By John Ellis
John Calvin, Oliver Cromwell, William III, a few Kings of France, Mussolini: all part of the extraordinary story of the Waldensian Church. With the bonus of warm Italian sunshine, it was an inspirational privilege to represent the United Reformed Church at their annual Synod, to bring the Synod our greetings and to learn something of their history.
Twelfth century forerunners of the Reformation, the Waldensians have suffered more than most from religious persecution. After once having had communities in many parts of Europe, in recent centuries they have been concentrated in four valleys in the Alpine mountain range that is now the border between France and Italy. Mountain valleys are hard places to grow crops but relatively easy places to hide. Although very thinly spread across the rest of Catholic Italy, in these valleys the majority of the population adhere to the Waldensian Reformed faith. The small town of Torre Pellice provides a physical base, where Synod meets in its own hall. If you glance upwards during Synod, you see the text “Be faithful even unto death” and know this is no empty piety.
Many of the Synod’s debates were close echoes of issues in our General Assembly. URC practice was cited as a model in the debate about the deployment of a diminishing number of ministers; they grappled with carefully worded resolutions relating to human sexuality; they worried about the amount of resource church buildings consumed; the Treasurer warned they could not ask for central programmes if they were not willing to offer to pay for them.
Since 1975 their work has been closely integrated with that of the even smaller Italian Methodist Church. The Synod comprises both Waldensian and Methodist representatives and all policies are agreed jointly. A single staff team serves both communities and local church life everywhere works somewhat like our United Areas with Methodists. Their model of respecting different traditions and retaining different legal structures, while combining all resources for mission, might have something to say to those of us in the smaller UK Church denominations.
In the 1680s the Waldensians could only escape catastrophic persecution by the community deciding to go into exile by walking over the top of the mountains with whatever they could carry, through hostile territories, until eventually they reached the sanctuary of Geneva. They remained there until the politics of their home area changed. The deprivations hardly bear thinking about. Our context is of course different but does our faith mean that much to us? Waldensians understand that Jesus demands never less than everything.