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Speech to the Christian Council of Norway, 25 years

Speech to the Christian Council of Norway, 25 years, by WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit.

07 April 2017

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

I am especially delighted and no less honoured to be invited to speak in the Christian Council of Norway's Council Meeting as they celebrate their 25th anniversary. I have been involved from the start in 1992 - as a consultant with the Inter-Church Council - when it was our task to implement a plan, a vision, which had been formulated by several people here in the hall. Much of the vision was realized at the time, and even more so in the phase of the expansion and reorganization of the Council in 2006, when I participated in the work committee as general secretary of the Council. The Christian Council of Norway has had good elected leaders, energetic general secretaries and competent staff. This has given the Council confidence and an enterprising spirit and has brought good results, which have been noticed in churches throughout Norway, in the country’s public life, and also in the wider ecumenical community in the Nordic countries and globally. It is the vital work of the Council that we are celebrating today and for which we give thanks to God. I regard my work in and for the Christian Council as one of the truly beneficial and important ecumenical assignments I have been involved in.

I am delighted to greet you all from the member churches and colleagues in the World Council of Churches.

I am happy and quite proud also to have the Christian Council as an important partner in the work of the World Council of Churches. It is great to be able to demonstrate so frequently the Norwegian example of how ecumenical work can develop and spread far and wide, further than many other national church councils around the world, so far as to include what is, on a worldwide basis, still a “Global Christian Forum,” but what in Norway is actually a joint council with far more mutual obligation and responsibility than a forum. It is inspirational to many.

It was especially inspiring for those taking part in the Central Committee meeting of the World Council of Churches in Trondheim in June last year to hear the lively and creative presentation of the Christian Council of Norway by the current general secretary Knut Refsdal, who formulated the World Council’s motto: “Together on a Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace”: Everyone gasped when you entered the hall and told us that you had walked from Oslo and what you had discussed in conversations with fellow pilgrims on the way. You showed us that the Christian Council of Norway has the power to unite both the national agenda for a common Christian testimony and action for justice and peace through an open and active approach to the major directions in the ecumenical and global development that all churches have to adhere to in today’s world. 25-year-olds are very agile, and this is promising. Not unexpectedly, I would like to greet you with some words from Chapter 17 of the Gospel according to St. John. But before I do so, I would like to present my thoughts on our mission to be one from a slightly different perspective. What should our work for unity serve?

“We have to take the moral high ground”. This comment was made by the director of the IOM, Dr Swing. He heads one of the large international organizations, one that is the closest neighbour of the World Council of Churches in Geneva and that addresses the political and practical dimensions of one of the most important questions of our time, if not the most important: migration. Migration has always affected the lives of people on this earth. People migrate in order to survive. But sometimes they are forced to for other reasons. He said that, as an experienced and fairly senior diplomat, he could not remember there being so many conflicts in the world that no one knew how those with political responsibility and the international organizations such as the UN should bring to an end.

The subject of this “side event” in the Human Rights Council was coexistence between Muslims and Christians on the basis of common citizenship. What he was referring to was a speech I had just given in which I had asked the question: “What does it mean in our time to believe in one God who has created one human race, where everyone is created in God’s image with equal worth and should therefore have equal rights, to religious freedom, as well as to live in safety, with food, water, fresh air, and freedom of expression, thought and movement?” I had expressed my concerns that religion, not least my own Christian religion, was being used as an argument for creating polarization and distance between people and for contributing to the fulfillment of the prophecy that has lived in fear of a “clash of civilizations.”

Is the challenge we are facing, and which we encounter not least in the question of migration, that of how our common Christian faith, our unity in our mission to be as one in Christ, is a sign and a sacrament of the one human race that God has created us to be? Is our belief in the one God of the Trinity, and our unity, something that marks out who should remain outside and who should be within? Is it a unity that is defined by the borders we see around us? Is it an exclusive or an inclusive unity we are working for?

From the start, the Christian Council of Norway was and still is a sign that the churches and the Christians of Norway want Christ’s prayers to show us the way: “That all of them may be one, so that the world may believe.” These well-known words from chapter 17 of the Gospel according to St. John are the basic law of ecumenism. I see the words in front of me every time I stand in the greatest hall of the ecumenical centre, woven into an enormous tapestry in which Christ, resurrected, goes out into the world that lives under God’s rainbow, God’s noble pact with every living thing, and where the churches are of different shapes and sizes in a wide, open landscape: the transliterated Greek exhorts “that all may be one.” These words mark out our “high ground,” the level from which we try to view what we are working with. Not “high” in the sense of “far from life’s daily tasks” but “high” in the sense that we have an overview of the landscape as a whole, that we see more than one issue and one conflict, that we see beyond our garden fence and more than our own private interests or the interests of our group or church.

We don’t always quote the entire text of chapter 17 of the Gospel according to St. John. There are times when it needs to be read out loud, in its entirety. And then we see that it’s not just one sentence, but several sentences, which expand on and reinforce each other, which express many dimensions by being one. Nothing is mentioned about the fact that Jesus’s disciples should be as one, so that no one disagrees about anything, or so the world believes that Christians and churches cannot disagree about anything. To be as one, in the unity Jesus has with the Father is to accept the circumstances one is created for and guided into by the “words” that are spoken by Jesus and which we have believed, which we have taken as the truth, words that state he has loved us from the beginning and that our mission is to be true by being in his love.

Unity means a life in communion, in the communion of love. It is not something that is greater than this, it is not something that is more important than this perspective. When Jesus restores his broken alliance with Peter following his resurrection, there is one question that is crucial: “Do you love me?” (John 21). On this basis, he may be given the task of leading the flock, the many that are in need of the apostolic and prophetic leadership that the church needs at different times. The pilgrimage to Jerusalem with Jesus was the start of the great pilgrimage into a world with borders between us, which were challenged by the Holy Spirit that taught Peter new things about what was pure and impure. That taught Peter to witness the living hope we are born with since Jesus’s resurrection from the dead.

We also read in the Holy Scriptures that love bears all things and endures all things. But it is something more than endurance and something more than acceptance of the “least common denominator,” or a programme for the tolerant “culture of disagreement” that constitutes the “high ground” in John 17 - although both can be very useful, in ecumenism too. It is for “the world to believe that you (God, the Father) have sent me” - and for “the world to understand that you have sent me, and that you have loved them as you loved me before the world was founded” (17:21, 23)..

The point is to convey the reality that Jesus is the true expression of the one God. What matters is what role our common belief in Christ leads to for the world. This draws a parallel with the next chapter, in which Jesus was interrogated by Pilate. When Pilate asks Jesus what he has done, he replies that “My kingdom is not of this world.” Pilate then asks, “You are a King, then?” and Jesus replies: “For this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (18: 37). Pilateresponds laconically, “What is truth?”

It is a truth about the one God, to whom our mission to be one relates. It is the truth that there is one God who has created all people in it. It is the truth about the one God who has loved the world. It is the truth about the one God who is love. It is the truth about the one God who may not be renounced, and who leads us to confront the false, the cowardly, injustice, abuse of power, who leads to the cross. And who was affirmed in his resurrection.

To be one is to be one in this truth of the one true God, who can be worshipped on the one or the other mountain, and who is love.

Can we use this unity to set boundaries? Yes, in the name of truth and love, we must spread the word of the Spirit about truth and judgment, and separate justice from injustice (John 16). But in the name of truth and love we cannot use God to exclude people, to deny them justice, define them as our enemies, or create a conflict of civilization that kills us all.

There is a tension, a dualism, in the Gospel of St. John between God and the world. But it is not a dualism or a division between the spiritual and the physical. And the message from the start is that God has created the world, loves the world, comes into the world - even when it is inhospitable to him - and has remained in the world in the form of the resurrected Christ and the Spirit that never deserts us. We live in the time when this occurred. We go together toward God’s tomorrow, not toward the world’s evening. This is the world that God has given to us for our home. And in this world we shall stand together as the true testimony to the true God.

What “the high ground” means is not some high level of abstraction, nor that global measures are more important than national and local measures. It is not that the universal, or Catholic, that which is all around us, and has been for all times, is important and that what concerns the individual and the local is unimportant. No, it lies in the single fact that God has revealed Godself. It is in his suffering and death alone that God’s love has become a reconciliation for us and God’s reconciliation with the world (2 Cor. 5, 18). It is in the usual, the general, that we too recognize what are challenges to all people.

The Christian Council of Norway has been important over the last 25 years; the Christian Council of Norway is important in our time. This is a time when religion is being used to divide the people God has created to live together. It is a time when there are many who need a common, Christian testimony of the God of the Holy Trinity, who loves; who loves the world and the church as a sign of the one human race; who loves the individual. All this is the truth that has come to us in Jesus Christ, who is an image of God himself.

We live in a time where there are many challenges, also within the churches and among the churches. There are even greater challenges in conflicts between people on different sides of the lines of conflict, walls, borders, inequality of finance, of rights, of divisions between generations who have work and income and those who do not have this and perhaps never will.

It is also a time when the ecumenical mission is clearer than ever, and it is clear that it’s possible to accentuate much of what we have in common and make it clear and visible as a common Christian testimony. It is a time when we can quote Pope Francis, the ecumenical patriarch, evangelical leaders, and the documents of the World Council of Churches, and be clear that it is our common “high ground” that we relate to. It is a new will and ability to be firmer in what we have in common.

I see this as a double reality that makes the Christian Council of Norway and the World Council of Churches all the more important right now, in our own times. A greater polarization with religion as an ideology and a marker on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a much greater common approach to our belief in Christ, the crucified and the resurrected Jesus Christ - who summons us to go out into the world together. The powerful expression of unity will not be defined by how much we can tolerate in order to be able to sit in the same room as others. What unites us is the mission for us to be willing to belong together and go out into the world together. It is the mission to be one in our testimony through our words and our actions, the testimony of the one human race and hence the one people, wherever they are and whoever they are, that will bring us closer to each other. There are many judges of this.

The World Council of Churches is an important part of our work during this eight-year period when we are “together on a pilgrimage of justice and peace”: It brings about the fundamental understanding that it is something we strive toward because it is our mission to do so, together. It is an open but decisive, common movement ahead - toward the reign of God and the values and the will that God has for this world - that we should also seek together. To be one is to keep moving, not to sit still and ponder whether this is what we are. Hence, it was also important to find an expression for the 70 years since the World Council of Churches was established, and it was important to find an expression for the 25 years since the Christian Council of Norway was founded. It is not the Kingdom of Heaven itself, or everything pertaining to the truth, but the ways and forms of our pilgrimage together that may mean a lot in determining what is the truth and what is true about God. And about the church, and the people and the world we live in. We live in this world, not as those who have lost their way, or dwell in paradise, but in a world to which a worthy God has reconciled himself.

There are different traditions and different expressions for the church and the church’s engagement in this world that are expressed in both the World Council of Churches and the Christian Council of Norway. It is useful and stimulating to be aware of our historically given forms and teachings, our conflicts and solutions for peace.

I have recently attended two important events to mark the Reformation, but which were arranged as meetings of reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation and the Protestant churches in Germany. These two meetings underlined our experiences of the reconciliation we share and in our belief that the justification of Christ by grace is the most powerful thing we can share to create reconciliation and a new life between people today. The water of baptism runs and also brings forth life (John 6, Romans 6) and let justice roll on like a river (Amos 5, 24).

It is the terminology from the pilgrimages that has characterized these events, those who seek God’s path forward, for change, but also for opening up to communion with others, while we seek God’s reign and God’s justice and peace together.

Therefore, we go boldly forward together in God’s worth, as churches, by God’s grace and in God’s love. And seek “the high ground,” the wider perspective, to be able to see what is also the deepest ground. We know that it’s also our difficult experiences that we share, that it’s our very demanding personal experiences and common challenges we are talking about. I am not giving a lighthearted speech about being superficial, but I take the bold view that what we do in our work to ensure that the churches function as one is something that concerns the world we live in. It’s about being frank in our testimony of our belief in the one God.

I wish you God’s blessing for the next 25 years!