Photo: Copyright Ivars Kupcis/WCC. Used with permission
by Lisa McIntosh
Australian-born Lutheran Peter Prove is a leading light in the world ecumenical community.
The director of the World Council of Churches’ (WCC) Commission of the Churches on International Affairs based in Switzerland, on one day Peter could be leading a staff delegation to Iraq in the wake of US troops moving in against Islamic State, on another, he could be addressing a press conference at the United Nations in Geneva or speaking as a panellist about how faith communities can help end violence against refugee children in Rome.
Now with more than two decades of experience in the international policy arena, Peter was born in the Adelaide Hills, raised at Eight Mile Plains and in the western suburbs of Brisbane, and was educated at St Peters Lutheran College Indooroopilly and the University of Queensland.
A personal injury and commercial litigation lawyer in Australia, in 1997 Peter moved to Geneva with his wife Philippa, a psychiatrist, to take up a role with the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). After a 12-year stint as LWF Assistant General Secretary for International Affairs and Human Rights, Peter then moved into the ecumenical realm. He worked for four years as Executive Director of the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, before starting with the WCC in 2014.
But he hasn’t had to move far – all three roles have been based in the same building in Geneva – just in different wings!
Formerly a member at Resurrection Lutheran congregation at Indooroopilly, Peter has attended the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Geneva since moving to Switzerland.
While he hasn’t lived in Australia for more than 20 years and sons Oliver and Benedict were born overseas, Peter’s upbringing and faith foundation as a pastor’s son in the Lutheran Church of Australia remains precious. It’s also a ‘matter of some pride’ that he received the endorsement of the LCA leadership to take on his current role.
‘I really feel strongly about the ideological, religious and ethical underpinnings that I received from my background in the Lutheran Church of Australia, the way in which that background has enabled me to take on this role and what a privilege it is to do that’, Peter says. ‘And I do feel, even though the institutional links are not strong, that I do that on behalf of the Lutheran Church of Australia.’
The WCC is ‘a worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service’. There are 350 member churches from countries and territories around the world, with a total constituency of more than 560 million people – around one-quarter of global Christianity.
‘The purpose of the WCC is to bring the churches together to respond to the biblical mandate that “they may all be one”’, he says. ‘But it’s also true that one of the important threads and impulses that finally brought the World Council of Churches into being after many decades of discussion about this possibility was the horror of the Second World War.
‘So, from the very beginning, the World Council of Churches has been very much focused on peace-building, on social justice, on human rights and trying to respond to these developments in world affairs from a Christian perspective.
‘My own faith understanding has been somewhat transformed by my experience of working in these international Christian environments and these ecumenical contexts, but the fundaments of my faith are clearer to me now in terms of the responsibility that it brings for loving one’s neighbour. And I’ve gained a real applied understanding of the principle of Imago Dei, that all people are created in the image of God, all of them – regardless of any other divisions or any other disputes.’
In terms of ‘loving one’s neighbour’, Peter believes that the LCA through Australian Lutheran World Service has ‘set an example for others around the world’. ‘From what I recall, the donations to Australian Lutheran World Service from church people on a per capita basis far exceed many other places’, he says.
While ‘part of the legal architecture of the WCC’ since the council was formed in 1948, the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs actually predates the council by about two years.
‘The commission was established in anticipation of the WCC coming into existence and immediately got to work in representing the voice of the churches to the intergovernmental organisations, to the United Nations in formation, and actually contributed quite substantially to the formation of the UN, and very significantly to the drafting of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights’, Peter explains.
‘The remit of the commission covers an enormous terrain – everything from peace and conflict issues, human rights, economic injustice, environmental issues, disarmament. Its role is primarily advisory but also to lead by example and to be directly involved in addressing issues and raising awareness about issues the commission feels have a claim upon the Christian conscience around the world.’
Peter began work at the WCC just as the catastrophe in Syria and northern Iraq was playing out.
One of the first things he did was take a small staff delegation to northern Iraq, in order to take testimony from displaced people from religious minority communities, especially Christians but also other minorities who were similarly affected.
Peter says that churches have a critical role in overcoming the consequences of short-term political cycles.
‘Very often there is hardly any other actor in society that has the longer-term – indeed the millennial – perspective that could help to break it out of the short-termism and the poor decision-making that even our democratic institutions are unfortunately affected by’, he says. ‘I think it’s always important for Christians at least to second-guess political messages, to at least try and reality-check perspectives by cross-checking them against what the Bible says and, in particular, what Jesus says.