Still young at 60
With its initial focus on rebuilding dialogue and nurturing reconciliation, Switzerland’s Bossey Ecumenical Institute soon developed into a recognised academic institution, attracting students from around the world.
by Alexander Belopopsky
Amidst the quiet vineyards overlooking Lake Geneva is a place that can seem an unlikely setting for the preparation of future church leaders. And yet the World Council of Church's Ecumenical Institute, at Bossey, has been a unique international centre for Christian dialogue and learning for six decades, since its creation in 1946.
The latest group of almost 40 young leaders from almost as many countries have arrived in Switzerland for a five-month intensive graduate school. All have a first university degree, and are enthusiastically discovering the study facilities at the Ecumenical Institute, along with the opportunity to share with others their own diverse assumptions and traditions.
Founded in 1946 as a place of healing in war-torn Europe through the efforts of the WCC's founding general secretary, Dr Wilhelm Visser 't Hooft, the first courses brought together concentration camp survivors, those who had served in armies, and members of resistance movements. With this central focus on rebuilding dialogue and nurturing reconciliation, Bossey soon developed into a recognised academic institution with ties to the University of Geneva, attracting students from around the world.
One of the newest students, Fritz-Gerald Romulus, a Baptist pastor from Haiti, recognises that Bossey offers a unique environment for study that will practically prepare him for church work back home, where, he admits, mistrust of ecumenism can run deep in the churches.
Rev. Tegwende Kinda, a minister of the Reformed Church in Burkina Faso, emphasises that dialogue is not a luxury, but can be an existential issue. "This opportunity can help me develop my theological culture and strengthen my understanding of dialogue, much-needed in my majority-Muslim context where misunderstandings among churches and religions can develop too easily."
The Institute has been described as an "ecumenical laboratory" because of its ability to bring together Christians from diverse origins to explore and debate some of the most complex and controversial issues challenging the churches.
Former WCC General Secretary Rev. Dr Konrad Raiser, who is a visiting professor this year, sees the Institute as a privileged space for encounter in spite of divisions, whether in church or society.
"The freedom of Bossey means that people can approach some of the most painful issues facing churches and communities in creative and open ways - something that is very much needed at this time," Raiser says.
Along with the graduate school and post-graduate programmes, Bossey hosts a range of seminars on topics as diverse as religion and violence, Orthodox-Evangelical dialogue, economic injustice and feminist theology.
Among the long list of Bossey alumni are university professors, ecumenical officers, bishops, pastors and priests, as well as political and civil society leaders from all continents. The list even includes an ecumenical patriarch. More than 25,000 people from virtually all churches, confessions and cultures have participated in Bossey courses over the past 60 years.
At Bossey, students learn "24 hours a day," says the Institute's director, Fr Ioan Sauca, an Orthodox theologian from Romania, himself a graduate of the school. "But the most important and most life-transforming part of the ecumenical formation is in the spiritual life.”
Besides the formal academic teaching, Bossey students take part in, prepare and lead a common daily prayer life, which places spirituality at the very heart of the community life, Sauca says. "The diverse group of students comes together despite deep-held differences to form an authentic worshipping community, testifying to how Christians can be one body with many members."
The theme for this year's graduate school is "Ecumenical Spirituality."
Anna Eltringham, an Anglican student, agrees that the experience can be life-changing. "For me, Bossey is a place where pre-conceptions can fall away and a new understanding of what it means to truly be the Body of Christ in the world can grow. This is felt most dearly through the spiritual life of the Institute, where a depth of authenticity and delight in discovering inter-cultural and inter-denominational ways of prayer are enjoyed."
At 60 years of age, Bossey still looks young, and there is no shortage of ideas for new initiatives.
One vision for the future is to enhance the spiritual life of the Institute by reinforcing ties with Christian communities in other places. Linking theology with practical care for the creation is another potential direction, with, for example, the introduction of organic farming techniques to future students, many of whom will return to work in developing countries.
Other current plans include an inter-religious summer school, bringing together young people from the major world faiths, nurturing dialogue and understanding beyond the traditional Christian context. In 2005, an ecumenical research centre was established at the Institute with a particular focus on nurturing just, harmonious and sustainable relations among cultures and religions.
After six decades, Sauca sees the work of the Ecumenical Institute as just starting. "The tremendous social fractures which we are witnessing worldwide, and the accelerated transformations in the Christian world, mean that such a uniquely diverse centre of encounter and learning has rarely before been so necessary. The churches, and the world, still need a Bossey."
Alexander Belopopsky is coordinator of the World Council of Churches Public Information Team.