Free for the future
The grey cloisters provided shelter from the sun, which was beating down on the red roofs of Florence in September, as the General Assembly of the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe (CPCE) convened under the logo Free for the Future.
Freedom for the future, CPCE co-president Michael Beintker argued, comes from commitment to Christ, the presence of the Spirit and our love for one another. In Florence, these principles were reflected in two major doctrinal studies, one on ministry, and the other on scripture and tradition. Each will, it is hoped, lead to closer rapprochement between churches, both within and without the CPCE.
The same could be said for the work of so many churches on major ethical issues, much of which was explored during the Assembly, and is reflected in CPCE’s report Stand up for Justice! (available at http://bit.ly/TAVn8E). This was the backdrop to the standing ovation given to Rosangela Jarjour, general secretary of the Fellowship of Protestant Churches in the Middle East, and to the Assembly decision to ask all Christians in Europe to support Christian congregations in the Middle East, and all who suffer there from restrictions to their freedom.
Delegates also considered the theme: “Europe’s churches turn to the future”. What does it mean today to be a church with roots in the Reformation? How may we, as a fellowship of witnesses, move together from remembering the past to embracing the future with the fire of the Gospel in our hearts? How may we most appropriately prepare to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in Europe in 2017?
That the CPCE is future-oriented is not in doubt. If you had attended its previous General Assembly in Budapest in 2006, you would notice the differences. This time more English was spoken in the sessions; there were more women amongst the delegates than before and a baby pulled distinguished beards and chuckled. There has been a positive attempt to encourage a new generation of younger ecumenists. Two of the major study groups were composed of church delegates who were under 35. And for the first time we had a stewards’ programme. Eighteen young ordinands, from nine countries in Europe, greeted us, prepared the meeting rooms and helped with photocopying. The work of Assembly was enriched by their enthusiasm, their smiles and their friendliness.
The recommendations for future work take up the challenge. A study process will work on church fellowship; another on the plurality of religions and the complex associated range of issues. There is to be “engagement with ecumenical partners, in particular the Roman Catholic Church, so that the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation can be experienced as a significant contribution to the ecumenical process”.
Talks about what it means to be the Church of Jesus Christ will begin in February 2013 between the CPCE and the Roman Catholic Church; a Memorandum of Affirmation and Commitment between the CPCE and the Anglican churches in Great Britain and Ireland was signed by all parties as a pledge of continuing closer relationships. We look forward to deepening our relationship with the European Baptist Federation; and by no means least, we will seek appropriate forms of conversation with Pentecostal churches and with migrant Christian communities.
The CPCE, and of course that includes the United Reformed Church, is a worshipping community. We enjoyed the hospitality of the Waldensian church and worshipped on Sunday with the local congregation in the church of San Micheli. As the forum came to an end, the cloisters resonated to the music of Gregorian chant; we celebrated night prayer under the stars. We had dared to speak of freedom for the future. Like the early Christians in Rome, we knew we had the first-fruits of the Spirit. But we knew too that these do not consist in ideological or religious security – rather in longing and waiting. We do not just want to talk about freedom and the future – we want above all to pray for it, as those who cannot pray, in the hope of the faith that waits for the glory of the people of God.
The Revd Fleur Houston represented the Reformed Churches in the UK on the CPCE Council from 2001-2012. She has also served as an alternate on the Central Committee of the Conference of European Churches
This article was published in the combined December 2012/January 2013 edition of Reform.