WCC leader says Gospel challenges Australia to welcome refugees

Norwegian churchman tells Cathedral service that refugees issue has been part of the ecumenical movement from its origins

World Council of Churches General Secretary Dr Olav Fykse Tveit with Archbishop Philip Freier after the ecumenical service at St Paul's Cathedral.

PHOTO: Janine Eastgate

By Mark Brolly

October 14 2016The Gospel challenged Australia and other countries with strong Christian traditions to provide a welcome to people fleeing war and persecution, the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches told an ecumenical service at Melbourne’s St Paul’s Cathedral on 13 October.

The Revd Dr Olav Fykse Tveit said there was no partiality in God “and if we act and speak about God as if there was a partiality about God, we are not believers”. “Then we are talking about idols, not about God.

“We cannot discriminate among ourselves and believe in God,” he said.

“The Gospel is challenging us every day in all continents and in all contexts. Do we really welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us?”

Dr Tveit, a Norwegian Lutheran pastor and the seventh general secretary of the WCC since its establishment in 1948, was preaching during Ecumenical Sung Evening Prayer at St Paul’s during his trip to Australia and New Zealand. The WCC’s member churches, including the Anglican Church of Australia, have 560 million Christians in 110 countries.

Bishop Philip Huggins, an Assistant Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne, is President of the National Council of Churches in Australia.

Dr Tveit said for many years, Australia had been a continent where many people were welcome and to which so many people had come, many of them refugees.

“Today, your country is challenged by many of the world who want to come here because they have to flee from the Holy Lands of the Bible, from Syria, from places where they cannot live due to war and persecution,” he said.

“Is this country welcoming them, is my country of Norway welcoming them, are we Christian nations believing in the international agreements that those who need refuge have a right to seek it or do we think we should take care of our Christian nations by ignoring these conventions?”

Later, in a question-and-answer session after he delivered a public lecture in the Cathedral on the WCC and the state of ecumenism, he said one of the tasks of the WCC when it was formed after World War II was how to deal with German refugees.

“The issue of refugees and the basic human needs of protection… has been part of the ecumenical movement since its very beginning and I think it’s also a genuine expression of the ecumenical movement today.

“We should not underestimate how important the churches and other faith communities are in relation to this issue… We have difficulties and we also have a lot of potential.”

Dr Tveit said he had been amazed in Australia by the ceremonies of welcome, “the traditional way of making a welcome, much more than a formality, much more than a handshake, but a real expression of our relationship”. As is customary at St Paul’s, the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, acknowledged and paid respect to the traditional owners of the lands of the Kulin nation on which the Cathedral stands, their elders past and present, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders present in welcoming Dr Tveit and the congregation.

Of the state of ecumenism, Dr Tveit said: “It is time to say that we are on our way, that we are pilgrims, that we are willing to welcome one another where we are… and not to wait till everything is solved and everything is clear. Because some things are very clear, and that is that Christ has welcomed us and that it is time for us – whether we belong to the Lutheran Church or to the Roman Catholic Church or to this beautiful Anglican Church or to whatever church – to show that we welcome one another today and tomorrow.”

In his lecture, he said the term “ecumenical winter” used to describe the difficulties facing interchurch relationships at the time he became WCC General Secretary seven years ago was no longer heard.

“I am pleased to notice that I have not heard that question for the last five years, I have not heard anybody talk about the ecumenical winter for the past five years,” he said. “Even with my Norwegian friends I could celebrate it (winter) and enjoy it more than others… I am happy to say that that description is not what is used to describe the ecumenical movement today. Not to say that we are coming into a glorious happiness without many challenges… I think more and more we are seeing that the ecumenical movement is what it means to be Christian and therefore the aim is this theme of pilgrimage, to bring the ecumenical movement back to the basics of what it means to be Christian, to be a believer, to be together with other believers and to follow Jesus Christ.”

Dr Tveit, who is based in Geneva, said there was hardly a United Nations agency that had not knocked on his door and said: “Can we not do something together.” But he also acknowledged that religion had come to be seen as a problem in many places, “something to be criticised or even condemned as a failure”.

“I think it’s really our task to show… by our actions and our actions together that religion – whether it’s our Christian faith or the other communities of faith – that it is a way we as human beings can glorify God by building relationships that can create safe spaces, safe environments and foster signs of hope.”

Current office-holders and veterans of the ecumenical movement participated in the service, including the General Secretary of the NCCA, Roman Catholic Sister Elizabeth Delaney, who read the First Reading, and the Revd Professor Robert Gribben of the Uniting Church, a former General Secretary of the Victorian Council of Churches, who led the Opening Prayer. VCC President Mr Ashok Jacob, a member of the Mar Thoma Church, read the Second Reading.

Melbourne’s Archbishop Philip Freier, the Anglican Primate of Australia, gave the Blessing and, along with Sr Delaney, presented Dr Tveit with gifts to mark his visit.

In a tribute to Dr Tveit as the service ended, Cathedral Organist Mr Siegfried Franke played a postlude composed by Norway’s great composer Edvard Grieg, Sarabande (Andante) from From Holberg’s Time.