Review of Lucian N. Leustean, The Ecumenical Movement & the Making of the European Community

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 22, Number 2 (June 2016)

Review of Lucian N. Leustean, The Ecumenical Movement & the Making of the European Community (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014). Pp. 286. ISBN 9780198714569.

By John S. Conway, University of British Columbia

Lucian Leustean, who teaches Political Science at Aston University, Birmingham, England, begins his study with the distinctly odd claim that two events are at the core of the relationship between the ecumenical movement and the European Community. He asserts, firstly, that a member of the German resistance movement, Adam von Trott, who was executed by the Nazis in August 1944 a month after the failure of the plot to assassinate Hitler, left a legacy indicating that not all prominent Germans backed the Nazi regime, that his Christian faith inspired churchmen to resist occupation, and that he had a vision of a federal post-war Europe with close relations between East and West. Very much the same role was played by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who is mentioned by Leustean only in passing. But in fact, Trott is now virtually forgotten whereas Bonhoeffer’s theology has steadily grown in influence. It is dubious, however, that either of them had much influence on the making of the European Community.

Leustean’s second claim is even more doubtful. He suggests that the creation of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA), established in 1946, was of significance to the making of the European Community. This highly elitist body was led by an Englishman, Kenneth Grubb, and an American, Frederick Nolde, and was designed to draw the American churches into the debates about the post-war world, and subsequently about the Cold War. But Grubb was skeptical about Britain’s association with any European political reconstruction, since he saw Britain’s future in terms of its overseas possessions in the Commonwealth. And as Leustean admits, the CCIA failed to give any lead or engage in the process of European integration. It was thus years before the Protestant and Anglican churches adopted a coherent position towards the European Community, or even agreed what Europe was.

Leustean-EcumenicalTo be sure the tasks of European reconstruction and reconciliation were formidable for politicians and churchmen alike. Priority had to be given to the immense task of caring for the vast millions of bombed-out, brutalized, and displaced populations. Most churches were still tied to their own national affairs and regarded plans for European integration as lying outside their spiritual domain. However a few of the survivors of the pre-war ecumenical bodies, led by the valiant and dynamic personality of the Dutch Calvinist, Visser ‘t Hooft, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, recognized the importance of seeking closer relations with those politicians involved in European reconstruction. The World Council, which achieved its long-delayed inauguration in 1948, almost immediately suffered a grievous, if not unexpected, blow by the rejection of its invitation to the Vatican to have Roman Catholics as full members. The initiative in European affairs was therefore left to the Anglicans, the Protestant leaders of northern Europe, and a handful of Orthodox churchmen in Eastern Europe. So too, those politicians who had expected that the legacy of unbridled nationalism under Hitler would lead to a willingness to cooperate more closely in pan-European revival were soon to be disappointed by the brusque refusal of the Soviet government to entertain any such measures for the areas of Eastern Europe under its military control. In both the political and religious fields, therefore, expectations had to be cut down, and prognoses for European integration modified, often drastically.

Leustean’s account examines the role of political and religious contacts with a direct impact on European institutions. He records how a number of Protestant churchmen saw their duty as Christians to go beyond furthering the local piety of their congregations. These men of vision believed that European cooperation was a mission for the wider Christian constituency. This witness became especially relevant in 1948, when the Berlin blockade made the threat of Soviet military power all too evident, and seemingly doomed the hopes for a peaceful cooperation throughout the continent. Leustean pays particular attention to the Ecumenical Commission on European Cooperation, founded in 1950, since some of its members went on to fulfill high administrative positions in the European Community’s structures. These included Gustav Heinemann, later President of the Federal Republic of (West) Germany, and Jean Rey, who became President of the European Commission. These men were not dreamy idealists, but practical executives, who believed that their project could and should deserve the moral guidance of the churches.

However, since most of the western European countries who founded the European Community had large Catholic populations, and since its founding leaders came from Catholic backgrounds, it was hardly surprising that relations with the Protestant ecumenists were at first marked by tensions. Later, however, after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, a new spirit of interdenominational cooperation was to be seen.

The European Community can be said to begin in 1950 with the plan put forward by the French Foreign Minister, Robert Schumann, for the amalgamation of industrial resources in the European Coal and Steel Community. But this initial success was overshadowed by the tensions resulting from the Cold War, by the proposals to rearm West Germans to play their part in defending their homeland, and by the reluctance of some idealists to encourage any step which would divide the nations of Western and Eastern Europe from each other. Many leading German churchmen campaigned for a unified and neutral Germany. Many British churchmen still adhered to their former attachment to the Commonwealth and were skeptical about any form of European cooperation. Many others adopted the traditional view that politics and religion should act in separate spheres. The cause of European unity therefore faced an uphill battle. The most that could be hoped for was “unity in diversity” which was finally acknowledged as the motto of the European Union in May 2000.

After the signing of the Treaty of Rome, the European Common Market among the six western European nations was founded in 1960. However the attention of the ecumenical fraternity was more attuned to the project for a pan-European Conference of European Churches, which held its first meeting in 1959. But the obvious Soviet propaganda and control of the churches in Eastern Europe meant that the CEC was a rather dubious venture. On the other hand, in the early 1960s, the British Government had a change of heart and applied to join the Common Market. But when its application was rejected by De Gaulle in 1963, this paradoxically stirred up interest among the British churches, and eventually led to a more positive approach to western European cooperation. Yet, at the same time the same French government’s refusal to accept the proposal, put forward by the Vatican, to appoint a diplomatic envoy to the European Commission in Brussels, delayed the establishment of formal relations with Europe’s largest religious community until 1970.

In the 1970s the economic successes of the Common Market were notable. With the Soviet military threat contained behind the Iron Curtain, the western European economies flourished. Living standards rose rapidly. New integrative measures were started such as the European Parliament, the adoption of a single currency, and after the dissolution of the Soviet empire, the abolition of border controls and customs offices in many parts of Europe. These developments owed little to any church initiatives, nor even to representatives of the Ecumenical Movement. As one observer commented, this lack of ecumenical mobilization was in part due to the European Community being regarded as a purely economic and political project in which religious communities could not find a theological basis for participation. Also national churches, which saw themselves as the preservers of their country’s past, were unwilling to take up the cause of others with whom they had no common heritage or language.

In fact, the Ecumenical Movement concentrated more on the personal and pastoral witness amongst the ever growing number of international bureaucrats at the European Community’s offices in Brussels. The hopes of some leading Eurocrats that the churches would take a lead in calling the young and creative forces in Europe to unite behind a common vision were never realized. British churchmen, for instance, remained skeptical about the influence of supra-national technocrats, who were not directly responsible to any national government. The ideal of political integration between different parts of Western Europe therefore remained a nonstarter, since it threatened to curtail relations with Eastern Europe or the developing world outside Europe.. As a result, no common ‘European’ consciousness appeared, transcending national loyalties.

Leustean takes his account up to 1978, but in a concluding chapter is obliged to note the dramatic changes in later years, especially after the overthrow of the Soviet empire in 1989-90. Many churchmen have since sought to engage in dialogue in order to understand the role of religion in the new Europe. Over these years countless committees, councils, conferences, and gatherings have been established or re-established with a bewildering array of alphabetical abbreviations, for which there is fortunately an appended index. But essentially the complex scale and scope of what is now the European Union defies easy or synoptic description.. It was left up to a retiring President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, to call in 1990 for an attempt to give Europe a soul through a spiritual and intellectual debate in which the Churches should participate actively. It was a brave but mistaken view that the Churches, or other faith communities, could find enough common ground to overcome their mutual and historic differences, which are likely to remain prevailing in the foreseeable future.

Leustean’s conclusion is therefore that a fragmented, interrupted vision of Europe at both the political and religious levels, which had impacted the attempts to bring unity and integration to at least Western Europe, was the major factor why the dreams of idealists such as his hero von Trott were never realized.