A few words about the Waldensian Churches

The earliest continuing Protestant experience to survive to our time, the Waldensian Church today stands within the Reformed family of Christian churches, and as such adheres to a fully democratic form of government which lodges corporate decision in constituency-elected councils and assemblies. In affirming with the earliest Christians that Jesus is Lord, Waldensians confess that Jesus is the world's hope and that the whole Church, as Christ's body, is bound to his authority and thus free to practice the discipleship of responsibility in the lively, joyous reality of the grace of God.

The Waldensian experience, the 'mother of the Reformation,' runs to the 12th century and today embraces churches in Italy and Latin America. Waldensian and Methodist churches in Italy were federated in '79, aligning themselves in a single synod; the Church is known as the CHIESA EVANGELICA VALDESE--UNIONE DELLE CHIESE METODISTE E VALDESI. In Argentina and Uruguay Waldensian congregations and specialized ministries are unified likewise through a synod, and are known as the IGLESIA EVANGELICA VALDENSE DEL RIO DE LA PLATA. There are thus two distinct administrations of the single Waldensian Church, with a common confession (Reformed, 1655), synod (Europe and Latin America sessions) and Constitution.

In '90 the Waldensian-Methodist churches entered into a covenant of ministry with the Union of Baptist Churches in Italy, clearing the way for very close collaboration among the several 'BMV' churches. The churches constitute the major constituencies within the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy, and are member denominations of the World Council of Churches and of, respectively, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the World Methodist Council and the Baptist World Alliance.

Biblical faith, political conscience and public responsibility embrace one another in the churches' practice of discipleship 'between grace and others.'

In the high Middle Ages, the 1170s, at a time of restiveness and experimentation for change, a merchant in Lyon, Valdesius by virtue of a personal spiritual crisis, got connected to the Bible in a profoundly life-transforming way. So seized was he by discoveries as to the apostolic spirituality and practice of the faith, that he arranged for translation into pocket manuals of portions of scripture (the psalms and the gospels in the main) into the common dialect--a scandal to the church--and compounded the crime by taking to the public squares, there to preach, notably, on the Sermon on the Mount texts as the Spirit led him to teach. Others, drawn to the way of this charismatic spirit, began to take up Valdesius' call to preaching and apostolic solidarity with the 'little people' at the margins of society. 'The Poor', as Valdesius and company came to be called, did not aim to be a breakaway movement at all; they earnestly believed that theirs was a mission of helping generate renewal in a church, as they and other dissenters saw it, that had lost its way and forsaken fidelity to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Untutored lay people as they were, having no standing in the hierarchy of the church, the Poor ran afoul of the bishops in that they were sufficiently stiff-necked as to dare to teach without episcopal sanction. After repeated admonitions, across some 40 years, the heavy hand of the church's scorn fell upon the Waldensians in 1215, at the Lateran IV Council: with other heretical movements thereafter they would be subject to the repression and violence of the Inquisition if they would not renounce their resistance to the authority of the hierarchy. Thus driven underground, Waldensian itinerant preachers for three centuries were to nourish clandestine groups meeting all across the continent in stalls, kitchens, and remote forest clearings, seeding motifs of faith that would come to full flower in the 16th century Reformation. Regarded by church historians as the First or Radical Reformation, the primitive Waldensian experience, linked in due course to the 15th century Hussite movement, did indeed constitute a major turning point, grounded as it was in the Bible, seen as the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ.

In 1532, in their synod at Chanforan (in the area now known as the Historic Waldensian Valleys in northwest Italy), the Waldensians in southern Europe acted to stream into the Reformation movement emanating from Geneva, thus becoming a Reformed people. (Waldensian enclaves in northern Europe were absorbed into the emerging Lutheran churches.) For their faith, bloody and savage times were visited upon the Waldensians during the Counter-Reformation period, so much so that in 1685, upon the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, a Waldensian remnant was forced to flee into exile in Switzerland. Four years later, against all odds, yet persuaded of a vocation to preach and serve south of the Alps, a contingent of the exiles made its way back into mountain enclaves southwest of Turin, there to endue as a ghettoized, scorned people until 1848, when emancipation came, and with it a sense of call to participate in the spiritual and political revitalization of Italy.

The Baptist and Methodist experiences in Italy run to mid-19th century British and American missionary initiatives. Shortly after WW II the Wesleyan and Methodist Episcopal streams in Italy united, and in '79 the Methodist and Waldensian churches entered into the present federated arrangement in which the Methodists continue an independent course in financial and global ecumenical attainments, while in virtually all other respects the two families of churches are integrated as a unified ministry.

Waldensian-Methodist people are justifiably proud of their contribution to the mid-l9th century Risorgimento or national unification effort and the Resistance struggles of WW II. Throughout and to this day the Waldensian-Methodist churches' discipleship in the way of Jesus serves as a militant force in Italian society for unbinding and setting free protagonists and artisans of the 'new humanity for others,' for whom to know God is to do justice.

Frank Gibson, march 98

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