‘Peace from a shoebox’
(article published in ‘Reform’ April 2017 issue)
How a food parcel led to the development of a global partnership between five churches
What happens when, in 1946, you send a marmalade pudding, tins of sardines and corned beef, dried egg powder and half a pound of tea in a shoebox to Germany? Twenty years later, the birth of a unique international five-way church partnership, which has developed and flourishes to this day.
That shoebox and others were sent by Shelley Road Congregational Church in Worthing to Wolfstein in Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany, leading to the creation in 1957 of the denomination’s link with the Evangelical Church of the Palatinate. Back then, and throughout the 1960s, the impetus was reconciliation – between West and East Germany, the UK and Germany, western Europe and eastern Europe, and the US and Europe.
As part of this partnership, Purley Congregational Church developed links with Speyer in Germany, but it also made connections with the USA.
During a 1967 pulpit exchange, Purley’s minister, the Revd Cyril Franks, uncovered some highly prejudiced and stereotypical views of Germans in Hartford, Connecticut. He felt attitudes would only change if people met face to face and realised how much they had in common, whatever labels they wore. The churches in Purley and Hartford then piggybacked onto contacts already made by Speyer with Dessau in East Germany and Ostrava in Czechoslovakia, creating the five-way partnership as we know it today. This rationale sustained the partnership until after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. The 1992 partnership conference, with Dessau and Ostrava fully represented for the first time, was a high point, with 120 visitors from three countries and four congregations staying in Purley for two weeks.
More recently, though, this rationale has shifted, from seeking reconciliation between our communities, towards reconciliation within the places where we all are, for example between Christian and secular thinking, or between different faith communities. That thinking led, at our most recent conference (August 2016 in Ostrava) to the adoption of our ‘Declaration of an International Church Partnership’: this sets out the history of our links, but also looks forward, committing us to work together for peace and reconciliation in the world.
So what does this partnership mean in practice? It means solidarity and mutual support: regular prayers for those in need; the heartfelt and deeply personal messages received in Purley after the EU referendum; and recently, our support for Hartford as we marched â€˜virtually’ with many members of the church there, including their minister Kari, in Washington on 21 January. It means sharing in worship: twice a year, we take it in turns to provide material for use in all the partnership churches. This material is incorporated into our services by each minister – a powerful reminder of our oneness in Christ, so clearly demonstrated whenever we say the Lord’s Prayer in our different languages. The partnership involves triennial conferences along with many other smaller-scale events and visits in between. Having partnership visitors at his induction made a great impression made on our present minister.
The partnership provides fun alongside the serious business of getting to know one another better. Formal partnership conferences and youth gatherings include home-grown entertainment. Purley’s recent contribution in Ostrava was a sketch on Prexit (Partnership exit). The unanimous vote from the 80 or so present was `Remain’. Our events provide inspiration too, and none present will ever forget the short talk given by Stan from Purley at our 2007 conference. A Second World War RAF pilot, Stan’s prejudices had been totally overcome through becoming friends with many Germans. The astonishing thing was that Stan spoke in English, then German, then Czech, having learned the latter languages after retirement to help him get under the skin of these different cultures and understand them better. When he died in 2014, many messages received by his family and the church included reference to that event, such was its impact.
Friendships have grown across the countries and age ranges, going far beyond the numbers who attend formal meetings. Jill from Purley and Nomi from Speyer met in the 2018 at a youth event, have remained in regular contact ever since, and will be helping to lead a partnership youth event in Purley in 2018 – the next major occasion in our Partnership calendar.