50 years Bossey Graduate School of Ecumenical Studies

Jun 14, 2003 09:08 AM EDT

A laboratory for ecumenical life: Bossey Graduate School of Ecumenical Studies celebrates 50 years

If the stones of the old tower at Bossey could speak, they would have many tales to tell. Of the Cistercian monks who cultivated their wine on this domain in the 12th century. Or of the bourgeois family who built the present mansion in the early 18th century, or those who, in the early 19th century, made it a centre for cultural exchange...

Thousands of stories wait to be told about Bossey - by people from all over the world who, since the Ecumenical Institute was established in 1946, and its Graduate School opened in 1952/53, have gathered here. For them, "Bossey" is not only a scenic site near Geneva, facing the lake and the Swiss and French Alps. What they remember first of all are the !people,! belonging to many cultures and Christian confessions, who came to Bossey and, today, are inspired by a common vision. For all these people, Bossey, and especially its Graduate School, was truly a "nursery", a "seminary" - a seedbed - for the growth of future ecumenical leaders, and of the Oikoumene.

When the students of the first Graduate School dispersed 50 years ago, the Ecumenical Institute had already been engaged in pioneering work for seven intensive years. Hendrik Kraemer and Suzanne de Diitrich, the first directing team, had emphasized lay training. They helped youth leaders, teachers, social workers, physicians, persons involved in industry, politics and the arts to explore how to live their Christian vocation in their daily jobs. Divisive post-war subjects like the nuclear threat, the future of the family, or the meaning of history were faced in interdisciplinary consultations.

During that early period, participants came mainly from war-torn Europe and North America, most often representing Protestant denominations. From early on though, resource persons from Orthodox and Catholic traditions, as well as visiting lecturers from southern continents, made a strong impact.

From confrontation to reconciliation

Meetings at Bossey can be both traumatic, and healing. I will never forget a youth leaders' course during that early period. The chbteau was then still ill-equipped for its new purpose. Every day, in between studying, we had to do hard manual work to help run the place. Recently-released war prisoners, refugees from displaced persons' camps, and relief agency volunteers formed the bulk of our group, many still suffering the physical and mental wounds of the war. For most of us, it was the first meeting across national frontiers that had been closed for a decade, and also the first face-to-face encounter

with former enemies.

During a few days we studied, worked and ate as strangers alongside one another without really meeting or being able to enter each others' worship tradition. Then came an explosion: frustrations, inner hurt, anger and deep-felt resentments were voiced in harsh mutual accusations. As we continued, nevertheless, to study the Bible and discuss post-war issues, the prophets of the Old Testament began to challenge us with authority. A painful process of mutual confession and reconciliation started, leading to common worship and a true Pentecost experience.

Not all meetings at Bossey make the same strong impact, but many students of past Graduate Schools could tell of similar life-changing experiences that happened during their semester. When during the apartheid period, for instance, blacks and whites from South Africa studied together at Bossey, each and every member of the learning fellowship of that semester had to live through the pain of racism and struggle to find healing.

Why add a 4-5 month Graduate School to an already full yearly programme? Starting around 1950, the numbers of people wanting to attend the Ecumenical Institute's annual summer courses for theological students, pastors and missionaries began to increase. The ecumenical movement was gaining momentum, and the World Council of Churches (WCC) had been inaugurated in 1948. There was clearly a great need, and thirst, for -ecumenical- education - a task not met by existing theological training institutions.

So Bossey, with the Geneva theological faculty, took up a proposal made 25 years earlier by Adolf Keller, a Geneva University professor who, in the 1920s, had paid extensive visits to churches in North America and Europe to organize inter-church relief. Discovering how little the churches knew about one another, and how ill-prepared they were for becoming prophetic witnesses and priestly reconcilers in a war-torn world, Keller had proposed the foundation of "a permanent teaching centre for a residential graduate school of ecumenical studies".

That was in 1928. Plans for such a centre went ahead despite the world financial crash of the 1930s. A first ecumenical summer school was organized at Geneva University in 1934, attended by Protestant and Orthodox theological students and young theological teachers from Europe and America. It was conducted in French, English and German, and partly financed by Keller out of his own pocket. Those Geneva seminars, with up to 100 participants, continued during the following years, with such outstanding teachers as Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, Stephan Zankov and Toyohiko Kagawa.

But the impending war put an end to the venture, and the plan for a residential ecumenical training centre had to be put on ice. Finally, it was only in 1952/53 that the dream was realized. And ever since then, Bossey has been taken over, from October to February, by the students of the Graduate School.

50 years of "risky experiments"

Many more pages would be needed for even a superficial review of the last 50 years of this adventure. Basically, the Graduate School programme provides for corporate Bible studies, an introduction to the history of the ecumenical movement, and to different confessional families, especially to the Orthodox churches. Each semester also concentrates on a burning issue on the world's, and the ecumenical movement's, agenda, often in collaboration with current WCC studies and programmes. Examples include: the church in the technological world; church, state and power; gospel and culture; dialogue with people of

living faiths.

There has been continuous, and not always successful, experimentation in the search for the "ideal" Graduate School programme content, duration and composition. Should only theologically trained students be accepted? Should there be two short terms rather than one long semester? Should field work be attached to the residential course? (For the present academic programme,

consult the information about the basic semester, the Masters and Ph.D. courses on the Bossey website at http://www.wcc-coe.org/bossey.)

I have participated in some twenty semesters - as a student, a director or a resource person - and clearly, no one Graduate School is ever the same as another. Compared to the early years, both the student body and the resident teaching staff now represent a greater variety of cultures and confessions. Creative thinkers and prophets of our time continue to serve the School as visiting lecturers. The link with Geneva University has become more structured, and since the late 1970s, most semesters include also a highly instructive study week in Rome.

Despite all the preparations and planning, each semester in this ecumenical laboratory inevitably becomes a risky experiment for both staff and students. Often, it is not the prepared programme that most deeply marks the School, but the composition and interaction of the participants, and what is currently happening in the societies and churches from which they come.

Some basic questions and experiences remain the same. How, in this temporary residential learning community, can the right balance be found between academic teaching/learning, mutual exchange of life experiences, and corporate and individual spiritual growth? How can men and women from so many different ethnic backgrounds, diverse social-political contexts and economic and academic experiences, and coming from Protestant, Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Pentecostal theological traditions and spiritualities even begin to listen to, and learn from, one another?

English has become the main medium of study and communication. This means that the majority of teachers and participants must make themselves understood in what, for them, is their first, second or third foreign language. And those of English-speaking background have to learn how to understand and speak "ecumenical English". This language handicap, shared by all, becomes a healthy ascetic exercise for theologians, who often are too wordy!

When, after initial alienation and polite distance, intensive community life develops, sharp cultural, confessional and theological tensions appear, and confrontations must be faced and lived through. Mostly unconscious prejudices are revealed and challenged. Fervently defended partial truths, supposed to be total truth, are called into question.

In between such tense confrontations, the common meals, joyful feasts, games of volleyball and night-long conversations become healing occasions. General abstract notions, such as "the Asians", "the Orthodox", "the feminists", gradually become a face and a person, often a dearly loved one. So that it is all the more painful that, until today, not all can join together in a common Eucharist. Nevertheless, in the end and through such community, most participants will, in the first place, thankfully remember Bossey's beautiful chapel rather than its lecture hall or library.

If the Oikoumene is to discover and prepare the new leaders essential to its continuing health and growth, then a seedbed, a "nursery", or "seminary" like the Graduate School is a must. To continue the work in the - now renovated and well equipped - buildings, it will be vital, firstly, to ensure a geographically and confessionally representative student body in each

semester by providing enough scholarships. The mutually fruitful interplay between the Institute's world-oriented, interdisciplinary consultations, and the School must continue. And a resident leadership team with the freedom and courage to experiment has always been the sine qua non of the creative ground-breaking for which Bossey has become a beacon.

Hans-Ruedi Weber's first encounter with Bossey came at a youth leaders' conference in 1948. Six years later, he was a student at the Graduate School. Weber continued his association with the Institute through his years on the WCC staff as laity director, associate director of Bossey for ten years, then WCC director for biblical studies. Since his retirement in 1988, he continues to support Bossey and serve as a resource person.

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