By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent reporting from Budapest, Hungary
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (BosNewsLife)– The Conference of European Churches (CEC) began operating Tuesday, July 9, under a new but controversial Constitution that includes moving its original offices from Geneva to Brussels to improve ties with the European Union and between denominations.
Following a sometimes tense 14th Assembly of CEC in Hungary’s capital Budapest, delegates approved the Constitution “to help the European Churches to share their spiritual life, to strengthen their common witness and service, and to promote the unity of the Church and peace in the world.”
Anglican Bishop of Guildford, England, Christopher Hill, was elected as president of the CEC to lead the group under the new Constitution.
The document came after Hungary’s Human Resources Minister Zoltán Balog, a Reformed pastor, warned that “relations among the churches seem to have estranged”, 20 years after the collapse of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe “just as the enthusiasm they exhibited in 1989 has vanished, too.”
Under Communism, especially devoted Christians who openly expressed their faith or were involved in Bible teaching to youngsters, could face persecution in Hungary and other Soviet sattelite states. Balog said it was also “regrettable” that in this new era not enough has been done to “renew Europe on the basis of Christian values.”
He was a key speaker during the July 3-8 Assembly, where a new constitution was adopted by a vote of 160 to seven, with seven abstentions, organizers said.
CEC’s new document will impact its members, including 115 Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican and Old Catholic Churches from all European countries, and 40 associated organizations.
Balog said it was “outstanding” that representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, who are not yet members, attended the CEC Assembly as “observers”.
He did not address the controversy surrounding recently adopted rules on recognizing churches, despite the constitutional Court’s annulment of several passages in a controversial church law.
Criteria for recognized churches include a history of at least one hundred years or minimum two decades of activities in Hungary. Additionally, a church should count 0.1 percent or more of Hungary’s 10-million population as its members or supporters.
However Balog said he welcomes cooperation between churches, for instance in the area of integration of Roma, also known as gypsies, one of the most impoverished and discriminated minorities in the country.
It was not immediately clear how the CEC Constitution would help members to be more involved in social projects among Roma and other groups needing aid.
Yet apparently feeling a social calling under the new Constitution, CEC’s original expensive offices that have been in Geneva, Switzerland since its foundation in 1959, will be merged “as soon as possible” into the Conference’s location in Belgium’s capital Brussels, “home of the European Union and related institutions,” the organization said in a statement.
“The legal steps necessary under Swiss and Belgian law may delay the final move for two to three years, however, this is a rough estimate,” CEC added.
The office in Strasbourg, France, would continue though its future remained somewhat uncertain.
“It is proposed that an existing office in Strasbourg, France will continue CEC’s relations with the Council of Europe and other agencies, subject to legal and financial contingencies,” CEC said.
As part of efforts to make the group more efficient, a governing board of 20 members will replace the larger CEC Central Committee.
The board will gather at least twice annually to conduct business between General Assemblies to be held every five years and governing bodies will be led by a president and two vice-presidents, CEC said.
A General Secretary was to oversee daily work through the Secretariat in Brussels.
Existing commissions of the CEC will be restructured into a more unified system. “Conversations will continue with the Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe (CCME) which works closely with CEC and has considered a merger with the Conference,” the group said.
Europe’s struggling migrants were an important topic during the gathering, which centered around the theme: “And now what are you waiting for; CEC and its Mission in a Changing Europe.”
On Tuesday, July 9, the CEC announced the European Social Charter of the Council of Europe, Europe’s main rights watchdog, will investigate its complaint about the situation of undocumented migrants in the Netherlands who it claims are mistreated.
“If a country really lacks resources, the international community must step in. The Netherlands is however a rich country. Expensive medical assistance is in principle available, whilst food and shelter is denied. Rejection of the destitute has nothing to do with the public resourses of the Netherlands,” said Reverend Richard Fischer from the Church and Society Commission of CEC.
“The State refuses to meet international standards to which it has voluntarily decided to bind itself, complying not even with the minimum core obligations,” he added.
The complaint was send on request by the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PCN).
It wasn’t always easy to come to an agreement, despite what organizers said was “five days of consideration and redrafting in groups large and small”.
During a final “hearing” on the new constitution, for instance, its text was literally read aloud and projected on a screen as delegates made final amendments and adjustments in the large conference hall.
“Some participants from associated organizations representing youth, women and other streams of the ecumenical movement expressed dismay at the new constitution’s approach to “Organizations in Partnership”,” CEC acknowledged in a statement.
“They voiced the suspicion that this categorization, as defined in the document, would serve to disenfranchise these groups in comparison to the role of CEC member churches,” during a debate conducted in English, French and German.
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