Celebrating an Ecumenical Pilgrimage: An Address to Honour Philip Potter on the Occasion of His 80th Birthday

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To begin with, I want to express my joy that we can celebrate Philip Potter's 80th birthday here in Loccum, a place which has become one of the resource centres for ecumenical reflection and action in Germany. Because Philip Potter has been an honorary canon of the ancient monastery of Loccum since 1984, this is indeed the congenial setting for this celebration.

Having accepted spontaneously the invitation to speak tonight, I realized only afterwards the difficulty of this task. Philip Potter has been for me, as for many of my generation, the towering symbol of ecumenical commitment; and even though he retired from active involvement in the life of the WCC already seventeen years ago, he has maintained his distinctive presence and continues to inspire new generations, especially here in Germany. Having had the privilege of working closely together with Philip for ten demanding and exciting years and now finding myself in the same position of responsibility which Philip held with such distinction for 12 years, memories of times past and reflections about the future orientation of the ecumenical movement flow into one another and are difficult to disentangle. I realize to what extent Philip has marked my own thinking as an elder brother whom I honour, even where, under the changed circumstances of the present situation, I might place some emphases differently.

I feel that the best way for me to honour Philip on the occasion of his 80th birthday will be to identify some of the insights and impulses which he has articulated -- often ahead of his time and against some resistance -- and which have lost nothing of their significance. I shall therefore concentrate my remarks on three foci which are intimately related to Philip's role of leadership in the ecumenical movement: (1) his understanding of the church as a pilgrim people with a prophetic mandate; (2) his emphasis on the universal dialogue of cultures; and (3) his effort to widen the scope of the ecumenical vision. Obviously, this selection of issues is subjectively conditioned; others, and possibly Philip himself, might choose different issues. But my purpose is not a comprehensive assessment of Philip Potter's many contributions to the life of the WCC and the ecumenical movement as a whole. Rather, I want to continue my own conversation with Philip, a conversation which has been a kind of "red thread" in my thinking over these last thirty years.

The church as a pilgrim people

In this gathering of friends, most of whom have been associated with Philip Potter for long years or even decades, there is no need to retrace the stages of his long life in and for the oikoumene. He certainly has to be regarded as the most outstanding figure in this third generation of ecumenical leaders. Several friends, like Pauline Webb and Werner Simpfendorfer, have provided us with personal portraits (1). Three books have been published on the life and thinking of Philip Potter, one of these a learned dissertation based on a comprehensive interpretation of all of Philip's writings. (2) The bibliography of his published and unpublished articles, lectures and sermons is very impressive, and his book Life in All its Fullness, with a compilation of his most significant writings during his time as WCC general secretary, continues to be a source of inspiration even twenty years after its first publication. (3) The most important sources for me in preparing this address have been -- in addition to the publications mentioned already -- the collection of essays on contemporary ecumenical themes, edited by Pauline Webb in 1984 under the title Faith and Faithfulness as a tribute to Philip Potter on the occasion of his retirement as general secretary of the WCC, (4) and the documentation of a symposium held in October 1984 on the same occasion published under the title Whither Ecumenism? (5)

Whenever Philip has occasion to tell the story of his life, he emphasizes his origins on the island of Dominica in the Caribbean Sea. …