world council of churches

Stanley Samartha (1920-2001) - Faith and Order Perspective
Lukas Vischer

We had something in common. I was born in Basel, and he, with a tongue in the cheek, liked to call himself a ‘product of the Basel Mission’. There was an ambivalence in this statement. He no doubt acknowledged with gratitude what he had received from the Basel mission. He came from an area evangelised by the Basel mission. His father was a pastor of a church founded by the Basel mission. He was trained at a High School established by the Basel mission and later got his first teaching appointment at the Basel Evangelical Mission Theological Seminary in Mangalore. He spent a semester at the University of Basel following courses with Oscar Cullmann and Karl Barth.

The Basel Mission, and especially its president Jacques Rossel was rightly very proud when Stanley in 1968 was invited to join the staff of the World Council of Churches. But there was not only gratitude; when speaking of the Basel Mission, Stanley often also manifested critique and some irritation.

Once we travelled together to Russia at the invitation of the Russian Orthodox Church. It was in 1970s when the situation of the church was still very precarious. One day we participated in the evening prayers at Leningrad Theological Seminary. It was a moving service, a perfect example of the liturgical riches of the Orthodox church. As the service went on, we were more and more captured by the atmosphere. Towards the end of the service Stanley whispered over my shoulder. "Why have we not received anything of this in India? The Basel Mission has stood in the way of this larger experience!"

Stanley brought an academic style to the World Council of Churches. He had taught systematic theology and insisted on intellectual coherence. He thoroughly disliked the bureaucratic side of the ecumenical movement and sought to limit administrative duties to a minimum. Our offices were on the same floor of the Jura wing, and therefore we had frequent exchanges. He liked to turn up unannounced equipped with a paper on which he had scribbled a few notes. He was eager to raise questions, often unexpected and embarrassing questions which required a good deal of reflection. The journey from mission to dialogue was for him a theological journey. Step by step he succeeded in widening the horizons - his own and the ones of his colleagues.

In the late sixties the Faith and Order Commission had organised two unofficial meetings with Muslims. At the Faith and Order Commission meeting in Bristol (1967) a Christian from Egypt had protested against what he called the Christian obsession with the Christian-Jewish dialogue and offered to bring a delegation of Muslims to Geneva. The encounter was illuminating - for me it was the first occasion to meet Muslims, not a religious system as taught at university but actual persons. Stanley always emphasised this aspect: We are not in dialogue with ‘religions’ but with people of living faiths. In my eyes, it was a coup de maître to use this formula as name of the new dialogue secretariat. Many people were helped by this approach to share more freely in the new initiative.

An important interaction between Stanley’s work and the Faith and Order Commission took place around the WCC Assembly in Nairobi (1975). In those years we were working on a new statement describing the ‘unity we seek’ in the ecumenical movement and came up with the vision of the one church as a ‘conciliar fellowship’. Stanley contributed to this debate by a rather surprising reflection. He claimed that ‘conciliarity’, i.e. the attempt to seek, find and articulate the truth through representative assemblies, was a particularity of Christianity and had spread only at a later stage to other religions. Since the church was ‘a wandering people’ advancing through history to the ultimate goal of the kingdom, it had to struggle for the truth within the contingencies of history. Councils were the instrument for this process. Both in the Faith and Order Commission and in Stanley’s department great emphasis was placed on the integrity and participation of the local community. Universality was not to be isolated from its roots in the human community where people live side by side.

In 1973, Faith and Order defined ‘conciliar fellowship’ as a ‘fellowship of local churches’. A year later the Dialogue Secretariat called an inter-religious conference in Colombo which sought to clarify the contribution of religions to a world community living in peace. The conference came up with the vision of a ‘community of communities’, i.e. a world community respecting the identity of religious, ethnic, cultural and linguistic communities. There was a clear correspondence between the two visions. On the one hand churches acting together and coalescing into a universal communion, on the other hand a world community built on the integrity of communities and drawing its strength from a strict application of the criterion of subsidiarity.

Developments since the mid 1970s have gone in the opposite direction. The relevance of the vision, however, remains intact.

Stanley Samartha’s contribution to the witness of the World Council of Churches has been considerable and there are good reasons to remember him with deep gratitude.

Go to Dr S. Samartha's Time at the World Council of Churches, by Dick Mulder
Return to Current Dialogue (38), December 2001

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