Small Christian communities that combine social and political engagement, the inspiration of biblical faith, a critical stance towards institutional religion and prayerful celebration can confront the forces of exclusion and economic domination in Europe today. That was the message from a gathering of ‘base ecclesial communities’ (CEBs) meeting in Edinburgh from 24-27 October 2003.
Representatives of Christian communities from France, Spain, Euskadi (the Basque country), Hungary, both language communities in Belgium, Switzerland, Ireland, Scotland and England gathered at St Colm’s International House to exchange experiences and plan for the future. Networks also exist in Italy, the Czech Republic, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal and other countries.
Among the common concerns named as Gospel challenges was the re-assertion of ‘fortress Europe’, the malign impact of big corporations on daily life, the growing influence of the far right and widespread mistreatment of refugees and asylum seekers.
Many people are aware of the existence and impact of base Christian communities in Latin America and South-East Asia, for example. They are part of the lasting impact of liberation theology. In Brazil over 2 million people are involved in the movement. However, a similar (but much smaller) phenomenon in Europe, originating in the 1960s, is less familiar to many.
In some countries, such as Spain and Euskadi, the communities are very well organized locally, regionally and nationally. In others (most notably England) they are few and fragmentary. Many CEBs are Catholic, some Protestant, and all stress ecumenical collaboration. The emphasis is on a lay-centred way of ‘doing church’ which starts from the streets and takes its orientation from the poorest and most marginalized groups in society – ‘the base’.
Few CEBs are what would be called ‘intentional’ communities in the sense of living together on a daily basis, but all have features of communal life, including the sharing of resources and money. In Scotland ‘Bert’ and the Iona Community home groups are among those linked in to the European network, which has been in existence for over 20 years and has held several large congresses. In Ireland, the Crumlin Road Community is involved. St Margaret with St Mary in Liverpool is one parish developing a distinctive street-level CEBs model in England.
Dr Ian Fraser, who has worked both for the World Council of Churches and the Selly Oak Colleges, has spent many years documenting the life of base Christian communities across the world. His book ‘Many Cells, One Body’ (WCC, 2003) gives a vibrant picture of ‘the church from below’.