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Address to the Czechoslovak Hussite Church

By World Council of Churches general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, on 17 December.

17 December 2018

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, General Secretary, World Council of Churches


Dear Th Dr. Tomáš Butta, Patriarch of the Czechoslovak Hussite Church,

Dear Doc. ThDr. David Tonzar, Bishop of Prague,

Respected ordained and lay members of CČSH,dear sisters and brothers in Christ,


A propitious occasion

I am especially glad to be with you on this occasion. We look backwards and forward today, since we are about halfway between commemorations of the 600th anniversary of the martyrdom of Jan Hus in 1415 and the upcoming 100th anniversary of the founding of the Czechoslovak Hussite Church in 1920.

I bring the greetings and prayers of the whole worldwide fellowship of Christian churches that is the World Council of Churches, this year celebrating its 70th anniversary. And I come not only to to thank you for your participation in that larger fellowship but also to acknowledge and encourage your ecumenical witness and the continued relevance of your leadership in so many important arenas of church life and Christian discipleship today.

If I may, I would like simply to enumerate some of the most salient learnings that the life and legacy of your church contribute to the larger body of Christ and then briefly to ponder where we are today in the ecumenical movement itself.

His light still shines!

Of course, this is entirely fitting. As we mark the 603rd anniversary of the death of Jan Hus, we have to note the tragic circumstances of his martyrdom while also celebrating the hallmarks of his preaching and prophetic ministry for the church universal. While he is often referred to as a forerunner of the European Reformation one hundred years later, his significance is so much more than that, and his light still shines today! Indeed one the most concrete and vibrant legacies of Jan Hus’s life and witness is the Czechoslovak Hussite Church itself.

Here are seven arenas where I find the legacy of Jan Hus and the example of the Czechoslovak Hussite Church to be particularly significant for the wider church:

1. Freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, and religious tolerance. The insights of Jan Hus about the role of the Bible in the life of the church and the celebration of the sacraments tested not only the received practices of his day.  They also tested the tolerance and theological openness of his fellow churchman, of church theologians, and of the power structure of the local and international church structures of the time. Again, a century later, the later Reformation era, too, was also an object lesson on the sins and costs of religious intolerance, as well as the incompatibility of Christian values with claims of absolute authority.  Perhaps no region in Europe suffered more from this alienation of popular religious conviction from inherited power structures than right here, especially after 1620.

Today we find these lessons, burned into Western consciousness by the futile Wars of Religion and the values of the Enlightenment, being sorely tested in places, such as Pakistan and Myanmar, rife with religious persecution, but also right here in Europe. As we mark 70 years since the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and of the unstinting support that such freedoms received from the WCC and its fellowship, it is time for Christians to agree on extending the ecumenical spirit to encompass all peoples, one humanity, beloved of God.

2.Prizing the sacramental life of the church and of the laity. As it was for Master Hus, so for the CHC, celebrating the sacraments is at the heart of Christian identity and being church. But as the beginnings of CHC in 1919 and early 1920 illustrate, it is liturgy as truly the work of the people, the collective praise and sighs of the people of God, that creates and nurtures genuine Christian community. For churches struggling to survive in a largely secular age, renewal of liturgy, spirituality and prayer, and the sense of belonging that they inculcate, hold the surest promise of renewal and regeneration.

3. Advancing relations with the Catholic church. Of course, it was relations with the Roman Catholic Church that spurred rebellion in and after Hus’s time, and then again during the Modernist movement at the beginning of the 20th century. Here, too, the CHC experience holds contemporary relevance. As the recent visit by Pope Francis to the WCC underscored, along with “healing of memories” and engagement in dialogue at all levels there must be “walking, working and praying together.” Our common pilgrimage of repentence and reconciliation is not just for the sake of some hypothetical unity. It is for sharing God’s love in true koinonia and transforming the world in the image of God’s reign.

4. Championing the prophetic role of the church. For me and for many others, it is the heroic image of Jan Hus that most stirs the soul: his insistence on conscience, his democratizing Christianity, his defiance of authority, his suffering for his convictions. That legacy lives on, not just in the Czech churches but also in the whole life and proud history of this nation. Today we need that brave voice as never before, yet we see some of the advantages of the church’s disempowerment. We are able to “speak truth to power,” and to witness to gospel values to a world often distracted by greed and self-interest.

Yet those lessons also still apply within and among the churches themselves, too, because churches are themselves structures of power, prone to oversight, hypocrisy, and bias. The Czechoslovak Hussite Church has led by example, resolving the issue of women’s roles in the church even as early as 70 years ago. This means that you, our sisters and brothers, started addressing such an issue at the same time as women who were midwives of the World Council of Churches were collecting the churches’ responses to their survey on the role of women in the church. We have faith that your experience will contribute meaningfully as WCC once again calls its constituencies to revisit our ecumenical perspectives on the roles of women in the church.

5. Supporting human rights and human dignity. The Hussite movement and rebellions take their honoured place in the long march toward modern insistence on the full range of human rights and human dignity. Although enshrined in the Universal Declaration, and stamped in the very Genesis of Christian anthropology, human rights and dignity are threatened and impinged and violated on every front and around the world. Whether by discrimination or oppression, gender-based violence, or armed conflict and war, affronts to human rights must be countered by the constant vigilance, advocacy, and support of Christians and Christian churches.

Only Christian churches reconciled in unity with one another can witness authentically to all humanity on the virtues of respect and love.

6. Acknowledging the relation of religion and violence. The early Reformation and the later one caused new insight and reform, but they also opened up severe conflicts, in which religion, new power structures of the local and national kingdoms, and later on what we could call nationalism, were involved in the most dramatic and violent conflicts. The reality of religious wars and persecution, and their many effects, is also a legacy of the Reformations.

We should not be surprised today that religion can have that effect of absolutism, and carry within itself a potential of violence. We see how religion is used as a power base and an ideology for different political agendas, some of them also in the name of Christianity. One thinks of some Muslims’ thinking leading in that direction, but also Judaism and Hinduism and even Christianity can lead to legitimization of violence. Czechs know this all too well. The politicization of religion has been discussed in the WCC for several years now, but we see it as a growing reality in many contexts. Examples from the history are legion, and we cannot blame only one side of that processes.  Myanmar, Pakistan, Nigeria, Hungary, USA—examples are everywhere.

These examples show us why we cannot separate the so-called dialogue of truth from the so-called dialogue of love. The search for the truth must always be a search for the true love of God and the true love we can have for God, our neighbour, and all God’s creation.

It is also in the combination of the dialogue of doctrine—the truth of our confessions and our catechisms—with the common pilgrimage in service for the world today that we can see the best expression of the dialogue of love. The dialogue of love is not emotional or only practical, but really going to the heart of the matter.

7. Welcoming the stranger. One need only ponder the “welcome” that Master Hus received in Constance to be reminded of the foundational importance of welcoming the stranger, particularly ones whose faith commitments are different from our own, holds for authentic  Christianity.

Indeed, as you are well aware, welcoming the stranger entails real commitment to the practical aspects of feeding and clothing and sheltering refugees and migrants. But it also requires advocacy for refugees and migrants within the churches, among the public, and with political authorities. This is especially true of countering Islamophobia and a xenophobic nationalism. And, equally, it further requires an earnest and prayerful theological consideration of Christian identity in a pluralistic world as well as actual ecumenical encounter with Muslims and the Muslim faith.

This is one of the most challenging yet consequential tasks for churches today, when the pressures of globalization are in many ways exacerbated by the large-scale movement of migrants and refugees. Around the globe—not just in Europe but in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia—poverty and violence have driven some 60 million people from their homes in a rootless, desperate search for safety, dignity, and well-being. In refugee camps and detention centres, on unfamiliar roads or roiling seas, they suffer hunger and thirst. They risk their lives in hopes of saving them, yet often they are met with suspicion, hostility, or exploitation.

Where are the presence and protection of God for these refugees and migrants? How can their human dignity and worth—so wondrously sealed in the Incarnation—be upheld and assured? How can their anxious journeys be transformed into pilgrimages toward new life?

This we know: Jesus himself, as a child, was a refugee, and in light of the Incarnation, there are no strangers to us. The glad tidings of God’s becoming human have lifted the human prospect, forging us into one humanity, beloved of God and bound in solidarity to protect the vulnerable, heal the wounded, and welcome the refugee with open arms and grateful hearts.

Love will find a way

So I believe that the special charism of the CHC still inspires and encourages the whole oikoumene today. It is especially interesting to reflect on the role of ecumenism in light of the legacy and perennial pertinence of Jan Hus and how his legacy lives in the story of the Czech Hussite Church. Just as your church was inspired by the Modernist movement, some similar impulses for renewal animated the ecumenical movement after 1910 and led to its founding in 1948. At its birth 70 years ago, the WCC was a child of a genuine worldwide movement to narrow our differences, to heal our divisions, and to link arms in Christian solidarity for the sake of the world.

In the last 70 years, the WCC has created a common platform for critical theological reflection in the interests of unity, commitment to framing a more just international order, and working together to ensure peace and justice. Whether in renewing theology, reframing mission, or bringing together churches and their ecumenical partners to serve, that platform has enabled the churches, in countless and consequential ways and places, and in ever-changing contexts, to serve each other and the world.

Over the decades, through the WCC and the ecumenical movement, Christians have reached out together to build consensus on fundamental aspects of faith and order, build institutions of peace and peacebuilding, support human rights and human dignity, face down injustice and racism, address gender inequities, nurture reverence for the integrity of creation, and renew the churches themselves. These are enormous accomplishments.

Indeed, from our vantage point, we can see that, in its deepest meaning, this ecumenical movement has been, then and now, a movement of love. Over these decades, it has been the love of God in Christ, of our fellow humans, and of the earth that has animated and energized Christians to journey in faith together, to overcome their historic divisions and reach out in love.

Ecumenically committed Christians continue to “make all things new” through generous applications of Christian love.  We still walk, work and pray in that movement of love. In fact, the dangers we face make us more conscious of our shared humanity, and our solidarity as Christians frees us to serve the one world created by the one God.

Today in the WCC we continue reflecting earnestly on contemporary ecumenical challenges of interreligious encounter, asylum for refugees, freedom of religion, rethinking Christian anthropology in light of disability, and the church’s role in politics. We continue that legacy. And, especially given the legacy of Jan Hus and of the Czechoslovak Hussite Church, we hope to be a countersign to racist, nativist, and xenophobic movements that darken European  and other skies these days.  Your public witness testifies to the abiding need for Christian hospitality and advocacy for migrants and refugees. And it also sends the message that authentic Christian commitment is not about hiding inside supposed traditionalist or nationalist values but about going out bravely and boldly beyond boundaries of nation or class or race or religion to heal a broken world, following Jesus the Healer by ensuring the life, health, and well-being of people everywhere.

Our pilgrimage continues

My fellow pilgrims, today, as we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the WCC and you prepare for your 100th, our long pilgrimage is not over. In word and sacrament, in conscience and calling, God still urges each of us to transcend our stubborn boundaries of self and reach out in love for God and each other, to follow Jesus more truly, to articulate a message of healing and salvation, and to open ourselves up in radical hospitality to the needs of our neighbour. In this new landscape, I believe that the ecumenical movement of love, and its commitment to just peace, is more relevant than ever:

  • Today again people are on the move, and millions of migrants and refugees need our help to secure their safety and integrate them into their new homes.
  • Today, despite enormous progress, the health and well-being of millions remain at risk from HIV and AIDS and from a range of infectious diseases, as well as from the effects of racism and xenophobia.
  • Today, from Amsterdam to Zimbabwe, from the Middle East to East Asia, from the Congo to Columbia, violent conflict and atrocity rend fragile communities and demand international solidarity with the victims and patient nurturing of just peace.
  • Today we must still strive to ensure that women are treated with dignity and respect, safe from violence and abuse, and that children are protected and enabled to thrive and grow.
  • Today as churches we still search out ways to form authentic community, responsibly self-critical and accountable in our faith, our polity, and our openness to each other and to other faiths.
  • Today people everywhere still long for an authentic, credible word of meaning and hope from us, a word of faith, in an often brutal, impersonal, and heartless world.
  • Today the earth itself cries out for relief from the destructive consequences of our sinful economic structures and systematized greed, for our care of this, our common home, and for a just future for our planet.

In these new circumstances, we still walk, work and pray in that movement of love. In fact, the dangers we face today make us more conscious of our shared humanity, and our solidarity as Christians frees us to serve the one world created by the one God.  Indeed, I sense a new momentum in ecumenical Christianity, with the advent of a new generation whose creativity, openness, and joy can offer fresh energy and ideas to make our earthly home more closely akin to the realm of God and God’s justice.

How will this happen? How it always happens: love will find a way.

Love will bind us as churches and as Christians to each other and to our neighbours across the street and around the world. Love will free us from distorted values and deep prejudice.  Love will see through the falsehoods of racism and tribalism. Love will open us up to learn from criticism and self-criticism of our own complicity. Love will fire our dreams of freedom and peace. Love will unleash new visions, creative thinking, and fresh approaches to our steepest challenges. And love will give us the courage and stamina, the heart and soul, to rescue progress from deep threats and peace from peril.

Fellow pilgrims, you are—we are— that ecumenical movement of love, grounded in the one Spirit of Christ, ever eager and alert to journey on together in faith and hope for a better world. Let us continue to collaborate prayerfully yet boldly to explore the newest terrains of that pilgrimage and the vistas that Christian hope reveals.