Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos I, a spiritual leader who represents Eastern Orthodox Christianity, has called for the creation of a churches' umbrella body in Europe to include Roman Catholics alongside Anglicans, Orthodox and Protestants.
"It is only by engaging in dialogue and by closely cooperating that the churches will prove capable of proclaiming the Gospel of Christ to the world in a convincing and effective way," the Orthodox leader said in a 19 July 2009 address in Lyon, France to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Conference of European Churches.
CEC now has about 120 member churches, principally Anglican, Orthodox and Protestant, but Bartholomeos said that Europe needs a grouping that includes the Catholic Church.
This would help to promote unity between churches and enable them to act jointly on issues in Europe such as secularisation, human rights violations, racism, the economic crisis and threats to the environment.
"I am convinced that a conference of all the European churches, and I underline, all the European churches, working in harmony will be able to respond better to the sacred command to re-establish communion between the churches and to serve our contemporaries confronted as they are with so many complex problems," said Bartholomeos to applause.
"It will then be possible to promote more effectively the dialogue of the churches of Europe with the European institutions and the European Union," said the Patriarch, who is based in Istanbul, formerly Constantinople and one-time capital of the Byzantine Empire.
The Orthodox leader asked Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon, who was present in the audience, to transmit the proposal to "where it needs to go", in an apparent reference to the Vatican.
Bartholomeos warned that the failure of churches in Europe to match their statements about unity with specific actions calls into question their credibility.
"Procrastination cannot be justified," he said. "The future of the new Europe that is under construction is sombre and indeed, uncertain, being built as it is without Christian spiritual values which touch on everything concerning the support and protection of human beings and their dignity."
The 50th anniversary celebrations for CEC came during the church grouping's once-every-six-years assembly being held from 15-21 July in Lyon. This has gathered 300 delegates from CEC member churches and 500 other participants.
Bartholomeos said there is an obligation to, "re-establish full communion between the Christian churches in Europe". Orthodox Christians and Catholics separated from one another several centuries before the 16th-century Reformation and the rise of Protestantism.
The Patriarch noted efforts made in recent decades to overcome divisions. These include the Charta Oecumenica, a document signed in Strasbourg in 2001 by CEC and the Council of European (Catholic) Bishops' Conferences, and intended to boost inter-church cooperation.
However, many of its proposals have not been implemented by churches and many Christian faithful are unaware of its recommendations, said Bartholomeos.
"The result is that what we have said is not matched by our actions, which damages the credibility of our churches and gives the impression that we are incapable of finding solutions to current problems," the Patriarch stated.
In February 2008, the president of CEC, the Rev. Jean-Arnold de Clermont, proposed the creation of a Council of European Churches that would also include the Catholic Church.
Speaking to journalists at the start of the Lyon assembly, de Clermont, a French Protestant pastor, urged steps to increase collaboration with the Catholic Church as well as with Evangelical groups.
"There is already a structure for cooperation between CEC and the Roman Catholic Church but this is not enough," said de Clermont. "The world of today couldn't care less about our [Christian] disputes. We need to have a common voice of the Christian churches in Europe."
The history of CEC goes back to January 1959, when representatives from 45 Protestant and Orthodox churches in 20 countries in Eastern and Western Europe gathered in Nyborg, Denmark.
During the Cold War, CEC helped bridge the divide between East and West. In recent years, the church grouping has played an active role in representing churches to institutions such as the European Union, the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]