It has been an intense week. As I am writing these lines I am on my way back to California, after I had interrupted my three-month stay at the Loma Linda University for five days, in order to participate in a symposium in Germany.
During three long days I have listened to some twenty lectures and have participated in the discussions. The central theme of the study conference was the impact of World War I on Adventism—in Germany and elsewhere. A number of aspects were on the agenda: (1) the speculative prophetic interpretations which misguided the church in its expectations of imminent events; (2) the problem of military conscription and military service in the period around WWI, and the question how Adventists, with their traditional non-combattancy standpoint, were to relate to this; (3) the attitude of the German church leaders who, at the time, were prepared to accept far-reaching compromises to ensure the survival of the church organization; (4) the protests of significant groups of members which eventually led to the origin of the Adventist Reform movement; and (5) the broader issue of war and peace and the challenges this brings to the Adventist Church. It was my task, during the final lecture, to provide an analysis of the various contributions to the conference and to outline potential strategies for the future.
The days of the conference were very interesting and highly informative. But it also was a pleasure to meet, among the presenters, quite a few persons I already knew and to get acquainted with people I had, so far, never met. The most extraordinary aspect of this conference was that it was also attended by a sizable group from the Reform movement (among them the president of its General Conference). We were privileged to listen to two lectures from leaders of this sister organization that now has some 70.000 members worldwide. In these lectures they gave their perspective on what led, now one hundred years ago, to the schism between the Adventist Church and the Reform movement.
During the past week I have gained a much better insight in the events that occurred in the German church in the years 1914-15. It was repeatedly conceded by several speakers (and confirmed by a special declaration that was read on behalf of the current Adventist leadership in Germany) that a century ago unforgivable mistakes were made. But this, at the same time, raises the question whether indeed these mistakes remain unforgivable or whether the time has perhaps come to put an end to this painful episode in the history of our church.
When I looked at the list of the more than one hundred persons who had come to listen to the experts, I saw that there was another person from the Netherlands. The name did not ring a bell. When we made contact this person introduced himself as the pastor of two of the Dutch local churches of Reform believers. He is not of Dutch origin, but, after two years in the Netherlands, has an excellent command of the Dutch language. He preaches once or twice a month in a small Reform group that meets in a rented hall (de Roef) in Harderwijk. This is at a distance of less than one kilometer from the church in Harderwijk where the Adventist church meets of which I am a member.
So, there are two small groups of Adventists meeting each Sabbath at the same time in the same small town. Without ever having any contact. Brothers and sisters who do not know each other and never see each other. It simply does not feel good.
Of course, I realize that differences between religious groups are never only a matter of theological insights. We all carry a significant amount of baggage. We have our own history. We have our own perceptions of each other. We have our own prejudices and traditions. Perhaps there are differences in mentality. But we have much more in common than there are things that separate us.
I do not know whether this meeting that brought us together in Germany will produce any lasting results. Perhaps it proves to be a tentative beginning of a gradual restoration of trust and perhaps this study of the past may help us to open ways to a new future. If this symposium had been a small step on this path, it was more than worthwhile to participate in it.