Ecumenical Centre under construction.

Ecumenical Centre under construction.


Our first stop will be at Rue Calvin, where we will learn a little about the youth pioneering ecumenical work in the 1920s and 1930s. From there we will walk about 20 minutes to reach Route de Malagnou, where we will visit the WCC during its post-war years of remarkable growthThe visit will end on the other side of Lake Geneva, at Route de Ferney, on 11 July 1965, when we will listen to a sermon about what a new chapel may teach us about the call to unity. Lets go.       

I. The first ecumenical centre? Rue Calvin, old town

There is a John Calvin Street in Genevas old town. It is named after the great Protestant Reformer who lived there from 1543 to his death in 1564. From home, it took Calvin four to five minutes to reach Saint Peters Cathedral where he preached on Sundays, often at the second worship service held at 8 am. Calvins Geneva quickly became the hub of an international Reformation movement that granted the city, as early as in the 17th century, the title of Protestant Rome.”     

The house of the Reformer who was ready to cross ten seas” to promote Christian unity was demolished in 1706, but the street bearing his name was predestined to come back to the pages of Christian history in the following centuries. 

Thanks to the Genevan Evangelical Jean-Henry Dunant, then 24, the Geneva branch of the Young Mens Christian Association (YMCA) found a home at rue Calvin 14 in 1852. Dunant did not stop there. He convinced the Paris YMCA to hold an international YMCA conference in 1855. One of its main results was the creation of the World YMCA, which, unsurprisingly, found a home in 1878 a short walking distance from… rue Calvin.

Dunants 1862 book A Memory of Solferino, about the need for organised relief work among wounded soldiers in war situations would inspire the creation (I must add: round the corner of rue Calvin…) of the International Red Cross in 1863 and lead to international agreements on the fair treatment of war victims.

But this is just part of the Calvin Street saga. After the great war of 1914-1918, the World YMCA was looking for an international secretary for its ministry among boys in secondary schools. The choice fell on a 23-year-old Dutch YMCA leader, a certain… Willem Adolf Visser t Hooft. Late in 1924, the just married Wim” and Jetty moved to Geneva, which he dubbed the Mecca of the new internationalism.” He did not know that, like rue Calvin, he was predestined to the pages of the history of the ecumenical movement, and to work in three successive WCC headquarters in town. 

By the time Visser t Hooft was well installed in his YMCA office at 23 Grand Rue, the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF) launched the International Student Service (ISS). The ISS grew out of the WSCFs remarkable post-war European Student Relief, which Ruth Rouse vividly described in the pages of her 1925 Rebuilding Europe: The Students Chapter in Post-War Reconstruction. Many years later, Robin Boyd would write about the Student Relief and the ISS that they had been the worlds first fully ecumenical relief programme,” which explains the subtitle of his book on the witness of the student Christian movement: Church ahead the Church.” 

The offices of the International Student Service, you may have guessed, were located at… 13 rue Calvin. In her first years as faculty of the Ecumenical Institute, Suzanne de Diétrich would evoke those years with tenderness in her Cinquante ans dhistoire: La Fédération universelle des associations chrétiennes d’étudiants The ISS offices would become the headquarters of the WSCF until 1970. Visser t Hooft joined the WSCF in 1929 as coordinating secretary; was appointed its general secretary in 1932 and kept that position until 1938, when the World Council of Churches in process of formation” found a home in Geneva early in 1939 and Wim became its general secretary, moved by the vision of urging the divided churches to fulfil their common calling, and by so doing to manifest the One Church to the world. 

Rue Calvin could rest in peace. It had embodied the DNA of the modern ecumenical movement: the human compassion for the vulnerable at the heart of the Red Cross’ mission, and the passion for Christian unity that moved those three formidable ecumenical incubators: the YMCA, the WSCF and the YWCA. 

II. Route de Malagnou: the second Ecumenical Centre

World Council of Churches in Malagnou, Geneva

World Council of Churches in Malagnou, Geneva, 1950s


When the WCC inaugurated its first headquarters in 1939 as a tenant of the Protestant Church of Geneva at 41 Chemin des Crêts-de-Champel, Geneva had already become the main international hub of the call to Christians and churches to walk, work, and pray together. The European Central Bureau for Inter-Church Aid was established in Calvins city in 1922 under the leadership of Adolf Keller. The movement on Life and Work and its International Christian Social Institute moved in in 1928. At the same time, the International Missionary Council moved to Geneva its Department of Social and Economic Research. The World Alliance of the Young Women Christian Association (YWCA) followed in 1930, and the Movement for a World Conference on Faith and Order opened a second office (the first was in Boston) at 57 Rue de Lausanne, near the Genevas main rail station. The World Alliance for Promoting Friendship through the Churches and Life and Work shared the same facilities and the same general secretary in Geneva from 1931 to 1937 probably at 52, rue de Pâquis

During the war years, solidarity across national, confessional, and indeed religious borders ceased to be an option to become a matter of survival. What Visser t Hooft would later call the greater intensity of ecumenical conviction” experienced during those years led inevitably to the growth of the WCC. It was necessary to coordinate the churches’ work for refugees; it was necessary to facilitate the churchesdiscernment of their role in the war situation; it was necessary to organise chaplaincy and assistance to prisoners of war (400,000 Bibles were distributed!) and begin plans for the creation of a Department of Reconstruction and Inter-Church Aid; it was necessary to train lay leaders to give them Christian doctrine and vision to contribute to the reconstruction of societies and the reconstruction and unity of churches. The Council had 55 member churches in 1939. They were 90 in 1945. New headquarters became therefore a pressing matter. 

Surprises wait for you when you browse the pages of the Minutes of the 1946 meeting of the WCC Provisional Committee. They do not speak of Bossey Ecumenical Institute” but of Ecumenical Training Centre;” in a letter to the participants, the Roman Catholic bishop of Fribourg ensures them that during their meeting my prayer will be raised with your prayer, in unity with Jesusprayer on the eve of his passion;” but the most important surprise for the purpose of this chronicle is what you read on the front page of the Minutes: World Council of Churches – Route de Malagnou 17.” 

One year earlier, with the financial support of North American churches, the WCC had acquired, at 17 Route de Malagnou, in the east end of Geneva, a chalet styled villa surrounded by a spacious park-looking garden with tall cypress, common yews, oaks, and cedars. From his office on the first floor, facing the entrance, the boss Visser t Hooft could keep an eye on staff. Baldwin Sjollema told Jurjen Zeilstra, the” Visser t Hooft biographer, that the boss once sent home someone who showed up at work on a hot day wearing one of those Bavarian lederhosen… 

WCC headquarters Malagnou, 1954.

WCC headquarters Malagnou, 1954.


But the Council would soon be once again victim of its sustained growth. The years after the second world war saw the arrival at Malagnou of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs; the Commission on Faith and Order; the Youth Department and the secretariats of two Christian world communions: The Lutheran World Federation and the World Communion of Reformed Churches. On top of that, library accommodations were inadequate and unsatisfactory;” there was no sufficiently large” meeting room; and the absence of a chapel had long been recognised” or, in the more direct words of Bishop Henry Sherrill, was seen as a scandal.”   

Working space was once again haunting the Council. In 1946, the property at Route de Malagnou 19 was added to number 17. Attempts were made to purchase the houses at Malagnou 19A to 23, but the owners declined to sell them. On the other side of the campus, an agreement with the City of Geneva would be reached a few years later to rent Route de Malagnou 15. But it was enough. It was necessary to improvise. 

That is why people passing by the Malagnou Ecumenical Centre in those days could be puzzled by the presence of a couple of wooden military barracks. I explain. During the post-war years, the WCC Department of Reconstruction and Inter-Church Aid was helping congregations whose buildings had been destroyed to resume worship as soon as possible. A provisional solution was to offer them wooden churches” produced in Switzerland and for some of them in Sweden. By 1946, 48 wooden churches had been delivered and other 27 were in construction at an average cost of CHF 25,000 each. Some of the Swiss Army wooden barracks landed at Route de Malagnou and were adapted to be used as offices. As late as 1962, there were discussions about adding an extra floor to the barracks to generate extra working space. 

Barracks at route de Malagnou, August 1964

Barracks at route de Malagnou, August 1964.


It became clear by the middle of the 1950s that the territorial expansion of the WCC at Malagnou had reached its limit and that the Council should change its approach to the perennial problem of headquarters, where some 200 people were working. The WCC appealed to the cantonal and city authorities. In a letter of 4 February 1958, the City of Geneva formalised to the WCC the proposal of a simple exchange: a piece of land of 34,000 square meters at the international area of Geneva against the Malagnou properties with a surface of 8,000 square meters. The August WCC executive committee meeting accepted the generous” terms of exchange. The Municipal Council of Geneva approved unanimously the exchange in February 1959 and accorded the WCC three years of rent-free occupation of Malagnou, until 1 June 1962. 

III. Route de Ferney: the third Ecumenical Centre

Ecumenical center 1970

The Ecumenical center 1970.


How to raise the $2.5 million necessary to build a brand-new ecumenical centre? Once again, the WCC appealed first to American churches for leadership and contribution. A member of the WCC presidium, Henry Knox Sherrill, outgoing presiding bishop of the US Episcopal Church, was appointed as chairperson of the Appeal Committee while the Presbyterian Eugene Carson Blake, the future successor of Visser t Hooft, as head of the Headquarters Properties Committee. Contributions in cash and kind came from many member churches around the world. The headquarters’ fund had one million dollars early in 1959; 1.5 million in August of that year; 1.6 million in 1960, 2.2 million in 1961, and 2.5 million in 1962. But as the truth about building costs is always a posteriori, an additional effort was made to raise another 350,000 dollars. 

The initial plans and models for the new ecumenical centre, designed by the architects Senn and Lesemann were presented to the executive committee in August 1958. Since the beginning, their great lines met with considerable support from the committees and governing bodies. The Ecumenical Review provided in 1962 a clear and concise description of the future 150, Route de Ferneythere will be three wings of offices radiating from a low central building which will contain the chapel, conference room, entrance hall and exhibition area, committee rooms, and offices for the General Secretariat.” Library and archives, indispensable elements of a knowledge-based organisation like the WCC, would have their own building. The main conference hall was a gift from the American Clarence Dillon and the tons of mahogany wood that covered its walls and some meeting rooms were a remarkable gift from member churches in Ghana. The Malagnou longing for a chapel would finally be fulfilled. But as you will see, it was not easy. 

Which level of disagreement can you expect when an architect is mandated to design a prayer space which should satisfy, like the squaring of a circle, the expectations of representatives of different Christian traditions? Considerable controversy involved plans for the chapel already in 1959. Here is, in a couple of paragraphs, a summary of two years of sometimes sustained discussion. 

When in February 1959 the architects presented to the executive committee the revised and reworked plans for the ecumenical centre, discussion centred on the plan for the chapel.” Mr Senn was willing to revise his initial proposal for a square chapel with a roof design. Discussions included the possibility of an octagonal chapel, a tower, or a spire. His proposal for an altar at the centre of the chapel with a pulpit behind it was rejected as such a form would not be acceptable to certain traditions…” 

Final plans, according to the Headquarters Properties Committee should be sufficiently in harmony with the various traditions, liturgical practices and convictions of the member churches.” Consultation with theologians and liturgists was recommended. In August 1959, Carson Blake informed the executive committee that revised plans for the future buildings were considered highly satisfactory.” Except for the chapel. Members of the executive committee were invited to peruse models of two alternative design for the chapel” proposed by Mr Senn. 

The February 1960 executive committee welcomed Mr Senn re-revised plans for the chapel—but made once again new requirements. A symbolic based on the World Council seal” should be introduced on one of the exterior walls of the chapel. The architects plans for the interior of the chapel were not fully satisfactory. He was asked to suppress completely the proposed galleries on two walls. His proposal for a bell tower at the entrance of the property was not accepted either. In August, the Headquarters Committee reported that Mr Senn had been unwilling to observe the conditions laid down by the central committee in 1959 for the modification of the plans for the chapel.” This led to the termination of his contract with the Council. 

Early in 1961, the very final plans for the buildings and the chapel were presented to the Headquarters Committee by Lesemann and a newly hired architect, J.-J. Honegger, who proposed four possible lines of development of the chapel.” The executive committee approved the plans. Except for the chapel.

It instructed Honegger to proceed, taking into account new recommendations: the use of glass in the southeast wall; a Scandinavian architect of recognized repute” to be added to the team of architects. The design of the chapel submitted in June 1961 was finally approved. During the last round of discussion, the Anglican Kathleen Bliss complained that the design appeared to give prominence to the ministry of the Word over the ministry of the sacrament.” The Orthodox Nikos Nissiotis, then a faculty of the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, agreed with Bliss that the pulpit was unduly prominent.” In his view, however, the fact that the chapel did not conform to any one particular liturgical tradition was satisfactory…”

Ecumenical center chapel under construction

Ecumenical center chapel under construction.


Works at Route de Ferney began in June 1961. The Swiss Reformed theologian Jean-Louis Leuba is credited with the boutade that so much concrete being poured out at Route de Ferney meant that the ecumenical movement did not believe that visible unity would come soon. In the spring of 1964, the Malagnou crowd began to bid farewell to the greening wood of cypress, common yews, oaks and cedars.  They are still there, surrounding the same old villas, waiting for your visit. 

The new offices opened in April 1964. In the following years, the Ecumenical Centre would be home to world communions and ecumenical organisations, including the Orthodox Patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow, today side-by-side on first floor, and the World Methodist Council. The ecumenical centre came close to become an effective sign of a catholicity that the 4th WCC Assembly in Uppsala would describe as the opposite of all kinds of egoism and particularism.”   

The Ecumenical Centre was officially dedicated on 11 July 1965, on the first day of a meeting of the executive committee. A prayer service was held in the chapel whose furniture made it a metaphor of the ecumenical movement understood as an exchange of gifts. 

An aging Visser t Hooft climbed the two steps leading to the pulpit to preach one of his last sermons as WCC general secretary. 

Is he taken by mixed, contradictory emotions? It is time to give thanks for the future promised by the inauguration. But for him the time has also come to travel again the long Geneva Road of memory, of his 40 years of ecumenical ministry. Who else has served the ecumenical movement successively at Rue Calvin, Chemin des crêts-de-Champel, Route de Malagnou, and now Route de Ferney?  He will be 65 on 20 September and will soon retire from the World Council Churches. The bell of finitude is tolling.

Visser t Hoofts sermon, which I will summarise in the following paragraphs, reminded me the core insight of his 1957 Yale lectures and how their core insight shaped the expansion of the WCC theological basis in 1961. In September 1957, Visser t Hooft had taken the opportunity of giving a series of lectures at Yale Divinity School in the US to propose a theology of the ecumenical movement. Its task would be to give guidance for the ecumenical interim, for that in-between period when we can no longer remain wholly isolated from each other and realize that we must stay together, but when we are not yet able to enter into full fellowship with each other.” The key issue, he contended, is to discover how Christian unity grows” from the unity which already exists to the unity of which the New Testament speaks.” The unity of the church is the necessary corollary to its calling.” The unity of those who share a common calling grows as they live up to their calling” to witness, to service and fellowship. Unity grows as the churches seek together to be the church. The Yale lectures were published in 1959 as The Pressure of Our Common Calling. 

The idea that unity grows as the divided churches seek to fulfil together their common calling reappeared in the same year, during a WCC staff visit to Russia ahead of the admission to membership of Orthodox churches from Eastern Europe. 

In the course of a breakfast with the Russian church historian Vitali Borovoy and Nikos Nissiotis, the subject of the conversation was how to expand the WCC theological basis to make it more trinitarian. Suddenly inspired, Visser t Hooft wrote on the back of the hotel menu: The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which believe in Jesus Christ, our God and Saviour and which under the guidance of the Holy Spirit seek to fulfil together their common calling to manifest their unity as children of our heavenly Father.” Two years later, the 3rd WCC Assembly in 1961 would amend as follows the first article of the WCC constitution: The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches that confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the scriptures and therefore seek to fulfil together their common calling for the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”   

This fundamental insight of Visser t Hoofts ecumenical theology, now a constitutive and constitutional element of the WCC self-understanding, was the hermeneutical key of his sermon on the dedication day of the ecumenical centre. He preached on a farewell expression from Colossians 4.17: Say to Archippus, see that you fulfil the ministry which you have received in the Lord.’ ” 

Everything that takes place in these buildings, he noted at the outset, must be sustained, nurtured and inspired by the conversation with God” which will be held in the chapel. That is why this chapel has not been planned as a separate building.” If we consider the purpose for which this chapel has been built, we shall be able to realize better the meaning of our whole ecumenical task.” 

Which is that purpose? Like Archippus, every Christian is a minister with a ministry, a servant with a service. This chapel will remind us of this basic truth.” In this chapel, God will constantly remind us of our calling to ministry by asking us: What are you doing with the life which I gave you, and with the purpose which I have for you?” 

But the chapel of the ecumenical centre means something more.” The people who enter it, will come from every nation and from many different churches,” but they share in a common ministry. Which ministry? The text replies a ministry received in the Lord.” The common task in which we are cooperation is not a task of our own invention.” It consists in gathering the flock of the Great Shepherd. Because we may quickly forget this, we must always come to this chapel. 

Our common ministry is a ministry in the Lord.” This means that all our tenacious differences are nevertheless differences within a family which has only one head.” If we feel discouraged by the fact that we do not possess full unity, we must realize here in this chapel that we are already linked with one another because we all belong to the same Lord.” In this chapel we shall feel ourselves surrounded by all the men and women who belong to his body. Their prayers will sustain us and we shall make intercession for every church separately, trying to identify ourselves with its joys and sufferings.”   

Brugger garden

Brugger garden, Ecumenical Centre.