Ut omnes unum sint. That they all may be one. It became the refrain of the day as we visited the World Council of Churches.
“John Calvin was many things, but he was not a Calvinist,” said Rev. John Gibaut, a Canadian Anglican and director of the WCC’s commission on Faith and Order.
Although the Reformer is often blamed for fracturing the church and helping to create Protestantism, he would probably have rejected the term “Protestant.” The term was associated with Martin Luther’s Reformation—that meant it was German rather than French, Gibaut continued. “Calvin was a Catholic. A Reformer, yes. But a Catholic Reformer. That was what he considered himself to be.”
Calvin sought to reform the existing church and bring it back to its biblical roots. He was deeply Eucharistic, Gibaut said, noting that Calvin wanted communion to be served each week. What made him radical was his desire to see laypeople receive communion the same way clergy did—partaking of both bread and wine instead of bread alone—and he wanted the service to be conducted in the local language.
Calvin didn’t aim to rip the church apart; yet he was unable to preserve unity. During the Reformation people were willing to fight and die and kill over differences in their beliefs about the Eucharist, Gibaut said. Those beliefs were about who Jesus is and what grace is.
The church has much violence to atone for. “World War I was seen as a failure of religion as much as anything else,” he suggested. Factions divided along old religious lines and “churches decided they weren’t in a position to be a prophetic voice because of their historic violence toward each other.”
Today the WCC offices are located in the city of Geneva, a city known as an epicenter of international diplomacy.
We sat in the building’s ecumenical chapel—a room of wooden alters, woven chairs, icons and Bibles. It is a place of worship and a symbol of both diversity and unity.
“The very fabric of this place speaks of what Christianity could be and what it once was: The once and future Church. It’s an ecumenical chapel. It’s not a compromise. All pieces fit together. It’s a synthesis.”
We also heard from Rev. Dr. Setri Nyomi, general secretary of the World Council of Reformed Churches. “We must address the witness that is being tarnished when our words are used against us and against each other,” he said.
The next day we visited a Lutheran church—which, aside from cross-shaped frames on the windows looks very little like a church. When German Lutherans asked to build a place of worship in 1763, the Reformed Church was in power. The authorities agreed to let them build a church as long as it looked nothing like a church.
Over the years the place has been used for many things: a place of worship, a home for its pastor, a barracks and a military hospital.
These are all things the church has been known for: praise, hospitality and healing, suggested Rev. Steve Larson who pastored the congregation for 15 years.
We also visited the Auditoire, the chapel turned lecture hall where Calvin spoke regularly. It was also used by John Knox and his congregation of English refugees during his time in Geneva. To this day, it is still used by the English-speaking Presbyterian congregation.