News Archives

European Methodists find common ground at festival

8/8/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

Photographs and three sidebars - UMNS stories #397-399 - are available with this report.

By Kathleen LaCamera*





POTSDAM, Germany (UMNS) - At first glance, it may be hard to imagine that European Methodists have met together in large numbers only twice: once during the Cold War and then again this summer. But considering everything that has conspired to keep them apart - differences in language, history, culture, church structure and geography, and even politically fraught visa application processes - one begins to appreciate what an achievement the July 30-Aug. 3 European Methodist Festival really is.

Undaunted by these traditional barriers, more than 900 Methodists from Kazakhstan to Ireland, Sweden to Italy, Bulgaria to Portugal gathered outside Berlin to meet one another, worship, and discuss how better to live out their common Wesleyan heritage and mission in the world together.

Liz and John Marriott spent four days on their motorbikes traveling from their home in Loughborough, England, to Berlin. The conference is their vacation and the couple said the trip is "a gift from God." The Marriotts camped at the conference site next to a Swede, a Dane and an Austrian.

John, who is "testing the waters" of a call to ordained ministry, admitted he was both surprised and encouraged to find such a wide age range and diversity of participants. Liz, who works for 3M Co., said she was pleased to have the chance to try out her French and German language skills in the small, traditional, Wesley "class" groups that were a daily feature of the festival.

Both said they were amazed by the enthusiasm and creativity of other European churches, especially the German United Methodists, with their "EmK Mobil" bus (loosely translated "Methodistmobile"). This state-of-the-art bus travels throughout mainland Europe setting up as a mobile café at conferences, church events and other gatherings. It includes a kitchen, meeting areas, a mini television theater and other resources for mission.

Sheltered in the shadow of the German bus (temperature at the festival neared 100 Fahrenheit most days), Bulgaria's youth coordinator, Nikolay Valchev, talked about a new Internet café mission he is helping run for young people in the Black Sea town of Varna. In the background, one could hear the lively sounds of the Gospel choir workshop, led by Peter Steinvig, Danish Methodist and Copenhagen Gospel Festival creator.

"I want them to come give a Gospel Choir concert in Varna," Valchev said, pointing wistfully at the workshop tent. "That would be great mission event."

While many festivalgoers said they were delighted to have the chance to exchange ideas during workshops, meals and late-night chats, others found encouragement for some of their deepest faith struggles. Leading a daily Bible study, the Rev. Elena Stepanova talked about the painful and difficult challenges of prison ministry in the Russian town of Ekaterinburg. She recounted the deep disappointments she and her colleagues felt when some inmates, upon release, lied to, abused and stole from church workers, eventually landing back in prison.

"The dilemma is not whether to help or not," Stepanova explained. "The issue is not whether to proclaim love to our neighbors, but how to do it - how to love."

After the Bible study, British Methodist Edward Adams and his wife from Nottingham, England, said Stepanova's words resonated with them. "Our son is in prison for the third time," he said. "You can see why what Elena said means so much to us."

"Communications is so important in the global church," said the Rev. Randy Day, top staff executive of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. "Nothing surpasses face-to-face meetings. … Americans don't appreciate how difficult it can be to get visas to attend these events, and for everyone who is here, there will be more disappointed people back home who couldn't get visas. … I was really touched by the fact that the Russian delegation spent 40 hours on a bus coming here."

Day recalled that the first time he heard the festival discussed was at a meeting in Moscow on Sept. 11, 2001. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks that day, Day said he and the board have appreciated how European Methodists have consistently demonstrated that one can take a strong stand against war without being anti-American.

Bishop Walter Klaiber, whose Central European United Methodist Conference played a major role organizing the festival, believes European Methodists have a contribution to make to world Methodism and to an increasingly secular Europe.

"We are in a political social movement because of a uniting Europe," he said. "We must grow together. ... The church can establish new borders and try to make the fabric of new Europe more human and something not defined only by economic bureaucrats."

The European Union consists of 15 member states, and agreements are in place to allow another 10 members to join, including Estonia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary. However, countries like Bulgaria and Romania will still be left outside the union, facing all the disadvantages that their outsider status brings for trade, industry, social development and mobility within Europe.

"We're in a very difficult mission field," Klaiber observed. "We can't just take other mission models and expect they will work here.

The festival itself was an example of new models of European cooperation. For the first time ever, British and Irish Methodists participated in large numbers - 300 - in a European Methodist event. Swedish Methodists, Dutch Methodists and others from Spain, Portugal and Italy all came to Potsdam. Festival participants spoke in 20 different mother tongues.

The gathering defied traditional divisions between United Methodism, present in countries such as Germany, Russia and Bulgaria, and other strands of Methodism. Britain, with 340,000 members, and Germany, with 64,000 members, are the largest two European Methodist churches, while others, such as the Swedish Methodist Church with 3,000 members, are much smaller. Europe has about 90,000 United Methodists.

British European Secretary Colin Ride, whose office also played a key organizational role in the festival, said he hadn't anticipated people's sheer delight at the discovery of their unity and common purpose.

"We took a huge risk getting together this lot of people," he said. "I think it will change the church. … This event will leave its mark."

The Rev. Thomas Lessmann of Germany brought his family to the festival. He plans to preach about what he experienced, talk about the event in meetings at his church and write up the stories he heard. He said he hopes the event will lead to more exchanges among individuals, seminaries and other groups.

Lessmann, who did a year's pastoral exchange with a United Methodist church in Madison, Tenn., is adamant. "You've not done your job if you don't pass on what you've experienced here to your local church."

No doubt, the stories that Lessmann and other festivalgoers pass on will include those that show how small-church memberships and limited resources do not stop mission and outreach.

"Smaller churches are doing amazing things," reported Moira Sleight, editor of the weekly British Methodist Recorder newspaper. "The Macedonian church is supporting an entire refugee camp of Romany people (indigenous European gypsies) with (medical) drugs and watermelons. They are a tiny church."

"What people have discovered is - shock, horror - even if you are small, you can still be salt, you can still be yeast," said Rachel Lampard, a fellow British Methodist and the church's secretary for parliamentary and political affairs.

Steve Braudt, an artist and youth pastor from Iowa, was among the handful of Americans at the festival. "I'll take away a renewed sense of oneness with the world," he said. "The European churches' challenges include huge and vast areas with few resources to do their work. But the church here sees it as an opportunity."
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*LaCamera is a United Methodist News Service correspondent based in England.

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