15 May 2009

Remembering Basel

The Conference of European Churches has just released a statement to mark the 20th anniversary of the European Ecumenical Assembly, "Peace with Justice", in Basel. With 700 delegates, the Basel meeting was the first large-scale gathering of Europe's main Christian churches since the 16th-century Reformation (the picture shows the co-presidents Cardinal Martini and (then) Metropolitan Alexei lighting the candle at the opening event).

Equally importantly, it was not (primarily) doctrine that drew them together but the need to respond together to the imperatives of justice, peace and safeguarding creation. The assembly was part of the Conciliar Process for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation launched by the World Council of Churches at its Vancouver assembly in 1983 (the following year the newly-elected WCC central committee member Margot Kässmann proposed there should be regional assemblies to prepare for a global world conference on the JPIC theme) but the Basel assembly became a symbol of an Iron Curtain that was beginning to crumble. A month before it assembly opened, Poland's then-communist rulers announced the legalization of the opposition trade union movement, Solidarity. Shortly afterwards, Hungary started dismantling its section of the Iron Curtain on the border to Austria.

"In 1989, Europe was changing," said the Venerable Colin Williams, general secretary of the Conference of European Churches, in the CEC statement. "In Basel, the churches, with their determination to work together for a renewed commitment to peace and justice, not only caught the mood of the times, but also helped create the atmosphere for change and renewal."

In what was seen as an unprecedented move, East Germany allowed 24 independent peace and human rights activists to attend the workshop, most of whom had also been active in East Germany's Ecumenical Assembly that was organized in the run-up to Basel. Less than six months later, many of these activists had become leaders in what was dubbed East Germany's peaceful revolution. This led to the collapse of the territory's communist regime, and, ultimately to German unification in 1990.

"In no church assembly before or since Basel has the ecumenical agenda been so affected by and linked to the dynamic of political changes in Europe," said Joachim Garstecki, a Catholic theologian who served as an advisor on peace issues to East Germany's Protestant churches, and who traveled with the 24 activists to the Swiss city (see Episcopal Life's pick up of an ENI story).

The assembly was marked by lights on the Rhine, prefiguring the candles that would come to prominence in autumn 1989.


Post a Comment