By David Adams
The upcoming 500th anniversary of the Reformation represents a chance for the church to reflect on the lessons of past and take a critical look at what may be barriers to relationships between different denominations, according to general secretary of the World Council of Churches.
In an interview with Sight during a recent visit 12 day to Australia and New Zealand, Rev Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, a Lutheran theologian from Norway, said the anniversary represents a chance to give thanks for Martin Luther’s stance against “selling the Gospel” but also the chance to take a critical look at the barriers that have divided churches.
“Our relationship to God can not be a commodity, it cannot be under the label of a price tag and our life as human beings cannot be given a price tag in that sense either,” he says, adding that he agrees the Reformation anniversary also represents a further opportunity for reconnection between Catholics and Protestants.
“I think so and I would say also that under the leadership of Pope Francis, he’s willing to go as far as possible on the doctrinal basis we have in each church but I think he wants to show that we are really in communion in many ways even if we are not in communion on every aspect of it.”
Encouraging greater moves deeper relationships between Christian denominations has been a hallmark of Rev Dr Tveit’s tenure as general secretary of the Geneva-based organisation since he came to the office in 2010.
He says establishing the ecumenical movement as “something that really has the potential to help the churches themselves to be more able to fulfil their call” and not just something that was outside “what was the life of the churches” remains one of the greatest challenges of his role.
As does “trying to establish a new sense of the World Council of Churches as a fellowship of churches and how, if we do something, we do it together as churches and not as a Geneva-based NGO”. “And I think we have been able to move that…”
Rev Dr Tveit, who recently hosted Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Mosque in Cario, Professor Dr Ahmad al-Tayyeb at the WCC’s ecumenical institute in Bossey, Switzerland, said relationships between faiths are also something he is keen to promote, saying that the Christian church has “no option” but to engage with people of other faiths.
“Because we have to find ways to live in this world together and religion is used as a pretext for conflict and even violent conflict,” he says. “We have to make all efforts to counteract that and to also find ways to work together – Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus…”
He says this is not just about ensuring religious leaders have a reputation as peace-makers but also that religion is not used as a cause of conflict. And while a lot has been achieved in that regard, much yet remains to be done in terms of better relationships between religions but also, looking at the wider picture, of how “people and cultures can live together”.
While some Christians may see the word ‘inter-faith’ as carrying connotations of compromising their beliefs, Rev Dr Tveit says “nobody should go into these kind of dialogues with the perspective that we should...not be clearly accountable to our faith”.
“But I think it is actually a deeper way of understanding what our faith is bit also to be open to new critical perspectives of our own practices and our own way of practicing our faith.”
Rev Dr Tveit says interfaith relationships have been “one contribution among many” towards peace in various contexts and cites the recent establishment of an inter-faith shelter for peace and harmony in northern Nigeria “where Christian and Muslim leaders say we want to listen to one another’s stories and listen to the victims of this violence on both sides.”
“I think initiatives like that, among others, can be important to create a new sense of being human beings together,” he said. Involving religions in working towards peace can help not only provide a framework through which peace can be worked towards but also, hopefully, “a better reason to do it,” he says.
The recent visit to Australia, which followed a short visit to New Zealand, was Rev Dr Tveit’s first to the country. He tells Sight that he was impressed Australia is "multi-cultural and a multi-religious society with a peaceful relationships between the different groups".
But, referring to Australia’s response to the global refugee crisis, he said this remained a key challenge for the country. “It presents a challenge that I think Australia can address better than it does at the moment…”
The global refugee crisis has been among numerous international issues the WCC has been speaking out on in recent months. Others include the ongoing conflicts in Syria and South Sudan and climate change – the latter particularly with regard to a presentation Rev Dr Tveit made at the international summit on climate change in Paris late last year.
Rev Dr Tveit, who puts the presentation at the Paris summit as among the highlights of his time as general secretary, says it was his experience that churches were having a greater voice in international affairs and cites as evidence agreements the WCC has made with global groups like UNICEF, WHO and UNAIDS.
“I think many of them see both that religion is a matter in international politics that cannot be ignored and, secondly, that the World Council of Churches represents churches that clearly want to support an agenda for building peace and relationships between people that is based on human rights and international law as an expression of our moral commitment to God’s will,” he says.
“And therefore, they find in the relationship with us both a partner who is a new partner on the ground in all the regions of the world but also a partner who is willing to discuss with them what we can do together.”
Rev Dr Tveit tells Sight that he believes the greatest challenge for the church remains that of showing the “Gospel is…‘good news’ for human beings” in a way that unites people in their “hope to God, hope for change, hope for a better future together”.
This story has been re-published by the World Council of Churches with permission from Sight Magazine, Australia.