Reflections on unity of European churches 30 years ago

by Robin Gurney last modified 03 October 2019 11:57 AM
Reflections on unity of European churches 30 years ago

Photo: Albin Hillert/WCC

03 October 2019

As we approach the end of 2019, I am conscious that during this year we have celebrated many 30-year anniversaries. Europe, in particular, was witness to so much change in 1989. In a sense, it was the final blast of World War II as it saw the end of the East-West divide which had begun with the armistice of 1945 and the end of the Nazi regime in Germany. The downfall of Ceaușescu in Romania, the victory of Solidarity in the Polish elections and above all the breaking down of the infamous Berlin wall and the eventual reunification of the two parts of Germany, are well-documented events from that year.

In the years which followed, it emerged how important the Christian churches were in those developments - Romania, Poland and East Germany in particular. But another momentous event, held over the 1989 Pentecost period 15-21 May, presaged some of that year’s later developments. For the first time in many hundreds of years the churches of the continent, represented by the Conference of European Churches (CEC) and the European Roman Catholic Organisation (CCEE) held a joint assembly, with official participants and thousands of visiting Christians. The city of Basel was the venue and it often appeared that the churches took over the city. The event also flourished in the media, with some 650 accredited journalists, including 17 television crews from many different countries.

Earlier this year, the then-general Secretaries of the two organisations, Jean Fischer and Ivo Fürer, issued a letter recalling the memorable assembly and the message which emanated from it.

“Thirty years ago we were part of a historical event when we attended and participated in the First European Ecumenical Assembly in Basel, Switzerland.

“The city of Basel was awash with the 700 official delegates — 350 from the Roman Catholic CCEE and an equal number from CEC — an unprecedented number of Press representatives plus many hundreds of interested visitors. Who can forget that moment when Cardinal Martini and Metropolitan Alexy jointly lit the great candle to kick off the event.

“A kaleidoscope of activities permeated the city — the tightrope walkers across the river, the march of witness passing through three countries without border checks and the floating witness ships which bridged the mighty river Rhine.

“Basel 1989 created a sense that we were living through important and even prophetic days but we could not foresee the speed of political change throughout our continent which closely followed. For us however the common Christian witness created a new trust and a new sense of fellowship between denominations, individuals and groups.”

The work of the assembly was recorded in a final document which to a large extent is still valid to Europe today. It was adopted by 95.4 per cent of the delegates following a detailed prior process of consultation and participation within the European churches. Some would argue that it still represents the most comprehensive and inclusive statement of a European peace ethic.

Responding to the recent letter the then-CEC vice president Dean John Arnold, of the Church of England, now living in retirement in Canterbury, wrote: “The assembly was a profoundly spiritual experience for me personally, particularly the session at which the final document was accepted. I felt a kind of kenosis in which I was completely emptied of my self and could sense the Assembly flowing through me. When I called for silence before the vote I intended to say ‘Veni, sancte Spiritus’, but when I opened my mouth Someone of Something took over and I said ‘Veni, Creator Spiritus’ instead, another gift of the Spirit”.

Without being too nostalgic it is good to recall the phrase our “Common European Home”. This phrase, although created by politicians, was enthusiastically taken up by the Basel Assembly. With the passing of years we can only pray that this common home might still be realised even through the dark and dangerous waters of today.


The impressions, hopes and ideas expressed in this blog are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the World Council of Churches.

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