“Lesslie Newbigin was one of our ecumenical forebears,” said WCC General Secretary Samuel Kobia in a sermon at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva, the day before the anniversary of Newbigin’s birth on December 8, 1909.
Newbigin was a Church of Scotland missionary, born in Newcastle, England, who also oversaw the integration of the International Missionary Council and the WCC in 1961.
Newbigin set out to India in 1936 as a missionary after studies at Cambridge University and a stint working for the Student Christian Movement. He became fluent in Tamil and played a significant role in the founding in 1947 of the Church of South India. This brought together Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists and Congregationalists, and Newbigin was one of the church’s first bishops. In 1948 he was invited to be a consultant to the WCC’s founding assembly in Amsterdam, where he became a drafter of the gathering’s final message.
In 1959, Newbigin was appointed general secretary of the International Missionary Council and led it through its integration with the WCC in 1961. He became associate general secretary of the WCC and director of the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism. He remained in Geneva until 1965, when he returned to India as bishop of Madras, where he stayed until retiring in 1974.
“Lesslie combined a profound dedication to mission, and the promotion of Christian ideals in society, with an equally deep commitment to the Faith and Order agenda in exploring common Christian ground,” said Kobia, preaching a final sermon before the end of his term of office as WCC general secretary at the end of 2009.
Kobia, a Kenyan Methodist, noted that in 1960, Newbigin was invited to deliver a lecture in South Africa where he spoke of the “signs of the times”. These included, Newbigin said in his address, a fast-approaching “ending of the period of world history dominated by the white races of Western Europe and their offshoots”.
In retirement, Newbigin returned to Britain, lectured on mission and ecumenics in Birmingham and was elected moderator of the general assembly of the United Reformed Church, formed in 1972 as a union of Congregationalists and Presbyterians.
Just over a year before his death at the age of 88 in January 1998, Newbigin attended the WCC’s Conference on Mission and Evangelism in Salvador, Brazil, where he challenged churches to address the domination of the world by the “Western free-market culture.”