in Eastern Europe by Peter Hebblethwaite
It is not often that an official report looks likely to be a best-seller. Yet the British Council of Churches has just published "Discretion and Valour," a report* on the situation of Christians in Eastern Europe which appears as a Fontana Paperback and shows every prospect of success.
Malcolm Muggeridge gave it his accolade at a press conference. Translations are being negotiated. How was this improbable result achieved? The story can he briefly told. In 1971 the British Council of Churches set up a working party to investigate the religious situation in Eastern Europe. It was felt that there was great ignorance in the West, that we had much to learn. and that we had a duty to try to search out the facts.
The trouble was that events from Eastern Europe tended to be reported through misty clouds of pre-judgments. The time-scale was jumbled up, so thaf people believed that Stalinism — with its knocks in the middle of the night, imprisonment and torture — was still in power. How far had things changed since those terrible, heroic days? Everyone has heard about the oppression of Russian Jews: but what is the fate of Russian Baptists? Could one sort out the facts from the myth?
The working party set about its task by calling on experts to provide papers on individual countries. This seemed an obvious move, but it taught a first important lesson: though we constantly talk about "Eastern Europe" as though it were a .unity, the phrase covers vastly different situations.
The position of the Church varies enormously from (say) Poland, where the party leadership ignores the hicrar.:hy at its peril, to Czechoslovakia, where i he fall of Dubeek meant a revival of more active persecution. And Albania is still out on a distant, Stalinist limb. But Few generalisations could cover every country.
Geography, then, made a difference. But, similarly, previous historical experience affects profoundly the present fate of the Church. In Poland, once again, the Church shared in the fearful destiny of the nation during the German occupation. No government in Poland can hope to drive a wedge between the Church and the "national spirit."
But in Yugoslavia the murderous activities of the Ustasa during the war — they seized the opportunity to take their revenge on the Orthodox Serbs — were a handicap from which it took Croatian Catholics some time to recover.
But so far the working party had acted as a kind of seminar. This was very useful for its members, but it still left unsolved the problem of how to get this information across to a wider public. A decision • of principle was taken which (as a member of the working party) I felt doubtful about at the time: the task of writing up the report was entrusted to one man, Trevor Beeson, formerly editor of New Christian and now vicar of Ware. llertfordshire. He will forgive me for saying that he was chosen precisely because he knew little or nothing of the subject under discussion. Because his mind was virginally clear, it was hoped that he would not fall victim to prejudice or axe-grinding.
This unlikely method has worked remarkably well, as can be seen with hindsight. If the hook had been written by the working party as a whole, one can say first of all that it would never have been finished for a decade, and secondly that it v.,ould have lumbered along stylistically, hobbled by scholarly qualifications. One man with
a brisk pen was able to give it a vigorous narrative line.
And the theme emerged as the book got written: "Throughout its writing," Trevor Beeson explains, "I was tortured by the classic dilemma: what the proper Christian response to totalitarian regimes? Should they seek compromise or confrontation?" It is easy to answer these questions from the comfort of a Western armchair. It is tempting to exhort others to a martyrdom to which we ourselves do not aspire.
It is natural to contrast Cardinal Reran, heroic defender of human rights, imprisoned for so long, with Hromadka, the Czech Protestant theologian who was one of the first to try to work out a practical synthesis of Christianity and Marxism.
But before they died, both men came closer to each other's positions: Beran deplored the injustices to which the Church had been a party (including the burning of Jan Hus), while Hromadka was broken-hearted at the betrayal of Marxism perpetrated by the Husak regime after the Russian invasion.
"Discretion and Valour" is the honest account of a situation that is complex, irritatingly elusive. and the despair of tidy minds (and therefore of ideologists, who have the tidiest minds of all). Lt is packed with facts and statistics which have been severely tested and found to stand up.
Did you know, for example, that ordinations in Poland are twice the pre-war figure? Or that 95 per cent of Polish children are baptised Roman Catholics today compared with only 60 per cent before the war? But the tragic explanation is that the Polish Jewish population has been all hut eliminated and the Orthodox cut off by frontier shifts.
Rut what the working party,
and Trevor Beeson with it, found most difficult to convey, was the actual experience of being a Christian in Eastern Europe. What is the depth of their spiritual life? What strengthens them? What is it like to be a Baptist in Russia today?
What does it mean to plod away on pilgrimage to Our Lady of Czestochowa or to stand in the rain on a Sunday morning at Mass in the grey steel city of Nova Huta? These are questions that cannot be answered by statistics or the most carefully gathered information.
"Discretion and Valour" should usher in a new and more informed period in our relations with the Christians of Eastern Europe. Eastern Europe should cease to be a blank space on our mental maps. And some of the clichés can be blown away.
Times have changed. On the whole, Christians are not sent to prison for their Faith. They are more harassed than persecuted. The drama of heroic confrontation gives way to the tedium of everyday restrictions. The crude Stalinist methods have been abandoned, though whether this is a tactical move, a practical necessity or a sincere change of heart is not yet clear.
The dismissal of Cardinal Mindszeray suggests that the Vatican, at least, has made up its mind to go along with the changes in the hope that they will become still more firmly rooted.
It is one last tribute to Pope John, who believed that by optimism (sometimes called confidence in the Holy Spirit) one could actually change the most unpromising situation. It is not a had formula, provided it is allied to patience and lucidity.
*Discretion and Yalottr: Religious Conditions In Russia and Eastern &trope, hy Trevor Beeson, with a foreword hy Sir John Lawrence (Collins Fontana Books, 60p.)