Probleme de Bioethică –
Înţelegerea Culturii Morţii
şi Răspunsul Creştin at Oradea, Romania, 2012.
Me and Tibi
And so it came to pass that Wendy and I left Aberystwyth on Wednesday 17 October 2012 at about 09.00. The trip to Stansted airport, via lunch with our daughter-in-law Anne in Birmingham, was uneventful. However, parking the car in the airport’s mid-stay car park and finding our way back to the Holiday Inn hotel was far from uneventful. Confusion about location, bus routes and costs were not helped by either the Japanese or the Polish receptionists. We ended up walking back along the main road.
We were up at 05.30 Thursday morning to grab a somewhat basic hotel breakfast, but with a travel-sick stomach like mine, who wants a full English? The so-called free bus to the airport cost us £3 each. Then the interminable waiting and waiting and the customary rush to check-in once the Ryanair flight was announced. Our baggage was on the strictly-regulated 10kg limit and we knew from our bathroom scales that we were dangerously near paying the £30 excess. Wendy’s was a decent 9.7kg and mine was an indecent 10.4kg, but the kind check-in assistant let it go, probably because I’d bought an extra 15kg of checked baggage beforehand for a hefty box of my books.
Then it was belts and shoes and jackets off, emptying of pockets, net book out, and everything else removable to be dumped into the plastic trays. I accidently dropped my passport into the conveyer belt and almost ended up going nowhere. Then that self-conscious walk through the metal detector, the anxious wait for our chattels to reappear from the x-ray machine, and then time to get dressed all over again. And then more waiting. And hunting for toilets. And more waiting until the gate number was announced. And then more queuing and waiting. And, then packed in like sardines, the bus ride to the plane. Good old Ryanair, on time as ever. Their 30-minute turnaround is quite remarkable – as the passengers from the previous flight deplaned, the next lot, us, were queuing up on the tarmac on a cold Essex morning, waiting to board.
Then the long-awaited signal and the unseemly rush for seats. It is really rather simple to avoid all that jostling – stroll over to the uncrowded rear door of the aircraft and leisurely walk up the steps while the hooligans scramble at the front door. That way, we happily got adjacent seats, just as we always have done.
Two hours later, and fifteen minutes ahead of schedule, we were met at Budapest airport. And yes, my box of books was there getting dizzy on the carousel. We were met by two students from the Emanuel University and so we settled down for the 3.5-hour drive across the Hungarian-Romanian border to Oradea. About an hour into the journey, we passed Paul Negrut in a car going the other way – he is the head and the driving force behind both Emanuel Church and the University. He had been hurriedly called to fly out to meet with financial sponsors in the USA, so we were sadly not to meet.
We arrived at Oradea to be greeted by Dinu Moga and his wife, Lydia. Dinu had been a student at the London Theological Seminary in the 1990s and I had met them briefly at that time as I tried to forge LIFE links with Romania – we just about remembered that occasion. He is now the director/owner of the Faclia publishing house, which produces good Christian books, from John Owen to Spurgeon to Lloyd-Jones in Romanian. They will publish a Romanian version of my When Does Human Life Begin? early next year. We were to stay in their delightful house for the next five days – how wonderfully we were fed, watered and entertained, both light-heartedly and seriously. I wanted to stay for the whole month!
The Bioethical Issues Conference
So, Friday morning came and we were off to the smart 400-seater University Chapel for the Conference on Bioethical Issues, or as we say in Romanian, Probleme de Bioethică – Înţelegerea Culturii Morţii şi Răspunsul Creştin. A little trouble setting up the computer kit was soon overcome – I sighed with relief because I had prepared about 450 PowerPoint slides. And then we were off, with Dinu translating the first session, on the Biblical Framework for Bioethical Issues, with about 120 in attendance. They were mainly students, doctors and pastors, mostly local, but some from the capital, Bucharest. In all, about 150 different people attended the six different lectures, with work and family commitments limiting some.
The first session, which is always a concern, went well – yes, they liked me. So from then on it was Abortion, Assisted Reproductive Technologies, Stem-Cell Technologies on the Friday with Euthanasia and What Must We Do? sessions on the Saturday morning. Each lecture lasted 90 minutes with a little time for Q & A. It was something of a marathon for me – the whole Conference included just about all I know bioethically – but it was a considerable strain on Dinu, since he had first to listen hard to me and then translate into Romanian, but he did a wonderful, flowing job. We proved to be a great double act.
The lectures were well received – many told me they had never before heard anything on bioethics so biblically-based and coherent. The literature we had brought just went! As in all such gatherings some of the best bits are the private conversations – the problems of infertility and old age and the joys of childbirth and general health know no geographical boundaries. And good contacts were made with a hospice team, who are currently working in a state palliative care facility, but who are opening an Emanuel hospice in 2015 – the building has already been started.
And the potential for starting a LIFE Romania organisation, one of my priorities, came a step nearer with contact with Dr Tiberiu (Tibi) Pop, an obstetrics and gynaecology consultant, who was converted several years ago, and then refused to perform abortions. He has since persuaded four of his colleagues to follow suit, though they are not without trouble and contempt for their bold stance. Romania’s official abortion figure was 116,060 last year, but this is a gross underestimate – the real figure is reckoned to be nearer 350,000, which is about five times the rate of England and Wales. The Romanian population of about 22 million is in serious decline – they are aborting themselves into oblivion. In 2010, there were 259,723 deaths in Romania and only 212,199 births. Such a demographic pattern is dangerously unsustainable.
Saturday afternoon we were free, and with the temperature at 24°C, we were relaxed. Dinu took us on a guided tour of Oradea, sometimes known as ‘Paris on the River Pece’, a city with a population of about 185,000 and a convoluted history involving the Ottoman Empire, Transylvania, the Turks, Germans, Hungarians, Croatians and the Habsburgs. It once has a substantial number of Jewish inhabitants, at least until Hitler wreaked his vengeance on them, and there are still a couple of active synagogues there. Today the city is undergoing major renovations and a rebuilding plan with some careful restoration of its gorgeous Art Nouveau buildings. The highly thought of University of Oradea has some 35,000 students with a famous medical school.
Preaching at Emanuel Church
Sunday morning and I was set to preach at Emanuel Church on How to Die Well, one of my favourites, which is always a fitting topic after such a Conference. The church was almost full with about 1,800 attending – yes, the largest congregation I have ever addressed. The total membership is 4,300, but they have planted four other churches around Oradea with several hundred members in each. While the service was in progress there were Sunday school classes for the 400 or so children. During the week most of them go to the 800-strong Emanuel School, the best in Oradea and with a lengthy waiting list – just as it should I told the headmaster.
The service was long – 2 hours plus. I sat on the platform with three elders while we all sang several hymns to a somewhat honky-tonk piano accompaniment, listened to a couple of pieces from the 40-member choir, heard two little children recite a Psalm each, then a soloist sang and the 30-piece brass band (not my style!) played some hymns, though I welled up when they played Spirit of the Living God. It was quite extraordinary – but a church that size can rustle up almost any combination of talented musicians.
Then Dinu and I climbed up the steps to the pulpit, a massive wooden structure with a huge lectern, just right for me to stretch out. The congregation was very attentive with that comforting rustle of a thousand Bible pages as they found the text and smiles and nods in the right places and ‘Amin’s (Amens) at the end. Then handshakes and lots of ‘Pace’, pronounced patcha and meaning ‘peace’, which is how they greet one another.
Dinu and Lydia had invited Tibi and his wife Adela, a teacher of English, as well as their own son and newish daughter-in-law for lunch. This was the first real opportunity for Tibi and me to discuss all things bioethical in Romania. He had planned to attend all the Conference sessions but University meetings and an unexpected delivery plus a C-section had prevented him. But we established a rapport and I am hopeful that something more organisationally concrete will emerge in the near future.
And then a welcome rest and a little sleep during Sunday afternoon – our Romanian venture was almost over. The evening service was not quite so well attended, but lasted even longer with too many pieces from the Church’s 40-member male voice choir and a solo from a young Nadia Comăneci look-a-like, plus a 60-minute sermon on various aspects of calling in the Bible. We were tired.
A few days in Budapest
Monday morning, and the Emanuel University car came to take us back across the border to Budapest. Hungary is flat, flat, flat – even more so than my native Cambridgeshire. Now we had a few days relaxing in a city-centre hotel and sightseeing. Just outside our hotel was a life-size statue of John Calvin – I could just see him from my window. Every time we walked passed, I thanked him for his writings. That afternoon we found our bearings, the huge Central Market built by Eiffel, a cash machine and the Danube.
Tuesday we walked the Váci utca, the city’s main pedestrian zone shopping area – we looked, but bought nothing. In the afternoon we took a splendid three-hour cruise on the Danube – it is most certainly not blue, whatever Johann Strauss II believed – under most of the famous bridges and with a unique view of the great city. It was wonderfully warm as we stopped at Margaret Island for a stroll and a guided tour of this park, much loved by Budapestis.
Unbeknown to us 23 October is a most significant day for Hungarians. It is the anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and a national holiday. I can remember as a boy seeing on TV the Russian tanks rolling into Budapest as one of my uncles tried to explain its significance to me. Over 2,500 Hungarians were killed in the following days. During Tuesday the flags were out and little groups met at significant locations to remember the horrors of 56 years ago. In the evening there was a huge rally by the Elizabeth Bridge with long speeches and a quiet but strong riot police presence – I was fascinated, Wendy was nervous. That night we went to a small restaurant for some authentic goulash for dinner – it was OK.
On Wednesday, we joined a ‘hop-on-hop-off’ bus tour. We used to explore cities unaccompanied and on foot, but these tours suit the pensioner much better and at 5,000 HUF, or about £15 each for two days, this one was great value. So we learned some history about the mainly residential Buda, on the west bank, and the mainly commercial Pest, on the east bank. We visited the Castle district, Parliament, the Great Synagogue, the Opera House, the Gellert hot spa baths, the Royal Palace and much more.
Thursday was spent sightseeing again with a trip to the Hungarian National Gallery – interesting, but not outstanding – and Heroes’ Square – outstanding, but not interesting. We bought sandwiches for lunch at a Tesco Express! Early evening, we took a taxi to the Ferenc Liszt airport for our 19.35 flight back to Stansted. The same airport palaver was repeated, though Wendy was, to her great surprise, taken out of line at security and enthusiastically frisked. It caused me gales of laughter as I told her they were probably looking for contraband paprika – she was not amused!
We landed in dark and cold England. The immigration queues stretched as far as the eye could see. It is not a warm welcome to the UK. Eventually we found the car (phew!) and drove to the Holiday Inn, parked, checked-in, found the room and promptly fell asleep – it was just after midnight. Friday morning, we drove back to Aberystwyth – home, sweet home. We were tired, happy, and thankful for the privilege of being co-labourers in the Gospel. For us, Romania will never be the same.