After more than ten years heading the World Council of Churches (WCC), Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit says this is the time that "we should remind one another that we believe in God as the “Good shepherd” who promised to be with us also in times of crisis,” especially in this time of the global COVID-19 crisis.
Following his time as general secretary of the world's biggest grouping of Anglican, Orthodox, and Protestant churches, Tveit will from 1 April officially take on his new role as presiding bishop of the Church of Norway, a church in the Lutheran tradition.
Tveit was interviewed by the WCC News and the Italian news agency NEV of the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy, the country that has suffered more than any country from the novel coronavirus, with around 93,000 cases and more than 10,000 people killed by the disease.
He describes the job he was chosen for as a "privilege" and “blessing," leading the WCC in challenging times, and says he is leaving feeling optimistic about the ecumenical movement.
"It is extremely important that the churches together are able to say, we are walking, we are praying, we are working together," says Tveit.
In his interview, Tveit speaks of "understanding how much our Christian faith means to people who live under huge challenges, also conflicts, poverty, but also living with lives like my own, but addressing the daily challenge of life wherever we are.”
He spoke of the importance of faith, "as we in these days fear that we will see something we have not seen before. We fear the virus. We fear the pandemic. We fear its effect on many people everywhere in the world, rich and poor."
More to fear for those with less
That fear applies particularly to those less privileged already and with fewer resources, less access to clean water, soap, health services, and also to financial support.
"When this will affect the daily life for many people around the world and even in the sense that it is a matter of life and death," says the WCC head noting that it is not a time to "speak easily and in a superficial way" about our faith either.
"But this is the time to say we believe in God, who is our shepherd, the God that shows his favour to us through Jesus Christ, who came to us and said, ‘I’m the good shepherd. I know mine. I know you.’ "
He notes, "For me, it has been very important to know that we are praying together and that they are praying for one another and also knowing that some are particularly praying for my ministry, and my tasks, for me, and my family."
Tveit observes that this life is the life given through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and his resurrection.
"The life for the world that we are then also called to and can share. I think there has also been a way of going back to the basics, to the basis of the mandate of the WCC, to the basis of our faith, and also to the basis of our human needs as one creation, as one humanity," says Tveit.
Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit served as a general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC) for more than ten years. Photo: Albin Hillert/WCC
Below is the full interview with the WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit:
You are about to embark on a new journey after more than 10 years as general secretary of the World Council of Churches. Can you tell us how you feel about it?
Tveit: I have the privilege to say that this was a blessing. This was a very rich part of my life because it was a call to serve the whole Christian family, particularly the member churches of the World Council of Churches. But also wider than that to serve; the work we can do together as a fellowship for churches in this world, for the one humanity, for peace, for justice, for reconciliation, for everybody who needs the Christian voice, for them to be honest, but also for them to be a voice of hope.
Can you assess this time heading the WCC?
Tveit: I think it can be said this was a time when we emphasized that we are one ecumenical movement, one fellowship of the World Council of Churches. We are one serving in different capacities, but also with different perspectives. But we are serving the same council, the same objective of being here as a ministry to the churches for the unity, and for the common witness in the world.
How did the WCC come out of this period?
Tveit: My personal reflection on this is that we have been through many challenges these 10 years. Some of them were related to the sustainability of the WCC; whether it is needed; whether it has confidence among the churches and our partners in the world. And I feel that we have come through this period with a stronger clarity about our mandate, with new ways of working, new ways of relating to one another, with a sense of mutual accountability to one another; but also to the mandate to the call that is given to us. I see that there is actually more need for the WCC than we thought, some years ago. We are now in a world that is in peril, a world divided in many ways. It is a world also where we see that religion is used as a dividing force.
What is the counter to this abuse of religion?
Tveit: It is extremely important that the churches together can say, we are walking, we are praying, we are working together. Like we did when Pope Francis visited the World Council of Churches at our 70th anniversary. For me, that was a sign of the one ecumenical movement, going through challenges and some would call them even an ecumenical winter towards a time of spring, of new opportunities, new possibilities and another focus on serving God of a life, who is there to create life, to protect life, to serve life, and calling us to do it everywhere and together. This life is the life given in Jesus Christ through his crucifixion, through his resurrection. This is the life for the world that we are then also called and can share together.
How do the churches go about working together?
Tveit: I think there has been also a way of going back to the basics, to the basis of the mandate of the WCC, to the basis of our faith and also to the basis of our human needs as one creation, as one humanity. We see also that in some of the church families, there are a lot of challenges. Some of them related to moral and ethical questions. But we also see a new willingness far beyond the membership of the WCC to say, let us witness together, let us witness in a credible way and let us do it by our words, but also what we do together.
Can that work?
Tveit: In that sense, I'm optimistic about the ecumenical movement at this point, both because we have gone through some challenges and we are finding new ways to move forward. And I think we have also been able to see we have to do this, as disciples of Christ following Jesus Christ, sharing our faith and sharing our faith in what we do together.
What about the ecumenical movement and other religions?
Tveit: The inter-religious dialogue has also got more clarity in this period in the sense that it is a Christian witness and the Christian witness to build relationships, to take care of the other and also to build relationships that the local, national, the international community can live together as one family with people of different faiths. We have seen that in some of the initiatives they have taken, for example, in Nigeria, together with our Muslim partners internationally and nationally to find an expression of listening to the wounded, but also to build hope together, for example, through the centre we established together in Kaduna.
What purpose does such dialogue serve?
Tveit: I think we will see that the inter-religious dialogue and particularly the dialogue that serves justice and peace with a clear mandate is very much needed. It's very much appreciated, if we can do it. And, it will very possibly also be a significant priority in the years to come.
What do the churches need to engage in such work?
Tveit: I've seen that the work needs support; we need resources to do this work. We need partners who have resources, who can resource our programmes and projects. We need human resources and good staff, qualified staff. We need youth; young people to be involved to build the next generation of the ecumenical movement. But we also need spiritual support to do this kind of work.
Can you elaborate on the spiritual support needed?
Tveit: For me, it has been very important to know that we are praying together and that they are praying for one another, and also knowing that some are particularly praying for my ministry and my tasks, for me and my family. That was very clear when I started. And it has been clear throughout these ten years that this gives another strength, but also another motivation to face the challenges. Knowing that we're not alone and that we do this, following the call of God.
Are there any other factors needed in such a quest?
Tveit: And these are also the words of accompaniment and support, I would like to leave to all who continue in these many functions in the World Council of Churches and in our partner organizations. Be courageous; find ways to express that we are really in this together and doing this together and that we're here not for our own sake, you're not here to find what is in this for me and for us. We are in this to find what is in this for others, for hope, and therefore serving ourselves and our communities.
Is that the only accompaniment a general secretary needs?
Tveit: I think there's also the time to say, of course, thanks to God; thanks to God for the call, but also for God's way of supporting us and encouraging us giving us always new opportunities, but also new ways of seeing signs of hope and being able to share signs of hope.
Can you expand more on your personal feelings about heading the WCC?
Tveit: Regarding my personal point of view, as a pastor, I've seen that being a general secretary is really also a pastoral task, to care for my colleagues, to care for what we do, what we say or do, pray together, from the perspective of how do we do this as true witnesses to Christ. But it has also been an experience for me as a pastor, strengthening my faith and strengthening my way of understanding; how important it is that the Church is one - the Church is one in Christ. The Church is a fellowship where we share when we strengthen our faith. And through these years, my own faith has been strengthened. It has come by understanding how much our Christian faith means to people who live under huge challenges, conflicts and poverty; but also living with life like my own but addressing the daily challenge of life wherever we are. The faith really brings a dimension of hope and expressed love. It becomes the way of dealing with life that brings us out of ourselves, but that we also affirm ourselves in the best sense as loved by God. And therefore, so a call to love one another.
How can that relate to where we are now?
Tveit: The Lord God's creation, and most of all, the true love of God; this is very important, as in these days we fear that we will see something we have not seen before. We fear the virus. We fear the pandemic. We fear its effect on many people everywhere in the world, rich and poor, but particularly also on those who are already less privileged; those who have less resources, less access to clean water, soap and health services and also to financial support. We fear when this will affect the daily life of so many people around the world and even in the sense that it is a matter of life and death. Then we should not speak easily and in a superficial way about anything and not about our faith either.
How can we face such fear?
Tveit: This is the time to say we believe in God, who is our shepherd, the God that shows his favour to us through Jesus Christ, who came to us and said, ‘I'm the good shepherd. I know mine; I know you; I see you.’ And particularly when we are called to face crisis beyond what we have seen. We have to remind ourselves, like in times before, that God's promise is the same: ‘I will be with you till the end of the days of this world.’ ”
How will this be in your new job?
Tveit: This will be also my task as a new bishop in my church in Norway and also as a presiding bishop, to be faithful in the call given to me, sharing the core message or faith in what we say, in what we do, in what we pray. But it will also be in how we bring hope to one another, bring courage and a sense of belonging to one another that can really help us go through the valleys of death. We hope that this will be a situation where we all can find new ways of serving one another; sharing in a fairer and more just way; and also build societies locally, nationally and internationally. That is really serving the whole of humanity, loving God's creation. And believing God is with us.
The WCC interview produced in collaboration with the Italian news agency NEV of the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy.
A visionary missionary heads home (WCC press release 25 March 2020)