Lyon, an ancient Christian and very ecumenical cityLyon, an ancient Christian and very ecumenical city

Basilique de Fourvière (photo: A. Osborne)


Today the third largest city and second largest metropolitan area in France, Lyon looks back on more than twenty centuries of history. Christian missionaries, moving up the Rhone valley, first came there in the year 150. But in 177 under Roman rule, 50 martyrs died there in the Trois Gaules ampitheatre, including St. Blandine, or in prison, such as the bishop St. Pothinus. Twenty years later St. Irenaeus, who succeeded him as head of the church there, suffered the same fate in the Lyon tradition. The Gospel was brought in anew by Roman missionaries around 250 and the church grew rapidly thereafter.

In the Middle Ages, many pilgrims visited the shrine of the Black Virgin on Fourvière hill; the present basilica was built in 1870. Building of St. John’s Cathedral was begun in the late 12th century. It was the site of a General Council in 1274, which tried without success to reunite the Eastern and Western churches. Also in 12th-century Lyon, Pierre Valdo started the pre-Reformation movement known as the “Poor of Lyon”; this gave rise to the Waldensian Church, which still exists in the Italian Alps and elsewhere.

Standing at a crossroads of several major trade routes, over the centuries Lyon became a major centre of commerce and industry. Its printing industry dates from the 16th century, and its nearness to Geneva meant that Reformation preachers came there. But during the Catholic-Protestant wars in France, the city was pillaged by Protestant troops, and in the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572 several Protestants were put to death there, including Claude Goudimel, who wrote the music for many Psalms.

During the centuries since, large numbers of foreigners have settled in Lyon: Orthodox Greeks, British Anglicans, German Lutherans, and since the 1915 genocide a large Armenian community, so that the Lyon area became increasingly multi-confessional.

In 20th-century Lyon, a great witness to “ecumenical spiritualism” was the abbot Paul Couturier (1881-1953), founder (in its present form) of the Universal Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, “in the way Christ wills and by the means which he wills”, which is celebrated every year throughout the world from 18 to 25 January. Lyon is the home of Unité Chrétienne, the organisation which publishes the documents (brochures, liturgies, tracts and posters) for the Week of Prayer in French-speaking countries.

Abbé Couturier was also a founder, in 1937, of the ecumenical Groupe des Dombes, along with several French and Swiss pastors. This group consists of 20 Catholic and 20 Lutheran and Reformed French-speaking persons, who meet every year to study issues which divide the churches; their publications include Pour la communion des Eglises (1988), and Un seul Maître – l’autorité doctrinale dans l’Eglise (2005). Some of their books are translated into several languages. The Groupe des Dombes meets nowadays at the Benedictine Abbey of Pradines, near Roanne, not far from Lyon.

The St. Irenaeus Centre, started by Father Beaupère in 1953, works for reconciliation among Christians and promotes the ecumenical movement. It organizes meetings and offers correspondence courses, and has initiated ecumenical pilgrimages to the Holy Land and to many other countries (see its publication Chrétiens en Marche), and has developed a ministry to Christian inter-confessional married couples (for whom it publishes a quarterly, Foyers mixtes).
It was also in Lyon that Radio Fourvière was started in 1982, the first of what is today a large network of local French-speaking Christian radio stations dedicated to ecumenism.

Finally, the Committee of Church Leaders in Lyon (CREL) has existed for about 20 years. It brings together church leaders from Anglican, Armenian Apostolic, Evangelical Baptist, Catholic (Cardinal Barbarin), Greek Orthodox, Lutheran and Reformed churches. It seeks to establish fellowship among the church leaders and to foster ecumenical progress among Christian communities. It has often been able to adopt statements by unanimous agreement.

 Father René Beaupère and Pastor Marc Chambron