The Moravian Church was ahead of its time and preceded much of the world when it decided to go global. That decision was based both on a vision of the future and a past of near devastation.
What happened at a gathering in Bethlehem in 1957 opened a new era for the Moravian Church.
The Rev. Dr Craig Atwood, who spoke at the annual meeting of the Moravian Historical Society, told members the decisions made at the General Synod of 1957 were as revolutionary for the Moravians as the Second Vatican Council was for the Roman Catholic Church – and the Synod preceded Vatican II by five years.
The Bethlehem Synod, he said, “marked the beginning of a new era in Moravian history.”
Atwood is the Charles D. Couch Chair of Moravian Theology and Director of the Center for Moravian Studies at Moravian Seminary. About 200 attended his talk at Prosser Auditorium at Moravian College.
The difference in the contemporary church from the Czech-speaking sect that originated in Central Europe in the 15th century is a dramatic one, and its wheels were set in motion at the 1957 synod. “Today,” Atwood said, “most Moravians reside in Africa and speak Swahili.”
Prior to World War II, there were two parts to the church. One, the Unity, comprised four self-governing provinces; the second, the rest of the Moravian world, governed by the Mission Board in Germany. The church today has 24 self-governing provinces and five dependent mission provinces. It has endorsed ecumenicism.
The Synod in 1957 was the first to be held outside Europe and the first at which English was the official language. It also had a female delegate and it authorized provinces to ordain women as ministers.
All of the voting delegates were white men with just one exception. ‘Yet,” said Atwood, “the decisions made by these delegates guaranteed subsequent synods would be increasingly diverse in terms of nationality, color, gender and language.
“Moravian leaders courageously decentralized the church government
while proclaiming to the world the church is multi-cultural.” He reminded the audience that this was during the Cold War and there were concerns about Communism and racial issues such as apartheid in South Africa and the Civil Rights movement in the United States.
Also, he noted, in the previous half century the Moravian Church, then based in Germany, had barely survived after enduring two world wars, global economic depression and the death of European colonialism.
To make things worse, many patriotic Germans did not oppose Hitler.
Conservatives, they feared communism and thought Hitler would stabilize the economy. “They thought he would make Germany great again,” Atwood said.
Then came the Red Army and its torching of Moravian buildings. More than a third of Moravians were displaced and homeless, and nine communities were destroyed.
So many men had been killed in the wars there were not enough pastors to staff the churches, which were then closed, so the ordination of women was one of the most pressing and controversial issues at the synod, the speaker said.
While the North American provinces at the General Synod resisted ordaining women on theological and social grounds, they allowed other provinces to set their own standards for ordination. They did the same with issues of divorce and remarriage.
Atwood said, “The 1957 Synod was bold in its approach to racial relations.” It flatly opposed discrimination due to race or standing. In fact, Atwood said, “More than a million Moravians live in Tanzania today.
In terms of membership and dynamism, it is Tanzania, not Bohemia or Saxony or Pennsylvania, that is the center of the church today” and it was the Bethlehem gathering that made that transformation possible.