English Churches and the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe

 (The Leuenberg Church Fellowship)

By Canon Harvey Richardson
 

A couple of years ago, about twenty members of the CPCE Doctrinal Commission on ‘Ministry, Ordination & Episcope’ from a variety of European countries broke their consultations to meet with representatives of the local Methodist church in Vienna, Austria. Start­ing conventionally with a round of personal introductions, most of them confessed honestly that they - until that day - had heard little or nothing about this Community of Protestant Churches in Europe (CPCE), or the Leuenberg Fellowship of Churches. The Commission members likewise - not only because of wanting to be polite - had to admit that they, when mentioning Leuenberg, had come to expect a similar reaction of their local church people at home. So, what is the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe, at one time known as the Leuenberg Church Fellowship?  What is its purpose, history, structure and present programme?

 

I begin by suggesting that the early years of the 21st Century have seen a diminishing of confessional identities. The distinctive dividing lines are rapidly becoming blurred. The distinctions between Lutheran/ Calvinist/ Anglican/ Roman Catholic identities are deflected away towards the diversities (and often antagonisms) of Christian/ Muslim/ Hindu/ Agnostic/ Atheist etc. In view of this shift, differences among Protestant churches, when they are realised at all, can be seen as strange relics from ancient centuries. This historical change was brought about by different causes: by the search for a ‘reason­able faith’ since the period of the Enlightenment, and the emerging processes of secularisation, by the ambivalent attitudes of the church­es towards one another and their role vis à vis social developments, such as the crises running through the churches under fascist and Nazi regimes in Europe.

For our purposes, we immediately recognise that the church struggle in Germany had led Lutheran, Reformed and United Christians and churches to a closer co-operation for a common stand against the ‘Deutsche Christen’ and for a clear witness to genuine Christian faith, unadulterated by heretical theories about the revelatory qualities of ‘nature’ and ‘nation’. The Barmen Declaration of 1934 is still an impressive document of the clear-sighted analysis and the unmistakable message of the confessionally mixed and formally illegal synod of the Confessing Church. Other Christians, who shared persecution or imprisonment under Nazi tyranny, in this fellowship experienced a change of priorities in their understanding of Christianity and its fragmentation into confessional churches. The migrations of thousands of refugees and emigrants during and after World War II perforated the neat border lines of the confessional territories. In a modern mobile society ‘conversions by change of residence’ became customary for state church members moving from, for example, Reformed North­west Germany to Lutheran Lower Saxony, from Lutheran Bavaria to Evangelical-United Rhineland or Westphalia. On a more ecclesiastical level, the work of the blossoming Ecumenical Movement had begun to bear some rich fruit. The World Council of Churches and especially the work of its Commission on ‘Faith and Order’, stimulated formal talks between the churches of the Reformation on the subject of closer church community. Among others the Leuenberg Church Fellowship was then developing from these experiences and insights. Today, 105 Protestant churches in Europe - Lutheran, Reformed, United, Waldensian and Hussite - including the Methodist churches, have joined together, granting one another, through their assent to the Leuenberg Agreement of 1973, pulpit and table fellowship and mutual re­cog­nition of ordination. The full list of member churches is available on the CPCE website, but in Britain & Ireland, the following churches belong: United Free Church of Scotland, the Church of Scotland, the Presbyterian Church of Wales, the Lutheran Church in Ireland, the Methodist Church in Britain, the Methodist Church in Ireland, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the United Reformed Church in UK. It is important to see today’s ‘English’ approach to our work placed firmly within a wider international and non-parochial perspective. It may also be of interest that CPCE has been actively seeking to encourage the Moravians of Britain, the Welsh Independent Churches, and the Lutheran Council of Great Britain to join the CPCE.

The genesis of this new community of churches has been, as may easily be reckoned, a walk across sometimes rather mountainous territory!  The ‘Leuenberg’ (a hill near Basle) may be known outside the Reformed region of Switzerland only as well as is ‘Mow Cop’ known outside Methodist England; it nevertheless became the birthplace for a new inspiring movement within and among the European Protestant churches. The approaches between the Christian, even the Protestant churches, after the war were still characterised by timidity more than by hope or courage. Reducing the height of one’s outlook over the ‘wider ecumenical context’  to a hill-top level was (and still is) a means of limiting the measure of embarrassment, though in 1955, when informal Leuenberg conversations began, it may have been better justified than in the present day. The fear of loosing one’s heritage (including the inherited identity) and of leaving one’s ‘position’ was not easily overcome. Some of the stumbling blocks on the way to a closer community were the so-called ‘re­ject­­ions’ (Verwerfungen) of the sixteenth century; therefore, a series of careful doctrinal conversations proved to be necessary. Between 1955 and 1973, with the assistance of the Commission on Faith and Order as well as the Lutheran World Federation and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, an agreement was completed and submitted to the churches for approval. In 1963 a Lutheran-Reformed dialogue about doctrinal differences was initiated during a European Faith & Order meeting in Schau­enburg (Germany); the method proved to be difficult, and no progress was achieved towards closer sacramental fellowship (which at that time did not exist). Nevertheless, the process continued and, between 1968 and 1970, much concentration was placed on article VII of the Augsburg Confession: ‘...unto the true unity of the Church, it is sufficient to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments’. This proved to be a wise decision which opened the door to ‘Theses on Church Fellowship’ (May 1970). In September 1971, the first Leuenberg Assembly completed the outline of an agreement for the Churches of the Reformation, followed by a consulting process in the churches. In March 1973 a revised text ‘Konkordie reformatorischer Kirchen in Europa’, our ‘Leuenberg Agreement’, was adopted and the churches were asked to give their consent. Eighteen months later fifty church­es had signed the agreement in spite of a robust critique from some conservative Lutheran churches.

Doctrinal dialogues continued, the process of growing community between the member churches went on, among them five Latin American churches with historically founded special relations to their European counterparts. The Nordic Luther­an Churches, although engaged in the Leuenberg dialogue from its beginning, had not signed the Agreement, partly because of their legal status as state churches, partly because of their special relationship with the Church of England.  However, these relationships did not hinder the Baltic Lutheran Churches from accepting the Leuenberg Agree­ment, which envisages an inviting promise, namely that ‘the participating churches will seek to establish a common witness and service.’ Also, out of five Scandinavian Lutheran churches, which have participated in the Leuenberg Church Fellowship since 1973 as so-called participating churches, two churches (Denmark and Norway) have now signed the Leuenberg Agreement.

In 1994 Bishop Stephen Sykes stated that ‘Ang­licans would want very warmly to affirm and to build on this feature of realisation of Church fellowship’, but he also admitted that ‘Anglicans can be very discouraging ecumenical partners’ because of their ‘wide span of belief, style and practice’. And furthermore, he said, ‘there will be Christians from other British Churches who will speak of a history of Anglican failure within Britain to bring prolonged discussion with the Church of Scotland or the Methodist Church in Great Britain to a successful conclusion’. The Bishop may have lost some of his reservations, after both churches he mentioned here have become members of CPCE. The talks between the Church of England and the CPCE have, nonetheless, led to closer work­ing contacts of the two partners. Interestingly, and importantly, a recent consultation between the British and Irish Anglican Churches and the CPCE has resulted in the following statement: ‘The participants (have) agreed to recommend to their sponsoring churches that the British and Irish Anglican churches and the CPCE should work towards a memorandum of agreement. This would reflect the commitment of the participating bodies to the visible unity of the Christian Church and would also include some consequences that can already be drawn as well as an agenda for future joint work.‘  This, I believe, is to be most warmly welcomed since, in two earlier consultations, it was not always easy to identify a will to learn from each other or a desire to grow closer together in understanding.

At this recent Consultation, it was acknowledged that the existing relationships among CPCE churches can create frustrating anomalies with regard to the various bi-lateral dialogues, such as Meissen, Porvoo, Reuilly, and the Anglican/Methodist Covenant. So, if the Church of England is in full communion with Lutheran Churches through the Porvoo agreement – who themselves belong to the CPCE – how is it, for example, that the ordained ministry of the Methodist Church in Britain, through the A/M Covenant, is not recognised by the Church of England?

 

But I have wandered off the historical pathway!

 

Since 1984, the Leuenberg Church Fellowship offered joint talks with those other Protestant church­es who saw themselves within the Reformation tradition (most notably Baptists and Methodists). This had been refused in former years especially by Lutheran members, because they saw the LCF’s raison d’être in the process of improving the mutual understanding of the doctrinal differences among specific Reformation Churches. However, the dialogues of the World Methodist Council with both the Lutheran World Fellowship (LWF) and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) [as it was then called – now World Communion of Reformed Churches WCRC] had led to documents of convergence recommending closer co-oper­ation of the member churches and dialogues on both national and local levels. These results, and a new awareness that the political changes in Europe - not the least among them, the fall of the Iron Curtain and the development towards a closer community of nations and their economies - found the Protestant churches without a common voice, had brought about a significant transformation of the attitude of the Lutheran representatives within the LCF.

Even as late as 1978 in Germany, a semi-official theological Handbook, edited by a Lutheran Oberkirchenrat, had advised Lutheran Christians against attending Methodist services of Holy Communion; however, in spite of this, drawing on the fruits of ecumenical co-operation during the past decades, the Lutheran Kirchenleitung accepted the invitation to official conversations which eventually - and to the surprise of the dialogue commission - led to an agreement on pulpit and table fellowship, as well as mutual re­cognition of ordination, declared and celebrated between the Evangelisch-methodisti­sche Kirche and the member churches of the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (1987). The agreement established ‘mutual acceptability of ministrations, while renouncing ‘organisational union’ and retaining the canonical disciplines of the respective churches’. 

These and other developments in different parts of Europe and on all levels of the life of the churches, proved to be facilitating factors in the movement of mutual approach. In 1993 the European Methodist Conferences and Churches, including those in Great Britain and in Ireland, signed an agreement on the association of the Methodist Churches with the LCF. On September 18, 1996, the Executive Committee of the LCF and the European Council of Methodist Churches stated that the required majority of votes had been reached in both communities.

 

In the midst of the existing inter-church institutions the CPCE has a special ecumenical character: organisationally independent churches with different credal foundations grant each other church fellowship, i.e. sacramental fellowship including the option of intercelebration, and mutual recognition of ordinations, without changing their legal status as independent churches. At the same time, they decide not to accept the achieved status of communion as final, but to proceed commonly on the way of theological exchange and of interpreting the understanding of the Gospel; they ‘strive for the fullest possible co-operation in witness and service to the world’[1]. Their ‘unity in reconciled diversity’, based on the „satis est consentire de doctrina evangelii et administratio­ne sacramentorum“[2], must not lead to ecumenical, theological, or spiritual complacency, but instead to a deeper sensitivity for the character of the remaining differences. (It might be a point of discussion within Methodist-Anglican dialogue groups as well as in the world Methodist Council’s Standing Committee on Ecumenism whether or not the CPCE model of striving at ‘full, visible unity’ - as a Lambeth Conference recommended - might contribute to advanced interim forms of visible unity. Since many Methodist churches in different parts of the world were raised not in a process of separation from Anglican churches (as in England especially), and since Methodist churches belong to the large family of Protestant churches, the supranational community of Methodist churches should be kept in mind when Methodist churches are negotiating further steps towards church unity with other Protestant or Anglican churches).

The freedom of choice of the smaller churches is structurally protected and thereby has a chance of becoming an integral part of the common ethics; thus, larger mentalities become obsolete, the start of a new togetherness is made possible. Christian hope and austerity join hands in struggling for a new communion of churches whose members feel connected by a common understanding of the Gospel without suppressing certain differences in its interpretation or in the ordering of their church life and their worship.

Yet the effect of the Leuenberg Agreement of 1973 in the local churches must never be overestimated; the reception of the Leuenberg Agreement text took place at the level of synods and councils with little or rare involvement of local congregations. The theological commissions, who prepared and produced the Agreement, rather subsequently founded and justified doctrinally what had already been lived practically by members of the Reformation churches. For the vast majority of the signatory churches’ mem­bership the confessional differences within Protestantism were of little significance; the short period of confessional restoration after the war had not brought about any profound change, and the 1970s hardly proved to be favourable for the revival of sixteenth century issues. The question of structural changes of the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland - which in fact is, of course, not a Church, but an association of 24 territorial churches („Landeskirchen“) of very different sizes - has never gone beyond the status of debate. On the other side, the Leuenberg Agreement had played a very supportive role for the dialogues between the Methodist and the Lutheran churches in West and East Germany as well as in the international arena, and for the extension of the fellowship to the Methodist churches in Europe in 1996. It is especially by ongoing theological dialogues that the CPCE serves the unity of Protestant churches. They develop Protestant positions and statements on essential social and spiritual issues and on current problems of the process of European growing together. In order to reinforce the need for a Protestant voice to be clearly heard, on 1 November 2003  - All Saints’ Day - (the very same day as the signing of the Covenant between the Church of England and the Methodist Church in Britain), the Leuenberg Church Fellowship formally changed its name to the ‘Community of Protestant Churches in Europe’.

 

The main means for fulfilling these tasks of developing and enhancing the Protestant voice are the Working Groups, consisting of delegates from different countries and churches, and commissioned to study specific issues on the basis of the common understanding of the gospel from the perspective of present duties as the churches have realised to be important for their witness and service to the world. The working groups, their number and their themes, are appointed by the General Assembly, which meets at least every six years, and supervised by the CPCE Council, consisting of up to 13 representatives of the member churches and responsible for the work between the General Assembly gatherings. The next General Assembly is planned for September 2012 in Florence, Italy.

 

The range and nature of this work of study is well reflected by the titles of the Reports and Doctrinal Commissions undertaken over the years: ‘Church and Israel’, ‘Law and Gospel’, ‘The two Kingdoms’, ’The Lordship of Christ’, ‘The Church’, ‘Baptism’, ’Freedom and Responsibility’, ‘Evangelising’, ‘The Shape and Shaping of Protestant Churches’, etc.  Currently, work will be submitted to the Florence Assembly on the subjects of ‘Ministry, Ordination & Episkope’ and ‘Scripture – Confession – Church’.

In the areas of social responsibility and ethics, CPCE has made significant studies and advances with work on ‘The Healing of Memories’ (most notably in Eastern Europe), ‘Death-hastening Decisions and caring for the Dying’, etc.

All this is splendid work and a considerable resource for all the churches. However, it may be worth mentioning that there are some problems associated with them, e.g.

1.     Distribution, especially in Britain and Ireland has been poor and could be much better.

2.     Because the documents are often highly technical and theologically incisive, they are hardly bedtime reading for the average church member (even when they are translated properly, which has not always been the case);

3.     While many see great value in formulating a Protestant contribution to, say, the theology of the church, others could see it as a diversion from what they see as the only show in town, bilateral discussions between the individual churches and the Roman Catholic Church.

Following on from this, I would like to give my testimony which arises from my involvement in one of the current Doctrinal Commissions, ‘Ministry, Ordination & Episkope’:

 
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With all this in mind, perhaps we should ask ‘what can now be the main tasks of the CPCE?’  ‘What future contributions can CPCE make?’  In an address given at the CPCE General Assembly in 1994 in Vienna, Professor Alfred Grosser, sociologist and political scientist, made this comment:  ‘May the outsider confess his surprise when - in the ‘Agreement between Reformation Churches in Europe ’ of 1973 - he found a compromise on doctrinal differences the church­es had quarrelled about during four centuries, rather than a common declaration of the churches about the realisation of Christian ethics in today’s world.’[3] If this - to a certain extent - may be true for the 1973 Agreement, nearly 40 years have passed, and the Leuenberg movement has changed its goals, partly because it has found itself in a wholly different situation, partly because it has fulfilled some of its basic tasks - at least for a greater part. Professor Grosser’s expectation therefore neatly matches one of the major objectives of the CPCE’s actual ambitions. There has to be created or preserved a culture of moral consciousness and reflection in our European societies over against a narrowing set of merely economic criteria for human decisions and actions. The churches for this purpose have to look for allies in all spheres of public and private life as well as in public and private institutions. In these days we can see more (pseudo-)apocalyptic movements sacrificing rational deliberations on the altar of scaremongering and fear. But the Protestant church­es - faithful to their Reformation heritage - also have the duty to clear the horizons of ethical convictions, based on the reality of God’s reconciling work in Christ and the revelation of God’s will for humankind and the whole of creation. A gospel-based understanding of their existence will also provide a foundation for ethical discourses and criteria which are valid not only for Christians and churches but for the best of the societies to which they belong. The questions of a responsible use of freedom(s) and the excellency of options and the necessity of well-founded limits are permanent themes of ecumenical and interdisciplinary talks among many people. The churches and their institutions - including the wide-ranging ecumenical councils, commissions and fellowships - have to make available places and opportunities for those communicative encounters.

One of the special tasks of the CPCE is essentially connected with its character as a community of Protestant churches in Europe. This task must not be discussed only among CPCE churches, but also with others inside and outside the Protestant world. In 1998 a European Meeting was organised, made up of representatives from the political, economic and ecclesial areas, which took place in Strasbourg/ France, under the theme ‘Protestantism - a force forming life and society in Europe.’ The existence of small minority churches (besides big quasi-state or national churches) as members of the CPCE with equal rights, is in itself a challenge to the status quo in the realm of European Christianity as well as in our societies. Inclusive solidarity with minorities of all kinds is an issue which the CPCE has officially accepted as one of its major objectives. In the emerging new Europe the CPCE is calling for active solidarity with the needy and the oppressed; it intends to be an advocate of the minorities, giving them voices on the national and international spheres. But the Leuenberg churches understand themselves not only as proclaimers of the social implications of justification by grace alone; they also understand that they have to be active in the service for social justice and peace among and within the European nations and their life together, even during the throes of today’s Eurozone crisis. This obviously includes the co-operation with other ecumenical institutions in Europe and excludes all kinds of play off among churches or church families. As the 1973 Agreement stated: ‘In establishing and realising church fellowship among themselves, the participating churches do so as part of their responsibility to promote the ecumenical fellowship of all Christian churches.’[4] They consequently cultivate the relationships with European ecumenical networks, to which their member churches often belong. These relationships are not merely to be kept for their own sake but for the sake of local churches and their needs, for individuals inside and outside the churches, for the societies and the development of new missionary, evangelistic and pastoral/diaconal opportunities.

 
 

The perspectives are multiple, the tasks immense, the opportunities more numerous than most of us are aware, the energies perhaps greater than we imagine; together we gain strength and find ways of being churches truly ‘evangelisch’ - neither merely ‘Protestant’ nor simply ‘evangelical’, but Gospel-like. Neither the last nor the least task which the CPCE churches recognise to be theirs is the search for this identity; they cannot create it themselves, but they can long and be open for receiving it while listening to the Lord Jesus Christ and offering themselves to the service in Christ’s name and spirit.

 
 

Harvey Richardson

15.11.2011

(with grateful thanks to the Revd Dr Manfred Marquardt for much help in the preparation of this paper)

 

[1] Leuenberg Agreement (1973), par.29.

[2]It is sufficient to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments“ (Augsburg Confession VII).

[3] Alfred Grosser in a speech before the General Assembly of the Leuenberg Church Fellowship, Vienna 1994, in: Wachsende Gemeinschaft in Zeugnis und Dienst, ed. by W. Hueffmeier and Christine-Ruth Mueller, Frankfurt/Main (Lembeck) 1995, p. 227 (translation: MM).

[4] Chapter IV, par. 46.

 

 


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