July 5 – Willem Visser ’t Hooft

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Willem Visser ’t Hooft (1900-1985), reformer of the Church

Visser ’t Hooft — “Wim” to friends and colleagues — was the founding general secretary of the World Council of Churches. More than any other individual, he gave enduring shape to the modern ecumenical movement.

After studying theology, including a doctorate at Leiden, he became secretary for international youth work of the World YMCA (1924–32), then general secretary of the World Student Christian Federation. With the decision (1938) to form a world council of churches, the promising young Dutchman was seen as the obvious person to lead it. War intervened. He found himself at a lonely desk in Geneva, just a few kilometres from occupied France, responsible for an embryonic “WCC in process of formation” and struggling to maintain communications with church leaders divided and isolated by the conflict.

With the end of hostilities, Visser ’t Hooft set about planning the WCC’s inaugural assembly (Amsterdam, 1948). The years that followed involved more than finding staff and setting up an organization. He had to get to know a rapidly growing constituency, come to grips with the dilemmas of churches living under communism, find a path through Cold War tensions, address issues from the emerging so-called Third World and deal with the ecumenical impact of the Second Vatican Council. Above all he had to establish a style of work for the new World Council — an entity for which, as he said, there were no precedents.

After retiring in 1966 he was elected the WCC’s honorary president, which meant continuing involvement in the Council’s decision-making. With a permanent office in the Ecumenical Centre, he kept in contact with staff and visitors until shortly before his death, from emphysema, at the age of 85.

He was a brilliant man, a deft policy-maker and an effective communicator. A workaholic, he exuded energy. He had clear vision, a sharp mind, imagination, statesmanship, outstanding diplomatic skills and fluency in four languages. It is hard to imagine how the WCC, without that rare combination of gifts, would ever have seen daylight.

Wim was loved and admired. But he was not easy to work with. Some found him brusque and authoritarian – “more general than secretary”, went one comment. He did not suffer fools gladly, and into that category most of his colleagues found that, sooner or later, they fell. Mellowing in his later years, though, he always showed a special interest in younger staff — with a special tolerance for their gaffes!

Theologically, Visser ’t Hooft owed much to his friend the Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Yet he was no doctrinaire Barthian. Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism informed his approach to social ethics and international affairs. He drew insights from a range of theologians, church leaders and, he always stressed, lay people too. For himself, Wim resisted the label theologian, preferring to describe his many writings and addresses as “interpretations across confessional and linguistic frontiers of thoughts which I have picked up from the theological pathfinders”.

He was a first-class example of that rare creature, a truly prophetic church policy-maker and administrator. Robert Bilheimer, a WCC associate general secretary for many years, identified what drove his old boss like some 20th century Amos to challenge the ecclesiastical status quo:

The prophetic quality lay in his capacity to discern and his fearlessness in laying out what he discerned . . . . Even his insistence on tying the ecumenical movement to the churches, frequently questioned, was prophetic. He understood clearly that the churches were the carriers of the Body of Christ; and an ecumenical movement that was not tied to the churches had no relevance to anything. Given that, Visser ’t Hooft could then turn the whole around, bringing “church” to bear on churches in withering analyses. Because he loved the church, he loved the churches.

And because he loved Christ, he loved the church. The gospel was the heart of it all, Christian unity mattered because reconciliation was a gospel imperative, Christ was summoning his scattered people to a renewed obedience, and the pressure of that common calling meant the churches just had to change.

Churchly change, however, comes slowly. In 1974, commenting on the impatience of many, young people especially, Visser ’t Hooft wrote:

Those of us who have worked for a long time for the World Council are painfully aware of how frequently opportunities are missed because of visible or concealed brakes. We need the impatient people who call for boldness, imagination and forward-looking hope in action. But there is an impatience which gives up and an impatience which builds up.

Willem Visser ’t Hooft had impatience aplenty. But his was the kind that produced a master builder for the ecumenical movement.

Contributed by David Gill