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Greetings of the WCC General Secretary to the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe General Assembly

Greetings of the WCC General Secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit to the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe, General Assembly, 13-18 September, Basel

14 September 2018

Community of Protestant Churches in Europe, General Assembly,

13-18 September, Basel

Greetings of the WCC General Secretary, Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit

Dear friends, sisters and brothers in Christ,

This year we are celebrating the World Council of Churches’ 70 years as an instrument of the one ecumenical movement.  One of the most significant moments for this movement in Europe was the 1989 European Assembly here in Basel.  For the first time since the 1054 schism, Christians from Orthodox and Catholic traditions, together with Anglicans, Protestants, and representatives of other traditions, gathered here on Pentecost 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin wall. Anticipating the changes to come, the assembly was a sign of hope for many that peace would prevail and  that churches would overcome their divisions and work together for peace and justice in Europe.  “Peace in Justice for the Whole Creation” was the title of the final document.

Today, the World Council of Churches invites Christians and all people of good will to join the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace. It is not difficult to see that the Basel impulse is still alive in this effort, though it has transformed itself. The term pilgrimage puts stronger emphasis on the activity and participation of everyone at every level: local, national, and regional, and not so much on the institutional expressions of the ecumenical movement.  It has a strong spiritual dimension. It underlines that ecumenism requires walking, praying and working together, inspired by the biblical witness about God’s reign of peace and justice to come that was already embodied in Jesus Christ and revealed in his death on the cross and his resurrection.

We often point to three dimensions of this common pilgrimage. We are

-         to celebrate life,

-         to visit the wounds with those suffering injustice and violence, and

-         to engage in transformative action together.

It is important that when we speak of these three dimensions we begin with celebrating life together.  This might be an echo of the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth, who taught here in Basel and who was a significant contributor to the first WCC assembly in 1948. Barth often underlined that we only understand what sin really means if we hear the gospel of new life in Jesus Christ. Human beings are created to praise God for the beauty of God’s creation and to care for it. In the light of the gospel, we are moved by the suffering of this world; and, driven by the love of Christ (2 Cor. 5:14), we engage in transformative action.

The theme of your assembly starts in a similar way with the reminder that we are liberated in Christ and are not to fall back into the chains of slavery. Together on the way with each other, but surely also with those suffering, we are connected horizontally and also vertically with the Triune God. And so we are committed to participating in God’s mission by walking, praying and working for transformation together.  In all of these three steps, the unity of the church is a prophetic sign and foretaste of the unity of humankind and all creation.  Unity, justice and peace belong together as one shared objective.

This broad horizon for the mission of the church was already present in the writings of another person who is buried in the “great minster” of Basel: Erasmus of Rotterdam. Erasmus wrote in 1517 a small book with the title “The Complaint of Peace.”  It was an important, but unfortunately futile, attempt to call the European princes and the church to negotiations for lasting peace. He was clear that God created humanity as one and that the church was to be the one body of Christ. During the Reformation, Erasmus found himself sitting in between the chairs. His plea for peace was forgotten when the war of powers claiming to protect Protestant or Catholic tradition ravaged Europe.

Today we see new “culture wars” in Europe. Poisoned memories and prejudices fuel fragmentation and new tensions. Economic and social pressures pit people against each other. Many who are afraid to lose out, turn against the “others,” who are seen as competitors. And so migrants and refugees from other cultures and religions become the targets.

The fundamental respect for the dignity of every person and mutual recognition of the gifts of diversity mark the vision for a peacefully united world. Today, this vision of Just Peace is severely challenged, creating a struggle that affects the churches directly and that we are called to be involved in.  There are those who are excluding others with the aim of shielding and protecting Christian values as they see them. This often goes hand in hand with expressions of racism and deep fear of the other as well as a sense of superiority over the other. If we succumb to these pressures or remain silent, we betray the gospel of Christ and the love of God for all human beings and the creation.

I encourage you to strengthen your support to the churches in the Middle East, as proposed, and to emphasize the Christian values of human dignity, freedom, peace – exercised in calls for equal citizenship, an end to wars and an end to occupation.  Churches are called to be signs of hope, and I am convinced that we can be. Looking at the history of the ecumenical movement and the seven decades of the WCC’s life and work, I see that ours has been, at its heart, a message of unity in diversity as churches and as humankind, a message affirming the dignity of every person. Ours has been—and remains—the hope that does not remain silent in the face of injustice and oppression, that overcomes enmity, hatred and fear, and that opens a pathway to reconciliation and peace.

And so we resist xenophobia and national populism today. When others ask us why we are doing it, we point to the love of Christ that compels us. In the love of Christ, we have received the ministry of reconciliation. In the love of Christ, we are called to be his ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:14ff). In our witness to the world, we embody who we are to be in Christ. Speaking of the churches as koinonia, as communion in fellowship, we point the way forward for societies and nations, too. We contribute the best we can, when we become who we are called to be.

Against this background, I am glad to see that CPCE is exploring more and more the meaning of communion for your community and for your relationships with other Christian families as a way to be together in God’s mission in Europe today.  The Lutheran World Federation and the World Communion of Reformed Churches have taken steps to speak of themselves as communions of churches. With the Porvoo Agreement, churches who are part of it enter into communion. You are also considering beginning a new dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church through the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity with focus on communion. I hope you will give new attention also to relationships with Orthodox churches to overcome centuries-old tensions and thus contribute to better understanding of each other across boundaries. Of course, with the changing landscape of Christianity we also need to intensify our efforts to be in conversation with the different Pentecostal, charismatic, and African-instituted churches and communities.

I wish you God’s blessings for your work on a very relevant agenda. Seen from the perspective of the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace, there is not only one, but several interrelated journeys of the churches into the future. They all have their common origin and goal in God’s reign of justice and peace and God’s mission of reconciliation. Surely, it is important to consider where we come from and what has separated us, but it counts so much more where we will be going together, following Christ and looking for the signs of God’s presence in the world. May God bless us all on that journey!  Thank you very much!

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit,
WCC General Secretary