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Opening remarks of the WCC General Secretary at the Nathan Söderblom Seminar

Opening remarks of Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches at the Nathan Söderblom Seminar, 3 June, 2019 at the Ecumenical Centre, Geneva

03 June 2019

Nathan Söderblom Seminar

3 June, 2019


A very warm welcome to all of you. A special welcome to Bishop Emeritus, Dr Jonas.

Jonson, and your wife Birgitta Rubensson, former WCC staff-member. You are here to present to us your study of the life and legacy of another Swedish ecumenist, Nathan Söderblom. We are immensely grateful that you have given us this opportunity to reactivate and learn from his significant life and work. Bishop and professor, and if I may: dear Jonas, as you for many years also belong to the inside of this house, as well, we have been looking forward to this day.

Let me also welcome colleagues, former colleagues, and guests from the house and from outside the house. This seminar is co-organized with the Church of Sweden, and we welcome Rev. Dr Anders Mogård from the Church of Sweden. It is wonderful to see that such a plentiful and diverse audience has come here today. Among them are many students both from the Bossey Ecumenical Institute and from the Institute for Orthodox Theology Higher Studies at Chambésy.  We welcome also all followers online.

Since my first day as the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, I have looked into the face of Lars Olof Jonathan Söderblom, called Nathan, a Swedish clergyman who was the Church of Sweden archbishop of Uppsala between 1914 and 1931. In 1930 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to unite the churches for peace.

This bust of him was long ago placed outside the office of the general secretary. Therefore, this fellow Scandinavian has reminded me every day what the ecumenical movement is all about. It is about the churches calling one another to unity, to a common witness, so that they can work together for justice and peace in the world. We will hear more about that.

This afternoon, another very significant ecumenist, and Scandinavian, and a countryman of Söderblom, will paint a picture of a true pioneer in modern ecumenism: who he was, his thinking and vision, what he did and what he accomplished, as well as the profound impact he had on shaping our worldwide fellowship of churches.

In his biography, titled ”Nathan Söderblom - called to serve”, bishop emeritus Jonas Jonson, shares his in-depth knowledge about the man I say good morning to every day when I walk into my office. This book tells a compelling story of all the dimensions of the life and work of Söderblom. It is an academically strong, yet engaging and literary text.

Right Rev. Dr Jonas Jonson, is bishop emeritus of the Church of Sweden, after serving as bishop of the Strängnäs diocese from 1989-2005, and representing the Church of Sweden in many ecumenical organizations and initiatives. He is a former deputy general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation. He is associated professor of Missiology at the University of Uppsala, defended his thesis in 1972 in Lutheran missions in a time of revolution, the China experience 1944-1951. As Söderblom, Jonson himself is a significant hymn-writer. His hymns are sung widely and often in Sweden and beyond. He served as the director of Stiftsgården Rättvik from 1976-1985, where he inspired many young students to be involved in ecumenism.

Bishop Jonson has served the World Council of Churches and its governing work in significant roles. Among the many tasks he had, he was the moderator of the Assembly Planning Committee for the 8th Assembly in Harare, 1998. He has also been the co-chair of the Joint Working Group of the World Council of the Churches and the Roman Catholic Church.

Today’s tribute to Söderblom is a continuation of last year’s 70th anniversary of the World Council of Churches. Our Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace continues, and I am pleased to welcome you, Jonas, to take the floor.


In my response to Bishop Jonas Jonson and his highly interesting presentation and the published book, I would like to share some reflections on how I believe we continue his vision in what we do today as a WCC.

Following the example of Söderblom, we are working with a broad perspective, historically and theologically. His legacy inspire us to take on new initiatives to realize the potential of religion as a contributor to peace and justice, to offer new perspectives in the realm of religion, and to nurture a true and inclusive spirituality.

Nathan Söderblom has inspired me and continues to inspire me to believe that our visions can become true, that it is possible to make a difference. He also reminds me – as you have focused in the title of the biography – that we all are all involved in this as a service, a ministry, a diaconal ministry to the world through the churches and their unity.

Reading the book about Söderblom reminds me that leading the ecumenical movement requires creative engagement, commitment, resilience, vision and professional communication, working towards unity, justice and peace with all the means available to us. And one of the most important tools we have as a WCC, is our capacities and opportunities to build relations. Relations of trust, of openness, of faithfulness, but also of proper critical reflection and exchange. These are the quality of relations that are called “mutual accountability”. We are accountable to God for what we have been given, and therefore to all who expect that we share this in a proper way – through qualities of relations.

The vision I carry at the moment for the WCC, is the Ecumenical Movement of Love. We must prove that it is so, and we must explore what it means to be faithful together to the truth in love in our time. The vision that has been formed into the theme for the 11th Assembly: Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity, brings us back to our common origin in Christ and therefore to the triune God who promises to make all things new. It also connects us well to the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace as a way to describe the ecumenical movement as – a movement. The theme also opens up another dimension of the ecumenical movement: as an alternative to the many other approaches to the world, also in the name of religion and our own Christian traditions: the ecumenical movement is an open and inclusive, radical expression of love in our time.

The love of Christ frees and unites us and moves us forward to decisive action.  “The power of love” is a message to the world, to the powerful and to the powerless, to all who are longing for a different reality from what we see in today’s world. This is to be expressed in our quest for the unity of the church and the unity of humankind, serving the sustainability and unity of God’s creation.

We cannot leave the quest for unity on a side-track. The message of the “power of love” has much to contribute in these efforts, bringing other perspectives and dimensions into proper relationships that we need to develop and build in our time. There are many forces promoting conflict and violence. There are enormous powers of division and polarization, widening the gaps between the rich and poor, the privileged and the non-privileged (in terms of wealth, security, health, etc.). There are shocking signs of some powerful nations seeking only their own interests, not world peace or creation care for our one and only planet. There are signs of ignoring international law or utilizing it for one’s own purposes, of the deconstruction of multilateral regulations and accountability, the lack of care for the lives of innocent people, the lack of willingness to share the burdens of responding properly to the needs of refugees from situations of war and conflict, the use of the international financial architecture for the benefit of the strongest and the richest. The list goes on. Even our own high-ground objectives of unity, justice and peace are sometimes reinterpreted or abused by powers to dominate or to discriminate. Through a serious dialogue among us, even a critical one, we can discern when they are serving the love we are called to promote.

Unity, for example, might become a means of enforcing an oppressive uniformity or demand for agreement, or a frontier, a border, a wall against others that are not included in the protected and unified area or country. This might happen even in the churches, not serving primarily the needs of those who are suffering or supporting those who are struggling. A reference to justice is in some cases seen as the rule of the stronger and privileged, neglecting the needs of those who are excluded from having the safety of citizenship with equal human rights. Peace, too, might be defined as an objective but pursued by some in practices that divide and actually create conflict. There are strong powers undermining the need to see one another as participants in the one humanity, seeking our common good and our common interests. There needs to be somebody and something that represents a counter-power of unity, justice and peace.

We are not shy as WCC about presenting ourselves as a fellowship of churches, as people of faith, sharing the vision of something better, something built on another scale of values, something that binds peoples and nations together out of mutual respect, dignity, accountability—even love. It is love that will bind us as churches and as Christians to each other and to our neighbors 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 danger, and peace from peril.

In the southern hemisphere, this is the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. At least once a year, Christians are reminded of Jesus’ prayer for his disciples that “they may be one so that the world may believe” (John 17:21). Hearts are touched and Christians come together to pray for their unity. Congregations and parishes all over the world exchange preachers or arrange special ecumenical celebrations and prayer services. The event that touches off this special experience is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.This is a proper time to celebrate also the legacy of Nathan Söderblom.

Söderblom was a human being with his many gifts, but also with his shortcomings – as we all have. We should take heart, be ourselves and use our gifts in the one ecumenical movement today, believing that we can see the long term effects of what even we can accomplish.  I believe that is the best way we continue the work that was already articulated and developed in the ideas and initiatives of Nathan Söderblom.

Fellow pilgrims on God’s pilgrimage of justice and peace, you are—we are— building that movement of love, grounded in the one Spirit of Christ: Let us be eager and alert to journey on together in faith and hope for a better world at the heart of our vision of God’s reign to come and God’s promise of life in abundance with freedom and justice for all.