Professor Walter Hollenweger

by
07 October 2016

Changing the agenda: Walter Hollenweger, photographed before taking up his appointment in Birmingham

Changing the agenda: Walter Hollenweger, photographed before taking up his appointment in Birmingham

Canon Dan O’Connor writes:

WHEN the young pastor Walter Hollenweger, who died on 10 August, aged 89, saw the need to bring academic insights into the theology of the Swiss Pentecostal Mission, the older members prayed that he would fail his examinations — “something that the Lord in his wisdom prevented”. There followed (entailing his learning some 20 more languages beyond English, French, and German) his Zurich doctorate, and a ten-volume handbook on Pentecostalism (later appearing as The Pentecostals, 1972).

It also entailed his decision, made with his young wife, Erica, that, to pay to go this way, they would not be able to have children. That was the very high price of his activity in bringing attention to the remarkable development in 20th-century Christianity, chiefly in the Third World, of a “bewildering, pluralistic, world-wide ecumenical movement”.

Hollenweger was born in Antwerp, of Swiss parents. Initially attracted to a career in banking, he was subsequently ordained in the Swiss Reformed Church. His academic training led him to two key appointments in the World Council of Churches. In the second of these, as Secretary for Evangelism in the Department of World Mission and Evangelism, he was hugely influential in the shift whereby the world set the agenda for the Church’s mission. This was reflected in The People Next Door (1966), probably the most successful missionary programme undertaken by the Church of England and other UK Churches in the 20th century.

From 1971 to 1989, Hollenweger was Professor of Mission, a joint chair of the University of Birmingham and the federation of Selly Oak Colleges. It was a time of ferment, when the Churches of the West were declining, and their missionary movement was rapidly shrinking, and the Churches of the non-Western world were growing, and finding their own identity, but still wanting to study in Birmingham.

Into that ferment, Hollenweger brought sharp and often provocative perceptions and important innovations. These latter included his promotion of what he called “intercultural theology”, which rested on his argument that a Western syncretism of Christianity and capitalism was “not better than that of an Indian guru church or the South African Zionists”.

While many of his Western colleagues shuffled uneasily at his provocations, theologians and doctoral candidates from the non-Western world gained new confidence to do academic work that told their own story. One institutional innovation in Birmingham was the Centre for Black and White Christian Partnership, bringing many of the new, often Pentecostal, black Churches of Europe into a wider ecumenism.

Hollenweger discovered also a special gift for a pedagogy that (“because [his] black students went to sleep during [his] lectures”) incorporated music and dance, storytelling and theatre, reflected in his Conflict at Corinth and the Bonhoeffer Requiem.

Retiring to Krattigen, Hollenweger was commissioned to write the jubilee play for the 700th anniversary of the Swiss confederation. Thereafter, as long as his health allowed, he and Erica welcomed many of his former colleagues and students to their home.

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