Switzerland - (Europe)

Information about Switzerland

41285 square kilometres
Roman Catholic 46.1%, Protestant 40%, other 5%, none 8.9%
Christian (%)
Protestant (%)
Reformed (%)

The Ref churches in Switzerland came into existence during the 16th-century Reformation. Politically, present-day Switzerland consisted at that time of a number of loosely connected regions or cantons. The Reformation spread primarily in the cities and took a different course in each part of the country. The breakthrough began in the 1520s: in Zurich 1522/23 (under Zwingli 1484-1531), in Bern 1528 (under Berchtold Haller), in Basel 1529 (under John Oekolampad), in St. Gallen 1529 (under Joachim Vadian), in Neuchâtel 1530 (under Guillaume Farel), and in Geneva 1535/36 (under Farel and Calvin). Zurich became the spiritual center of the Zwinglian reform. Under the leadership of John Calvin (1509-1564) Geneva became the spiritual center of the Calvinist reform. Both centers developed a network of manifold relationships; on the one hand among the Swiss cantons which had accepted the Reformation; on the other hand with reform movements in foreign countries. Geneva especially (with its theological academy) had broad international contacts and was sometimes even referred to as the Rome of Protestantism. The strands of the Reformation in Zurich and Geneva actually grew together into a single Ref church family as a result of an understanding reached by Calvin and Heinrich Bullinger, Zwingli’s successor, which found expression in the Consensus Tigurinus, the Zurich Agreement (1549).
The Swiss Reformation was both a spiritual and a political movement. Since church and society were seen as an integral whole, the reform of the church was a matter to be decided upon by municipal councils. The leaders of the Reformation depended on the agreement and support of the political authorities. The reforms were carried out by magisterial order and enforced with harsh measures against dissidents. The close connection of church and state has remained typical of the Swiss Ref churches, though it was conceived of differently in the various cantons. Throughout his life Calvin sought to limit the power of the magistrate in church affairs.
The Reformation movement also gave birth to the Anabaptist movement (1525). A breach developed among Zwingli’s closest companions over the question of baptism and of the right of the government to make decisions regarding the life of the church. Using violent measures, Zwingli and the magistrate of Zurich sought to suppress the movement. For centuries Anabaptist groups continued to suffer persecution from all sides. The Zurich Reformation is thus the cradle both of the Ref and of the Anabaptist-free church tradition.
Just as the political system retained the form of a loose federation of states, the Ref churches never formed a united church. Although they maintained regular and manifold contacts, they remained autonomous regional churches.
A rather unique situation developed in the course of centuries with regard to the authority of confessional statements. In the cities which accepted the Reformation, several confessions were formulated, e.g., the 67 articles in Zurich 1523, Theses of Berne 1528, Berne Synodus 1532, and the Confession of Geneva 1537. The Second Helvetic Confession (Confessio Helvetica Posterior), written by Bullinger in 1566, and the Geneva Catechisms by Calvin in 1542 gained importance well beyond the borders of the Ref areas of the Swiss Confederation. The Formula Consensus of 1675 was issued as a response to doctrinal controversies at the time of Ref orthodoxy (17th century). It maintains a strict understanding of the doctrines of verbal inspiration and double predestination. With the emergence of Pietism and the Enlightenment (17th/18th centuries) confessions lost much of their credibility. The opposition to the Formula Consensus in particular and to every form of enforced confession grew. In the late 18th and in the 19th century the formal obligation to the traditional confessions of faith was gradually abolished. Today the Ref church constitutions name the Bible as the only authoritative document for measuring the Ref faith. The interpretation of the Bible is largely free.
In the course of its history, especially in the 19th century, the Swiss Ref churches often had to fight against secessions. The protest against liberal theology and governmental interference in church life (e.g., the abolition by decree of the traditional confessions of faith) as well as the general impulses of the Revival Movement led to secessions of Ref free churches: 1846 in Vaud, 1849 in Geneva, 1873 in Neuchâtel. The Geneva Free Church still exists today, but the free churches in Neuchâtel and Vaud reunited with the official Reformed Church in 1966 and 1943 respectively. In addition to these Ref free churches, a number of pietistic associations were formed in the wake of the Revival in the 19th century. They were organized as groups within the Ref churches; e.g., Evangelical Societies (the first in Berne in 1831) or the Pilgrim’s Mission St. Chrischona (beginning in 1869). The latter has more recently transformed itself into an autonomous free church. The relationship between the Ref churches and the free churches remains strained although mutual relationships have improved substantially in the last decades.
The Swiss Ref churches owe much to Pietism and the Revival Movement. Most of the church-related social-service and missionary organizations go back to the initiative of Revival groups. Although structurally independent, these organizations have spiritual ties to the churches. Thanks to Christian Friedrich Spittler (1782-1867), the founder of the Basel Christian Society, Basel became a center of such organizations. The Basel Mission (founded in 1815) acquired international significance.
In the 18th and 19th centuries the autonomy of church life gradually increased. Today their structures are analogous to the political structures. Just as the course of the political communities in Switzerland is determined by the communal assembly as the legislative body and the community council as the executive body, the congregations (parishes) are led by the parochial assembly and the parochial council. At the cantonal level the church synod and the church council correspond to the cantonal council and the administrative council.
Until well into the 19th century the Ref churches generally remained state churches, i.e., ultimately dependent on the political authorities of the canton. Relationships with the state began to be revised in the 20th century. Today relationships are regulated separately in each canton, which results in major variations among the cantons. Whereas in Basel (since 1905), in Geneva (since 1907), and in Neuchâtel (since 1943) church and state are entirely or partially separated from one another, relationships in Berne, Zurich, Vaud, and also Basel-Land are still very close. The Ref churches continue, however, to regard themselves as the church of their canton. (38.5% of the population belong to the various Ref churches).
Contacts among the Ref churches in Switzerland remained loose for many centuries. In 1858, following the foundation of the Swiss Confederation (1848), the churches founded a Swiss Church Conference, meeting annually. After World War I, partly in response to the American Federal Council of Churches, which sought a partner to coordinate reconstruction help for war-damaged Europe, the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches was founded (1920). Two years later it was joined by the Meth Church. The Federation is not itself a church but an alliance of autonomous churches.
In addition, the Swiss Ref churches have created a series of organizations for specific tasks. In the French-speaking area of Switzerland the Département missionnaire des Eglises protestantes de la Suisse romande (DM) and in German-speaking Switzerland the Kooperation evangelischer Kirchen und Missionen (KEM) are responsible for church partnerships. The Hilfswerk der evangelischen Kirchen der Schweiz (HEKS/EPER) was founded as an instrument for church relief work, Brot für alle (Bfa/PPP) is the Ref churches’ agency for development work.
The present situation of the Swiss Ref churches is probably best described as transitional. The established church’s claim to comprise the majority of the population is no longer accepted as a matter of course. The number of people withdrawing from membership is increasing; many are indifferent. In addition, the uncertainty about the identity of Ref churches is growing. The plurality of theological concepts and spiritual practice is immense. The denominational boundaries in respect to the RCath Church on the one hand and the free churches on the other hand are more permeable. Furthermore, non-denominational movements (evangelical, charismatic, feminist) are being superimposed on the traditional denominational identities. These movements are usually more formative for participants than membership in the Ref tradition. Today the Swiss Ref churches have the task of rediscovering their identity and mission between the poles of unity and diversity, of tradition and innovation, commitment and openness. This task has to be accomplished in an increasingly secular, multi-religious situation, where the church’s position is perceived as just one among many offers in the “religious supermarket” of postmodern society.





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