By Claus Grue*
After more than 30 years as a pastor, ecumenist and church leader, Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit firmly believes that the church can change the world. As general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC) for the past ten years, he has witnessed what Jesus Christ means to people of faith around the globe. By the end of this month he heads home to lead the Church of Norway as presiding bishop of its bishop’s conference.
Driven by his belief in God’s love, and an urge to share that with others, Tveit will always resemble the pastor in a small parish he once was. Regardless of position or title, his mission as a Christian witness and his commitment to the Christian fellowship have prevailed.
“My approach has always been to contribute to the best of my ability here and now, whatever context I’m in,” he says.
A strong desire early on to be actively involved in the worldwide Christian fellowship led him to key assignments in ecumenical affairs within the Church of Norway already in the 90s. When he assumed the role of WCC general secretary in 2010 he felt well prepared. Ten years later, Tveit returns home with broadened perspectives, a better understanding of ecumenism and just as eager and determined as ever to work for a fellowship in solidarity. Albeit at a national level.
“I bring with me strong impressions of what faith means for people living under difficult conditions. That has been inspiring and strengthened me further in my own faith and in the way I preach the Gospel,” Tveit explains.
It also further convinced him about interreligious dialogue as an imperative tool towards lasting peace.
“Our faith in Jesus Christ means meeting others with respect for what they believe in. If God loves all humankind, which I believe he does, we must relate and listen to people of other faiths,” Tveit continues.
Having gone through different phases in life concerning his own faith has helped him to understand how much Jesus really means, both to himself and to churches around the world.
Gave God a chance
As the son of a Lutheran pastor, the Holy Bible, prayers and church life in general was a natural part of Tveit’s upbringing. Later, he enrolled in the Christian student movement. Although he never felt any pressure from his father, he had “a round of contemplation with himself” as he puts it, regarding which education to pursue after graduating from high school. The choice stood between medicine and theology, two care-taking disciplines. Undecided, he left filled-in applications for both educations in sealed envelopes at home before heading southwards on a summer-long interrail journey to the European continent.
As fate would have it en route, instead of continuing from Venice, via Bologna to Rome, as originally planned, he decided to return to Zürich. That same day, 2 August 1980, a bomb explosion in Bologna’s railway station killed 85 people. Shaken by this tragedy, and fact that he himself could have been one of the victims, he phoned his father to tell him that he was ok and to post the application to the Norwegian School of Theology.
“I felt the preciousness of life and that I should give God a chance,” Tveit says.
Forty years later, that chance has long since turned into grace and deep devotion.
A divine call became real
After graduation in 1987, he served as an army chaplain for a year, followed by a brief stint as a writer for Norway’s major Christian daily, “Vårt Land.”
“A good learning experience which helped me understand the importance of the media and sharpened my communication skills,” he points out.
Meanwhile, he applied for – and got – a position as vicar in the remote Haram parish, comprised of four small islands outside Ålesund on Norway’s west coast. That first assignment as a spiritual leader of a rural congregation became an experience which forever shaped young Tveit. At 28, he now was someone people living on the islands needed and relied on. He witnessed firsthand how much the church meant to people and felt that he had an important role to fill.
“It was an awakening into a reality, where life can be good, sometimes difficult and sometimes something in-between. My approach to being a pastor matured and came down to practicalities. My divine call was now about being there for people on a daily basis, rather than having all the answers on Sundays,” Tveit explains.
The three and a half years he and his family spent in Haram quickly developed into a love affair with life on the islands and strong bonds with the people living there. Tveit felt that his call as a pastor was real. It also convinced him that the church, with all its strengths and shortcomings, has an important mission in providing hope and consolation through faith.
“The prophetic role of the church becomes very real in critical situations when people turn to us and place trust in us,” Tveit says.
An ecumenical journey began
Emotionally difficult, as it was to leave Haram, he was ready for new challenges.
In 1991, he began his ecumenical journey as theological consultant at the Church of Norway’s Council of Ecumenical Affairs. He became deeply involved in international matters and interreligious dialogue and was eventually appointed secretary general of the council in 2002.
“Since my childhood days, when my family moved around quite a bit throughout Norway, I’ve been both curious and somewhat restless. I learned to tolerate differences and yearned to explore the world outside. I guess that was what lured me into the ecumenical movement in the first place,” Tveit recalls.
Fortunately, his wife Anna, who is a nurse specialised in cancer patient care, didn’t mind and was open to new endeavours.
“I think she realised early on that our marriage would be a bit adventurous in that sense,” Tveit jokes.
But it wasn’t until 2009, when he was appointed WCC general secretary and their three kids were grown, that the two of them actually moved abroad, to Geneva.
Compassion, solidarity and hope
His ten-year tenure at the WCC, has firmly convinced him that the ecumenical movement is needed more than ever as a bridge-builder between cultures, religions and peoples throughout the world. One of his strongest firsthand experiences of that was when he visited church leaders in Khartoum, Sudan, in 2015, where hunger, poverty and oppression plagued Christian communities.
“In the midst of such misery and hopelessness, it is of utmost importance that we pay attention and show people that they are not alone and that the Christian fellowship means something. Being there in solidarity with the marginalized and forgotten is a pivotal task for the WCC,” says Tveit.
A memorable moment of a different kind was when he, as representative of faith-based organizations at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in 2015, (COP21) delivered a short and concise appeal to world leaders, reading: You must now bring hope to the world, we believe that you can give us hope, our faith in God is that you actually can bring us hope, we have the right to hope!”
“As the voice of Christian and other faith-based organizations, I felt I should take the opportunity and try to induce hope in both politicians and the public. The reactions were overwhelmingly positive and my conclusive remark: we have the right to hope, has often been quoted since. It was one of those moments when I felt that the ecumenical movement really can make a difference,” Tveit says.
Facilitating dialogues for peace
Looking back, he is particularly pleased with WCC’s accomplishments in its advocacy work for peace, where he feels that churches have gained influence. A token of that is South Korean president Moon Jae-in’s appraisal of the WCC for its efforts to engage his country’s churches in a peace-building dialogue with North Korea. In Nigeria, Muslims and Christians have joined forces in an alternative peace process based on interreligious dialogue and a common vision for peace. Colombia and Israel/Palestine are other conflict-ridden places where efforts by the WCC and the Christian fellowship have made a difference, according to Tveit.
“Contributing to peace is a grand task. As a worldwide Christian fellowship, we have to have an agenda for that, based on interreligious dialogue. There is no alternative. We must never abandon our vision that peace is possible. Inspiring churches and other religious actors to play active roles in peace processes remains a top priority for the ecumenical movement,” Tveit explains.
To him, it all boils down to whether we look upon ourselves as one humankind or different groups fighting against one another.
An area, where he feels more could have been done during his tenure is persecution of Christian and other religious minorities.
“I am not pleased with our level of engagement and I wish we could have been more present in solidarity and provided more active support,” Tveit admits.
New insights and strengthened faith
Over time, the WCC’s enduring advocacy and Tveit’s long-time involvement in the ecumenical movement have opened the doors to numerous religious leaders and heads of state around the world. One, who has made a lasting impression on him is the late Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, whom Tveit met already in 1993.
“Mandela fought selflessly for freedom and justice for others. He had integrity and the courage to stand up for a just cause under extreme conditions. He embodied authentic leadership,” Tveit says.
At 59, he feels privileged and proud to have served the Christian fellowship and taken part in a worldwide movement for justice and peace. Homeward bound, after a decade at the helm of an organization representing 500 million Christians, he brings with him new insights and an even stronger faith in ecumenism and interreligious dialogue than before. He is also strengthened in his belief that the church not only can change the world, but that it actually has changed the world.
After a rather hectic decade on the international scene, Tveit now looks forward to being closer to his family, which has been blessed with four grandchildren during his Geneva years.
The energy, quiet determination and non-prestigious style, with which he takes on his duties, is continuously being nurtured on cross country ski trails or in jogging trainers. An almost daily winding-down routine after work is spending a moment by his piano at home, playing and singing hymns.
“It is a spiritual exercise which makes me very emotional,” he reveals.
Other spare time favourites are church architecture, history and do-it-yourself renovation projects at the Tveit family’s cottage in South Norway.
A visionary missionary guided by God’s love prepares himself for new challenges.
The interview for this story was conducted in Geneva on 5 March 2020, before the corona crisis escalated.
WCC general secretary appointed as presiding bishop for Church of Norway (WCC press release, 30 January 2020)
Global Lord’s Prayer “united for humanity” (WCC press release, 24 March 2020)
WCC urges everyone to pray at home (WCC press release, 22 March 2020)
WCC urges: “give highest priority to protect life” (WCC press release, 18 March 2020)
*Claus Grue is a communication consultant for the World Council of Churches.