Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit

General Secretary, World Council of Churches

Sant’Egidio Conference, 16 September 2019, Madrid

I so appreciate this opportunity, during these days in Madrid, to participate in such a wide-ranging, all-inclusive look at the many dimensions of the work of peace, and to consider the sage comments of my fellow panelists on our particular question, “Ecumenism: Is It Still On?”

Indeed, honest self-reflection obliges us to ask: are ecumenism and the ecumenical movement a spent force from a bye-gone era, or do they have something relevant, even essential, to offer the world today?

My answer is an emphatic affirmation of the vital character and crucial contribution of ecumenical Christianity today. I believe that the movement, essentially a vibrant renewal movement of the churches for the sake of the kingdom, has never been more relevant.

Moreover, I maintain that the movement, including the fellowship of churches and their partner agencies, has evolved in ways that closely align with the challenges we now face in the churches and the world.

Ecumenism is evolving, partly as the fruit of consensus and convergence in the fellowship of Christian churches on foundational theological matters, partly through reframing our collective journey of faith through the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace, and partly in loving response to the felt needs of the world around us. Unity now often travels under the banner of solidarity.

Given the unprecedented peril in which the world finds itself, the evolution of ecumenism toward a unity in praxis is natural and, in fact, a measure of the movement’s accountability to the world and to God.

Looking at the matter institutionally, theologically, programmatically, and existentially, I find this an exciting time for the ecumenical movement—one of both promise and peril. Let’s focus here on the promise!

Ecumenism Institutionally

The World Council of Churches, the premier vehicle of the movement, is organizationally healthy, the fellowship of 350 member churches and partners is strongly woven together, and the mandate to journey with the marginalized toward the reign of God is clear.

Further, we are finding improved and promising relationships with the Roman Catholic Church and with evangelical and Pentecostal churches. This will be evidenced even more in our upcoming 11th Assembly, to be held in Karlsruhe, Germany, in 2021.

Further, we presently have strong, effective alliances with agencies of development, disaster relief, healthcare delivery, that undertake both action and advocacy on behalf of those in need.[1] These relations have been rebalanced such that churches and individuals and local congregations do not need to leave all the heavy lifting to professional agencies but also engage directly with and for those very different than themselves.

Ecumenism Theologically

The Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace, now in its sixth year, is not just a strategic direction for the organization since the 10th assembly of the WCC in 2013, but also a description of the whole worldwide ecumenical movement. As churches and as a fellowship of churches, we self-consciously frame our life and work as a sacred journey, a journey of faith toward God’s reign of justice and peace.

I believe that the pilgrimage has made us much more outward-oriented and less self-referential, but, more importantly, it has wed ecumenism’s perennial quest for unity to the search for justice and peace.

An ecumenical movement of the cross: we are called to the following, following Jesus Christ today and seeing the challenges we face in the light of the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We are not looking to what could be obvious success factors.  But we enjoy when we are able to see our calling in the right perspective.

Theologically, the pilgrimage and our ecumenical journey can also now draw on a genuine convergence of key generative concepts in ecumenical ecclesiology, mission and evangelism, and diakonia or Christian service.[2] In this way, the perennial quest for Christian unity is given direction and momentum by encouraging concrete joint action and learning for all.

Theologically, then, ecumenism is a renewal movement of the churches and within the churches, propelling us to transcend boundaries and find unity in shared community (koinonia), witness (marturia), and service (diakonia).

This vision implies a distinctive form of discipleship: Rooted in the very being and mission of God, animated by the Spirit, we (as Christians and Christian churches) are united and enabled by our shared identity in the person of Jesus and compelled by the imperatives of the gospel to serve one humanity and our home, the earth. This dynamic vision has also has encouraged a globally oriented, open-minded, committed spirituality of justice and peace that in turn enlivens the movement.[3]

Ecumenism Programmatically

Given the myriad of issues and needs in today’s world, we have devoted considerable to reflection within the WCC. We also work with other partners, e.g. in the Global Christian Forum, to pinpoint those sites of hurt and hope where we can be, as churches and ecumenical agencies, effective catalysts and facilitators of religiously motivated change.

The pilgrimage has led to more intense and concrete engagement of and with the churches and partners in issues of children’s rights and protections, global health and healing, gender justice, climate and economic justice, migrants and stateless, peacemaking in violent venues, and combatting racism and xenophobia at their roots.

Direct involvement in peacemaking has also intensified ecumenical engagement in international affairs, working with the UN, and interreligious collaboration to combat religious extremism and excesses of the market.

The ecumenical movement, in other words, is not a single, static programme or organization but a true fellowship of churches and a lively network of partnerships in which disciples come together across confessional and regional and generational divides to tackle our most pressing issues.[4]

Ecumenism Fundamentally

Here we arrive at the heart of the question: what is ecumenism spiritually or existentially? Usually born of personal, existential encounters and friendship with others quite different from ourselves,[5] ecumenism is really the dynamic, counter-inertial, renewing force of love.[6] We find it incarnate in the gospel. It compels us as disciples of Jesus always and everywhere to open ourselves empathically and to place ourselves at the service of others.

This dynamic, global, missional, justice-oriented ecumenical spirituality we see exemplified in such communities as Sant’Egidio and Taizé and the Monastery at Bose.

Conversely, in the critical side, we may think of ecumenical Christianity as an authentic alternative and counter-witness to consumerist Christianity, to merely therapeutic Christianity, the prosperity gospel, xenophobic or racist Christianity, and nationalist forms of Christianity.

Covenanted in fellowship, holding each other mutually accountable means that we not only acknowledge and respect diversity and difference among the churches but we also challenge each other to live up to the gospel values we espouse, in, for example, churches’ commitments to children, gender justice, and treatment of migrants and refugees.

In other words, ecumenism is the perennial self-critical, renewing impulse in Christian commitment, leaving us restless with the boundaries and confines of any allegiance less than love. While the tradition has emphasized the churches’ role as a teaching institution, we today strongly affirm that the church must also be a learning community, learning from each other and those we serve, especially on the margins. Ecumenism is therefore God’s Spirit actively at work in us, as persons and communities of faith, continually converting us to new openness and authenticity.[7] It will demand yet also enable us to transcend the narrow boundaries and parochialisms of our self-interest, of race or class or even of confession or creed.

I believe that wherever Christ’s pilgrim people and communities of faith are willing to test those boundaries and divisions of our world in the name of the authentic gospel, ecumenism lives, indeed thrives.

It also implies a way of working or being together. Because it leads us to discover and affirm the essential humanum in everyone, ecumenism leads us to think the best of each other, to nurture community instead of competition, to choose solidarity over egotism. It leads us to model consensus over confrontation, choosing creative collaboration over stubborn insistence on tradition or prideful acquiesence in the status quo.

So ecumenism has much to offer an imperiled world today: a deeply grounded, energetic love that is also critically conscious and fully accountable and models a creative collaboration that the world so desperately needs.

As ecumenical Christians and churches in fellowship, we take our stand on creative, constructive Christian hope, and we work ecumenically—with eager hearts, open arms, and willing hands—to heal a world rent by division, distortion, and prejudice through dedication to telling truth, serving justice, and making peace. May God continue to make it more than an “ecumenism” to be discussed, but a real ecumenical movement


[1] Including those of the United Nations, most especially UNAIDS and WHO, the ILO, UNICEF, UNHCR, and the Human Rights Council. The programmatic endeavours of the WCC are closely aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals 2030.

[2] Ecumenical theological self-understanding displays a real convergence in recent work (1) from Faith & Order as outlined in Come and See and as formulated in The Church (koinonia) and Moral Discernment (shared spaces of dialogue), (2) from Mission & Evangelism, as seen in Together towards Life (mission from the margins, missio Spiritus, transformative discipleship, fullness of life), and (3) from the still-continuing work of rethinking diakonia, with both biblical-theological insights as well as practical ones.

[3] See, for example, Hallelujah! Resources for Prayer and Praise (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2013); Hosanna! Ecumenical Songs for Justice and Peace, ed. Andrew Donaldson (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2016); and the many Bible studies from the 10th Assembly (2013), the Conference on World Mission and Evangelism (Arusha, 2018), and the annual Lenten Bible studies on oikoumene.org.

[4] Witness, for example, the work of the churches leading up to COP21 and the Paris Accord.

[5] See Keith Clements, Ecumenical Dynamic: Living in More than One Place at Once (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2013).

[6] On ecumenism as a movement of love, see my reflections in “Freedom, Love and Justice (15 January 2019) at: https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/general-secretary/speeches/freedom-love-and-justice; and “The Ecumenical Movement of Love” (15 June 2018) at: https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/central-committee/geneva-2018/report-of-the-general-secretary-the-ecumenical-movement-of-love

[7] See my The Truth We Owe Each Other: Mutual Accountability in the Ecumenical Movement (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2016).