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Bishop Franz W. Schäfer (1921-2016) – Building Bridges Between Worlds
By: Bishop Patrick Streiff, Central Conference of Central and Eastern Europe
Nobody suspected what the child Franz Werner Schäfer, born on March 10th, 1921 near Basel would one day become. He grew up in simple working class surroundings. His parents were active in helping people in trouble and in working towards more justice in the world. His father’s side of the family had distanced themselves from the church, however, and it was only as a twelve-year-old that Franz Schäfer reluctantly accepted the invitation to attend the Methodist Sunday school in Birsfelden, where his family lived at the time.
Franz Schäfer wanted to attend a higher secondary school, but the poor economic situation meant that he had to leave formal schooling and start an apprenticeship as a furrier. During his apprentice years, members of the Methodist congregation encouraged him to become a teacher or pastor. Thus Franz Schäfer began a year of practical studies in a Methodist congregation in Bülach in 1939. The Second World War intervened, and he was unable to study at the Theological Seminary for German-language Methodism in Germany. He therefore completed his theology degree between 1940 and 1945 at the Seminary of the Basel Mission. Short tenures in Bern, Signau-Grosshöchstetten and Baden followed. He was ordained Deacon (1947) and then Elder (1949) by Bishop Garber.
In Baden he married his first wife, Lydia, who unfortunately died a year later. In 1951 he was assigned to the German language congregation of Lausanne, which grew into new life during his tenure there. He married his second wife, Heidi, and during the following intensive and happy years they were blessed with five children. Heidi passed away in 1987.
In 1959, Bishop Ferdinand Sigg appointed Franz Schäfer as District Superintendent in the Methodist Church in Switzerland. Bishop Sigg died unexpectedly in 1965 and a new Bishop had to be elected. The choice was made on September 2nd, 1966 in Lausanne (Switzerland) to elect Franz Schäfer for a first tenure of six years as Bishop. The union of the Methodist Church with the Evangelical United Brethren Church to form the United Methodist Church was already on the horizon. Within the extensive episcopal area, this union had a significant effect in Switzerland and France. Franz Schäfer considered himself a ‘transition bishop’ for the merger of the two churches. He gained confidence among the representatives of the smaller Evangelical United Brethren Church (“Evangelische Gemeinschaft”) in this process of uniting.. In 1973, he was re-elected for life.
The Central Conference of Central and Southern Europe has contained significantly different countries since 1954: four in western Europe, two in northern Africa, and five in the communist eastern Europe. Bishop Franz Schäfer become a ‘Grenzgänger’, crossing frontiers between different societies and ideologies. His duties as Bishop involved much travel. Trips to northern Africa and into the East Block countries were often difficult, and sometimes prohibited. But wherever he was allowed to travel he maintained his conviction not to see structures, systems, or ideologies, but to see people. He approached people with honesty, respect and appreciation. The result was that he was treated as a credible and trustworthy partner despite the many linguistic, societal, ideological, and religious differences. As an honest person, he created trust that was sustainable. As a person whose speech and work were based on a stable foundation, he built bridges that proved to be viable and long-lasting. As a pastor and bishop who deeply believed in Christ and His Gospel, he supported the growth of the Church. For these reasons he was respected and honoured. Even before the end of the Communist time, he received an honorary doctorate in Theology from the Comenius Faculty of the Prague University in 1985.
During his 23 years of active service Bishop Franz Schäfer also worked for co-operation between the different Methodist churches and further in the ecumenical fields. He supported the joint work of the mission offices as well as the community of Methodist church leaders in Europe. In the world sphere he accepted many tasks in the World Methodist Council. In the area of inter-church work he was active in the Federation of Protestant Churches in Switzerland and participated in the formation of the Council of Christian Churches in Switzerland. He encouraged the increased participation by Methodist lay people in the Conference of European Churches. He stood behind the work of the Ecumenical Council of Churches when it was criticized for its anti-racism programme. Franz Schäfer considered his activities beyond his own very work-intensive episcopal area as a chance to represent his church in an honest and fair manner.
Bishop Franz Schäfer retired in 1989, shortly before the political change in Europe, and passed the responsibility for the varied and challenging areas of the Central Conference of Central and Southern Europe to the newly elected Bishop Heinrich Bolleter. But he remained connected in his heart and spirit to the cross-border Methodist ‘Family’. Even at an age when his physical mobility was increasingly limited his active intellect allowed him to continue to be interested in the developments of his church. He became the longest serving Bishop in the United Methodist Church. He continued to meet people with his life-long approaches of kindness and friendship. Thus he influenced innumerable people in completely different situations of life and across countries, built bridges between them, and transformed a piece of the world.
Bishop Franz Schäfer was called to eternity on July 14th, 2016 peacefully and surrounded by his family in his 96th year. An open service of thanksgiving will be held in remembrance of Bishop Franz Schäfer on August 8, at 2pm, in the Fraumünster in Zurich, Switzerland.