I’ve just come back from a busy two weeks in Leipzig, Germany, where I was on the staff team for the General Council of the World Communion of Reformed Churches. The WCRC is not well known among church folks in Scotland, which is a pity. It is comprised of 80 million Christians in Congregational, Presbyterian, Reformed, United, Uniting and Waldensian churches. Working with its 225+ member churches, it is active in supporting theology, justice, church unity and mission in over 100 countries. It has a small office in Hannover, Germany, and a very small staff but, every seven years, representatives from the member churches come together in General Council to discern God’s will for the work and future of the Communion.
This General Council took as its theme: Living God, renew and transform us! Almost 1,000 people, both lay and ordained, gathered at a conference complex on the outskirts of Leipzig for 9 intensive days of worship, prayer, Bible study, listening, discernment, debate and decision-making. Each day started at 8.30am and usually finished around 8pm or sometimes later. We heard superb presentations from theologians and pastors, academics and mission workers and were challenged in debates on sexuality, the ordination of women (not all member churches in the Communion ordain women to the ministry) and especially on the yawning gap between the rich Global North and the poor Global South – very evident even among delegates at the Council. It was a great opportunity to meet and speak to people from all over the world – I worked out that I had conversations with people from at least 26 different countries, including Morocco, Indonesia, Cameroon, the Congo, Lesotho and Brazil. There were six official languages for the event – English, German, French, Spanish, Indonesian and Korean. Thankfully, my Korean being what it is (non-existent), there was simultaneous translation.
Highlights included a trip to Berlin for a televised service of worship in the Berliner Dom and a reception in the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs (although, to be honest, I was less keen on the 4.30am start that the trip entailed…). We also had a splendid service in the Stadtkirche in Wittenberg, a church that Martin Luther preached in, during which the Wittenberg Witness was signed in the presence of representatives of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Methodist and Mennonite churches; it commits us all to strengthen cooperation and joint action. 2017 is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s nailing of his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg, thus sparking the Reformation; there was an opportunity to wander through the Reformation Exhibition mounted by the churches in and around Wittenberg and to speak to many local Christians about their life and work. We also had services in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where Bach and Mendelssohn both worked, and in the Nikolaikirche, famous for the ‘peace prayers’ of 1989 which are commonly held to have led directly to the peaceful collapse of the former East Germany and to reunification with the West. The music in both churches was sensational. The real highlight for me, though, was the election of the Rev Najla Kassab as the President of the WCRC for the next seven years. Najla was ordained as a minister of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon only a few months ago, one of only two women to be ordained in that church. She has been a theologian and preacher for decades but, although offered ordination in other churches, she refused and waited until her home church felt able to ordain women. The WCRC acclaimed its first female president for her vision, insight, spiritual strength and grace and very much looks forward to her time in office.
After all of that, there wasn’t much time for personal sightseeing but I did manage to sample both ice-cream and beer and can recommend both! I was also deeply impressed by Leipzig’s amazingly efficient tram system; it went everywhere and ran unfailingly to time. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the minutes I was there to produce did get done – all 56 pages of them.
It was a great experience and a reminder, again, of just how strong and widespread our faith is. Living God, renew and transform us!