyclical said: "Love should be rekindled and strengthened among the churches, so that they should no more consider one another as strangers and foreigners, but as relatives, and as being a part of the household of Christ and ‘fellow heirs, members of the same body and partakers of the promise of God in Christ.'"

41 years ago, my predecessor, Patriarch Athenagoras, paid an official visit to the World Council of Churches and the Protestant Church of Geneva. On that occasion, Dr W. A. Visser‘t Hooft gave an eloquent address from the pulpit of this historic cathedral of the Reformation and said, "The Church of Constantinople was one of the first in modern history to remind Christianity that it would be being disobedient to the will of its Master and Saviour, if it did not seek to demonstrate to the world the unity of the people of God and of the Body of Christ." He added that by that Encyclical of the Patriarchate, "Constantinople sounded the clarion call to bring us together."

Far be it from me, obviously, to claim, by quoting those words of Visser‘t Hooft, that great personality of the ecumenical movement, that my church alone fathered the World Council of Churches! It is, however, a historic fact that that resolute action by Constantinople coincided with similar initiatives being taken by Anglican and Lutheran personalities in the United States and Northern Europe, in particular Bishop Charles Brent and Bishop Nathan Söderblom, who on their part initiated at almost the same time a process to bring Christians closer together and to engage in dialogue with one another: Bishop Brent in order to stimulate theological reflection within Faith and Order, and Bishop Söderblom to promote social action by the churches within Life and Work. It can thus be stated that the concerted action by Orthodox, Anglican and Reformation churches in the 1920s laid the foundations for the modern ecumenical movement and were among the originators of the formation of the World Council of Churches 30 years later. This fellowship remains to this day indisputably the most representative institutional expression of the ecumenical movement, now on its way to its centenary.

60 years (to within a few months) have passed since Monday 23 August 1948, when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, at a plenary session of the First Assembly at Amsterdam, formally declared that the World Council of Churches was established. This inter-church platform has been at the service of its member churches and dedicated to increasing the spirit of the Gospel, seeking Christian unity and encouraging cooperation by the churches in their social and diaconal work as they confront the acute pressing problems of humankind.

Those who are familiar with the history and development of the Council will acknowledge that the first two years after that inaugural Assembly were a time of exploring what actual character this inter-church forum should take. While the aims of the Council were clear in the eyes of its founder members, its nature and its role in the community of churches remained to be determined. The famous 1950 Toronto Statement was able to give the assurance that it was not the intention of the Council to be a substitute for the churches, nor to compel them to adopt positions contrary to their ecclesiological convictions. It must be emphasized that, only after that assurance had been given, were the member churches able to determine a frame­work for their future work in order to perform the tasks that they had set themselves two years previously.

Once the legitimate question on its nature had been resolved, the Council, particularly after its amalgamation with the International Missionary Council and the World Council of Christian Education in the 1960s, entered into a prosperous and productive period for 30 years. During that time, it did valuable work in many areas - admired and praised by some, challenged and criticized by others - in theological research, in mission and evangelism, in Christian education, in diaconal service, in sustainable development, in social justice, in protection of the environ­ment, in defence of human rights, in the eradication of poverty, and in the removal of racial discrimination.

In the course of those years of intensive work and abundant harvest, two very distinct trends became evident in the Council's life. One, which you could describe as ‘ecclesiastical', considered that the ecumenical task was to concentrate on the concern to reach doctrinal and organizational unity between the existing individual churches as soon as possible. It placed the emphasis on the contents of the faith and on church order and structures. The other realized the real difficulty in arriving at doctrinal unity and was more pragmatic. It considered that the essential element in ecumenism was action by the churches in the world and for the world and mobilizing to make the faithful aware of Christ's presence in all social, scientific and political activity.

However, in the course of those endless animated discussions between the up­holders of those two schools of thought, on the nature and mission of the Council, other voices were raised, particularly from the Orthodox East. They pointed out that an ecumenism that chose one of those two trends to the exclusion of the other would be betraying the fundamental principles of ecumenical work and would be making no essential contribution to the churches on their way towards unity. That unity was not an end in itself, but was to serve both the churches and the world, making no distinction between the sacred and profane, the eternal and the temporal. True ecumenism, they declared, should strive for Christian unity and still continue to be concerned for the evils afflicting today's world. As my own Church of Con­stantinople stressed 35 years ago on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Council:

The World Council of Churches, an instrument involved not only in theological dialogue but also in solidarity and mutual love … must persist in its efforts to enter into a more open and real encounter with humankind, which is today suffering in so many ways. Thereby, the Council, by visible and invisible means, in word and deed, in its decisions and actions, is able to proclaim Christ, and Christ alone.

In fact, in the course of the 60 years of its life, the Council has provided an ideal platform where churches, with different outlooks and belonging to a great variety of theological and ecclesiological traditions, have been able to engage in dialogue and promote Christian unity, while all the time responding to the manifold needs of contemporary society.

However, it must be recognized that during these 60 years, and especially during these last 20 years, the life of the Council has often been turbulent, because of the great number of differences - theological, ecclesiological, cultural and ethical - that have poisoned the friendly relationships between its members. That gradually surfaced in the form of a painful crisis ten years ago, just on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the World Council of Churches and some months before its Eighth Assembly at Harare, Zimbabwe. That crisis was initially attributed to differences between Orthodox and Protestant members of the Council, but it was, in fact, a crisis between those representing different theological and ecclesiological traditions and between churches, each of which had its own distinctive interpretation of Holy Scripture and a different perception of moral, social and political issues.

It was, none the less, a healthy crisis that enabled us to engage in a sincere and humble dialogue, with no ulterior motives, and which helped us to surmount chronic difficulties that had been poisoning our friendly relationships. At the same time it gave us a new impetus to continue our common journey along the path to unity. So the Special Commission was set up, and we are all aware of its results after so many years of intense dialogue and fruitful work in a spirit of fellowship and mutual respect.

And so, freed from the tensions of the past and determined to stay together and act together, at the Ninth Assembly at Porto Alegre, Brazil, two years ago, we laid down markers for a new stage in the life of the Council, taking account of the present situation in inter-church relations and the changes that are gradually taking place in ecumenical life.

I am glad of the fact that the Council still has at the centre of its work the vision of its member churches to achieve, by God's grace, their unity in the one faith and around the same eucharistic table. Hence the paramount importance and the foremost role of the World Council of Churches, and Faith and Order in particular, is precisely detailed study of the ecclesiological issues that affect the very being of the Council and the quest for Christian unity. It is a task that is still difficult to fulfil and a way to be travelled together with love, responsibility and mutual respect for the Tradition and doctrine of the Church of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.

I am also happy that the Ninth Assembly has confirmed the calling of the World Council of Churches in regard to the Church's presence in society by recognizing its role as catalyst in establishing peace in the world, promoting inter-faith dialogue, defending human dignity, combating violence, protecting the environment and being in solidarity with those in need. And I bless with all my heart those various activities of our Council, and, all the more so, because the mission of Christians in the world is precisely to incarnate God's truth and love as fully as possible, for, at the end of time, we shall be judged according to whether we have, or have not, lived in the Spirit of Christ.

With regard to the guidance given by the Ninth Assembly for the coming years, I cannot fail to mention its decision - so very right and relevant - to enable young adults to participate actively in the life of the Council. I firmly believe that this initiative to involve young people cannot fail to be beneficial and promising for the Council. It will enable a new generation of labourers to flourish in the ecumenical vineyard, which is all the more necessary because we of the older generation have not taken the care, or have not had the desire, to train up successors to take up the torch from our hands. Their presence, we can be sure, will bring a breath of fresh air and renewed dynamism to our Council. As a Council we are exploring what our role is today and attempting to discern our proper place in the new ecumenical con­stellation that is gradually taking shape in inter-church relations.

The Ninth Assembly pertinently recognized that the far-reaching rapid changes taking place in the life of our churches are forcing the World Council of Churches to re-examine ecumenical relationships and initiate a process of reconfiguration of the ecumenical movement. That will give a structure to the complex relations between the Council and its many partners, thus ensuring consistency, clarity and transparency in our work.

It goes without saying that we need more than ever to clarify the mission and particular role of each partner in the ecclesiastical arena. I wish to say, however, that the sharing out of responsibilities must not be done at the expense of the Council. For we would be stripping it of its substantial role if we gradually reduced it (as is the tendency today) to the mere role of "animator" in the process of reconfiguration of the ecumenical movement, by setting up new inter-church alliances, or, again, by setting up parallel "ecumenical" instruments to perform tasks that properly belong to the very raison d'être of the Council. That is why it is my firm belief that the three pillars - unity, witness and service - on which we built the Council 60 years ago, must be retained and even strengthened, so that the Council can be in accord with its constitution and credible in its mission.

In conclusion, paraphrasing a popular expression "The church must be at the centre of village life", I wish to state my firm conviction that the reconfiguration process in the ecumenical movement gives us an opportunity to locate the World Council of Churches at the centre of the life of the global ecumenical village. The Tenth Assembly of the Council will present a great opportunity to do that, and its character and contents are already being discussed at the present meeting of the central committee.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Today, a concern that we and all our churches have, is the vision for the future of the Council. And we ask ourselves several questions, seriously, respectfully and responsibly. Do our churches, 60 years on, still want the Council to be present in their church life? If so, what do they expect of the Council? How do they see its future? Do we envisage a different Council? A different, diversified, new, renewed Council? A more pragmatic and effective Council? What sort of Council do our churches need?

Are we prepared as member churches to stand by the conclusions of the Special Commission, which suggested that the time had come, the kairos had to be seized, for the World Council of Churches to bring its member churches together into an "ecumenical space", where trust could be created and built up? It will be a space where the churches will be able to develop, and test against the facts, their own conceptions of the world, their particular social work, and their liturgical and doctrinal traditions, while retaining their respective distinctiveness one from another and encountering one another at a deeper level.

Are we today prepared, as member churches, to reaffirm the role of the Council as a privileged ecumenical space, where the churches will freely create networks for diakonia and for defending and promoting certain values, and will place their material resources at one another's disposal? And where, by dialogue, the churches will continue to break down the barriers that prevent them from recognizing one another as churches confessing a common faith, administering the same baptism, and celebrating the eucharist together, so that the community, which is what they now are, can become a communion in the faith, in sacramental life and in witness?

Are we ready to renew our confidence in this Council of ours as a useful and necessary instrument as we attempt to respond to social and ethical questions, enabling the churches, despite their ecclesiological diversity, to reaffirm that they belong to one fellowship because they confess together the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour, to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and to renew their determination to stay together in order to let the love grow that they have one for another?

Dear sisters and brothers,

I conclude by returning to where I began. The bonds of friendship between divided churches and the bridges to overcome our divisions are indispensable, more now than ever. Love is essential, so that dialogue between our churches can take place in all freedom and trust. We shall then acknowledge that the divergences that originate from the different ways in which churches respond to moral problems are not necessarily insurmountable, because churches witness to the Gospel in different contexts. We shall also recognize that dialogue on ethical and moral questions proceed on the assumption that the churches are not content to "agree to disagree" on their respective moral teaching, but that they are prepared to confront their divergences honestly, and examine them in the light of doctrine, worship life and Holy Scripture. The Church of Christ is called to live and witness in today's world founded on the mystery of life, expected, offered and accepted.

Let us then go forward with hope along the path that we have trodden these past 60 years. We must not be discouraged when obstacles stand in our way. Our vocation as humans and as icons of the Triune God is nothing less than to reproduce here on earth the movement of shared love that exists eternally in the communion of the Divine Trinity. So let us pray that God the Father graciously endow us with the power of the Holy Spirit, so that we can "know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge" and thus "be filled with all the fullness of God" (Eph. 3:19). Amen.



Provisional translation from the French, WCC Language Service.