Philip Potter (1921 - )
The Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo in
Profile of Philip Potter
The Rev Dr Phillip Potter was born in Roseau, Dominica, in the West Indies on 19 August 1921. Coming from a family of deeply religious parents, his work on the issues of the church started early. Potter became active in the ecumenical movement while he was a student. He also immersed himself in youth activities of the Caribbean churches.
His mother was a Protestant while his father was Catholic and this combination made Potter realise the truth of God’s good news despite divisions among the churches. It was perhaps a perfect foundation that led him to embrace the idea of ecumenical interaction.
His career as a minister started in the island of Nevis, and he ministered to Creole-speaking people of rural Haiti. He then moved to London where he worked with the Methodist Missionary Society. In 1947, Potter represented the Jamaica Student Christian Movement at the World Conference on Christian Youth in Oslo, Norway. A year later, he served as a spokesperson for youth at the first two assemblies of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Amsterdam.
In 1954, Potter moved to Geneva to work in the WCC’s youth department. He remained with the WCC until his retirement. In his years in Gevena, Potter chaired the board of the World Student Christian Federation. From 1972 to 1984, he served as the WCC’s general secretary – the first person from the developing world to hold the council’s highest administrative post. Generations of activists with-in church and society have benefited from Potter’s advice and guidance.
He has continued to be an active participant in every WCC assembly since that time, including the 9th Assembly at Porto Alegre, Brazil, in February 2006. He has become a mentor as well as a friend to his partners on the ecumenical journey toward unity, justice and peace.
Potter did not limit his leadership only to church issues. He fiercely sought out justice for all. It is under his leadership that progressive policies were put in place by the WCC. Among the most memorable were the development of the theological consensus document Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, the continuation of a courageous campaign against apartheid in South Africa and other forms of racism throughout the world.
He stirred up an explosive debate on the nature of the post-colonial Christian mission. He encouraged the church to be a co-ordinated witness for peace amid East-West tensions and the threat of nuclear annihilation. He urged Christians to explore new forms of spirituality, worship and music, drawing on the diverse traditions of the churches. Whenever the Council’s positions brought controversy, Potter acted as a thoughtful interpreter and bold defender of the WCC and its priorities.
At the time of Phillip Potter’s retirement, a resolution of the WCC central committee described “the underlying unity in all Dr Potter’s efforts” as his commitment to “one ecumenical movement, one fellowship of churches, moving together along one pilgrim way, the hope of the one humanity promised by God”.