Communion despite diversity – a conference about the 50 years of the Leuenberg Agreement

“Being church together“ was the title of the CPCE’s last conference, held in Debrecen on May 9-11th 2023. It offered many reflections on the 50 years of the Leuenberg Agreement. The significance, future, and presence of the Protestant churches in a European context and the importance of common teaching were the focus of the occasion. 

Debrecen is one of the European Cities of Reformation, historically rooted in the Swiss/Calvinist tradition of the Reformation. Here, in the historical building of the Reformed College, approximately 80 participants were gathered from different countries, ages, and backgrounds to experience, learn, and reflect together on what it means to belong to a contemporary Christian, Protestant communion in Europe – and how we can shape this communion with friendly dialogue which does not gloss over our differences but is able to build bridges between them.

Heritage and future

The program started with a small reception for the members of the CPCE Council and for the present church leaders of the conference at the Bishop’s Hall, where hosting Bishop of the Transtibiscan Reformed Church District Károly Fekete introduced the area and the challenges of the Reformed church in Hungary today. Commenting on the importance of the conference, Bishop Fekete told CPCE: “In 2017, our city received the honorary title Debrecen – European City of Reformation. So, our Protestant brothers and sisters could come home now and be able to see that Debrecen belongs not only to the heritage of the Reformation, but we are also striving to enrich it in the present. More than five hundred years after the Reformation, the 50th anniversary of the Leuenberg Agreement offers an opportunity for us, Hungarian Protestants not only to be a formal part of European Protestantism and world Christianity in the 21st century but also to be part of the conference to get to know and understand each other even better.”

At the reception, Prof. Sándor Fazakas presented the history of the Debrecen Reformed Theological University and its theological education. At the official opening ceremony Károly Fekete, Bishop of the host diocese; Béla Baráth, President of the hosting institution, the Reformed Theological University of Debrecen; László Papp, Mayor of Debrecen; Miriam Rose, representing the CPCE Presidium and Zoltán Balog, president of the new General Synod of the Reformed Church welcomed the participants of the conference. At the opening ceremony, most of the Hungarian protestant clerical church leaders were represented, including Gábor Iványi from the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship; Superintendent László A. Khaled, from the Hungarian Methodist Church; Bishops Péter Kondor and Tamás Fabiny from the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Hungary; Bishops Zoltán Balog and Károly Fekete from the Reformed Church in Hungary. 

In his opening lecture, Prof. Michael Weinrich, a former President of the CPCE Council emphasized that the aim of the CPCE is to give a voice to European Protestants in the search for firmly grounded theological clarity and consensus. Michael Weinrich stressed that the organization is currently in its “adolescence”, with all its positive and negative aspects. He did not hide the fact that there are periods of turbulence and controversy so criticism must be heeded. Still, we must not forget the phrase “unity of reconciled diversity”, with its emphasis on “reconciled”, as expressed in the Leuenberg Agreement. But today, in the context of the CPCE, the ‘unity of reconciled diversity’ is more decisive: the difference is a reminder of what divides, and diversity is a reminder of the intrinsic value of each of the parties involved in the community.

Unity without uniformity

On the first day of the conference, the floor was mainly of the Leuenberg Agreement’s theological aspects, depths, and possibilities but with many personal reflections. In his keynote speech Prof. Ulrich Körtner said that Leuenberg Agreement is “not merely a paper for theologians but a witness of the church, or rather, the churches involved, which together bear witness to the Gospel”. Körtner remembered: the Leuenberg Agreement concludes with an ecumenical outlook and understands the different denominations’ model of unity in reconciled diversity as its ecumenical model. In her reflection, Prof. Christiane Tietz spoke about the common understanding of the Gospel as the basis of church communion. She emphasized that church unity in faith in Jesus Christ is not created by theological consensus papers. But if this listening to scripture gives rise to theological consensus papers with statements “that go beyond the statements of existing confessions and further develop church teaching through listening to scripture together,” then this might lead to a new ecumenical model.

In his paper Prof. Tom Greggs focused on “The Protestant Question of Divine Agency in the Life of the Church” and he highlighted: “It is in Christ and His Gospel, known by the Spirit’s gift, that the churches subsist. It is for this reason we can have unity without uniformity.” In doing so, he reversed the traditional view that the universal church subsists in a concrete church. And: “given the unity of Spirit and Word throughout Scripture and especially in the nativity, life, death and resurrection of Jesus, for us, there can never be any separation of Word from Spirit or Spirit from Word.”

In her response, Prof. Stephanie Dietrich focused on the visible union of the Church, as a communion from people of God. As she stressed: God may not need the Church, but we as Christians need her, to listen to the word of God, share the sacraments and the gospel in word and action with the suffering creation”. Then quoting Bonhoeffer, she said: “Christ exists as community”. In her opinion speaking and acting together for justice and peace needs to be recognized, affirmed, and honoured as truly visible signs of the unity that Christ calls us into.   

More pragmatical questions were presented during the second day of the conference. In her keynote speech bishop Prof. Heike Springhart spoke about the ethical challenges of the present and the importance of a common table, where everybody can take place. In his response bishop Tamás Fabiny talked about the Hungarian situation, where Christianity is often used as a national political program. From his point of view that kind of nationalization is one of the biggest dangers for Christianity today. This is not only a huge challenge in Hungary, but also in USA and Brazil and as bishop Fabiny highlighted this is a huge challenge of the ecumenical movement as well. „Theology must not be instrumentalized by politics” – he said and, in his opinion, ecumenical solidarity can be a possible solution, because „if one of the parts suffers, all suffer” and „suffering together can lead us to unity”.

Generations together and the non-theological factors

The 22 panel discussions created further possibility for deep theological reflection as well as practice-based presentations and dialogue, and at this point, we must speak about younger generation – as Michael Weinrich did in his opening lecture. He remembered the 40th Anniversary of the Leuenberg Agreement when the 36 years old John Bradbury, the current executive president of CPCE, spoke at an international conference, where he was supposed to represent the voice of the youth, which “particularly amused him as there were no other members of the younger generation present. Although he did not see himself as in a position to speak for the young generation, he decisively foregrounded an issue that is fundamental to responding” – said Michael Weinrich. He mentioned this condition as ‘non-theological factors’ and highlighted that the reality of church communion is far more complex than its theological form and that theology too cannot pass over this situation. Although today we – as Protestant churches in Europe – face many other non-theological issues, as we were thinking about the future of the European Protestantism, but one thing can be clear: that the CPCE’s efforts to reach and engage the younger generation and female church leaders, professionals and theologians was successful in the past decade, and young theologians enriched this conference with many current hot topics, such as the question of “migration churches” by Pia Dieling, the “opinion corridor” by Zsuzsanna Farkas or a theological-agricultural evaluation of farming and rural life by István Debrececzeni. 

Togetherness as a new reality

After two days of theological discussions about the importance and future of the Leuenberg Agreement, the conference ended with closing plenary and a multilingual Protestant worship service where participants could experience true communion over diversity while they took the Lord’s supper together.  

While speaking of the future of the Leuenberg Agreement, Prof. Hans-Peter Grosshans emphasized that the enduring mission of European Protestantism is to actualize its joint understanding of the Gospel. In future, this might happen more and more in witness and service of the churches to the world and in ethical issues where churches have to present theologically reflected alternative positions to the political mainstream. The Communion has to be prepared for the next generation and needs to “spread the spirit of Leuenberg”.

Prof. Miriam Rose from the CPCE Presidium summarised the main conclusions of the Council’s recent meeting in five points. Firstly, that CPCE is a communion of trust, and that this factor should be used as a source not to fear to speak about differences. Secondly, that much more space should be given to the younger generation within the CPCE; thirdly, regional cooperation has to be encouraged by the CPCE. Fourthly, theological work remains a core issue for the CPCE and it might start a study process about anthropology: sin and its doctrinal and ethical aspects from Protestant perspective. Finally, the CPCE has strengthen relationships among member churches, to promote it’s study results and to support member churches in receiving the documents.

Rev. Mario Fischer, General Secretary of the CPCE informed the audience about the planned programs of the CPCE in the year of the 50th anniversary, then called on the local organisers of the conference – namely Prof. Sándor Fazakas, Prof. László Gonda and Prof. Gábor Viktor Orosz, to express his gratitude for the excellent organisation. So, the official closing event ended with a huge round of applause and gave way to quiet reflection and communion during the closing service.

As Mario Fischer said in his sermon at the closing service: “Great days lie behind us. In Debrecen, in Calvinist Rome, theologians from all over Europe came together to discuss the consequences, realisations, and possibilities of the Leuenberg Agreement. The Leuenberg Agreement is not just any ecumenical dialogue result: no: it creates a new reality: church communion. Churches can remain independent and understand themselves as part of the one Church of Jesus Christ. With what happened on Leuenberg fifty years ago in these days of March, centuries-old inner-Protestant struggles were overcome, and church communion was created.  So, it is only right that we celebrate this communion not only in theological reflection but also in the common celebration of worship. For therein beats the heart of our communion: that we are united at the table of the Lord.”