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Shaken, not stirred? 


Report from John and Vita Jenkins

The Annual Conference of "ARGE Ökumene" held at Pinkafeld, Burgenland, Austria from the 26th-28th October, 2000.

Themes: Sin Forgiveness Redemption

Although the name of the Austrian organization stands for "Working Group – Ecumenism" it is, like the Association of Interchurch Families, made up for the most part of interchurch couples and families with the same keen concern for practical ecumenism.

This year’s themes linked up well with last year’s discussions and presentations which took place shortly before the signing of the Augsburg Document. The conference took place in Burgenland, Austria’s youngest province situated on the border with Hungary. Unlike the rest of Austria which is over 90% R.C. the figures are here much more evenly balanced. In Pinkafeld itself the R.C. parish has some 8,000 members and the Lutherans some 6,000 whilst some of the surrounding villages are almost entirely Lutheran. There appeared to be a very good working relationship between the congregations and the clergy of the two parishes with the Lutheran pastor and the R.C. priest both being members of the town’s fire brigade which, so we were told, was not unusual!

After the welcome and introduction our first speaker, Dr Jupp Salmen, a R.C. historian who is now very involved in dialogue between the R.C Church and other faiths spoke at some length on the three topics from a historical point of view. He pointed out, for example, that prior to the writing of the Adam and Eve story a number of Hebrew leaders had been marrying foreign princesses and he suggested that that had had a profound influence on the attitude towards women in the church. He also dealt with the role of the confessional and the influence of the psychiatrist’s couch etc. This led on to a discussion of the nature of sin and how the R.C. Church categorizes the various types of sin. Sitting next to this speaker at lunch immediately after his talk made us very hesitant about asking for second helpings!

Although not officially on the programme two recent events frequently surfaced during the discussions. The first was Cardinal Ratzinger’s recent pronouncement "Dominus Jesus", the other being the more recent incident in Salzburg where a Methodist minister and an R.C. priest had concelebrated. A short while afterwards the R.C. Bishop Eder arrived to celebrate mass at the end of which to everyone’s astonishment he announced that he was immediately suspending the R.C. priest from exercising any further priestly functions. This was greeted with uproar with the bishop being slow hand clapped and booed out of the church – an unprecedented reaction all of which gave rise to a great deal of ongoing discussion in church circles and the media and also, of course, at the conference. Consequently we were pleased to welcome at this stage the first of our two unscheduled speakers, Dr. Christine Gleixner who had previously spoken at the 1988 conference in Salzburg. She is now the chairperson of the Austrian Ecumenical Council set up on the initiative of Cardinal König which has representatives from 14 different Christian denominations, many of which have come into Austria from the former Eastern Bloc countries. She dealt with recent developments in ecumenism and also gave her reactions to "Dominus Jesus" and the events in Salzburg. Although she was extremely sympathetic towards the position of interchurch families and had discussed the Salzburg fiasco in her official capacity with Cardinal Schönborn and Suffragan Bishop Krätzl, the content of which discussion was then officially published, she nevertheless advised caution.

On the second day Pastor Peter Ziermann, now a regular visitor to ARGE conferences, gave the main talk and spoke on the Bible as "Food for Every Day". A gifted and entertaining speaker, he dealt with Luther’s approach to the Bible and how it has made the Bible central to his life. He talked about his childhood, partly spent with his R.C. grandmother who took him to Mass (to make sure he would be touched by God) and his Lutheran family. This early experience played and important part in his later life. At the end of his talk he divided us into four groups with about a dozen people in each and gave each group a well known passage of Scripture to deal with by devising and acting out our own role plays. For a fascinating half hour we each tried to identify with the characters in our own passage. Sadly AIF’s John was quietly whisked off at this point for an emergency examination at the doctor’s because of the recurrence of a recent chest infection, and missed this stage.

After lunch there was a coach trip around the area beginning with a visit to the Community of St Francis just outside Pinkafeld. This is now a largely self-sufficient community. It comprises single people and families and hopes eventually to attract Protestant Christians. Following this we visited various churches in this very beautiful area with its superb views down over the great Hungarian plain. The culmination of this trip through a predominantly wine-growing area was to be a visit to a vineyard and its restaurant with music and dancing. Unfortunately John was not feeling up to it so we had to leave the group and return to Pinkafeld and an early night. Judging from reports the following morning a superb time was had by all.

On the final day, Saturday, after the daily short service of praise (7.30 a.m. – no lie-ins!), we all met with the Lutheran pastor and the R.C. priest to discuss the form of our main service later that morning. Since both were eager for both their churches and parishioners to be involved, it was decided, after a very thoughtful and lively discussion with "Dominus Jesus" and Salzburg obviously at the back of everyone’s minds, that there would be one service only, one of penitence, which would, take place in the two churches. Consequently at 11 a.m. accompanied by the two clergymen and carrying a cross and a Bible, we entered the R.C. church accompanied by the bells and joined members of the local R.C. congregation for our service. The choirs of the two churches had together prepared the music for our act of worship. It was a new experience for the Austrian group to be joined by a local congregation for their main conference service and it felt very good. We started with a very moving symbolic gesture. Those of us who had prepared a comment on what it means to us to be a couple separated by two-church belonging each went forward, took a stone from the foot of the altar, put it on the altar giving the comment as we did so, thus, as it were, offering our burdens up to God. The last stone was brought by Pastor Ziermann. He told us that this was that very church that his grandmother would bring him to until, one day, when he was six years old, he was told that, as a Protestant, he should not be in a Roman Catholic church, and was led out by the hand. His voice full of emotion he again added that this was that same church and that this was the first time he had been back into it since that day. A short act of repentance followed. Then everyone, choirs, congregation and clergy, left the R.C. church and processed, again with the cross and the Bible, through the small town, the children running beside us, to the Lutheran church whose bells joined in with those of the R.C. church to welcome us. As members of the English Association we were both wearing our Interchurch Families sweatshirts and felt very proud and moved to be part of all of this. The service in the Lutheran church involved intercessions by ARGE members. The intercessions corresponded superbly with what people had said as they had laid their stones on the altar in the R.C. church, though there had been no consultation about this during their preparation. This was something on which everyone commented. The sermon of the Lutheran pastor on the theme of walking together on the road to Emmaus, the singing of the joint choirs, the general atmosphere, made this a unique event: one service held in two churches (or should we just say in two church buildings?). We feel we want to tell everyone about it – and in every detail. It will stay with us for a very long time.

Following lunch there was a discussion with Superintendent Knoll of the Lutheran Church and Bishop Iby, the R.C. bishop of Burgenland, but once again we had a surprise visitor, Bishop Krätzl, the R.C. auxiliary bishop of Vienna. He is author of the challenging and critical book "Im Sprung gehemmt" (roughly translatable as "Stymied at the Start") in which he frankly discusses his hopes after Vatican II and his subsequent disappointment at the lack of progress. There was a very open and sympathetic discussion and we were left with the impression that the ripples or waves set in motion by the recent events were possibly more likely to increase the desire for ecumenical progress rather than to engulf it. During the discussion, we were introduced, resplendent in our new AIF T-shirts, as "our friends from Britain who have shared in our discussions and whose input we greatly value." This gave us the opportunity to tell people about the work of Interchurch Families here in our country.

Each time we meet with the Austrian Association we are very conscious of the strong bond that appears to unite all those in our situation and we very much appreciate the genuine ties of friendship which have grown up.