In recent weeks the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Francis were celebrating in Rome a relationship that was initiated by their predecessors 50 years ago and in Lund, Sweden, Lutherans and Roman Catholics (again with Pope Francis present) expressed a yearning for unity in preparation for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation due to begin in 2017. At the same time, another ecumenical milestone was being celebrated in Geneva. The Ecumenical Institute of the World Council of Churches, which is situated at (and known as) Bossey on the shore of Lake Geneva, was celebrating its 70th anniversary. Bossey, whose chapel, lecture rooms and dining room have witnessed the joys, struggles and ecumenical formation of thousands of women and men over the years, continues to bring insights to a church where institutional ecumenism is in crisis, but where Christ’s call that his followers should be one ‘so that the world may believe’ is as significant and pressing as ever.
The Ecumenical Institute opened its doors in 1946 – two years before the establishment of the WCC in 1948. It was the fulfilment of a vision that, in a divided world with a divided Church, there needs to be a centre which focuses on reconciliation and healing. However, this was not to be a centre where the issues were simply to be studied, but a residential setting where joys and challenges were confronted in worship, study and community. Reconciliation and healing were to be lived, not just discussed. Bossey began in the midst of pain and division following the Second World War. The theme of the inaugural lecture of the Ecumenical Institute, given by its director, Hendrik Kraemer, set the tone for what Bossey would become. It was entitled, ‘The Christian Church in a World of Crisis.’ The participants of the first Bossey course reflected the pain and division of war. There was a Dutch officer and his wife who had both spent three years in a Japanese POW camp without being able to communicate with each other; a Czech who had spent six years in concentration camps in Germany; a Norwegian girl who had lost sleep working every night for the resistance movement; there were Germans, coming from their bombed cities, often unaware of what others had faced, suffering from mental isolation. It is no surprise that a staff member commented that the struggle for this course to become a true community was ‘the hardest of all.’
Over the last 70 years, Bossey has remained faithful to the core of its calling but has renewed itself in the light of changing contexts.
The chapel, lecture rooms and dining room continue to be places of transformation as participants encounter the world and the world church in exhilarating and disturbing ways. For most of its seventy years, Bossey has hosted, among other courses, a graduate school for men and women preparing for leadership positions in their churches. African Presbyterians, American Methodists, Russian Orthodox, British Anglicans, Chinese Christians, Cuban Baptists and Polish Catholics will be living and learning together in the ecumenical laboratory of Bossey for five months, guided by the current director, Ioan Sauca (a Romanian Orthodox priest who did his doctorate in Mission at Birmingham University) the dean, the Revd. Dagmar Heller, and a multi-cultural team of lecturers. Life-long friendships are forged. The world becomes a smaller place. Alumni (including ordinands from the Church in the UK) often speak of being changed by their experience. They have gone on to become parish clergy, patriarchs, cardinals, bishops, presidents of synods, ecumenical officers and political and business leaders.
The inclusion of an interfaith perspective, both within the annual graduate school and also as a stand-alone component has been a source of new energy. ‘Building an Interfaith Community’ is a six week programme undertaken by an equal number of students from the three Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) with the goals of seeking a better understanding of one another and exploring, in concrete ways, what people of faith can do together in a world so divided. During this programme, Bossey maintains its Trinitarian Christian identity and worship, doing so in a way that provides a safe place to explore these issues enabling students to strengthen their own faith identities. They also discover that the ‘other’ is not to be feared and certainly not to be demonised. The significance of this programme for Muslims was underlined at the recent celebrations by a talk given by the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University, Egypt.
Reaching 70 years, Bossey appears younger and more vibrant than it was twenty years ago. It is a unique learning environment available to the Church in the British Isles. Its courses (for ordained and lay) will both challenge and affirm: its location and environment provide refreshment and renewal for those on sabbatical.
In Great Britain, ecumenical enthusiasm is at a low ebb. Even the term ‘ecumenism’ has become suspect, linked with an ideological movement of the past. Working towards Christian unity is often viewed as a specialist activity for those who have the time and energy. But Christ’s call to unity still rings in our ears and is as important as ever. The ecumenical vision is shifting from ‘let us stay together’ to ‘let us move together,’ and this has important implications for our understanding of the ecumenical task. But the ecumenical task has little to do with reforming structures (the concept of arranging deck-chairs on the Titanic comes to mind), but it has everything to do with setting the Church’s agenda in dialogue with the world, acknowledging that the world and society have profoundly changed since the beginning of this millennium and that old models of relating are no longer relevant. Bossey, with the world regularly coming through its doors and with its deep understanding and experience of ecumenical spirituality, theology and worship, will be a creative resource as the Church prays Christ’s own prayer that we may all be one ‘so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’