On behalf of the Reformed Church in Hungary, I welcome you to our new website acquainting you with our life and ministry. We offer regular news updates to inform you about events and issues within our community. Please, journey together with us by signing up for our electronic newsletter. I firmly hope that our effort will affect a deeper fellowship with you and give you an insight into the life of an ever reforming community which, moved by the Spirit, seeks to fulfill its mission in proclaiming the Gospel in word and deed. I also invite you to share your comments, questions and thoughts. Please, challenge us. I greatly appreciate your interest in our life.
Yours in our Lord, Jesus Christ,
Gusztáv Bölcskei, Presiding Bishop of the RCH
With the Spirit of Moderation - interview with Bishop Gusztáv Bölcskei
“If authority is not paired with a great measure of humility, we might do certain things just because we are capable of doing them, not because it is beneficial to do them,” says bishop Gusztáv Bölcskei, minister president of the Reformed Synod. In this interview he shares some of his thoughts on the tasks of the Church Revision Committee, the most important issues related to the future of the Reformed Church and the difficulties of communication between church and state.
“Ambassadors for Christ” – this is the motto of our church for this year. The same motto was used last year. Has the Synod run out of ideas?
I don't think so. Last autumn at the special session in Szárszó, several proposals were made which we will have to tackle in the future. This quotation from Paul, however, expresses the essence of the church's continuous presence and service: the fact that we see ourselves – and hope to be seen by the world - as ambassadors for Christ, that is, we put not ourselves, but Him in the focus, and wish to reach the world with His message as faithfully as we can. It's not that we lack ideas. We simply want to highlight the continuity of being ambassadors. Our presence in the world as a church should not be guided by momentary ideas, but it should result from this motive. At the same time, this expression includes a hint about our future: in 2013, the Heidelberg Catechism, a fundamental part of our Reformed faith, turns 450-years-old. Thus, as ambassadors for Christ, we are on our way to testifying to our faith in the classic form, which is the composition of our catechism.
You have mentioned the proposals made at the special Synod in Szárszó. The Church Revision Committee, which is in charge of examining the proposals, is just about to start its operation. What exactly will the tasks of this committee be?
Processing the issues proposed by the special Synod session, outlining the alternatives and their consequences, determining viewpoints which should help the work of the Synod in terms of what steps and alterations would be necessary for a, humanly speaking, better prospect for our church – something much more favourable than what the demographic and other statistics indicate. The question, as I have often asked recently, is how seriously do we take ourselves and our committee working on the church vision, and what is the importance of all that was said in Balatonszárszó. Are we happy just to come up with ideas, or do we make an effort to follow through consistently with the necessary changes?
Could you mention some of the questions the Vision Committee needs to find answers to?
For example, at the Szárszó session some opposing opinions were voiced regarding the number of cycles an individual can be selected for to fill a certain position in the diocese or church district. Some said the two-cycle period is plenty, but others think even three cycles would be too short.
You are approaching the end of your third cycle. According to the present regulations, you cannot be re-elected. Which opinion do you personally agree with? Was your close to 18-years of service as a bishop sufficient, or would you add another six years to it?
I don't wish to influence anybody regarding this question. One thing is for sure, though: this issue causes a great deal of tension in our church, and not primarily in the church districts, but in the dioceses. Our church policy is familiar with the ceremony of inauguration, but not with its opposite, when someone is made to leave his position. As a consequence, the general public, and more importantly, the interested individuals consider it a kind of failure or drawback if somebody cannot fulfill his position any longer.
Which are the other vitally important questions in relation to the future of our church?
We also need to decide if it is beneficial or not for one individual to fill several positions simultaneously. Some of these positions require a person's full attention, and we know that in certain cases somone is a minister and a dean, or a bishop and a synod president at the same time. Furthermore, we have to discuss the inequality between the salaries of ministers, which also puts the question of central remuneration in the focus. In addition to these, we must put the issue of solidarity between congregations and the problem of different load bearing capacities on the agenda.
Those dirty finances again?
It seems like we are talking about money, but the truth is, these are very deep spiritual issues, questions of solidarity.
At the thematic Synod in Szárszó, the question came up whether the Reformed Church in Hungary is a federal or a confederal system, and in which direction the church organisation should move.
It is rather inaccurate to consider the Reformed Church in Hungary as a loose union of four church districts. I think this is a misconception. It is more appropriate to say that every congregation is a whole church, but none of the congregations is the church in its entirety. This means that we are parts of the church. It is for a good reason that the constitution of the Hungarian Reformed Church refers to the member churches as “church parts,” as it is also significant that in Hungarian church history the church district meetings were called Part Synods. Synod means universality, the universality of those who, according to the Greek word “synodos”, walk together on the path of faith, or, if you like, on the path of faith-confession, or catechism, as we mentioned before. Christ's body is the unity, and the unity has parts. This idea is not reversible, because if the interests of the parts have priority over the whole community, that always leads to a split. We can be thankful to God that in the Hungarian Reformed Church there has never been a split for theological, devotional or lithurgical reasons, although such divisions are typical of some other Reformed churches in the world. This latter fact has inspired us to present the unity of the Hungarian Reformed people who were separated from each other due to external, political causes, by restoring the constitutional unity of the Hungarian Reformed Church.
Now we are halfway through the Synod cycle, there is about two and a half years left of it. Is it possible that the Church Revision Committee can produce a result during this time?
Even before the end of this year we expect some results, and the main objectives also need to be set by the committee. Otherwise, its operation would be pointless. The present XIII Synod is in charge of making any necessary alterations, so that those following us can do their duty within the new framework, and they will not have to solve the problems that came up at the autumn special Synod in Balatonszárszó. We might not be able to sort out everything until then, but it doesn't mean that no progress will be made.
You have highlighted the importance of how seriously we take ourselves. Also, at the autumn Synod session you mentioned that one of the greatest problems in our church is disinterest in public affairs. In the course of establishing the Revision Committee some difficulties had to be faced as several people who were approached, turned down the request.
I don't believe that people turned down these requests because they feel indifferent. This could more likely be explained by the fact that the people who qualified for the task already had many other engagements. Disinterest and flippancy will become a problem when the alternatives outlined by the Committee are presented to the Synod. The temptation to withdraw from responsible final decisions will then be stronger.
Still, is it possible that a Synod body, which, in your own words, is disinterested in public affairs, cannot take its own decisions seriously and is unknowingly ill, could come up with a vision that offers good solutions?
This is why I consider it a good compromise that along with the Synod committee presidents and the representatives who presented their proposals to the thematic Synod in Szárszó, some others have been invited to join the committee: people who see the problems of our church as Reformed people, but also as outside experts, and can give forward-looking, wise advice. The main decision-making body of the Reformed church does not excuse itself from its obligations and responsibilities, but it asks for external help, because along with the church-friendly procedure, expertise is also required for developing the strategy.
Recently our church's international relations have become quite active. What can we learn from our brothers in other countries? At the thematic Synod, the Church of Rhine's strategy was introduced as a positive example.
The most tangible example to follow is the Rhine church's, where many years ago an innovative strategy creating process was started. At first they clarified what being a church meant for them, what kind of church they would like to be. Next, they defined themselves as a mission church of the people. This reminds us of an old question, which applies to our situation in present day Hungary: are our many-centuries-old communities people's churches or confessor churches? The Rhine church, having thus defined itself, considered all the legal, economic, organisational and personal consequences of this definition, and started an in-depth, sometimes painful reformation process.
Now that you have mentioned this old dilemma: do you think we are a people's church or a confessor church?
It is a fact that we are a people's church, but we have to be careful, as this might make us lazy. Being a people's church is not a self-explanatory, everlasting state. It means that we have responsibility and a mission for the whole people. The essence of our church is mission, but we do our mission work in a people's church setting, making the most of the legal, financial, organisational and institutional opportunities resulting from this fact. This is why the self-definition of our German brothers appeals to me so much.
Last year the Hungarian Reformed Church and the South-African Dutch Reformed Church joined in a partnership agreement. What can we learn from the South-African church?
This was the church that tried to legitimise the South-African apartheid theologically. Due to this heritage, our South -African brothers are very cautious about every church manifestation that does not distance itself from the political and economic authorities. From them we can learn about the soberness of the Gospel – a phrase created by Eberhard Jüngel, German theologian – which might guarantee the church's long lasting internal and external autonomy.
Maintaining church autonomy is also a question of finances. David Arnott, moderator of the Scottish Church, on his visit to Hungary at the end of January, said the following about the church financing system during his discussion with the Synod leaders. "A church that depends financially on the state cannot fulfil its mission in society." According to the Reformed position, how could financial independence be provided for the churches, that is, how could the support be long lasting and easy to calculate?
The 1% of income tax as a basis of financial support, was introduced by the Horn government in 1997. The Reformed Church communicated its reservations about this, since the income tax system is the one that changes the most often in our country. We have learned recently that the 1% system is not suitable for members of society to express their appreciation for a church. The number of contributors might increase from year to year, but the sum offered is still decreasing. It is unfortunate that lately the press has been full of arguments between the church and the state regarding the financing problems that arose about the budget. This is why we presented our proposals to both the previous and the present government, in the latter case, as early as in the first weeks following its formation.
What was the proposal about?
In order to help the churches establish their financial independence, the state should provide the churches with working capital, which would replace the support annually determined by the government budget. I would like to stress that according to our plans, this solution would not affect the tasks we have taken over from the state.
Since the new government era started, some inequalities have occurred in the field of church support, which resulted in a surplus for the Catholic Church. The Reformed Church turned to the Reformed MPs with this problem. What kind of response did they get?
Only one response came. In the name of the Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, the spokesman, Péter Szijjártó requested us to keep calm, since several proposals have been made in the Vatican-Hungarian Mixed Committee in reference to the reformation of the church financing system, and that the issue will definitely be put on the agenda.
You must be relieved to hear this…
Not really. We wouldn't like to see any decisions made without us. We don't want to be forced by the government to face a complete solution prepared by the Vatican-Hungarian Mixed Committee, to which we were not given the chance to contribute.
In the last period of the former government, the dialogue between the church and the state was, practically speaking, nonexistent. Has the situation improved since the change of government?
As I said before, our proposal related to the issue of church support has been sitting on the cabinet's desk for one and a half years, and still has not been discussed. The Vatican-Hungarian Mixed Committee has constantly been meeting, which is a great chance for Catholic views to be presented, but the agreement forum, which could be a place for regular dialogue between other churches and the state, has not been established. At the same time, I can present to you some examples for good and worthy cooperation. One is the launching of the Christian Roma Collegium Network, the other is the preparation of the church law. The form that the latter has finally taken, as a consequence of political games, is a different issue. All in all we think that in the recent period of massive law production, the government dedicated very little attention to our agreement. Now we hope that an era has ended, and, as many pro-government politicians have recently declared, in the next two years there will be more room for dialogue.
Although the government has amended this question since, how do you evaluate the fact that the circle of the 14 legally acknowledged churches was not extended, even though the Reformed and the Lutheran Church handed in an appeal after the law was passed?
I perceive all that happened as a political game. The pro-government fractions had asked us to voice our proposals, but the law was still presented to the government in its unchanged form, with the addition that by the end of February, after the official approval of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the legislators would decide about the fate of the Ecumenical Council church members we recommended. We had no illusions: we knew they would not change their mind, but there was nothing more to do. We stood up not for ourselves but for our partner churches.
What you are saying is very surprising, because some of the most important government posts are filled by devoted Reformed church members, and the Reformed Legislators' Forum was formed last year, with almost fifty MPs.
The problem is obviously not the lack of good will. Several positive ideas and initiatives have been formed by the government, but due to the drive to rush forward and do reforms in every field, the negotiation and elaboration of details is often omitted. In order to make the reforms viable and functional, we have to work on the details together, and we must correct the mistakes we made in the past. The two-third majority means great responsibility. It is a major ethical concern whether we can do something just because we are capable of it. I am convinced that we cannot. If authority is not paired with a great measure of humility, we might do certain things simply because we are capable of doing them, not because it is beneficial to do them. In a Scripture verse taken from the book of Daniel, which formed the base of the church service opening the parliamentary cycle, the world powers succeeding each other are presented in the images of beasts, until finally the Son of Man appears, and with Him, human practice of authority. Elsewhere Peter writes: “Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human authority” (1Peter 2,13). And authority is something that has a human face. This applies to laws, the process of legislation and the practice of power. As a church, it is our responsibility and obligation to draw the politicans' attention to this fact. Not scolding and reprimanding, nor overpraising them, but doing this with the spirit of moderation, as known from the Gospel.
Botond Csepregi – Sándor Kiss
photo: Richárd Kalocsai