Soft words, great impact: the dawn of a new era

Banished from the table of the Lord, excluded from the meal of fellowship: there was still such a thing up until the mid-1980s. But then along came Chief Apostle Hans Urwyler. He retired 30 years ago, and today we take a look back at his activity.

The ban applied to couples living together without a marriage license, as well as members who had openly declared their homosexual orientation. At the very least, they were given serious warning, but all too often they were also barred from partaking in Holy Communion. Thus they were excluded from the very sacrament that was to impart fellowship of life with Jesus Christ, not to mention the power to overcome.

“Everyone is responsible for himself”

The letter arguing against this practice was six pages long. It cited various Bible passages and statements from previous Chief Apostles. “God does not show partiality. Rather, all those who desire redemption and rest for their souls should be permitted to receive it.” Such was the conclusion of the paper that was circulated among the ministers of the New Apostolic Church in the year 1986. “The decisive factor,” it read, “is the inner attitude with which a person approaches the altar. And this is known only to God.”

“Thus the responsibility over whether or not our brothers and sisters can partake in Holy Communion cannot be assigned to the Chief Apostle, the Apostles, or the ministers. We cannot decide over the worthiness or unworthiness of our brothers and sisters,” it concluded. “Rather, everyone is responsible for himself.”

The beginning of a new development

It was the Church leader himself who wrote these words—and set a cultural revolution into motion in the process. The era when ministers still felt it necessary to regulate the most personal elements of Church members’ private lives would soon draw to a close. At the time, they still held sway over matters such as facial hair (beards), leisure activities (going to the cinema, the fair, the carnival), and even household furnishings (television sets). What was beginning to unfold now was the era of “personal responsibility”.

The man who had ushered in this new age was a certain Hans Samuel Urwyler from Switzerland. Born on 20 February 1925 as the first of three sons to his New Apostolic parents, he worked as a certified automotive technician, and later as an independent businessman. In 1949 he began serving as a minister, and in 1976 he was ordained an Apostle. After the sudden death of Ernst Streckeisen, his predecessor in the ministry of District Apostle and Chief Apostle, he was chosen to lead the Church in 1978.

A man of vision and order

It was not only with the principle of personal responsibility that Chief Apostle Urwyler confronted the questions of the time. In 1987 he established a work group to address contemporary issues. Among the group’s first subjects to tackle were AIDS, homosexuality, and depression. The video transmission of divine services also dates back to his time in office. He had brought the idea back in 1983 from a trip to North America. It was also in the 1980s that he systemised the Church’s public relations work and equipped it with uniform materials.

While his vision extended into the past, it also stretched far into the future. For example, he encouraged the idea of approaching our brothers and sisters in other apostolic denominations—an inspiration that, decades later, led to a declaration of reconciliation. He also put forward some structural ideas. Some of his notes attest to this, one of them regarding the establishment of the District Church of Western Germany and another concerning our concept of ministry. “Our predecessors also found extraordinary solutions to special circumstances,” he once wrote of these matters in the Church magazine New Apostolic Review.

A man of soft words

The Church numbered some 1.5 million members when this Chief Apostle took office, but by the time he handed his responsibility over to his successor, it had grown to around 4.5 million. In 1987 Hans Urwyler suffered a stroke from which he never fully recovered. On 3 May 1988 he retired after ordaining a new Chief Apostle. Richard Fehr officially assumed office on 22 May of that same year.

After suffering a second stroke, Hans Urwyler passed away in 1994 at the age of 69. His Church remembers him as a man of soft but incisive words—and as a man who kept his word: “I want to be a help to perfection and completion for all souls from the many peoples and nations, the many diverse languages and tongues, in view of the imminent day of Christ’s return.”

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Andreas Rother
3.05.2018
Chief Apostle, People/Personalities