Doubts on the Danube
Bishop Dirk Schoon, Old Catholic Bishop of Haarlem and Amsterdam, sat on my left. I wished that he had taken the seat to my right—it would have been that bit less taxing on my lazy eye—but this was hardly the most pressing concern on my mind on the night of 6 July 2013.
The main function room of the RAM Coliseum in Budapest, Hungary, the temporary home of about 450 delegates, volunteers and staff hailing from dozens of churches in Europe, had been transformed from the Conference of European Churches (CEC) Assembly plenary hall, where we had sat together for four days gravely considering proposals to alter CEC’s constitution, into a rather over-the-top ballroom. Live music played from the stage, white tablecloths covered round tables groaning under the weight of fine china and flower arrangements, women in evening gowns mixed with bearded and robed Orthodox priests. The celebratory atmosphere was a far cry from the contentious tone of the Assembly.
Bishop van Shoon nodded when I mentioned how pained I was by all of the luxury. The fancy hotels, the sumptuous meals, the overwhelmingly middle-class vibe of the gathering. These things were partly understandable. What was more disturbing, I continued, was the process used by the Assembly as it deliberated the future of the Conference. Democracy, in a Christian setting, is alien to me (the Roman Catholic that I am) and I yearned for the more universal consensus-model of decision-making. Still, the Bishop and I agreed that the daily prayer, daily breaking of bread and daily opportunities for human encounter provided by the Assembly were rare and profoundly valuable things.
Our conversation was interrupted by dimmed lights and the work of a (remarkably talented) artist designing, among other things, a replica of the CEC logo of a ship setting sail out of sand. Shortly thereafter, we all set sail ourselves—on the Danube aboard a riverboat. We sang, danced, laughed and savoured the Christian fellowship. But where did this boat lead us?
History and Context
We’ve come a long way as European Christians since the early days of Europe’s “official” ecumenical organisation. The CEC was founded in 1959 as a forum for ecumenical fellowship among the Christian churches of Europe (the Roman Catholic Church is not a member). Since 1959, European churches have pooled their resources out of a commitment to seek fuller communion between our churches and between one another.
At that time, the founding churches agreed that the work of CEC should be guided, at the highest level, by an Assembly of European Churches, which would meet every six years to dialogue and deliberate an acceptable framework within which our shared resources could be expended. The Assembly would agree on broad policy and financial documents, which would then form guidelines for the day-to-day work of the Central Committee (elected by the Assembly) and the Staff.
At the most recent CEC Assembly in Lyon, France in 2009, it became clear that in order for the CEC to continue to remain effective as an ecumenical body in Europe it needed to address where the CEC was based, who comprised its highest governing authority, and how it operated on a day-to-day level. As these issues touched on the most central elements of CEC’s identity, a new constitution was required to give shape to how CEC might look in the future. Thus the delegates in Lyon elected members to form the Revision Working Group, which was tasked with proposing a new constitutional text, along with a “road map” of guidelines for how CEC might function in the future.
The results of the Revision Working Group’s findings were published in The Uppsala Report in advance of the Assembly in Budapest. As such, churches and church-related organisations (or Associated Organisations) had an opportunity to read the document and to table amendments to the constitutional text as proposed in The Uppsala Report.
The WSCF-E, together with the Ecumenical Youth Council in Europe (EYCE) noted that one of the suggested changes was the removal of Associated Organisations (the WSCF-E and the EYCE are both Associated Organisations) from future CEC Assemblies. Previously, Associated Organisations had all the rights that church delegates had, save for the right to vote.
The WSCF-E and the EYCE wrote a letter to CEC expressing our concern with this suggestion.
Additionally, some church members tabled amendments to the proposed constitutional text calling for Associated Organisations to keep their status at future CEC Assemblies(alongside a multitude of other amendments on many other issues).
It was in this context, representing churches and Associated Organisations from nearly every country in Europe, that the delegates to the 14th Assembly of the Conference of European Churches (CEC) gathered in Budapest from 3 July – 8 July to consider the adoption of a new constitution.
Before each Assembly, CEC facilitates a Pre-Assembly for Young Delegates (voting delegates under the age of 30) and Stewards (the amazing team of young volunteers who more or less run the Assembly). The European ecumenical youth organisations are each asked to participate in the planning of the Pre-Assembly and, as such, in April 2013, I found myself working with a team of young people from the EYCE, the Young Men’s Christian Association / Young Women’s Christian Association (YMCA/YWCA), Syndesmos and several others. The Pre-Assembly provided a space to ensure that all the young people present at the Assembly had a good sense of the history of the CEC and the current issues which would need consideration by the Assembly.
It became clear early on that certain issues would be controversial. The young delegates discussed these issues with interest – but, slowly, a more overriding concern was emerging: how would our sisters and brothers dialogue about their differences on these issues? Would the 14th Assembly of the Conference of European Churches become a forum which modeled the values of gracious reception and humility? Or would the discussion become acrimonious? We hoped for the best.
Lots of Work, Even More Politics
The work began. The differential between the amount of work we had to do and the amount of time we had to complete it did not escape the Assembly Moderator, Archbishop Michael Jackson, nor, indeed, any of us in the plenary hall. Despite his best efforts at keeping us on track, we regularly ran over time. The work spilled over into coffee breaks and mealtimes, when much strategising and amendment-writing and lobbying would occur. At times, it felt like the acute lack of sleep was our most compelling common denominator.
The intensity of the politicking of the Assembly was matched by an intensity of fellowship and a deep reverence for times of prayer. The hard-working and immensely patient Assembly Worship Committee had taken great care to prepare brilliant Opening and Closing Services along with daily prayer three times each day. I often found myself with joyful tears in my eyes at the significance of this large, diverse group of Christians from many different places, speaking many different languages praying together as one. Perhaps the divisions so clearly apparent on the Plenary Floor made these moments of unity more poignant. I certainly found them so. The music chosen, a moving selection of Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant hymns, added a richness to our prayers. Singing together the slow-burning, soothing Romanian Orthodox chant “Sfinte Dumnezeule,” which asks for God’s mercy on us, was a particularly beautiful shared experience.
And God did have mercy on us. He gave us the concentration we needed to complete our business of adopting a new constitution before our time was up. This accomplishment was not, however, without some degree of pain. True ecumenical dialogue demands a bit of pain, in exchange for the life-giving joy that emerges from our strengthened unity.
I struggled myself, at times, to see where God’s grace was emerging during the Assembly. The Associated Organisations, under the leadership of the politically astute and quick-thinking Felix Beck of the EYCE, had agreed a wording of an amendment which would ensure that Associated Organisations could retain their role at future CEC Assemblies, along with perhaps having the right to serve as non-voting members of the future Governing Boards. The wording of this amendment was put before the Assembly and, in a vote on the Assembly floor, it was passed. Several days later, during the third reading of the article pertaining to Associated Organisations, a delegate from the Union of Protestant Churches in Germany (EKD) requested a closed session.(A ‘closed session’ is a session of the Assembly where only voting members of the Assembly are present).1 As the representatives from the Associated Organisations had spent many days preparing to speak on the subject of our continued involvement in the CEC, we were quite disappointed that the Assembly voted, despite earnest and heartfelt remarks from Moderator Jackson about his concerns around excluding voices from the dialogue, to enter into a closed session to amend the text that the Assembly had already agreed.
In the end, though the wording our amendment–and thus our official standing at future CEC Assemblies–was watered down somewhat, the result still addressed the concerns the WSCF-E had expressed in its letter to the CEC. We still have a status as an “Organisation in Partnership” for which we are not expected to pay. We may still have a role at future CEC Assemblies, as the power to grant this status now lies with the Governing Board. Indeed, CEC also indicated that they will make an active effort to collaborate with the WSCF-E, and other organisations, addressing the concern, as articulated in the letter, that the relationship had become a bit one-sided in past years. So, in terms of outcomes, most of our worries were addressed. Still, I was left feeling troubled – not by the outcome, but by the process used to arrive at that outcome.
Vulnerability and the Ecumenical Movement
When the closed session ended and all the guests, volunteers, stewards, press, observers, staff people and Associated Organisations were permitted back inside the Plenary Hall, Moderator Jackson invited one of us to speak about how we felt about having been excluded from the dialogue. I volunteered to speak. I was nervous about getting my words right and made more so by the fact that I found my voice cracking as I spoke. Being willing to be publically vulnerable, I said, especially in the public eye, is a hallmark of the ecumenical movement. Of course we don’t all agree, and that’s fine—even something beautiful. As Christians, we are called to make an effort to build trust when we are uncertain. This requires something of us. The Assembly of the Conference of European Churches should be a forum for modeling that kind of authentic trust-building, for leading the way on what it means to be publically vulnerable. That the 14th CEC Assembly did not serve as a role model for the whole ecumenical movement in these areas left me feeling a bit undone.
Yet, God’s grace emerges from all situations. After this emotional moment on the floor of the Assembly, I found myself with a renewed enthusiasm for articulating the will of the WSCF-E to serve the churches.
I spent time explaining to delegates that the WSCF-E’s aim is to work with churches to provide opportunities for young people to travel, gain communication skills, meet Christians from other traditions, pray together, and learn how to trust one another, even when hailing from very different backgrounds. I told our brothers and sisters that the WSCF-E earnestly desires to equip young people with the skills they need to lead the future of the European ecumenical movement by providing experiences which help young people learn how to enter into a space of public vulnerability and to identify catalysts for transformation which emerge from such interactions.
Many adults who had formerly participated in WSCF-E events when they were younger approached me to say how much they valued the radical, authentic, nurturing space that WSCF-E provides for young people in the ecumenical movement. They said that WSCF-E events taught them the importance of authenticity and trust. They encouraged us to continue prophesying and suggested that we be unafraid to ask them, and our own churches, for financial support when we need it.
And the staff and leadership of CEC does not want you to be afraid to approach them either. At the end of the Assembly, we elected a new Governing Board. The people elected to the Governing Board seem genuinely interested in hearing more from us. If you are interested in the work of CEC, please don’t hesitate to contact them and suggest ways of collaborating.
By providing a space where young people can learn the importance of authenticity and trust the WSCF-E serves as a lighthouse towards which the CEC can sail.
To learn more about the ecumenical work of CEC and see documents from the 14th CEC Assembly here: http://assembly2013.ceceurope.org/
1In some European contexts, the calling of a ‘Closed Session’ is regarded as a normal business practice for arriving at agreement on challenging issues and is not necessarily viewed as exclusionary, as such.