World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

You are here: Home / Resources / Documents / WCC general secretary / Speeches / Centennial Gathering and General Assembly of NCCCUSA and Church World Service

Centennial Gathering and General Assembly of NCCCUSA and Church World Service

Address to the Centennial Ecumenical Gathering and General Assembly of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA and Church World Service by the Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches.

11 November 2010

By the Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit
General secretary of the World Council of Churches

To Walk with an Open Heart

The Ecumenical Movement – Some Directions for the 21st Century

(Luke 24:13-35

1. The Ecumenical Movement of the Cross

This morning I would like to renew an invitation that was clearly voiced early in the twentieth century, with the formation of the Federal Council of Churches in 1908, at Edinburgh in 1910 and in a number of other places on different occasions.

It is a simple invitation, an invitation to walk together into our common future.

You have chosen as theme for your assembly some words following the story about those who were walking together away from the disaster of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ towards the village of Emmaus. Their walk became the place of revelation of what they had truly witnessed. Through the opening of their minds in the reflection on Holy Scripture and the sharing of a meal, the stranger became known to them. The cross became no longer a disaster but a sign of God’s presence rather than of God’s absence. What they had witnessed became transformed.

This is a story about people moving, not only physically moving their feet and their bodies, but moving their minds and their hearts. Through being moved the cross took on a deeper meaning and it changed their lives. Their inner and outer journey together with the risen Christ became part of a wider movement towards the ends of the earth, an ecumenical movement, in the light of the cross – a movement that concerns the whole inhabited earth.

As we walk together in the confidence of faith, in the light of the cross and the resurrection, let us remind one another of the importance of remaining open to new experiences, open to the words and ideas of those whom we encounter on the road. Let us be open to the possibility of a new recognition of Jesus Christ in our midst and to the transformation of our life together in the light of God’s revelation through the cross and the resurrection.

It has often been said that “the journey is the goal” and this can be true. At any time experience gained on the journey may cause us to re-examine our understanding of where we are going, and why, and how.

2. To Dine and Define

When we speak of “the ecumenical movement of the 21st century” we mean just such walking together, particularly in the fast-moving, instant communication global village of today and tomorrow. The World Council of Churches (WCC) is called to give strategic leadership to this movement at the global level. Together we are called to create the open ecumenical space; to convene the mutually accountable encounters where we share what we have: resources and challenges, joys and burdens. We are called to encourage that openness to learn what we can from one another; to formulate and give our common witness to Jesus Christ together; and to give direction to our common movement and action together.

In the light of the Emmaus story, I am inspired to say that the WCC is called to “dine” and to “define”. We are called to bring the churches to the same table where we can share as many of God’s gifts as possible, and to prepare for the visible unity of the Lord’s table. We are called to define the common call of the churches to be one. We are called to define and discern what kind of accountability this implies for us as churches. We are called to define what needs to be done to have a common witness to Christ and a genuine common ecumenical attitude.

The WCC is a fellowship of churches. Every day we are called to define how we can act, believe and move together as one. We are called to define the needs of the churches in different contexts, particularly the needs we should address together. We are called to define the role and the values of the churches together in common acts for justice, peace, development, and emergency situations. We now are trying to do some of this together with the ACT Alliance. We very much appreciate the support Church World Service has given to building up the ACT Alliance. Your involvement in the struggle against poverty and hunger, through ecumenical development work and humanitarian assistance, is an example for many churches and agencies world-wide. Also the cooperation between NCCCUSA and CWS helps us to understand how we at the global level can strengthen the cooperation between WCC and ACT Alliance.

We are called to define what challenges we have together in our encounter with peoples of other faiths. But the churches themselves have to decide what they do, to take the steps, to move, to act, and to believe in the common vision of tomorrow.

The national and regional councils have roles similar to this. And the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA (NCCCUSA) has in many of these fields developed a strong contribution to the understanding of what this means. You have formulations, ideas and practices that deserve and need to be shared more widely within the global family.

3. Where did they go?

The ecumenical movement of the cross should always be directed by the reality of the cross. We are accompanied by the resurrected Christ. But the ecumenical movement has always been and must always be a movement into the world where the reality of the cross is present in so many ways.

Luke does not tell us why these disciples set out for Emmaus, of all places, yet there must have been some comfort for them in departing hastily from Jerusalem. They traveled away from Calvary where their teacher had been crucified. Yet their destination, too, was closely associated with the suffering of terrible injustice. Death on the cross was a distinctively Roman means of punishment. But it was not the only means by which the empire enforced its rule. Luke describes the Emmaus of his day as a village, yet one hundred years before it had been something more substantial. In the first century B.C., the Roman general, Cassius, made a name for himself throughout the region by sacking Emmaus and several other towns, selling all the former inhabitants into slavery.1 Decades later, around the time of Jesus’ birth, residents of the recovering settlement at Emmaus feared that a new Roman proconsul was planning to follow the example of Cassius. A popular insurrection ensued, and this time Roman forces burned Emmaus to the ground.2 In heading toward Emmaus, the two disciples had set out for a place that had become a byword for suffering at the hands of Rome. Although they were moving away from Jerusalem, the disciples could not escape the shadow of the cross.

In the last century, assorted ecumenical Christians walked along the same road in to the world, in to the reality of the cross, to the reality of brokenness, sin and injustices of our world. Sometimes close together, sometimes at a distance, but within sight of one another – enthusiasts for visible unity, for mission, for education, for justice and peace, for Faith and Order, for Life and Work; Protestants and Orthodox and Catholics and others who would not be labeled like that; evangelicals and liberals, missionaries and liberation theologians and feminist theologians. All were trying to share the meaning of the cross and the resurrection in our world.

We have walked a long way as disciples, as churches and as an ecumenical movement since 1910. It has been like walking through all kinds of seasons of the year. You can tell that I speak as a Norwegian who has grown up and lived with this natural seasonal rhythm and come to appreciate the lessons each season can bring, even winter.

You, representing so many of the churches in the USA have been leaders on that way in so many instances. You promoted ecumenical dialogues before, during, and after the global inter-denominational dialogues. You have produced theologians able to formulate new understandings of our common Christian tradition. Your leaders and ordinary people have shaped and given great strength to human rights movements in the churches, changing reality here and inspiring changes elsewhere. You have continued the traditions of bringing change and reformation in this sinful world. The “old world” of Europe brought the teaching of Martin Luther; you had the Baptist leader and visionary dreamer of a new future, Martin Luther King. You have generously opened your many tables, shared your many human, spiritual and financial resources.

In many ways, the 20th century became the American century, for bad – but also for good! This is also important to say in terms of the international life of the churches in the ecumenical movement. Your commitment to ecumenism has become a great source of inspiration for the global ecumenical movement. This needs to be recalled at a time when you and also many others in the world are aware of less beneficial effects of the American century on others in the world. Many of you belong to churches that have been walking in the light of the cross, willing to face the reality of injustice in the world, and to bring the hope of the cross and Christ’s presence to many realities here and elsewhere in the world.

4. From Edinburgh 1910 to New Orleans 2010

At our best, this sense of recognition, wonder and the pooling of perspectives has been a hallmark of the ecumenical movement. In marking the centennial of the World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh in 1910, we think in this regard of John R Mott’s words in his closing address:

“[God] is summoning us to a larger sacrifice, one that is like unto a new experience, like unto a revolution, a transformation. Our best days are ahead of us… Why? Because we go forth tonight with larger knowledge, and larger acquaintanceship, rich talent which makes possible wonderful achievements. Our best days are ahead of us because of a larger body of experience now happily placed at the disposal of all…”3

Willem Visser ’t Hooft, the first general secretary of the World Council of Churches, contemplated how God creates new times and seasons, and reveals them to us. After his retirement, Visser ’t Hooft said he learned from Dietrich Bonhoeffer that the ecumenical movement did not “just exist to carry out common social tasks. The ecumenical movement is a specific manifestation of the Church, which is concerned with no more and no less than the rediscovery of the true task of the Church.”4

I do believe and I see that God opens new doors for us in the ecumenical movement today, inviting us to be open for what we can learn and do together. I did see a growing common understanding of many issues in Edinburg 2010. To focus on what we have received together from Jesus Christ, from the cross and the resurrection, will always bring more to our common table and to our common journey. Let me share with you something I have seen this year on my way via Edinburgh 2010 to New Orleans. We discover quite often that it is in the encounter with the other that this happens, sometimes with the one who is a stranger to us, often learning from those who are carrying a heavier cross than I do myself.

I see a new willingness to share in the Faith and Order project of describing “The Nature and the Mission of the Church”5, bringing this common understanding of our mission more into focus of ecclesiology. I have a huge book presenting how theological education becomes a common concern and enterprise through strengthened ecumenical networks6.

In Edinburgh 2010 I heard that the call to share the Gospel is our common commitment. It happens all over the world in our member churches every Sunday, often every day.  I learned that those representing the different movements living in the inspiration of Edinburgh 1910, the ecumenical movement, the mission movement, the evangelical movement – all share the understanding that sharing the Gospel implies sharing God’s love for justice, peace and for creation. We are all calling for human rights, for respect and peace between peoples, also peoples of different faiths, for reducing the emissions that cause climate changes.

To be open means also to be open to relevant critique. The ecumenical movement was and must be something very different from a movement of the glory of an empire, for it is a movement which shares both an openness to the presence of Christ in the other and a willingness to bear the weight of the cross together.

The time for crusades is over. We know we cannot fight for our faith through the power of domination or oppression. We have learned from the mistakes of the past, linking mission and colonialism, or claiming to promote values of the Gospel such as democracy and peace in the clothes of imperialism and military intervention.

This should not prevent us from reminding all Christians wherever we are that we are called to bear witness to the Gospel in this world. We are called to open the Scriptures, to offer new and life-giving interpretations of the cross in all contexts, communions, confessions and realities. But we have to learn to do it together and to encourage local churches likewise to find the particular shape of their call to share with their neighbors, in their own ways – through the prayers and support of others.

As I visited the Orthodox Church in Albania last month, I was reminded of the cruel realities of the ideologies of the 20th century. There I also saw the most promising fruits of the mission movement from Edinburgh. The church which was officially eradicated was now growing, worshiping in their own Albanian language, doing its mission as one, national Orthodox Church in Albania. The resurrection of the church has happened through a credible way of carrying the cross in this country.

This year as WCC general secretary I have been invited to address many gatherings before I came here. Among them are the Pentecostal World Conference in Stockholm in August and the Lausanne Mission Conference in Cape Town in October. In both cases I see new doors being opened for conversations, but also for sharing common commitments in order to share the gifts of God given to us in the opening of the Gospel of the cross of Christ.

I have also seen open doors to the reality of suffering, poverty and disasters. You have known the burden of natural disasters here in the country and in particular in this city of New Orleans, so you will know something very important about how the ecumenical movement must take real and tangible steps to help to be a movement of real practical commitment.

As I visited Haiti in June, not far from here, I saw how natural disasters can take away so much – so many lives, so many houses, so much of the means to manage ordinary daily life; but also so many illusions. Bad governance and injustice cannot construct a new future. But I also saw the faith and the resilience of the people of Haiti. I saw the women carrying away the dust from the ruins of their church, so that they again could pray and worship together – in addition to rebuilding their own houses. I also saw the ability to cope with realties many of us would not be able to handle, like living in tents for weeks and months. Now the powerful of this world must join forces to rebuild sustainable houses and force the privileged in Haiti to share the land so that this can happen. Why should they continue to live in tents? The hurricanes and the cholera epidemic will not wait.

Church World Service and NCCCUSA have opened doors to solidarity and cooperation in your response to what happened in January. In the global village, and particularly in the ecumenical movement, we cannot ignore such events and tragedies. Let us continue to support the churches there, also to become a strong common voice and a common platform for action for the future of the peoples of Haiti.

5. On the road again – moving together to Jerusalem

Let me continue my reflection on the call of the ecumenical movement today by reflecting a little further on the biblical story. When the disciples of Luke 24 – Cleopas and an unnamed companion – left Jerusalem behind, walking towards a village called Emmaus, did they imagine that their journey would bring them hurrying back to Jerusalem after a life-changing encounter with the risen Lord?

After they had recognized Jesus, after the bread had been blessed and broken and shared, the disciples took stock of where they were – and where they were going. They no longer associated Jerusalem with Calvary alone, but with Calvary and with the resurrection. The cross was an essential part of their Christian consciousness, but now it came with the understanding that crucifixion and resurrection were indivisibly linked in the revelation of God’s grace and love for humanity.

The wandering disciples were drawn back to the Christian community in Jerusalem, to fellow disciples, to the possibility of grappling together with their new understanding of reality. Once more, they were engaged in a “movement” but now with a transformed sense of their goal and purpose, or at least of what came next on their journey.

I have visited the contemporary Middle East on a number of occasions and have met with leaders from the churches of that region. Prior to my election as general secretary of the WCC, I served together with Rev. Carmen Lansdowne as co-chair of the Palestine-Israel Ecumenical Forum and encouraged supportive measures for the lives of the churches in Jerusalem and for peace with justice throughout the region.

As I reflect on our ecumenical journey, on the stages along the road we walk today, it seems to me that we would do well to turn our faces toward Jerusalem. That city is the source and matrix of what the ecumenical movement needs to be. Our roots are planted there. A wide variety of church traditions is represented there. The churches of Jerusalem show determination to witness and do their advocacy work together with the global church for a just peace in the city of peace. They are building foundations for peace among neighbors of many faiths.

The churches of Jerusalem live in the shadow of the cross. Events occur in our generation that are as terrible to recount as the tragedies that befell Emmaus long ago, keeping the people of that land in line under so many iterations of foreign rule. In a modern, technologically linked culture, today we are all witnesses to what is happening in the Middle East.

There are many possible tasks we might choose to undertake within the one ecumenical movement of 2010. Certainly, we will keep a diversity of goals in mind and projects in play. But Christians of Palestine, supported by the heads of churches in Jerusalem, and many others in the Middle East, are asking us to recognize this as a kairos moment in the struggle for a just peace in Israel and Palestine. We know, you know, that the people of those lands, and of the Middle East as a whole, need the movement for just peace of North American churches – particularly churches from the United States - to give enough power to a new political direction.

So, in the spirit of mutual accountability among churches and other ecumenical actors, I want to invite you to join me in walking toward the next stop on our journey

6. Walking with the many others

It is time to walk together with many. I am particularly convinced that the walking together also with our Jewish sisters and brothers is of great significance in these days. The realities of the lack of justice and peace in the Holy Land need to be addressed together with our Jewish partners. We must continue to listen carefully to the reality of their fears of violence and to accept the need for security for Israeli citizens. We also have to challenge them to be open in their way of addressing the injustice the Palestinian people is experiencing every day. We cannot ignore the present reality to which the village of Emmaus belongs. There are areas where Palestinian homes and villages have been knocked down or taken over by occupation. I am convinced that many Jews also see the need for more justice, more security and less violence for the Palestinians as well. You Americans have a special call to use your many well-established contacts with Jewish partners to address these issues together, to create a movement that can be life-giving for all peoples in Jerusalem, in the Holy Land and in the Middle East. It is time to say that there has been enough violence, enough injustice, enough occupation; enough ignoring of the necessary steps which everybody can see must be taken to create a sustainable just peace.

All the people of the Middle East, not just the Israeli government and military, need support from the people of the United States. It is time for US churches to return to Jerusalem, not in the spirit of medieval European crusaders with their weaponry and self-righteousness, but as companions on a journey of faith, open to those whom they meet on the road, aware of the shadow of the cross yet trusting in the power of God to overcome violence, renew the earth and affirm life in all its fullness.

Of course, we know that when we take action it is in the “real world.” We will face opposition as we address serious matters and oppose national policies. This is all the more reason to plot our journey one step at a time, and to remain open to the possibility of rethinking and reorienting our direction.

Last week the WCC co-hosted a very significant Muslim-Christian consultation with two major international Muslim organizations at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva. We discovered that we have many common concerns and that we are searching for common values as we walk together on days like that.

Together we addressed the recent tragedy in Baghdad, where many worshippers in a church were killed, many injured. The situation in Iraq for the Christian minority has become one of the most tragic consequences of the war in Iraq. Now is the time to do something to encourage the Christians in Iraq to stay, in spite of what happens. But any human being killed, particularly any innocent civilian killed as a result of war or terror is a tragedy. However, when the holy places of prayer and worship become traps for hostage taking, this has to be condemned, however complicated the background and the context. That we at the consultation condemned this together was a very significant sign for me.

That we also agreed to initiate marking the Interfaith Harmony Week in our different faith communities, following the recommendation from the UN last month, was a sign of the willingness to use our spiritual resources to encounter hostility, misconceptions and potential tensions and conflicts that may exist between us. The WCC President from North America, Rev Dr Bernice Powell-Jackson, who co-moderated the planning of this event, has shown how this can be put into practice in the challenges to avoid the public burning of the Quran in a church in Florida earlier this year.

We also took the decision at the consultation last week to encourage the establishment of a joint Muslim-Christian response team mechanism, to address potential and live conflicts by sending significant figures from both our faith communities together. We want to walk together, to walk together with people and leaders in different contexts struggling for their future.

7. Walking towards just peace

The biblical journey to Emmaus, a place known in those times for the violence it had suffered, was a journey into reality and hope. As we come to the end of the Decade to Overcome Violence (DOV), we will join together in marking the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC) next year in Kingston, Jamaica. It will not just be for those who attend the event in Jamaica. All churches and all Christians throughout the world are being invited to live out the Way of Just Peace. This is a journey into God’s purpose for humanity and all creation, trusting that God will “guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79).

The Way of Just Peace is fundamentally different from the concept of “just war”.  It cannot be the role of the church to focus on what is a just war, not even when we realize that the authorities sometimes have to exercise their difficult duty to protect.

Focusing on just peace we as churches can concentrate – in addition to silencing weapons – on embracing social justice, the rule of law, respect for human rights and shared human security.

On the journey of just peace, we journey together. The churches’ power to work for and witness to peace depends on finding a common purpose in the service of peace despite differences in doctrine and church order. We walk here as a community, sharing an ethic and practice of peace that includes forgiveness and love of enemies, active non-violence and respect for others, gentleness and mercy. We strive to give of our lives in solidarity with others and for the common good. We invite people of all worldviews and religious traditions to consider the goal and to share of their journeys. We pursue peace in prayer, asking God for discernment as we go and for the fruits of the Spirit along the way.

Sharing the road with our neighbors, we discover people from different walks of life. We gain strength in working with them, acknowledging our mutual vulnerability and affirming our common humanity. The other is no longer a stranger or an adversary but a fellow human being with whom we share both the road and the journey.

The Christian pilgrimage toward peace presents many opportunities to build visible and viable communities for peace. Furthermore, when churches work in a united way for peace, their witness becomes more credible (John 17:21).

8. Conclusion: The hearts shall be opened

As they returned from Emmaus to Jerusalem the disciples realized that their hearts had been set alight by what the stranger had been saying to them. Their eyes and hearts had been opened. I want to read to you a poem by Olav H. Hauge, a Norwegian poet, who himself was a man of deep reflection and personal struggles. I think it sums up what we are talking about on this way we go together. I read it here in an English translation by the Scottish poet Robin Fulton which is close to the original Norwegian:

It's the dream we carry in secret
that something miraculous will happen,
that it must happen –
that time will open
that the heart will open
that the doors will open
that the rockface will open
that springs will gush –
that the dream will open,
that one morning we will glide into
some little harbour we didn't know was there.

For people of faith, the dream of just peace is not a purely “political” issue: it is a human issue, a matter of life and death, of basic human rights, that we cannot avoid and must address in love.

As Christians, we recognize this as integral to the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news that came alive for disciples as they walked the road to Emmaus: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)

And so I end as I began, by inviting us all to walk together with open and burning hearts into our common future.


[1] Josephus, Jewish War, i, 9.

[2] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, xvii.10.7-9.

[3] Quoted in M. Kinnamon & B. Cope, The Ecumenical Movement: An Anthology of Key Texts and Voices (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), p.11.

[4] W.A. Visser ’t Hooft, Has the Ecumenical Movement a Future? ET A. Mackie (Belfast: Christian Journals Ltd., 1974), p.96.

[5] The Nature and Mission of the Church: A Stage on the Way to a Common Statement. Faith and Order Papers 198 (Geneva, WCC, 2005)

[6] Ed. Dietrich Werner, David Esterline, Namsoon Kang and Joshva Raja. Handbook of Theological Education in World Christianity : Theological Perspectives, Ecumenical Trends, Regional Surveys (Oxford, Regnum Books International, Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, 2010)