New WCC head aims at global issues, skirting some hot buttons

February 25, 2010

WCC General Secretary Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, 22 Feb 2010/WCC-Peter Williams

Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, the new general secretary of the World Council of Churches, aims to give the organisation a higher profile as a focus for action by Christian bodies on global issues like humanitarian relief in crises, climate change and the Middle East impasse. But at his first news conference this week since taking over on January 1, the Norwegian Lutheran cleric also made it clear that the constraints imposed by a widely diverse organisation that makes its decisions by consensus limit his options.  It’s unlikely we’ll hear him taking a public stand on two of the main issues making religion headlines these days, the sexual abuse charges against the Roman Catholic Church and the disputes over homosexuality straining relations in several Protestant churches.

Tveit left no doubt that the 349-member WCC, which groups many of the world’s Christian churches but not the Roman Catholics, will not join in widespread criticism of the Roman Catholic Church for its continuing problem with clerical sexual abuse of children. These have surfaced most recently in Ireland and Germany.

“That is a burden all of us have to bear. It is a burden that is carried by the Roman Catholic Church, and they have to deal with it. It is not our role to make it worse,” the 48-year-old Tveit told journalists on Monday at the Geneva Ecumenical Centre, where he has his office and which serves as the effective headquarters of the WCC.

The strength of the WCC, which has member churches in 110 countries representing some 560 million Christian believers, lay in in its power to combine resources from around the globe to move quickly to help people stricken by disasters — as it did in the wake of the Haiti earthquake on January 12, he said.

“I think it is important that the WCC has a strategic role, one of leadership, especially at the present time when we in the churches have a lot of unsolved issues between us,” he declared.

Tveit, who had been in office only a few days when a devastating quake struck Haiti, was vocal in calling for rich countries to write off that country’s debts — a plea that was heard by the world’s eight most industrialised nations, the G8. He is now insisting that the International Monetary Fund folllow suit (audio here).

On climate change, he said the WCC would be working, after the abortive effort by governments to shape a new and binding treaty in Copenhagen last December, to make the voice of people of faith around the world much louder. Christians had to become engaged and push their governments to agree on strong action without arguing about who was responsible for global warming in the first place (audio here).

Samuel Kobia in Beijing, 21 Nov. 2006/Claro Cortes

Samuel Kobia in Beijing, 21 Nov. 2006/Claro Cortes

Tveit’s predecessor Samuel Kobia of Kenya, whose last two years were overshadowed by a row over an academic degree he claimed to have, once described Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories as “a sin against God.” But the new general secretary took his distance from that statement.

The WCC’s governing bodies had said often that the occupation was wrong. The use of religious language in such a context was simply a way of saying that things have to change. “It is not to condemn some as being worse than others,” Tveit said (audio here).

Tveit was asked if the WCC should not itself take a stand on the issue of what Anglican bishops from across southern Africa recently suggested was a wave of homophobia sweeping across the continent south of the Sahara, with a widely condemned anti-gay law under consideration in Uganda as its most obvious expression.

“The WCC acts on a consensual basis, and it would be hard to imagine that we could come up with a consensual statement,” he replied, in a clear reference to the view of other leading African churchmen that homsexuality was a moral perversion that should not be allowed to spread. But he suggested that he sympathised with the southern African bishops’ position that it was immoral to oppress people because of sexual orientation.

“I hope the WCC would take a position on protecting vulnerable people,” he said. “It is an issue we will have to come back to. I hope the WCC can contribute to a serious conversation on these issues.”

For some more audio files from the Q&A on relations with the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, Muslim-Christian relations and the council’s financial situation, click here and here.

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