We celebrate the life and witness of the Rev. Dr Philip Potter, third general secretary of the World Council of Churches (1972-84), who passed from this life at the age of 93 on 31 March 2015 in Lübeck, Germany. A product and pioneer of the modern ecumenical movement, Dr Potter was – as attested in 2013 by the title of an anthology of his writings – “At Home with God and in the World.” To God we give thanks and praise for this dear friend, remarkable companion and gifted leader of the work of the WCC in his time.
Born in Roseau, Dominica, in the West Indies on 19 August 1921, Philip Potter became active in the ecumenical movement through student communities of the Caribbean churches. A consciousness of the fundamental unity of Christianity was unavoidable in the Potter household, headed by a Protestant mother and a Catholic father.
As a young lay pastor and newly ordained minister, Philip took the gospel to the island of Nevis and to Creole-speaking people in Haiti; later, he served on the staff of the Methodist Missionary Society in London. He represented the Jamaica Student Christian Movement at the 1947 world conference on Christian youth in Oslo, Norway. He then served as a spokesperson for youth at the first two assemblies of the World Council of Churches, at Amsterdam (1948) and Evanston (1954). He continued to be an active participant in every WCC assembly in 1948 to the 9th Assembly at Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2006.
With age, Philip Potter became a mentor as well as a friend to his partners on the ecumenical journey toward unity, justice and peace. He moved to Geneva in 1954 to work in the WCC’s youth department and remained with the WCC until his retirement. Before becoming General Secretary, he directed the WCC commission on world mission and evangelism.
In his Geneva years he chaired the board of the World Student Christian Federation. Generations of activists within church and society have benefited from Philip’s advice and guidance.
He was the first person from newly independent countries in the world to be elected general secretary of the World Council of Churches.
Among the most memorable achievements of the WCC during Philip Potter’s tenure were the theological consensus document Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, the continuation of a courageous campaign against apartheid in southern Africa and other forms of racism throughout the world, a vigourous debate on the nature of post-colonial Christian mission, a co-ordinated witness for peace amidst East-West tension and the threat of nuclear annihilation, as well as an exploration of new forms of spirituality, common prayer and music drawing on the diverse traditions of the churches.
Whenever the Council’s positions brought controversy, Potter acted as a reasoned interpreter and bold defender of the WCC and its priorities. A global thinker, Potter brought special insight from his Caribbean roots and pastoral encounters.
At the time of his retirement, a resolution of the WCC central committee described “the underlying unity in all Dr Potter’s efforts” as his commitment to “one ecumenical movement, one fellowship of churches moving together along one pilgrim way, the hope of the one humanity promised by God.”
From his days as a representative of Christian youth to his attainment of the status of venerable sage and mentor, Philip Potter proclaimed the Triune God’s good news in Jesus Christ through wise words, creative insight and bold action. We will again and again be inspired by his life as he now is “home with God” in a new way and as we continue our pilgrimage of justice and peace in the light of the resurrection of Christ. “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord” (Rom. 14:8).
Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit
WCC general secretary