From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
[WCC News] Samuel Kobia's first 100 days - an interview
"WCC Media" <Media@wcc-coe.org>
Thu, 08 Apr 2004 11:17:34 +0200
World Council of Churches
For Immediate Use
8 April 2004
100 days in office, Kobia sees WCC as "a bridge connecting humanity"
Free photos available: see below
The Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia took up the position of general secretary of the
World Council of Churches (WCC) at the beginning of 2004. On the occasion of
completing his first 100 days in office he gave the following interview to
the WCC Public Information Team. In it Kobia speaks about his daily work and
his first actions as general secretary, the challenges facing the ecumenical
movement at the beginning of the 21st century, the role and priorities of the
WCC, and his dreams and vision for the Council. (This material can be freely
reproduced. Free high resolution photos are available, see below.)
It is already 100 days since you took up office as general secretary of the
World Council of Churches. Were there any surprises when you started?
Of course I am not new to the WCC or even to the General Secretariat, because
I have been part of the staff leadership of the organization for many years,
but I must say that it is not until you actually sit where I am sitting now
that you appreciate all the dimensions of this office. One of the things that
surprised me was the amount of work to be done each day by the general
secretary. For example, the volume of mail and e-mail that our rich network
of relationships produces every day is incredible. Then, there are the
demands on my time from people outside who see us as valid partners. Besides
other international organizations, our member churches and our constituency,
there are so many others out there in the general public who come here or who
seek an appointment - far more than I expected.
Looking back, what have been some of your first actions since you took up
I attach a very great importance to relationships. An organization is as good
as its relationships, especially with its constituency. Seeing the WCC's
governing bodies both as the direct representatives of the fellowship of
churches and my principal source of advice and counsel, I began by addressing
a personal letter to each member of our central committee. Next, in order to
improve our relationships with our ecumenical funding partners, I welcomed a
meeting with our closest donors and agencies. And then, convinced that the
way the general secretary relates to his staff is very important, I have
tried to make myself available, to listen to and meet with staff colleagues
during these first 100 days.
In early March, I travelled to Washington to attend a meeting of the churches
in the USA in order to reinforce our relationship with this part of our
membership, taking into account that the 2004 focus of the Decade to Overcome
Violence is on the USA. A highlight of that trip was a meeting with the
leaders of the historic black churches which are members of WCC - the first
such meeting between a WCC general secretary and the leaders of these
Also in early March a visit to Antelias, Lebanon to meet with our central
committee moderator, HH Catholicos Aram I, and representatives of the Roman
Catholic Church allowed me to affirm that relations between the WCC and the
Roman Catholic Church will continue to deepen.
How would you assess the current state of the ecumenical movement, and what
would you identify as some of the major challenges at this time?
It is clear that in the last ten years, the WCC has sought to address the
fundamental questions facing the ecumenical movement through studies like the
"Common Understanding and Vision of the WCC", which emphasized the fellowship
dimension of the Council, and the need to both deepen and broaden the
fellowship of churches. The Special Commission on Orthodox participation in
WCC was a similarly important process, followed more recently by the start of
a new discussion on the reconfiguration of the ecumenical movement. These are
all important indicators of the desire and need to re-assess the ecumenical
I think that the time has come to really look again at the ecumenical
movement today. I believe that it is facing an unprecedented challenge. The
situation in which the WCC was born and the realities that continued to
sustain the Council in terms of our mission, objectives and cause, are now
behind us in many ways. We are confronted with an altogether new situation.
The classical forms of ecumenical learning are changing. The student
Christian movements and lay academies which are the traditional vectors of
ecumenical formation seem to be struggling to survive in many places.
Bilateral ecumenism is growing. Some Pentecostals and Evangelicals now see
themselves as working ecumenically because they bring people from several
denominations to work together, for instance in para-church organizations.
And the emergence of non-denominational congregations is also a new reality.
So, in a nutshell I would say that on both the global and local levels, the
ecumenical movement is confron
ed with a changed reality that requires us to re-evaluate and to see how we
move forward. I do feel that current forms of the institutional ecumenical
movement may no longer be properly adapted to our needs.
Another challenge relates to the Protestant churches. Historically, mainline
Protestantism, particularly in Europe, has played a pivotal role in the
ecumenical movement and has given much to both the thinking and the forms of
the ecumenical movement and to the WCC. Now, while Protestant churches in
Europe will continue to play a significant role in the ecumenical movement,
they seem to be losing part of their status and influence in society. On the
other hand, I am encouraged to see that the spirit of ecumenism lives on
across the spectrum of the member churches of the WCC, both Protestant and
Orthodox, in all regions. We have seen a renewed interest from other parts of
the Christian world which traditionally were not integrated into the
ecumenical movement. These latter trends give me hope. So, it is a time of
change, a time of anxiety for some, and I would like to see if the search for
a reconfiguration of the ecumenical movement gives us sufficient room to
address these is
ues, or whether we need to find new ways to approach them as we move into the
You have mentioned relations with the Roman Catholic Church and the role of
the Orthodox churches. How do you assess their contributions to the
ecumenical movement of the 21st century?
The work since 1999 of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in
the WCC shows that the Orthodox churches wanted to confirm their commitment
to the ecumenical vision. When they saw that there was something to change,
or with which they disagreed, their reaction was not to move out but rather
to engage and to change while remaining in the ecumenical family. I also saw
that WCC member churches, having been challenged by the Orthodox, were ready
to discuss issues central to the fellowship that is the WCC among themselves,
and not just to fulfil the constitutional requirements or attend meetings.
The Special Commission has also brought the potential for an unprecedented
change of institutional culture in the WCC, particularly through its proposal
of a consensus model that is being gradually introduced. This could effect a
remarkable and positive change in the way we work together, and it gives us a
formula for dealing with divisive issues and problems in the future.
It is also important to look at our relations with the Roman Catholic Church.
When I met in Antelias with the president of the Pontifical Council for
Christian Unity, Cardinal Walter Kasper, we talked about how to strengthen
our work together, particularly where we have a framework like the Joint
Working Group between the WCC and the Roman Catholic Church. Membership is
not what is most critical here, but rather the deepening of our
collaboration. A renewed commitment must be given to the visible unity of the
churches. The Faith and Order Commission and the Joint Working Group are very
important because they offer possibilities for the involvement of the Roman
Catholic Church in the life and work of the WCC. I am also encouraged by a
growing number of collaborative efforts in the area of migration, health and
healing, without forgetting longstanding relations in the area of
How would you define the unique role and contribution of the WCC in this
complex and evolving context?
The WCC is one of a kind, and its uniqueness lies in its special role as a
global multilateral "space" that brings together an extraordinary
cross-section of histories, cultures and theologies to encounter each other
in a way that no other organization does. There is unique richness in the
WCC, and we need to find ways to make the best use of this treasure. The
diversity that we have here should be seen not as an obstacle, but as a rich
resource that needs to be put at the service of all.
What vision do you have for the WCC in the coming period, as we look forward
to the ninth assembly in 2006 and to the 60th anniversary of the organization
One of the discoveries I have made meeting with organizations and people over
the years is that they expect the WCC to be a global moral voice for its
constituency and for the world as a whole. I would like the WCC as a movement
and as an institution to offer moral guidance when faced with the crucial
issues of the world. I am convinced that the questions confronting the world
today are of a fundamentally spiritual nature. Despite the remarkable
technological and scientific progress in many areas, when it comes to human
relations, the challenges are profound.
In Africa, when people reach 60, they are considered sufficiently wise to
advise the community and family on important issues. I hope that the WCC at
60 can offer that kind of service, and allow others to look at us as a
fellowship that helps others to move forward and respond to challenges.
What priorities do you see for WCC in the coming period?
Our work today must be under-girded by spirituality. Whatever it is we do,
from diakonia to justice and peace work or interreligious dialogue, we must
attempt to discover how spirituality can underpin and provide a foundation
for it. In this respect, the Orthodox Church, as a part of the ecumenical
movement with centuries of living spirituality, is important. The ecumenical
movement can benefit tremendously from its gifts.
Looking back, I could say that the decision of the WCC to proclaim a Decade
to Overcome Violence was truly inspired by the Holy Spirit. I believe that
violence in all its forms is really what threatens to tear humanity apart.
Insecurity in our homes, in our communities, cities and world is people's
biggest anxiety. The brokenness of the world today is really a reflection of
how much human beings are losing their capacity to relate to each other as
good neighbours. The churches and the WCC can make a significant contribution
towards overcoming violence at all levels, and the Decade to Overcome
Violence provides us with a framework to move towards this end.
Compared to what many people expected 50 years ago, religion at the start of
the 21st century has returned to the public sphere. Religion is seen as
having a central place in society, and remains a strong source of identity
for many people in many places. Therefore, dialogue between religions is even
more essential so that identity differences do not become a source of
conflict or a "clash of civilizations", but a source of peace. In addition to
that, religious plurality itself challenges us in many ways: How can we
reflect and work together on issues of common concern? How do we as
Christians understand ourselves and Christian education in the light of
religious plurality? Those are truly key priorities for the churches as well
as for the WCC.
Ecumenical education and formation is also an area that needs particular
attention. Much emphasis and resources should be given to young people in
particular, but people of all generations need to re-engage with the
ecumenical movement in new ways.
And of course, at all times, the search for visible unity of the churches
must remain a top priority for the Council. The broadening of the fellowship
remains especially important in this context. We need to stress again that
the aim of visible unity of the churches holds a central place in the life of
In what ways do you see a strengthened role for women and youth in the
I was deeply inspired by the recent visit to the WCC of a delegation of young
people from Denmark. I think we need to use our institutional and
programmatic frameworks, including the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, to
broaden the engagement and involvement of young people in the life of WCC.
New technologies may allow creative ways of enabling this. I would also like
to use the WCC's ninth assembly in 2006, both its preparation and the event
itself, as an opportunity to enable the involvement of many hundreds of young
people, strengthening the opportunities for ecumenical formation and
commitment beyond the 700 official delegates. Similarly, I would like to
extend this opportunity to women, who are also traditionally marginalized in
church and society. The assembly provides an occasion for special attention
to women, and a significant time during which they can assume their rightful
place in the ecumenical movement.
It is essential to recognize that women are the particular victims of
violence in our world today, in which conflict and war increasingly target
civilian populations. In Africa, the tragic conflicts of recent years tell me
that something has really gone wrong in our societies. Sacred limits have
been infringed when women and children are victims. Once again, the Decade to
Overcome Violence offers us a framework to address some of these issues, and
to mobilize our churches, movements and groups to reach out to women, to
children and to young people today.
What message from the WCC would you like to emphasize today?
It is clearer and clearer to me that what the world and humanity needs today
are bridges that connect and bring people together. Everywhere, we see that
people and relationships are broken. Despite the fact that we live in an age
of international travel and mass migration, very often the stranger is still
not welcome in many places. Our task is to help people to rediscover the
humanity of others and the fundamental value of human relationships. I would
like the WCC to be both a bridge builder and a bridge itself, connecting
humanity and allowing people to relate to each other again.
Free high-resolution photos to accompany this interview are available at:
For further information, please contact Juan Michel, WCC media relations
officer, tel: +41 22 791 6153, mobile +41 79 507 6363, firstname.lastname@example.org
The World Council of Churches (WCC) is a fellowship of churches, now 342, in
more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian
traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works
cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which
meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in
1948 in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary
Samuel Kobia from the Methodist Church in Kenya.
World Council of Churches
Media Relations Office
Tel: (41 22) 791 6153 / 791 6421
Fax: (41 22) 798 1346
PO Box 2100
1211 Geneva 2, Switzerland
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