While it may not appear so in the Northern and Southern Provinces of North America, the Moravian Church is growing by leaps and bounds around the world. During the past quarter-century, explosive growth of church membership in the developing countries of Africa have pushed the number of Moravians in the world to more than 1.3 million.
To provide perspective on this growth and how it is changing the face of the Moravian Church around the world, the Rev. Dr. Jørgen Bøytler, business administrator of the Unitas Fratrum, presented a lecture titled “Unity in Diversity: Challenges to the Worldwide Moravian Church” in the Saal of Moravian Theological Seminary. About 100 people attended the lecture, which was part of the program for the 2014 Bethlehem Conference on Moravian History and Music in early October.
Dr. Bøytler’s lecture focused on the globalization of the Moravian Church, especially the phenomenal growth of the church in Western Africa since 1957 and how this is changing the nature of the worldwide Moravian Church.
“The history of the Moravian Church is normally divided into two main parts: the Ancient Moravian Church and the Renewed Moravian Church,” said Dr. Bøytler. “The Ancient Moravian Church existed in a defined period, from 1457 to approximately 1630. After a period, the Renewed Moravian Church was formed in the new settlement Herrnhut, and the official date of founding is August 13, 1727. The time between the disappearance of the Ancient Moravian Church and the reappearance of the church, Moravians call ‘the time of the Hidden Seed.'”
In his lecture, Dr. Bøytler suggested the idea of a third period of the Moravian Church, beginning in the middle of the twentieth century, when former Mission-Provinces became Unity Provinces. In this period, the Moravian Church went from consisting of two Moravian provinces ó the European and the American with a central leadership in Europe ó to consisting of more (and more) provinces, most of them now in the former mission-fields.
“This is a paradigm-shift,” said Dr. Bøytler. “This third period of our history is when the Moravian Church moved from being a Western church doing mission overseas to being a globalized church with a growing constituency in the ëGlobal South’ and a stagnating number of members in the north.”
Today more than 90 percent of the 1.3 million members of the Moravian Church in the world live in Africa, and the growth curve of the church there is almost exponential. The size of the church has doubled in just twenty years and now there are ten provinces in Africa, including six in Tanzania. Bøytler’s research demonstrates that the Moravian Church in Africa has become an indigenous church with a character quite distinct from the Moravian Church in Europe and America.
Challenges of diversity
Dr. Bøytler’s lecture discussed many of the “growing pains” of the worldwide Moravian Church and the challenges that growth in different parts of the world brings. Coming to grips with the differences among the 21 Provinces in polity, theology, worship practice, culture, worldview and traditions while maintaining the Unity presents serious challenges.
“It is not too hard to find challenges to the Unity within the diversity of the worldwide Moravian Church,” said Dr. Bøytler. “It is neither true nor correct to just focus on a discrepancy only between the smaller Moravian Provinces in the North and the more populated Southern Hemisphere Moravian Provinces. In each cultural context, the church develops, influenced by many culturally-rooted factors.”
In his lecture, Dr. Bøytler highlighted some of those challenges. He discussed the need to review the structure of the Unity, including how Provinces are represented on Unity Board, at Unity Synod and in committees. He outlined proposals that could be studied that take into account membership numbers and resource strength to create a more meaningful and proportional representation.
He also discussed the challenges of being a global Unity: one church consisting of many provinces. How do you form a common identity, being a member of one worldwide church while living in different parts of the world? How can 20-plus Provinces, each governed by a synod and a church constitution, be identified as one Church governed by a Unity Synod and the Church Order of the Unitas Fratrum, which is not even a legal entity? What is the authority of Unity Board and Unity Synod? How does the Unity deal with theological issues that are controversial? How do we deal with human issues that are defined differently in different cultures? And how do we reconcile traditions developed over centuries in particular parts of the Unity that are understood as the one and only way to be Moravian, while new or adjusted traditions are understood as not being Moravian?
Dr. Bøytler’s lecture also discussed the challenges of the growth of the church in some parts of the world and stagnation in other parts of the world; the uneven distribution of resources across the Unity, being one church consisting of some affluent brothers and sisters in Christ and of others less affluent; and how conflicts within Provinces can be devastating, whether the conflicts are rooted in genuine theological differences or in personal or political issues.
Other challenges highlighted in Dr. Bøytler’s research include:
- Different worldviews: Moravians living on five different continents in more than 30 countries have very different worldviews.
- Theological issues: understanding of Scripture; “tradition” versus “renewal”; the charismatic movement; same gender issues; understanding of baptism, Holy Communion and spirituality; and political theologies (liberation theology, the more recent ecological theology etc.)
- Defining what belongs to essentials and what belongs to non-essentials
- Understanding of the role of ministry, including the bishop’s office
- Mission Theology and mission strategy
Despite the challenges that diversity brings to the Unitas Fratrum, Dr. Bøytler posits that it is that diversity that makes the Moravian Church what it is today.
“Unity in Diversity is a challenge, a goal,” said Dr. Bøytler. “Diversity in Unity is self-evident and diversity is a task and a gift. Diverse convictions, groupings, theologies and ideas are all parts of the Moravian identity. Unity is a spiritual issue. For Moravians around the world, Christ is the head and the church is the body. A body is a Unity of Diversity!”
Supporting the Unity
In bringing his lecture to a close, Dr. Bøytler highlighted some of the factors that can support the ongoing unity of the Unitas Fratrum:
- Recapture the basic calling of the Moravian Church: bringing the Gospel to those who are not Christians. That could easily mean going to new parts of the world, including Asia, where, according to the Pew Forum, only 10 percent of the population are Christians. In other words, consider going to places where the Moravian Church has not yet been.
- Re-introducing Moravian forms of living in contemporary contexts, based on the original Moravian ideas of living in congregational fellowships. Should we form new settlements with communal living styles?
- A continuous dialogue concerning the Moravian Identity, starting with focusing on the core values of the Moravian Church. The present, ongoing work aimed at presenting and distributing a common Moravian curriculum for Moravian Theological Institutions around the globe is important.
- Dialogue in earnest concerning working towards a more true redistribution of wealth.
- Continuous dialogue in cross-cultural encounters to increase understanding of the differences in opinions concerning difficult issues within the Unity. Overall, the wider, the deeper, the broader the ongoing contacts between the different parts of the Unity are, the more unity will be built up.
- The structure of the Moravian worldwide Unity must continuously be nourished and developed. This can happen through regular Regional meetings; placing a high priority on Unity Synod and Unity Board meetings; functioning and active standing committees of the Unity, including Unity Committee on Theology (UCOT), Unity Mission and Development Board (UMDB), a Unity Youth Steering Committee (UYSC); the operation of the Unity Women’s Desk (UWD) and the creation of a Unity Youth Desk (UYD); and increased use of social media, communication and the development of staff exchange programs.
“Inspiration from the August 13th experience, focusing on the fact that ‘they learned to love,’ could also help create unity,” concluded Dr. Bøytler. “It is difficult to love people, whose culture, language, worldview, theology, tradition and lifestyle is different from mine. Perhaps it is time to realize that only in loving respect for the otherness, the difference of my fellow Moravian far away, I am able to live in unity.”
About the Rev. Dr. Jørgen Bøytler
Dr. Bøytler assumed his duties as the Unity business administrator in 2010. Because of his work, he has a unique knowledge of the issues facing Moravians in many parts of the globe. He earned his PhD at the University Aarhus in Denmark in 2009 with a dissertation focusing on the different understandings of Moravianism in Tanzania and Europe. Bøytler began his vocation as a carpenter and builder, and in 1982 he took these skills to Tanzania as a missionary under the auspices of the Danish Moravian Mission. He returned to his native Denmark in 1996 and began studies that led to his ordination as a deacon in the Moravian Church in 1998. He was consecrated a presbyter of the Moravian Church in 2006. He is serving the Christiansfeld congregation and served on several Moravian boards in the Continental Province before assuming full time duty as the business administrator.
The Moses Lectures are named for Bishop Walter Vivian Moses who became dean of Moravian Theological Seminary in 1930. Dr. Moses taught Latin, Old Testament History, Archaeology, Pastoral Theology, and Comparative Religion at Moravian College and Theological Seminary from 1910-1946. After his retirement in St. Augustine, Florida, Bishop Moses took an active role in promoting civil rights in his community. The Moses Lectures are offered annually. Since 2002 the annual lectures have been published in The Hinge and since 2011 they have been made available on-line.
For more on the Moses Lectures and The Hings, visit www.moravianstudies.org.