Down the Danube

By John Ellis

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King Stephen and Catherine Ball enjoy the snow

Hungary was established as a Christian Kingdom in the year 1000 by King Stephen. During the Reformation, strong Lutheran and Reformed presences were established alongside the continuing Roman Catholic strand. Christian, Muslim and Communist Empires have sought to dominate the territory in the centuries since. Its beautiful capital city of Budapest therefore offered a rich context for a Synod of the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe (CPCE) at which the Rev Dr Catherine Ball and I represented the United Reformed Church. There were 48 other Churches present from Scotland to Italy and from France to Georgia.

CPCE is dominated by the German Lutheran tradition. Their definition of “Protestant” means that the Anglicans are excluded as ineligible, the German Churches pay most of CPCE’s bills and the default language is German, with everyone else having to manage in English. After one intervention, a kind German lady complimented me on speaking “very good English”.

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Synod in session

As the Synod is not a decision-making body, we had plenty of time to explore together both common and different elements of our heritage and to reflect on shared problems and opportunities. People from nations that had been at war with each other within the lifetimes of some present knelt together at the Communion rail when we worshipped in a Lutheran church that was bombed in 1944. Highly and painfully contemporary were the stories of the struggles of the Reformed Church in the Ukraine, which values its links with our Southern Synod.  We enjoyed a memorable moonlit cruise down the Danube through the heart of the city, during which we also heard an address about the economic challenges for Hungary.

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Hungarian Parliament from the Danube

Many of the internal Church challenges were very familiar. Financial problems threatened to become too dominant in many Churches, with some Churches from former Soviet Bloc countries still adjusting to the state handing back to the Church responsibility for paying Pastors. Most of the historic Churches were enduring numerical decline, some very rapidly. The lack of young people at the Synod was noticed. My Norwegian opposite number said that they pay a modest salary to their Moderator so that a wider range of lay people can consider accepting nomination.

What will remain more prominently in the memory, however, is being embraced in a community of Christians which treasures more explicitly than many in the URC the core revelations of the Reformation and remains convinced that through them comes the confidence to believe in the ultimate triumph of the purposes of God. As Luther wrote, A safe stronghold our God is still.

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