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Plaisier, Arjan, and Leo J. Koffeman [Eds.]
The Protestant Church in the Netherlands. Church Unity in the 21st Century. Stories and Reflections.
Münster u. a.: LIT Verlag 2014 152 S. = Church Polity and Ecumenism. Global Perspectives, 4. Geb. EUR 29,90. ISBN 978-3-643-90530-7.
In 2004, three churches in the Netherlands merged into the Protestant Church in the Netherlands. This volume, with articles on the theme of church unity, is written to commemorate the tenth anniversary of this merger. The book comprises three parts; a part with stories from the Dutch protestant church, a second part with stories from other countries (Belgium, the United Kingdom, Southern Africa and Australia), and a final part with theological reflections on these mergers.
In the first article, Leo Koffeman (professor of Church polity and Ecumenism in Amsterdam) tells about the unification of two Reformed and one Lutheran church from the beginning in 1962 until the final decision to become one united church in 2003. It is a story of theological discussions that took place to arrive at a theo-logical consensus about previously divisive themes; about the organisation of the church and the building of a new church order; about a new name; and about tensions that arose especially in the final phase of the process. The big question that emerges in this article concerns the concept of unity of the church. Should we understand unity as organic unity? What if such an organic unity »is a roof over a large variety of congregations, representing a number of different spiritual approaches« (36)? Central to this question, according to Koffeman, is the problem of what is decisive for the identity of the church.
After 2004, the history continued. Arjan Plaisier (general secre-tary of the Protestant Church) tells about the quest for a shared identity after the unification. During this process, two vision papers were written: Learning to Live out of Wonder and The Heartbeat of the Church. The first paper accentuated the mission of the church and has led to the organisation of two ›mission tours‹. These tours, however, increased the feeling that the church was in crisis. The second paper, hence, deals with basic questions like ›why the church‹ and ›why believe in God‹? The paper tries to state again the identity of the church as the body of Christ, living from the gospel and living for others.
The next article in the book, written by Harm Dane, takes a different perspective. He places a diverse church’s quest for unity with-in the context of Dutch society. First, Dane identifies the main divisive issues: the position of the former ›Nederlands Hervormde Kerk‹ within Dutch society, the issue of the autonomy of local congre-gations, and the question of the possibility of conducting church weddings for same-sex couples. Second, Dane takes a typology from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer distinguished four types of dealing with the relationship between ›we‹ and ›I‹: the Aristotelian ›We‹, the Cartesian ›We‹, the Stoic ›We‹ and the Epicurean ›We‹. Using this typology, Dane gives an interesting analysis of tensions both within the church as well as between church and society. Again, the quest for the unity of the church proves to be a complicated one.
In the second part of the book, stories are told from other countries; stories that are analogous and different. An interesting feature of the Belgian situation is the cooperation after a merger be-tween a united church and other denominations as ›satellite communities‹. This is an example of a form of church unity without organic unity in the strict sense of the word. Distinctive in the formation of the United Reformed Church in the United Kingdom is the issue of baptism. Here, different understandings and practices of baptism had to be reconciled, bringing together a practice of baptism following a personal profession of faith and a practice of infant baptism. The context of apartheid in South Africa made the process of reconciliation between different groups essential for the unifying churches. Finally, the uniting church in Australia carries with it a strong consciousness of the fact that our quests for union are tentative. The church is a pilgrim people, not yet what it ought to be.
Almost all authors of the articles stem from the protestant tradition. In the final part of the book however, we find contributions of a Roman-Catholic and an Orthodox author, as well as a third author from a protestant tradition. Daniel Buda (staff member of the Faith and Order Commission of the WCC; Romanian Orthodox) signals the minor role of theological debate in the Dutch merger. In his view, consensus about doctrinal issues has to be part of the unity of the church. Randi Jones Walker emphasises the impor-tance of the gracious gift of unity in the »spiritual experience of the Body of Christ and the sacramental presence of Christ at the table at all gatherings of the church« (142).
Although the book raises questions on the theme of unity, the reflections itselves are only the beginning of theological reflection on this theme. The importance of this book lies in the stories it tells, about different uniting and united churches within churches from protestant traditions.