Reformation that preys on its own children

After all those years of service I see my church as an institution that is difficult to reform. As an institution that expels those who are critical to its autocratic tendencies and to its lack of social relevance.

Sociological surveys in Slovakia regularly measure also the credibility of institutions as perceived from the perspective of general public. Results in December 2017 brought one surprise. The general trend of decrease of institutions’ credibility hit the churches most. While in 1999 64,6% Slovaks considered church to be a credible institution, in 2017 only 34,5%.[1]

Why? Why in a country where churches enjoy a privileged status? Since the shift from the totalitarian regime to parliamentary democracy in 1989 churches have all opportunities to develop their activity publicly, freely, with substantial financial support from the sate budget. In 2000 the Catholic Church managed to persuade that Slovak government to sign a concordat with the Holy See. Subsequently an analogous agreement was signed between the government and other churches.

What went wrong? Let me explore the reasons for fail of Christianity in Slovakia in three theses that I would like to discuss with you, hoping to inspire us mutually for new visions.

  1. From ecumenism of service to ecumenism of ruling.
  2. From unity in diversity to diverse uniformities.
  3.  From church as “semper reformanda” to church as “semper conformanda”.

 

1.From ecumenism of service to ecumenism of ruling

I was privileged to be one of the general secretaries of the Slovak ecumenical council of churches (2002-2007). At that time the ecumenical world on the global level already started to talk of ecumenical winter. Not in Slovakia, though. One could ask: Was it maybe because we never had ecumenical spring in Slovakia? Thus, winter was the normal status for our ecumenical relations? How could we then even notice, that something like freezing of the great enthusiasm stemming from the Vaticanum Secundum started to determine the relations among Christian churches in the western world?

My Slovak Roman Catholic friends will certainly agree with me, if I say, that the ecumenical mindset among Slovak Catholics is rather a rare exception than a general trend. This became clear to me when I was elected as a young pastor to serve a small congregation in Nitra. As an eager proponent of ecumenism, I went to visit the Roman Catholic bishop who had his seat in Nitra to introduce myself. That bishop was Ján Korec, freshly named cardinal at that time, an icon of the catholic church, persecuted during communism, known for his contacts with Lutheran pastors who were imprisoned with him. I wanted to hear his vision for ecumenism in Slovakia at the dawn of the new free, democratic era. After all, there was a kind of positive experience of solidarity between Roman Catholics and Lutherans triggered by the shared persecution from the side of the communist regime and shared emotion of anger and resistance against the communist regime.

My hope was to hear from the cardinal that now the ecumenical spring starts in Slovakia. I was hoping for some kind of enthusiastic statement how the freedom from any persecution, the new acquired religious freedom, will enable us to switch from the forced ecumenism of being united in antitotalitarian resistance to a new type of ecumenism. Something like “united in service” or “united in making the church a credible partner” in a society that has this huge task in front of itself to build up structures of democracy and civil society.

The response of the cardinal was nothing like that. He told me that his vision for the ecumenical relations between Catholics and Lutherans is that Lutherans enter into formal union with the Catholic Church like some Orthodox did. He stressed to me that we could keep our tradition, our teaching, our spirituality, even the requirement of celibacy for the priests would not apply to us and we could continue to ordain women. “Just declare the loyalty to the pope. Then we can speak of ecumenism.” – this is the message I took from the meeting with the cardinal back in the early nineties.

To be fair, I have to admit that there is not much ecumenical openness on the Lutheran side in Slovakia either. All relations are dominated by the deeply rooted anticatholic sentiment that has been and for many Lutheran pastors still is the single and bold identity marker of Slovak Lutherans. This attitude became visible in a very contrasted way when the most significant ecumenical document for Roman Catholics and Lutherans was signed in 1999 – The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. I had the privilege to accompany the final stages of the process during my service with the Lutheran World Federation in Geneva. Even though it was not my main agenda, the whole secretariat lived with that event at that time. However, it became my main agenda after returning back to Slovakia. For several years I was occupied with writing articles and giving lectures explaining and defending the JD in front of those who saw it as a betrayal of the Lutheran tradition.

This negative predisposition caused all ecumenical projects with the vision of ecumenism of service to fail. Even a program that the Ecumenical Council of Churches in Slovakia started in 1998 as grant scheme to support projects of Slovak churches aiming at social inclusion, education, capacity building etc., stopped to function after some 10 years of its existence. Churches were weak in producing good quality projects of social work and after western donors phased out their support, local churches were not able to allocate funds to continue with the program.

Instead the ecumenism of ruling found much stronger support among Slovak churches. After the Roman Catholic church reached the concordat of Slovak Republic with the Holy See in 2000, almost all other churches joined forces to achieve an identical agreement with the Slovak government. This agreement gives all churches a high level of autonomy in areas such as education, health care, social work, media, etc. One would think that these are perfect tools to enable churches to do effective service in the society. Actually all the agreements that were signed between the Slovak state and churches were presented as legislative tools to strengthen the social diaconia of churches.

However, the autonomy is almost exclusively used to strengthen the power structures of the churches. The Lutheran Church for example in complete contrast to its own tradition being a very democratic community with strong bottom-up principle of management started to develop its own set of laws very similar to the Codex Iuris Canonici. The position of bishops and central church bodies is becoming stronger and stronger in recent years. The character of the Lutheran church in Slovakia is being changed by building up its power structures in a very clerical fashion. In this situation if churches cooperate at all, then they cooperate only on issues that help them to strengthen their individual levels of autonomy and power within the society. This is what I would like to describe as ecumenism of ruling.

2.From unity in diversity to diverse uniformities

When accession of Slovakia to the EU started to be a topic for our churches, I was surprised to find out that the ecumenical principle of unity in diversity is used to describe the European integration project. It immediately caught my attention and made me to a fervent proponent of the European Union. Yet it only took about some five years until I found out, that the idea of unity in diversity in the European project represents a problem for churches in Slovakia.

Julie Clague expressed my perception of the problem in her essay “On Being a European Catholic – The Politics of Inclusion Encounters An Ecclesiology of Exclusion.”[2] This essay is part of an impressive collection of essays on current situation in ecumenism by Gesa Elisabeth Thiessen, a Lutheran scholar in the area of ecumenism who also shares the idea that the ecumenical project is now experiencing its winter. Yet she remains optimistic and that probably gave her the energy to put together a volume entitled Ecumenical Ecclesiology: Unity, Diversity and Otherness in a Fragmented World.

Let me quote Julie Clague, the final paragraph of her essay in which she analyzes the problem that the Catholic church has with the European Union and its understanding of unity in diversity:

“Catholicism’s exclusivist position is deeply problematic for the European Project of finding common ground amid plurality and difference, and it creates a version of Christianity that many Christians do not wish to own. The spirit of Christianity in Europe is not to be celebrated by way of its insertion into the text of a Constitution to the exclusion of other religions. Neither will Christianity have the power to convince if it attempts to do so by appeal to a version of the past that neglects the ambivalence of its own history. The Christian character of Europe is not to be enhanced but only deformed by excluding Turkey on the grounds of its non-Christian identity. Such separatist experiments have been tried before in Christianity’s name and have given rise to some of the most shameful aspects of European and world history. And Christians who proclaim God’s equal love for all, while invoking a Christian opt-out from equality laws, undermine their witness and shame their God. Another way of being church is possible and must be allowed to flourish; one based not on ecclesiologies of exclusion but on community building that prefigures that inclusive community of God’s Holy Polity.”[3]

These sentences express very accurately the perception of the EU also among churches in Slovakia. It is not only the Roman Catholic church who is compromising on the very fundaments of the Christian message of God’s equal love for all. Lutherans and other protestants in Slovakia, too are getting closer and closer in formulating their ecclesiology of exclusion.

In an unprecedented statement to refuse the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (known also as the Istanbul Convention from 2011) representatives of all churches in Slovakia under the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church joined their signatures under a text that is the best example of an ecclesiology of exclusion. Similarly, Slovak churches were united in their support for a referendum in 2015 which aimed at introduction of constitutional changes to prevent Slovakia from adopting any legal framework for same sex unions. While the referendum failed due to low turn out of voters, it managed to freeze any discussion on this issue in the Slovak parliament.

Unity in diversity as an ecumenical principle has a potential that churches could use to inspire the society with its growing differences to look for effective ways of peaceful coexistence. Instead, in reaction to the growing diversity, churches in Slovakia start to develop another ecumenical principle that I would like to call “ecumenism of diverse uniformities”.

This does not mean that churches are not able to cooperate. The actually cooperate a lot. But their motivation is not framed by the inclusive approach of exploring and enjoying unity in diversity. It is rather the opposite. Churches wish to emphasize their own identity that is presented to other ecumenical partners as solid uniformity. This uniformity is understood as the only way to survive the dangers of modern society with its uncritical reception of changing moral values. Yet these diverse uniformities which very often draw their justification from pre-ecumenical periods of religious wars, find a pragmatic way of coexistence.

However, it is an ecumenism that does not derive its energy from the positive understanding of the need to overcome and solve the dividing theological issues. Rather it is motivated by the negative understanding that could be described as suppression of all dividing issues in the name of building alliances to face a new common enemy. This enemy is often defined as a general anti-religious attitude of modern and postmodern society. Further churches tend to perceive the growing presence of Islam in the European context as a threat to their privileged dominant position in this geographical area.

 3.From church as “semper reformanda” to church as “semper conformanda”

One of the slogans of the Reformation was that of church which is always in need of reforms. I actually believe that it is this principle that enabled protestant churches to remain credible institutions and partners of the society. In many ways Luther’s Reformation was a project that attempted to adapt the institution of the church with its strict hierarchical structure and doctrinal centralism to the challenges of humanism with its growing critical knowledge. In a certain sense this demand for flexibility was also a footprint of the decreasing prophetic element that the message of Jesus form Nazareth reanimated in the dying spirit of cultic Judaism. Only a church that is able to remain self-critical to its own tradition can fulfill the prophetic mandate of Jesus to transform the society by transforming the individuals in it.

Yet this principle of the Reformation seems to be the most difficult to observe for churches that emerged from the Reformation.

Let me quote one more author that I find very inspiring. In his book on hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur, Boyd Blundel brings to the point the crisis of contemporary theology after he claims that the last theologian that managed to make theology relevant to public discourse was Reinhold Niebuhr. Since then the way how churches do theology is in deep crisis and Blundel describes two approaches that he observes as reasons for this crisis:

“The general response by theologians has gone in two directions. The first, which I call the “ostrich” approach, is to simply abandon the academy altogether and start an alternative set of institutions that are so dominated by “theology” that its position within those institutions cannot be questioned. The second, which I call the “long defeat” approach, is to maintain a foothold in a hostile academic environment by gradually ceding ground until theology itself becomes so disfigured that it is no longer recognizable. The key to any solution to the problems created by both approaches is to understand what each approach is trying to protect, so that the positive features of the approach are not lost. The ostriches are desperately trying to protect the integrity of theology, while the fighters of the long defeat are trying to protect its relevance. Both approaches are noble, but are doomed to failure if the integrity and relevance of theology are considered as separate matters.”[4]

Theology at Slovak universities demonstrates both of these approaches. While the Evangelicals tend more to the “ostrich” approach, Catholics and Lutherans tend to the “long defeat” approach. On both fronts theology loses its relevance in public discourse. The system of confessional theologies as separate areas of research and study are under strict control of churches. It actually is an irony that the Lutheran church in Slovakia in its project of building its “canon law-like” own autonomous legal system, introduced also the procedure of “canonical mission” for professors of Lutheran theology at public universities. Thus, any critical theological reflection of the church aiming at its correction in the sense of the “semper reformanda” principle can be stamped as suspicious or malicious by the bishops. With the adoption of this canonical principle the Lutheran church in Slovakia leaves its founding principle and redefines it to “semper conformanda”. It requires the theology to be conform to the tradition. The bishops claim the authority over theology. Thus, theology is not any more the place where the church in free academic environment formulates its positions to challenges of the time. It is the church with its hierarchy who requires its theologians to be conform. If they are not, they have to leave their academic positions.

Conclusion

These deliberations reflect my 30 years of experience with the service in the structures of the Lutheran Church in Slovakia and in diverse ecumenical structures. My ecumenical optimism faded and my ability to see the Lutheran Church and churches in general as agents of change in today’s society is deeply shaken.

You may wonder why I entitled my essay as “Reformation that preys on its own children”. It is because I really feel like that. After all those years of service and great ideas and projects I see my church as an institution that is difficult to reform. As an institution that expels those who are critical to its autocratic tendencies and to its lack of social relevance.

Is there a way forward? I am lucky to have many friends who are theologically likeminded with me. More and more we discuss the question whether there is a future for the church in its current form. I am inclined to think that church has to give up it institutional framework. The strong hierarchical structures were developed to copy and to be compatible to the hierarchical structures of medieval society. The society today with its democratic and inclusive organization cannot see hierarchical churches as its partners. I believe that the early from of churches in diaspora and churches organized as house communities is more compatible with the contemporary society. This is the great challenge, the great leap of faith that churches are exposed to. Do they have the faith to accept it?

[1] Results of research conducted by Slovak Academy of Science see: http://www.sociologia.sav.sk/cms/uploaded/2786_attach_EVS_SK_2017_tlacova_sprava%20final.pdf

[2] Gesa Elisabeth Thiessen, and Linda Hogan (eds): Ecumenical Ecclesiology : Unity, Diversity and Otherness in a Fragmented World, Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2009. Pp. 175-190.

[3] Pp. 187-188.

[4] Blundell, Boyd. Paul Ricoeur between Theology and Philosophy : Detour and Return, Indiana University Press, 2010. pp. 1-2