Voices from the Communion: Presiding Bishop Tamás Fabiny of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hungary
(LWI) - As a young man studying theology in communist Hungary in the 1970s, Tamás Fabiny first heard about the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) from his father, a pastor, who followed events in Dar es Salaam, where the Sixth Assembly took place in June 1977. That global gathering of Lutheran leaders in Tanzania, with its calls for greater recognition of women and young people, was a world away from the closed and authoritarian society where Fabiny was growing up.
“It was an exciting time,” he recalls, reflecting on his journey to church leadership in his own country and his recent election – for the second time - as LWF Vice President for the Central Eastern European region. The election took place at the 13 to 19 September Thirteenth Assembly in Krakow, Poland, in which Fabiny played a key role as chair of the international planning committee.
A prolific author, a New Testament professor, a former director of church programing on Hungarian television, as well as serving as presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hungary, Fabiny looks back at the way his international engagement has shaped his life and ministry.
Tell us where your journey into ministry and church leadership first started?
I was raised in a strongly Lutheran family, the third child of my parents who met at a church conference. My father had trained as a lawyer, but in 1948 he decided to study theology, a courageous choice at a time when many people believed there was no future for the church in an atheist society. To begin with, I was totally against the idea of following him into ministry, but at 17 I felt a strong calling and so I went to study theology in Budapest, in Chicago and then Erlangen, in Germany.
Your involvement with LWF began soon after that, didn’t it?
Yes, I was ordained in 1982 and at that time there were preparations to hold the next Assembly in Budapest in 1984, the first time the churches would be gathering in my region. I served on the international preparatory committee, and I was proud to be sent by the LWF, therefore not directly answering to the Hungarian church leadership, nor to the atheistic state.
I visited Geneva in 1982, one of the first times I had been allowed to travel to the West. I remember arriving at the railway station in Vienna, en route to Switzerland, and everything seemed so colorful, in contrast to the greyness of Budapest. It was a culture shock for me, but also in terms of church life. I was used to authoritarian leadership, but in Geneva, I found myself learning about democratic structures and participatory decision-making. I was even asked to chair a session at our meetings – that never happened in my country where only bishops or very senior people could do that.
What impact did that Budapest Assembly have on your church and on you personally?
I was a young parish pastor and I worked on the planning committee with many others who have gone on to be leaders in their churches – for example, former LWF President Munib Younan from Jerusalem and Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Talking with them in Krakow, we agreed that the Budapest Assembly was very important for Hungarian society, but also for all of Europe at that time. In spite of the Berlin Wall, Germans from east and west came together and people could see the vitality of the church, despite the atheist ideologies.
The Assembly took some important decisions like the LWF quotas for women [40 percent] and young people [20 percent] in leadership positions. It was also in Budapest that we agreed to suspend churches that supported the apartheid regime in South Africa.
How would you compare that first Assembly in your region with the recent global gathering in Krakow?
I think it was important to return to the region, almost 40 years later, so I was very happy when the Polish church approached me during my previous time as regional vice president [2010 to 2017]. It was a joy for me to support their proposal to host an Assembly. For the local church, it is a great event to feel so international and, especially for a minority church, to have so many committed Lutherans present.
The political circumstances are different, but there are still some similarities with the current populist government in Poland. I think the message from [keynote speaker] Tomáš Halík was important for the whole region to hear, as he talked about the dangers of close connections between church and government.
What were the major challenges in preparing the Krakow Assembly?
It was a privilege for me to be the chair of the planning committee, but you know we were preparing to travel to Geneva for the first full meeting in March 2020 when the pandemic forced us to cancel all our plans. We had to hold five or six meetings online which was difficult, but also encouraging to see some members join with their early morning coffee, while others had their late-night cups of tea.
We worked on the theme [One Body, One Spirit, One Hope], which delegates agreed was very successful, as it was so current and valid for our times. We also took the decision to make the visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau an integral part of the Assembly, which I think was important, especially with the prayers of lamentation, the pastoral care and the words of [Auschwitz survivor] Marian Turski the following day.
What for you were the main messages emerging from this Thirteenth Assembly?
There were many, but war and peace was a crucial theme. I think we could have spoken more about the refugees fleeing from the conflict in Ukraine because in our context it is an everyday experience. Maybe we have already become used to this situation and I see this as a danger. We must continue to be shocked, every day, and I try to keep this issue on the surface.
Climate change was another central theme and I was happy when the youth held their impromptu demonstration for climate justice. They are the credible leaders in this field and they show the responsibility and enthusiasm that must stay with us as churches.
I think maybe we could have had more echoes of the local churches in the region. It was good to have the opening worship recorded and broadcast on national TV, the cultural evening in Krakow and the participation of local churches and choirs, but I would have liked to hear more about the challenges in the region as well.
What are your priorities looking forward to your second term as regional vice president?
When I was first elected to this post at the Stuttgart Assembly, I said I wanted to build bridges between different theological positions, on human sexuality or women’s ordination for example. I will continue to do this and to ensure that in our colorful communion, churches accept one another, and no one is excluded.
Secondly, I want to represent my region to the LWF. When I was previously vice president, there was no one from Central Eastern Europe in the Geneva office. Now we have a general secretary, a regional secretary and a director for planning and coordination, so it is good to have a better balance.
Thirdly, I am looking ahead to the 2030 anniversary of the Augsburg Confession which will be an important ecumenical event. In Hungary, relationships with other churches are encouraging and cooperation is good - our ecumenical council was established back in 1943. But our latest census, published this week, shows that, for the first time, 40 percent of people do not say if they belong to a church or not. All of the churches have declining numbers, so this is a big challenge for us all to work together and not to be in competition with each other.