I am journeying back from Budapest after six days representing the European Baptist Federation at the 14th Assembly of the Conference of European Churches. It has been an important experience. I was at the 11th Assembly in Graz and the 13th in Lyon. On each occasion I have marveled at the range of Orthodox, Protestant and Free Churches across Europe ( about 130 churches in total) who have been cooperating together since the 1960’s.
Of course, there are tensions. There is an on-going dispute between the Ecumenical Patriarch in Byzantium (Constantinople/Istanbul) with his brother in Christ in the Third Rome (Moscow) regarding Estonia. The Orthodox struggle if documents include the New Testament word “koinonia”, because to them the word is very often linked to full Eucharistic communion, which we do not yet have. Talking about worshiping together (which we did three times a day) has to be turned into “encouraging common prayer” in case antagonistic Orthodox web sites condemn us all, and the Church of Sweden and the Church of Denmark (both Lutheran) had a rather public spat about who’s female pastor should be on the Governing Body.
Yet, beyond all this there is something rather exciting and powerful. Four hundred and fifty followers of Jesus from the Eminences in their black robes, large pectoral crosses and very large hats eating, drinking, praying, laughing together with all sorts of other people including an excellent group of young stewards drawn from the churches who, after dancing for two hours to the Hungarian Air Force Jazz Band (separation of Church and State? – oh dear no, this is the CEC and the Hungarian Government helped pay for the Assembly) on a night time cruise on the Duna/Danube, announced they were off to a night club and would any of the Eminences, Most Reverends, Right Reverends, Very Reverends, Doctors of Theology, Monsigneurs, Pastors, Pastorines and plain ordinary Mr and Misses like to join them ?
The Conference of European Churches may have got itself a new Constitution, treading on a few ecumenical toes here and there, but the heart of the CEC is not the constitution, but the amazing variety of work those connected to the CEC accomplish in the name of Jesus and for the sake of the churches. In dialogue, human rights, environmental concerns, care for the marginalized and migrants, standing against human trafficking, engaging the political structures of the European Union, Council of Europe, OSCE and the United Nations. Vibrancy is all around and hope for the church in Europe abounds, not least through the dynamic engagement of women and youth.
There is also the renewal of personal friendships and the making of new ones as you are shuttled about in buses, stand in queues for food and sit in small working groups and this, too, dramatically changes the ecumenical experience from the structural to the pastoral.
For my part I was delighted to connect and reconnect with Dame Mary Tanner (Church of England and WCC), the Very Reverend Dr Sheilagh Kesting (Church of Scotland) with whom I wrote a report on social responsibility work in the British Churches in the 1990’s, Pastor Luca Negro (Italian Baptist Union), the Rt Revd Christopher Hill (Church of England and the former “boss” of my good friend Mark Rudall), Silvina Queiroz from the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Portugal, a day school teacher praying for the downfall of her right-wing government, Colonel Michael Marvell (Salvation Army, Europe Territory, based in Denmark), Bob Fyffe (CTBI) – who kept me in touch with the Wimbledon final thanks to his tablet, the Revd Luca Baratto ( Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy) with whom I developed a rapport based on some of joking about some of the sillier interventions in the plenary sessions. And there were more.
There was one young steward from England, Philip, who seemed full of enthusiasm about the church in Europe. It is the likes of him who give us hope that God is not finished with his disciples in Europe yet.
So, for the Revd Dr Guy Liagre (CEC General Secretary), the CEC Governing Body, the Organisations in Partnership, the National Councils of Churches, to those 450 people sailing down the Danube on a Saturday night, I say this. You are in my prayers. God has work for you, Europe needs you! And what are we waiting for ? Let’s get on with the task!