The Dialogues between the European Baptist Federation and the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe

Article excerpt

Introduction

The Community of Protestant Churches in Europe (CPCE) at its Sixth General Assembly, September 12-18, 2006, in Budapest, decided that it wanted "a closer cooperation" with the European Baptist Federation (EBF) in the future. With this decision the General Assembly took up the Baptist request for an "associate membership" in the CPCE or some similar kind of "structured relationship." The Council of the CPCE was instructed to work out in detail appropriate recommendations. Furthermore, the General Assembly renewed the invitation to the EBF to send delegates in a guest status to the doctrinal conversation groups of the CPCE. (1) This practice had already been used at the last General Assembly in June, 2001, in Belfast.

Thus, the CPCE and the EBF are continuing their rapprochement, which started in 1999 in Berlin. This fact is not only one of the most important developments in inner-Protestant ecumenism, but it is also of significance for the ecumenical movement as a whole. The Reformation of the sixteenth century led to the separation of Catholics and Protestants as well as to various doctrinal condemnations and church divisions among Protestants. The most important division occurred between the Lutheran and the Reformed churches and states. Antitheses of confession divided these two branches of the Reformation--especially in the understanding of the Lord's Supper, but also in the areas of Christology and the doctrine of predestination. This inner-Protestant division was accompanied by the suppression of the Anabaptists through Catholic as well as through Lutheran and Reformed authorities. The Anabaptists were the first to develop the model of evangelical free churches; that is, Protestant churches based on their members' personal and free confession of faith and organized independently from the state. This free-church model was adopted by Mennonites, Baptists, Methodists, and other evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic churches and movements from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries.

One of the most important aims of the ecumenical movement in the twentieth century was and still is to overcome these oppositions and antagonisms within Protestantism. The importance of the reconciliation of Protestant churches cannot easily be overestimated. Politically, it is a presupposition of the cultural unification of the European continent and an important contribution toward stabilizing and strengthening the value-based relationship between Europe and North America. Ecumenically, it is necessary in order to meet the Roman Catholic Church at eye level. If Protestant churches are not united on their own side, their various dialogues with the Catholic Church could increase the fragmentation of Protestantism, and the public perception of the predominance of Rome could weaken the evangelical witness. Church unity in Protestant understanding can never mean either a so-called "return to the Roman Catholic Church" or an incorporation of the various Protestant churches into a single, evangelical church body, but visible unity in the shape of reconciled diversity, such that the churches remain independent and keep their different confessional identities but put their mutual condemnations aside and join together for common witness and service.

The most important step so far in the unity of Protestantism has been the "Agreement between Reformation Churches in Europe," which was accepted in 1973 at Leuenberg near Basel, and therefore, usually referred to as the "Leuenberg Agreement" (or "Concord"). This document is--in its own words--"not to be regarded as a new confession of faith," but as a declaration of church fellowship among the undersigned Reformation churches (Lutheran, Reformed, and United) and pre-Reformation churches (Waldensian and Czech Brethren) in Europe. It establishes a consensus in the understanding of the gospel and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper and declares church fellowship because of this consensus. …