A Semester in a Laboratory for Ecumenical Life

Kirsty Borthwick writes about a term spent living, praying and studying at the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Institute in Bossey, Switzerland.

How do you sum up a life-changing encounter in a few hundred words? And where do you begin when that encounter is with the depths and the complexity, the joys and pain of the life of the global Church?

I’m a changed person for my five months in Bossey, living, praying and studying at the World Council of Churches’ (WCC) Ecumenical Institute, on an ecumenical scholarship from Ministry Division. Alongside 28 siblings from 21 other countries and 18 other churches, I discovered through new eyes what it is to be a disciple of Christ, united with all of Christ’s disciples across time and space in the great vine that is the Church.

The Rev. Dr Hans-Ruedi Weber, a former Director of Biblical Studies at the WCC (who sadly died just last October), famously described Bossey as a “laboratory for ecumenical life”. Housed in a Château, nestled between the shores of Lake Geneva and the peaks of the Jura Mountains, Bossey lies on historic monastic land known to the locals as “terre sainte”. And time and time again my fellow students and I realised what truly holy ground we were walking on as we joined countless others before us in the experiment that is lived ecumenism. Because despite the amount of anti-bac and face masks around this year, Bossey is a laboratory that dabbles not in test tubes and data, but which calls all who study there to remove their shoes, stand firmly on holy ground and let God experiment on, through and with us as the unity of Christ’s church is made known.

On paper, my purpose in going to Bossy was to encounter other churches and learn more about the ecumenical movement, by studying for a graduate level Certificate in Ecumenical Studies from the University of Geneva. My big hope, however, was to encounter people utterly different from me, and to make friends.

And that’s what Bossey does best. I learned loads about the pursuit of visible unity in the twentieth Century, the history of mission, intercultural hermeneutics and various ecclesiologies. Through encounter with other traditions, I learned more about what it is to be in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. And through deep joys and sometimes even deeper frustrations, I learned what it is to truly pray with others who encounter God in very different ways.

But, above all, I made friends.

Friends like Tippy and Kwan, recent theology graduates from the Church of Christ in Thailand (Baptist), who kept thanking me for helping them with their newly-learned English, but who taught me far more about kindness and joy and the wonders of freshly prepared papaya salad.

Friends like Theodora, a doctoral student from the Church of Greece (Eastern Orthodox) who showed me grace beyond measure and encouraged me in my vocation in a way that transcended her own theology of women’s ordination.

Friends like Evans, a pastor and biblical studies student from the Church of Christ in Zimbabwe (Reformed), who nicknamed me ‘coloniser’ and opened my eyes afresh to the sins of our own church’s global history, whilst welcoming me with arms of reconciliation.

Friends like Karla, a minister from the Methodist Church in Mexico, whose fierce commitment to justice in the face of difficult circumstances has inspired me to be a better person and, when the time comes, a better Priest.

Friends like Fr Nestor, a monk from one of the Orthodox Churches in Ukraine, who combines deep spirituality with sharp wit in ways I can’t wait to watch flourish.

Friends like Melissa, a psychologist and from the Pentecostal churches in Honduras, whose passionate commitment to questions of mental health, and her deep heart of love, was a healing to my own mental health struggles in ways she’ll likely never imagine.

Friends like Hannah, a seminarian from the United Methodist Church in the USA, my native English speaking partner-in-crime who kept me sane, kept me laughing and asked insightful questions that kept me discerning.

Friends like Cristian, a doctoral student from the Romanian Orthodox Church, who let us mock him endlessly and gave as good as he got, bringing endless fun to adventures across the Swiss Alps.

Friends like Alexander, a seminarian from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria, Germany, who throws an excellent party and has pastoral gifts immense to boot, who’ll be a gift to his church as he has been a gift to my own vocational discernment.

Friends like Fr Bimen, a priest in the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt (Oriental Orthodox), whose kind gift of an icon of Mother and Child looks up at me from my desk as I type. And whose quiet kindness spoke powerfully of his church’s experience of the strength of Christ, even under persecution.

Friends like Shao Hua, from the China Christian Council (Uniting Protestant), who taught me to spot the beauty in creation and who had many happy memories to share of her own brief visit to Westcott many years ago.

The biggest experiment at Bossey is the experiment of friendship, and it’s in friendship that our pursuit for the visible unity of God’s Church finds its greatest hope. First, in the friendship of Christ, in whom we are already, always one. And then, by his grace, in friendship with each other.

Our time at Bossey ended with the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which focused this year on Christ’s identity as the vine in John 15 and his call: “abide in my love and you shall bear much fruit”.

Now when I think of that vine, I think of my 28 new friends scattered across the world. I weep at the knowledge that we’re not yet visible one, that we can’t yet gather together around one altar. But I also smile, at the knowledge that in our baptism, wherever we are in the world, we are united in Christ and bound together forever. When I kneel before the Bishop at my ordination as a Deacon in June, they’ll be there with me, shaping my ministry and my life as a disciple of Christ in ways I’m only beginning to discover.

If Bossey is a laboratory for ecumenical life, it’s one to which I’m more than happy to have been exposed. It’s an experiment that’s gifted me friends for life, and a deeper friendship with God.

And what have I learned above all? If an opportunity presents itself to engage with Global Christianity, take it – with both hands and an open heart!

Kirsty Borthwick

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