With great sadness, the World Council of Churches (WCC) received news of the demise of Prof. Vuyani Vellem on 4 December. A member of the WCC’s Commission on Ecumenical Education and Formation, Vellem was director of the Centre for Public Theology and associate professor at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. He also served as deputy secretary of the South Africa Council of Churches.
One of the leading black theologians of our times, Vellem was well known for his contributions to public and liberation theologies. His scholarly work also included the areas of Christianity and democracy, and Christianity and economics. Apart from his scholarly contributions, Vellem was also a committed church leader and ecumenist who consistently identified himself in solidarity with the margins. He had earlier served his church, the United Presbyterian Church of South Africa, as its general secretary.
Vellem was a well sought after resource person in the All Africa Conference of Churches, Council for World Mission, World Communion of Reformed Churches, and the World Council of Churches. He co-moderated the Theology and Communion Programme Reference Group of the World Communion of Reformed Churches. Apart from being a member of the Commission for Ecumenical Education and Formation of the WCC, he was also associated with the Commission of World Mission and Evangelism and the programme on Economic and Ecological justice as a resource person.
In his plenary address at the WCC’s Conference on World Mission and Evangelism held in Arusha from 8-13 March, he spoke on "The Spiritual Dimension of Embracing the Cross,” emphasising that embracing the cross includes the spiritual dimension of prayer and struggle for justice.
Vellem said: “Prayer is a subversive spiritual resource; it is the powerhouse of the liturgy that speaks back to tyrannical forms of power with unwavering faith in the God of life.”
WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit expressed great sadness on behalf of himself and the WCC fellowship. “We express our deepest condolences to the family, colleagues and students on the passing away of Prof Vellem. His legacy will remain in the ecumenical movement.”
WCC moderator Dr Agnes Abuom expressed a great sense of loss. “We will forever remember his passion for justice and human dignity and the search for and development of theological thinking that speaks to the people of God, especially those on the margins,” said Abuom. “You are gone early but you have left a fountain of wisdom for others to draw from. We thank God for gifting you, Professor Vellem, to your family, your church and to us, the ecumenical movement.”
Prof. Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri, WCC deputy general secretary, said: “Prof. Vellem will be greatly missed in the ecumenical movement but his scholarly contributions will continue to speak for him for many years to come.”
“At this time of grief and loss we hold the bereaved family in our prayers,” said Rev. Dr Peniel Rajkumar, WCC programme executive for Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation. “We pray that as they walk through the valleys of the shadow of death they will feel the sustaining and comforting grace of the God of life, who while embracing the cross through his son Jesus Christ also offers us the hope of the resurrection.”