Participants from 10 different countries and 25 churches met in Bern at the anniversary conference of the Protestant Church in Switzerland (PCS) under the motto “Seek the welfare of the city: How can we work together in Europe? The ethical consequences of reconciled diversity”. Over the course of three days, attendees gathered to hear five keynote addresses, meet for workshop sessions, and engage in a lively panel discussion. 

In her opening speech, Rev. Rita Famos, President of the PCS, emphasized that the “Leuenberg Agreement is a success story for the ecumenical model of unity in reconciled diversity. This does not detract from the historically developed profiles of its signatory churches, but serves to overcome the resulting church divisions of the past. The Leuenberg Agreement is a living ecclesiological patchwork family.” 

Rev. Mario Fischer, General Secretary of the CPCE, spoke on recent developments in a Europe that is currently experiencing a crisis with regard to nationality and religion. “In 1973, the Leuenberg Agreement served to overcome 450 years of tensions, divisions, and mutual doctrinal condemnations among different Protestant groups. It is characterized by the hermeneutics of a longing to understand.” He explored the question of the role that the CPCE could play in the future of Europe. “We can help shape Europe as the political space in which God has placed us.” 

Dr. Dieter Kraus, référendaire at the European Court of Justice, spoke on the discourse concerning European values: “There is often an agreement in principle that everyone wishes to stand for the protection of human rights, solidarity, and the rule of law. The dispute lies, firstly, in how far a value extends, i.e. what is to be included, for example, in the protection of human rights or what precisely democracy entails. And secondly, what happens when one value competes with other values?” He praised the contribution of the CPCE to the discussion of values. 

Dr. Christine Schliesser, Director of Studies at the Ecumenical Center for Faith and Society of Fribourg University, Switzerland, addressed a threefold crisis of our time, a crisis of trust, of security, and of vision. As she explained, in particular Russia’s attack on Ukraine “radically destroyed the illusion in Western societies of a global West.” From her point of view, the resources provided by the Christian faith can help here, with the first of these crises to be answered with love: “When responsibility is tied into love, it cannot be abused as power.” As Schliesser explained, there is no such thing as a private church and theology, both are always public quantities so that they need to engage politically as well. Hope, she continued, could help us face the crisis of security, something that must not entail apathy or naivety, but instead involve working towards a better future. “In this, hope takes a hold of us, and not we a hold of it,” she explained. It was public theology that Schliesser proposed as a response to the crisis of vision, which meant speaking to the public in a recognizable language that was also comprehensible to the secular world. Schliesser described this theology as Christ-centered, spiritually alive, and locally rooted while global in scope. 

Rev. Annette Kurschus, President of the Council of the Protestant Church in Germany, spoke on the power of taking small steps: “Now is the time for courage, the time to act.” She presented the church as an important voice in advocating for humane migration: “We are called upon to think responsibly; we need to carry faith, love, and hope into the world.” Kurschus emphasized that the church had to advocate for a sober tone and highlight the opportunities of migration in the relevant public discourse, one which all too often tends towards dehumanization and hatred. The speaker also cautioned against closing borders despite the waves of migrants. “There is a lack of a humane response to the people dying in the Mediterranean.” She explained that this did not align with democratic ideals and that our values were indeed reflected in what happens along Europe’s borders. Kurschus called for having the courage to embark on a journey even when the path forward is not yet clear and even if this meant making mistakes along the way. Legal migration, she added, needed to be facilitated through safe avenues. The church, Kurschus concluded, should stand in steadfast support for our society and democracy, working hand in hand with civil society, in local matters as well. “We are no heroes, but we must become involved together with all people of goodwill.” 

In his presentation, Sándor Fazakas, Professor of Social Ethics at the University of Reformed Theology of Debrecen, Hungary, analyzed the current situation faced by European societies. He explained that nationalism, populism, authoritarian tendencies, and democratic fatigue were factors now threatening the credibility of the Christian witness. “We believed nationalism to have been behind us, but it is an endless process,” Fazakas said. He explained that people always sought to find their place in the world, and nationalism fulfilled that need. The nation, he added, was a historical community of experience, socialization, and responsibility. He felt that Christianity hence needed to fill the nation with the Gospel. “Viewing nationalism as a substitute religion is too simplistic an approach. Nationalism itself instrumentalizes religious people.” As Fazakas described the Christian mission: “We care for others out of our faith and love. The values of Christians are shaped by compassion.” 

Rev. Elisabeth Parmentier, Professor of Practical Theology at the University of Geneva, spoke on the sociopolitical mission of the CPCE. She began by recalling the foundations of the church communion, which were based on worship and service to one another. The communion’s founding document opened the horizon for what could then follow. And this now needed to be turned into reality. Parmentier emphasized the CPCE’s experience with upheavals and conflicts, through which paths towards mutual understanding and the healing of memories could be found. This was a method that could also be applied to other contexts: post-war situations, interreligious dialogue, social conflicts. The radical character of the Gospel opposes retaliation, a thirst for revenge, and ostensibly wounded honor. “We must consider how theological education can promote an understanding of human fallibility. The Gospel is the judge and guide of reason.” 

The conference concluded with a panel discussion moderated by Christine Schliesser, featuring members of CPCE regional groups: Gáspár Károly, Anne Zell, Miriam Rose, Attila Palcsó, and Tilman Ruess. As Palscó put it: “We need more exchange and encounters within CPCE and to open ourselves to new experiences in particular”. Zell, a member of the Union of Methodist and Waldensian Churches in Italy, described this reconciliatory diversity: “In the course of migratory movements, we have become a minority in our own home; we must now hold to reconcilable ethical positions. Conflict resolution means, for the CPCE as well, moving together down a common path.” Zell’s church has been critical of the rightward political trend in Italy: “A prophetic but also practical political voice is important,” Károly agreed: “Openness should be a hallmark of our church. The CPCE provides a good platform within the church, and that also helps regionally.” Rose emphasized that churches had very different approaches towards building bridges to the people, making use of church buildings as well as social projects and pioneer ministries. When asked about her vision for church renewal, Rose replied: “Hope will be the central Christian theme of the future. How can we critically live out our solidarity? With compassion and an awareness of differences.” 

About the Communion of Protestant Churches in Europe
The signing of the Leuenberg Agreement in 1973 formed the basis for this communion of Reformed and Lutheran churches in Europe, with Methodist churches also joining in 1997. There are currently 95 CPCE member churches, located in most European countries.

Contributions to the conference will be published (in German) in epd-Dokumentation nos. 50-51/2023 on 12 December 2023.

Photos of the conference can be accessed here.