Russian Baptists and the West

RUECB Considering Membership in the Conference of European Churches


Included: A short commentary on “Amsterdam 400”


M o s c o w / A m s t e r d a m -- The Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists’ (RUECB) Department of External Church Relations plans to recommend to its Union Council that the church rejoin the Geneva-based “Conference of European Churches” (CEC). This is one result of the CEC’s 13th assembly, convening in Lyon/France from 15 to 21 July. This was the first time the RUECB has participated in a major CEC conference after a break of approximately a decade. The RUECB has attended European Ecumenical Assemblies in the recent past, the last of which took place in Sibiu/Romania in September 2007. Yet these are not CEC events in the strict sense, for they also involve Catholic sponsorship.


The RUECB’s delegate at Lyon was Rev. Vitaly Vlasenko, its Director of External Church Relations. Following the conference he stated: “The CEC is a good platform for us to dialogue with other churches. We need to hear about the winds of change and current trends. We need to know how other churches are thinking and hear their feedback on the Russian situation. Russia indeed remains a part of Europe and we must express our interest and concern for developments within the European community of churches.”


Vlasenko regretted the absence of the “Russian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate” in Lyon and expressed the hope that it will yet return to this 1959-founded, all-European forum of churches. In-depth conversations did take place between him and the representatives of other Orthodox churches. Conversations with West European Baptists and with Dr. Edmund Ratz, the Petersburg-based Archbishop of Russia’s Evangelical-Lutheran Church (ELCROS) were also very helpful.


Open discussions tend to be tedious – 306 church delegates were present at Lyon. Yet Vlasenko noted that much can be learned from CEC as how best to organise transparent and democratic church structures.


In Amsterdam following the Lyon event, Vitaly Vlasenko stated: “I believe we shall move forward and propose to our Council next spring that we again become a member of CEC.” On paper, the “Euro-Asian Federation of Unions of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” remains a member of CEC. Yet the Federation remains inactive within the CEC and it is assumed that the RUECB would – if voters agree – simply inherit this membership. Vlasenko also believes the Russian Orthodox need to be asked about their opinion regarding CEC-membership on the part of the RUECB.


Vlasenko attributes the ongoing reluctance of Russian Baptists to join inter-confessional bodies to the fear of a possible loss of identity. Outside influences might steer the Union in directions which its leadership would not desire. “We must be very patient and take time for discussion,” he stated. “We are for dialogue, acceptance and peacemaking, but we are still a bit afraid of losing our borders and our distinctions.” After the decades of forced, involuntary unity during communist rule, it will take some effort to bring Russian Baptists back into communion with other church bodies in Russia and beyond. In any case, as a full member or otherwise, RUECB-involvement in CEC will remain moderate for the foreseeable future.


Commentary on Amsterdam

Long-term German Baptist delegates in the CEC are frustrated by the lack of Russian Orthodox participation at conferences in recent years. One German stated recently: “Their delegations appear at sessions when they are expected to read a declaration from one of their superiors back home, but otherwise they are hardly present. They never participate in discussions.”


Relations within the Baptist world are undoubtedly better. The Prague-based “European Baptist Federation” has gone to considerable lengths to bring the Unions of Central and Eastern Europe aboard. The EBF’s outgoing President, Toma Magda, is a Croat. Its new President as of July 2009 is the Moldovan church diplomat and politician Valeriu Ghiletchi. Approximately 100 Ukrainians, Russians and Belorussians were given visas to attend the “Amsterdam 400” celebrations in Amsterdam from 24 to 26 July. Yet participation is also a Baptist problem: At the closing service in Amsterdam, the climax of the entire conference on 400 years of Baptist life, the sizeable choirs from Russia and Hungary as well as most Ukrainians were no longer present.


The on-going distance between Eastern and Western Europe can be partially explained in linguistic terms: The “lingua franca” of the West is English; in the East it remains Russian. Perhaps large, short-term church conferences are least-suited for East and West to become acquainted. Longer-term and smaller venues for meeting and getting acquainted should be considered.


It appears that Baltic Baptists – at least those who are not ethnic Russians – as well as many Baptists of the Caucasus region have completed the transition from Eastern to Western orientation. They now feel themselves much closer to London than to Moscow. But that is not the case for most Ukrainians, Russians, Belarusians and Protestants from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. A second, Slavic “Amsterdam 400” celebration will take place in Kiev from 27 to 29 August.


Dr. William Yoder

Department for External Church Relations, RUECB

Moscow, 31 July 2009


A release of the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. It is informational in character and does not express a sole, official position of RUECB-leadership. May be published freely. Release #09-23, 810 words, 5.139 keystrokes and spaces.