Academic journal article International Review of Mission

The Churches of Europe -- "Are We Still of Any Use?"

Academic journal article International Review of Mission

The Churches of Europe -- "Are We Still of Any Use?"

Article excerpt

A very bright and engaging Norwegian woman Lutheran pastor recently arrived in Geneva to attend one of our Conference of European Churches (CEC) meetings. She told me that on the plane she had got into conversation with the businessman sitting next to her, and over the in-flight meal they had enquired about each other's work. The businessman was simply bemused and incredulous that any evidently intelligent person like his fellow passenger could still call herself an active Christian, let alone be a pastor. Many of us here can no doubt recount similar experiences. It is not that our faith is attacked, or our activity criticized; they are simply seen as pointless, a useless irrelevance in the contemporary world.

If we are honest, we have to admit that such reaction is understandable. In many parts of Europe, active church attendance is in dramatic decline. Even more to the point, popular acquaintance with the Christian tradition is fast disappearing. A German colleague tells me that on a recent television quiz show, a pair of participants had to rearrange in the correct order the words (in their English equivalent) "Father" "heaven" "our" "in" "which". They were unable to do so. In Denmark, a country which describes itself as Lutheran and where the great majority are still baptized as infants, I am told that a recent university survey showed that most students, even of religious studies, manifested more awareness of, and interest in, New Age-type beliefs in reincarnation than the Christian doctrine of the incarnation. In much of our media, organized religion is seen patronizingly as an esoteric concern of an obsolescent minority, and especially, as far as public and political life goes, is viewed as at best irreleva nt, and at worst a dangerous intrusion. In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair's Christianity, even his declared debt to Christian socialism, is mocked by, of all people, a Guardian columnist, while the editor of the German weekly Der Spiegel declares that the churches have no role in the public life of the new Europe.

Again, if we are honest, we can understand why religion is seen as a dangerous virus rather than a healthy ingredient in society. Look at the religious factor, say our cultured despisers, in conflicts everywhere from Northern Ireland to the former Yugoslavia, from the Middle East to Sri Lanka. This is a reaction that is even more marked since the events of 11 September 2001. The situation seems no different at the highest level of decision-making in the most portent force for change in contemporary Europe, viz, the European Union (EU). In November 2000 at the Nice Summit, the heads of EU governments adopted a Charter of Fundamental Rights. While the right to individual belief and conscience was recognized, the specific contribution of religious communities to the life and culture of Europe was expressly excluded.

The scene is not wholly encouraging in the post-communist East. Revival of Christian life is evident in some quarters. However, ten years after the fall of communism, there is no wholesale evidence of a popular resurgence of Christianity to fill the vacuum left by the departure of state atheism. An evangelical leader in Romania recently confided to me that his denomination was now in a process of serious reflection on why the great hoped-for evangelistic breakthrough had not occurred in the decade after the fall of Ceaucescau.

How to respond?

Europe today therefore seems in many respects a bleak climate, for the churches. Christians are on the margins of much of European life. Characteristic official responses from the churches to this situation are of three kinds:

1. Denial

Official church spokesmen (yes, they usually are men) can be heard declaiming that the position is not nearly so bad, especially for the national and established churches. The old order is intact. In Britain one still hears this from some Anglican bishops (and some of my best friends are Anglican bishops): the national church is here for all the people, and deep down there is respect for the church as the unifying guardian of national values. …

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