The beginnings of the Bossey Ecumenical Institute are closely related to the period of the formation of the World Council of Churches. Visser't Hooft, one of the great pioneers of the modern ecumenical movement and the first general secretary of the WCC, had the vision of an international centre where people could meet and discuss reconciliation and the healing of memories in the context of the scars, hatred, antagonisms and divisions brought about by the second world war. An 18th century mansion known as "Chateau de Bossey" was found, situated in the quiet outskirts of Geneva. In the Middle Ages, the land belonged to a nearby Cistercian monastery and the search for spirituality on these grounds had a long tradition. In fact, to this day the whole region around Bossey is called "The Holy Land"--La Terre Sainte.
In October 1946, the Ecumenical Institute was officially opened, two years prior to the foundation of the WCC. Initially, the chateau was only rented. It was only in 1950 that, with a substantial grant given by the committed American Baptist layman John D. Rockefeller, Jr, the chateau was bought by the WCC.
The graduate school, in cooperation with the University of Geneva, was inaugurated in 1952. During its first fifty years of existence, a total number of 2,442 students, lay and ordained, men and women, from all over the world, from a variety of cultures, churches and Christian confessions, have attended the courses of the graduate school. Another estimated 20,000 have attended the short-term seminars or have come to Bossey either individually or with visiting study groups. The impact Bossey has had on the lives of those who have had the Bossey experience is impressive. After their return home, many have become known ecumenical leaders, presidents of churches, bishops, cardinals or patriarchs, professors of theology, members of governments, leading figures in cultural or business fields etc.
Ecumenical formation at Bossey has a dynamic feature. Students coming from all over the world have brought with them the many challenges the churches were faced with in different contexts. They expected to find adequate answers on how to respond to issues concretely on a local level. If one has a look at the themes that have been debated and reflected upon during the more than fifty years of graduate schools, one can easily see the reflection of the acute problems of the world that faced churches in this period and the attempt of Bossey to give an ecumenical formation related always to a concrete world context.
While ecumenical teaching in Bossey has constantly developed, a major shift took place recently at the beginning of the third Christian millennium. As a result of these changes and improvements, there are many who speak today of a "new Bossey".
The ecumenical formation of laity in Bossey is multifaceted and is done throughout the year. The most structured programmes, however, are the short-term seminars, which have been reshaped with a strengthened and more focused approach and a renewed methodology. Subjects have been proposed for discussion and reflection that represent the delicate and at times difficult challenges that confront the churches and present-day societies. Topics such as human sexuality, genetic engineering, the "new age" and the mission of the church etc. have been included in the agenda of Bossey, which has offered a free and safe academic platform to people to meet, study, reflect and discuss. Due to such endeavours, Bossey continues its role and vocation of avant-garde of the ecumenical movement. Although this aspect of lay formation through short-term courses continues to be vital and important for Bossey, I will concentrate in what follows on formal, academic and longer term ecumenical formation.
New challenges, new responses: the present day structure of ecumenical formation in Bossey
At the end of the 20th century, it became evident that ecumenical teaching had to be adapted to the present-day situation and expectations of both the churches and students interested in studying in Bossey. Although the graduate schools were organized from the very beginning in cooperation with the University of Geneva, the emphasis was more on ecumenical experience and informative presentations and discussions, rather than formal academic research. At the end of the graduate school, a certificate was issued by Bossey but unfortunately it did not have any formal academic accreditation.
Because of this, the number of applications had dropped by the 90s and students from Europe and North America became extremely rare compared to the past. It became clear that the students of today are ready to invest time and finances provided that, at the end of their studies, they get adequate academic qualifications which may be used when they return home. After hearing that evaluation, the board of Bossey approved a proposed new structure of programmes as a response to the needs of our time. The present programmes continue the initial vocation of the Ecumenical Institute of Bossey, but are more focused and more clearly structured. In this category, there are three major programmes: the Graduate School of Ecumenical Studies (for a period of five months: October-February), the Master of Ecumenical Studies (for the period of a full year) and the Ph.D. in Ecumenical Studies (for a period of maximum five years, out of which one at least in residence at Bossey). (1)
Academically, the Ecumenical Institute of Bossey is attached to the University of Geneva. Consequently, the admission of the students follows the criteria and requirements of the University of Geneva and the programmes are done in cooperation with the Autonomous Faculty of Protestant Theology from the University of Geneva. The certificates and diplomas awarded at Bossey are now academically accredited through the University of Geneva and are internationally recognized.
As a result of strengthening the academic standard and cooperation with the University of Geneva, the structure of both the faculty and of the curriculum had to he adjusted. The professors teaching in Bossey have to meet the criteria for endorsement by the Faculty of Theology. Great efforts are made to have a balanced faculty in terms of gender, confession, region and expertise. (2) The teaching is also strengthened by visiting professors selected and invited from among internationally recognized theologians and ecumenists from different parts of the world. The creation of a Ph.D. programme has meant establishing a network with other major ecumenical institutes all over the world in order to co-direct theses with particular subjects which require very specific knowledge and expertise. The faculty has been structured into four chairs: Ecumenical Biblical Hermeneutics, Ecumenical Missiology, Ecumenical Theology and Ecumenical Social Ethics. Concerning the methodology of teaching, it is done in plenaries, modules, seminars, group and panel discussions, Bible study groups. The students are requested to make presentations in seminars, to elaborate adequate research papers and to pass oral exams.
Finally, two main features were adopted in the programmes of the new Bossey which are bringing a real change in the dynamics of the student community and to the whole ethos and methodology of teaching.
1. It was decided to accept students coming from non-WCC member churches such as Evangelical, Pentecostal or Charismatic groups or even from churches and communities which are openly against the conciliar ecumenical movement. Seven or eight of the approx. 40 students admitted each year now come from such groups. At times the …