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Lecture by the WCC general secretary at the Pro Oriente summer course

Lecture by the WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit at the summer course offered by the foundation Pro Oriente

10 July 2018

The World Council of Churches – Commemorating 70 years of Ecumenism

Together on a Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace”

Pro Oriente, July 9, 2018 in Vienna

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, WCC General Secretary


1. Greetings and introduction

Dear Dr Augustin, Prof. Dr Winkler, Fr Bouwen,

Distinguished guests, dear colleagues and friends,


I want to thank the leadership of PRO-ORIENTE for taking the initiative to organize a summer course this year, marking the 70th anniversary of the WCC.  I want to thank you personally very much for inviting me to open this summer course with my lecture. The WCC is seventy years young.


I trust you could see this when you watched the news about the visit of Pope Francis to Geneva last month. Not only his sermon and his speech, his whole visit was a strong affirmation that the one ecumenical movement which the Roman Catholic Church joined with the promulgation of the Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio in November 1964 is still vital and strong. The visit encouraged us to believe that our common ecumenical pilgrimage will bring us even closer together: Walking, praying and working together was the motto of this visit. The tenth assembly of the WCC 2013 in Busan had invited the churches and indeed all people of good will to join in a Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace, a common journey of walking, praying and working together.


At the end of his sermon in the chapel of the ecumenical centre Pope Francis said


Dear brothers and sisters, I have desired to come here, a pilgrim in quest of unity and peace. I thank God because here I have found you, brothers and sisters already making this same journey. For us as Christians, walking together is not a ploy to strengthen our own positions, but an act of obedience to the Lord and love for our world. Let us ask the Father to help us walk together all the more resolutely in the ways of the Spirit. May the Cross guide our steps, because there, in Jesus, the walls of separation have already been torn down and all enmity overcome (cf. Eph 2:14). In him, we will come to see that, for all our failings, nothing will ever separate us from his love (cf. Rom 8:35-39).


“A pilgrim in quest of unity and peace”.  Pope Francis came from Rome to Geneva to embrace sisters and brothers on a common pilgrimage. I am convinced that we will continue walking together to “all the ends of the world” in the oikoumene, the whole inhabited earth, the one household of God.



2.  Different views and expectations


Different people have different ideas and expectations what is at the heart of ecumenism:


  • For some it is first of all about deepening relationships between the churches and theological reflection that brings them closer to visible unity. They think of the doctrinal and ethical issues that are dividing the churches.
  • For others it is about unity in mission and evangelism, proclaiming together the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus the Christ.  Overcoming competition and conflict in mission was indeed one of the issues that motivated the search for unity at the origins of the modern ecumenical movement.
  • Many will point to the need for joint action for justice and peace, advocating for change to overcome structural injustice, environmental destruction, and the threats of violence and war in far too many places while being with and supporting the marginalized and excluded in their struggle for life.
  • For some all this is actually about unlearning the stereotyping, prejudice and enmity that separates people and puts them against each other and, instead, learning to live together as communities of diverse people who together form one humanity.


All of these different aspects and dimensions of ecumenism have been important in the formation and the continuing work of the WCC.


3. The origins of the WCC

We can see this in this river chart or image of the pilgrim ways that join together in one pilgrimage.


It is often said that the modern ecumenical movement begins with the 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh. There have been other initiatives before, not least the ecumenical youth, student and women’s movements like the YMCA, YWCA and WSCF, but Edinburgh is the starting point of a new dynamic movement that is briefly interrupted by the crisis of World War I, but unfolds with the streams of the Faith and Order movement, the Life and Work movement, the International Missionary Council and just below the movement for theological education.


I am convinced that these different streams of the ecumenical movement did not develop just by chance or because of particular interests of some charismatic leaders. They rather represent basic dimensions of being the church that we can identify in past and present time.

There hardly exists a church that does not reflect on its own ecclesial dimension and quality of communion (koinonia), its service and action for justice and peace (diakonia), its mission (martyria) and the formation of its members and leaders (didaskalia).


It would be a big mistake to think of these different dimensions in isolation of each other. They belong together and cannot be separated with distortions. It has been and continues to be an important task of the WCC not only to keep the different streams of the ecumenical movement alive, but to foster their interaction with the world and with each other. This remains a vital task with ever-changing contexts.


Of course context matters and has an influence on the way we articulate the relationships between the different dimensions and what we expect them to contribute together to the ecumenical movement.


I have listed here some of the important concerns that had a strong impact on the ecumenical movement:  World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the time of de-colonisation and nation-building, the 1968 student revolt, the Vietnam war and national security policies that undermined human rights, the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa, globalisation, and also new developments in world Christianity and inter-religious relations.

Throughout its seventy-year history, the WCC has constantly adapted the focus of the work, responding to the needs of the member churches and the challenges of the world, growing in communion and visible unity so that the world may believe. Let me briefly mention some of the significant steps on our journey, such as:

  • ‘Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry’,
  • the ‘Programme to Combat Racism’,
  • the conciliar process on ‘Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation’ and the
  • ‘Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women’.


In the steps of those who have gone before us, we are now engaging in transforming discipleship which was the theme of the Conference on World Mission and Evangelism in March this year in Arusha. At our central committee meeting last month we could taste the harvest of the WCC’s unwavering advocacy for peace, in the dawn of reconciliation in the Korean Peninsula, and in the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to our partner ICAN, as together we campaign to abolish nuclear weapons. We continue to call for an end to rape and violence through the ‘Thursdays in Black’ campaign. These are just a few examples of the important work done by the churches together.


I would like to present now a video that shows very well how the different dimensions of the ecumenical movement interact with context and each other when we look at the different assemblies of the WCC from 1948 onwards until 2013. The central committee decided just last month that the next, the eleventh assembly of the WCC, will take place in 2021 in the German city of Karlsruhe. So the journey continues beyond this video.


Now that you have seen this video, I would like to give you the opportunity for some questions, comments and discussion. Who is ready to speak first? …..


4. A fellowship of churches:  Pilgrims together on the way

So let us see now what the WCC represents today.

The WCC is not the secretariat in Geneva, the WCC is its member churches. The WCC has today 350 member churches representing 550 million Christians from 140 countries.

We speak of the WCC as a fellowship of churches, a koinonia of churches together on the way. The Constitution of the WCC says the following:

The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the scriptures, and therefore seek to fulfil together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Member churches come from all continents and include Orthodox (Eastern and Oriental), Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed, Methodist, Baptist, United, Pentecostal and other churches.

A majority of member churches now come from the Global South.

The primary purpose of the WCC is clearly stated in article III of the constitution.

“The primary purpose of the fellowship of churches in the World Council of Churches is to call one another to visible unity in one faith and in one Eucharistic fellowship, expressed in worship and common life in Christ, through witness and service to the world, and to advance towards that unity in order that the world may believe.”

Unity is the overarching goal which holds the different dimensions of Faith and Order, Mission and Evangelism, Diakonia and Public Witness together. Again you can see that the different streams or teams today are expressions of the deeper dimensions of being church in the world.

You can still see these different dimensions in the present structure of the secretariat and its teams. In response to particular challenges that affect all of these areas you see also teams working on inter-religious dialogue, youth, women in church and society and spiritual life.

In our anniversary year, we affirm that we will continue to move together on a journey that has its beginning in the call of God to a pilgrim people and its end in the unity of the whole creation. We committed ourselves to do so and invited all people of good will to join 2013 at Busan.

Being on a Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace

  • is participating in God’s mission towards life
  • is moving to issues and places relevant for life and survival of people and earth
  • is deepening the fellowship of churches on the way with a strong spiritual dimension of common prayer and theological reflection
  • is a journey of hope, looking for and celebrating signs of God’s reign of justice and peace already here and now
  • is discovering opportunities for common witness and transformative action that make a difference in today’s world with an open invitation to all people of good will


The WCC is in two ways involved in the pilgrimage:

  • through its member churches and their role in the ecumenical movement;
  • through its own programmatic work.

We see more and more churches responding to the call of the pilgrimage in very creative ways. I can share with you a couple of examples of my own church, the Church of Norway:

-         pilgrimage for climate justice

-         pilgrimage of Knut from Oslo to Trondheim


5. The ecumenical movement of love

2. Cor 5:14  The love of Christ compels us:

  • walking together
  • praying together, sharing hope and encouragement in Christ
  • encountering each other
  • developing trust and confidence
  • being accountable to each other
  • caring and advocating for each other
  • building relationships of mutual love


We have a new momentum in the one ecumenical movement. It is based on a concentration on the basic faith and calling we share: The love of Christ moves us on. It is responding to strong forces of divisions and polarization in our world today. We all need to be oriented towards the gift of love and how we make it a reality among us and in the world. The Pro Oriente institute was established with this vision for reconciliation and unity between the great traditions of Christianity. The agenda is still of great significance, and it is reminding us that we are called to serve the unity of the world.