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Questions from Romania since 1990

26 February 2011

Haddon Willmer

Romania has played a significant part in my life in the last twenty years. Hilary and I have shared in the Church’s partnership with Cluj and Cerefalba, which others have described so vividly in these articles. And besides that, I have been involved with Romania on a different tack. When I retired from the University, I started to supervise research students at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies. The Centre helps students from all over the world to gain a British PhD without breaking off from their full-time Christian work wherever that may be. They spend six weeks a year in Oxford for several years, and do most of their research in their own country. As it has worked out, I have supervised two Romanians and one American working in Romania.

When I reflect on my Romanian experience now, it appears to me to have a central core, or trunk. The trunk is composed of Romanian people of profound faith and hardworking commitment to Christian life and witness. And round the core, sprouting from the trunk, are questions, questions. What are these questions? And how do they sprout from the Romanian Christian experiences? And how do they give us in England something worth thinking about for our own situation and mission? We do not go to Romania to gawp or to consume like spiritual tourists, but to think with friends about how to live in a Christian way where God has put us now.

Question One: Does God’s reconciliation make any difference to life in society?

Corneliu ConstantineanuThe first of my Romanian students was Corneliu Constantineanu. He trained as an engineer in the Communist time, since that was one faculty open to avowed Christians. When I met him, he was Student Dean at the Evangelical Seminary in Osijek, Croatia, where there were many Romanian students. This remarkable seminary, led by Dr Peter Kuzmic, has served Evangelical students from many countries of Eastern Europe since deep in the Communist times.

Paul tells us in his letter to Romans about how we may have peace with God, being justified by faith; and in II Corinthians 5, about how God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. This is the Gospel. Many Christians in East and West limit reconciliation to the relation between God and individual human beings. Does God’s reconciliation make any difference to life in society? Does it help with improving relations between ethnic groups when they are in conflict? Corneliu had come through the Revolution when bullets flew in the street. He lived in the conflict between Communists and new democrats. He was aware of the tensions between Romanians and the large minority of Hungarians in Transylvania. The ending of Communism presented Christians with new issues: what could society be like and what part should Christians play in it?

The Evangelical Church in Romania studies the Bible as though it really matters: so what does the Bible, and in particular Paul, say about the conflicts which divide Romanian society, including the churches? That was Corneliu’s question. He did not want to ditch Paul in order to have something hopeful and constructive to say about how to bring more peace and cooperation to Romanian society. He read Paul with close and reverent attention, looking for the answer that comes from Paul, and not in spite of Paul. To find that answer, he had to get free of the straitjacket of purely private, spiritual reconciliation. So the bulk of his thesis1 is a study of Romans 1-8 and 12-15, and the last chapter deals with reconciliation in the Romanian context.

I accompanied Corneliu through all his research struggles and learnt a lot from him; I taught at Osijek several times; our two families had a great holiday at Lake Bled in Slovenia (recommended). Now he has moved from Osijek and is director of the Pentecostal Seminary in Bucharest.
Questions Picture 2

Question Two: Can a democracy be built if a Church claims or assumes unequal influence?
Cristian Romocea was a student at Osijek when I first went there. A year or two later, he came to Oxford to research the relation between Religious Nationalism and State Identification in Modern Romania. Romania is said to be 98% Christian. 90% of the population belongs to the Orthodox Church. Evangelicals are a small minority, along with Unitarians and a dwindling number of Lutherans and others. There is a powerful sense that to be Romanian is to be Orthodox and vice-versa. Some of us remember what it was like in English villages before, let us say, the 1960s, when the Anglican vicar assumed he had the spiritual care of everyone and those who were not in this flock could be uncomfortably marginalised. The Church of England, said Richard Hooker in the 16th century, was the Nation at Prayer. That old English sense of Church and Nation is pale by comparison with the relation between Orthodoxy and Nation in Romania. After the end of Romania’s peculiar sort of Communism in 1990, many Orthodox looked to revive the relationship, building a post-communist society on Orthodox spiritual values and tradition.

For Cristian this raised two interlocking questions: The great task for the nation and for civil society after 1990 was how to build a fair, inclusive, workable democracy, to replace Communism which had been quite other. But religious nationalism incapacitates a church from maintaining a critical distance toward the state and thus limits its witness to the kingdom of God and to Jesus as Lord.

Can such working sustainable democracy be built if a Church as ancient and large as the Orthodox were to assert its right to dominance or privilege? And what path have Evangelical minority churches to travel in the new Romania? Evangelicals have a critical service to render, partly by questioning Orthodox claims to dominance, but only if they do it as fellow-Christians and on Christian grounds. But to do this, Evangelicals have a lot of work to do on their own thinking and political engagement. We will hear more from Cristian about this, I am sure. His book, Church and State Religious Nationalism and State Identification in Post-Communist Romania thesis will be published in April by Continuum.

Question Three: How have Faith Based Organisations related to the Evangelical churches in Romania since 1990?
Bill and KyI came across Bill Prevette (or rather, he got hold of me in the nicest possible way, because he is that kind of American) at a Cutting Edge conference in Holland in 2002, where a couple of thousand Christians working with Children at Risk were gathered. Bill has been an Assemblies of God missionary for many years; when I met him he was starting work in Romania. He wanted to do a PhD that would come out of his work and feed back into it. As always, finding a good topic and a useful question is a key part in research.

When Ceaucescu fell in 1989, and Communism slowly tumbled after, the doors of Romania were suddenly open to people, not least Christians with a mission. It was an exciting new territory. Something needed to be done about the terrible orphanages that got in the news. And they were just the most obvious symptom. People of many sorts came in with various kinds of aid, with mixtures of skill, good will, clumsiness and ignorance. Moortown was there, as we know, and many others from England (see the Romanian Aid Fund Bulletin), some from other parts of Europe – a Dutch church group in Cerefalva for example – and many from the USA.

Out of this situation, the question for research comes: How did these incomers, especially Faith Based Organisations (FBOs), relate to the Romanian people and society? In particular, how did FBO’s relate to the Evangelical churches there?

Did they take over because they had money, organisational skills, social scientific and entrepreneurial theoretical capacity? Did they seek to partner with the Evangelical churches, and to respect them as all-round communities (rather than specialist agencies) embedded in the place and likely to be there long after the FBO workers had gone home? The FBO people were often impatient with the locals, the locals defensively kept to their traditional concerns. There was tension between FBOs which were focused on delivering specific services, measured by outcomes, to children at risk, and churches that were concerned to save souls and nurture children within the church into Christian character.

What is good practice when you are a visitor in someone else’s country? Does having money to give them for projects they need give you a right to be rough and rude and dominant? If Jesus said it was hard for the rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven – we like to ignore that one! – is it not difficult for him to be a good missionary, letting Jesus be seen in him?

These sorts of questions Bill set about researching. He looked at hundreds of interactions between Evangelical churches and FBOs, and talked to many people – it was a good way for a missionary to get to know what was going on in the country. He analysed projects that worked well or badly and developed some guidelines for good practice.

On a large systematic scale, Bill worked at issues that the Moortown Romania group and our Romanian partners had to work through in the years we have been together. The churches in Romania are responsible to God – not to donors – for carrying out God’s mission there.


1 Corneliu Constantineanu, The Social Signficance of Reconciliation in Paul’s Theology: narrative readings in Romans (T & T Clark 2010)

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