West Indian justice and peace church leader is honoured

By Ecumenical News International
30 Sep 2008

The World Council of Churches has honoured one of its former general secretaries, Philip Potter, who is a Methodist pastor from the West Indies and led the Geneva-based church grouping at a time when it took a high profile role in the struggle against apartheid and white minority regimes in southern Africa.

The ceremony took place on 24 September 2008 during a meeting of the WCC's executive committee in Lübeck in northern Germany, the German Protestant news agency epd reported.

"It is in part thanks to Potter that today more than 560 million Christians in 349 churches in over 110 countries are members of the World Council of Churches," the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), the country's biggest Protestant grouping, was quoted as saying by epd.

Potter turned 87 in August. He was WCC general secretary from 1972 to 1984. Potter now lives in Lübeck, where he is married to the city's retiring Lutheran bishop, Bärbel Wartenberg-Potter, herself a former WCC staff member responsible for issues of women in church and society.

Earlier in 2008, Potter received South Africa's highest civilian honour for foreign nationals, the Oliver Tambo award, for his efforts to combat racism and apartheid in southern Africa.

In 1948, as a recent seminary graduate and newly appointed overseas mission secretary for the Student Christian Movement of Britain and Ireland, Potter addressed the WCC's inaugural assembly in Amsterdam on behalf of the young people present. He has attended all subsequent WCC assemblies, most recently in Porto Alegre in 2006, when he was a guest of honour.

During Potter's term of office, in 1982, the WCC drew up what turned out to be an influential text on "Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry", three of the key doctrinal issues that separate churches.

Potter was born on 19 August 1921 on the island of Dominica in the West Indies. Initially he seemed to be destined for a legal career; a job in a solicitor's office was followed by a period as assistant to Dominica's attorney general. Still, in March 1943 he sensed a call to pastoral ministry, and after a year as a lay pastor, he began his theological education at Caenwood Theological College in Jamaica.

In 1954 he went to Geneva to work in the WCC youth department, then in 1960 moved to London as secretary for West Africa and the West Indies in the Methodist Missionary Society. In 1967 Potter returned to Geneva to serve as director of the WCC division of world mission and evangelism. He succeeded Eugene Carson Blake as general secretary in 1972.

The WCC executive committee meets twice a year and deals with matters specifically referred to it by the grouping's central committee, which is the WCC's main governing body between assemblies. The meeting in Lübeck began on 23 September and lasts until 26 September.

The WCC works to promote Christian unity, and its member churches are drawn primarily from Anglican, Orthodox and Protestant traditions. It works cooperatively with the Roman Catholic Church, which has members on some committees of the WCC but does not belong to the organization.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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