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Second European Ecumenical Assembly

Posted on: June 26, 1997 11:25 AM
Related Categories: Ecumenical

Introductory Speech by the President of the Conference of European Churches: The Very Reverend John Arnold, Church of England

1 Welcome and Introduction

It is a great pleasure and privilege for me to welcome you, together with Cardinal Vik, to this Second European Ecumenical Assembly and to thank all who have made this Assembly possible - in the Council of Catholic Bishops' Conferences for Europe, in the conference of European Churches, in the member churches and Bishops' conferences, in associated organisations, in movements and religious orders and especially our hosts here in Graz, in Styria and in Austria.

We have come together as representative members of the people of God from all corners of Europe to be challenged by the theme which the people themselves have chosen 'Reconciliation - Gift of God and source of new life.' It is clear that we Europeans long for reconciliation and with food reason.

For we are fast approaching the end of the last century of the second millennium, this twentieth century of the christian era which has been the most violent and destructive century in human history in terms of damage done both to God's image in men, women and children, and also to God's world, our environment and earthly home. Yet we know that the church of Jesus Christ, who is the image of the invisible God with primacy over all created things (Col 1.15), this church is called to stand as godmother at the cradle of the new millennium and to bring a blessing not a curse. The last thing we want for our churches, our nations, our continent and the whole wide world is that they should prick their fingers again on the weapons of war, so that blood flows and moral consciousness in all its God-given beauty falls asleep, as it has done so often in Europe in the past. We may well ask what lessons can be learned from those past years, which can now be implemented, so that the first years of the new millennium may be truly years AD, not of Mars or Mammon, but of our Lord Jesus Christ. That is the challenge we face this week.

If our Assembly had as a title only the word 'Reconciliation' we might be tempted to despair in the face of that challenge. But it also has a sub-title: 'Gift of God and Source of New Life'. Here is a basis for hope, grounded in theology, just as our continuing experience and remembrance of the First European Ecumenical Assembly in Basel 1989 is a basis for hope, grounded in recent history.

2 From Basel to Graz

The background to Basel was the widespread apprehension that the life which humankind had been living on earth for the past generation was heading for catastrophic crisis or rather for three interlocking crises in the fields of peace, justice and the ecology. Will we survive, will the earth sustain life in the third millennium of the christian era, will that life be worth living for millions? These were the questions. There was an apocalyptic feel to the preparatory phase of Basel.

But is was accompanied by a highly specific sense of hope, especially but not only in central and eastern Europe, for a liberation which would not necessarily be an exodus; it might be a transformation. Many of the hopes expressed or at least experienced in Basel were fulfilled and many of our prayers were answered. Many were not.

For if our common European home has been swept clean of one spirit, it has proved to be open to seven lesser but even more wicked spirits, which have rushed in to fill the partial vacuum - nihilism and despair, greed, envy, malice and both an egotistic individualism and demonic forms of nationalism, those twin children of 19th century romanticism which are now reflected back to us in terrifying forms as in a distorting mirror. As the tide of Marxist-Leninist hegemony went under the sea of common misery; and hot war returned to Europe for the first time since the 1940's. Yet as recently as 1989 the churches had said together in Basel: 'There are no situations in our countries or on our continent in which violence is required or justified.' (Final Document, para 61)

If the atmosphere in Graz now is less anxious in its fears, it is also more cautious in its hopes. The threat of atomic war has receded; the possibility of other forms of armed conflict has increased. Private wealth has burgeoned; social welfare systems have declined and the lot of the poor has worsened. Freedom of travel is universal in theory; in practice an economic barrier, a new iron curtain, has been raised, just when the political one has been lowered.

So it is a bold step, perhaps even a provocation, to choose for our theme 'Reconciliation'; but it is a necessary step for us. If Europe is not yet reconciled, either within itself or with the rest of the world, neither are our churches, either with each other or within themselves. The very structures which enable us to come together to speak of reconciliation prevent us from taking communion together as sign and source of reconciliation. I trust that they will not prevent us from making bold recommendations for common action by the churches n matters where we can work together for the common good and, as it says in the letter of James, act on the message (James 1.22). I trust, too, that our frustrations may spur us on to seek that unity which is God's gift and will for His church and for His world. The agenda of Basel lies behind us, the agenda of Graz lies ahead.

3 Conclusion

In the scriptures, as in the sacraments, the operative agent of reconciliation is always God himself. In one notable passage St Paul speak of 'God in Christ reconciling the world to himself' (2 Cor 5.19). Reconciliation is typically a divine action and a trinitarian initiative before it becomes a ministry entrusted to others including ourselves. That is why it can be described as a source of new life, as a never failing spring of fresh water, welling up to give life which has the quality of eternity about it (John 4.14). We have come to Graz in order to meet one another and in that encounter to find the Spirit of God meeting our human spirit, assuring us that we are children of God (Romans 8.16). We have come not as to a spa but as to an oasis, in order to drink deeply of this water of life and to go on our way refreshed.