A Necessary Embrace
On the Lisbon sessions of the General Council of the European Baptist Federation
M o s c o w - Before the eyes of the European Baptist Federation's (EBF) General Council convening in Lisbon/Portugal on 26 September, Malkhaz Songulashvili (Tbilisi), Archbishop of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia, and Vitaly Vlasenko (Moscow), Director of External Church Relations for the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, (RUECB), embraced. That was one result of the conversation between the two lasting for more than four hours and reflected the spiritual understanding which had been achieved. Much more burdens the relationship between Russian and Georgian Baptists than simply the moral and political assessment of a very unfortunate but brief war. Georgia was one of the "little brothers" within the Soviet era's "All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists". "Big Brother" was located of course in Moscow. That history and the Georgian church's - it no longer regards itself as a union - cultural movement towards Georgian Orthodoxy supplied the conversation with more than enough topics.
The need for further clarification remains. RUECB-President Yuri Sipko (Moscow) was not present in Portugal. For that reason, an additional meeting of Baptist leaders from Georgia and Russia is planned for Kiev in late October.
Generally, the persistent gap between European Baptists in East and West places the EBF before significant hurdles. EBF-General-Secretary Tony Peck (Prague) and his team are honourable people deeply committed to bringing the Baptist unions of Eastern Europe into EBF structures. One sign of that desire was the election of the Croatian Toma Magda (Cakovec) as President of the EBF in 2007. He will be succeeded in 2009 by a Moldovan: Valeriu Ghiletchi of Chisinau.
Nevertheless, the EBF still appears to tilt sideward in favour of the Anglo-Scandinavian world. Reasons for that are often linguistic: Persons without a command of English remain on the sidelines at EBF sessions. Matters are inverted at meetings held by the "Euro-Asian Federation of Unions of Evangelical Christians-Baptists". Russian is the lingua franca there and Russian and Ukrainian Baptists tend to fill the leadership roles. Perhaps this Federation might be called an Eastern-EBF - except for Georgia and the Baltics, it represents all unions once belonging to the USSR.
But the gap was also apparent in the choice of subjects. Christians and ecology was the primary topic of this year's sessions in Lisbon. East European Baptists though are still sufficiently dualistic to divide the world into more-and-less-important issues. And for these church leaders, ecology clearly belongs to the category of less-important.
Also for East European Baptists, the practice of Communion remains a vital spiritual matter. They regretted that the only Communion which Lisbon had to offer was one heavily Orthodox in style celebrated by the Georgian Baptist church. Representatives of Western churches are enthusiastic about the creativity and attempts at cultural integration emanating from Georgian Baptists. But East Europeans would prefer to remain true to their tested-and-proven identity stemming from the period of repression.
Late Summer 2008 featured two large Baptist youth congresses: the Baptist World Alliance's youth event in Leipzig, and an Eastern one in Odessa. That divide was not necessarily intentional - least of all among the hosts in Leipzig. High costs and Schengen's strict visa regulations contributed to the gap - but perhaps one also prefers in a very general sense to be among one's own kind.
What is to be done? It is permissible to defend the preferences and desires of the unions in Central and Eastern Europe. It remains clear they no longer want to survive apart from the unions of Western Europe - who of us could long for a return to Cold War conditions? This would be one important task for Pastor Valeriu Ghiletchi.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Department for External Church Relations, RUECB
Moscow, 07 October 2008
A release stemming from the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. But it is a commentary and completely reflects only the opinion of William Yoder. May be published freely. Release #08-45, 592 words.