Bevindingen Jaap van der Linden

Symposium Ecumenical Covenanting – Thursday 26th September 2013 in Almere.

Introduction of Ecumenical Covenanting in the Netherlands by Reverend Jaap van der Linden, secretary of the Taskforce Covenanting of the Council of Churches in the Netherlands

In the last two years (2011-2013) we, members of the taskforce Covenanting  have tried to introduce the signing of covenants as a ecumenical means to renew and revitalize the ecumenical cooperation between local communities of believers. We borrowed this idea from the churches in the U.K. In 1986 there started because of the visit of pope John Paul II a process of renewal in which the local councils of churches changed themselves into Churches Together.

In the document Called to be One that was released then the change has been described as follows: 

In 1990 the British Council of Churches was replaced by new ecumenical bodies at national level working in a new way. At the same time local councils of churches were encouraged to become local Churches Together. The intention was that the new title would commit local churches to the new style of working.

Put simply this means that major decisions on unity work would no longer be taken by church representatives at an ecumenical council meeting, but would be referred by it to the decision-making bodies of the respective churches (church meeting, parochial church council ... ). In this way the authorities of the local churches would be committed, and not just a few enthusiasts. Local churches were also encouraged to share what really mattered to them and lay at the heart of their life, and, where convictions allowed, to do these things together.

Where this has happened ecumenism has released new energies and brought enrichment. Where it has not happened ecumenical activities continue to consume energy, because they remain additional to the daily and weekly round of denominational activities.

These few sentences describe this change that took many years and involved the churches nationally and locally in a long and thoroughgoing  process of common deliberation and prayer until Local Ecumenical Partnerships were formed. Now there are hundreds of them.

In the years 1999 till 2006 a group of 12 catholic and protestant local pastors and theologians specialized in Church Order deliberated together searching for new ways to overcome stagnation in the ecumenical cooperation between their churches in our country.  They called themselves “Polderkring” and did polder for seven years. They discovered what had happened in the UK. They offered this model of achieving covenants in the form of LEP’s (Local Ecumenical Partnerships) to the Dutch Council of Churches as a present at the 40 years jubilee of the Council in 2008. The Council accepted the present and welcomed the idea of closing covenants as a new ecumenical means to strengthen en revitalize the local ecumenism.

The taskforce Covenants was installed and was given two years to introduce the idea in the Dutch situation. We did not really succeed in this.

From the beginning our efforts met critical remarks, which showed a feeling of competition as was the work of the local council of churches written off by our plea for closing bonds and covenants between the local churches as a whole. Pleading for achieving covenants is certainly not meant to write off good work that is done, but offers a solution for the problem that ecumenical work is most of the time a plus tot the normal church activities of each single church.

We did not succeed in convincing the members of the Council of the ecumenical advantages of this new style of working. And in the second place we underestimated the fact that it takes a long time and a broad and deep process of deliberation to start  an process that will change the style of working.

Signing covenants at the local level is not just a new ecumenical tool, but brings forth a totally new way of working. With great advantages: it can be a step forward in bonding, in working much closer together in the ordinary work which every church community already does, but now each on her own. It is an effort to work closer together in all the normal church activities of every local community of believers. It requires a new vision of the leadership and a thorough-going process of renewal of the participating churches themselves to get there. It requires a process of evaluating and reconsidering of the ecumenical work. Our document  “Gebundelde krachten in de oecumene” offered the ingredients for such a process.

The great advantage is that it starts at the local level, where Christians meet each other. There is the place where ecumenical bonding can grow to a process of the Holy Spirit of God, when members of local church communities as a whole open themselves for each other and try to realize their calling to be members of the body of Christ in their own surrounding.

But starting such a process of change requires more than a group of five active and good willing volunteers. We have not been able to convey all this to the local and regional councils of churches. Due undoubtedly to our way of presenting this ideas. But also due to other factors:

I already mentioned that it requires a special insight in the kind of change which could bring forth a renewal of the local ecumenism. This requires a process in the Dutch Council of Churches similar like what happened in the former British Council of Churches in the nineties. In the second place the interest in organisational aspects as visible unity is not leading within the Dutch churches. Bigger churches have their own offices with the danger of at least an isolated way of working. They have their own problems with the diminishing number of members and the related decline of financial means. The first impulse in almost every denomination is to withdraw behind their own walls and try to solve their own problems. Ecumenism becomes priority 10 or 11... or 13! Churches fail to recognize that each of them has the same problems and in sharing these problems they might find common and better solutions.

There is a cultural reason too. Samuel Kobia said in 2007 visiting the U.K.: The older generation of ecumenists was really compelled and driven by their commitment to the visible unity of the church. They were searching for the one holy, catholic and apostolic church that would truly respond to Christ's prayer that all may be one so that the world may believe (John 17:21).  It seems as if after the end of the cold war and under the strong influence of an increasingly globalised economy, such vigour, energy and commitment to ecumenism got lost… We often hear that the search for visible unity of the church is no longer a priority for churches and Christian World Communions who centre on their particular identities.

Nietzsche tells in one of his books of a prophet who kindled a lamp at the midst of the day and went to the market shouting his message: God is dead and we have killed him. But nobody listens. I am too early, he says. We came too late with our initiative. Fifteen our twenty years ago hope that visible unity would be possible in a short term was  slumbering in many hearts and achieving covenants could have  given that hope the oxygen to become a light, that brings us together. As happened in the U.K. Now more than hundred years later the words of Nietzsche’s prophet are slumbering in many hearts and the churches are weakened by secularization. Each of them seems to have enough problems.

Nevertheless when we visited local and regional councils of churches we have met open hearts and minds. We experienced a longing for new initiatives that could bring new life in the ecumenical movement at the local level. We were and still are convinced of the importance of bringing new life and inspiration to the local communities who long for increasing the ecumenical cooperation.

We now  give our task back to the Council of Churches in the Netherlands in the hope that the ecumenical exchange of successful ideas and initiatives in the case of covenanting between the Dutch Council and the British Churches Together, will give new inspiration to all who committed themselves to our Lord Jesus Christ and never lost the expectation of the visible unity of his Church.

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