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22 August 2000

100th anniversary of the birth of Willem A. Visser ’t Hooft

On 20 September, Willem A. Visser ’t Hooft, the first general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), would have celebrated his 100th birthday. John Garrettt, the WCC ‘s director of communication from 1954 to 1960, remembers the great ecumenist, known to his colleagues simply as "Wim".

Remembering Wim
By John Garrett

Willem A. Visser 't Hooft, the first general secretary of the World Council of Churches, was born in Haarlem in the Netherlands in September, 100 years ago. His nickname was Wim, pronounced vim. Yes; vim and vigour. We remember him: the compact physique, the stamp of instant authority; an acute gaze set in a rugged head; a slightly guttural voice, precise idiomatic command of several languages. His English, French and German overturned the chaos of Babel. He could have been a head of state or a diplomat - not smooth, but strong. He outstripped learned professors by his grasp of ideas. He defended conclusions tenaciously. Some said he did not suffer fools gladly; he did not really suffer anyone gladly. He was a man of God, of prayer, with a controlling vocation - furthering the visible unity of the Church. He looked bleakly on Christian divisions. Christ’s prayer that his followers "may all be one" ruled his conduct. He invoked another saying of Jesus: "Whoever does not gather with Me scatters." After hearing him, we could not retreat into self-satisfied sectarian hide-outs. At the inaugural Amsterdam assembly of the WCC in 1948 he referred to "the anomaly of our plurality" Of Christ, at a youth conference in India in 1952, he declared: "You say Christ is the answer; I say Christ is the question.’

His second role-model was John R. Mott, the formidable American lay pioneer of the ecumenical advance. In 1926, having completed at Leiden a critical doctoral study of Walter Rauschenbach's American social gospel theology, he worked under Mott for the student YMCA, helping him run a World YMCA conference at Helsinki. Mott’s dynamism and grasp of methodical organisation set future directions for Visser ‘t Hooft’s life. When Mott died in 1955 he was close to tears. The two were united by a single vision - the growth of God’s kingdom.

In 1932 Visser ‘t Hooft was appointed general secretary of the World Student Christian Federation, with offices in Geneva - his home from then on. In the 1930s and during World War II he shared in Europe in the resistance to Hitler. He prepared the World Conference of Christian Youth, Amsterdam 1939, when resistance to Nazism already simmered among the delegates. In World War II many found themselves on opposite sides. In his job with the WSCF Visser ‘t Hooft kept in touch with friends. He was a follower of the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth, who had been expelled from Germany after refusing to take an oath to Hitler. Visser ‘t Hooft admired Barth’s crisis theology and read successive volumes of his huge Church Dogmatics as they appeared. At the WCC’s first assembly in 1948, Barth spoke and helped draft the message. His students were among militants in the resistance, within and beyond Germany. Visser ‘t Hooft, in neutral Geneva, became a key point in the European underground. He used spy tactics, concealing microfilm messages in lead pencils. Militants sought him out in neutral Geneva. The World Council was coming to birth during the trauma.

"World"? The world, sooner or later, shows up in Geneva. Visser ‘t Hooft laid stress on the word world in World Council. He was chosen by the WCC’s preparatory committee to direct its process of formation, 1938-1948. He was already a world citizen with contacts in all continents. He was not a conventional cleric, though he was ordained. He could be worldly. He knew a host of politicians, ambassadors and public servants, many of whom had been friends together in the student movement. When he left his World Council offices in the late afternoon, he frequently accepted invitations to late afternoon receptions where he could buttonhole diplomats or heads of state. He usually planned to ask an important question or seek a favour; then he went home to his intellectually gifted, and often unwell, Dutch wife. He used his mother tongue where possible, as when he tangled theologically with South Africa’s Dutch Reformed over apartheid.

His wit was impish, but sometimes kept restrained. When a Church of England bishop who attended the World Council’s second Evanston assembly in 1954 complained in public that the Council suffered from "too much German theology, too much American money and too much Dutch bureaucracy", he chuckled. He said: "I had to refrain from sending him a telegram: ‘Invite British prelacy join ecumenical conspiracy'."

His world-wide travel network laid foundations for transnational programmes. He fostered inter-church aid, response to rapid third world change, service to refugees, opposition to racism, the cooperation of men and women in church and society. He viewed these common tasks as flowing from expanding unity. He called all this ecumenical action.

He relied on women advisers and staff members, among them Suzanne de Diétrich, who led Bible study at the Ecumenical Institute, Bossey, and Madeleine Barot, who had been founder in occupied France of CIMADE, an ecumenical initiative for aiding victims of the war. Dorothy Mackie, the wife of Visser ‘t Hooft’s pastorally skilful Scots associate general secretary, who followed him into the WCC from the WSCF, once advised a woman who had difficulties with Visser ‘t Hooft’s intransigence: "You stand right up to Wim; he likes his women tough."

Inspired partly by Mott’s earlier approaches to Eastern Orthodoxy he had long valued the Greeks’ stress on koinonia, the word translated as "fellowship" in defining the WCC. He intervened many times to ensure the rights in Turkey of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. During the cold war and beyond, Visser ‘t Hooft faced criticism for maintaining solidarity with Eastern churches, including the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church. Russian Orthodox exiles in Paris were friends.

In his dealings with churches in Communist lands he was a realist. He knew the churches were, in essence, islands of faith in a vast menacing sea. He advised his staff members, when visiting, to watch out for state infiltrators in church administrations; he called them "nursemaids".

When in 1960 Pope John XXIII announced a "council of unity" to reach out to "the separated brethren", he at first anticipated a renewed invitation to "return to the mother church." The Catholic Church had previously declined to cooperate with the World Council. He came in time to appreciate that Vatican II intended radical renovation, accepting ecumenism. He need not have been unduly alarmed. In the 1950s, before Vatican II convened, Hans Harms of the WCC Faith and Order staff had regularly visited his German countryman, Augustin Cardinal Bea, the confessor of Pope Pius XII, in Rome. Harms brought back confidential word of change brewing in the papal curia. Eventually Visser ‘t Hooft responded. He conferred, in Dutch, with the Dutch head of the Vatican’s unity secretariat, Cardinal Jan Willebrands, who needed his advice when other churches were invited to attend the Council’s sessions. Two popes, Paul VI and John Paul II visited the ecumenical centre after Visser ‘t Hooft had retired in 1966.

After his retirement, he was given office space in the Ecumenical Centre and wrote his memoirs. Staff members clustered round him during coffee breaks to hang on his words. He had become a legend - a guru. Did he linger on too long? Did he stand in his successors’ light? A journalist who heard him speak on a recurring question, "Is the ecumenical movement still moving?", said, "maybe he feels it’s slowing down?"

On his 80th birthday I wrote to congratulate him, recalling words of John R. Mott: "The best still lies before us." He replied saying, "Mott was right, but," he added, "for me, mostly upstairs." He died in 1985. We still look up to him. In the year 2000 we feel his continuing presence.

Mott’s frequently heard tribute to some collaborator was: "What do we not owe to him?" Indeed...

The WCC will be commemorating Visser ’t Hooft at a ceremony to be held on 28 September, during the meeting of the WCC Executive Committee. Other activities marking this anniversary will be announced in a forthcoming press release. For a chronology of Visser 't Hooft's life, click here

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.