Bridge-building: CEC through the decadesBridge-building: CEC through the decades

With the international divisions left behind by World War II and the “cold war” tensions of the mid-1950s; in a devastated Europe, with millions of stateless people and the continent divided between eastern and western blocks, the process of reconciliation of peoples, churches and leaders became paramount.

Initially a small group of church leaders in Eastern and Western Europe came together to consider the possibility of bringing into conversation churches in European countries separated by different political, economic and social systems. They met in 1953 and 1957 to prepare the path for what would become the Conference of European Churches (CEC), founded with the aim of enabling churches in Europe to become an instrument of peace and understanding as well as promoting reconciliation, dialogue and friendship between churches and people.

In 1959, representatives of more than 40 churches met in Nyborg, Denmark, for the first assembly of CEC under the theme “European Christianity in Today’s Secularized World”.
The first four Assemblies of CEC were held in Denmark, a country which was considered sufficiently neutral at that time in order to enable the delegates from the eastern half of Germany to attend without too many restrictions.

Held at sea, aboard the Danish ship Bornholm, in order to overcome visa problems and ensure that Eastern churches would be represented as well, the fourth Assembly, in 1964 had a special significance as it adopted CEC’s first Constitution.

This is the context in which the Conference of European Churches was born. The European society has changed considerably since, nevertheless there are ongoing challenges to the churches in Europe and therefore to CEC.

Bridge-building between eastern and western blocks, between minority and majority churches, between the generations, between women and men, between Christian denominations; reconciliation; unity in Christ; peace in the world; and witnessing together are a few of the key issues that made up the work of CEC.

CEC was there when…

Eastern European citizens’ passports were not recognized for international use and therefore they could not travel to NATO countries.
CEC found different ways to organise  meetings so that western and eastern churches could be represented.

CEC was there when...

political dissensions in society expressed themselves in forms of violent acts, strikes and student revolts; tensions in Northern Ireland erupted into civil strife in 1969; or when Turkish forces invaded Cyprus in 1974;

As a fellowship of European Churches, CEC was active in the struggle for reconciliation and peace and therefore called for:
• the establishment of the Conference on Security and Cooperation (CSCE) and the implementation of the Helsinki Final Act which was seen as a significant step toward reducing Cold War tensions;
• the creation of “the Churches’ Human Rights Programme for the Implementation of the Helsinki Final Act;
• disarmament, the banning of chemical and bacteriological weapons and the protection of environment;
• reconciliation between Christians of Northern Ireland;
• the respect of human rights, dignity and freedom in Cyprus;

CEC was there when…

delegates from Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant and Catholic churches in Europe met at the First European Ecumenical Assembly, jointly organised by CEC and the Council of European Bishops' Conferences (CCEE), from 15 to 21 May 1989, which preceded the fall of the Berlin wall, the end of the communist regime in Eastern Europe, the civil war in Yugoslavia and the split of the country; the long and hard transition period from communism to democracy; the discrepancies between the eastern and western societies. “We understand our Assembly in Basel as an opportunity for common prayer, consultation and affirmation in the hope and expectation that the Holy Spirit will use it for reconciliation, renewal and transformation of the churches, leading them closer to the truth of the Gospel and deepening their solidarity and mutual love”. (“Peace with Justice”, EEA1 Final message, Basel, 1989).

CEC was there when…

the “iron curtain” was gone, holding a “listening assembly”, in September 1992. Held for the first time in an East European country, the Prague Assembly gave space to open discussion and sharing of stories of war in Yugoslavia, “resurrection” of Orthodoxy in Albania, the division in Cyprus, Northern Ireland or Czechoslovakia, the difficult reunification of Germany or the rise of nationalism in many former Soviet countries.

CEC was there when…

reflecting on “Reconciliation, gift of God and source of new life” again jointly with CCEE for the Second European Ecumenical Assembly, in Graz, 1997: “How can we be worthy to proclaim the Gospel to the modern and post-modern, pluralistic and democratic culture and society of Europe, and how can we meet the challenges of encounters with Islam and the great cultures and religions, when we are divided among ourselves?” .

In the context of a changing Europe in the years following 1989, and in order to reflect the changing situation with regard to the European Institutions and organisations, the 11th CEC Assembly, in 1997, approved the integration of CEC and the European Ecumenical Commission on Church and Society (EECCS). After approval from the EECCS General Assembly, the integration became fully effective in 1999.

Ever since, CEC has been there…

in Brussels and Strasbourg involving the churches in the European integration process, monitoring political institutions and organisations (European Union, Council of Europe, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) and maintaining regular contacts with them on behalf of CEC and its member churches. The quest for peace and the defense of human rights, in a continent which has been the source of two world wars in the 20th century, are also concerns for the Church and Society Commission of CEC

CEC was there when…

the challenges of a “broken society” brought into focus issues such as: promoting the status and equality of women in all fields, including decision-making processes. CEC established its Women's Desk, in response to challenges raised in different European countries and it drew special attention to the deep problem of violence against women in society and in churches, and to the alarming growth, since the 90s, of trafficking in women in Europe into slave-like conditions, mainly into forced prostitution.

CEC was there when…

Europe's post Second World War refugee problem with thousands of people seeking asylum were urgent matters in Europe. CEC engaged the churches' attention on such issues and continues working in the context of yet further crises, including those arising from new poverty, asylum seeking, migration and the uprooting of people in Europe. A special cooperation in this field exists between CEC and the Brussels-based Churches' Commission for Migrants in Europe (CCME) which is about to become one of the three Commissions of CEC.

CEC has been there…

contributing to the integration process in Europe for decades through its Church and Society Commission it contributed to the process of developing the EU Constitutional Treaty and has seen much of what it then argued for, reflected in the Lisbon Treaty. CEC has been a part of the discussions initiated by the European institutions in many policy areas that are within the churches’ concerns, such as social and environmental policies, protection of human rights and bioethics, migration, responsibility for developing countries and others.

CEC is still there…

building bridges between Anglican, Protestant, Old Catholics and Orthodox traditions and with the Roman Catholic Church; between two living faiths: Christianity and Islam, through its Churches in Dialogue Commission.

CEC is still there…

strengthening the growing ecumenical relations to the Churches in East and West, North and South, to keep the majority and minority churches in discussions with one another, to support the engagement of Christians in Europe for justice, peace and the integrity of creation, to encourage the active participation of youth in the ecumenical work and to bring the voices of its 125 member churches effectively and capably into the European unification process.

On 22 April 2001, the presidents of the Conference of European Churches (CEC) and the Council of European Bishops' Conferences (CCEE) signed the Charta Oecumenica, a joint document which contains guidelines for increasing co-operation among the churches in Europe. Signed in Strasbourg, the document was created as a result of the 2nd European Ecumenical Assembly in Graz and the continuous work of cooperation between CEC and CCEE. It was a process which then led to the 3rd European Ecumenical Assembly in Sibiu (Romania) in 2007, with the theme “The Light of Christ Shines Upon All – Hope for Renewal and Unity in Europe”.

In terms of the number of official delegates, this was the biggest ecumenical Assembly ever held including outside European borders. In terms of its content, it was a complex event, marked by the difficulties of ecumenical relations in recent years. “In Sibiu we again felt the painful wound of division between our Churches”, participants stated in their final Message, stressing that “our witness to hope and unity for Europe and for the world will be credible only if we continue our journey towards visible unity”. At the same time, delegates clearly witnessed “to the transforming power” of Christ’s light, “which is stronger than darkness”, and proclaimed it “as all-embracing hope for our Churches, for all of Europe and for the entire world”.