An Historic Visit of the World Council of Churches to Hungary in 1956

Dr. W.A. Visser ‘t Hooft, General Secretary of the WCC with two Committee Members

New opportunities opened up for women to have a more active role in Church leadership during the first decade after World War 2.  One avenue for Presbyterian women which gave them not only opportunities in leadership but also travel was their participation in the Ecumenical Movement.  The Archives holds collections for two of these women, Molly Whitelaw and Pearl A. Bennett.  They both held significant positions on committees within the World Council of Churches (WCC) organisation.

Pearl Bennett had a long held interest in matters ecumenical.  Her father Thomas Brash had a deeply held belief in the unity of the Church and in fact attended the first WCC Conference inAmsterdamin 1948.  His enthusiasm and interest passed on to his son Alan, who in time became its deputy General Secretary, and to Pearl who attended the Evanston Conference in 1954 where she was appointed as New  Zealand’s representative to the Central Committee.

One of three buses that transported the 90 Committee members from Vienna to Budapest
The Austria-Hungary Border Where they had a two hour wait while the checks were undertaken. Time change took place here and they put their watches forward one hour.

This Committee of 90 members met in Galyateto in Hungary in 1956.  It was the first of many things.  The first time the WCC had the opportunity to meet in a Communist country and the churches of Poland, Rumania and China were represented for the first time.  Also a new relationship was being established with the Orthodox Church of Russia and plans to merge the WCC and the International Missions Committee had been instigated.

Rev. and Mrs Ting from the Christian Church of China with Dr. Visser ‘t Hooft

From her comprehensive collection of letters back to her family as well as an extensive slide collection we glean wonderful insights in post war Europe, the trials of travel, the food and lack of water in places, the sites and above all the people she met and spoke with.   Amongst all this information, the letters tell of the high ideals and ambitions of the WCC in its early years, the excitement, challenge and inspiration the representatives and members experienced and above all the enthusiasm to make ecumenism central within Christian thinking.

Pearl details an organisation that has become less familiar to many of us today there are two  contrasting highlights that stand out for me; one that saddened her and the other she found challenging but gratifying and made her reflect on the politics of the day

Family Group in the Farm Village

Within her slide collection is a series taken of a collective farm the Conference attendees visited soon after they arrived in Galyateto 100 kms from Budapest where the Committee was meeting.  At first Pearl was very impressed with the programme the Government was introducing.  The new implements and machinery, rebuilding of farm buildings, the sharing of equipment and produce among the workers and their positive attitude gave an idyllic and reassuring picture of communism.  By her last day however, she realised that it was an exercise in propaganda.

Farm Workers Threshing Hay
An example of the lavish hospitality given by the Hungarian Government of the day. A Dinner party set up in the Farm Vineyard

The only people they had contact with during their stay were Government approved ‘observers’ who would advise them when and where they could go and to whom they could speak.  This became very apparent to her when they finally went into Budapest for the final Church service.  As she left worship that last Sunday and walked to meet a friend outside the Church property she was stopped and told by a Church member, “I have been ordered to control you!”  For Pearl it was a great tragedy to see this fear and distrust within the Christian Community.  The members distrusted their Church leaders and the leaders were suspicious of their members.

The Government had acknowledged the WCC delegates as significant international visitors and her response to family summed up her unease,   ‘We could only try to show that in spite of accepting the lavish hospitality of their government we had a Christian love for the Christians there…’

A Reception for the Central Committee delegates held at the Hungarian Parliament at the close of their visit. The Government followed this with a free 2 day tour of the Tihany Peninsula

The reinstatement of the Lutheran Bishop Lajos Ordass she believed was one example of this Christian love.  She wrote, ‘of the most dramatic and fine things that has happened as a result of our visit to Hungary’ was the outcome of the discussions that had taken place between the  vice-President of the Lutheran World Federation, The General Secretary of the WCC, Dr. W.A. Visser ‘t Hooft, the Hungarian Lutheran Church and the Hungary’s official body,  the Council for Church Affairs of the Hungarian Government.  Bishop Ordass, a Lutheran Bishop had been disposed from his position on trumped up charges in 1948 which really were a cover for his anti-Stalinist actions. The negotiations began after the Amsterdam Conference in 1948 and had taken eight years to come to a conclusion.  What Pearl would not have known at the time was that he was to be disposed again in 1958 because of his uncompromising stance on the need for the church to remain autonomous.  It took the Lutheran  Church until 1995 to rescind the second disposition.  He died in 1978.

This collection complements other papers which highlight the Presbyterian commitment to the Ecumenical Movement in the middle decades of the 20th century.  It also adds to an increasing number of travel archives, photographic images, memorabilia, postcards, scrapbooks and travel booklets and magazines.

by Yvonne

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