Ut Unum Sint: Between Winter and Spring, Reality and Prophecy, 1995 – 2020
Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit
WCC General Secretary


Lecture at the Institute for Ecumenical Studies
St. Thomas Aquinas Pontifical University (Angelicum)
12 December 2019


Your Eminence(s) and Excellencies, Distinguished Professors, Doctors and Students of Theology, dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

I want to thank especially you, dear Fr Hyacinthe Destivelle, for the privilege and honor to address this august audience. In this academic year you focus on the Papal Encyclical Ut unum sint (UUS). In 1995, when Saint Pope Johannes Paul II offered the encyclical first of all to the primates and bishops of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC), but also to the wider audience of all concerned about ecumenism, there was a broadly shared fear that the ecumenical movement was stagnating or even disintegrating. Many spoke of an “ecumenical winter.” There were also some who had the impression that Pope John Paul II was one of those who contributed to a more restrictive, closed approach to the open and wide ecumenical movement. It was for some a surprise, and definitely of critical importance in this historical context that the Pope John Paul II affirmed that the commitment of the RCC to ecumenism was irrevocable as a starting point for this significant document (UUS 3).

In my lecture now, I want to take four steps:

  1. I want to look briefly at the context 1995 and today, using the metaphors of ecumenical winter and spring
  2. I want to look at UUS as it responds to the reality of its own historical context and the prophetic vision it entails.
  3. I want to offer two examples for the reception of the encyclical and
  4. I want to conclude my reflections with a strong affirmation of the vitality of the ecumenical movement and its relevance today. I think that is what you can expect from the general secretary of the WCC – and if you don’t, you will get it anyway.

So let me start now with reflections on the context: Between Winter and Spring.


1. Between Winter and Spring

One of those who popularized the catchphrase of an ecumenical winter was indeed one of my predecessors as general secretary of the World Council of Churches, Emilio Castro. “The Ecumenical Winter?” was the title of a public lecture that he presented 1992 in San Diego in the USA.[1] What you cannot hear so clearly: he put a question mark behind it. Coming from the Southern Hemisphere, he was used to the fact that it was summer in Latin America, when it was freezing cold in Europe and North America. Yes, there were problems to deepen doctrinal dialogue on issues of the episcopacy or the primacy of the Pope. Yes, there were new ethical challenges that threatened to divide the churches. But there was also growing cooperation between Christians from various traditions at all levels in the areas of mission and evangelism or the concerns for justice for the poor and the care for creation. There was winter, but at the same time there was also summer.

When I became general secretary of the WCC ten years ago, I rather soon went to Rome to meet with Pope Benedict XVI in December 2010. It was still a time when many of those who were involved in the doctrinal dialogues of the 1970s and 1980s were mourning that progress had slowed down and new problems had surfaced. But there were also many signs of hope that Christians were joining hands to address critical challenges for the future of humankind and creation, walking together the way of justice and peace for people and earth.

As a Norwegian, my experience was, of course, different from Emilio’s. We are used to a long winter in Norway – and we enjoy it in so many ways. I took with me to Rome a pair of warm gloves as one of my gifts for the pontiff. “There is no problem with winter,” I said to him. “There is only a problem with the wrong clothing. These gloves protect well from the cold. So, in this time, which, according to some people is an ecumenical winter, they are a symbol of the possibility to go ahead, despite the difficulties.” I wanted to underline that even if there are difficulties, they must not be obstacles on our common journey.

Almost eight years later, when Pope Francis was visiting Geneva on 21 June 2018, he spoke no more of winter, but said he looked forward to the “flowering of a new ecumenical spring.” The motto for his visit was: “Walking, Praying and Working Together: An Ecumenical Pilgrimage.” The WCC had invited all Christians and people of good will to join in a Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace in the message of the 10th Assembly 2013 in Busan. Pope Francis – in a similar way – had spoken of the unity that grows and deepens on the way and of the church that has to go out to the streets and walk with the people. There was a clear convergence and new shared initiatives that we could celebrate and encourage together. The joint conference of the WCC and the Dicastery for Integral Human Development on “Xenophobia, Racism and Nationalist Populism” later in September 2018 in Rome was one of the fruits of the visit.

A commentator said: “For the next steps in the season of ecumenical spring, it seems it is not warm gloves, but stout walking shoes that are needed.” And indeed, when we think about the ecumenical journey in the image of climbing a mountain, we are leaving the forests and easy pathways behind and getting into the more stony and steep part of the way as we come closer and closer to the mountaintop. So, there are new challenges, but there is also a clear commitment to moving forward together.

We regain a sense of movement. We are no more thinking in a static way about the unity of the church. The goal remains the “visible unity in one faith and one eucharistic fellowship, expressed in worship and in common life in Christ” (WCC Constitution III), but we are learning to cherish the process and to understand that koinonia needs to grow and deepen on the way together. The unity we seek might even be the pilgrimage we are on together.


2. Between Reality and Prophecy

I was asked to speak about the encyclical “Ut Unum Sint: Between Reality and Prophecy.” I added to this title the words “Between Winter and Spring” in order to portray the ecumenical context of both the year 1995, when the encyclical was promulgated, and how it has changed up to today. I read the encyclical as a contribution to ecumenical dialogue that is motivated by the growing concern of the early 1990s that progress in ecumenical dialogue had slowed down and new problems were emerging. The text recalls what has been achieved in multilateral and bilateral relationships. It is a plea not to be discouraged, but to continue the dialogue at the dawn of a new millennium. It offers an honest self-assessment of the achievements and still existing obstacles, especially with its reflections on the primacy of the pope.

The text is rooted in the contradictions of reality. It becomes prophetic, opening doors for dialogue and cooperation, concentrating on the theology of the cross. I want to recall a couple of sentences from the introduction of the encyclical that show the spirit in which it was written:

Believers in Christ, united in following in the footsteps of the martyrs, cannot remain divided. If they wish truly and effectively to oppose the world’s tendency to reduce to powerlessness the Mystery of Redemption, they must profess together the same truth about the Cross.

At the beginning of my service as general secretary of the WCC, I published a book on the Christian Solidarity in the Cross of Christ. It contains a chapter on the “Ecumenical Movement of the Cross,”[2] which reflects on 1. Cor. 2:1-2: “I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” I had chosen this verse as motto for my ministry as general secretary of the WCC. I underlined that the cross is more than a sign of our religious identity. It is the “reality check” of our churches, of our ministry, of our ecumenical movement, of our faith. The cross becomes the tree of life with Christ stretching out his arms to the whole world, embracing everyone. I said:

The call of the ecumenical movement does not have meaning only if we “succeed.“ Whether we are heard or not, our call is to carry the cross with one another. Are we willing to walk in the shoes of the poor and oppressed? Are we ready to carry the burden of distress when we are not in agreement, are we prepared for the disappointments when we are unable to solve all the problems we are addressing? Whatever happens, it remains our calling to carry the cross in our search for unity, in our witness, in our service. And we shall do it together, never alone.[3]

The cross opens our eyes to the sister and brother in need of solidarity. It calls us to embrace the other as a member of one humankind. From the cross and the resurrection of Christ we receive our calling to be one in him: walking, praying and working together as his disciples for the unity of the church and all humanity.

This call, which puts us into the middle of the world as disciples of Christ, requires us to read the signs of the times and to serve the church and the world with our prophetic witness. A clear understanding of the reality we are facing is necessary for a meaningful prophetic witness that calls for change and shows ways toward healing and reconciliation. There is no true prophecy that does not both speak the critical truth and contribute to the building up of a vision, of a dream of the new life in common. The church is called to share the good news of God’s love for the world, the love that is ultimately expressed in God’s giving of his son (John 3:16). “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity” was chosen by the central committee of the WCC as the theme for the 11th Assembly in September 2021 in Karlsruhe, Germany. We read in UUS 21 when it speaks about the “primacy of prayer”:

We proceed along the road leading to the conversion of hearts guided by love which is directed to God and, at the same time, to all our brothers and sisters, including those not in full communion with us. Love gives rise to the desire for unity, even in those who have never been aware of the need for it. Love builds communion between individuals and between Communities. If we love one another, we strive to deepen our communion and make it perfect. Love is given to God as the perfect source of communion—the unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit—that we may draw from that source the strength to build communion between individuals and Communities, or to re-establish it between Christians still divided. Love is the great undercurrent which gives life and adds vigour to the movement towards unity.

Christ’s love will help us to move on to repent, reconcile, and grow in community. On this way, the churches can hopefully live up to their calling to become a prophetic sign and foretaste for a reconciled and healed humanity and creation.


3. Taking Stock and Pointing a Way Forward

Grounded in the reality of our times and the results of ecumenical dialogue, the encyclical invites its readers to embrace and celebrate the progress made, to consider honestly the challenges that are to be taken up, and to place the ministry of Peter for the unity of the church not above but at the heart of the ecumenical endeavor of the RCC and its relationships with churches of other Christian traditions.

The Faith and Order Commission of the WCC (F&O) considered the text of the encyclical carefully and sent a response to the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.[4] Fr Jean-Marie Tillard, OP, was during those years vice-moderator of the commission. The commission welcomed the statement in UUS 20 that “Ecumenism is an organic part of [the Church’s] life and work, and consequently must pervade all that she is and does.” It affirmed that the recognition of the oneness of baptism is indeed “the basis for our belonging to one another.”

The commission was grateful for the recognition of the contribution made by F&O to advance the ecumenical movement. It referred critically to the language of “churches and ecclesial communities” with a reference to bilateral dialogues, where it is clear that not only the Orthodox or the RCC believe that they themselves are “true churches within the wholeness of the Church of Jesus Christ.”

The F&O board considered carefully the list of issues for further study in UUS 79, including the ministry of unity of the Bishop of Rome. The F&O response concludes its response, affirming the positive and forward-looking spirit of the letter.

UUS refers several times to the visit of Pope John Paul II to the Scandinavian and Nordic countries, 1-10 June 1989, and to the developments around the Porvoo agreement. This was my context at the time UUS was published, working for the Church of Norway as its ecumenical officer and preparing the reception of the Porvoo agreement for our General Synod. The Porvoo text affirmed the catholicity and apostolicity of our church. Even if there was a break in the linear episcopal consecrations at the time of the Reformation, there was a clear commitment to renew the church order for the sake of the unity with the true church of Jesus Christ and its common faith and ministry, and in that sense there was a focus on the unity given in our faith through sharing the Gospel and the Sacraments. This understanding of the apostolic succession in faith, mission, and ministry was seen as the fundamental bond of unity. In such a common understanding of the one, apostolic, and catholic church through the ages, we could also embrace the sign of unity in the church given in the episcopal apostolic succession. Consequently, there is a participation in the laying on of hands in one another’s episcopal consecrations within the Porvoo fellowship of churches.

The question in the air then – and in different ways also in the UUS – is how the share in the sign of the episcopal apostolic succession could be extended also to the relationship between the episcopally ordered Lutheran churches, the Anglican churches, and the Roman Catholic Church. This has been discussed a lot in the years since then, and some initiatives (for example, from ecumenical dialogues in Finland and Sweden) have offered models and initiatives in that respect. I think the conclusion so far is that the particular sign of participation in the episcopal consecrations is one sign but cannot be isolated as the only criterion for visible unity.

The question about the role of the papal ministry that Pope John Paul II opens in the UUS could be seen in the same perspective: It is a question of how the pope’s  ministry for unity could be recognized as a sign of unity in  our common faith and service. For Lutherans this is particularly defined in a mutual recognition of the preaching of the Gospel and the distribution of the sacraments (cf. Confessio Augustana, article VII).  There was in 1995 a growing sense of how much we really shared, also in the understanding and recognition of the sacraments, at least the sacrament of baptism. This approach was also accompanied by the studies on the historical doctrinal condemnations from the 16th-century controversies. We had a significant Nordic Lutheran Study on that theme around 1995, which focused exactly on how the positive, shared confession of faith is, can be, and must be the basis for our churches and therefore also for our expressions of unity. The limitations vis-à-vis other churches have a secondary role. The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in 1999, which was finally edited and approved with the strong involvement of Pope John Paul II, should be seen in light of UUS and his efforts to find new expressions of how his ministry could be a ministry of unity beyond the Roman Catholic Church.

I think the fact that he opened up this discussion was a significant step in itself toward such a mutual recognition of a ministry for the unity of the church by the Bishop of Rome. The practice he had, and particularly later under Pope Francis, has raised the awareness of the potential of the role for the Bishop of Rome to be a sign in the public of the whole of Christianity. For many, it is still impossible to say anything that gives the impression that the church is under or accountable to the Pope. But in different ways initiatives toward expressions of mutual accountability, and therefore also common initiatives, can be a sign of recognizing the potential in the role of the Bishop of Rome for all churches.      


4. Affirming the Vitality of Ecumenism

The year after UUS was published, I was invited to preach in a Dominican monastery in Oslo during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I used the opportunity to reflect on the significant statements and questions in the UUS. One question that was raised in the preparation of that prayer service was: What is the liturgical colour for an ecumenical prayer service? One argued that it was the violet, the colour of fasting, confessions, and repentance. I argued that it could also be red, the colour of the martyrs and of the Holy Spirit. Or the colour green, for the time of working and walking together through prayer. Or white: for the celebration of God’s wonders. My conclusion was that it could be all of them, each in its own right. But in the light of the UUS then, and the sense of breaking the feeling of ecumenical winter, I think I proposed we should use the colour green: The time of growth in unity and also the time to work together had come.

Even today, there are still people who believe that the ecumenical movement belongs more or less to the 20th century, a spent force from a bye-gone era – no more relevant in the digital age of a globalized world. For them UUS is only a memory of the past – no more than that. But to the contrary, monitoring the traffic on our website and the use of our social media channels, we see continuously growing interest, especially among younger people from all continents of the world. They not only want to know what the WCC is doing, for instance, on the climate emergency; they want to take part in the process and share the message with their own means.

There is an ecumenical spring, despite all difficulties. We are together on the way. We share in the ecumenical journey. And it is good this way. I believe that the ecumenical movement, essentially a vibrant renewal movement of the churches for the sake of the kingdom, has never been more relevant. Given the unprecedented peril in which the world finds itself, the evolution of ecumenism toward a unity in praxis of churches together on the way is natural and, in fact, a measure of the movement’s accountability to the world and to God.

Therefore, I want to go now beyond UUS in this concluding section of my lecture. I would like to look at ecumenism today in an institutional, theological, programmatic, and existential perspective. I think you’ll accept such contemporary reflection from the general secretary of the WCC beyond the theme that was given to me. I find this an exciting time for the ecumenical movement—one of both promise and peril. Let’s focus here on the promise!


4.1 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.[5] These relations have been rebalanced such that churches and individuals and local congregations do not the need to leave all the heavy lifting to professional agencies but also engage directly with and for those very different than themselves.


4.2 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.

Theologically, 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). On our pilgrimage we can also draw on a growing convergence of key generative concepts in ecumenical ecclesiology, mission and evangelism, and diakonia or Christian service.[6]

The vision of the pilgrimage of justice and peace 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 encouraged a globally oriented, open-minded, committed spirituality of justice and peace that in turn enlivens the movement.[7]


4.3 Ecumenism Programmatically

Given the myriad of issues and needs in today’s world, we have devoted considerable reflection, within the WCC, the Global Christian Forum and in cooperation with the Roman Catholic Church, to pinpointing 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 combating 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.[8]


4.4 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,[9] ecumenism is really the dynamic, counter-inertial, renewing force of Christian love.[10] 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. Conversely, on 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.

Called to reconciliation and unity in one 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. 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.[11] 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.

As 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 acquiescence in the status quo.

So I believe that 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.

So that they all may be one. Ut unum sint.

[1] Emilio Castro, The Ecumenical Winter? Peter Ainslie Lecture on Christian Unity - San Diego 1992, in: Mid-Stream, 32/2, Indianapolis: Council on Christian Unity, 1993, pp. 1-13.

[2] Olav Fykse Tveit, Christian Solidarity in the Cross of Christ, Geneva: WCC, 2012, pp. 9ff.

[3] Ibid. p. 15f.

[4] WCC Commission on Faith and Order, Minutes of the Meeting of the Faith and Order Board, 9-16 January 1998 in Istanbul (Turkey), Faith and Order Paper No 180, Geneva: WCC 1998, pp. 25-27.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

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

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

[10] 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

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