New Directions for Italian Protestants
The Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy (FCEI), of which the Waldensian Methodist Church is a member, has just had a meeting of its governing board. The following interview with the Federation’s newly elected president, Luca Negro, gives a broad picture of the current direction of Italian Protestants.
Question: What impressions do you have of the assembly that just ended?
Luca Negro: My impressions were very positive. I worked in FCEI, for many years, from 1992 to 2001. After 2001 I was away for some years, doing other work, but I never severed my ties with FCEI. Coming back I have found a federation which seems to be in the process of renewal. There is a widespread desire to have a greater synergy between the member churches as well as between FCEI’s different departments and commissions which until recently were a bit ‘compartmentalized. There is a great desire to streamline FCEI’s structure to make it more efficient and more effective in bringing Gospel values to our society. I think of the work that has been done with refugees by “Mediterranean Hope.” Particularly I think of the office we have set up for refugees on Lampedusa, where many refugees first land after crossing the Mediterranean; of the House of Cultures in Scicli in Sicily; and now the innovative ecumenical ministry, “Humanitarian Corridors” which will formally start work in a few days. I also think of our shared commitment to religious freedom and our collaboration with Roman Catholics and others on studying the Bible in Italian schools in an academic as opposed to confessional way. As we make a list of what we have been doing through FCEI we can’t forget the Commission on Globalization and the Environment with its Caravan for the Dignity of Labor or our working group on prisons that is working closely with the International Association of Prison Chaplains and will hold a conference together with that group in early 2016. These are all signs of new freshness and vitality which make me happy to return to work in FCEI.
Question: What are your hopes for the Federation for the near term?
Luca Negro: I hope that the FCEI can contribute to the ecumenical spring that is emerging thanks largely to the initiatives of Pope Francis. In this context, I think of the joint appeal of the Christian churches opposing violence against women. In a similar way, ‘Humanitarian Corridors’ is a step on the path to ecumenism, because it is being joined in by the Catholic lay community of Sant’Egidio. Naturally, ecumenism must have a 360 degree perspective. The work of ecumenism is not done with just the Catholic Church. The historic churches of Protestantism, who are a minority in the Italian evangelical world, need to revive their dialogue with those Evangelicals who do not naturally tend to work ecumenically. Even though there may be differences on some theological and ethical issues and on how we see our role in society, it is important to cultivate dialogue and cooperation wherever possible. I am glad that FCEI is holding open the door to observer status to such groups as Adventists and Pentecostals. Their presence in FCEI is very important to us.
Question: You mentioned that the Federation might want to contribute to the establishment of an Italian National Council of Christian Churches.
Luca Negro: Well, we’re at least starting to talk about this possibility. In many European countries there are national councils of churches in which the Catholic Church participates fully. In Italy we have regional and local councils of Christian churches, for example in Milan, in which Catholics are members. I am not yet sure if the time is ripe in Italy for a permanent collaboration of different denominations on a national level. That we are beginning to talk about this possibility is something very positive.
Question: In recent years no new denominations have joined FCEI. Do you have ideas about how to increase the number of participating denominations?
Luca Negro: It is true that in recent years there were no new members. In fact, one small church has even left the Federation. But I think the point is not so much finding new churches that adhere to FCEI, as expanding the cooperation between the churches that are members. We also need to revive the work of the Commission of Evangelical Churches for Relations with the State, of which Pentecostals and other evangelicals are part, under the umbrella of FCEI. The importance of synergy cannot be overstated: We must get past our tendency to work in silos so that we can respond flexibly to the challenges presented to us in today’s world. The FCEI is not just another NGO or non-governmental organization, which simply does humanitarian work. The center of our work as a Federation is both the commitment of the churches to work in society and our witness to the gospel, which is expressed with some of our activities such as the Christian Sunday School, the program “Worship and Gospel” on Rai 1, and the longtime television program “Protestantism”. My predecessor, Massimo Aquilante, used to say that the Federation is not only a place for service but also a place where people feel a palpable tension leading towards unity. The ecumenical movement expresses itself in multiple ways but two of those ways are absolutely fundamental. There is our shared work for the unity of the churches and there is the aspect of “practical Christianity”. The viability of an ecumenical organization depends on its ability to combine both in a balanced way. One of the tasks of the coming years will be to ensure that these two areas will be firmly established.
Question: Is a truly major project, I mean here ‘major’ in terms of budget and organization, like ‘Mediterranean Hope’, not likely to unbalance the Federation?
Luca Negro: It is not the first time that the Federation has been in a situation of this kind. In the wake of the earthquake in Irpinia in southern Italy in 1980, our efforts in the affected areas very much exceeded our budget and capacity. The Federation has a tradition of flexibility that also allows it to deal with emergencies without losing its identity and I trust that this will happen again with a project of this size.
Question: The federation adopted new by-laws. What changes will those new by-laws bring?
Luca Negro: The new by-laws will allow the Federation to be ‘multi-colored’ in every way. In the Federation people will have the chance to share with brothers and sisters not only from other churches but also from other continents. One program of FCEI is ‘Being Church Together’, which brings Italians and immigrants together in the same church. I believe these kinds of encounters, which will be made possible by the new by-laws through a triennial open gathering of Churches will help us both evangelize and bear witness in ways that had previously never occurred to us.
Luca Negro, the new president of the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy, is a Baptist pastor with extensive experience in journalism who served for a decade as the communications secretary of the Conference of European Churches. He is well known in many places in the United States from an extended visit in 2001 with American denominations. The Italian journalist, Federica Tourn, conducted the interview.