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Ecumenical laboratory celebrates 60 years

By John Roberts (Methodist Mission and Ecumenical) and Alexander Belopopsky (World Council of Churches)

Amidst the vineyards overlooking Lake Geneva in Switzerland is Chateau de Bossey, the World Council of Churches’ (WCC) Ecumenical Institute. It has been a unique international centre for Christian dialogue and learning since 1946.

Founded as a place of healing in war-torn Europe through the efforts of the WCC's founding general secretary, Dr Wilhelm Visser 't Hooft, the first courses brought together concentration camp survivors, those who had served in armies, and members of resistance movements. With a focus on rebuilding dialogue and nurturing reconciliation, Bossey developed into a recognised academic institution with ties to the University of Geneva.

The Institute has been described as an "ecumenical laboratory" because of its ability to bring together Christians from diverse backgrounds to explore and debate some of the most complex and controversial issues challenging the churches. The graduate school and post-graduate programmes, are at the heart of Bossey’s life. Among the list of more than 2,500 Bossey alumni are university professors, ecumenical officers, bishops, pastors and priests, as well as political and civil society leaders from all continents.

Sixteen of these alumni have been New Zealanders. They have come from the Anglican, Associated Churches of Christ, Methodist, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic traditions. Six of these have been Methodist. Jack Penman was the first in 1963-64. Jack says he cannot speak too highly of the experience of living amongst people of so many different cultures and church backgrounds. The theological debate that he engaged in at Bossey continues to extend him.

Phyllis Guthardt attended in 1970-71 and says her time at Bossey broadened her understanding of Christian faith and its relationship to people of other cultures and faiths. When a Czech tutor for the institute was unable to get a visa to enter Switzerland, Phyllis who was enrolled as a student, found herself appointed stand-in tutor. The Bossey experience led to many international ecumenical experiences for her over the next twenty years.

Stuart Grant was a Bossey student 1980-81. He continues to value the experience of being with people from other parts of the world and sharing in their experience of church. However the major change for him came when he was hosted in Tubingen, Germany for Christmas, and met a theological student by the name of Cornelia who later became his wife, and is now a presbyter in the Methodist Church of New Zealand.

Other graduates have been Keith Taylor, John Roberts, and Derek McNichol.

The current director of the ecumenical institute is Fr. Ioan Sauca, an Orthodox theologian from Romania, himself a graduate of the school. He says the most important and life-transforming part of Bossey’s ecumenical formation is its spiritual life. Spirituality is at the very heart of the community, says Ioan.

Bossey also hosts a range of seminars on diverse topics Some 25,000 people from virtually all churches, confessions and cultures have participated in these seminars over the past 60 years.

Bossey is still young, and there is no shortage of ideas for new initiatives. One vision for the future is to enhance the spiritual life of the Bossey by reinforcing ties with Christian communities in other places. Linking theology with practical care for the creation is another potential direction. Other current plans include an inter-religious summer school, bringing together young people from the major world faiths, nurturing dialogue and understanding beyond the traditional Christian context.

“The churches, and the world, still need a Bossey," says Ioan.