bulletin 2/2013

Conference of European Churches (CEC) in Budapest

By Esther Suter, Theologian and journalist BR SFJ/ASJ.

“And now what are you waiting for?” This quote from the Bible (Acts 22:14–16), originally addressed to Paul of Damascus, had been chosen by the Conference of European Churches (CEC) as the motto of their Assembly, held in Budapest June 3–8, 2013. The delegates of the member churches from all over Europe had gathered to achieve clarity regarding the CEC and its mission in a changing European landscape. The most important issue this year was the new constitution.

An FSPC delegation of six, headed by Vice President Rev. Kristin Rossier, attended the CEC Assembly along with 470 participants. As a founding member of the CEC in 1959, the FSPC has served in diverse functions, including as a member of the Central Committee and the Presidium. Rev. Serge Fornerod, the FSPC’s Director of External Relations, serves as chairperson of the “Church and Society” Commission; within this commission, Rev. Dr. Daniel Schmidt Holz (St. Gallen) is a member of the task group for “Education and Society.” Another delegate, Geneva Church Council President Charlotte Kuffer, had been working on a new CEC constitution with the Revision task group since the last Assembly in Lyon in 2009. She had been elected to the Central Committee to succeed former FSPC President Thomas Wipf. Youth delegate Annina Hirsbrunner and Bünden church councilor Rev. Thomas Gottschall also attended.

The CEC as a bridge builder

The CEC was founded in 1959 before the background of the Cold War to preserve the connection between the churches on both sides of the Iron Curtain on an ecumenical level. When the CEC celebrated its 50-year anniversary at the 2009 Assembly in Lyon, one important objective since its foundation had been fulfilled: it had succeeded in serving as a bridge between churches in the East and the West, deepening connections along the way. In this function, it made a significant contribution to bringing about the Wende in 1989. The three European Ecumenical Assemblies in Basel (1989), Graz (1997) and Sibiu (2007) were held in cooperation with the CEC’s partner, the Council of the Bishops’ Conferences of Europe (CCEE). Accordingly, the CCEE President, Catholic Primate of Hungary Cardinal Peter Erdö, emphasized the constructive relations to the CEC during the opening worship service in Budapest, highlighting the “strategic importance” of the Assembly regarding a shared future of the two organizations.

Today, the CEC encompasses 126 Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican, and Christ-Catholic Churches, as well as smaller minority churches from all European countries. 40 organizations are associated members.

In Budapest, the “Uppsala Report” containing recommendations for a reform of the constitution that has been in effect since 1992 was put to the vote. The new constitution is intended to enable the CEC to fulfill its diverse duties in Europe in a more purposeful manner and to contribute its voice as the witness of Christian churches to the European decision processes. In Article 17 of the Lisbon Treaty, the European Union guarantees the dialogue with the religious communities, churches, religious associations and with civil society.

The CEC office in Strasbourg, which maintains relations with the Council of Europe, will stay on while the former headquarters in Geneva will be moved to Brussels and consolidated with the local CEC offices there as soon as possible.

The quota system has been abolished

Compromises had to be made. For example, a quota system existing for more than twenty years narrowly missed getting a majority of votes. It had guaranteed a balanced number of women and young people in the Central Committee. In addition, associated organizations will lose their observer status in the new constitution, which concerns several youth and women’s organizations. However, the elimination of the observer status for partner organizations and the quota for youths and women is more a “switching of labels than a fundamental change,” explains Serge Fornerod, adding that the quota will be closely monitored on the structural level of the new Council. One female delegate who had initially opposed the elimination ended up praising the balance of various minorities in the new Council.

The CEC – a pan European platform

“The Reformed voice of Switzerland should also be heard in Brussels, for example regarding issues such as human rights or reaching a verdict in an ethical manner,” Kristin Rossier explains the relevance of the CEC for the FSPC. Before the fall of the Iron Curtain, the CEC was one of the rare opportunities to keep in touch with the churches of the East, e.g. the Orthodox Church, states Serge Fornerod, adding: “Today, too, the CEC as a continental organization remains the only pan-European platform between Protestants, Anglicans, Old Catholics and the Orthodox Church. It brings together the member churches of the World Council of Churches and is the partner of the CCEE. It also brings together the churches and the Protestant social-ethical networks accompanying the work of the European Commission.”

According to the supposition of the new constitution, he says, the task of the new CEC Council elected on July 8 is to determine its strategy. Fornerod added that it would be desirable to cooperate more intensely within more streamlined structures, as the impression prevailed that the CEC did not have one but several strategies and just as many organisms. This has led to conflict situations and doubts about the usefulness of the CEC, Fornerod explained. “The CEC has grouped its work around three major topics that most European churches have in common: the social-ethical work of observing developments within the EU, the question of migration and asylum law, and finally the area of ecumenical-theological reflection and ecumenical relations in Europe.” When it comes to coordinating international activities, the local churches are called upon to get involved. These are the same churches that maintain national offices and voted for the CEC’s move from Geneva to Brussels. “The task is to find a new balance between bilateral and multilateral relations vis-à-vis the EU. But the EU or the Council of Europe know exactly how to differentiate between national and European interests. This has been their bread and butter for 40 years,” Fornerod explained.

Closer to everyday church realities

Commentary by Serge Fornerod