2008, Third European Ecumenical Assembly - Sibiu

Europe’s Christians Meet in Sibiu, Romania – Richard Mortimer

Europe’s Christians Meet in Sibiu, Romania

Richard Mortimer

At one level, I had a schizophrenic response to this event. The curmudgeonly control freak in me found the organisation and administration frequently shambolic, felt like saying, ‘If you can’t do it properly, why bother?’ and, I confess, had moments of frustration so acute that I wanted to kill something. The more reflective side of my nature could only applaud those who, in response to a bewilderingly complex European ecumenical scenario, chose to attempt to hold the event in order to light a candle rather than curse the darkness, and the man of faith ended up giving thanks to God that, given all the potential for serious ecclesiastical political damage between and within confessions, it was as good and productive as it was.

It was an event where the Church politics were at least as important as the outcome. In 1989, some months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the first European Ecumenical Assembly took place in Basel, Switzerland, on the theme of Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation. In 1997 the second such event took place in Graz, Austria, on the theme of Reconciliation. By dint of location and style, Basel was perceived as a Protestant Assembly and Graz as a Catholic one.

There is a third great Christian confessional stream in Europe, Orthodoxy, whose relation to civil society, political nationalism and other Christian confessional streams has been on an often fast-changing journey since the demise of communism and the Warsaw Pact. Thus, if there was to be a Third European Ecumenical Assembly, it needed to take place in a country where the major Christian tradition was Orthodox. And the manner in which the Assembly was conducted needed to reflect an Orthodox approach to things. The principles in those last two sentences were clear, but they brought complications in their wake.

It was agreed to hold the Assembly in Sibiu in Romania, because the City was European Capital of Culture in 2007, and, whilst Orthodoxy was the major form of Christian expression, there was an interesting local history of hosting a long-established Saxon community predating Martin Luther. However, the size and situation of Sibiu meant there were significant logistical difficulties. There had to be a limit on numbers able to attend and there could be no place for the thriving ‘fringes’ of Basel and Graz. In some ways, quite fairly, Sibiu could not compete with the infrastructure of two Western European cities. Travel would be demanding because of the distances from major airports.

Then there were the ecclesiological differences. Orthodoxy does not have a culture of mass participation in deliberation, discussion and debate. Rather than seeking the mind of Christ in council, it looks to its Holy Bishops to speak on its behalf. (In this regard the serious illness and death of the head of the Romanian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Teoctist, just before the Assembly, did not help matters). In Orthodox understanding, anyway, only the Emperor may call a great Council, and when there is no Emperor….. Further, many Orthodox regard what God has revealed in Jesus, and the norms for ethical behaviour resulting therefrom, as collectively an absolute once-and-for-all given. The notion of the development of doctrine, such a vital staple of Bilateral Dialogues, is dodgy. The Orthodox mindset looks back to, and draws inspiration from, the first five centuries of the Christian era. Many Orthodox are drawn to the view that the Enlightenment, by bringing rationalism and science out from under the umbrella of theology and granting them independent status and value, drove a wedge between things which should have been kept together.

Intra – Orthodox tensions exist as well. A few years ago Greek Orthodox priests were ordered to treat members of other auto-cephalous Orthodox Churches holidaying in Greece as ‘unbaptised’. There is a frisson between the Greek and Russian Orthodox on one side and the Oriental Orthodox on the other. More liberal elements in the Romanian Orthodox Church were apologising to their Western friends some while back for their absence/silence at Sibiu. “If we said what we thought, once you lot went back home we’d get clobbered”. Hence Orthodox voices at Sibiu tended to be conservative or more moderate centrist.

Due weight should also be given to the Romanian experience under communism. One Anglican representative, a lay woman who had visited Romania before, spoke of how, ten years ago, one shop in a town square with five hundred people queueing for bread was common. That the centre of Sibiu now looked like any other square in Mid-Europe was little short of miraculous. Also, having had to cope with Ceausescu’s feared secret police, the Securitate, had bred in the people endurance but an allied inbuilt sense of caution and watching one’s back rather than an adventurous spirit.

In the light of all the above the following sharp exchange outside the main Conference venue was not surprising. The Orthodox disliked allegations that they were slowing European ecumenical progress down or taking it backwards. They were angered by insensitive suggestions that they were the thick, slow country cousins lagging behind the rest. They feared that they did not matter enough to everyone else to be taken seriously and stressed that, if Protestants and Catholics were to take them seriously, we had to allow them to be themselves and to be different. On the other hand, German Protestants, who arrived following a period of intense preparation, found themselves (and everyone else) discouraged from participation and talked at by male, grey, bearded, hierarchical establishment figures from all backgrounds (Women could chair Plenaries but not give keynote addresses!), and ended up exclaiming in frustration that if it wasn’t like a Kirchentag it was a failure and the whole European ecumenical venture was going nowhere. This confrontation was the dialogue of the deaf which reinforced my growing conviction that one of the great needs of ecumenism is for those who can listen hard and then explain a to b and vice versa.

Contextually all my sympathies were with the Orthodox, although theologically I believe in the development of doctrine and that the Incarnation was divine self-expression in flesh and blood rather than gender. Against all the above background the amount of genuine sharing and mutual enrichment and the degree of concrete detail finally woven in to the Assembly message constituted a significant achievement, which is why I look back on my time in Sibiu so positively.

So what did actually happen? On the first morning there were keynote addresses by Cardinal Kasper [Vatican], Metropolitan Kirill [Russian Orthodox] and Bishop Huber [Berlin, Chair EKD Council]. Cardinal Kasper talked of analysis and therapy as the way forward in responding to our divisions, seeing the recent ‘Responses to Questions’ from the Vatican Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith as the former. He also acknowledged that the document, in reminding us of the differences that existed and the task that lay before us, hurt many Protestant brothers and sisters in the process. “I was not unaffected by it either. I too had problems with it. For the hurt and pain of my friends is my hurt and pain as well”. By contrast Metropolitan Kirill drew attention to the grave crisis facing ecumenism owing to the different understandings of moral norms now emerging. Some Christian communities (i.e. those not worthy of the designation ‘Church’) were taking it on themselves unilaterally to review unchanging norms laid down by the Word of God (read: e.g. human sexuality). Bishop Huber called for eucharistic hospitality.

After Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation at Basel and Reconciliation at Graz (both of which led to the widespread adoption of the Charta Oecumenica in mainland Europe – and much was made at Sibiu of the Charta as a starting-point), the theme of the Third European Ecumenical Assembly was “The Light of Christ shines upon all. Hope for renewal and unity in Europe”. It had the merit of being biblically rooted in John 1, verse 9: “The true light, which enlightens everyone,…”, but it also reflected the sense of mystery which many at Sibiu recognised as an important gift from the Orthodox to the world-wide Church. Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana and All Albania seemed to be recognised as Primus inter Pares among the Orthodox hierarchy who stayed for the whole Assembly (He was sought out by the elderly for his blessing, invited to lead a procession into the Orthodox Cathedral by the Romanian Orthodox Patriarch locum tenens, presided at the conclusion of the Orthodox Liturgy to mark the birth of the blessed virgin Mary, came from a country where the extermination of religion was attempted during the Cold War, and was the only ‘Beatitude’ present as opposed to ‘Excellency’, ‘Eminence’ etc.) He was perhaps one of those most open to being a bridge between East and West, having been a Professor at the University of Athens. He reflected on the nature of light:

“What is, at first sight, the whiteness of light is…the synthesis of seven different colours. So also the light of Christ can be broken down…Christians, as children of the Light, are called to offer up all the colours on the spectrum of white light…the light of peace…justice…truth…inspired creation…hope…love…unwaning Paschal Light, revealing the final victory…through the power of the cross and the resurrection. By living and acting in this way, we shall belong to those creative bodies of people who, whether as minorities or majorities, have the ability to exploit to the full the best elements of the European heritage and to guide the continent forward to a state of renewed spiritual vigour”.

Here indeed was a Holy Archbishop at work reaching out to all, seeing the mystical potential in science and religion informing and complementing each other.

The afternoon Fora were a mixed bag. Some were worthy but did not really go much beyond positions already long clarified. The Forum on Creation was held to be superb, because of the degree of participation it permitted. The Forum on Migration benefited from an excellent input from Dr Jeff Crisp of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees.

On the third full day following a round table on Creation, Justice and Peace, the chair, Bishop Margot Kassmann, invited questions. One, about why commitments made at Graz had not yet been fulfilled generated a sharp but revealing exchange. Metropolitan Gennadios initially tried to avoid the question and was provoked to anger, ‘we ( the panel, including a woman ) are not the three wise men!’ Bishop Kassmann held to the principle that the Assembly had the right to pose questions, whereupon the Metropolitan, in a more conciliatory tone, pleaded for more time and more tolerance, averring that we could do much in common and not just in Europe, that we could not continue in isolation and needed to move just a little faster, recognising the rhythm of the world. It was hard to escape the suspicion that the first half of this latter reply was directed at ecumenical partners and the second half to his own constituency.

There were not many young people at Sibiu, a sadness for all that some argued that the representation reflected the reality of the Churches. As part of their preparation for the Assembly, young delegates from all over Europe had met at St Moritz at the end of July. There they had prepared a statement of considerable concreteness and power under the headings of unity, spirituality, witness, Europe, migration, religions, creation, peace and justice. This was received by the Assembly with great acclaim. Some even petitioned for it to be adopted as the Assembly Message. It was however agreed to collate it with the formal Message. That Message ended up significantly tougher and more earthed after three or four drafts and processions of those suggesting amendments ( mainly German Protestants, finally given the chance to participate in plenary ) to the microphone. What was striking was the degree of unanimity across all confessional streams on the importance of creation, ecology, climate change and environment, albeit from different motives. For the Orthodox many of the problems result from wrong views of human autonomy dating from the Enlightenment, and their ascetical tradition also speaks to living more simply that all may simply live. I would commend the Assembly Message and that from the young delegates collated with it.

In closing, two comments. One was that I heard regrets at the absence of theological reflectors. From positive experience at our Mission Council, I would share this sadness. The other was that, in EEA-speak, ‘radical market globalisation’ is the code for something in modern society to be challenged and resisted. I never heard direct criticism of consumerism per se. And, for all that words like ‘ascetic’ and ‘ascetical’ were used, I was surprised never to hear specific reference to the Desert Fathers as those who had turned their back on a culture of excessive expectation and lived an alternative.

Richard Mortimer is Secretary for Ecumenical Relations and Faith and Order for the United Reformed Church.

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