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Europe as a common task of christians

13 marca 2004 | 18:31 | Ⓒ Ⓟ

Your Excellencies, Eminences, Honoured Guests, Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
It is a great joy for me to be among the guests at this great Convention, and first of all to bring you the greetings and prayerful good wishes of the Conference of European Churches (CEC). The CEC is the ecumenical fellowship of Europe, comprising 126 churches of the Protestant, Orthodox, Anglican and Old Catholic traditions from every part of Europe. While the Roman Catholic Church is not a member of the CEC, we work increasingly closely with the Council of Episcopal Conferences in Europe (CCEE), COMECE and other Catholic partners. CEC having been founded in the days of the Cold War with a particular mission to be a bridge between the churches and peoples of East and West Europe, we both rejoice in the new developments towards a united Europe and share in facing the many continuing and new challenges that confront a Europe desirous of true reconciliation. We count it a privilege, in partnership with the CCEE, to have sponsored the two great European Ecumenical Assemblies at Basel (1989) and Graz (1997), and with CCEE to start looking forward to a projected Third European Ecumenical Assembly in 2007. Last year in Trondheim, Norway, we in CEC held our own 12th Assembly under the theme “Jesus Christ Heals and Reconciles – Our Witness in Europe.” I therefore feel very much at home here in Gniezno as we study and celebrate the theme “Europe of the Spirit” which I hope can also mean “Europe of the Holy Spirit.” It is especially a great privilege to be here in Poland, a country which in its historical life has carried much of the greatness of Europe and borne so much of its tragedies too, and which at the moment, with the other countries about to join the European Union, expresses so many of the hopes – and anxieties – of what we call “the new Europe.”

I have been asked to speak on the topic “Europe as a Common Task of Christians.” I would like to do so, first of all, by reflecting on the three words “Common,” “Task,” and “Christians.”


The presupposition of our being here is that as Christians, of whatever confession, we do uniquely have something in common, and should have even more in common than we do at present. But what is it primarily that we have in common as European Christians? I must confess to a certain anxiety as I listen to much of the contemporary talk and debate about the role of Christianity in Europe. Let me say right away that much of my own interest as a scholar and writer is with history, with Christian history. I have a vested interest in the study of history, and love it! Without a sense of history we do not fully know who we are, whether as individuals, churches or nations. But at the same time, I find it troubling that some European Christians seem to have a fixation with the past, as if all the answers to our contemporary problems lie in what has gone before and in restoring that past – or rather what we imagine that past to have been. I listen carefully to people talking about “Christian Europe” or “the Christian roots of Europe.” We have to be honest and recognise that such grand and uplifting phrases may not mean the same to all of us. To some of us, what passed for “Christian Europe” meant oppression, violence and persecution of the forbears in our respective traditions.

In the city where I lived for over thirty years, Bristol in the west of England, one can easily show that it was precisely out of felt loyalty to one version or another of “Christian Europe” that Catholics and Protestants attacked and burnt each other, that Anglicans put Free Church people into prison, and that over many years Christians of all persuasions justified their acquisition of wealth through enslaving black people. We have much to learn from our past, but it is not all nice to learn.

That however is not the main point. For as Christians we are not primarily called to be a people of the past, but of the future. What we really have in common is not our memory but our hope. Our faith is indeed rooted in history, the history of what God has done in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But that history immediately makes us look to what is to come, the advent of the reign of God. So it always is with the people of God. When the prophet tells the exiled Hebrews “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father, and to Sarah who bore you . . .” (Isaiah 51.1f) – it is precisely in order to tell them that the God who did great things then is about to do even more wonderful things now, comforting the waste places of Zion and making the desert blossom like a garden. “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43.18f). Even more in the New Testament we meet a people looking forward: to the growth of a mere mustard seed into a great tree of life; to a great banquet where people will come from east and west, north and south, and sit down to feast with God; to new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. When under threat, the followers of Jesus are told to be ready “to give an account of the hope that is in you.” (I Peter 3.15). As Christians we are called to be an eschatological people, an advent people. That is what really binds us together in Christ.

So our question must be: “What is our common hope in and for Europe? What new thing of God’s doing do we look for, long for, pray for and work for?” We believe that the risen Jesus Christ is the firstfruits of the new humanity, and we want to see how that new humanity can be enfleshed and take form in our churches and in Europe. We will not forget our past, but neither will we be locked in it. “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (I Corinthians 2.9): we must give the Spirit room to blow and bring new life to birth in ways we can as yet scarcely imagine.


I am glad the word “task” is in this title, because it brings us down to earth, to concrete things to be done. Imbued with our common hope that God is wanting his great purpose to be expressed in Europe, as Christians we have to work together. It is not as though we ourselves can bring in the kingdom of heaven on earth. We are not utopians. Poland, of all countries, has experienced as perhaps no other country the ravages brought by those who last century thought that instantly and by sheer force they could impose a new order – the fascist dream of the superman or the soviet plan of the classless society. There are even some fundamentalist Christians today, mainly in the USA, who believe they can somehow force God’s hand and precipitate the second coming of Christ through nuclear warfare in the Middle East. We are not called to bring about the end, but to witness to our common hope in that end, through hope-filled and hope-filling actions: actions which are signs that this really is God’s world, God’s Europe, to which his promise of new life is given. That means actions which run counter to whatever makes people resigned or despairing.

„Actions speak louder than words,” we often say in English. I am aware that to many sincere Christians it matters a great deal whether or not the new Constitution of the European Union will include mention of “God.” That is not without its importance, but it is not a question on which all Christians and churches are agreed. My own fear is that even if God were to be so mentioned, there would be the greater danger that Christians would feel that now their task was done, that God and the faith would now be safe, enshrined as words in a Preamble. We would then be like the third servant in Jesus’ parable of the talents, who for safe keeping left his silver buried in the ground instead of putting it to work for his master’s benefit when he returned from his long journey. What really counts is how we actually work in the name of God and what matters here is the proposed Article 51 of the draft Constitution which commits the European Commission to regular, open and transparent dialogue with the churches and faith communities of Europe. If that remains in the Constitution, it will open up an exciting and challenging opportunity for us as Christians really to make our witness in the public sphere, to “speak truth to power” as our Quaker friends put it. That is a real task for which we have to be ready – not just in the self-interests of us as churches and religious communities, but on behalf of all God’s children whose daily lives at every level will be affected by the decision-makers in Brussels and in the capitals of Europe. We will especially have to speak for those who are not otherwise heard: the weak, the sick, the hungry, the marginalized, the excluded, the strangers in our midst seeking refuge and asylum, those needing work and those with too much work, all in whom the divine image is ignored or defaced; and for the natural creation itself, God’s own loving handiwork at the mercy of human power for good or ill.

It is something which we will have to do together. The policy-makers in Brussels and Strasbourg are not going to very interested in hearing a succession of views from Lutheran, Reformed, Orthodox, Anglicans, Baptists and Catholics. They will only take us seriously if it is clear that – some important differences notwithstanding – we are doing our utmost to speak with one Christian voice and act out one Christian love. In some cases we may find we cannot speak with one voice, in the field of bioethics for example. But that should not deter us from showing that even when we argue with one another we do so out of a common concern to be true to God’s love as the foundation of all life. Even the way we hold different views in tension can be helpful to the secular decision-makers who are sometimes as perplexed and searching as we are.

My hope that this really will be possible as a common task is strengthened by the actual experience of the past year or so, as our CEC Commission on Church and Society has worked ever more closely with COMECE in Brussels, and not least in engaging with those drafting the new EU Constitution. That we have Article 51 in the draft owes much to this determined, persevering and patient work in Brussels. Let us build on it in the future.

In face of the current tendency for Christians to imagine that Europe’s problems will be solved by words and concepts alone, even highly religious-sounding ones, let us listen to what was written sixty years ago this year, in 1944, by one of Germany’s great witnesses to Christ and the truth. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from his Nazi prison cell: “The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over . . .”. And, in his outline for the book he never lived long enough to complete, he writes: “The church is the church only when it exists for others . . . The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell people of every calling what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others. In particular, our own church [here I hope we will each be honest about our own too!] will have to take the field against the vices of hubris, power-worship, envy and humbug, as the roots of all evil. It will have to speak of moderation, purity, trust, loyalty, constancy, patience, discipline, humility, contentment, and modesty. It must not underestimate the importance of human example . . .: it is not abstract argument, but example, that gives its word emphasis and power.” Sixty years on, I think we European Christians still have to listen to Bonhoeffer and act accordingly..


I am also glad that the topic I was given speaks not of “Christianity” but “Christians.” For Christianity, like “religion” as a term can be dangerously ambiguous: an abstraction – a vague historical accumulation of doctrines, practices, buildings and organisations which may or may not convey what is at the heart of it all: obedient faith in the incarnate, crucified and risen Jesus Christ made known in the freedom and power of the Holy Spirit, uniting us in love with the one Father of all. We are talking a lot at present about Europe recovering its Christian identity. Should we not be talking about us Christians recovering our identity as followers of Jesus Christ, so that we may be the salt of the earth which is Europe? I come back to Bonhoeffer’s insistence that it is example which gives our words power, and his catalogue of qualities of life and action which exemplify what life in Christ is all about.

Throughout the modern ecumenical movement there has been a tension between those on the one hand who have stressed prophetic witness and deeds, confronting the injustices of society, as being what should unite Christians, and on the other hand those who say that the visible unity of the Church itself is the primary goal; between those who stress overcoming the destructive divisions in the world and those who stress the overcoming of the unholy divisions between the churches. In European terms, we might say it is the call to European integration versus the call to visible Christian unity in Europe. But neither can be set against the other. If there is to be a tension, it has to be a creative one. Each needs the other. The witness to justice, peace and reconciliation in the world will only carry weight if it comes from Christians who are visibly seen as being just, peace-making and reconciled among themselves. And the movement for visible Christian unity will stagnate in introverted ecclesiastical reorganization if it is not also flowing outwards for healing and reconciliation in the world at large.

It is important, then, that we carefully identify the proper affinity between Christian faith and the aspirations towards a united Europe. Those who are cynical about the current movement towards European integration like to point out that it has repeatedly been tried before, from Charlemagne to Napoleon, and has always failed. What they do not seem to realize is that previous attempts at a united Europe were too often exercises in domination, an imposed unity under one or other political or religious authority, whereas what is new about the present attempt is that it is in the main a voluntary commitment into which sovereign states are entering together. It is not an easy process, and there are real fears and suspicions about the stronger states seeking to call the tune to which the rest must dance, as was shown in the collapse of the summit meeting in Brussels three months ago. But it is quite clear that a new type of relationship is struggling to be born in Europe. Over against the old motif of domination, the motif of interdependence is painfully coming into the light of day, perhaps crying fitfully like a newborn child: but for the newborn child, as Nicodemus pointed out, there is no going back. This motif of interdependence, we must recall, was at the heart of the vision of such founders of the European Economic Community as Jean Monnet and Robert Schumann, who were themselves profoundly moved by Christian conviction. Germany and France in particular, had to come to the point where their economic interrelations would make war not only undesirable but impossible. A basic common task of Christians in Europe must be continually to retrieve, uphold and strengthen this core belief that it is mutual interdependency and solidarity which provide the key to Europe becoming in fact as well as in name a community: a place of living together in peace, justice, freedom and shared prosperity for its own peoples and an agent of those same values in the wider world.

This understanding of humankind as fulfilled in interdependency instead of domination and suppression, in partnership instead of conquest and exploitation, corresponds closely with the biblical witness to humankind as created in and for mutuality. Humankind, as Karl Barth put it, is created by God as co-humanity. It is as co-humanity that humankind reflects the divine image, for God’s own self is relational in the eternal life and mutual love of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our common task as European Christians is to dare to attempt to translate this belief in who God is and who we are called to be, into concrete forms in the life of Europe. This includes, in practical terms:

To mean by Europe the whole of Europe, inside the enlarged EU and outside it, as of equal value and dignity, and to combat all attempts at partial definitions of Europe, all drawing of false boundaries as to who is “in” and who is “out.”

To respect fully the dignity and God-given rights of all peoples in Europe without exclusion: women no less than men; children no less than adults; indigenous minorities no less than majorities; migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers no less than European-born residents.

To be peace-makers, helping in the healing of wounded memories and painful histories especially where these continue to divide people in mutual fear and suspicion and prevent their meeting in openness and trust.

To insist that prosperity cannot be pursued as an end in itself without leading to instability and conflict, and that peace will only be achieved in the longer-term through a just sharing of resources – material, cultural and intellectual.

To work for a creative participation of all citizens in the democratic processes of society, for a culture of real dialogue among citizens and between citizens and government at both national and European levels.

To preserve and enhance the open space for people to encounter the transcendent mystery and presence of God in the freedom of faith and conscience, and to express their spiritual convictions in ethical life and public service.

To keep Europe open to the whole inhabited world, the oikumene which God made and loves, in its need for justice and peace, the world as a whole which in our time we increasingly know to be a web of interdependence.

All these will contribute to the common Christian task which is the making of Europe into a community, a co-humanity which is a sign of the hope-filled future of God.

The Charta Oecumenica

Those of you who know anything about the recent work of the CEC and CCEE will not be surprised if I now turn to the Charta Oecumenica. I do so not just because I want to act as an ecumenical salesman, but because I do believe it represents as nothing else does the vocation of European churches and Christians in the present hour. Its full title is Charta Oecumenica. Guidelines for the Growing Cooperation among the Churches in Europe. It is a fruit of the 2nd European Ecumenical Assembly at Graz in 1997, where it was proposed that a set of guidelines be drawn up as kind of code of good practice for the European churches in their relations with each other. What has emerged is both that and something more: a statement of commitments which the churches are invited to make covering every aspect of their life together and their common responsibility to Europe. Signed by the then presidents of CEC and CCEE, it was transmitted to the churches at the Ecumenical Encounter in Strasbourg just after Easter 2001, as a call to a new ecumenical journey at the start of the 3rd millennium. The text was in fact nearly three years in the making, including a whole year of the first draft being studied and critically commented on in the CEC member churches and the bishops’ conferences.

The Preamble states:

Europe – from the Atlantic to the Urals, from the North Cape to the Mediterranean – is today more pluralist in culture than ever before. With the Gospel, we want to stand up for the dignity of the human person created in God’s image and, as churches together, contribute towards reconciling peoples and cultures.
In this spirit, we adopt this charter as a common commitment to dialogue and co-operation . . . It is designed to promote a culture of dialogue and co-operation at all levels of church life, and to provide agreed criteria for this.

In size it is a modest document – barely eight short pages, and it is in three sections: “We believe in ‘One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church’”, stating the basic call of the Gospel to unity in faith; “On the Way Towards the Visible Fellowship of Churches in Europe”, expounding the need for proclaiming the Gospel together, acting together, praying together and continuing in dialogue; and “Our Common responsibility to Europe.” This third section, the longest in the Charta, sets out the agenda of participating in the building of Europe on the basis of its Christian heritage, reconciling peoples and cultures, safeguarding the creation, strengthening community with Judaism and promoting respectful relations with Muslims, and encountering other religions and world views.
Each section is grounded in scripture. Its language is simple, some might think even simplistic. But this is deceptive, for at the heart of each chapter are the clear commitments which churches are invited to make their own and which in fact offer stringent measurements of their actions. We commit ourselves, for example:

.To pray for one another and for Christian unity.
.To learn to know and appreciate the worship and other forms of spiritual life practiced by other churches.
.To move towards the goal of eucharistic fellowship.
.In the event of controversies, particularly when divisions threaten in questions of faith and ethics, to seek dialogue and discuss the issues together in the light of the Gospel.
.To seek agreement with one another on the substance and goals of our social responsibility, and to represent in concert, as far as possible, the concerns and visions of the churches vis-à-vis the secular European institutions.
.To resist any attempt to misuse religion and the church for ethnic or nationalist purposes.

All this sounds simple – but which of us could honestly say that our respective church has adequately fulfilled even these commitments?

The Charta is itself a sign of hope, not least because it has become the most widely distributed and studied ecumenical text in recent European history, being translated into more than 30 languages – even Arabic! It is being cited ever more extensively as a framework or rubric for many statements and actions both by churches and ecumenical bodies. A highlight of its ecumenical reception was its signing by leaders of all the main German churches at the Ecumenical Kirchentag in Berlin in May last year. It is giving a new impetus for Christians of all confessions to combine in one endeavour their efforts for greater visible unity and a Europe of shared values based on the Gospel and beginning with personal renewal in the Gospel.

Two short paragraphs from the Charta Oecumenica are especially apposite to this Convention in Gniezno. In the chapter on “Moving towards one another” it is stated:

Ecumenism therefore begins for Christians with the renewal of our hearts and the willingness to repent and change our ways. The ecumenical movement has already helped to spread reconciliation.
It is important to acknowledge the spiritual riches of the different Christian traditions, to learn from one another and so to receive these gifts.

There is an obvious resonance here with the emphasis being given at this Convention to exchange of spiritual riches between the east and the west. It is indeed a manifestation of our belonging together in the one body of Christ to give and receive such riches. It is also thereby a great role-model being offered to Europe as a whole, for the mutual recognition of the diversity of cultures and historical experiences as an essential element in the growth of Europe into a family of peoples which, like all families, manifests the enriching diversity of character found within one overall likeness and history.

Is this enough?

Yet, as Christians, we are called to something more than the giving and receiving of what is precious to us in our diverse traditions. As members of Christ, we are called not only to receive one another’s gifts but, in the words of the Apostle Paul, to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6.2). The burdens that we see others carrying may not be welcome to us, they may appear strange, alien, distasteful, even sinful. But when the Apostle speaks of carrying burdens, it is precisely the burden of one another’s weaknesses, failings and sins that he his talking about. We have, I fear, as European Christians too much of a record of being one another’s accusers: those from the west are accused of being acquiescent in individualist materialism and even secularism, those in the east of being compromisers with state power during the communist period and seekers after the restoration of privileges afterwards. We still have too much spiritual and theological xenophobia. In humility, we should acknowledge that we all have histories to carry which are mixtures of faithfulness and failure, of holy aspiration and worldly compromise. To be true to Christ and membership of his body means not righteous condemnation of the other but stepping into the place of the other, thinking and imagining and feeling ourselves into what it must be like to be the other, in the other’s context and under the other’s peculiar experience: the Orthodox in the place of the Roman Catholic, the Roman Catholic in the place of the evangelical, the majority in the place of the minority and vice versa and so on . . . In this way we will better appreciate the appositeness of that delightful misquotation of the Apostles’ Creed, that we „believe in the communion of sins and the forgiveness of saints.” Dare we imagine what spiritual energies might flow out for Europe as a whole, if as churches and Christians we really dared to live this way?

We are called to this because Jesus Christ is himself the one who took the place of the other, our place, and carried our burden, on the cross. At the annual meeting of the Joint CEC-CCEE Committee just a few weeks ago at Opole here in Poland, in the midst of one of the discussions someone asked, “What has happened to the cross in our ecumenism?” A pointed question indeed. As Christians in Europe our common task is, ultimately, to view every question and every person in the light of what we see in the cross, the hope it offers us and the costly way to which it calls us. This goes far beyond what may be thought at first to be politically useful or expedient. But we must be prepared for the revolutionary impact it can have on our understanding of what makes for true community, including the community with people of other faiths and of no faith.

In conclusion

Our common Christian task is based upon our common Christian hope for the fulfillment of God’s promise, that God himself will dwell with humankind in a new creation, the holy city, the new Jerusalem; a community of light and life into which the glory and honour of the nations will be brought; a community irrigated by the water of life and blessed by the tree of life for the healing of the nations (Revelation 21.1-3, 24f; 22.1f). To pretend that we ourselves can build that city here and now would be presumptuous. But equally, to fold our hands in resignation would be to deny the promise that God’s Spirit can empower us to participate with him in creating signs of that end and purpose in the reality of human life here and now. It is surely with this motivation that we are called to accept Europe as a common task for Christians.

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