Interview with Olav Flykse Tveit Secretary General elect World Council of Churches

It is not often that one hears about the World Council of Churches (WCC), and although most people know their building in Geneva, few know what they are doing and what they represent. in November 2009, Olav Flykse Tveit, a native of Norway, was elected as the new Secretary General, and he took office 1 January 2010 here in Geneva.
We had the opportunity to talk to Mr Flykse Tveit just after his election…
International NewspapersQ : Congratulation on your election. Could you tell us a little about the election, and why you decided to run for this position ?
I have been working with ecumenical issues the last 17 years in the Mellomkirkelig r ?d (Council on Ecumenical and International Relations), which is under the Church of Norway.
I have also been doing research, and wrote a doctoral thesis about the WCC. I was also the secretary to several commissions such as the the Church of Norway Statskirkekommisjon and the Doctrinal Commission of the Church of Norway. For the last seven years, I have been the secretary general of the Mellomkirkelig r ?d, where I have been in charge of our relationship with the WCC. So I was aware that the position of Secretary General was going to be vacant. It was only last autumn that some mentioned this to me, and then I received some positive encouragement from people whom I’ve been working with and who know me personally. The procedures are quite complicated. First of all, the leadership in the Church of Norway had to nominate me as their candidate, and then I had to apply for the position, filling out a comprehensive form accompanied by a letter of motivation. After a screening process, five other candidates and I were called in for an interview in June. The search committee that was handling that process recommended two candidates – myself and a person from Korea – that the WCC Central Committee should chose between. The Central Committee, consisting of 158 members (142 present this time), then voted, but, before that, we each had to deliver a 15-minute speech where we presented our visions for the organization.
Q : What are your visions for the WCC ?
The main objective of the World Council of Churches is to work for unity of the churches in the world, and I think that this vision should be renewed and that we should see the actions undertaken by the WCC in light of this. Some think that working for the unity of the churches is a more theological program whereas others consider subjects like peace and human rights more important. Personally, I consider that all these questions belong to the unity of the Church. We are one and we should stand up for each other, show solidarity for those who are victims of injustice. In this and many other ways we have to show that the Churches stand together.
In addition, we have to stregthen the relationships between the churches, so that we respect and acknowledge each other. There are still some issues that are hampering full recognition of each other, and it is important that we find common ground and goals to work on together. I also think it’s important how the WCC works in our encounters with other religions. After all, we are an organization representing 560 million Christians, and our members know how life is at the grassroots level in their parts of the world. If we can lift this up and into the organization and discuss it with other religious leaders both at the international and national level, we can contribute and show the way in the religious dialogue. This requires that the Churches stand together in solidarity with each other.
Q : So if I get you right, you will, when you take office 1st January, do everything possible to put this organization into the international arena.
That is one of the goals, and it has to be done from the original base of the organization, that is in the perspective of unity of the churches, and through both solidarity and theological work.
Q : In the Human Rights Council, there are voices that raise concern over the tremendous power of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Do you have a comment, and are you going to become a voice that one should listen to in this environment ?
It is important that WCC be a voice that is heard in this environment, and it’s equally important that we establish a dialogue with OIC and other religious organizations. We should participle actively in the work for human rights. Q : We have little knowledge about the WCC, and they tend to keep a very low profile.
It may be that it keeps a low profile. I would, however, like to promote the opposite, namely to create a very open public profile both in relation to the international organizations in Geneva and elsewhere, and more generally to politicians and the media.
Q : So you will be a busy man promoting the organisation.
We have different tasks ahead of us. It is very important to consolidate and develop the organization in order to gain broad support in the member churches, so that the churches are more united. At the same time, I think it’s important to get more exposure.
Q : Do you have a program for Christians who are being discriminated against ? We have heard so much about Christians in Iraq being the victims of the war.
Yes we do. It’s time to develop more solidarity among the churches, and in particular with those churches that are minorities.
It’s equally important to cultivate sensitivity to the conditions of each church. We should not talk about coming from outside saying we will solve the problems for you. To be a church in a Muslim country requires a good knowledge of the culture, and to be sensitive and to show solidarity.
Q : We hear a lot about Islamophobia, how will you address this issue in your organization ?
I have stated on several occasions that the relationship to Islam will be one of the main issues. It’s a fact that our organization comprises churches that have to deal with Islam in many ways, so I think we have a lot to learn from each other, both on how to live together and from the Islamic organizations. I think that much can be done both on the national and international level to develop a better understanding for each other with less misunderstanding and fear.
A dialogue can also result in making some common decisions, and the acceptance that we do share quite a lot of common values. I have had very significant experience in this field in Norway. I was in charge of the Church of Norway’s relations with the Islamic Council of Norway. We developed a very open and accountable relationship where we could trust each other and where we could discuss all issues, including those which were controversial and difficult. For instance when the caricature crisis came up, we went out together and declared commonly that it was important to use freedom of speech in an wise way. This August, we made a common statement in support of the Christians in Pakistan who are facing very tough times. There are many Christians in Pakistan who are being killed. We went out together and encouraged common prayers – that the Muslims were praying in their mosques and Christians in their churches. This is something I would like bring to the international arena.
I think it’s essential to build trust so that we can also discuss highly controversial issues. This is not a way to hide the difficulties, but, rather, a way to face them and to react to them. I think there are many Christians and Muslims that share this interest of showing that we have many common values, and that we can live together in a society with democratic values and that we can show respect for the human being.