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Pointers from French Protestants

16 August 2013

The new Église Uniehas much to teach Anglicans, argues Christopher Morgan

Together: a service at the Église Reformée du Saint-Esprit in Paris

Together: a service at the Église Reformée du Saint-Esprit in Paris

British Christians too often assume that the only significant Christian presence in France is Roman Catholic. While this is largely true, it is good to note a vigorous historic Protestant Church life in France, too. For instance, the remarkable Christian community at Taizé has deep roots in francophone Protestantism, and the hymn "Thine be the glory" comes from the French Reformed Church.

A breathless survey of European church history might also throw up the recognition that on St Bartholomew's Eve 1572 there was a massacre of Protestant leaders in Paris, and similar violence to Huguenot communities in other parts of France.

Eventually, after intercommunal fighting, relative peace - at least the toleration of Calvinist Protestants - was established at the Edict of Nantes in 1598. This held for less than a century, before being revoked in 1685. At that point, Protestants were expected to be reconciled with the Roman Catholic Church, or face exile, or worse. This sparked off an exodus of more than 200,000 Huguenots, including 40,000 to these shores and 10,000 to Ireland. This Protestant kingdom was glad to welcome fellow Protestants.

What is not so often recognised is that a small Protestant community survived in France. Today, across most of the country, there are nearly 400,000 Reformed Christians, scattered in mostly small communities, although larger groupings exist in areas such as the Poitou and the Cevennes. There are about 360 ordained ministers, and Protestant faculties of theology at the Universities of Paris, Montpellier, and Strasbourg.

A French colleague once said to me that after periods of persecution, followed by ridicule, followed by toleration, the French Reformed Church became a small-but-not-insignificant part of the French social and religious scene. Given its history, it often sees itself as a voice for those on the margins - offering prophetic social critique and unassuming diaconal help to those on the edge of society.

THIS is by no means the only historic Protestant narrative at work in France. Alsace and Lorraine have chequered histories of inclusion in wider political entities - first Prussian, then French, and so on, through different episodes of war - but today the three eastern departements are very much part of France. Here, Lutheran Christians account for about 15 per cent of the population.

Yet, in Alsace-Lorraine, there is also a small denomination of Reformed congregations, just as elsewhere in France there is a small Lutheran network of churches, often originating in chaplaincies to communities from Lutheran nations elsewhere in Europe.

Getting on for 700,000 Protestant Christians are now accounted for in the continuing life of four nationwide communities: two Reformed and two Lutheran. The Protestant map of France thus has a complex outline, but recent events reveal something impressive, and may offer signposts for our continuing story in Britain.

It is not surprising that in a French nation that is formally secular that Lutheran and Calvinist heirs of the historic Reformation have long seen one another as partners - despite differences of practice and priority. There has been an increasing impetus towards unity, not just over particular projects and shared resources, but a more organic unity in ecclesial life.

Two pathways have led here. In Alsace-Lorraine, there has been much common pastoral activity for more than 40 years: agreement on baptism policy, co-operation in confirmation preparation (offering an impressive process, as noted by Anglican colleagues), and shared training of pastors. Then, in 2006, the Union of Protestant Churches in Alsace and Lorraine was brought into being, and a common ordinal adopted two years later. Two identifiable bodies remain, but boundaries are entirely porous.

Across the rest of the country, the majority Reformed Church, with its tradition of vigorous debate, has also engaged in costly conversation, leading to a significant level of convergence with the much smaller and more traditional Lutheran Church of France. In a historic moment in 2007, the synods of the two Churches agreed overwhelmingly to organic union and the formation of one new Église Protestante Unie de France.

This came into being in May this year, amid great celebration in Lyon. The Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Christopher Hill (a founding co-chair of the Reuilly Contact Group), represented the Church of England, along with representatives of many other European Churches (I was sorry not to be there because of sickness). 

THESE steps into a new unity in Christ are seen as incremental. There will be no turning back, although much still waits to be accomplished. Key factors in the journey thus far have included the transparent sharing of financial resources - wealthier churches fully supporting others.

Equally, the smaller Churches in discussion with the far larger denominations have, by mutual agreement, been deliberately over-represented in decision-making, so that their anxieties about being "swallowed up" have been largely allayed. Confessional identities are also being honoured. In all these things, mutual respect and accountability have grown organically.

British Anglicans can learn from French Protestant brothers and sisters. Themes of mutual honour, representation, and accountability are surely part of the currency of "reconciled diversity" that are deep within the DNA of Anglicanism.

On a more informal level, it is good that when visiting France, we seek out Protestant communities with whom to worship (alongside Roman Catholic ones, of course), and to whom we can take Anglican greetings, as fellow travellers on the Way. The Reuilly Accord has been in place for more than a decade, so we are certainly not strangers to one another. May the Lord bless us all: Que le Seigneur nous tous bénisse!

The Rt Revd Christopher Morgan retired last month as Area Bishop of Colchester. He is the Anglican co-chairman of the Reuilly Contact Group, which enables conversation between representatives of British Anglican Churches and the historic Protestant Churches in France.

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