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Gott dem Herrn Dank sagen

Festschrift für Gerhard Heintze

Keith Clements

CEC AND ECUMENISM IN EUROPE - PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE

It is all too possible to give a rather sombre account of the European ecumenism today. So I would like to begin with a positive side deserving of great emphasis. I believe a basic sea-change has also come about in recent years in the attitude of the European churches to their European home. When the World Council of Churches was inaugurated at Amsterdam in 1948, the context, the ambience and the whole perception of the gathering was inevitably northern, if not actually European, shaped by the world war and the devastation it had wrought largely upon Europe itself. By the time of the fourth Assembly at Uppsala in 1968, even though that Assembly was held in Europe, there was a massive change. The emphasis now was upon the south, upon the issues of racism and economic injustice at the end of the colonial era. European Christians, with the exceptions of those interested in helping the bureaucrats in Brussels and the gallant peaceniks concerned for east-west relations, understandably felt that their attention should be elsewhere, in sorting out the problems caused by European exploitation of the rest of the world. The Conference of European Churches (CEC) had been founded in 1959 to be a bridge-builder between the churches of eastern and western Europe but was regarded as essentially an amiable side-show to the real dramas being played out in southern Africa and Latin America and Asia. A new heresy was discovered and anathematized: eurocentrism. Now, nearly 35 years after Uppsala, 13 years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it is OK for European Christians and churches to be concerned about Europe again - to be concerned, not as an alternative to concern for the wider world, but out of a recognition that some of the major problems of the world have been caused by the transmission of peculiarly European infections which need to be dealt with at home no less than abroad.

CEC, now 43 years old, can justly claim in its present membership, life and work, to be both reflecting and fortifying this new mood among the European churches. It now has 126 churches in membership, from all parts of Europe and from all the major confessions except Roman Catholic: Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Old Catholic, Orthodox, Pentecostal and Reformed. Over 30 bodies including women’s and peace groups, national councils of churches, mission and diaconal agencies and youth organisations, are ‘Associated Organisations’. While the Roman Catholic Church is not a member, there is close cooperation with that church at a number of levels, most especially with the Council of Catholic Episcopal Conferences in Europe (CCEE). There is a Joint CEC-CCEE Committee which meets each year and acts as a steering group for CEC-CCEE collaboration, and there is close and continual contact between our CEC office in Geneva and the CCEE secretariat in St Gallen, also in Switzerland.

A major sign and instrument of the new European awareness by Christians and churches was the First European Ecumenical Assembly held at Basel in 1989 under the title ‘Peace with Justice’, sponsored jointly by CEC and CCEE. It was significant that it took place in the early summer of that year, as the first tremors of change shivered across eastern Europe. The people who gathered in Basel realized that they had concrete challenges to work for and that changes were coming, worthy of celebrating even then. And it was significant that that Basel Assembly, more than any other ecumenical gathering in the world, was able to give such a clear and cogent affirmation of the interconnectedness of justice, peace and the integrity of creation - more so, many would argue, than the world conference on the same theme at Seoul the following year, or the next WCC Assembly in Canberra 1991. Through its own conciliar process, European ecumenism was rediscovering itself.

The Second European Ecumenical Assembly took place in Graz, Austria, in 1997. In some ways it as a more sober gathering than Basel 1989. But it was a further stage in the maturation of European ecumenism. Basel had declared that there were no situations in Europe which could justify their solution by violence. To Graz, however, came people from the former Yugoslavia, from Croatia and Sarajevo bearing the inner and outer scars of violence - as they did also from Northern Ireland and Albania. The theme was ‘Reconciliation - Gift of God and Source of New Life’. It was a recognition of the need for healing - and of hope for that healing. It was noteworthy for being the most genuinely ecumenical gathering in Europe, ever. For to it came eastern Europeans in their thousands - a thousand from Romania alone - and able to speak for themselves rather than be talked about, however compassionately, by westerners. Moreover it was a gathering in which Europeans felt no embarrassment in seeking the help of the wider world. One of my own most cherished memories of Graz is that of bumping into an old friend, a black South African on the staff of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with Desmond Tutu. Asked ‘What on earth are you doing here?’, he replied: ‘I’ve come to talk to you guys about reconciliation.’

A great and positive fact of our time, then, is that the churches of Europe are increasingly aware that Europe itself is a proper concern, for themselves and the wider family of the worldwide church. That is healthy and liberating.

The question of the European churches’ commitment to ecumenism tody is closely bound up with the question of their own place in a societies and cultures which can variously be described as secular, post-Christian or post-modern. Nearly all Christian traditions in Europe show signs of acute anxiety about their future and their role in society. That is as true of the western as of the eastern churches. And it is right that they should be concerned. If they are not asking questions, there will be no answers. Or, in terms of the gospel sayings, if they are not asking, seeking and knocking, they are unlikely to receive, find, or move through opening doors. The issue is, whether their quest is serious and honest enough. I am sure that I do not need to expand on the point that the interplay between religion and national or ethnic identity must now be top of the European ecumenical agenda. For the churches, if they are really committed to ecumenism - which means being committed to the una sancta, the universal church of Jesus Christ found in and transcending all national boundaries - it is crucial that they face the theological challenge of this, and not seek theological justifications for the status quo in the divisions of the human family - in Europe or anywhere else. It is easy for example to find targets in the situation in eastern Europe and the Balkans, in the shape of identification of religion and national identity and confessional privilege. But there is need also for much more self-awareness and self-criticism in the west.

On the pan-European level, all the main confessional families are going through a difficult time as they seek to re-orientale themselves in the context of a society which is being driven inexorably towards pluralism at every level, and massively so since the tremendous changes that swept across eastern and central Europe with the ending of Soviet-style communism ten years ago. Just after most of those changes were completed, during 1991-92 three important confessional gatherings took place. There was in 1991 the First Synod of European Catholic Bishops in Rome where the theme of the ‘re-evangelisation of Europe’ was dominant. Some observers saw this as ‘triumphalism’: the church, having withstood the atheist tyranny for 40 years or more, was now in a strategic and morally justified position to reclaim its authority over European life. Rather different in tone was the Protestant Synod which met in Budapest. Here the tone was more modest: the question was how a Christianity in many ways marginal to the public life of Europe could offer a meaningful word to Europeans seeking a reconstructed, genuinely human society. The Reformation message of justification by grace through faith still has something to say. But it was essentially a reactive stance. Then there was the Synod of Orthodox bishops in Constantinople. Here again there was talk of a ‘Christian Europe’ - but a Christian Europe somewhat under siege, in need of preservation against the twin threats of secularism from the west and of militant Islam from the east. No one of these three stances by itself is adequate to the mission of the church in Europe - which makes the ecumenical task all the more important.

I have spoken of three main confessional families. But to be truly ecumenical means also recognising another family or movement in Europe: the vibrant and growing evangelical and Pentecostal movement, a number of whose branches, significantly, wish to be part of what we like to call ‘mainstream’ ecumenism.. Migration from the south into Europe is bringing with it a vibrant African Christianity determined to be at least as missionary as was the European migration into Africa. In the south of Italy, there are Protestant congregations (Waldensian, Baptist, Methodist) where the majority are now African. Or not only African. In the Rome area alone there are now upwards of 6,000 Protestant Chinese, worshiping in or alongside the established historic Protestant communities.

But having said all this, there is no doubt of the overarching ecumenical challenge in Europe at the moment: that of the relations between the Orthodox east and the Latin (Catholic and Protestant) west. Not only are the tensions just now so great as to threaten a rupture in the ecumenical fellowship painstakingly developed over the last 40 years, but they bode ill for the future of Europe as such, bringing as they do the possibility of a new division - far more emotionally entrenched than the ideological division of the Cold War - between east and west Europe as such. In some circles in the east, especially in Russia, ‘ecumenism’ has become an almost unusable word. There are powerful fundamentalisms at work, which have rushed to fill the ideological vacuum left by the demise of Stalinist-Leninism, and allied to a new nationalism, which regards ecumenism as ipso facto a betrayal of Orthodoxy. Outside Russia, this has taken the Orthodox Churches of Georgia and Bulgaria out of membership of both the WCC and CEC. Those committed to ecumenical life within the Russian Church itself are not having an easy time of it. There are immense pressures under which the leadership is having to operate in trying to maintain the unity of the church, and it is this internal agenda which is having a consequent effect on ecumenical relationships. Added to which are all the well-known controversial issues of alleged proseletysim from the west, both Catholic and Protestant. We await with great interest the results of the Special Commission of representatives of Orthodox and non-Orthodox Churches in the WCC, which will be reporting to the WCC Central Committee this year (2002).

The most hopeful features in European ecumenism are to be seen in what I believe is an underlying current, a gut feeling, especially among the people of God at large, that there really can be no going back from where we have got to, and the only way is forward whatever the difficulties. That was sensed at Graz, which really was a people’s assembly: an assembly which after all the platform tensions and disagreements culminated in a huge outdoor celebration, carefully scripted for the television cameras but deeply joyful and which moreover after the final benediction burst into an spontaneous riot of singing and dancing hand in hand: Franciscan monks and Swedish women pastors, Orthodox bishops and black Pentecostals, and everyone else . As at Amsterdam in 1948, people from all confessions and all parts of Europe were saying ‘We intend to stay together.’

But spirit needs to take form. Heavenly vision needs to be realized in deeds on earth Goals need agendas if they are not to be vain dreams. I can only speak here for what CEC sees as the lines of action for the immediate and medium-term future. I would like to use three words for what I see as our agenda: encounter, engagement, and envisioning.

Encounter. ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts’ (Zech. 4.6). None of us became ecumenically committed because we were told to be, but because we actually experienced the spirit of unity through meeting, through entering new situations where minds were opened and new awareness was sparked within us, whether of another person’s spirituality and understanding of Christ, or another church’s life and story, or another country and its churches, or a common task to be shared. The future of ecumenism in Europe depends upon our capacity and willingness to provide such encounters and the means of dialogue.

Sometimes this need emerges in situations of crisis and actual conflict, as has happened over the past few years in the former Yugoslavia and, especially during 1999 with the conflict in Kosovo. At such a time the stance and response of churches in that situation becomes of major concern to the wider ecumenical community - especially, in this case, the role of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Where the stance of such a church appears ambiguous or only partially known, it is tempting to opt for two approaches, each of which I would call (echoing Bonhoeffer’s phrase about ‘cheap grace’), ‘cheap ecumenism’. One is to fire off criticisms, like cruise missiles, from the safe distance of our offices in the west or in Geneva. The other is to cosy up to that church and uncritically endorse all that it is are saying and doing - or not doing. Both approaches are cheap ecumenism, they cost us little. It is quite another thing to go and sit with that church in Belgrade as the air-raid sirens go off and the lights go out in the patriarchate, and there talk, and listen, and put the awkward questions about our different perceptions of what is going on in Kosovo; personally to challenge and be challenged, and learn how things actually are with them, and in turn communicate that to the wider ecumenical family. That is the way of costly ecumenism. It is not a way which easily delivers results. More often it draws criticisms about fudge and compromise. But one of the hardest experiences of genuine dialogue is the realisation that the truth is more complex and messy than appears from any one context.

In CEC we are deeply aware that our role as a bridge-building fellowship is no less critical today than in the time of the Cold War. In our Commission on Churches in Dialogue we are undertaking a programmes of meetings between, for example, majority and minority churches in both east and west; of joint meetings on the missionary task in Europe; and, particularly important, of providing encounters between younger theologians who are, or wishing to be involved in, the teaching of ecumenics. And with our Roman Catholic partners in CCEE we are working on issues facing Christians and Muslims in Europe, and wishing to move towards dialogue with Muslims on common problems in Europe. This has become even important since 11 September 2001 - in fact it was a strange (or providential) coincidence that the first European Christian-Muslim conference planned by CEC and CCEE opened in Sarajevo on 12 September 2001. At all levels of dialogue, we want there to be dialogue not just in the exchange of views and established positions, but in real encounter where people are exposed to each other, challenged and enriched by each others’ differences. We have got to get beyond the mutual stereotyping which is in danger of corrupting our relationships. To hear some voices from the west at the moment, one would imagine that Orthodoxy is a wholly and inherently autocratic and uniform system allowing no room for individual expression of piety or thought, whereas in fact Orthodoxy abounds in the most splendid examples of personal spiritual genius. To hear some contemporary voices from the east, the impression is given that western Christianity has wholly given way to post-Enlightenment individualism, whereas in fact much of the most creative theology and practice in the west in the 20th century, both Protestant and Catholic, has emphasized the communal nature of humanity, both in society and in the church. Such stereotyping, and the self-righteousness which they breed, can only be countered through actual meeting, however slow and risky a process that may appear to be. But such encounter needs to go further. Archbishop Bishop Rowan Williams has recently stated quite admirably the difference between the theological horse-trading that much ecumenical discussion involves, and the deepest kind of ecumenism which recognizes ‘not just a need to understand each other and to be able politely to work and even worship alongside each other, but a need to understand God together’ and he calls for the discovery of a ‘shared passion’, based on the wonder of our incorporation into the triune life of God through Jesus Christ. That of course needs to happen at every level, beginning at the local. But it must also happen at the international level, if we really believe there is one God in Christ for the one Europe. Just after Easter 2001, when with the coincidence of the western and eastern calendars Easter was celebrated on the same Sunday by all churches, there took place in Strasbourg the Ecumenical Encounter held by CEC and CCEE, when the CEC Central Committee (with other church leaders) and the Presidents of the Catholic Bishops’ Conferences in Europe met with an equal number of young people to share together their faith and vision of Jesus Christ for Europe at te start of the new millennium, under the theme ‘Lo, I am with you to the end of the world.’.

Engagement. The public life and future of Europe is being decisively shaped by institutions as never before: the European Union, the Council of Europe, the OSCE in particular. If we are serious about Christianity as public truth, to use Lesslie Newbigin’s phrase, we must have the willingness and capacity to engage supportively and critically with these governmental and intergovernmental bodies on the European level, as much as we do with the political powers at national level. Over the past 30 years or so there developed in Brussels and Strasbourg the Ecumenical Commission for Church and Society (EECCS). Supported largely by a number of western churches, EECCS developed considerable experience and expertise in maintaining close dialogue with the European Commission and the Council of Europe, conveying to these bodies the concerns of the churches on policies ranging from those on unemployment and social welfare to environment and bioethics, and in turn relaying to the churches where the critical issues lay. From 1st January 1999 EECCS has been integrated with CEC in the formation of our new Commission on Church and Society. This is more than an ecumenical tidying up operation. It is the creation of a new instrument of potentially enormous significance, since it now brings into the debate about European integration not just the churches of the EU countries, nor even just those of the applicant countries, but those of the whole of Europe including the former Soviet Union. It is a prime ecumenical task, as I said earlier, to ensure that when ‘Europe’ is spoken about, we really do mean the whole of Europe, from the Azores to Valdivostock, from the Barents Sea to the Aegean. This we can now do more effectively - if with difficultly - because it also means the attempt to create a common European ecumenical approach to social ethics, embracing the rather different approaches of eastern Orthodoxy and western Protestantism. But the challenge has to be taken up. And in all this, the ecumenical calling is to ensure that no voices are left out, least of all those of the marginalized, the uprooted, the refugees and asylum seekers who are knocking on the ever-more firmly bolted doors of western Europe.

Envisioning. I said that visions need agendas. But part of our ecumenical agenda is continually to generate new visions, or at least map new directions for the way ahead. Europe is overloaded with its past, a past still sending spasms of unhealed pain from past conflicts and atrocities where religion has played its part. There is need for the healing of memories, the reconciliation of histories. This has to go hand in hand with new hopes, hopes for a new way of living together.. In face of all the revived suspicions of churches towards each other, there has to be revived hope for new partnerships. I conclude with one such sign of hope, one to which CEC and CCEE are deeply committed, arising out of the Second European Ecumenical Assembly at Graz. This is the Charta Ecumenica. At Graz there was proposed the formulation of a set of guidelines for good ecumenical practice in Europe: a statement of what the churches of Europe, of all traditions, are willing to commit themselves to, in their relations to one another and to Europe as a whole. The first draft of this was issued in 1999, on behalf of CEC and CCEE, to all CEC member churches and to all Catholic Bishops’ Conferences in Europe, for discussion and comment with responses to be made by the beginning September 2000. Out of these responses the final text was prepared. This was signed by Metropolitan Jérémie, representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Paris and President of CEC, and Cardinal Vlk of Prague, then President of CCEE, at the Ecumenical Encounter in Strasbourg in Easter week 2001, and presented to the European churches for their adoption, and, more important, their action.

The Charta is not a long document,. It states very basic things, in three sections: I, ‘We Believe in "One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church"; II, ‘On the Way Towards the Visible Fellowship of the Churches in Europe’; III, ‘Our Common Responsibility in Europe.’. But these basic principles have never before been said by all the churches of Europe together, nor have they been stated as commitments they are called to make together .In saying them they will take a risk: of adopting a yardstick by which they will not only measure their own behaviour, but which will allow them to be measured by others - and by society at large. Perhaps to say it is taking a risk is too negative. It is making an act of trust and commitment. It is not a blueprint. It is sketching the vision. Equally to the point, it has become the most widely discussed ecumenical document in Europe of recent years, ans has now appeared in no less than 25 languages. If in the midst of all the present tensions this can be said together, it will merit the closing words of the Charta, the prayer taken from St Paul’s letter to the Romans, and there will be hope for ecumenism in Europe, and hope for Europe: ‘May the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing, so that we may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit’ (Romans 15.13).


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