Commemorating World War I

On the occasion of the Centenary of the World War I the European Methodist Council has released the following statement.

They fought against each other. They sought to accomplish obedience to a higher ideal and even to God. And on both sides of the trenches there were Christians and among them Methodists.

A hundred years ago, the killing of the Archduke of Austria led to an escalating spiral of ultimatums, decisions and declarations of war, which within a few weeks drew all the major European powers into the Great War. For three and half years, trench warfare continued, without overall victory for either side, but with a mounting death toll beyond any comparison with any earlier war. Sometimes on Christmas Day, the killing was halted, before it continued as before. In 1917, the United States of America entered into war and became another major power on the world scene. The same year, the Russian Revolution marked the rise of communism to power. When the Great War ended in 1918, more than nine million combatants had died worldwide.

Everywhere in Europe, people still commemorate the outbreak of World War I. As Christians, and particularly as Methodists, we cannot do so without remembering what it means to be part of the wider body of Christ, a trans-national and trans-cultural community of believers. Nationality, culture, and language shape our identity. But why do they so easily become our primary identity? They can become fused with our religious beliefs, so that nations convince themselves God is on their side and the others are against God, or they can relegate faith in Christ behind national or political ideology, silencing any prophetic protest. After the war, Methodists again took up the habit of sending mutual delegates to neighboring annual conferences, as they had already done after the German-French war of 1870-71. It was a powerful sign of reconciliation after conflict, a move to build bridges, to heal memories, to reconcile and reconnect.

Politicians have built up international structures for preventing a similar war. First the League of Nations was formed (1920), and then after World War II the United Nations (1945) organization was founded. At the height of the Cold War, the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe was created (1973) for solving conflicts by diplomatic means, and the Conference of European Churches (1959) sought to re-establish connections between churches in the East and West in the process of promoting reconciliation, dialogue and friendship among European Christians. Although nations and churches have developed the means to foster dialogue, we now face an increase of nationalism in Europe. As Methodists we are worried about efforts to protect European borders against those from overseas who seek refuge.

Commemorating World War I as Methodists is a chance to remember and re-state our primary identity as part of Christ’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, a calling to be hospitable to strangers in our midst, to seek for nonviolent solutions in today’s conflicts and to celebrate with gratefulness our particular connections beyond the borders of nations, cultures and languages. Let us live according to our primary identity as followers of Christ, the Prince of Peace.

European Methodist Council, Executive Committee
Donald Ker, Belfast, and Bishop Patrick Streiff, Zurich, co-chairs