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19 June 2000

Tribute to Marlin VanElderen

cf. WCC Press Release, PR-00-17, of 13 June 2000

The unexpected and untimely death of Marlin VanElderen has left his colleagues in the World Council of Churches deeply shocked and has provoked a flood of messages of sympathy from all parts of the worldwide ecumenical community. None of those who worked with Marlin or knew him only as an excellent editor and lucid writer has remained untouched by the news of his passing away in the early hours of Pentecost Monday after a massive heart attack.

For nearly twenty years, Marlin VanElderen had been on the staff of the WCC. After an initial one-year period, from September 1980 - August 1981, when he served as an interim editor for WCC Publications, he was officially appointed in October 1982 as magazine editor for the WCC monthly magazine One World. He remained in this position until October 1993 when he was made chief editor for all publications of the WCC, a responsibility which he held until his death. In addition, during the months leading up to the Harare Assembly, he served as acting director of the Communication Department until the arrival of the new director in January 1999.

However, this brief record of his official functions within the WCC cannot do justice to his unique contribution to the life and work of the Council. When he first came to the WCC, he was already an accomplished editor with Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company in Grand Rapids (USA), the city where he grew up. Raised in the spirit of the Christian Reformed Church, he was educated at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, where he already began to manifest his gifts for writing and editing. He acquired his professional skills with Wm. B. Eerdmans who, since the 1970s, had been a frequent co-publisher with the WCC. Thus Marlin VanElderen came into touch with WCC publications even before joining the staff.

For more than half of the twenty years’ existence of the WCC magazine One World, Marlin VanElderen served as its editor. Through his choice of title stories, the continuous discovery of new and creative contributors, the collection of short clippings and vignettes from around the world, and particularly through his thought-provoking and incisive editorials, he succeeded in making One World a widely appreciated source of up-to-date information and reflection about the ecumenical movement. It pained him more than anybody else when, in 1995, One World went out of existence, an early casualty of the financial problems faced by the WCC.

However, even while the regular editing of One World was his main responsibility until 1993, his unique gifts as a writer and editor had become a very valuable asset for the WCC. Thus, in 1990, looking forward to the Canberra Assembly (1991), he wrote a special book for the Risk series, Introducing the World Council of Churches, which, even ten years later, has remained a reliable and thoughtful presentation of the history, purpose and activities of the WCC in the context of the wider ecumenical movement. During the same period, together with T.K. Thomas, he formed the team which coordinated and completed the editing of the first Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, which since then has become an indispensable source of information and stimulation for ecumenical research and discussion.

It was natural therefore that after the retirement of T.K. Thomas, Marlin VanElderen should be made chief editor of WCC books and managing editor of the Ecumenical Review. Two major projects stand out during these last seven years, and his premature death has turned them into a legacy of Marlin VanElderen to the WCC and the ecumenical movement as a whole. The first of these is the preparation of a third volume of The History of the Ecumenical Movement. A first effort to carry forward the historical account beyond 1968 had to be abandoned in 1984. The positive echo encountered by the Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement served as encouragement for a second attempt for which Marlin VanElderen took the overall responsibility together with a group of editors, including John Briggs, Mercy Oduyoye and Georges Tsetsis. In 1997, the manuscript was essentially assembled, and the volume was to be published in time for the Eighth Assembly at Harare. The need to assume the leadership responsibility for the whole department obliged Marlin to set the editing task aside. He finally managed to return to it in the weeks just prior to his death. While he now will no longer see the volume in print, this book will remain his lasting gift to the ecumenical movement. His comprehensive grasp of ecumenical developments during this turbulent thirty-year period made him the uniquely qualified editor for a work which will mark the transition of the WCC and the ecumenical movement into a new historical phase.

The nature of this transition became the focus of the second major project during these last years in the life of Marlin VanElderen. In 1989, the Central Committee of the WCC had initiated a reflection process about a Common Understanding and Vision of the WCC. From the beginning, Marlin was centrally involved in giving direction to this process; first by organizing and then interpreting the results of a major consultation on this topic, and then by developing a questionnaire to stimulate the direct participation of member churches in the reflection. When in 1995 the decision was taken to orient the process towards the preparation of a major policy statement for the Eighth Assembly, marking the 50th anniversary of the WCC, Marlin VanElderen naturally moved into the role of the chief drafter of what became known as the CUV Document. His unfailing sense for the integrity of the WCC as a "fellowship of churches" enabled him to find the language which provided a new orientation for the WCC after a long period of critical self-assessment. The clarity of his perspective which transcended the defensive struggles of particular interests, as well as his unquestioned loyalty to the ecumenical cause, also made him the indispensable drafter of the outlines for the new organizational structure of the WCC.

For many years, Marlin VanElderen has carried a burden which was more than what he should have been allowed to assume. His modesty and his unrivalled competence again and again placed him in situations where expectations turned naturally to him. In many ways be became not only the living memory but the conscience of the WCC in search of a new self-affirmation. His particular gift to ask the necessary (and sometimes uncomfortable) questions at the right time allowed new answers to be formulated. His professional ethos as an editor made him prefer a place in the background, never seeking personal recognition for himself. His gift and his passion was to enable others to express and manifest clearly their convictions about the ecumenical vocation.

As a colleague, he inspired trust and reliability. Whatever had passed his editing touch could be trusted as a consistent exposition which was to be taken seriously. In a very special way, he was both tender and strong, caring selflessly for others and maintaining at the same time a firm orientation towards the task at hand. He could listen attentively for a long time - and take notes - while others would exhaust themselves in talking. When he finally intervened, he would often limit himself to a brief pointed observation, to a penetrating question or to a remark loosening up the situation with his wonderful dry sense of humour. In a quiet way and drawing on his inner strength he helped decisively to establish a sense of integration and coherence.

Marlin Van Elderen will be remembered with profound gratitude as a colleague and friend. His premature death leaves a gap that will not be filled for a long time. He had become the most articulate interpreter of the WCC in the process of transition. This process is unfinished, as the legacy of his life has remained incomplete. The final words of his essay Introducing the WCC now take on the character of a charge for those who have been privileged to work with him and who will have to carry the unfinished task forward. "Is the ecumenical movement moving? If so, some may be tempted to say, it moves very slowly. Thus, paradoxically, the WCC calls for both patience - recognition that in ecumenism, as in mountain-climbing, progress is slower the closer you get to the top - and a constant renewal of the ‘holy impatience’ with the status quo that led to its formation in the first place." He had both - patience and holy impatience, and as we remember him, we should not lose sight of either of the two.

Konrad Raiser
General Secretary, WCC

A fund has been set up in memory of Marlin, and, if desired, contributions may be sent to the Marlin VanElderen Fund for the Development of Ecumenical Literature. Post Office account: Ccp 12-572-3, or Bank account: UBS Geneva, number 240-695149.00A.

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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.