In celebration of the 175th Anniversary of the Scottish Mission in Budapest, the RCH talks with Rev Bertalan Tamás, former Minister at the Mission, to hear about his time in the congregation. Rev Tamás was the Minister at the Mission from 1976 until 2005, a time filled with uncertainty, community building, and interfaith relations.
In celebration of the 175th Anniversary of the Scottish Mission in Budapest, the Reformed Church in Hungary [RCH] is interviewing various ministers, past and present, to hear stories about their service at the mission. Today, we talk with Rev Bertalan Tamás, former Minister at the Mission from 1976 to 2005, to discuss the roles that the Scottish Mission has played over time, the importance of Jewish-Christian relationships, and how the Church of Scotland made him into the man he is today.
In light of the jubilee’s Biblical motto, Galatians 5:6, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love,” and its overarching theme of “Outreach of Love,” how do you see the essence of the Scottish Mission in Budapest?
The Scottish mission was, during the time of the war, a kind of refugee place and saving place of the persecuted people. I was nominated to be the pastor in 1976 and when I was ordained to be the minister of the congregation I thought it would be good, somehow, to find those that were former pupils of the Mission School who survived the horrible times, the Holocaust. We got more than 200 names together and they were old ladies already. This was my charge somehow, to hold meetings for them where we invited them to get together maybe two times a year. It was very moving, they were very happy with the invitation, and came into the church. It was interesting that some of them, during the persecution, converted to the Christian faith while some of them kept their Jewish tradition.
When we invited them, a great number of them came and they told me it was a difficult time but they felt always the love in the school. This was the time when I started to raise awareness to the memory and martyrdom of Miss Jane Haining. The survivors remembered how much love she gave to them. You can understand the fear, but this is what they still remember – that they were really shown the love of God. Therefore, it was really relevant for me that the Scottish congregating was not just a congregation in Budapest but, especially in those difficult days, the persecution and everything, they really tried to say something about the love of God.
What would you characterize as being the main focus of the Mission during your time there?
I was nominated in 1976 to be the pastor of the congregation and at that time we were allowed to have an English service once a month but in Hungarian we had services every Sunday. Therefore it was not an easy time, especially if you are allowed to have a church service only one Sunday – nobody can keep in their mind what Sunday is which. It’s impossible to keep track of it. After the changes in 1990, the new door opened and the main task for me was to revitalize the congregation. We started to reorganize the congregational life, especially the English one, because a lot of English speaking people came to Hungary. My wife, Elizabeth was also a great help. She was a real people’s person, and she had an important role in building up the new congregation. She was very active in the coffee fellowship, and created a warm, friendly atmosphere. I used to say jokingly that nobody did as much dishwashing for the ecumene as she did. She passed away two years ago and I was truly moved that St.Columba's was present at her funeral. Rev.Aaron Stevens, who made a loving tribute. It is good to know that she was loved in Scotland.
For instance, the Anglican Church didn’t have any chapel; they had one before the war that was located in the castle, but it was bombed and so they worshiped in the embassy building. I was later asked to go to the embassy building and have the Anglican service. Thanks to God, the Church of Scotland [CofS] said to me, “You can do it because we believe in the open communion table,” because in the Anglican tradition it was very important to have the Eucharist during every service. I talked to the embassy people and told them that it was impossible to keep coming to the embassy for services. You know, for security reasons they had video cameras and metal detectors and more. At the British Embassy, attaché Nicolas Davies, who was an Anglican, organised Sunday services, once a month. He and I thought up together that it would be good to combine the Presbiterian and Anglican congregations. He was an excellent partner in this work.
I told the Anglicans that they should come to the CofS and so it was a great thing that the Anglicans and the Presbyterians ended up worshiping together. We agreed one Sunday Anglican, the next Sunday Presbyterian. It went well. Unfortunately, later, the Anglican priest, very high up, decided to separate from us and become an independent congregation. There was a kind of fear that we couldn’t manage on our own, but thanks to God the congregation developed very positively even though the Anglicans were gone. We have really grown.
The other important thing was that during the time of the changes many fundamentalists and others came to Hungary. This was the new territory to convert the people, you know, the thinking was that we have to convert them. Therefore it was really important in the Scottish congregation to keep together these two historical lines of the church – the Anglicans and the Presbyterians and it worked well. Thanks to God it was a growing and nice congregation. This was the so called revitalization of the congregation.
With its long history of reaching out to “the other” and those on the fringes of society, how did you experience the Scottish Mission providing refuge to people during your service there?
The main task was that in 1976, when I was nominated to be the pastor of the congregation, the RCH and the CofS had a conference about what would be the future of the congregation and thanks to God both churches very much supported the openness of the Scottish congregation here in Budapest.
The RCH said to the CofS that if this was the Jewish mission then let’s give a new profile and this was the time to have an interreligious dialogue with the Jewish community. In Hungary, the RCH was the first who started Christian-Jewish dialogue in 1976. Later, in 1990, the Hungarian Christian-Jewish group was formed, but the RCH was the first to open up to the Jewish community. Therefore, this was an important thing to build good relations with the Jewish community. This is what we did. It was an excellent relationship, a really great friendship.
One time I went with Chief Rabbi Jozsef Schweitzer and Rabbi Istvan Doman to Spain for a Jewish-Christian dialogue event and we sat in the evening and old Hungarian Jews who lived abroad came to our table and they said, “Oh, if we had had this beautiful brotherhood we never would have left Hungary!” With the Jewish community we had a strong friendship and relationship and this was one of the main things.
The other was to organize the congregational life, which was very important. This is the way of God, how He works. For instance, there was a very devoted Christian couple, where the man was the ambassador from Chile and his wife was a very devoted Christian and they both loved to come. After a few services they said, “Minister, We will help you,” and that was it. The members of the congregation, these new English people, they felt that they needed a home and they wanted a place where they could meet and I provided that for them. Another important step was that we introduced the coffee fellowship time. It was always longer than the whole service because the people loved to get together. With the time of the changes there was a new openness and these people could find a place they felt at home in, where they found their Christian place. The other thing is that in the sermons they were really glad to hear something about the past in them, they really liked it, so I always had to include a bit of history.
Given that St. Columba’s is in a unique position, simultaneously being a part of both the Church of Scotland as well as the Reformed Church in Hungary, how did you view the connection between the Scottish Mission and the RCH during your time in Budapest? Did you see your congregation influencing the Hungarian church?
In the CofS at that time there was a great interest in what will be the future and what will be the life of the congregation in Hungary. In the CofS we had a lot of good friends, some of them in influential positions, who really supported the goals of the congregation here in Budapest and they really gave it their best to help us. This was something that was not just our responsibility and commitment to build up this congregation, but also the CofS was really a partner together with the RCH. Therefore, it was a mutual thing and this is what I really experienced – that both churches were very open and supportive.
In Budapest, two ministers shared the work, a Scottish, and a Hungarian one. Primarily, this was because of the school, where teaching was in Hungarian. After the political changes in 1989, Bishop Károly Tóth and I asked the Church of Scotland to send a Scottish helper to Hungary. The then Secretary for Europe, the lovely Andrew Morton, listened to this request, and sent Rev Alison McDonald to us. She was great help. She was really European minded .Besides congregational work, she also helped our work at the ecumenical department in the Synoda Office. What is more, she taught at the Budapest Theological Seminar. Amongst others, she taught Zoltan Tarr and Otto Pecsuk, who were later assistants in the CofS. They also gave interviews for this jubilee publication.
Thanks to God in my time four moderators of the CofS visited the Scottish Mission in Budapest in shows of public support. It was a kind of encouragement from the CofS to express that we were not alone; they were walking next to us, together with us. In many cases, I experienced the help of the CofS as an ecumenical minister. When I spoke with church leaders here in Hungary and I said we discussed this with the CofS, what do you think, they were always open to it. It was a really, really deep brotherhood and friendship. This is what I experienced on a church leadership level.
How did you manage to juggle being both the RCH’s Ecumenical Officer as well as being the lead pastor at the Scottish Mission during your time when Hungary was cut off from the rest of the world? How did your positions intertwine and help in keeping the church open to international connections?
The first is that the CofS and the RCH agreed to keep it open, but of course, nobody was able to come over. First of all you know they could not get any permission to do it. I felt sometimes in the past from the authorities there was always a kind of suspicion of the English-speaking congregation that they must be spies, who are these people, that kind of thing. The first thing was that the CofS made the decision, which the RCH supported, that a former scholarship student who studied in Scotland should be the pastor, so when my Hungarian predecessor stepped down they were looking for a successor. Since I studied in Aberdeen, they nominated me and therefore this was the first that a Hungarian person was accepted by the Church of Scotland to be the minister here. This trust and confidence from the CofS were great.
The second one is that sometimes I felt that the CofS was a little far away and I knew that they have a very good theology, but sometimes I thought that they are a bit isolated. You know, Scotland is far away from everything. As an ecumenical officer, I attended international church meetings, like the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the World Council of Churches, or Conference of European churches and there were Scottish people also there. Here I could see that I was wrong, because they were really up to date with ecumenical work. It was a great thing to feel that we were together – so as an ecumenical officer I experienced many times the understanding and the support of the CofS. It gave me more confidence as a minister knowing that they were behind me. In the church organization sometimes people wanted to know who they were working with, and if it was a delicate issue I always felt the CofS by my side.
One time, the British ambassador gave a reception for the first moderator who visited me during my time as minister. The embassy asked me to give the list of who would be invited and I showed the Hungarian church leadership the list – state leadership and church leadership were invited. The state representative asked the presiding bishop, “Can I accept this invitation?” and the presiding bishop asked me, “Can he accept the invitation?” and I said to him, “Bishop, remember, when you were invited to the General Assembly of the CofS, and the Queen was present, you were the second person who was introduced to her because the CofS support you. I think this was a great honor. So, I think, the state leadership can accept the invitation to the Ambassador’s reception.”
This is what I felt always, the true love and support of the CofS if it was a good thing and things were going well. If it was a problematic thing, we discussed it together – what should we do, what would the solution be – but it was always a true and open confidence between us. This is what I always experienced with the CofS – we’re on the same ground, you know. I can remember when the Balkan War started and the CofS were present here also and we had to say something so I made a strong speech and the CofS supported me; we were on the same page with what our mission grounding was. Thanks to God we built a lot of sisterhood, brotherhood, and community with them.
When I retired and had my farewell service, the moderator came here because he had visited Brussels, and when he heard that it was my farewell service he wanted to join so he came. Along with the moderator from Scotland, the chief rabbi from Budapest was present as well as the RCH bishop. This is what I wanted to say – it was really a true, true feeling with the CofS. They helped us in many ways.
Today we don’t talk about the Jewish mission anymore, though it was one of the founding tenants of the Mission. How did this pattern change? Can you talk a bit about your work on the Jewish-Christian council – and did you become involved in this due to your service at the mission?
For the Christian-Jewish devotion, Hungary was always an important place. There was a significant Jewish community here. Sadly, 600,000 Jewish people were killed in Auschwitz, but still today this is a very significant Jewish community here. The Jewish community here was considered by the other Jews to be a significant place and the RCH also, which is a big one, almost 1.5 million members, understood its importance. Therefore the smaller churches and smaller Jewish communities all played a part in how the relationship developed.
Of course you know the situation in Israel is a difficult one. As Christian Palestinians suffer a lot, some churches are on the side of the Palestinians, which is completely understandable, but here in Budapest the focus was different. The most important thing was what I mentioned, trying to heal the wounds of the Jews because of the past. Especially with the older Jewish generation, it was very important for me to take on the task to heal the wounds. For the younger Jewish generation, I think it is a different one. My task was the challenge of the time, especially in 1976, because there was no relation between Christians and Jews. One of the most persecuted things in those times was if someone was a Zionist. The Jewish community had many difficulties therefore they knew the background of the Scottish congregation here in Budapest and how, during the persecution time, this was a saving place and a refuge for the Jews. Therefore, when we went and tried to have a dialogue with them to build up a brotherhood we understood that they are the older brother almost.
Towards the end of my time, the Christian-Jewish Council, of which I was General Secretary, includedthe Islamic faith in the dialogue. As a result, it became an international program, the ‘Abrahamic Forum’, to see how multiple faiths come together. Unfortunately, I wasn’t involved in this, but I would say that I am for what the Pope said on his last visit in Krakow that all religions want peace. In Islam, they are for peace. The Jews are for shalom. And I am also for peace. Therefore, we can work together because the main point is that we are for peace. What can we do together? This is always a big question, what can we do with the refugees and the migrants and these kinds of things. I am for the refugees and for the migrants who came. If somebody is knocking on our door and wants shelter then this is the gospel, we have to help.
One day I was reading the Bible and the story that day was Jesus in Nazareth. In this story, Mark and Matthew say different things and they give different details. Jesus goes to the synagogue and reads the famous passage from Isaiah and everybody is happy in the synagogue. Later they want to kill him, but Mark and Matthew don’t say why. Luke is longer and I saw in the Luke version that it was because after this passage from Isaiah he started to speak about the widow of Zarephath and the Syrian general. They are migrants: Zarephath is from Lebanon and the other is from Syria. The people were immediately angry and wanted to kill him. For me, in spite of all the confusing discussions and so on and so forth, I believe our Christian task is to help refugees and this is why I’m glad that in the CofS the work still goes on. There are refugees there and the CofS was always the place of the refugees, we spoke about the Jews too. When Germany occupied Austria many Jews came to Hungary, tried to find shelter, and the Scottish mission was the shelter for them. This is a tradition, not just the challenge of the present. No, this is the tradition as well as the current mentality of the CofS to provide shelter to those who need it.
Between 1988 and 1990, when Ceausescu’s dictatorship in Romania became very hard, a lot of refugees came to Hungary. I was asked by the RCH to coordinate the refugee work. True to our missionary spirit, we didn’t only help the Hungarians but the Romanians as well. Before the Timisoara and Bucharest revolution at the end of 1989, there was an uprising in Brasow. A lot of young people who took part in that uprising came to Hungary because their life was in danger. They were mostly Romanians, and we gave them refuge.Two European congregations of CofS – Geneva and Brussels – helped a lot in this relief work. So you see, helping refugees in St.Columba's is a tradition.
How did your time serving at St. Columba’s affected your work today?
Thanks to God for the internet! This is a new time and I am the corresponding member of the CofS’s international presbytery and I receive all the information from the clark so I can follow what is happening in the CofS. I stay up to date with the church and how it relates to the wider European context.
The pastor in Rome just retired, and I was glad that he spoke about the importance of the international presbytery, formerly the European presbytery, especially in light of the Brexit. In the CofS there is a strong tie to Europe, therefore he said also that it is great that in the CofS there are a lot of charges on the continent.
I was glad because this is what I felt, that for the CofS this celebration of 175 years would belong to us all. Therefore this is also a place where, as the pastor in Rome said, it’s important for the CofS to, especially today, have this presbytery. It’s important to keep this contact with the European Union, especially in these days. The future will be important for European congregations.
Any last thoughts?
Yes, I feel that in some way the CofS made me who I am. I studied in Scotland, I met Scottish believers, good professors, studied English, and it helped me a lot to become an ecumenical officer. If it weren’t for my scholarship to study in Scotland I probably would not have been the ecumenical officer of the RCH. This is my gratitude and thanks to the CofS. They made me ecumenical. The CofS has always had an important place in my heart, and always will.