How churches become peace churches

Linked with our presentation of Ana Raffai – Croatia.

Linked with our presentation of the The European Church and Peace Network.

Linked also with our presentation of Center for Peace Studies – Ontario/Canada.

By Wilfried Warneck

1. A question and a working hypothesis

There is general pessimism and resignation regarding the chances of a mainstream church undergoing a process of transformation and becoming a peace church. But some positive experiences of regional and inter-regional networks tell another story. In Germany ecumenical networks in the conciliar process for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation claim that they can observe slow but deliberate steps forward in a process of renewal within their regional church institutions. For more than 50 years Church and Peace, an international network, has been operating throughout Europe as a forum and network of organizations, congregations, groups and individuals within the historic peace churches and peace church oriented groups within other churches. Church and Peace was founded in 1949 (by representatives of Mennonite Central Committee, Brethren Service Commission, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and the International Fellowship of Reconciliation) as a European counterpart to the American Historic Peace Churches Continuation Committee. But it soon developed a broader basis.

Although networks such as these may observe significant developments, they can hardly attribute the developments to the work of any one particular organization. Usually it is a question of broader contextual changes which have been produced by a multitude of factors and actors. These create an environment in which pacifist statements, decisions and actions are possible. The founders of Church and Peace took action on the basis of a positive assumption: We cannot imagine a church of Jesus Christ in which there is not openness at all for the peace witness which Jesus lived and taught. Any body which is a church according to biblical criteria must possess seeds of the Gospel of the nonviolent Jesus of Nazareth and soil conducive to the growth of this Gospel. So the question is not whether such conditions exist, but whether we are able to discern them.

We do not have a very clear picture of how such a process of transformation takes place. It is often said to be impossible, even though we have virtually no information about it. We must therefore begin by exploring what conditions are necessary for such transformation and how such a process takes place.

Church and Peace works on the basis of a hypothesis which can be formulated as follows:

The transformation of a church into a peace church depends primarily on careful discernment of the ways in which God is present rather than on a strategy of active intervention. GodÆs Spirit is at work long before churches or ecumenical groups take action. But God expects us to respond to the sovereign movement of the Spirit by creating a structure to serve as a forum for communication-. The activities of such a forum may then lead to the development of a network.

2. The experience of Church and Peace

Drawing in particular on the experience of the last quarter of the 20th century, praxis shows that the following steps are required:

1. Identifying and observing groups, congregations, people and places which give expression to a radical peace witness. This requires us to be present at relevant meetings and gatherings, to build friendships which serve as sources of information, to monitor publications and simply to trust that we will receive the right information at the right time.

2. Making contact and inviting people to join the Church and Peace forum, as ôa place for meeting and sharing; a place where individuals, groups, communities and churches come together; a place of theological reflection, of prayer and praiseö (Statement of Self-understanding). This requires correspondence, visits, meetings and cooperation in individual projects.

3. Promoting communication within the network and with the long-established ôpillarsö, i.e. the ôhistoric peace churchesö; joining the network as an active member.

The whole process can be described as a learning process – a learning process which can trigger and sustain real and lasting change. The success of such a learning process depends on the process of learning taking place concurrently in at least three dimensions:

ò reflection which can have a lasting influence on attitudes and points of reference, e.g. theological work, which should be linked – by continual discussion and sharing with congregations and groups – to grassroots processes as much as possible. In the history of Church and Peace, the Puidoux Conferences, participation in the series of French-speaking conferences ôThΘologie et Non-violenceö, and a number of publications played a significant role in furthering such reflection;

ò ôprogrammesö, i.e. developing alternative forms of action and promoting forms of action which have been disregarded. The congregations and groups involved should be able to recognize easily the interrelation between their activities and the accompanying theological reflection; in other words, there must be a clear connection between these programmes and the process of reflection. Examples of such programmes in the history of Church and Peace include the founding of the service organizations, ôEirene, International Christian Service for Peaceö and ôEcumenical Service/Shalomdiaconateö, and the Ploughshare Fund;

ò the experience of a new fellowship or of fellowship with unexpected or unfamiliar partners which display the characteristics of a peace church. The conferences of Church and Peace should be mentioned here – as well as visits and various exchange programmes.

The 50-year history of the Church and Peace network can be interpreted as a learning process along these lines. One product of this process is a dynamic, flexible structure of ecumenical communion whose nature is defined by experiences of fellowship and interaction rather than institutional customs or doctrine. This network can leave questions of church order (e.g. the question of denominational allegiance) largely open, so long as it is clear that these questions will be dealt with adequately in due course.

3. Significant developments and insights

The great advantage of the praxis described here is that the groups which belong to such a network can, to a certain degree, experiment with different forms of living as a peace church – sometimes on behalf of their entire denomination – without having to clarify all the related theoretical, organizational, ecclesiological and legal questions at the same time. The praxis will throw new light on all these issues, so that appropriate solutions can be found.

This does not mean that confessional clarity is lost or suppressed. The constitution of Church and Peace, to which all new members assent when they join, and the so-called Statement of Self-understanding reflect a very clear witness. It is possible to observe how groups which apply for membership sometimes undergo a long and intensive internal testing process.

It is clear in all of this that territorially defined parishes of the mainstream churches cannot easily fulfil the conditions for full participation in the activities of the network. The nonconformist nature of the witness which is Church and PeaceÆs mandate presents a hindrance. It is therefore necessary to ask: Which are the target groups for this challenge? According to a working hypothesis formulated in 1975 these are groups which wish to commit themselves to living out the Gospel of the nonviolent Jesus Christ in concrete ways in all spheres of life. An almost inevitable consequence is that intentional communities form a particularly reliable core group within Church and Peace. Despite their problems and failures, the existence of such core groups can nevertheless become a kind of ongoing demonstration of discipleship. And they can maintain socially relevant forms of conscientious affirmation. Neither an isolated individual, however important his/her involvement and activities may be, nor a large anonymous organization can do this in quite the same way. (This is a question neither of morality nor of quality, but of structure.)

To what extent do these processes at the micro level bear relevance for the macro level of church structures? (We began by asking whether these are open to change.) This depends on the extent to which the groups concerned take on their function as instigators of innovation and renewal. Will these groups, in spite of the innovations which they promote, be recognized by their church as an authentic embodiment of their own tradition? Do they possess the vocabulary – in terms of symbols as well as words – which will enable them to translate and interpret when the official church and the peace community would otherwise be unable to understand each other? How can communities develop the capacity to be bridges of understanding in such situations? There are examples of this within the Church and Peace network which can serve as sources of inspiration and encouragement.

(Translated by Gordon Matthews, June 8, 2001) .

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