With One Touch

2014. augusztus 05., kedd

"I do not believe in the Church, but I do believe that God's Spirit works among us. And I love the Church" - We talked to pastor András Harmathy, convener of the Church Revision Committee.

Fewer and fewer people visiting the services, the matter of pastor salaries and pensions is unsettling, people are averse to the Synod, and although there is lawful order, church discipline is missing - these are just a few from those deeply rooted problems, which were put into words by the main legislative and executive body of the Reformed Church on the extraordinary Synod session in the autumn of 2011. The Church Revision Committee was created to deal with these sensitive issues and to prepare recommendations to solve them. The committee consists of 15 members, who are mainly pastors and academics. On the list of topics to be revised are the matters of spiritual renewal – rethinking the concept of religious education and pastoral training – as well as ways to reduce the dependency on the state. According to the committee's convener, András Harmathy, the recent problems cannot only be solved through structural changes, but through mission; the Church can only be strong if its congregations are strong as well.

The committee has prepared a booklet called Touch, which they sent to every reformed congregation last April. The booklet, which provided an opportunity for nationwide dialogue, helps to think over the reformed congregations' role in their towns and the way they evaluate their own future and mission. From the answers received from the congregations, we can see three major topics in which we would need radical changes: the missionary identity of the congregations, the church's organization and its work, and the role of institutions cooperating with congregations.

Can we hope for actual change from the work of the Revision Committee? Apart from face-lifting the devastating results of the census, can the real goal be achieved: the church’s internal renewal and its positive effect on the society? We asked András Harmathy, pastor of Szigetszentmilkós the following questions, and he told us his personal motivations and struggles.

Why was it necessary to establish the Church Revision Committee?

On one hand other European churches has already gone through this revision process, they set an example for us too. On the other hand we can see from the result of the census, that the structure of the church has become unstable. In the urban relation we see that the parochial system is not what would fit this society. Thirdly the church is shrinking, it should become economically sustainable. Fourthly it is of great importance to consider what we say about following Christ, what our mission is and why we are here at all. Often we do not even ask ourselves this question because it is such a burden, and due to our powerlessness we continue going down the path we have once chosen. 

The name of the new committee with its mysterious sound was skeptically received by many, but they have later changed their minds.

Indeed, I have heard many cynical remarks as well. After hearing the committee’s name they just waved their hand. Recently people’s opinions have changed a little bit in that microclimate where I am. It was not only the result of skepticism but also the lack of comprehension. In fact it’s not evident that we talk about future prospects and the revision of the church. Future prospects, as a concept regarding the improvement of organizations, means that while we put our mission into words we also plan where we would like to go on the shorter and longer term. What process can be planned in case of the church? We cannot even prepare the budget of a congregation. We can pray or do something for it, but it is not up to us to decide, how many members will join the community next year. By the way, what is good for the church? Pursuit can be beneficial – should we plan a pursuit to reform the church?

How can it be renewed then? Should we believe at all that this is happening right now?

My wakeup call was, when I looked back on the material prepared by the Thema association, where already in the early 90s Rev. Zoltán Bellai wrote the following: 80% of the reformed Church is dysfunctional. Has anything happened ever since? Was the church reformed? Did we want to change at all? Most likely this is not a personal matter, but a structural problem. Perhaps partly based on our representative system, we believe that if the right people are in the right positions, then everything will turn out well. We still wait for the help to come from above. And yet I think that the values are right here. The church can only become strong – financially as well – if its congregations are strong enough. It does not make us strong to be biased about being here for four hundred years, but when we can experience something from the Gospel. Today, only the congregations are able to do that, since it can only be achieved by people who have the right insight, heart, love and courage to give something, which makes people think, confronts benefits and saves them. In addition to this, institutions have a certain character as well: a hospital can carry the message that the people working here are somehow different.

You did not immediately accept the proposal…

It was a great honor, but when I actually considered the difficulty of the task, I was horrified. To have an overview on the finances, spiritual life, structure and operation of the church - who am I to do that? In the end I still agreed, because of what we experienced here in Szigetszentmiklós, that obliges me. Our congregation has developed from virtually nothing. For five years there was not even a need for a missionary congregational status. A new colleague joined us, and our church was being built in the meantime. Only a few pastors can experience this, rather they have to face the opposite. Another factor influencing me was that I have so many theological impulses that make me feel like I owe this. The Word encourages me to do so, which I got from Zsófia Juhász thirty years ago: “We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves.” (Romans 15:1) Taking care of my own congregation and ignoring the Church as a whole would have been the easiest…

In order to have a wider intellectual horizon one is supposed to believe in the church, isn’t one?

I like the grammatical way the Apostles' Creed expresses it: I believe in the Holy Spirit, I believe the Holy Catholic Church. I do not believe in the church, but I do believe that God’s Spirit works among us; I can experience that. I love the Church. For me, belonging to the reformed church is determined by many positive experiences. I was eleven, when I started visiting the congregation. The pastors gathered the children together like a hen. Due to this, my attitude is that the Church is where there is love, embrace, accepting and caring.

You shared with us that the difficulty of the Church Revision Committee’s task terrified you. How is it possible to promote change in so many different fields?

We concentrate on smaller areas, and hope that it will affect the whole. When I touch a line in the spider’s web, from my movement, the vibration will spread through the whole thing. For instance when we sent our booklet called Touch, two or three of us from the committee didn’t even received it. It turned out that the Synod does not have an up-to-date record of our congregations. This committee teaches us a lot about the things we should change.

If we mention the booklet: it only reached 207 congregations, this number does not even amount to 16% of the church members. Maybe because many were skeptical about putting their mission into words for the congregations, since the commandment of mission is already obvious for everyone. You had quite a bitter assumption after the questionnaires arrived back: “I am not sure if we want to change anything at all.”  

It was not bitterness from me, rather wondering what the most beneficial way would be, how we could serve the Church the best. We chose no classic way when we started all this. According to the old way we examine all fields of the Church and after countless proposals we sum up our statements in a document. We did not want to go to this direction, exactly because as a pastor I can feel the gap between the level of church leadership and the congregations. This cannot be overcome by a piece of paper – a commission decision or a Synod law. The most essential is what happens in the congregations. Our aim is to help and encourage them, since they are at the front; they have to preach the Gospel.

In contrast to the congregations – according to you – it is not love that holds the structural levels of the Church together.

This is a huge problem, which I see at the pastoral sessions. If somebody just came in from the street, based on the atmosphere he would not have the impression that these followers of Christ are doing so well. Helpfulness, trust, acceptance – although these are basic Christian values the institutional structure of the Church is not imbued by these, rather by what characteristic of the country too: colliding interests, the lobbying, everyone strives to achieve their own goal. Probably it would be normal on its own, but there is a difference in the way we do this to each other.

If this attitude was to change, isn’t it possible that the Church would change structurally as well?

First the human relationships change, and this creates its own structures. I do not believe that it would be possible the other way around. If we rearrange the units of an organization, that will not change us. For that matter, deciding on the structure of the Church is the responsibility of the governorship. It’s hard for the committee to see the limits. It is a peculiarity of our reformed church’s organization; it is neither governed from up to down nor from down to up, but with a combination of both ways. If we have to ask ourselves the question “what kind of church structure is needed” over and over again, then it is because of the issues mentioned above. We can only answer this together, but we hardly have discussions in the Church. There are votes and elections – we gather on these occasion but we do not ask questions or exchange our ideas.

Why is that?

If somebody makes a suggestion like that, our first reaction is that our schedule is full, we are torn between our tasks and duties; there is no need for one more pointless conversation. We should establish the culture of discussion, to experience that this was different. Furthermore there is no trust between us. This is what we should break free from. In our committee we try to find the ways of getting people out of this apathy and hopelessness – including ourselves.

Is it possible to remark upon ourselves so seriously on every level of the church?

This is the only thing worth dealing with. If there is no change in us, then what are we talking about? Then we are just one among the other civil organizations.

The committee emphasizes putting the Gospel in the center as the best possibility to sustain and renew the church.

The Gospel is the church’s treasure, the church and its future is born from it. Practically speaking, Christ is our future. There are no models for building congregations that we can just unpack at home and have the congregation already developed. They are born from discipleship and from being followers of Jesus. People spread it among themselves. The community can represent, confirm or discredit the preaching. This is the work of the Word, the Holy Spirit and the reformed renewal process. The possibility for renewal is not above us or among us, but in us. If we do not dare look each other in the eye, then the Church cannot be reformed – not even if we preach. If we change inside, then the Word coming from us will sound different and our congregations will look different as well. This means a breakdown, a struggle, and in the end conversion. That is why this committee’s task is not putting a nice package of programs on the table, but striving to achieve this inner-renewal. And this definitely is not about formalities, which makes it so hard.

While the committee’s work is nice, but still exhausting, and you would like to execute it in the best possible way – you summed up for us – how about your family and congregation in the meantime?

It requires balance. The presbytery’s support convinced me that I should undertake this task. Apart from that I am still struggling. Due to responsibility, I feel strongly committed to the revision committee.

Does the work confirm or make you insecure?

I benefit a lot from it. I feel that the Church is closer to me, and not only me but my congregation as well. Otherwise what would make a simple pastor care for bigger communities than his own congregation? I believe that God wants the Gospel shining through our generation, that we become signs. I try to find its traces in the life of the previous generation. Much more interesting is to see how they made their decisions instead what decisions they made.

The emergencies of today require quick reactions from those who shape the present – since the Church does not exist for itself, but for the world it is in.

We do not really know that. During communism a strong mission-consciousness was not so common. Our Church did not escape the oppression with much power, being a Church that would like to reach the people through the Gospel, it was rather battered. Are the immediate responses needed? As I am getting older I see that the biggest value is someone who is in order. It is good to talk to such a person who is genuine in everything. It is a great deal of work to be like that, the work of the Spirit. That creates the image of Christ in people. To live according to what we believe in – it’s not a quick response but a genuine one, and we are in bigger need of that. We do a great service if we experience Christ in our own generation, if his scent can be found on us. Often it’s not our guidance which helps, but our reaction to a certain situation, what values and experiences our behavior reflects. Today, there is a great value in the grandfather or father role.

Everything has its time and role in the Church, since we do not only talk about the reformed Church but the body of Christ. Is it possible that often the real problem is that we do not appreciate each other enough? If the people cannot come forward, whose voice should be heard?

Courage is somebody willing to raise his voice, if we are not going in the direction we are supposed to. We need courage to be free and stop worrying – I constantly struggle with this. Coming from my personality, I prefer to stay in the background, so it is really beneficial for me that a committee exists, which forces me to think and raise my voice. It can also be a problem if after a while the people whose voices are heard and who bear power do not listen to others at all. We must consider this too, because power makes us biased. We trust our best people to lead others, but we also have to find a way to keep them from becoming biased, since it is not only their private matter.

Aren’t you afraid, that as the head of this committee this certain power might affect you too?

Indeed I am afraid. I pay attention to myself to see which ways I change, what things I am capable of and what things I am not. The surrounding community and friends are really important. It is a great problem if somebody gets power but loses friends at the same time. Power goes hand in hand with occupation, and being too occupied can destroy relationships. We who undertake this must protect those.

Many people talk about the Revision Committee as a process, an opportunity to reform the reformed Church…

I would also like to achieve that but through the inner change in people’s hearts. Something they project. While we try to put it into words and make plans for what should be done in 10-15 years to achieve these changes in the fields mentioned, the real change must come from within. This makes the church good. If somebody has experienced the wonder that can happen in the church, he will always be looking for it. There is nothing better than to be a part of it.

 

Besides the dialogue with the congregations, the Church Revision Committee in co-operation with the Mission Committee encourages the reformed professionals working in different church segments to brainstorm together. In the eight workshops held, the following issues will be discussed: youth work, church communication, the relationship with the government, social representation regarding ethical questions, social witness, pastoral mentoring, solidarity and ways of making the work of Church institutions more effective. The plans of action prepared at the conferences and supporting the mission strategy of the church, will be presented by the Church Revision Committee to the Synod at the November session along with the results of the church-sociological survey. 

 

Interview by Ágnes Jaku; translated by Anita Polgári

Originally published on parokia.hu

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