Ecumenical gathering examines visions for European Protestant churches
A Europe-wide ecumenical gathering in Florence, Italy heard expressions of vision for the Protestant churches in Europe that included the necessity to stand together and advocate for social change.
The 7th General Assembly of the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe (CPCE), which takes place from September 21 to 26, gathered under the theme “Free for the Future.”
“The Protestant churches are minority churches in many of Europe’s countries. Nonetheless they are clearly characterised by a strong commitment towards a humane society that offers solidarity and a sense of common responsibility,” CPCE president Thomas Wipf said, according to a CPCE news release.
In the face of the current crisis of identity that is taking hold throughout Europe, the Protestant churches view the General Assembly as another means of promoting peaceful co-existence throughout the continent by embodying the values of hope and justice for all, he said.
The theology of the denominations will also be a key consideration at the assembly. It has been a challenge to develop a core identity for all Protestants, and in this context Wipf pointed out that “only those who are conscious and confident of their own roots can be open in their approach towards other religions.”
The assembly is set to pass a resolution outlining the efforts which the CPCE will undertake in the coming years to address the co-existence of different religions in Europe.
CPCE General Secretary Michael Bunker said that the ecumenical movement now means more than communication and understanding amongst the Christian churches.
CPCE has been committed to ecumenical understanding from the outset, but migratory forces are presenting new challenges to the Protestant communities of Europe, he said. These can only be met on the basis of mutual respect and in the interest of a genuinely inclusive society.
Fulvio Ferrario, Professor of Systematic Theology at the Waldensian Faculty in Rome and member of the Council of the CPCE, defined the role of the minority churches in Italy as both a chance and a challenge. Any shared vision of unity within the Church must be genuinely enacted, he said, and not stop at optimistic rhetoric.
This theme was expanded by Holger Milkau, Dean of the Protestant Lutheran Church in Italy, who stressed that care to uphold the spirit of cooperation is an imperative not only for the minority churches, CPCE reported.
He said he views one of the main benefits of successful ecumenical diversity to be the dialogue and interaction that foster the confidence to freely express one’s opinion.
Reformed Protestant Theologian Michael Beintker defined Reformation as a change in direction and prioritised ecumenical endeavours.
Reformation is neither a historical phenomenon that occurred back in the 16th century, nor an exclusively Protestant privilege, he said. Rather, Reformation should be interpreted in theological terms as a turning manoeuvre, “the decisive step, the underlying current of the church’s turn towards the Lord.”
Beintker, member of the Presidium of the CPCE, warned delegates against a confessional constriction of the ideals of the Reformation for the very reason that “Reformation seeks to sweep away anything that stands in the way between Christians and Jesus Christ. It is not a divisive force, but serves to unite us by bringing together the individual churches on the converging path that points us all towards Jesus Christ.”
The motto “Free for the Future”, Beintker said, must include ecumenical freedom. The commitment to Christ, the promise of the Holy Spirit and the commandment to love were cited by the theologian as the “most essential principles for the future” of the Church of Jesus Christ.
The main service towards unity would therefore lie in the “creation of as much room as possible, above and beyond any confessional boundaries,” for the application of these very principles.
By now, he noted, the theological discussions between the churches had become rather transfixed with those issues “that concern only the churches themselves, almost to the exclusion of any other matters,” such as that of the different interpretations of the ministry.
According to Beintker, the variety of different confessional approaches to Christian witness and service should no longer be viewed as a historical aberration, but instead “they can be interpreted as a manifestation of the diverse gifts bestowed upon us by the one Body of Christ, to which all of the individual churches and congregations have always belonged as intrinsic parts.”
The World Council of Churches (WCC) general secretary, the Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, cited European churches’ “strong commitment over the past century to the ecumenical movement and fellowship in Europe,” according to a WCC news release.
He also urged them to engage in the current financial and social crisis in and beyond Europe. Their past commitment “has changed the realities of Europe. It has borne much fruit on other continents. That can, and should, happen again,” he added.
In the context of the ongoing financial crisis in Europe, Tveit said to the European churches, “you emphasise reconciliation in your concept of unity. Europe today calls the churches to signs of reconciliation.”
Tveit also quoted a call from the WCC Central Committee meeting in September, urging churches in Europe to “stand together and to advocate for common European solutions to the financial and social crisis that help to deepen the project of European unity as a project of just peace on the continent.”
Inspired by the WCC 10th Assembly theme “God of life, lead us to justice and peace,” Tveit called the European churches to “renew the good news that Christ frees, reconciles and unites both people and churches.”
The assembly will take place in Busan, Republic of Korea, next year.