Among the three European Ecumenical Assemblies promoted by the Conference of European Churches (CEC, which gathers Protestants, Anglicans and Orthodox) and by the Roman Catholic Council of the Episcopal Conferences in Europe (CCEE), the last one – held in Sibiu, Romania, from September 4 to 9, 2007 – was undoubtedly the most difficult.
A complex organization in three stages (with two preparatory meetings in Rome and Wittenberg) certainly favoured a more careful and mindful participation of the churches involved, but did not prevent tensions between them and, in particular for the Catholic Church, between hierarchy and grass-roots movements, whose participation was intentionally limited compared with the previous assemblies of Basel (1989) and Graz (1997).
Above all, the assembly of Sibiu ended with a regrettable incident: the surreptitious inclusion in the final message of a statement about the defence of life “from conception to natural death”, proposed by one of the Catholic delegates of Opus Dei and presented at the meeting only verbally. The result was that the final message was not released at the closing ceremony. Moreover it took two weeks, for CEC and CCEE, to find an agreement on the definitive text, in which the controversial statement was eliminated.
Despite this incident and the widespread feeling that the assembly was a “fiasco”, three months later – on November 23, 2007 – the Vatican newspaper “L’Osservatore Romano” hosted, on the front page, an article by the French reformed pastor Jean-Arnold de Clermont, the then president of CEC, with the title: “The Assembly of Sibiu denied the ecumenical deadlock”. Clermont’s thought was simple: without hiding the difficulties of the ecumenical path and the tensions among the churches, he pointed out that the “ecumenical people” present in Sibiu “had clearly stated that it is worth while to continue talking to each other”. This may be “difficult and hardgoing”, but progress is possible, as shown for example by the recommendation of the final message inviting us “to continue the discussion on the mutual recognition of baptism” or the fact that the delegates of Sibiu “reaffirmed their commitment to the advancement of the issues we all care about, such as environmental protection, social justice, reception of migrants, fight against poverty in Europe and worldwide, commitment to peace”.
Church leaders – faced with the reality that “the members of our communities, although dissimilar, are on many subjects engaged on a common path” – need to ask themselves: “are we ready to guide them so that, beyond the common testimony, a deeper ecumenical spirituality, a common reading of the Bible and a stronger theological dialogue may be reached?” In order to carry out this task of “guidance”, de Clermont recommended not only continuing and enhancing the collaboration between CEC and CCEE, but even to wonder whether it was not appropriate to “start working towards a single European ecumenical structure, useful not only to increase efficiency, but also to find a long term vision on ecumenism”.
Six years have passed since this “visionary” writing of de Clermont. What has changed in the meantime? I would say that the situation has worsened on all fronts. CEC, preparing for its 14th Assembly (Budapest, from 3 to 8 of July), has been going – since 2009 – through a considerable organizational and financial crisis; the cooperation with CCEE (which lost another ‘visionary’ person, the secretary Mons. Aldo Giordano, transferred to another position) is worn-out; the 10th anniversary of the “Ecumenical Charter – Guidelines for the growth of cooperation among the churches in Europe”, approved by the two organizations in 2001, was celebrated with no particular emphasis and real proposals to revive or update this important document; the Russian Orthodox Church has suspended its participation in CEC in dispute with the Patriarchate of Constantinople on the question of the two Estonian Orthodox churches (one dependent on Russians, the other in communion with Constantinople)… and so on and so forth.
Despite all this, in my opinion, de Clermont’s intervention retains all its validity. Ecumenism is irreversible, and the rigidity of ecclesiastical and ecumenical structures fails to stop the will of the “ecumenical people” to witness together and walk towards unity. This is also the impression one gets from reading the report at the next meeting in Budapest, by the new Secretary General of CEC, the Belgian Protestant pastor Guy Liagre, who alongside the undoubted difficulties (mainly relating to the internal structure of the European ecumenical organism, which has become too complex and cumbersome) lists a whole series of initiatives that show how the ecumenical movement is alive and rooted throughout Europe. Our desire for the delegates in Budapest is that they may work for a new, lighter and more effective structure of CEC, without losing sight of the broader horizon: that of the common testimony of all Christians in Europe and in the world. In his report, Liagre recalls the death of Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the former president of the CCEE, who “liked to emphasise that, with ecumenism, it was not necessarily a question of churches having the same view, but, above all, challenging one another and moving forward together on the road to God… To do this, we must look forward, we must believe in the long-term perspective and the positive effects of ecumenical dialogue”.
By Luca Negro, Editor in chief of the Italian weekly “Riforma”. The article is also publiced in NEV (press agency of the Italian Protestant Churches).