Assembly of the Conference of European Churches in Budapest (Archive) © Peter Kenny (epd)
Representatives of some 85 churches from across Europe to meet in Serbia starting Thursday. The Conference of European Churches brings together all the major Christian denominational families except the Catholics.
It is no coincidence that the Conference of European Churches (CEC) has chosen the bridge as its symbol. Not only do several bridges connect the banks of the Serbian Danube city of Novi Sad, where representatives of some 85 churches from all over Europe will meet starting Thursday. The motive is programmatic when the General Assembly of European Churches, one of the largest ecumenical gatherings on the continent, takes place. So far, links between churches are far from self-sustaining.
"Being ecumenical is not fashionable," says CEC general secretary Heikki Huttunen. Churches in Europe today are increasingly looking after their own interests, engaging in "navel-gazing" and raising their profile vis-à-vis others, he explains. The head of the delegation of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) to Novi Sad, Petra Bosse-Huber, also believes that it is "no longer a matter of course" to perceive church viewpoints other than one's own.
Traditional topics of contention: Homosexuality and migration
Beyond the traditional ies of disagreement between the churches, which primarily include the understanding of the church as an institution, opinions are divided on topics such as homosexuality and migration. The rifts here are not so much between Christian denominations as between the geographical regions represented in the Conference of European Churches. CEC unites all major Christian denominational families except Catholics.
Protestants, Anglicans, Orthodox and Old Catholics are represented in it. The churches also operate in terms of area between Iceland and Armenia, between Portugal and Turkey.
Again more concerned about the common Christian witness
Long before the meeting, the different approaches became clear. At a CEC consultation on the future of Europe since June 2016, Norway's Protestants referred to the universal validity of human rights in questions of migration, while the Czech Silesian Protestant Church, for example, warned against "boundless charity" toward migrants and sexual minorities. However, the positions are not hardened everywhere, most of the time the speakers in the consultation were differentiated. The Hungarian churches, for example, on the one hand legitimized the border fence against illegal migrants, but at the same time pointed to the xenophobia in the country.
Both the CEC and the EKD are campaigning to prevent rifts from deepening. CEC General Secretary Huttunen, himself Finnish Orthodox, hopes that the Assembly could help to "focus more on the common Christian witness". Communication is the most difficult and at the same time the most important thing, says EKD Bishop Bosse-Huber, "to make myself understood, to understand the other person and not to put my cliches over everything as an aid to understanding".
A week long opportunity to talk to each other
Opportunity to communicate is given for a week in Novi Sad. On the subject of Europe, Bosse-Huber exchanged views on a podium with the honorary head of the Anglican world church, Justin Welby, as well as with Metropolitan Emmanuel of France as a representative of the Orthodox Church. Discussions are also planned on hospitality, justice and witnessing.
Heather Roy from Eurodiaconia, one of the denominational CEC partner organizations, hopes that "the work on the ground" will not be neglected among the great general discussions. Workshops on specific topics such as climate change or social policy take place in Novi Sad.
In addition to the substantive work, the delegates also deal with the election of a new board of directors. According to the rotation principle, the current Anglican president, Bishop Christopher Hill, is to be followed by a Protestant. In addition, the delegates have to deal once again with the CEC interception. The 2013 Assembly in Budapest had simplified structures and also moved the headquarters from Geneva to Brussels. Now the statute must be further adapted to the laws of the country in which the CEC is now located – here are still bridges to be built to Belgian law.