Report of the WCC General Secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit
WCC Executive Committee Meeting, Bossey, May 22-28, 2019


Reporting and rejoicing

Reporting on work that is already done can sometimes be quite a job, or even a burden. It arrives on top of the necessary and daily demands of focusing on the work to be done now and directed to the future. This first executive committee meeting each year is a moment of reporting from the year behind us. What have we done? How have we fulfilled our tasks? How did we meet our objectives? How have we stewarded our time and financial resources?

You already have and will receive several reports in this meeting. The annual review of 2018 was published last week, for example. There we have been offered, in an attractive format, an overview of a remarkable year. We marked the 70th anniversary and held several great events, in addition to everything else we did together as staff. Most of our work we also did with the churches and our partners in Geneva, in Bossey, and around the world. This made the year busier than others, something we cannot do every year. We had to work hard not to have a deficit in our programme finances. We also had to face two deaths in our staff community. And we had to address new challenges and opportunities for our work for peace in the world.

In all this I see a very committed staff, and reports from their work should encourage you as governing bodies as well. In so much of this work, many of you have been actively participating yourselves. We have discovered new dimensions in how we are a fellowship of churches, and how the churches want to participate in and own the work of the WCC. We also see how God has blessed the work of the WCC over many years. It has been a blessing that has made us able to be courageous, to be focused, to be generous, and to be faithful to our great calling, in difficulties, in distractions from outside and inside the organization, in addressing new challenges while still encountering  inspiring, shared experiences. We have also experienced how “working, praying and walking together” is not only a theme and objective, but a reality. The WCC has a convening role in the one ecumenical movement. We also see how the WCC is a fellowship of solidarity and care for those who are struggling and facing crises, conflicts, even tragedies and disasters.

For all these reasons, and many more, it is not only a duty to report on 2018 and the time since we met in November 2018 in Uppsala, Sweden. It also an opportunity to rejoice. “Turn to God, rejoice in hope” was the theme of one of our assemblies (Harare, 1998). This is what we also do now.

I will, as usual, report to you on the visits, meetings and events I have been involved in as general secretary the last months (see the Appendix). This can be discussed more in detail as you find it relevant now. I am also giving you an update on the great project Green Village, which the governing bodies of the WCC have decided should be pursued to secure the financial sustainability of the WCC for the future, as well as to ensure a proper working place for us in Geneva. In addition to that, I will focus on some dimensions of our work that (among all the other dimensions of our extensive work) should command our attention for deeper analysis and reflection.

On our way to the 11th Assembly

The journey toward the 11th Assembly of the WCC, in Karlsruhe, Germany, in September 2021 has begun already, in fact a long time ago. It will form an important part of our agenda in this meeting, as well. To prepare the event properly, much has been accomplished since we met last November in Uppsala. More will be done now, here together, and even more following our meeting.

Since we met in November, the Assembly Planning Committee (APC) has met under the experienced leadership of HE Metropolitan Gennadios. The report from their meeting in Cyprus in January is presented to you, and it contains a richness of reflection and proposals for the assembly and the way leading to it.

There has also been an opportunity for the moderator of the APC and myself to meet in February this year with the hosting church and community in Karlsruhe, together with Bishop Petra Busse-Huber from EKD and our colleagues now assigned to the assembly office: Beate Fagerli and Marc-Henri Heiniger. This meeting affirmed the commitment to contribute to the process, from the church in Baden and the city of Karlsruhe, as well as from EKD and other churches in Germany. The visit also gave us important information about the venue. We will hear more about the progress in the planning and coordination of the work we are now doing together with the hosts, and how some of the challenges are being addressed.

Now it is time to involve the churches and our ecumenical partners in many aspects of the preparations for the assembly. As you requested, I am about to send letters to all our member churches to start their process of nominating delegates to the assembly – comprising 80 percent of the places - and to propose names for the central committee’s appointment of the remaining 20 percent of the seats. This was done in line with the procedures from the last assemblies, adjusted to the numbers of delegates you finally determined in Uppsala. This letter, with the relevant information to the churches about our rules for participation in the assembly, as well as about expectations of shared responsibilities among member churches to show commitment to the WCC and its assembly, was also discussed with the leadership of the central committee.

Since we met, the central committee has approved through electronic vote the proposed formulation of the theme: “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity.” I have had some opportunities to reflect on and discuss the theme in public, as well as with colleagues, in a first draft of a concept paper. In this meeting we will reflect more on the content of the theme and where it will lead the WCC. It is important to facilitate a wide and comprehensive process of reflection on what this theme can help us to see as the mission of the WCC in this time. We hope and pray that we see this more clearly as we move forward not only to this assembly but as the World Council of Churches and one ecumenical movement into the years ahead of.

Let me share a few perspectives at this point:

  1. There is a lot of support and understanding for bringing the concept of love into a theme of a WCC assembly. There is some surprise that it did not happen earlier. The theme leads us to the roots of our faith, responding to the gospel of God’s love through Jesus Christ, in his life, death and resurrection. This is also the basis for the WCC, and many support our focusing  on the content of what is common in our Christian faith and hope: love. The theology of love through the history of the Christian churches provides a richness of reflection, but also clear challenges to us. What does it mean in our ecumenical fellowship today, and how are we moved as churches and followers of Christ today to  share this love in a way that contributes to transformation of the world? It is not a theme that leads us to a superficial or easy message for our churches, but a significant challenge for all churches: How does Christ’s love make us the witnesses and agents of love, and signs of the coming reign of God? The connection to the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace is given in how love is the motivation and the inspiration to move toward justice and peace, but also in how love is the content of our vision for a world ruled by justice and peace. True love is shown in its actions, in care for the other, and in care for the whole of humanity and God’s creation. The 1948 Amsterdam assembly clearly said that Christ’s love compels us to say clearly both yes and no: To promote reconciliation and unity as we combat injustice, racism and war.
  2. The verb moves expresses the WCC as a movement. It also has a strong connection to the role of the Holy Spirit as the mover of all life, including the life we share as churches in and with the world God loves. We need to be moved, we can be moved, we are moved by Christ’s love. This is the work of the Holy Spirit. When we in this theme express our hope, our prayers for the world, we also express our willingness to contribute to transformation toward reconciliation and unity.
  3. This theme is seen by some as an expression of a triumphalist attitude associated with the colonization of the world by the West and the type of mission exercised through that approach to “the world.” If so, it becomes even more important to develop further what it means to focus on Christ’s love, as an expression of the love of the one who emptied himself of glory or status, even accepting the destiny of death on the cross as a response to his mission and ministry for reconciliation and salvation. Following Christ can never be appropriately expressed in arrogance, triumphalism, superiority or exclusion of the other. The focus we have had on pilgrimage is an expression of our ecumenical attitude of openness for one another, for change, for being together on the way, for searching together for the way forward. This corresponds to the theme, focusing on finding and expressing the signs of Christ’s love, and doing so in such a way that the world can be moved by his love. Moving toward the fellowship of peace, reconciliation, with justice, we seek the unity for which God has created us, for which Christ prayed, and of which the world stands so strongly in need in our time.

Pilgrimage as our shared motif

Reporting from the work of the WCC in 2018 shows how the strategic objectives of the WCC are pursued and how we are using the call from the 10th Assembly in Busan to hold together the many dimensions of our work in “being together on a pilgrimage of justice and peace.” This motif was further elaborated in the motto for our 70th anniversary, and in the theme “walking, praying and working together.” The pilgrimage approach has proved relevant in shaping all our work, in both how we do it and what we do. We see also how this notion inspires other partners in the one ecumenical movement to see our one ecumenical movement in the light of the traditions, motifs and actions of pilgrimage. This was also the theme for the visit we had from Pope Francis last year.

The programme work in the WCC has been pursued according to the plans for 2018. In addition to that, several events were organized by us and many by our churches and partners to mark the anniversary of the 70 years of the WCC. Together this meant that our colleagues, and you as members of the governing bodies, were involved in a lot of activities and hard work. We managed to do all this with the enormous commitment by many to the WCC and our mission, but also with significant commitment and even sacrifices by many. This should be honoured and appreciated, and we thank God for the ministry given to us and the opportunity to serve as ecumenical pilgrims in our time.

The experiences of being together on a pilgrimage of justice and peace are presented and accumulated in stories and reports. But we also have received significant theological reflections in documents like the newly published one from Faith and Order, entitled Come and See.

In the reports from the reference group on the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace  and the theological study group connected to it, we have been reminded that the methodology of pilgrimage— celebrating the gifts, visiting the wounds, and contributing to transformation— is applicable to all dimensions of our lives within the one ecumenical movement. Furthermore, their report points in a direction of some common themes to be addressed in our search for justice and peace. They are already addressed in several of our WCC programmes, and should be further pursued through the advocacy work and initiatives we undertake together in our ambitious and significant programmes.

The focus on the pilgrimage must not lead to expanding activities, travels, and visits in a way that cannot correspond to a realistic assessment of what we can follow up on in our ordinary work. We must avoid having the WCC doing what belongs to the mandate of partners like ACT Alliance, in analyzing and addressing humanitarian needs. We must also avoid having the WCC be accused of promoting a kind of ecumenical or humanitarian tourism.

The wide range of visits made to the Asian region this year has provided important and encouraging moments for many who have the impression that they are not seen, that they are forgotten by the world community, even the church families. The visits have also occasioned many significant insights and become signs of accompaniment to people and churches who struggle for justice and peace.

As we make plans for 2020, and focus on the Pacific region, we should also reflect properly on the dimensions of the activities and the costs and carbon footprint of our activities.

Whatever we do as the WCC, we have to see it as part of the whole involvement of all that we do. The Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace is an overall perspective on what to do and how to do it. When we do something concretely, like a visit to a certain area, for example, it must build on what we have done before, and it must be part of a plan consonant with our resources and with dimensions of work that can lead to relevant and reliable follow-up.

In this perspective I want to draw our attention to and initiate a conversation in this meeting about how we as the WCC should and could address the growing racism in the world—and even in the churches and religious communities.

The focus on racism in 2019 – and beyond

Aswe look back to the work of last year and continue developing plans and budgets for the next year, we must discuss where the signs of the times are leading us to prioritize something more than before. Racism, the theme of 2019, has been identified as a growing concern in many parts of the world. It is also an indicator of many other growing problems in the world, related to neo-populism, fascism and exclusivity. These tendencies are, in this postmodern period, leading many to focus on their own problems, needs and interests without caring for the need for joint solutions, for the wholeness of the world and for our common and shared interests. The many visits to different countries and partners in Asia this year also have a focus on racism and how it plays a role in the conflicts and the challenges some minority groups are facing.

In the annual Ecumenical Strategic Forum, with many of our main funding partners as well as with other ecumenical partners, held here in Bossey in May, we pursued that same focus on racism in relation to minorities, populism, etc. Some of the relevant partners from the UN were also involved. We learned more about the Programme to Combat Racism, a flagship initiative of the WCC in the past.Baldwin Sjollema and Frank Chikane reflected on the significance of racism and how the lessons learned then could be brought forward in how we address it today.

Yet racism is more than a historical lesson or an anthropological puzzle. It is a persistent, daily, ugly, death-dealing streak in societies on every continent, one that robs the future prospects of tens of millions of people.  Where lies our present accountability here, today?

In the last several years, through collaboration with our ecumenical partners and member churches, and as a special focus in our Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace, we have dedicated considerable resources to understanding and responding to racism in regions around the world, from North America to India, from Eastern Europe to Latin America. This more intense, recent focus on race grew out of the 2016 Solidarity Visit to the US, organized after race-related events in Charleston and Ferguson and elsewhere shocked us all.

We have also joined forces with the United Nations agencies and their efforts, including those of the Human Rights Council and the International Decade for Peoples of African Descent, to understand and highlight particular cases.  Through Pilgrim Team Visits, we have offered solidarity and accompaniment to those individuals, churches, and communities victimized by racial injustice and its effects. And we have lent support to regional initiatives, such as the National Council of Churches in the USA’s “ACT Now to End Racism” and the newly revived Poor People’s Campaign.

The Rome Conference on Xenophobia, Racism, and Populist Nationalism in the Context of Global Migration (September 2018) is one of the many initiatives resulting from the ecumenical endeavour to challenge racism. This was organized in close collaboration with the Vatican’s Discastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. After the success of this event, we are making plans with the Dicastery for a new world conference on “Identities under Threat: [Tackling] Discrimination against National, Ethnic, Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Minorities” in Geneva, 13-14 November 2019.

At this juncture, we must ask: How does one get at the multiple levels and layers of systemic racism? What more can we do, as churches and agencies, strategically and programmatically, together? Where can we best focus, how might we make a distinctive, decisive, transformative difference in combating racism today? How do we steer the human heart toward reconciliation?

The theme of the assembly will help us address racism.  One of the features of Christ’s love is that it does not accept the boundaries of race and ethnicity.  In Christ there is another vision for our one humanity, nurtured in the examples of Jesus’ praxis and in the theology of Christ’s love to the whole world.

In our ecumenical journey of faith from Busan toward Karlsruhe, I hope that, with your partnership and collaboration, in these days we can find some answers to these questions and find ways to live our faith, instil hope in those affected by racism, and embolden further action and advocacy for racial justice and reconciliation.

In the discussion last week, I particularly noticed that one of the most important and controversial issues related to the PCR was where the focus should be. There were voices arguing that it should be a general approach to human justice in many different contexts. To make a difference somewhere, the focus on Apartheid was chosen. Also because it particularly related to how the Christian faith was misused to legitimize racism. I do not think we can focus only on one country in our approach now. There is also in our time a certain need to focus on white supremacy and racism, now as then, and to pay proper attention to the peoples of African descent and the underlying history of slavery.

But we see this reality of racism in many countries and continents. Particularly we see the effect of this “original sin” in Europe again, as it was before and during World War II. And we also see that racism is as brutal a reality when ethnic groups other than those of European origin are dominating.

I would propose that we reflect particularly on how to focus on something where we as churches have a special responsibility in addressing and preventing racism from becoming a more dominant force in our time. In our globalized situation, it is not possible to have a geographical limitation, as in the 1970s. It is important to see how we can work with other partners, particularly international organizations like those related to the UN. This fight against racism is one of the core issues in the new world order and new international multilateral cooperation envisioned after the disasters of the world wars in the  20th century.

We also see that religion, even sometimes our Christian faith, is directly or indirectly misused to legitimize different forms of racism, often also combined with nationalism. It is also a challenge in other religious traditions, and therefore a significant issue in our dialogues with other faith communities. It has been raised in our dialogues with some of them. In the next meeting with our Jewish partners, it will be raised again.

Therefore, my proposal, for our consideration, is that we start to build a new programme to combat racism, and to focus particularly on how the churches should be able to address race and racism in their own contexts and internationally as part of our joint advocacy work.

There are questions and challenges we need to be aware of, if and when the WCC develops its focus on racism further into a programme. One is intersectionality, that is, that racism is rarely, if ever, just a matter of exclusion and discrimination only from one perspective or argument. It is most often a mix of elements, some obvious and apparent, some underlying but still very influential. For example,  white supremacy is racist, combined with economic and political interests, national or tribal interests, driven by some kind of ideological arguments. Sometimes, and actually increasingly often in our time, there is a connection to or affinity with religion. This could be one of the focal points in further initiatives, where the particular added value of the involvement of the WCC could make a difference. Religion can be used directly or indirectly as a motivation for exclusivism, discrimination and persecution. Religious affiliation can be used as a marker for excluding somebody.

We always have to be aware of fairness and equal treatment, the dignity of each person and their background. But we have to avoid letting the real fight against racism be undermined because of improper or undocumented use of the term  racism or racist. This is also the case when and if the WCC makes public statements about racism against certain persons or groups.

“Race” is a construction, genetically and biologically. Still it plays a significant role in many, if not most, contexts where people of different origin live together or try to avoid doing so. Differences in ethnic background, culture, language, religion, and so on, are often defined as differences of “race.” We have seen what that can lead to in terms of catastrophes. The reality of racism is destructive and brutal in many contexts, and it has to be dismantled and addressed as such.

Another important question in our reflection on why and how to focus on racism is the fact that the revitalization of racism comes as disrespect for human rights and their universality grows in many countries. The 70 years of the WCC is the same historical timeframe as the life of the international conventions on human rights. We have a particular responsibility as the WCC to see how we can work for the respect of human rights, individual and social rights, directly and indirectly through, for example, pursuing initiatives for just peace that can lead to better respect for the dignity and rights of every human being.

The future: the churches’ commitment to children

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Children are in a special way embraced by Christ’ love, as we know from the gospels. Children are also particularly gifted in expressing the human need for fellowship and unity. Children are also in a special way on the move toward transformation and toward the future. Every day they are developing new skills and learning something new. They show the human need to move, and to move into a future with hope. They are also more vulnerable to violence, and they have to carry some of the heaviest burdens of human conflicts. They need a reconciled world. They should have in a particular way the right to hope.

Most of the life of children is – hopefully – ahead of them. In a world of conflict, and of threatening signs for the environment in which we all have to live together as one humanity, children need for us who are in the generations of their parents or grandparents to show another level of responsibility for their future. Some of the children and youth of today have become prophetic voices, boldly asking that we should not bear false hopes but actually make the necessary changes to care for God’s creation now. Now is the time to act, and the world needs to listen to young people like the Swedish schoolgirl and climate activist Gretha Thunberg. Because they are telling us the truth.

When I baptized my grandson Christian Fredrik a few days ago, I was reminded how the terminology of being “in Christ” resembles the image of a family and clan. We become part of the family tree of Jesus, the “kindom” of God. The legacy from Jesus is of a fellowship in which we are embraced by God’s love, called to show the love of Christ to our sisters and brothers. We are not only born into our small family; we are born into the one humanity. In baptism we are born again into the family of the church. This larger family is called to be a sign of reconciled and united humanity. What kind of world are we offering them to live in? How have we stewarded this common home for them? It is time to see our responsibilities in the light of the image of being a family, one human family.

Yesterday we launched a document “Education for Peace in a Multi-Religious World: A Christian Perspective.” We did so together with the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. This is a shared concern and commitment for us in the one ecumenical movement. Children and youth must be empowered through education and participation to build relations of just peace for the future. I am sure it is not only children and youth who have a lot to learn about that. Children might even be those who have something to teach their parents and their parents’ generation.

In these perspectives I find it particularly relevant that we as a fellowship of churches are moving together in our joint programme, the Churches’ Commitment to Children.  We have also seen and heard that many member churches responded positively to our invitation in March 2017, in which I invited our fellowship to reflect on the “Churches’ Commitments to Children” document and to undertake joint efforts for and with children in the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace.

A network of over 400 member church representatives and partners are now collaborating around the action plan proposed in the “Churches’ Commitments to Children,” using their influence to advance the three main objectives of our programme: to promote child protection, child/adolescent participation, and climate justice initiatives for and with children. This is very encouraging, and even more can be achieved with our partners on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the CRC.

Child rights and our Churches’ Commitments to Children will only be fulfilled when they become a reality for every child. The promise of world leaders around the CRC has not yet been met for many children around the world, and the need to fully realize the Churches’ Commitments to Children remains urgent. Children are so easily targeted in conflicts, vulnerable to violence and the first victims of natural disasters. Millions suffer and die because of poverty, malnutrition, lack of healthcare or violence. Too many childhoods are brought to an early end as children are forced to leave school, do hazardous work, get married, fight in wars or get locked up in adult prisons. 

And the 21st century has brought new challenges for child rights, as children are exposed to new risks in today’s digital world. Children need to be protected from online abuse in our world of total access to communication, and churches can help promote safety for children in the use of media.

As a pre-condition for any activities related to children, every church must have a solid child safeguarding policy, and verify that measures are in place to prevent any misconduct in activities involving children and adolescents. I speak here not least about prevention of grave crimes, such as sexual abuse of children. Such grave crimes rose to the surface so late because the interests of the clergy were placed before the protection of children.

But as in any institution, safeguarding also implies creating an environment in which children are taken seriously, are encouraged to express themselves, ask questions, and share concerns. It is essential for all churches to make sure that children can speak out in confidential settings when they suffer injustices or need advice on a situation. Our collaboration for churches with Child Helpline International provides new opportunities for such measures.

I am a board member of the international initiative End Violence against Children, as a representative of a faith-based organization together with other representatives from international organizations, countries, and corporations – together with our partner UNICEF. We need to unite our efforts from all sectors to make a difference for our children and the future of humanity. They all deserve to grow up without violence, in their communities, in schools, or in their families. Corporal punishment of children must end, and we as churches should take a certain responsibility to make that happen in schools and in families.

It is strategically important that we as the World Council of Churches continue to mobilize for children and their rights. All children have the same rights to protection against violence, to education and health services. So many churches contribute significantly to secure that. This is a significant dimension in our Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace, but it is also a concrete instance of what it means to show how Christ’s love moves the world. The focus on children and their universal human rights should have a significant place in our preparations for the next assembly.

Mission and evangelism – in Christ’s love

This last week I participated together with some colleagues and the moderator, Dr Agnes Abuom, in the meeting of the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism, in Helsinki, Finland. The meeting discussed the follow-up to the WCC Conference on World Mission and Evangelism in Arusha, Tanzania, in March of last year. On Monday, 20  May, the official reports from the conference were launched and presented. In my address to the commission I emphasized that the focus on mission must be the driving force in the one ecumenical movement. We seek unity, and we do what we do together because we are part of God’s mission in the world. We are here to move, to be moved, and to create a movement in mission – in all its dimensions. The ecumenical movement is a movement for a mission, not for its own interest. This is so historically, theologically, practically, strategically – and it is a personal experience for many, including myself. It is very important that the CWME and the agenda and contributions from the focus on mission and evangelism have a significant and strong place in the whole of the ecumenical architecture. All dimensions of our work have to do with mission in one way or another: ecumenical formation, interfaith dialogue, work  for justice and peace, theological dialogues for unity, and care for God’s creation.

The document Together towards Life (2013) and the focus on mission from the margins and the “Arusha Call to Transforming Discipleship” are both landmarks in our pilgrimage as one ecumenical movement. We need the further contributions and impulses from the commission and their work in our elaboration of the theme of the 11thAssembly. The theme has so much to do with the mission of the churches together. In many ways it raises the question of the role and purpose of the mission of the church, but also how mission is done. Sharing Christ’s love must be done in humility and commitment—with Christ’s love.

We need to pay attention to how we secure the living and relevant mutual accountability between the different sectors of the work of the WCC, our commissions, programmes, initiatives, and working groups. Therefore, it was important that the Arusha conference was prepared and pursued together with the executive committee and other departments in the WCC staff. The commissions must not be satellites in our WCC family and its work, but share, exchange  and receive feedback from one another. In the Staff Leadership Group we have this year started a practice of more regular reporting from the commissions and their work through inviting participation from time to time of each director (as well as managers of different teams) in our SLG meetings. This has proved to be very fruitful and helpful to see the diversity and wholeness of the WCC’s work. Maybe a similar practice of inviting the moderators of the commissions to some of our executive committee meetings would have the same positive effect.



Giving account of our hope together

We continue to implement the plans for this period from 2018 to 2021. As motivated as we are for the pilgrimage, for exploring new possibilities and new areas of work, we should also be realistic about some of our limitations in terms of time, resources and human capacities. I am very proud of the WCC staff, I am greatly inspired by their commitment, and I am aware that we need to tune our activities also to realistic levels in the coming years amidst different transitions. It will be and must be a period of business as usual in doing what is planned. In addition, there will be planning of the assembly, winding up and reporting the work of this period, and handling significant changes in the WCC as an organization. We should move forward with confidence and faith that God will continue to lead us in this period.

Most important is that, as the Bible calls us to do, we are always prepared to give account of the hope that is given us in Christ’s love. To be truly a World Council of Churches together, we must not be pre-occupied with ourselves but keep our focus on the hope we are called to share in the world. That will bring all of our work forward: serving and moving the world, in Christ’s love.