Bishop Bärbel Wartenberg-Potter paying tribute to her late husband. © WCC/Albin Hillert

Bishop Bärbel Wartenberg-Potter paying tribute to her late husband. © WCC/Albin Hillert


Traditional forms of Christian prayer and the music of Bob Marley blended neatly together in a chapel service honouring the memory of the Caribbean-born third general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), the Rev. Dr Philip Potter who died in March at the age of 93. The service of common prayer, which drew many former colleagues and admirers, took place at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva on Monday 18 May.

Dr Potter’s tenure as general secretary stretched from 1972 through 1984, but he also served the council in a number of capacities before that, including as a youth representative to the inaugural WCC Assembly at Amsterdam in 1948. Born in Roseau, Dominica in 1921, he became active internationally through the Student Christian Movement of the Caribbean churches. During the 9th Assembly at Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2006, he was introduced as the only participant who had attended all of the first nine WCC Assemblies.

Themes for the service arose from the interaction of peace and righteousness in Psalm 85 and the instruction in 1 Peter 2:5, “like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual home…”

Current WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit was a principal speaker at the memorial service. In a remembrance of Potter published following his death, Tveit recalled: “Among the most memorable achievements of the WCC during Philip Potter’s tenure were the theological consensus document Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry [BEM], the continuation of a courageous campaign against apartheid in southern Africa and other forms of racism throughout the world, a vigorous debate on the nature of post-colonial Christian mission, a co-ordinated witness for peace amidst East-West tension and the threat of nuclear annihilation, as well as an exploration of new forms of spirituality, common prayer and music drawing on the diverse traditions of the churches.”

Other speakers offering testimonies at the service were Baldwin Sjollema, first director of the WCC programme to combat racism; the Very Rev. Georges Tsetsis of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople; former colleague Evelyn Appiah; and the 5th WCC general secretary, Konrad Raiser. A testimonial was read on behalf of the 6th general secretary, Potter’s fellow Methodist pastor Samuel Kobia of Kenya. A final testimony was given by Potter’s widow, Bishop emerita Bärbel Wartenberg-Potter of the Protestant Church of Germany (EKD).

Several of the speakers described Potter’s “charismatic and collegial style of leadership”, or as Sjollema put it, “His authority stemmed from collegiality.” Tsetsis reminisced concerning relaxed dinners where Potter entertained people of deeply divided opinions and fostered ecumenical understanding through friendship, “touching us in a personal way.” Appiah noted that Potter especially “inspired and encouraged young people to become involved in the movement.” When her brother died in an accident, Potter took on the role of pastor and advised her, even in tragic times, to “keep the faith, and keep singing.”

Raiser said that “Potter’s vision shaped a whole generation of companions on the ecumenical way”, adding that meeting him when Raiser was still a young man “was the decisive encounter that shaped my whole life as a Christian”. Potter would offer colleagues a thoughtful analysis of world issues, and a deep knowledge of the Bible, and then he would pose the question to those around him: “What is the witness and vocation of the World Council under these circumstances?” In his letter, Kobia recalled: “Philip Potter was an eloquent and forceful speaker who seldom avoided the controversial nature of the biblical concern for the world and its suffering people.”

Bishop Bärbel Wartenberg-Potter observed that her husband’s death “left me as a widow, but it also left many as orphans. I sense that many of us share an existential grief.” In his last years, she said, Philip Potter viewed himself as “a migrant in God’s vineyard” marvelling at the divine sense of humour that finally brought him to Germany as the husband of a bishop. He came to view the world, she reported, “more with loving and less with critical eyes.” He would often greet the morning by saying, “Give me my glasses so that we can see what we have to do in the world today.”

In addition to traditional and 20th-century hymns, music included Jamaican songs by Potter’s first wife, Doreen Potter (1925-80) as well as reggae instrumentals by Bob Marley (1945-81) arranged as the prelude (Redemption Song) and postlude (No Woman No Cry).

Biblical reflection at the memorial service for the late general secretary of the WCC, Philip Potter

Memorial tribute to Rev. Dr Philip Potter, Ecumenical Centre chapel, 18 May 2015

Tribute to Rev. Dr Philip A. Potter, by Evelyn Appiah

Tribute to Philip Potter by Baldwin Sjollema

Memorial obituary of Philip Potter, by the Very Rev. Georges Tsetsis of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople

WCC celebrates the life and witness of Rev. Dr Philip Potter

WCC general secretary pays heartfelt tribute to Philip Potter in Lübeck