A Laboratory for Ecumenical Life

By Weber, Hans-Ruedi | The Ecumenical Review, October 1996 | Go to article overview

A Laboratory for Ecumenical Life


Weber, Hans-Ruedi, The Ecumenical Review


Bossey evokes many things. It is a place with a long history, going back to the 12th century when the Cistercian monks of Bonmont and their lay brothers laboured in the fields and vineyards around the old tower which still is Bossey's landmark. The present chateau, built around 1720, has just been restored. Since mediaeval times, a picturesque succession of "lords of Bossey" and private owners have shaped the history of the domain. After the monks there were politicians, businessmen and artists -- among them the beautiful French actress Elisabeth Lange, "la belle chatelaine de Bossey", who still haunts the place.

The Ecumenical Institute

In 1946 the chateau became the home of the Ecumenical Institute of the World Council of Churches. Bossey is now the name for a worldwide fellowship of women and men, most of whom do not actually know one another and yet feel a sense of kinship. "Bossey" can be found today in the most unlikely places: at a priest's crowded home in an African township of Johannesburg, in the office of a lawyer or a medical doctor in Western Europe, in a theological college on a Micronesian atoll, at a women's meeting in Latin America, a church headquarters in New York, a political action group in Korea, a Romanian Orthodox monastery or a Vatican office in Rome. During the last fifty years many thousands of people from very different walks of life and all Christian confessions were introduced at Bossey to the cause of the ecumenical movement and challenged to commit themselves to it.

When the Institute was officially inaugurated, the one who conceived it, Willem A. Visser 't Hooft, said, "The Institute's programme has three main subjects: the Bible, the world, the church universal." Suzanne de Dietrich, a key member of the first teaching team, wrote that "Bossey is a sort of laboratory where ecumenism is being lived". Since the 1970s the various educational departments and desks of the WCC have reflected a good deal about the theory of ecumenical education or ecumenical learning. Bossey has made only a few contributions to such theoretical reflection, but for fifty years it has been involved in the praxis of this educational process. Its laboratory experience may therefore have relevance for planning the future of the ecumenical movement.

Which ecumenical movement to serve?

At present there is in fact no common understanding of what "ecumenical" means. Consciously or unconsciously, members of the governing bodies and staff of the WCC and other ecumenical agencies work with different understandings of what they want to serve. This creates many confusions, and consequently discussions on ecumenical education or learning have often been frustrating.

Some would limit the term "ecumenical" almost exclusively to work and prayer for church unity and interconfessional dialogue. The Decree on Ecumenism of the Second Vatican Council (Unitatis Redintegratio) uses the term in such a precise and limited way: it designates all activities and enterprises "for the restoration of unity among all Christians" (para. 1).

A second group, while still placing church unity at the centre, expands the concern for unity to the unity of humankind. Here also the mission and service of the churches and the renewal of their life are taken as an integral part of the ecumenical movement. Typical of this understanding is the 1993 statement on "Ecumenical Formation", formulated by the Joint Working Group of the Roman Catholic Church and the WCC. It starts with the imperative for church unity and ends with the new heaven and the new earth.(1)

A third group understands the meaning of "ecumenical" in the light of what has actually developed within that trend in modern church history since the late 19th century which is generally called "the ecumenical movement". This trend not only led to the founding of such organizations as the World Student Christian Federation, national and regional Christian councils and the World Council of Churches, but also strongly marked the Second Vatican Council. …

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