European Churches Seek Unity at Ecumenical Assembly
"It is a scandal that churches are calling on others to be reconciled when they themselves remain unreconciled," said the Very Rev. John Arnold, president of the Conference of European Churches, at a June 23 press conference. His remarks, made at the beginning of the Second European Ecumencial Assembly in Graz, Austria, proved to be sadly prophetic. Despite the unity of purpose shown at a gathering which attracted over 10,000 Christians, the assembly showed that relations between Europe's churches remain strained.
Ironically, the assembly's theme was "Reconciliation." The assembly, which met from June 23 to 29, was sponsored by the Conference of European Churches and the Catholic Church's Council of European Bishops' Conferences. A similar gathering was held in Basle in 1989 following the fall of Communism in central and eastern Europe.
One ecumenical encounter which was planned for the occasion did not take place: a meeting in Vienna between Patriarch Alexei of the Russian Orthodox Church and Pope John Paul II of the Catholic Church. It would have been the first meeting to take place between the leaders of the world's largest Christian denominations since the Orthodox and Catholic Churches separated from each other in 1054. Patriarch Alexei said that he cancelled the meeting because the Catholic Church continues to seek converts among Russian Christians. In addition, the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Bartholomeos I of Constantinople, cancelled his participation in the Graz assembly, saying that the pope and the Russian patriarchate were trying to dominate the meeting.
At the assembly, Patriarch Alexei condemned the efforts of other churches to seek converts in Russia. Patriarch Alexei was joined in his criticism by Catholicos Karekin I, leader of the Armenian Orthodox Church, who spoke with anger about the subject: "How can a land where every stone, every book, every piece of art, the whole culture, speak of the Christian faith, be considered a ‘mission field' in the ordinary sense of the word?" he said.
The archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. George Carey, held a different view. The leader of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion told the assembly, "National churches have a particular calling to defend the freedom of religious observance for all citizens. Aggressive evangelism which takes advantage of poverty and ignorance is, of course, to be deplored, but an exclusive claim to proprietary rights over the Christian faith by a national church is equally deplorable."
Not all of the assembly was given over to disagreements. Cardinal Milslav Vlk, who is head of Europe's Catholic bishops, described to the assembly how he was forced by Czechoslavakia's Communist government to clean windows in the streets of Prague as punishment for being a Catholic priest. Cardinal Vlk is now archbishop of Prague. "The years that I passed washing window panes in the streets of Prague were the most blessed years of my life as a priest," he said. "I received many graces of light and interior peace." He concluded that even the "miracle of reconciliation" between Europe's churches might be possible.
Quotations in this article were taken from the assembly's Web site.
©1997 Heather Elizabeth Peterson