Archive for July, 2013

If we didn’t have a Conference of European Churches we would need to invent it!

Friday, July 12th, 2013

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!

– Keith


A rich bouquet

Sunday, July 7th, 2013

That’s the image that comes to my mind when I think of my last ten days spent among the Baptists of the world.  Each year, the Baptist World Alliance Annual Gathering takes place in July – this time in Ocho Rios resort in Jamaica. The Gathering was preceded by the Baptist International Conference of Theological Educators (BICTE), and both myself and Parush had the privilege of taking part in both of these events.

Talks of ‘unity in diversity’ can sound superficial, but that really has been our experience. The diversity, or the variety of the bouquet, is striking: cultures, languages, theological persuasions, church practices, political situations… But then, on the other hand, several times I’ve been surprised by the rapport where I certainly didn’t expect it.

It was also fascinating to get to know the Jamaican Baptists. The story of the slaves and their liberation prominently in the background, justice frequently features as a special emphasis in the church services. On a Sunday, several of us were visiting the main Baptist church in Ocho Rios, and I was particularly struck by the words of an old hymn we sang – “I have no other Master [but Jesus]”…

Whilst on the subject of songs, there’s richness of both style and content that made my heart sing. Some of you know my passion for the use of music from different cultures in worship, and especially for greater presence of music created locally. That we certainly had on that Sunday – songs in Patois, spirituals, Latin American cry-for-justice songs, Spring Harvest, old hymns… just great.  Come to think of it, however, missed reggae.

I was curious about the relationship with the larger Jamaican culture – I could see some aspects of it resisted, such as sensuality of relationships, women’s dressing style, or familiarity, but could only speculate about these things, as our encounter with the local culture was so limited. This, unfortunately, is another side of BWA gatherings – expensive hotels and surroundings totally unaffordable to the locals. There are reasons for this, but I still find it deeply against what I believe we as followers of Jesus should be when we meet together. I guess the most authentic encounter I had was having a few braids done on an old chair outside a barber shop off the Main Street of Ocho Rios – negotiating the price (with my all-inclusive hotel wristband it was clear I was a good silly tourist snatch!), learning about my hairdresser’s children, saying no to the offer of ‘smoke’ and a few other propositions by those hoping more may come after the braids… Being a follower of Jesus in such vibrant culture was clearly a fascinating affair, but in what ways exactly, I still don’t quite know.

It is partly my own fault, however, as the couple of free mornings that I had I headed off to experience the beauties of Jamaican nature – and these were the parts that are not necessarily accessible to a common Jamaican. This is where the ease with which such excursions are available and the lack of preparation and knowledge of the ‘local paths’ takes over, and you hit the stunning, unforgettable views of Dunns River Falls or the jungle. And it was magnificent, but I still feel as if I touched only a very particular and privileged aspect of Jamaica, and still understand very little about its everyday life and challenges.

Back to the meetings in the airconditioned hotel, and particularly BICTE, it was great to connect with teacher theologians from all over the world. I was tasked with providing an overview of the current situation in ministerial formation of the students in Europe. Given that the time for this was limited, it was a rather daunting task – but I was encouraged to hear that my colleagues, not only in Europe but also Canada and elsewhere, felt they were meeting the same challenges, and that we all needed lots of creativity, humility, openness and attentiveness to the Spirit’s move (the theme of the conference). Good to know there are so many colleagues who are kindred spirits in the same task we share.



Sunday, July 7th, 2013

The Conference of European Churches (CEC) Assembly in Budapest is debating “The Uppsala Report” on restructuring the CEC in the light of work done by the Revision Working Group since the last Assembly in Lyon.

Saturday morning saw the Assembly debating the place of partner organizations, such as the European Baptist Federation (EBF), all the Europe-wide networks for women, youth, higher education, chaplains and the like who, in the past, have been integral to the life of the CEC, been involved in Commissions, working groups etc.

Now, the desire of the member churches (well, some of them) is to have an ecclesial structure which focuses on member churches and, in the view of many, marginalizes partner organizations. This was being discussed in plenary on Saturday when the leader of the EKD (Evangelical Church in Germany), itself not a church, but a federation of the German Protestant State Churches (Landeskirche), made a proposal to discuss the key issue of participation in private.

Then we saw “big church powerplay” with quick conversations between the EKD leadership and the representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (Orthodox) and members of the Church of England delegation.

There was a spirited move by a young female representative of the Methodist Church of Great Britain to keep the plenary open in the “spirit of transparency”, but the EKD came back with a demand that a vote by taken to exclude everyone except the voting delegates of the member churches. From my vantage point at the back of the hall in the non-voting place allotted to the EBF the voting was clear enough. The “big three” (EKD, Anglicans – England, Ireland, Wales and the Orthodox) voted to exclude, whilst the Free Churches, Old Catholics, small churches and some of the Nordic-Baltic Lutheran churches, voted to remain in open plenary. The “big three” just won the day in a formal card vote and so a significant part of the European ecumenical family was excluded from the room to gestures of sadness and disbelief from representatives of the so-called smaller churches.

Can true European ecumenism be built in this way ? Sadly, I doubt it.

Keith (one of those ejected)

The danger of showing maps

Thursday, July 4th, 2013

I have long since argued that Baptists know something about mission, but nothing about geography. Our European Baptist Federation (EBF) includes Baptist Unions in North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia – stretching the official definition of Europe way beyond that understood by politicians and geographers.

At the second day of the 14th Conference of European Churches Assembly the General Secretary was presenting his report and as is the norm for such events now, it was being accompanied by a varied selection of power point slides. He made some reference to the churches of Europe and up came the inevitable slide, no doubt downloaded from Google images.

At the end of his excellent report, where he had switched from English to French, to German with effortless panache (he comes from Belgium and is clearly an adroit linguist) delegates descended on the microphones and we waited for important questions about mission, about Church and Society, immigrants in Europe , the European institutions and so on.

No, we had a succession of complaints about the powerpoint image of Europe! The churches in Cyprus complained – their island was not there! The official delegate of the Armenian Apostolic Church complained – Armenia was not there. Where had Iceland gone? Why wasn’t Georgia to be found?

Well, I am sure the Revd Dr Guy Liagre has ruefully learnt a lesson about the dangers of using powerpoint images and I have to revise my opinion that it is only Baptists who haven’t a clue about geography.

– Keith





Conference of European Churches Assembly the General

A message from the 14th Assembly of the Conference of European Churches in Budapest

Thursday, July 4th, 2013

On a very hot afternoon in Budapest we have celebrated the opening of the fourteenth Assembly of the Conference of European Churches.

The auditorium itself is a theatre, which has been turned into a conference setting, so with bright sunshine outside we are now corralled into a cool, dark setting listening to the President of CEC, Metropolitan Emmanuel of France.

We were allowed out to cross the road to a Reformed Church for the opening ceremony , which was broadcast on Hungarian TV.

Here there was much light – reinforced with the TV lighting so we all began to boil. The efficient young stewards distributed cups of water. It was a typical service of its kind with multi-lingual contributions and a symbolic act where we inscribed a cross in water on the back of the delegate next to us. I noticed many of the Orthodox clergy declined to take part in this symbolic act. I did wonder whether we Baptists should sprinkle the water on the head of the person next to us as an alternative.

Of course, such events develop unofficial liturgical acts. I noted a favourite during the worship is the “tablet bob”. Suddenly, a participant stands up, tablet in hand, snaps an image of the choir, or speaker, and then bobs back down again. This is in contrast to the classic camera clicker, who generally gets up from their seat, disappears behind a pillar and reappears to “snap” a photo.

Now, am sat behind two priest from the Old Catholic Marionite Church of Poland in their grey robes. They are sat behind the black-clad figures of the Romanian Orthodox. At lunchtime we had the first Baptist caucus meeting – the politicking has already begun, especially because the minority churches are often side-stepped by the Porvoo and Meissen churches (Anglican churches and the Nordic-Baltic Lutheran and Reformed Churches, plus, sometimes, the EKD in Germany). The first challenge came with the Nominations Committee was reduced in size by disposing of the Methodist member. We now pressing for an enlargement of the Nominatinos Committee to reinstate the Methodist and add a Baptist.

CEC does many good and important things, but at the Assembly the “big churches” like their own way in terms of the structures, so the minority churches need to work together to keep a more balanced view of the CEC.

–       Keith

Budapest, 3 July 2013