Austria honors United Methodist bishop
Mar. 17, 2006
NOTE: Photographs are available at http://umns.umc.org.
A UMNS Report By Linda Bloom*
The Republic of Austria has honored a United Methodist bishop for being a "bridge builder" in Europe.
Bishop Heinrich Bolleter, who is based in Zurich, Switzerland, and oversees 15 countries for the denomination, was honored in Vienna, particularly for his ability to build connections with Eastern European nations.
The Austrian government held the event in the audience hall of the Palace Starhemberg, which has served as the seat of its Ministry for Education, Science and Culture for more than 110 years. The Great Silver Medal of Honor with The Star was awarded in the name of the president of the republic.
"It was the first time that a United Methodist person received an award," Bolleter told United Methodist News Service from Zurich in a March 16 telephone interview.
Methodism was started in Austria through a small house group in Vienna in 1870. Recognized by the Austrian government in 1951, the denomination is known there as "Evangelisch-Methodistische-Kirche." But its membership has been such a minority in Austria "that it was always overlooked," according to the bishop. This award, he believes, gives the church a new level of recognition by the government.
During the ceremony, Karl Schwarz, a ministry staff member, pointed to the role and importance of the United Methodist Church in Austrian society. Elisabeth Gehrer, the minister for education, science and culture, acknowledged the role of churches in educating youth and communicating moral values before presenting Bolleter with the medal.
Part of the recognition came from a training institution that United Methodists have established in Austria for pastors from the Balkans. The program is unique in that it brings "these people very close to human beings in need," the bishop said. "They are, at the same time, studying and working in the social institutions."
United Methodists also are engaged in the ecumenical movement in Austria. In 1990, Austrian Lutherans, Presbyterians and United Methodists officially declared themselves "in communion" with regard to preaching and Holy Communion.
A representative of the Lutheran church was present at the award ceremony, along with all members of the executive committee of the United Methodist Central Conference for Central and Southern Europe, which Bolleter oversees, and the 13 superintendents who work with the bishop.
The central conference executive committee, which met March 7-10 in Vienna, is still working on adapting the United Methodist Church's 2004 Book of Discipline into the various languages found in the conference. Commissioning of pastoral candidates who come for formation and education also was discussed, the bishop said.
Training and retention of new clergy remains a financial problem for the conference. "When they have finished their education, we are not able to pay their salaries," Bolleter explained. "We have a lot more candidates for the ministry than we can accept."
The church as a whole is "very much" affected by the widening gap between the rich and poor in Europe, according to the bishop. In central Europe and the Balkans in particular, "the membership of the United Methodist Church is more from among the poor."
Bolleter, who grew up in Zurich, was ordained an elder in 1969 and elected bishop in 1989. He is retiring May 2 and moving to Aarau, Switzerland, about 150 kilometers away, to be closer to his three children.
His successor is the Rev. Patrick Streiff, also from Switzerland. Bolleter noted that for practical reasons - the conference could not afford a special meeting for an episcopal election and it wanted to ensure a smooth transition - Streiff was elected in April 2005. The two have been working together since then.
The Central Conference for Central and Southern Europe includes United Methodists in France, Switzerland, Austria, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and all Balkan states, along with Tunisia and Algeria.
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
United Methodist News Service Photos and stories also available at: http://umns.umc.org