The impact of the European Union on Bible Society’s growth in Europe

‘Should the United Kingdom join the European Common Market?’

In 1963, this was the loaded and divisive question on British lips. In 1961, Britain had controversially applied to join the EEC (European Economic Community) – the precursor of what is now the European Union. Their old rival, France, had vetoed the application. Fuelling the veto was the still-pertinent question of whether Britain was truly part of Europe. The United Kingdom, said President de Gaulle, was a ‘Trojan Horse’ through which America would influence Europe.

The European Union has always been controversial. The United Kingdom has now become the only member state thus far to have voted to withdraw, but there have been numerous referenda over the years in most member states to decide various aspects of their EEC (or EU) membership. In 1972 Norway voted against joining by a fairly narrow majority.

The Bible Society prophetically entitled its 1963 Annual Report ‘Discerning the Times’.

It had all begun after World War 2. Many European leaders genuinely believed that the only way to prevent the rise of totalitarian states and aggressive militarism was some kind of union, an organisation where European leaders could meet and talk to work out ways of co-operating rather than fighting. The first formal agreements began to be made in 1951. Then in 1957, six nations – Belgium, France, Italy, Luxumbourg, the Netherlands and West Germany – came together to form the EEC. This was to evolve into the EU, which now consists of 28 nations. That 28 is to become 27 when the UK leaves – or is it still an if?

The Bible Society prophetically entitled its 1963 Annual Report ‘Discerning the Times’. This was the report of the British and Foreign Bible Society, the parent society to which all of Australia’s six state societies then belonged. According to the Report, the Bible Society was not primarily concerned with the political and commercial implications of the ‘Common Market’ but with its implications for the work of the European Bible Societies in the years which lay ahead.

The Editor, Rev E C D Stanford, was quite forthright. “Anyone who imagines that there could be an easy transition to a United States of Europe – and there is some evidence of transatlantic pressure to that end – had better read his history books again”. Quoting noted English historian, Herbert Fisher, he pointed out that in the thousands of years from pre-history to the outbreak of the War, “only once did civilized Europe enjoy the blessings of a single government”, during the three centuries of the Roman Empire. Europe, ever since, had consisted of “combative and passionate peoples” in uneasy relationships.

Continuing to quote Fisher, the Editor, however, balanced this assessment of European history, acknowledging that Europe had, over recent centuries, contributed positively to the world, peopling distant parts of the globe and contributing greatly to universal development and wellbeing.

…When it came to Europe itself, and the challenges still facing the Bible Societies in 1963, his assessment was sombre.

The Report, however, clearly indicated a concern with Europe’s Christian contribution to the world, and with the Bible Society’s role in that endeavour. The Editor wrote in glowing terms of the worldwide Bible Society movement, of its efforts in the translation and distribution of the Bible in Africa and Asia, in the Americas and the Pacific. Writing of Australia he spoke of the remarkable increase in Scripture distribution over the past two years and acknowledged also the huge part played by Australia in funding the construction of the Indonesian Bible House in Jakarta.

But when it came to Europe itself, and the challenges still facing the Bible Societies in 1963, his assessment was sombre. This was the height of the Cold War. There was no mention of Russia in the Report. The old Bible Society of Russia, briefly revived in the 1940s, had been suppressed under the Soviet regime (not to be revived again until 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union). The appalling Berlin Wall had only just been built. With no possibility of Bible distribution in East Germany, Bibles were being supplied to East German refugees in West Germany. In Poland and other Central European countries still under Communist control, strict censorship and publishing laws had brought the suspension of Bible Society work. Bible House in Belgrade had been closed.

The Report’s assessment of Bible distribution in the rest of Europe, even in the more democratic European nations, was sobering. The Editor regarded France as a place where there was “considerable scepticism” about religion. He was not wrong, with France now among the most secular nations on earth. The Bible Society book depot in Spain had been closed. In countries such as Greece, poverty and illiteracy remained serious barriers to owning and reading the Bible.

The most positive note in the Editor’s bleak assessment of Europe was the growing evidence of co-operation between Protestant and Catholic Christians in Europe. In particular he welcomed the information that, since the historic 1962 meeting. Vatican Council, some Catholic and Protestant Christians were reading the Bible together.

All of this was a kind of snapshot in time. The world has changed markedly since then and Europe in particular has changed in ways the Editor could not have foreseen. The Cold War has ended. The Berlin Wall has been destroyed. The European Union has enabled far freer movement between once-antagonistic nations. This has certainly helped the work of the Bible Society movement. There is a Bible Society freely functioning in virtually every European country – in Poland, Serbia, Romania and Albania. And just beyond the EU there are well-functioning Bible Societies in Russia, Georgia and Belarus. It can hardly be denied that these owe their existence in no small measure both to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the democratising influence of the EU.

Yet in one prophetic statement, the Editor named the greatest problem which faced the Bible Societies then and which still confronts the Bible Societies today – the challenge of the rise of Islam. He wrote, “The European achievement has indeed been widely communicated throughout the globe … but its Hebrew-Christian bases are by no mean accepted everywhere. Indeed they have found little acceptance in the Muslim lands.”

While there was no way the Editor could have predicted the rise of militant Islamic groups as we now know them today, nor the consequent mass movement of Muslim refugees into Europe, he was not naive about the future rise of Islamic power in the world.

The Editor spoke of encouraging signs in Bible Society work in Pakistan, Egypt and Lebanon. Bible agencies were operating even in Morocco and Algiers. Most surprisingly, Christian Scriptures could still be distributed in Iran. While there was no way the Editor could have predicted the rise of militant Islamic groups as we now know them today, nor the consequent mass movement of Muslim refugees into Europe, he was not naive about the future rise of Islamic power in the world. He wrote:

“The people of Islam have for centuries been under the dominion of powers from the ‘Christian’ part of the world. All this has ended. They are politically independent and are being ruled by those possessing the Islamic faith. They are emerging into political growth and vigour, and some have even dreamed of an alliance of Muslim states … The fanatical attachment of the Muslim to his religion is akin to nationalism. The cost of conversion from Islam to Christianity has always been high.”

His prophetic statement has never been
truer than it is today. Aggressive Islamic movements are forcefully engaging a reluctant world in war in the Middle East. As I write, news is just flashing across my TV screen of a truck ploughing down dozens of people in Nice, France, with responsibility claimed by a notorious Islamic terrorist organisation. The immense influx of Muslim refugees into Europe poses a bigger threat to the EU than did the old tensions between European member states. It also presents an unprecedented challenge to the Bible Society movement in Europe and throughout the world.

In 1963, the Editor of the Bible Society Report was thoughtful about the political tensions in Europe and concerned about whether or not Britain should join the EU. Today, more than half a century later, the reality of millions of Muslim refugees threatens to change Europe forever. They too need to find and believe in the Jesus of the Bible, not the diminished Jesus of the Q’ran, stripped of his divinity. The Bible Societies of Europe and indeed of the whole world must still ‘discern the times’. Christians must still be prepared to face the challenges of this new age, perhaps even more so than they did 53 years ago in 1963.

John Harris is a Bible Society historical consultant and the author of several books.

Image: Yanni Koutsomitis, used under CC License.