2008, Third European Ecumenical Assembly - Sibiu

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

Europe’s Christians Meet in Sibiu, Romania

Richard Seebohm

The Third European Ecumenical Assembly took place in Sibiu, Romania from Tuesday 4 September to Saturday 8 September 2007. There were some 2,000 church-nominated delegates and 450 registered as press [some who failed to get in as delegates gained entry this way], plus 100 young volunteer stewards [of these, 80 were local linguistically enabled Romanians; after the first day, 50 of them were never seen again]. This was a contrast to the 1997 Graz assembly, attended by 700 delegates but with a fringe of some 10,000 supporters and pressure group activists. The first ever fully ecumenical assembly at Basel in the fateful year 1989 had even fewer delegates.
Sibiu is a 2007 European City of Culture (jointly with Luxembourg). It supplied a vast tented auditorium; there was a linked entertainment programme. Most set piece addresses were available in English (and other) translated typescripts on the day of delivery [much paper was inevitably wasted. There was a recycling bin, but the Romanians do not recycle, so it was to be driven to Germany (or somewhere) for disposal]. There was a high standard of simultaneous translation (by volunteers). The delegations from each church were split up both for sleeping accommodation and for restaurant meals. I had hoped to gain even further local colour by staying with a local family, but they, although charming, spoke no word of any language other than Romanian.

What follows is mainly a collection of the sound bites I actually heard, with an italicised commentary mainly for a Quaker readership.

The event was loaded with a number of messages and greetings, but the main business days comprised plenaries on the three themes of the Church; Europe; the World. Each of these themes was subdivided into (simultaneous) ‘forum’ sessions, as I will explain, not always fully reported back. There were also numerous ‘hearings’, proposed and run by interest groups (rather than the secretariat). These were also able to set up display stands at an ‘agora’ location (not very conveniently sited). The secretariat was split in every respect between the joint sponsors, the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE) and the Conference of European Churches (CEC). CCEE is of course Roman Catholic. CEC encompasses most of the national Protestant and Orthodox churches who can subscribe to a simple credal formula; the Quakers are observers. I was struck by how often Protestants and Anglicans were spoken of as distinct. In recent years there have been a number of bilateral agreements between Anglicans and other Protestant groupings, and among such groupings themselves over such matters as the Eucharist and mutual recognition of baptism. Recognition of baptism (and hence of church membership) has been a running issue for ecumenists since Basel and before.

One of the welcomers was Metropolitan Daniel, the locum tenens head of the Romanian Orthodox Church following the recent death of Patriarch Teoctist. (Since the Assembly, he has been elected Patriarch.) He reminded us that the three traditional churches in Sibiu had kept the faith without barriers. Archbishop Ioan Robu of Bucharest (Catholic) said that the attention of the media on this event would be a stimulus to reconciliation.[The only mentions of it in the mainstream British press were reports that the Bishop of London had taken the Church of England delegation to Sibiu by train instead of flying to cut the carbon footprint.] Bishop Geza Pap of the Reformed Church in Romania agreed that ecumenical relations were exemplary in daily life, but there was more to be done at church leader level. At the specific request of the Romanian government, we also heard from Crown Prince Radu, son-in-law of ex-King Mihail. The Royals had journeyed together with the Church since independence. He had lived alongside five patriarchs and shared hard times – which had nourished ecumenism. Wisdom, which was not the same as intelligence, showed itself in generosity and in faith. No constitution could give you these.

An important outcome of the Graz Assembly was the Charta Oecumenica. Agreed by CCEE and CEC in 2001, it is a sort of mission statement for the European churches in working together and upholding Christian teachings. The Russian branch of the Orthodox Church has disowned it and we were told that not all churches in Austria, or indeed Romania, had signed up, but it was repeatedly quoted as a template for what we were trying to do in Sibiu. Our stated theme, as speakers from time to time had to remind us, was ‘The Light of Christ Shines upon All, Hope for Renewal and Unity in Europe’.

At this point I should report the opening statement by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, still with a foothold in Constantinople (or rather, Istanbul), whose claim to Orthodox leadership does not find favour with the Russians.

The Charta Oecumenica bound European churches to serve Christian unity. It was not a constitution for a superchurch and not an infallible text. But the whole of Orthodoxy wanted full ecclesial and sacramental intercommunion. He hoped that EEA3 would result in positive steps, though churches still differed on the purpose and goals of the ecumenical movement. Only thus would we create a new Europe where Christian principles and values ruled. Financial, political, cultural, and nationalistic dimensions were not enough. What mattered were families, workers (too often used purely as a means of consumption and production), God’s creation, and the air we breathed… Our repentance could be marked by treating Friday that week as a day of fasting. [The only sign of this I saw was an absence of meat in the meals offered to delegates that day by the restaurant to which I was allocated.] Other monotheistic faiths were alongside us in respecting human dignity and requiring peaceful coexistence of all people and all faiths. It was false to blame religions for violent conflict. Only peace was pleasing to God. He mentioned the 1994 Bosphorus Declaration, drawn up in response to the war in former Yugoslavia.

Cardinal Erdö (Hungarian) set the scene pretty well. The fall of communism and growth of the EU had not brought all the harmony and plenty expected. Although that was ultimately a matter for the promised end of time, there was much we could and should do now. The world challenges we faced included lack of justice, globalisation, the environmental crisis, the movement and interplay of peoples each with their religion and culture, American hegemony (not his phrase), terror, the emergence of Asia, secularisation, biotechnology overstepping ethics… Europe seemed to be drifting without meanings or goals. If, together, Christian values were to guide us, the doctrines and faith of our own individual communities were not the right way to unity. Our first task was to recognise how little Christianity was known at all in its true essence. Unless meaning and values were given to human behaviour life on this planet would be put at risk.

Jean-Arnold de Clermont (French Protestant) compounded this. We had allowed islamophobia to take root. We treated migrants as criminals. Each of our countries was corrupted by poverty. We lacked commitment to non-violence and a ministry of reconciliation. But it was no good just listing problems, we had to bear witness. We had to let the light of Christ shine. Women of the church were perhaps in the lead.

On the Church theme, Cardinal Walter Kasper posed the question of whether the light of Christ shone on non-Christians and answered it with the first verse of St John’s gospel. He himself confessed to a feeling of hurt at the Vatican’s recent refusal to use the word Church for the Protestant ‘ecclesial communities’, since they did not enjoy apostolic succession, though they could still be ‘instruments of salvation’. Differences between Christians had obscured the light of Christ and driven Europe into political division and secularism. Every church needed to look within itself for penance and reconciliation and to offer exchanges of gifts. Evangelicals offered the Word, Catholics offered liturgy, the Orthodox offered mystery. Unity was not an end in itself, as long as all saw Christ as redeemer and saviour of all people, of the world. Agreements to differ need not be polemical. The issue of justification was no longer live. There were figures of holiness from all persuasions, confessions of faith in many languages, and no country of Europe was without its cathedrals. It was not the challenge of atheism that was the threat but forgetfulness of God. For Europe itself, unity did not mean uniformity. Cultures were enriching. The common calling was dignity of the person, sanctity of life, justice and solidarity, care for creation, and a new culture of mercy and love. Who but Christ could give us anything better?

Metropolitan Kyrill (Russian Orthodox), as did other speakers, focused on the transfiguration. The light shone beyond the Church, though it was the Church that had grace. This understanding allowed the (Orthodox) Church to respect other religious experience and traditions, and also to respect and support science. What worried him was the post-modern practice of regarding as compatible views and positions that were not so. An example was toleration of human embryo research. The forcing of such incompatible legal norms had elements of a new totalitarianism. All that could be said about humanity had been unchangeably revealed in Christ. The reunion of the Moscow Patriarchate with the Russian Church Outside Russia was an example of how Christian solidarity could be re-established. All traditional world religions shared an awareness that eternal values had priority over temporal ones. As St Paul had recognised, even heathens could hear the voice of conscience. Alternative moralities should not be persecuted, but they should not be allowed into public life. Europe must remain a Christian continent, welcoming other faiths but recognising the role of Christianity in our past, present and future.

Bishop Wolfgang Huber (German Evangelical) remarked that the Reformation, celebrating its 500 year jubilee, had let light into the church. The reformers weren’t trying to found a new church. Claiming to have the sole inspiration was not a witness to the light; the Charta Oecumenica showed the way. The Reformed churches were able to hold belief and reason to their proper spheres. There was applause when he urged the mutual recognition of baptism. In fact 11 churches in Germany had already agreed to this. It pointed towards the mutual recognition of priesthood – male and female – and thence to the eucharist. But the message of the EEA3 process, which he brought from the earlier phase at Wittenberg, was overwhelmingly for reconciliation and peace. The light of Christ led us to the experience of spirituality which people increasingly sought in this fractured world.

We had earlier heard from an (Austrian) Old Catholic whose church had split from the Romans after the 1870 declaration of the Pope’s infallibility. It was in communion with the Anglicans, claiming apostolic succession through its dissident founders and through a pre-existing separatist Dutch church. Its clergy (including bishops) could be married, and from 1997 it ordained women.

The three parallel ‘forum’ events on the first full day (Wednesday) were on Unity, Spirituality and Witness. For Unity, several speakers focused on the Nicean Creed (though none went back to pre-Pauline Christianity) and on the Charta. Bishop Huber had already spoken at length about spirituality. I went to the Witness session.

Barbara Hallensleben (Fribourg academic) referred to the cloud of witnesses in the evolution of faiths, but Jesus was witness personified. In the search for truth, modernity and reason must be challenged by the trace (her ambiguous word) of God in each human. If we allowed ourselves to be mere evolutionary machines we couldn’t witness to human dignity. Our own lives were the only means of witness we had. (Another sound bite had come earlier from Cardinal Tettamanzi of Milan: If you are indeed children of God, become what you are.)

Martin Atkins (Methodist) quoted Grace Davie in saying that official Christianity was now a backwater of Europe – we were now post-Christendom but also post-atheism. People were inventing their own faith systems. Furthermore, we lived our lives of work, leisure and rest in multiple communities, so the idea of a parish was going. Other faiths were our neighbours. The Salvation Army was now planting families rather than Citadels. To bridge the fragmentation, new forms of witness must emerge.

We moved to un-moderated small groups. Mine was given questions, based on verbal versus non verbal communication, which are worth setting out:

  • insights on suffering and martyrdom
  • the role of ikons
  • the ministry of preaching
  • sharing of individuals’ testimonies
  • songs and stories
  • obsession with conversion
  • have we a gospel of where we are now?

We didn’t exactly answer them.

In a world where ‘we don’t do religion’ and where families switch on the television as soon as they get home, our witness must be matched to people’s needs. We have multiple intelligences so apprehend messages in different ways. Some respond to preaching (preaching is a gift not to be underestimated), some need song and story, and some need silence and space (which others find intimidating). The charismatic movement has its place, as does the spiritual atmosphere of Orthodox worship. Symbols may or may not help. Potential hearers are linguistically diverse. Christianity is necessarily bible-based, but we need the multiple forms. But don’t allow Christian diversity to be confusing, and we must on no account run down each other. The specific denomination becomes less and less important. On a university campus it is easy to be a believer, but you may feel lost when you leave.

Also part of the forum was a talk by an Albanian Orthodox activist, Jorgo Papadhopuli, whose organisation was attracting hordes of young Albanians to churches which had been lavishly rebuilt. His country had banned religion for 23 years. Churches and mosques alike had been bulldozed or annexed for other uses. (He showed a picture of one of the half million-odd fall out shelter domes with which the paranoid government had littered Albania.) He did not say who was paying for the church building or how the majority Muslims were coping.

The next day (Thursday) was about Europe.

The Prime Minister of Romania, Calin Popescu-Tariceanu, was called away to deal with severe flooding in Southern Moldavia. His message commended harmony in diversity, but questioned the way biotechnology was escaping ethical boundaries. Faith-motivated violence couldn’t be accepted. It was good that the new draft EU treaty recognised the place of religion.

Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, said (in French) that the Commission had always had fruitful dialogue with the churches. The spirit of ecumenism matched the spirit of European unification. Romania, as a land where religious cultures had converged without violence, could help to appease the scarred memories in the Western Balkans. The convergence of Eastern and Western manifestations of Europe allowed us to breathe with both lungs. We had shared values, but must also face up to the values of other faiths which we now encompassed. Our past heritage was a journey through Athens, Rome, Jerusalem; that is to say, philosophy, law and religion. There were Celtic, Germanic and Slav contributions too. Europeans invented humanism and democracy, which led them towards tolerance. But respect for diversity should not override freedom of expression and of religion and respect for creation. We could not, for example, compromise over the death penalty.

To maintain its values, the EU had to modernise. The new treaty offered more power to the Parliament (and national parliaments) and less scope for vetoes. The new competences and the Charter of Fundamental Rights would increase the security of citizens. He looked to the churches for help in achieving ‘reconciled diversity’.

René van der Linden, (Dutch Catholic) President of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, made the point that human rights had to be matched by an acceptance of responsibilities. The Council of Europe was able to exert moral leadership without military or economic power. Its monitoring mechanisms were efficient and it was not bound by instructions from governments. It had a new campaign to preserve the heritage of religious sites. The emotional wounds from their desecration were major obstacles to peace.

Neither here nor anywhere else (except in the Assembly’s final Message) was the OSCE mentioned. Unfortunately its programme on religious tolerance seems stalled for both funding and personality reasons.

Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, mentioned unprecedented migration – of 720 pupils in a London school he visited there were 69 mother tongues. He quoted Dostoievsky who said that the multiplying and rapid satisfaction of needs did violence to nature. What passed for light might simply be glare. The churches in face of change were tempted to retreat into in-house ecclesiastical preoccupations. John XXIII at his Vatican Council had said that his Church’s structures were no longer co-extensive with the Kingdom of God, and that one does not possess a truth as one possesses an object. Nietzsche had said that if one abandoned Christianity as a system one was no longer bound by its teachings, for example that all human beings were of equal value.

Yet, the Bishop went on, the liturgy was a community-forming miracle. ‘Participating in the Eucharist is to share in God’s imagination which goes beyond memory to His coming again’. The mystery of spiritual life in Christ was that going beyond yourself led you to your true self. Even the (British) media were beginning to recognise that democracies and markets needed trust, social and spiritual capital. However, we must distinguish between healthful faith and lethal religion – a power trip concealed by religious rhetoric. The freedom of the road along which Europe was now travelling could lead either to the tragic consequences of man deifying himself or else to the rediscovery of God.

Bishop Anastasios of Albania (academically a Greek) reminded us that Jesus, transfigured though He was, had extolled works rather than ecstatic states – let your light so shine… It was Christian faith that had inspired humanitarian initiatives in European history, only then to be adopted by the state. The churches must not end up as NGOs – they must express the love of God. He saw light as a rainbow, the light of peace, of justice, of truth, of creativity, of hope for unity, and of victory over sin and death through the resurrection.

There followed a tiny window for voices from the floor. An organic farmer pleaded for the Assembly to focus on the responsibility of all of us for the health of creation – the Moldavian floods wee a signal. A young Taizé supporter reminded us of brother Roger and that we all belonged to each other. A peace worker urged the churches to act prophetically in face of violence, not accepting military repression as security. A delegate with a speech defect urged us to be more aware of the needs of the disabled.

The session continued with introductions to the Forum themes. Leonard Orban, EU Commissioner from Romania, spoke up for the concept of multilingualism, both in the context of EU enlargement and in expressing the sacred, not forgetting Bible translation. A Swedish Dominican sister spoke of Buddhist spirituality. An Irish Catholic sister, on the subject of migration, mentioned an African Christian coming to Ireland who got no response from the existing church and had to found her own. As told by Isaiah, we must widen our tent.

By this time the tent was emptying, as some had to catch buses to their allocated lunch places. Leonard Wipf, Swiss Protestant, was glad that Jesus had made the Lord’s Prayer shorter than some of the speeches we had been hearing. He hoped that the 105 Protestant churches in CEC could have as fruitful a dialogue with the Catholics as they had had with the Orthodox. The younger members were a strength to his delegation. This was not for the future; they were the present.

Rabbi Zinoviy Kogan from Moscow found good cause for hope in the younger members of the Orthodox delegation he had travelled with. He told us that Grozny was now being rebuilt and its Jewish population was returning. The Lord gave a special blessing when the three faiths got together.

The Mufti of Romania told us that there had always been mutual respect between the three faiths in the Dobruja area – a model since the 12th Century. A three faith study centre had been set up in Constanta. Extremists who created instability were anti-religious.

Of the forum meetings which followed, the one on the Building of Europe generated no further detectable message. A press release on the Religions in Europe meeting stressed not only the need but the reality of three (or multi-) faith collaboration. ‘We are not civil servants or NGOs, we are people of faith… let us speak the truth in love.’ The Charta was commended.

I had chosen Migration and the Churches. Jeff Crisp of UNHCR recognised the material help that the churches were already giving, but they needed to speak out on the political and social issues raised. Clamping down on overt asylum seekers only encouraged clandestine and smuggled entry. Smuggled immigrants were often vulnerable because they had borrowed from their families to pay the traffickers and found on arrival that they earned too little to pay off the debt. They couldn’t complain to a tribunal, and often they lacked language skills and confidence to reveal their plight. Families of migrants back home might need church support.

The UN Protocol on the Smuggling of Migrants was now in force, but no industrial countries had signed up. (This is not strictly so. In November 2003 when it came into force, France, Spain and Norway had ratified, as had the new Eastern EU states and those of former Yugoslavia. Perhaps the UK sticking point is the requirement that being smuggled should not of itself be a criminal offence.)

Doris Peschke of CCME insisted that the criminal element among migrants was small. Nor were a majority of them Africans. In spite of the ‘competitive exclusion’ practised by some countries, the widening of the EU had been a positive factor. Migrants still wanted to come in. They increased the diversity within church denominations. We had heard about families left behind. Migrants faced dilemmas over their children. If they moved back after a period, the children might have two-fold identity problems.

We conferred among ourselves as far as was possible in church pews. An Angolan was pastor to Christian immigrants in Portugal. ‘No one leaves green pastures.’ A Dutch Catholic prison minister reckoned that prison chaplaincies were one of the few sources of social (as opposed to faith) education available to ‘lost souls’. She was paid by the state but nominated by the bishop. A pastor for black immigrants in Austria regretted the lack of inter-church liaison there. Someone suggested that the EU should coordinate legal aid for migrants.

Annemarie Dupré, an Italian Protestant, in a nuanced and important presentation, said that migration was not a temporary crisis but a permanent transforming force in society. The religious orientation of immigrants mattered, whether they were actually escaping religious persecution or simply choosing a destination where their faith was professed.

In Italy, Protestant churches were a very small minority, so there was a risk that Protestant immigrants would overwhelm them. Language became a problem. There was pressure on liturgical and musical traditions, and sometimes on space. Second-order cultural and social issues now needed attention – theological differences, social differences, divorce, homosexuality, women’s roles, church government… Choices had to be made over whether to allow the migrants to set up on their own or whether established churches should make the adjustments that would allow all worshippers to ‘be churches together’. If so, the newcomers had to be allowed, and indeed required, to accept their responsibilities, rather than being treated in a paternalistic way. They in fact offered hope and revival to religious communities that had become accustomed to being minorities. If immigrants were left on their own, the risk of an apartheid situation was a real one.

Metropolitan Joseph ministered to the 2.5 million Romanians living in Western Europe. Although they didn’t want to lose their Orthodox roots, they were getting to know Catholics and Protestants. The ecumenical links were important. They were having to learn new languages and cultures, and to face up to being judged by those around them.

The Forum ended with feedback from ‘listeners’. Migration impacted on everyone. Corruption and trafficking should be challenged. Borders should not be sealed. Different expressions of faith were a reality, but churches should engage, and practice local level ecumenism. We should monitor legislation at national and EU level. Reactions of fear wee inevitable, and state sovereignty might seem threatened. ‘Fortress Europe’, and denial of financial support to migrants were regrettable facts. But the light of Christ should lead the churches to a constructive response.

My concern is that Christians aren’t the only migrants. The churches can to some degree look after their own, and that is what EEA3 was about, but what about the rest?

The same day, I went to two peace hearings. They were notable for their religious underpinning – we were not ‘just NGOs’.

The Assisi Coalition (Church and Peace, Pax Christi, IFOR, Mennonites, Franciscans) attracted some 24 delegates with the theme ‘From Broader Security to True Security’. Dutch Friend Kees Nieuwerth used the event to gain support for a petition to have non-violent conflict resolution highlighted in the Assembly’s final Message. We got 56 signatures. It was not included in the Message’s ten recommendations, but the text included the words:

Peace is an extraordinary and precious gift. Entire countries aspire to peace. Entire peoples are waiting to be delivered from violence and terror. We urgently commit ourselves to renewed efforts towards these ends. We reject war as a tool for resolving conflict, promote non-violent means of conflict resolution, and are concerned about military rearmament. Violence and terrorism in the name of religion is a denial of religion.

In the session itself, Paul Lansu of Pax Christi set the scene by saying that peace as a positive reality was not the same as a balance of power between enemies. Violence destroyed what it claimed to defend. There were a number of frozen conflicts in the world, including Kosovo, Chechnya and Cyprus. The US proposal to instal a ‘missile defence system’ in Poland and the Czech Republic was worrying.

Anna Napei (Italian Baptist) drew attention to Isaiah 31: ‘Woe to those who rely on horses’ (no military hardware), and ‘Woe to those who go down to Egypt’ (no military alliances). Jesus had a precarious existence. The search for security was a Moloch (it devoured its children). If your god is that of your land, your land will become your god. Françoise Pétremand added to this by saying that we had to accept vulnerability and not build walls. Her commune in France had switched to consensus decision making, so that it was no longer a question of choosing by vote between proposal and counter-proposal, each with its adherents, who ‘won’ or ‘lost’, but by seeking the common good. (Something very Quakerly here!) Christian witness would never carry its proper weight until we stopped slagging each other off. If economic development was to succeed in Africa and similar terrains, tribal wars must not be allowed to wipe out every step forward. Training trainers in non-violence might be our most rewarding task. As for the environment, there was work to be done in waste disposal and coming to terms with genetic engineering.

Another speaker turned to the reality (or otherwise) of ‘broader security’. It did not exist if, after conflict, bullies remained in control. It must not be a ‘ball game of the powerful’. We had to learn to live with new risks. Kees called on us to think wider, combating poverty and injustice to humans and to the natural world. We had to speak out against the ideology of military security and the ‘war on terror’. We had initiatives to be thankful for such as Christian Peacemaker Teams and EAPPI. Would it help to merge the EU and the Council of Europe?

My take on this is that ‘security is not safe’. I was reminded (and said so) that when the Arab countries complained about American arms sales to Israel, the American response was OK, we’ll sell more to you too.

Pax Christi held its own hearing that evening, on environment and peace. Only about 30 people there, but a big head of steam. Pax Christi had been active in this field since Basel in 1989. Its French branch had set up some 20 local ecumenical networks with lifestyle changes in mind, an idea which it wanted to extend across Europe. Peace must be based not only on justice but on safeguarding God’s creation. There was biblical support for this, including concern for future generations, This did not mean a specifically Christian ecology, but no Christian should remain unconcerned. All relevant organisations, Christian and secular, should work together on this. Every autumn, there should be a ‘creation time’ from 1 September to 4 October for day, weekend or sustained events.

They spoke of climate change, water security, over-fishing… The industrial revolution (continuing in and since the nineteenth century) and the pursuit of profit had led to massive population movements, much of it arising from conflicts and the resulting movements of refugees.

Various scenarios could be distinguished.

  • Migration within the circle of rich countries could distort property prices, and holiday destinations could come under environmental pressure; economic pressures could impede protection of nature.
  • Migration between poorer and richer industrialised countries could lead to illegal employment practices, exploitation of domestics, black economy, drug dealing, and (most seriously) prostitution, often based on people trafficking.
  • Migration South-North raised far more issues. One was neo-colonialism in the opposite direction – entrepreneurs or multinational companies taking advantage of cheap labour and no environmental controls, especially the latter. The flow of migrants from the South seeking a better life or simply survival was potentially damaging at both ends. It denuded the source countries of talent and prompted aggressive reactions in the North. Traditional lifestyles and whole communities could be at risk – sometimes being edged into ‘reserves’.

Karl Golsen (Italian theologian) reminded us that the continued creation in the natural world was God’s doing. Our despoliation had an eschatological significance – both the Pope and the Orthodox had called for ‘ecological conversion’. This was not an appeal to stop technological development, which offered benefits as well as threats, but to change lifestyles, to offer justice to the poor, and above all to set a Christian example.

Jean-Pierre Rougeot of Pax Christi said that environmental threats were bond to lead to ‘green conflicts’ over water, deforestation, minerals… Armed conflicts themselves were grossly polluting, and it was the poor, who were least responsible, who suffered most from them. Our consciences must be led by the Gospel. This called for ecumenism and changed lifestyles.

Finally, we should not forget the hidden communities within Europe, the Roma and similar groups. There were also various other travelling populations, who aped elements of their lifestyle and muddied the waters of understanding.

The following day saw a hearing on the World Council of Churches’ Decade to Overcome Violence (2000 -2010), or to be specific, the Convocation to be held 4 – 11 May 2011 to pick up the pieces from it. This would be in a location where violence had recently ended. Suggested predictions included Lebanon, South Africa, Sri Lanka, the USA itself… The plan was to invite 1,500 to 2,000 participants.

Only 14 people were present, but from a range of constituencies, with a German preponderance. A Dutch Mennonite spoke of the role of the historic peace churches. In the WCC context, the just war concept would take a lot of dislodging. ‘Responsibility to Protect’ was a novel version of it, also a hard issue to address. She and other speakers (here and on other occasions) called for a European Peace Agency to beef up the EU approach to non-violent conflict resolution. I spoke up for EPLO [The European Peacebuilding Liaison Office], but they seemed to want a faith-based body. A German network was studying the concept of ‘structural violence’. As stated repeatedly during the Assembly, poverty and the environment were essential elements in any programme. The overall lack of awareness was recognised as a problem; one useful current activity of the WCC was the compilation of ‘living letters’.

Other hearings over the three days, which I did not go to, included sessions on environment and globalisation, torture, youth, gender, disability, people trafficking, mixed denomination families, issues within the Romanian churches **, Ukrainian ecumenism, healing of memories, Edinburgh 2010… A hearing on human rights in Kosovo was (embarrassingly) cancelled at he insistence of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

**A party of Greek Catholic Romanian delegates, at odds with the Orthodox fraternity, was arrested on their way to Sibiu and interrogated for three hours. I was told that this must have arisen from phone tapping. The main issue is the ownership of property confiscated by the communists. Some Turks were held up as well.

The formal programme for the Friday began with a challenge from Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Sant’ Egidio Community. We must face up to the word renewal in the Assembly theme. After the ‘stolen years’ of war, we were wasting the unprecedented decades of peace in (most of) Europe. We had retreated into ‘economic providentialism’ – money will buy you everything. We had surrounded ourselves with walls but they did not protect us from fear. We had allowed nationalistic passions to blind us to reality. Our political acceptance of living solely for oneself had to be confronted. Christians were declining in numbers and losing vision. Even unification of Europe was not enough if it was a soulless construction, built on bureaucracy rather than passion. We ourselves needed to follow Jesus’s command to be at unity with each other. Ecumenism was an exchange of gifts and an example to the world. We could not turn away from poverty, especially in Africa – we had AIDS drugs and they hadn’t. We had clean water. We should make 1 September the feast of creation.

To lead us into the three forum themes, Metropolitan Gennadios of the Ecumenical Patriarchate said that it was mistaken to see the Orthodox Church as concerned only with spirituality. The present ecological crisis was not divorced from theology. The church needed to review its concepts of sin, recognising the enormity of sins against Creation.

Ingrid Naess Holm of Changemakers (Norway) saw failures of Justice in trade structures, intellectual property rights, lack of AIDS drugs and debt servicing costs, which dwarfed the inputs of development aid.

Giurgis Ibrahim Saleh, a Coptic from Lebanon, said that it was hard to overcome memories of continued humiliation in moving towards Peace. All neighbours had to be brought into the circle. The Middle Eastern Christian Council (which he chaired) did its best to win international support, but Christians in the region were draining away through emigration.

These three preside over a short question and answer session. On Turkey, Ibrahim felt that there was unfinished business over human rights, freedom of religion, freedom of education and respect for religious edifices. Ingrid said that consumerism and materialism deflected energies from the achievement of peace – they did nothing to wind down military structures. Gennadios saw grass roots religion as the heart of ecumenism, and welcoming to all faiths. We should think how we are seen through their eyes. Ingrid added that actual meeting face to face was vital to remove images of ‘the other’. In answer to a plea for the universal recognition of conscientious objection and of the asylum needs of some objectors, Ibrahim said that the young had to be allowed to live in peace. When asked whether signing up to a concern for the environment got us anywhere, Gennadios looked to the Charta Oecumenica, which had led us to the themes of the Assembly. Doing things in common was inescapable as world issues crowded upon us faster and faster. A speaker asked us to acknowledge that there were power dynamics within our churches. There was another call for a European Peace Agency.

The Creation forum was organised by the European Christian Environmental Network, a body administered from within CEC. Its speakers rehearsed the environmental threats facing us and suggested the following entry for the Assembly’s final message:

Global climate change is one of the greatest threats for the present and for future generations. Without a change of mind and heart, technological solutions or political negotiations to protect the climate will not achieve their goals.

The churches should therefore give priority to the cause of responsible and sustainable life styles. The specific contribution of the churches to the environmental movement is a better understanding of our interconnectedness with all of creation. Today a simple lifestyle is an important Christian witness. The Christians and churches in Europe are called to use the Creation time (from 1st September to St Francis day) to pray and act in response to this ecological crisis which already affects the lives of millions of people and the whole creation.

We commit ourselves to strengthen our current networks like ECEN in order to equip Christians for practical and political action ensuring that the earth’s capacity rather than economic development takes priority.

We call churches to provide guiding examples that will inspire and encourage their members and the wider community to practice excellence in eco-management and substantially reduce their carbon footprint.

Several delegations had travelled to Sibiu by train or bus to reduce their carbon footprint, including the Bishop of London and his Anglicans. He had pointed out that from a satellite view at night, Europe appeared bathed in light, with most of the world in darkness. Those of us who had come by air were invited to pay 15 euros into a tree planting fund.

ECEN and sister organisations had also mounted an impressive exhibition on environmental concerns. This included Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth and a film about Rosia Montana. A Canadian company wants to blow up an entire Transylvanian mountain to extract (with cyanide) the small percentage of gold it contains. I drew attention to this at the Pax Christi hearing.

I went to the Justice forum.

Gpakele Felemou had come from the Guinea branch of the Sant’ Egidio Community. He ran HIV/AIDS and debt relief programmes. Guinea was poor. Was it therefore invisible to the West? A Westerner could get there in half a day, but for a Guinean to get to Europe might cost him his life. Television gave each a false pictures, but that and past history had in many ways brought he two cultures closer together. This made the injustice (through absence of good governance) and lack of dignity suffered by Guineans hard to bear. Children were not even recorded. Any disability made life even harder. Collaboration between African states (for example over education) remained politically difficult. Love and the Gospel, rather than weapon power, was what would make us brothers.

Mariana Buceanu, a Roma herself, was a counsellor in the Romanian agency for Roma affairs. It had been set up in 2004, partly through EU pressure. The census recorded some 500,000 Roma, but their numbers were probably between 2 and 3 million. [We were told that the ‘King’ of the Romanian Roma lived in Sibiu.] They still faced the vicious circle of no education, no healthcare, and no employment. Prejudice was everywhere. Children in the system were often sent to special schools. However, the Soros Fund had helped to set up schools for Roma, and there were now about 400 teachers using the Roma language, some of Roma origin. There were 350 Roma training as nurses. The Roma belonged to various churches and to Islam. The churches had an important part to play in discarding prejudices and taboos and letting in light. Mariana had been told that in English, gypsy meant untouchable. I urged her afterwards to delete that idea from her mindset. She would welcome contact (in English) at mariana.buceanu[at]anr.gov.ro

Igor Vyzanov, a Russian Orthodox priest, described the collapse of communist social welfare and the widening gulf between rich and poor. The elderly were particularly neglected. The Church, denied a social role for 60 years, was having to step in. The Moscow Patriarchate, learning and fund raising from scratch, had risen to the occasion pretty well. Other churches (and Sant’ Egidio) were on side, especially in aid from abroad.

The Gospel gave a rationale, and indeed an urgency, but it also imposed conditions. Charity must be honest, voluntary, not self-aggrandising, and not encouraging dependency. Spiritual as well as material help was called for (this was as near as a Russian could get to psychotherapy), but not proselytising – American and Asian missionaries had caused havoc in the early days of freedom. There had been hostile reactions from atheists, who still saw religion as evil.

The Peace forum mainly covered ‘healing of memories’ and the process of reconciliation in Northern Ireland and in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The WCC made a presentation on the Decade to Overcome Violence. There was less on peacemaking and security, but the forum got quite a lot of its material into the Assembly’s Message. A subsequent comment was that it ought to have been possible to overcome objections of the Serbian Orthodox to any discussion of Kosovo. On Northern Ireland, the Catholic and Presbyterian speakers said that the churches were blamed for their failings but got little recognition for their successes. The present power-sharing outcome should not be seen as a model for other areas of conflict. But Irish monks had carried learning and the light of Christ through Europe in the past, and it was still a possibility that their successors could do something similar for future conflict situations.

The Saturday was mainly occupied by completion of the Assembly’s Message. It began with a chance for speakers from the floor o queue up for the microphone. About 40 were heard. They mainly asked for their own concerns to be given more prominence, notably environment, peace, a European Peace Agency, forgotten conflicts, trade justice, grass roots ecumenism, disability, the youth message, a common date for Easter, recognition that God was not just our Christian God, but no single issue was overplayed.

The youth message, prepared at St Maurice (Switzerland) in July, showed what could be done if no power structure was looking over one’s shoulder. [I later learnt that no Catholics had taken part.] As far as I am concerned, the Sibiu Message can be dismissed after a glance. It is the challenges to one’s thinking and lifestyle that emerged during the event that count.

The light of Christ concept was valuable, and indeed resonates with our inward light. Regrettably, when explaining Quakerism on the hoof I did not make the link. My main finding from this event was the gulf between ecumenism at grass roots level, where denomination is unimportant and you have to be tuned to your counterpart’s cultural language on the one hand, and the hierarchies with their agendas and power politics on the other. This is not to deny the wisdom and spirituality of many church leaders who spoke to us.

The other lesson was that security is not safe. This not just a challenge to missile defense policies. It also means that making any organisation rigidly rule-bound is a hostage to fortune. As we heard, Martin Luther let in light to the church of his time. So did George Fox. I was struck by the statement, if your god is that of your land, your land will become your god.

What I did not hear was acknowledgement of Islam as a faith rather than as a community of immigrants and a base for terrorists, though I gather that this came across in the Religions forum. The International Criminal Court seems to have dropped off the peace movement’s agenda. And the Anglican agonizing over homosexuality did not surface. Perhaps that is for next time, though a disillusioned steward we talked to thought that next time would never happen.

I should also recognise that as a Quaker I did not enter into the full experience of church worship that was offered to delegates. This culminated on the Saturday with the feast of the birth of the Virgin Mary. There were also many occasions for song during or between sessions, or as the programme called them, ‘artistic moments’.

6.10.07 version


Text from the Assisi Coalition hearing on Seeking True Security: a challenge for the Churches in Europe walking in the Light of Christ proposed to be included in the section on Peace in the Message from Sibiu. In petition form, this received 53 signatures. We call on the churches in Europe to seek true security and build peace by:

  • continuing to reflect on the theological and ethical foundations of the churches’ responsibility for justice, peace and the integrity of creation;
  • encouraging churches to view it as their responsibility to accompany peacebuilding processes in crisis areas on a long-term basis;
  • building upon the expertise of existing Christian peacebuilding teams and peace movements within the churches in areas troubled by armed conflict and war;
  • recognising that the experiences gathered by such peacebuilding teams and peace churches are a true Christian witness;
  • speaking out against the dominant ideology of military security and the “war on terror”;
  • calling Christians to share information and empower one another to adapt a more responsible and sustainable lifestyle;
  • making the churches aware that the challenges of building a united and peaceful Europe should be set within a global context: the need for sustainable development, just peace and true security for all;
  • calling upon both the European Union and the Russian government to develop appropriate policies fostering sustainable development and true security for all;
  • actively participating in the international Ecumenical Peace Convocation to be held by the World Council of Churches in 2011.

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