Philip Potter

Why is the life of Philip Potter of interest to the next generation of ecumenists?

Brown: Philip Potter was the first WCC general secretary from the global South and his time in office from 1972 to 1984 marked the transition from the WCC being a largely European and North American endeavour to a genuinely global fellowship. Coming from the Caribbean, Philip Potter symbolized this shift in his own person, as a representative of what was then called the “Third World,” though he often pointed out this was actually the two-thirds world. As someone who was present at the WCC’s founding assembly in 1948 as a youth delegate – and spoke there as the representative of youth – Philip Potter was also a link between the WCC’s founding generation and a new generation of ecumenical leaders. With his experiences as spokesperson of youth at the WCC assemblies in Amsterdam in 1948 and Evanston in 1954, his time as a staff member in the WCC’s youth department, to his time as director of the WCC’s Commission on World Mission and Evangelism from 1967 to 1972, Philip Potter both shaped and was shaped by the WCC well before his time as general secretary.    

Was there a turning point for young Potter that sent him on the ecumenical path?

Brown: Philip Potter first worked in lawyer’s chambers and as a legal assistant to the attorney general of Dominica, the small Caribbean island on which he was born. His involvement in the ecumenical movement might not have happened had not been for his involvement in the Jamaican Student Christian Movement when he started theological studies after feeling called to the ministry. It was the Jamaican Student Christian Movement that sent him to the second World Conference of Christian Youth in Oslo in 1947. This experience, a turning point in his life, “converted” him, he said, to the ecumenical movement.

He loved the Bible, didn’t he?

Brown: His love of the Bible that can be seen in his focus on biblical theology and biblical languages during his theological studies, and also comes across in his various reports to the WCC’s governing bod-ies. Far from being routine administrative and bureaucratic reports, they demonstrate his love of biblical imagery and words, what they mean in the Bible and what they mean for us today. Nowhere can that be seem more clearly than in his report to the WCC’s assembly in Vancouver in 1983, which had the title, “A House of Living Stones,” where his starting point was the First Letter of Peter with its injunction to be “like living stones constantly built into a spiritual house.” Expounding the biblical texts, he underlined that only as churches related to each other as living stones would they discover their essential calling to be the house of the triune God, and become a fellowship engaged together in confessing, learning, participating, sharing, healing, reconciliation, unity, and expectancy.

In many ways, is his legacy extremely relevant to today? 

Brown: Philip Potter will always be associated with the WCC’s Programme to Combat Racism and its Special Fund which gave grants for humanitarian purposes to liberation movements fighting white rule in Southern Africa.  He was a passionate supporter of the programme, which had been started several years before he became general secretary. Coming from the Caribbean, he was born into a context that had experienced colonialism, slavery and racism, and defended the programme against criticism from some of the council’s larger member churches, especially those in Europe and North America. Yet we mustn’t forget his commitment to human rights, his commitment to dialogue with people of other faiths, to the unity of the church, and his role in developing a global understanding of what mission means, no longer about sending and receiving countries but a task the church does globally together. All these—like the imperative to combat racism—are areas where Philip Potter can still inspire us today, but especially his commitment to women having leadership positions in the church and the ecumenical movement. “Sexism, like racism, is a sin,” he told a 1974 WCC conference on “Sexism in the 1970s.”

And each of these areas contributed to his view of what it means to be church in a global world?

Brown: Yes—we can see in Philip Potter someone who in his speeches, sermons and reports is wrestling with the issues of what it means to be church in a global world, how churches from different geographical, confessional and spiritual backgrounds can together become a genuine ecumenical fellowship, where he underlined that “ecumenical” from the Greek word “Oikoumene” concerns the “whole inhabited world,” people and cultures, religions and political structures.

Would you like to share one of your favorite memories of Philip Potter?

Brown: In 1983 I was a youth steward at the WCC’s assembly in Vancouver, Canada. This was a time of fear of a nuclear conflagration because of superpower rivalry between East and West and the deployment of new nuclear weapons as well as a time when the gap between rich and poor was becoming ever more evident. On the eve of the anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb on 6 August 1945, the assembly held an all-night vigil for justice and peace, at which Philip Potter offered a meditation on the transfiguration, which in many churches is also marked on 6 August.

He recalled in this moving meditation how, as a student, he was at a work camp in a poor area of Jamaica in August 1945 when in the evening they heard on the radio the news of the dropping atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Since then, he said, he had been haunted by fact that the dropping of the bomb took place on the feast of the transfiguration. This was a challenge to work for peace. “The vision of the transfigured Christ,” he said, “is our transfiguration that we with clarity and courage listen to him and be obedient to his call to the blessedness of hungering and thirsting for justice and of being peacemakers.”


Link to the upcoming webinar on 23 August 2021

Free Download: At Home with God and in the World - A Philip Potter Reader (WCC Publications, 2013)

Philip Potter: Prophet of God’s Oikoumene

Special Free Virtual issue of Ecumenical Review and the International Review of Mission