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Philip Potter (1921-2015) A giant goes to rest

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Philip Potter had a devout working class mother, and a father from the property owning class in Dominica. With a Methodist upbringing in a Roman Catholic community, he accepted the call to the ministry of the church and entered theological seminary in Jamaica in 1955. The student movement sent him to a stimulating world student (WSCF) conference in 1947 in Europe, and in 1952 he was ordained as a Methodist Minister, then working in Haiti. The path breaking Haitian agronomist Marco Depestre was ordained at the same time. This young man was elected 20 years later to lead the World Council of Churches (WCC) as its general secretary in Geneva in 1972. TIME, a weekly magazine, dubbed him the Black Pope.{{more}} He served there until 1984; then he returned to teach at the Theological College in Jamaica. There he guided post graduate studies in the religious and theological thought of Marcus Garvey, advocate and organizer of African oneness and dignity. Rev’d Potter returned to Europe in the 1990s, active as a senior associate in the ecumenical and student movements. He made his home in Germany. Among the recognition awards he received were the Commonwealth of Dominica’s highest award, South Africa’s ‘Oliver Tambo’ award and Japan’s Nivano Peace Prize. Dr Potter did not blow his trumpet or seek fanfare. At times he would introduce himself with these words (of Jesus at Emmaus) “I just came with the other gentlemen.” He seemed, in fact, to adopt the mentality of his boss Jesus (Phil 2:6) as a decisive leader and effective slave.

Potter’s passion for promoting the gospel among youth and students, which had been greatly stimulated at the 1947 world student conference, led him to world youth missioning from Geneva in 1954 and from London 1960. At the Methodist Missionary Society in London, his mission field responsibility was the ‘western area’, Africa and the Caribbean. His visit to the Caribbean in 1961 introduced me to his concern for delinking the gospel infrastructure from its colonial mother culture – much like St Paul’s appeal to the Galatian churches, since Christ had emancipated them (Galatians 5:1…). Missioning from the Eurocentric heart of the church in London and Geneva, it seems that Potter and some colleagues, like St Paul did, had his sense of a Gentile-world mission to generate maturing non-Eurocentric good news of God within world Christianity. When, in 1967, he returned to the World Council of Churches in Geneva, he was in the leadership of the “Commission for World Mission and Evangelism” (CWME). There he helped to shape the deliberation of the 1968 Policy Shaping World Conference in Mexico City and to carry forward its conclusions. Four years later, the World Council of Churches Central Committee elected Phillip Potter as its general secretary.

As a mission leader, Rev’d Potter was not office bound. He was a networking missionary who took God’s dealing with the world seriously. He quoted in one of his studies, a colleague who spoke of “high Biblicism, high churchmanship and high worldmanship”– seeing and following God’s place in the world. Two months after taking up leadership of the WCC in November 1972, the new general secretary addressed the World Conference on “Salvation Today.” He spoke of the contexts of the time for the Salvation mission and of the methodologies, but one of his remarks as a new man at the helm is striking. “Our fathers in the missionary movement have avoided the pain of theological and ecclesiological controversy. We dare not.” That, from Potter, was both a warning and an assurance that unity at any cost was no longer on the agenda. Faith and daring were now on the horizon.

Two initiatives which the general secretary contributed to and facilitated were the Programme to Combat Racism (PCR) and the study of Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (BEM). One the PCR confronted what WEB DuBois called “the 20th century’s defining challenge,” and the other engaged the churches in cementing the basis and platform for Christian unity. Already in 1969, the WCC Central Committee had concluded that “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood. It is against principalities, against the powers of evil, against the deeply entrenched demonic forces of racial prejudice and hatred that we must battle… only God’s love and man’s dedicated response can eradicate it.”

Dr Potter led the WCC from 1972 to 1984. During these years of his leadership and servanthood, the council grew in purposefulness, clarity and proclamation of good news to the poor. It also became the target of racial and communist slurs – “friend of sinners + publicans” as the Gospel would say. But growth and development with equity and righteousness to generate countercurrents, and the WCC, energized by Potter, would face new challenges and forge new leaderships for its ongoing pilgrimage.

Phillip Potter, an eminent servant leader from the Caribbean, in any analysis of his life, has come, has seen and has conquered the stereotypes of the great missionary, the black messiah, the afro saxon. Positioned as a slave in Europe’s mission house, he firmly adjusted to become both disciple and apostle pilgrim men through the contradiction of becoming new every morning with Christ.

Perhaps, another Caribbean internationalist, the poet Derek Walcott, is imagining the stature of our Caribbean humanity and history in the world when he wrote:

“Nothing will always be created in the West Indies… because what will come out of there is like nothing one has ever seen before.” (Walcott 1970)

Another unsung giant goes to rest.

PS A biography of Phillip Potter has been written by a fellow Dominican Christian.

A “Philip Potter Reader” has been published by the WCC.

An account of the Programme to Combat Racism has been published by the WCC.

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