The Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Romania: Between Heaven and Earth
I am the bishop of a church which has changed much over the centuries, in a nation which has changed much even in my own lifetime. My grandfather was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire; my father in Kingdom of Romania; and I myself in the communist People's Republic of Romania, although we all lived in the same region of Transylvania. Today, of course, the empire, the kingdom and the communists are all gone, though to be sure they are not forgotten. The world never ceases to change, and -- as both Leon Trotsky and Ronald Reagan observed -- history creates its own ash heap.
The church in Romania, especially the Lutheran church, has changed as well. It has always been a minority church, outnumbered by the Reformed, Roman Catholic and Orthodox communities. But in our own time, it has changed dramatically. To understand my church, it may helpful if I describe, very briefly, the history of my country.
In Romania there are three historical Protestant confessions whose roots go back to the Reformation of the 16th century. The vast majority -- 99% -- of the Reformed and Lutheran adherents live in the historical region of Transylvania. Because of its history as a part of the Kingdom of Hungary, this region is culturally distinctive. It is also ethnically diverse, the historic home not only of many Hungarians, but also of Germans, Romanians, Slavs and Jews.
From the time of its first Christian king, St. Stephan (1000-1038), Hungarian politics consciously and deliberately adopted the so-called Western, Roman Christianity, with its institutional system and the corresponding social and political structures. This helped to distinguish Transylvania from the neighboring Orthodox kingdoms of the Balkan peninsula. The Protestant Reformation took hold in Transylvania quite rapidly, and the Lutheran church was formally established in 1542. From the second half of the 17th century until the beginning of 18th century, the two main Protestant communities, Reformed and Lutheran, constituted the overwhelming majority, 70-75% of the Hungarian population, especially in Transylvania. A series of political events -- war with the Turks, Habsburg support, and the revolution of 1848 -- resulted in a resurgence of Roman Catholicism, so that by the late 19th century, only 30-35% of the Transylvanian population remained Protestant.
Whether Protestant or Roman Catholic, Transylvania under Hungarian rule took part in the shared culture of Western Europe, in which Latin was the common language, and parallel schools, political alliances, economic factors and similar public conditions ensured that the regions of the continent remained together without any particular social philosophy. In many way, the Europe of the 15th-18th centuries was more united or, to use a modern term, integrated than today's modern or even "post-modern" Europe with its supra-national structures, and Transylvania shared in that unity.
The First World War brought far-reaching changes. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was among those who lost the war. In 1919, the empire was divided into several autonomous states, and in 1920 the Treaty of the Trianon obliged Hungary to hand over two thirds of its previous territory to other nations. Slovakia went to Czechoslovakia, Croatia and Slovenia to Yugoslavia, Transylvania to Romania and Banat to Yugoslavia and Romania. This meant that about two million Hungarians and 800,000 Germans became citizens of another country overnight, without leaving there homes.
As a result of the complex history I have described, and the eventual growth of ethnic Romanians as a portion of the overall population, all three of the Protestant churches in Romania (the Reformed Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Romania, and the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession) form a minority in a double sense. Firstly, they are a Protestant minority in an Orthodox nation, and secondly, they are ethnic minorities -- Hungarians, Germans, and Slovaks -- among a Romanian majority.
This minority status has an effect upon the continuing life of the Protestant churches, in at least two ways. First, there is the challenge familiar to every ethnic minority, of preserving its identity. It is well known that the period of Communist rule (1948-1989) was hard on all of Central and Eastern Europe, and especially the churches. Property was stolen, leaders were imprisoned and spied upon, and the work of the churches -- in Romania, especially the Hungarian churches -- was severely hindered in the hope that it would one day become irrelevant. To give only one example, consider the question of confessional schools. Prior to nationalization in 1948, about 800 Protestant schools operated in Transylvania, of which 266 were Lutheran. There are now more than a few dozen.
These schools educated students to highest standards, in Hungarian, German and Slovak. In addition, the churches had several hundred cultural, diaconal, and social institutions. Together, the schools and institutions, along with the churches that created them, constitute a community which safeguards both their confessional and their ethnic/cultural existence. But most of them are gone.
But the other result of our minority status is both paradoxical and pleasant to describe. It is an openness to the larger Lutheran and Protestant sister churches, whose intellectual, theological and material support makes our existence possible. Our particular Transylvanian characteristics make us open to other confessions and even other cultures, ethnic groups and nations. The evidence of this openness and reconciled diversity is the fact that the word of God is preached in our church in four different "native" languages, namely Hungarian, Slovak, German and Romanian. We have recently begun a small English-language ministry as a witness to those who come to us from abroad.
Ecumenism is very important to our church. Our theological school is operated in partnership with the Reformed and Unitarian churches, and we enjoy warm relationships with the Roman and Greek Catholic communities. Relations with the Orthodox church present a continuing challenge, but one to which we, on our part, are eager to embrace.
We recognize that the Gospel reconciles the nations. Our church, which is a member of the Lutheran World Federation, the Conference of European Churches, the World Council of Churches and the Leuenberg Church Fellowship, demonstrates in this way that it wishes to be part of the Christian community in Europe and to share in the universal Christian values. But it would also like to contribute its own values to the common effort to build up the "soul of Europe."
It is this paradox -- our participation in an ancient tradition, and our openness to the changing world -- which leads us to my real theme today. How can the church -- not just mine in Transylvania, but any church, and the whole Church of Christ on Earth -- remain faithful to its traditions, without withdrawing in fear from the changing world around it?
At a practical level, the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Romania has established five missional priorities:
First, liturgical reform. This means not just preserving but refining the classical liturgy we have inherited from our ancestors, remembering that Christian worship is neither a museum piece to be kept eternally under glass, nor a banner flapping in the wind, which changes its direction with every shift in the breeze. It also means the development of new services and new initiatives, appropriate for the new century. We seek out new translations of familiar texts, but also new words, new hymns, even new symbols for use in worship. We place a special emphasis upon outreach to young people and other communities who may not be well-served by conventional worship forms. We are eager to experiment with emerging forms of worship, such as the “Thomas Mass.” Because the life and language of the people are always in motion, so too we believe that the church is always in motion, seeking to make the Gospel better understood.
Second, educational reform. As you have heard, our network of schools and other institutions is gone, and cannot be magically restored. So a major challenge for us our church is to find new means by which to pass the faith on to future generations. Sapientia University, a new ecumenical institution in the heart of the Hungarian-speaking region of Transylvania, is one such venture. The Collegium Academicum, a gathering of Lutheran university students from all over our country, is another. Our theological college, shared with Reformed and Unitarian partner churches, is yet another. So is the Luther House, a residence for students. A particular challenge – and a wonderful opportunity – is religious education in the state-run schools. We undertake this both as Lutherans and in cooperation with our ecumenical partners. The great challenge is to maintain the quality of our educational efforts while at the same time making certain that they appeal to young people.
"General priesthood". Third, the use of small groups to foster both a deeper piety among our church’s laypeople and, perhaps more important, a more active piety. Our church, like many others in Europe, has long tended to be driven by the work of its pastors and other professionals. Yet when we look to other places -- Africa, Asia, the Americas -- we can see successful and growing churches whose daily work and new ideas come more often than not from the spiritual energy of their laypeople. Such energy is reminder of the "general priesthood" which all Christians share through baptism. In fairness to our church, I should say that every single congregation already engages in some form of diaconal work – service to society, carried out by spiritually energized laypeople. From homes for street children in Bucharest to programs for the developmentally disabled in Kolozsvár (Cluj) and Sepsiszentgyörgy (Sfântu-Gheorghe), we have done what we are able. But we are small church, which receives no state subsidies for this sort of work, and so we have been eager to expand these endeavors in partnership with foreign churches and NGOs.
Fourth, to share in the culture of our nation. To that end, our church in Cluj-Napoca, for example, has created a subterranean art gallery, which is also used for concerts and cultural "round-tables". Working with a local bookshop, we have organized readings and other literary events, which may attract those left cold by their previous experience of a religiosity confined to passive attendance at worship.
And fifth, to be a presence in the mass media. It may sound crass or opportunistic to some churchly ears, but we believe that much of modern culture is carried by television and, especially, the internet. To exempt ourselves from these high-speed, high-energy sources of information would be to step back from the emerging culture of the 21st century. Our church has a strong presence in television and radio, both locally and nationally. We publish newspapers for adults and children (“Evangelikus Harangszo” and “Mustamag”), and share in the work of the Hungarian Lutheran newspaper, “The Evangelical Bell.” With our Reformed partners, we publish a theological journal, and we are also committed to publishing an annual series of essay in Lutheran theology. We are working to improve our Web presence.
Why am I telling you this? After all, Romania is far away, and the chances are that you don't care much about it. Your nations, and your churches, surely have other challenges, and have met them with other strategies. What helps us may not help you.
But the changes in my nation and in my church are simply the window through which I look at the larger truths about the world, and the place of the Christian church in the world. And through my window, here is what I see: the church, like the world, is always changing.
To many Christians, this sounds frightening. Some of us, surely, come to church seeking a refuge from the world, and from those truths about the world which seem grim to us. Ahh, we think: in here, behind the thick medieval walls, I will be protected from the bad news of a depraved word and its dubious values. The music of an organ will drown out the chatter of foolish tongues and bad ideas. Stained-glass windows will hide the ugly things that people do to one another. And above all, the Church of Christ, with its ancient Scriptures and mystery-filled doctrines will anchor us in the immutable verities, the changeless reality of a changeless God.
Such Christians, as you surely know, are guaranteed a disappointment. They never find their refuge, because the church is not only the living presence of God in the world; it is also, at the same time, a community of human beings, filled with human weakness and mutability.
The Church is a living thing, a reality that exists both in Heaven and on Earth. Our Lord has given us both a promise and a foretaste of eternity, but he has also commanded us to remain here, waiting and working with patience, until he returns for us. And so the Church is in motion, always, between its two home – the Church is in motion between Heaven and Earth.
Here, then, is the thing I want to say, to those poor Christians whose faith is shaken by the discovery that they cannot hide themselves from the world inside the doors of the church: Congratulations! Count yourself among the lucky, even among the blessed. Because what seems like so disappointing, at first, is in fact great good news, not just for you, but for the whole world. Yes, it is good news: the church changes.
A stone does not change. And neither does a corpse. Dead things, or things that never had a life, do not change. Indeed, if the church did not change, it would be dead. Insofar as it does not change, it is dead. But a living thing -- from the smallest cell to the glorious complexity of a human body -- a living thing will change. It will grow and shrink, it will alter its direction to go around a roadblock or to save itself from danger. So too the community of God's people. We are not called to live as though these were the days of ancient Rome, and Tiberius were still Caesar. We are not called to live today in Byzantium, or in any other half-remembered empire of the past. We are called to live in the world, the real world, the world in which our fellow beings live. We are called to share in the suffering and pain, the triumph and the joy, that are part of real life in the real world. Where there is evil, we are called to denounce it by name, and to offer the remedy of divine grace. This cannot happen in an imaginary world, an historian's Cloud-cuckoo-land. It can only happen when the church inhabits, fully and completely, the world of human affairs.
To say it very simply, a church that cannot change -- a church which loses touch with the changing world -- is a church already dead.
Once, to see whether a body is alive, doctors would hold a mirror to the mouth, looking for a trace of breath. In the same way, we seek evidence of the Holy Spirit -- the breath of God -- in the life of the church today. These are the fruits of repentance; this is the power by which we are to proclaim the Gospel "to the ends of the earth." If there is no call to repentance, if there is no proclamation of the Gospel, if there are no deeds by which the Spirit can be discerned, moving among us -- then a sensible observer must conclude that there is no life. But thanks be to God, the Spirit does move; thanks be to God, the church does live, sharing the life of its risen Lord.
"Change" is not a dirty word. It does not mean spineless capitulation to every passing whimsy, either in doctrine or in deeds. No indeed; the world changes, but "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever." The change of which I speak -- the change to which God calls the church -- might be called an incarnational change. It is the eternal Word taking mortal and mutable flesh; it is the Spirit breathing not through empty hallways of a museum but the crowded streets of human habitation. It is, to say it very simply, a willingness to open the windows and see the world, to see in it God's own creation, and to love it not as we wish it would be, but as it really is.
 If we add to this list the Roman Catholic and Unitarian churches, the "Protestant minority" may be reconceptualized as an "historically Latin" one, but the point remains the same.
 I offer my thanks to the Rev. Michael Church for editorial assistance with this presentation in his native language.