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Address to the General Synod of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands

By Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia

11 April 2008

10-11 April 2008

Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia - WCC General Secretary

"Were not our hearts burning within us…" (Luke 24:32)

Hope for Divided Churches and a Broken World

Dear colleagues and friends, sisters and brothers in Christ,

Dear Bas,

1. "Were our hearts not burning within us…"

It is unusual to start a speech to a synod by addressing an individual person. I take this liberty today because there is no better moment than this to thank Bas Plaisier for his accompaniment and friendship in recent years.

This is the last general synod, dear Bas, that you have prepared and are leading as General Secretary of your church. Whenever you would come to Geneva for a consultation or to the WCC Assembly in 2006 in Porto Alegre, you always made it very clear that you represent your church and are accountable to it. Therefore, it is very appropriate that I express my gratitude to you for all that you contributed to the ecumenical movement here in front of the synod.

Each time I met you, I could feel that you were present, not just as a church bureaucrat who had to do his job, but as a person with great passion for the church and God's gift of reconciliation. It is for this reason that I have chosen Luke 24:32 as the grounding text for this address: "Were our hearts not burning within us…" Meeting you on our common ecumenical journey - as if on the road to Emmaus - I always felt your deep commitment to Christ and to the fellow Christians. I believe that those who were bringing together what would become the Protestant Church in the Netherlands also saw this in you. Your gifts were vital to its birth.

This general synod has now chosen your successor. I want to welcome Dr. Arjan Plaisier to the ecumenical family. As you hand over the baton of leadership, we trust that the commitment to the ecumenical movement will be sustained and even be strengthened. For me it is a sign of great hope that one of your major topics today is a significant document on the oikoumene.

2. Geography of hope

The ecumenical movement owes much to the churches in the Netherlands. You recall in your document that the founding WCC Assembly took place in Amsterdam in 1948. Your country gave the WCC its first General Secretary, Dr. A.W. Visser ‘t Hooft. He led the WCC through a phase of tremendous growth and success, but he also encountered very difficult times. Today, when we are again in a time of transition where the ecumenical movement is struggling to move forward with a clear sense of direction, it has always helped me to listen again to this ecumenical giant and "elder" of the ecumenical movement. Visser ‘t Hooft, ends his memoirs with the following sentences:

"There will be times when the ecumenical movement will be obviously successful and there will be times when it seems to stagnate. There will be times when it will be popular and there will be times when only the truly convinced will continue to fight for it."

And he continues in quoting Archbishop William Temple:

"Even if our cause was suffering defeat on every side, we should still serve it because that is God's call to us, and we should still know that through loyal service he was accomplishing his purpose even though we could not see the evidence of this."1

We should never forget that the ecumenical movement is not about those of us who play a role in it. It is even not about our churches and ecumenical organizations as such. It is about Jesus Christ who asked God for his disciples "that they may all be one so that the world may believe" (John 17:21).

The story of the disciples on their way to Emmaus shows us how the presence of Christ is experienced in breaking the bread together while remembering the passion of Christ who took on himself the suffering of this world. This story tells us that the two who encountered Christ in Emmaus shared their message of hope with the other disciples who were themselves hiding in Jerusalem. Again Christ appears among them.

Christ's ascension, then, is just the beginning of this tremendous story told in Acts of the Apostles - how the net expands and reaches out to the whole inhabited earth, the oikoumene. Through this movement, a net of places emerges where communities of hope connect with each other. The Acts of the Apostles draw a new map - so different from the map of the Roman Empire, which was centered on Rome where all the resources went and wealth was accumulated. In this book Luke presents a geography of hope for the many communities that are bound together in a new fellowship or koinonia of mutual support and accompaniment (Acts 15). While beginning at the margins, this movement was to reach all the way to the centre and eventually transformed it.

3. Going with the movement of the Holy Spirit

This movement of hope continued over the centuries. As movement spurred on by the Holy Spirit, it has always challenged churches that had adjusted to the societies around them to again become "salt and leaven" of their communities. I was very glad to see the title of your document: Going with the movement of the Holy Spirit. The theological insights that you share in section 2.2 of the document are highly relevant for churches and the ecumenical movement in our changing ecclesial and social and cultural context.

This same Holy Spirit, sustains the churches, sustains life as a whole and is present in the world beyond the confines of the churches. This reminder is necessary at a time when there is a danger that churches are getting lost in the two extreme reactions of fundamentalism or postmodern relativism. The pneumatological considerations in the document are crucial in response to religious plurality and the shift of gravity of Christianity towards the South with growing importance of Pentecostal and charismatic churches.

The prominence given to the movement of the Holy Spirit corresponds very well with the emphasis on ecumenical learning (2.3), on mutuality as a hallmark of relationships in the ecumenical movement (2.4) and on spirituality (2.5). I would like to suggest, that in future reflections on this second chapter of the document the pneumatological focus is further embedded in a Trinitarian approach. This could help to articulate even more clearly the inter-relationship between the heritage of the Faith and Order and the Life and Work Movement, of ecclesiology and ethics, or the unity of the church and the common witness to the world2. It could also stimulate additional reflections on the unity we seek (2.6). The Faith and Order Commission is well aware that it needs to intensify reflection on the different concepts and understandings of the unity of the church, e.g. the concepts of koinonia or unity in diversity, which have been promoted by Faith and Order, and the Leuenberg concept of unity in reconciled diversity.

3. Unity, witness, and service

The first WCC General Secretary, Visser't Hooft, loved to speak of koinonia, leitourgia, martyria and diakonia or unity, liturgy, witness and service as four essential dimensions of the life and mission of the churches. He was satisfied with the simpler trinity of unity, witness and service in the constitution of the WCC. This leads me back to reflections on the web of communities of hope that we found in Luke's Acts of the Apostles.

During my visits to churches around the world I see many people struggling for life, looking towards the WCC to connect them in such a web of mutual support as members of the fellowship. I also encounter churches that really are communities of hope and want to contribute to expand this web and build the fellowship. I have also seen many churches like yours that have the capacity to strengthen the web, to sustain the fellowship through sharing their theological and diaconal resources, and to advocate for change in the centres of economic, political and military power. It is crucial that we look at all of these communities and churches as members of the one fellowship with their common, but varied responsibilities.

This poses more than just organizational or managerial challenges. Those of you, who know me, will remember that the Courage to Hope3 has been a central theme for me on my ecumenical journey. Coming from Africa, it was always clear to me that the ecumenical movement is only faithful to the Gospel, if it is a movement of hope confronting itself with the reality of the severe threats to life that people are facing in today's world: the deadly scandal of poverty, diseases such as HIV and AIDS, the devastating and destructive consequences of climate change, and war - including the re-emerging danger of the use of nuclear weapons.

When I asked WCC colleagues to reflect on the document, they had the impression that the diaconal or justice dimension of ecumenical engagement is less clearly developed than other dimensions. In section 2.5, the theological, ecclesial and spiritual dimensions of ecumenical cooperation are highlighted. Although cooperation at the practical level is mentioned in section 3.6, one wonders whether the diaconal dimension should not be seen as an integral element in our ecumenical engagement. My colleagues raised the question if this imbalance in the understanding of ecumenical engagement is due to the fact that the church delegates these tasks to specialized ministries, i.e. Kerk in Actie and ICCO. I pose this question to you, since the inter-relationship between koinonia and diakonia has been at the heart of the debate on ecumenical diakonia in recent decades. This concern has again become more important during the last couple of years in reactions of churches in Latin America, but also in Africa and Asia to the formation of the ACT Alliance.

I am convinced that together we will find the best ways to develop a reasonable division of labor between different organizational expressions of the church at local, regional and global levels and their cooperation, while assuring the necessary inter-action and inter-relationship with the other dimensions of being church. For this reason, I have been accompanying the formation of ACT Development and the ACT Alliance.

4. The role of the WCC

Let me conclude with some comments regarding the role of the WCC in the wider ecumenical movement. The last comment concerning ACT Alliance suggests that the WCC has a role to play in serving the churches in their holistic mission to the world and in fostering the coherence of the ecumenical movement. The WCC Constitution under Purposes and Functions of the WCC states in very plain and clear language: " The WCC is constituted by the churches to serve the one ecumenical movement". It is not simple, but it is a necessary task for the WCC to provide leadership concerning the present and future development of the ecumenical movement.

The unity statement of the Porto Alegre Assembly Called to Be the One Church states:

Throughout its history the World Council of Churches has been a privileged instrument by which churches have been able to listen to one another and speak to one another, engaging issues that challenge the churches and imperil humankind. Churches in the ecumenical movement have also explored divisive questions through multilateral and bilateral dialogues. And yet churches have not always acknowledged their mutual responsibility to one another, and have not always recognized the need to give account to one another of their faith, life, and witness, as well as to articulate the factors that keep them apart.4

This is a fine description of the WCC's task of deepening the fellowship among the member churches. Deepening the fellowship of member churches, broadening participation in the ecumenical movement and assuring greater coherence are the three dimensions of the role of the WCC regarding its member churches and wider ecumenical movement. This was clearly affirmed by the Porto Alegre Assembly.

These three dimensions reflect the relational reality of the Triune God, the koinonia that is at the heart of the fellowship of member churches. This koinonia is not our own property, but a gift of God who wants the churches to participate in his reconciling and healing mission. We can never limit this koinonia to ourselves. It compels us always to go beyond ourselves and to build new relationships, trusting in the mystery of God's presence among the other and, therefore, capable of doing it.

The Global Christian Forum, which was initiated by the WCC Harare Assembly (1998), has proven to be the most important platform to reach out to Evangelicals, Pentecostal and African Independent churches. The Global Christian Forum provides an opportunity to move beyond the sense of enmity that prevailed in the past and offers a chance to correct deeply-seated prejudices between "Ecumenicals" and "Evangelicals" or "Pentecostals" and traditional churches. The forum experience is enriching the ecumenical movement and offers a platform for new conversations. It is, however, much too early to expect that the GCF could help to establish a greater sense of mutual accountability or even to move towards common action. To the contrary, it is the methodology of a safe space for sharing and the non-institutional that attracts broad participation. It will have to continue in this way for some time in order to deepen trust and confidence in each other.

We noticed with great interest that the document you are going to discuss today is focusing less on the two dimensions of deepening the fellowship and broadening participation, but rather on the quest to clarify further the specific roles of different ecumenical organizations. The document states in section 3.4 the WCC should concentrate more on fostering co-operation with and among Christian World Communions and Regional Ecumenical Organizations.

I see clearly that you focus on these two tasks since they are a matter of urgency for you. I agree: they are very important. I assume, however, that you would not reduce the WCC just to them. This would neglect all what we do in the areas of Faith and Order, mission, international affairs, economic justice, migration, HIV and AIDS, Climate Change, ecumenical formation, etc - all areas where we receive significant impulses from churches in the Netherlands.

We have begun to address the specificity of roles and programmatic cooperation with Regional Ecumenical Organizations and Christian World Communions in the work on ecumenism in the 21st century with the aim of fostering greater coherence of the ecumenical movement. They are also on the agenda of the process towards the next WCC Assembly. I would like to invite you to contribute to these processes on the basis of your own experience. You can help us be realistic in our expectations and to develop a solid theological rational. It took many years and good theological reflection before three churches in your country were ready to unite even thought they come from the same family of churches and share the same cultural and national context.

Given this experience, it seems reasonable to concentrate first on the roles and relationship of LWF and WARC in the context of Protestant churches. The task becomes more complex with the involvement of the Anglican Communion, Orthodox churches, etc. The changing ecclesial landscape in the Netherlands with migrant churches from all regions place this challenge right at your doorstep. While you have made a significant step in the formation of the Protestant Church, there are new challenges ahead of you to rethink what it means to be the church in this place that you share with Christians from so many other traditions. It is therefore encouraging to read in your document that the relation with migrant churches and the association for migrant churches, SKIN, has a high place on your agenda.

The diversity of the global oikoumene can be experienced today in many of the cities all over Europe. This suggests that our old understanding of the clear layers of national, regional and global ecumenism is actually no longer adequate. This observation also underlines that it is vital for the WCC that the member churches themselves engage in the search for new methodologies and new patterns of relationship that are required for vital ecumenism in the 21st century.

While for some of us all this might sound complex and strange, younger ecumenists are addressing these issues with fresh minds and passion. To mark the WCC 60th anniversary this year, we invited young theologians to send us essays on ecumenism in the 21st century. We received more than fifty essays from all regions of the world and most of them were good or even excellent. The knowledge, but also the passion of these young people for ecumenism was highly encouraging.

At the beginning of this address, I referred to the great contribution of your church to the ecumenical movement, in the Netherlands as well as on the international scene. In your own recent history you have struggle with Jesus' prayer for unity. At this moment, our world is in many respects deeply divided. Religious, cultural, ethnic, economic and political tensions and conflicts bring many people to despair. Today the ecumenical movement is again called to bring hope in a broken world, through its search for visible unity. I am encouraged to see how you still are committed to the ecumenical movement as a worldwide network of hope. The ecumenical movement counts on your support.

"Were our hearts not burning within us…" - dear Bas, dear sisters and brothers, let me end on this positive note: the passion for Christ and his church is alive, and so is the passion for vital ecumenism.

Thank you very much for your attention.



1 W.A. Visser ‘t Hooft, Memoirs, Geneva : WCC, 1973, p. 368 - the quote of statement by W. Temple is taken from his sermon at the World Conference on Faith and Order, Edinburgh, 1937.

2 Thomas F. Best, Martin Robra, Ecclesiology and Ethics, Geneva: WCC, 1997

3 Samuel Kobia, The Courage to Hope, Geneva: WCC, 2003

4 Called to Be the One Church I/12