Taking Stock 25 Years after the Fall of the Iron Curtain

In front of the new Reformation logo of the Polish Lutheran church: (left to right) Bishop Jerzy Samiec, LWF Council member Iwona Baraniec and LWF General Secretary Rev. Martin Junge. Photo: LWF/Florian Hübner
In front of the new Reformation logo of the Polish Lutheran church: (left to right) Bishop Jerzy Samiec, LWF Council member Iwona Baraniec and LWF General Secretary Rev. Martin Junge. Photo: LWF/Florian Hübner

Conference of Central and Eastern Europe Church Leaders in Wroclaw

(LWI) – “Twenty-five years ago we only had dreams of freedom and no realistic expectations of what might come,” said Synod Leader Joel Ruml of the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren, summing up the period in eastern Europe since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Ruml was among church leaders from The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) Central Eastern Europe (CEE) region, who met in Wroclaw city, 3-4 July, to reflect on the changes over the last 25 years and the challenges the new-found freedom brought for the churches. The region includes 14 LWF member churches. Hosting the event, the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in Poland, was happy to welcome LWF General Secretary Rev. Martin Junge as the chief guest.

No Easy Development

Discussions at the meeting revealed how different the experiences in the region’s churches have been. Presiding Bishop Jerzy Samiec of the host church explained that the fall of the Iron Curtain had ended the drain on membership that had occurred during communist times: “When everyone was granted their own passport and allowed to keep it, the wave of emigration to the West stopped.” Today the Polish Lutheran church adds 250 to 300 new members each year. By contrast, other churches, such as the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in Romania, have suffered a significant loss of members due to emigration, particularly since the opening up of relations with the West after 1989.

However, Samiec also highlighted the challenges facing the Polish church in the coming years: “We intend to empower the laity in the church and strengthen youth work, in order to counteract the secularization of society.” The bishop added that he was determined to continue dealing with the question of ordaining women as pastors. “We want to discuss this issue in terms of its theological, economic and ecumenical implications in the social context of Poland.” The matter is also controversial inside the Lutheran church, he said. So far women have only been ordained as deacons, but not as pastors or bishops.

Hungary: Admitting Where the Churches Fell Short

Bishop Dr. Tamás Fabiny, LWF Vice-President for Central Eastern Europe, emphasized the need for the painful process of coming to terms with the period of dictatorship. “We want to get to know the activities of our churches both in the brown (Nazi) and the red (communist) dictatorships. Where they fell short must be recognized and admitted,” he said.

He added that in his church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hungary, informants had cooperated with the state security apparatus, including Bishops Zoltán Káldy and Ernő Ottlyk. The church has thoroughly investigated these cases and published the results in a two-volume work titled Hálo (Network). At present Fabiny, who is bishop of the Northern Diocese, sees the church as called to work for those who have been marginalized by the changes in Hungarian society. He reported that the northern part of the country had especially experienced an increase in poverty, fear and violence as well as extremism against the Roma people.

Military Dictatorship in Chile

Junge broadened the conversation by bringing in the perspective of his home country, Chile. Twenty-five years ago there had been a similar break with dictatorship and turn to democracy that had reconnected the country with the world. “But the freedom we had sought for so long came with challenges,” he underlined. One challenge was the church’s identity crisis and uncertainty about its new role. Under the military dictatorship the church had openly criticized the government for human rights violations, Junge recalled. This had clearly defined the church’s role, but “we also paid a high price for that.” After the fall of the Pinochet regime the church at first had problems finding a role for itself in the new society, he added.

Moreover, the military dictatorship had led to the splitting of the Chilean Lutheran church. Even 25 years after the end of the military dictatorship, the two Lutheran churches were still working on coming closer and reuniting. In view of this bitter experience, the general secretary appealed to all church leaders present to “keep in mind how easy it is to fall apart and how hard it is to come back together. Two or three years are enough to split up, but you need 40 years to reunite.”

Bishops and Church Leaders

In addition to the bishops from Austria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Slovak Republic and Ukraine, the 28 participants at the conference included LWF Council members, synod representatives and those with regional responsibility. LWF Council member Iwona Baraniec (Poland), Council advisers Eliisabet Põder (Estonia) and Anastasiya Piddubska (Ukraine) also attended. Agnieszka Godfrejow-Tarnogorska represented the LWF Women in Church and Society (WICAS) network in the region.

The conference organized by the LWF Europe Secretary Rev. Dr Eva-Sibylle Vogel-Mfato, preceded the Days of Encounter for Christians in Central and Eastern Europe.