"The things that could renew the Church are not new at all. The Bible has not changed, our theological convictions have also remained the same. The only question is, how the gospel will be able to make us enthusiastic", said András Harmathy, president of the Church Revision Committee, as he shared some of his thoughts about the mission of the committee in the context of the approaching General Synod session.
The Church Revision Committee was established by the Synod of the Reformed Church in Hungary. What are some of the crucial problems the committee has had to deal with?
There are many reasons why we need talk about the vision of our church. One, is the issue of how to keep our church alive: several villages are being left, abandoned, which results in the death of their churches. What can we do about this? People who choose to stay need our accompaniment. How will the ministers get a salary? Do we give up on these villages? These are also strategical questions. At the same time, the depopulation of villages means that Reformed people are soon to be extinct. The church needs to reflect on this problem. We live our life in four church districts, and these are questions which people cannot solve within their own territories. A national dialogue is required in order to create a strategy.
Regarding the depopulation process, what are the committee's tasks, what is the scope of its operation?
This is, for the most part, a practical question. How well does the structure of our church function? This is an issue that cannot be placed within the usual routine of the Synod, because it would require a lot of preparation work and planning. The Synod felt it necessary to call for the establishment of the committee in order to have a body which handles issues that cannot be sorted out within one cycle. Our scope is quite broad, so the committee is capable of thinking through such issues that could not be tackled within the daily routine. This is necessary, but also rather difficult to do. For one thing, we could list several specific issues that need legal regulation. In our ever-changing social situation, we have to work out the regulation of certain things, time and time again. Today there are opportunities that were not available before – including the legal status of ministers or the remuneration of ministers – and now we must work out a system for them. Yet, many problems have emerged as a result of this change of regime and we have not had the time to discuss. Back then we were in a rush, we tried to make the best moves, but there was no time to come to any general conclusions. The fact that the formation of a thematical assembly was required shows in itself that there are still things we have never gotten down to discussing.
What questions were left out?
The issue of spying and reporting, facing our own past. It is my firm belief that we haven't even analysed communism in the theological sense. What was the presence of our church like in that era? If we still owe ourselves these answers, then how can we know how to operate best in the present regime, in capitalism, in a pluralist world? How can the church define its real self and its mission? We would need to speak a lot, pray a lot, study the word of God a lot to find a direction. After the fall of the Eastern Block we should rise above and look beyond our own territory, since we are part of the world church. Where is the place of the Reformed Hungarian Church within the world mission? In the global sense, how do we participate in the mission work that God is doing? We must keep a conversation going with Christians from other parts of the world, because this will help us define ourselves, who we are and what God expects from us right now in 2012, Hungary. This is what we need to put into words in this new world.
Positive trends and examples from abroad were already mentioned at the first session.
We need to know how to handle the examples that reach us from abroad. Through them, one gains wonderful insight into a variety of methods, but it is necessary to discuss thoroughly our own current issues. Just because something is working somewhere else, would it also work in this country? I don't think it's that simple. We can create our own solution within our own culture. At the same time, we have to learn a lot, because we still can't find the clue in many situations. One of these is pluralism. The Constantine age is over, there is free market even in the case of churches. What can we do as a historical church in this market? This issue is not without tension, as we see at every change of government. It is easier to have an agreement with a conservative government, but it might be more difficult in the case of a liberal one. We have a great heritage and history which we have not really faced yet, have not processed, even though it is of great significance. Now we are sailing in shallow waters and the weight of this significance is hindering us. But if we must mention foreign examples, the German one is definitely the most attractive: the "mission church of the people". This was the expression that impressed most members of the Thematical Synod, which is why we were tackling it in our first session. The reason, was that this example pointed out two directions we could all identify with: on the one hand, we have a people's church framework, and at the same time, we all feel that we have to move toward mission or else we will be less and less in number. Mission is important, because our affection for the gospel keeps us going. Also, if we feel concerned about our institution, about its survival, we have to focus on opening up.
This seems like an exciting period of time in the life of the Reformed Church in Hungary.
It's exciting and difficult. This is a transitional period, things are not clear yet. Some people are paralysed or terrified by these challenges, others are strongly inspired by them. So it is a good thing that the task is being handled by a committee and not an individual. And it's great that the committee does not have to decide what it should aim for, because the church is alive and many of us can work out together how our presence could be made stronger in our society, or how to deliver the gospel to people. The individuals who work on this are not doing it because the committee asks them, but because it comes from their heart. It is the task of the committee to direct and strengthen the church on the path to renewal. To assist, to escort, to catalyze.
What can you say about the reception of the Church Revision Committee? Before this group was formed, a lot of people seemed to feel apprehensive about establishing a church body like this.
Its judgement varies. Many people don't know what this group is about. Some of those who do know are skeptical. Others who are a part of it and have been commissioned to work in it feel overwhelmed by the work. The structure of the committee explains a lot of things: some were called by profession, these are presidents of special committees within the Synod. This is a good thing, as it signifies that the Synod wants continuity. Other members are not from the Synod, me being one of them; these are ordinary ministers or non-ministers. This refers to a degree of openness: it means that new things are also needed and it's not enough to just renovate what we already have. The fact that I am the youngest member and yet I have been asked to lead the committee, also refers to openness.
You founded a congregation at a block of flats in Szigetszentmiklós. How can you benefit from your mission experiences in the course of committee work?
Some tension can easily appear between the existence of an institution and a mission, but it's in nobody's interest to play these two against one another. My experience might be of help not to give up on things so easily. I have witnessed that God is still calling people through His word and His Holy Spirit. This is how a new congregation can be born amidst a block of flats. My experience is that God walks ahead of us, He brings people and He enables us to declare His word. The way a congregation is formed is that God is in action. This thought gives me strength when I have to revise the functioning of an already existing institution. As we look to the future, we often project something from our past or our present onto it, but the prospect that results is not too grand. What we can also see is that God is alive and He is in action. He loves us even today and saves us even today. The people of today are hungry for this message, even if they don't know that they suffer from the lack of it. Whenever I consider this, I just can't give up. I have to act against passiveness, because this is about something bigger than the renewal of the Reformed Church in Hungary. This is about God's cause.
How much can church members sense this idea? The future of the church is in their hands...
We all sense it, but our enthusiasm and experiences differ. It's very different to serve in a church that is slowly being abandoned, where church members have lived a beautiful life and have a beautiful faith, but the minister's task is now to walk them to the end of their path and then bury them. This results in a different spirituality, even though we know that Jesus's story is about conquering death. At the latest committee session, I read out something written by one of my fellow ministers who serves in the diaspora, experiencing from day to day the more and more impossible existence there, living under its pressure, following its life routine. He said, "Our future is where the battle goes on". It was great to hear that enthusiasm does not only come from success stories or the forming of new congregations. Enthusiasm for God means that you persevere in otherwise hopeless situations. Our real Christian hope sometimes does not generate from success, but it is destilled through failures.
According to the committee's description, secular experience also plays a major role in the work. How does it happen?
I don't think only ministers know the path of God. I do my ministry in a church where most people come from the working class, and the "sermon" delivered by their lives often leaves me speechless. It is very encouraging that Christian life does not depend on a minister's degree. It would be so liberating to realise that God gives His own gift to His people, and the gift is different for everyone. This is one reason why it is great to not have only ministers on the committee board. But, we also have to face the fact that we are short of theological thinking, as though it was only the privilege of ministers. It shouldn't be this way. Before a church service I sometimes had the opportunity to pray with simple village elders whose prayers included a complete sermon. Deep theological thoughts were being expressed, because it was obvious that these men had been nurtured by Scipture, and came to the church service carrying that knowledge. It was liberating and encouraging to be in the same community with these brothers; I felt that I was only doing one particular task there: the sermon. Now we are far from this idea, and we need to change that, so our church members could also interpret the Bible as theologians. This way they could find God's guidance in the Scripture, which would give them courage to walk on His path. The committee does not believe that it should tell the church what the church is doing wrong and how to do it right. Instead, we need to start a dialogue. It is our task to generate a kind of discussion about the most crucial issues, which are not only of local interest, but concern the whole church. Moreover, not only the ministers and the theologians are to be involved with the dialogue, because the church is alive in its other members too. The voices of other people who are committed to the service of God should also be heard. This is why we want to initiate an extensive dialogue, although we have to face the question: if we open the door so wide, will we not get lost in the details? This will be the task of the committee, to amplify the voices of congregations as they communicate both our problems and our hope. The committee also has to find the way to unite these voices, and to provide feedback.
How will this conversation be realised, how will we communicate?
One task of the committee is guidance, our name also refers to this. The other question of methodology is how to realise the vision. We have a consensus that the task will not be accomplished by special committees. We are all aware of the basic problem, which is that the legislation process and the reality of congregation life are so far from each other. The current task of the committee is to draft for the November Synod session how it wishes to define the future vision of the church. The Synod will give an opinion on that. After all, the Church Revision Committee is a Synod committee, we are not about to start a private revolution. But, if a kind of reformation was about to happen, that would be good.
And what would this reformation change?
We already know that we want church-conscious congregations and a congregation-concious church. This idea was not invented by us, but this is a slogan that moves us all. We need to see both directions: the church lives in its congregations. The bigger organisation, and our institutions, must support the service of the congregations. At the same time, the congregations need to be aware of the fact that they can only accomplish their mission if they join hands with other congregations. For the November Synod session, we will compose a document that will include the outcome of our discourse regarding the main mission of the church and the role of the sermon. We have to revise everything accordingly in the life of our church: we have to interpret the existence of the church from the sermon's aspect. Does the structure we live in serve the sermon efficiently on all levels, from the parochial order to the church district functions? If not, we must reconsider everything. If yes, then we have to keep it going, even at the cost of sacrifices. We do not think that the sermon is restricted to the pulpit. It refers to the whole of congregational life, as we live it out in our community, as it radiates. Our mission is not to fight against something, but to support something. I might be oversimplifying it, but the question is whether or not we ourselves meet the gospel. If we say that the gospel is a treasure for us, but no one else is interested in it, our church will become less and less significant in society. So this thought is wrong. Everyone needs the gospel. The problem, is if we ourselves don't see how it shines! First we have to stand before the Spirit, listen to Jesus, hear what He has to tell us. If we renew ourselves, the result will be some new structures, just like it was in the 16th century. This is a very simple thing: to meet the gospel again, to be thrilled by it and thus find our mission in the world. These are my bravest expectations.
Could it be, that this will become the most important task of the Church Revision Committee?
Yes, but how should it be done? Do we not preach enough? Do we not read the Bible enough? That might be possible... The challenge lies in this: the things that could renew the church are not new at all. The Bible has not changed, our theological convictions have also remained the same. The only question is, how the gospel will make us enthusiastic. How it will create hope in hopelessness, how it will reveal the lies. As a committee president, I can very much feel this tension. The renewal of the church does not depend on humans, but on the Spirit, and I still have to be a part of this process as a human being. If this committee can contribute to this renewal, then its forming and our work has made sense.
András Harmathy was born in 1969. He graduated as a Reformed church minister in Budapest. In 2000, together with his wife, Ágota, he started his ministry as an assistant minister in Szigetszentmiklós. They formed a new congregation, which became independent of the Kossuth street congregation and was officially registered as Szigetszentmiklós-Újvárosi congregation in 2006. András Harmathy still lives there with his family. He summarised his experiences about the mission of founding a congregation in a book which was published in 2010. Since April 2012 he has been working as the president of the Church Revision Committee.
Translated by Katalin Burns