WEEK OF PRAYER FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY 2017:
Reconciliation – The Love of Christ Compels Us
(cf. 2 Corinthians 5:14-20)
Ecumenism in Germany
THE ECUMENICAL SITUATION IN GERMANY¹
Working Together in a Changing Society
Germany today is home to people of many different cultural backgrounds and beliefs. Of the 81 million inhabitants, 50 million are Christian. About one third are part of the (Protestant) Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), one third are Roman Catholic and just under one third do not adhere to any faith. 1.7% of the population are Orthodox Christians, another 1.8% are members of one of the free churches, 4.9% are Muslim, and 1% are Jewish.
Germany’s kingdoms and principalities were united by a common church until the Reformation, which led to schisms within Western Christianity and wars between Catholic and Protestant forces. The Peace of Augsburg (1555) declared that people were to adhere to the faith of their ruler, while those who believed differently were forced to convert or move to a different region. As a result, German people lived in regional isolation, with widespread mistrust and animosity between denominations. Although the 19 th century saw the rise of other churches, they were relatively small and not ecumenically inclined.
This isolation changed following World War II. About 12 million people of German ancestry fled or were expelled from Eastern Europe, and when they settled in Germany, Protestants and Catholics came to live in the same areas. As well, post-war economic and industrial growth created a demand for labourers, resulting in “guest workers” coming from southern Europe, Turkey, Morocco, and Tunisia. This increased the religious diversity in the country, and in particular, the Orthodox presence. The 1980s saw an increase of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, many of whom were Orthodox, Baptist or Jewish.
In the former Eastern Germany, the churches, especially the Protestant church, played a key role in the events leading up to the fall of the Berlin wall (1989) and the downfall of the Communist government. Even so, the Christian faith has largely lost its significance in East Germany.
The churches in Germany have learned to work together. Living and suffering under the dictatorship of the Nazis brought Christians of different traditions closer to one another, even though some Christians collaborated with the government, while others offered resistance and were imprisoned or sent to concentration camps. Today, German churches cooperate effectively in carrying out the mission of the Church and witnessing to the Gospel.
Much ecumenism in Germany occurs at the grassroots level. Neighbouring parishes often organize ecumenical activities: Bible study, celebration of festivals, and creation of common websites. Volunteers often visit people new to the community, and in some regions congregations and parishes have entered into formal ecumenical partnerships.
Ecumenical co-operation also occurs at the level of church leadership. A group of Catholic and Protestant bishops meets twice a year to discuss current topics that affect the churches, while another group discusses theological issues. There are also regular meetings between representatives of the Orthodox Bishops’ Conference with the Roman Catholic and Protestant bishops, and between the Association of Free Churches and the Evangelical Church in Germany.
The German Christian landscape also features large church gatherings every two years: Katholikentage for Catholics and Kirchentage for Protestants. As well, in 2003 and in 2010, churches of the German Council of Churches joined together to organise a similar ecumenical convention: Ökumenischer Kirchentag. These gatherings have been excellent opportunities for German Christians to work together and demonstrate the vitality of the Christian church.
The Council of Churches in Germany
On March 10, 1948, the EKD, Mennonites, Baptists, Methodists, and the Old Catholic Church joined together to form The Council of Churches in Germany (Arbeitsgemeinschaft Christlicher Kirchen, or ACK). Significantly, in 1974, both the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Germany and the Orthodox Church joined the Council of Churches. Following the reunification of Germany, the West and East German Councils of Churches merged, and today, the Council of Churches in Germany has 17 member churches plus six guest members and four ecumenical organizations as observers.
In 2003, at the first ecumenical Kirchentag in Berlin, representatives of all member churches of the ACK (Council of Churches), celebrated ecumenical worship and signed the Charta Oecumenica produced by the Conference of European Churches and the Council of European Episcopal Conferences of the Roman Catholic Church.
In 2010, during the second Ecumenical Kirchentag in Munich, the ACK established an “Ecumenical Day of Creation”, reminding us of our task in preserving God’s creation. This Day of Creation is now celebrated on the first Friday in September each year all over Germany.
The Council of Churches has also devoted much time and discussion to the meaning and practice of Baptism. In 2007, eleven member churches signed an agreement on the mutual recognition of Baptism, while five members felt unable to sign. The discussion continues.
The Charta Oecumenica calls for interfaith dialogue among Christians, Muslims and Jews, and the ACK has worked with one Jewish and two Muslim organizations in an initiative called “Weißt du, wer ich bin?” (“Do you know who I am?”), offering advice and financial encouragement for people of all three faiths to know one another and work together. As well, attention has been given to the document “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World.” A 2014 conference of representatives from both the ACK and the Evangelical Alliance (EA) to discuss matters of witness and interreligious dialogue resulted in closer ties and a request from the EA to join the ACK with observer status.
The Roman Catholic Church and the EKD are about the same size with the same kinds of resources, and often work together on a strictly bilateral basis. Doing justice to the fact that there are more than two church bodies in Germany, and enabling and encouraging multilateral discourse and cooperation, are some of the ACK’s central goals.
As well, many people are unhappy with the lack of progress in ecumenical matters, especially sharing the Lord’s Supper across confessional boundaries. In Germany, there are many couples who belong to different churches and yearn to be able to take communion together.
Finally, since many people in Germany today have no real knowledge of or interest in the Christian faith, the churches have decided to make the 500 th anniversary of the Reformation a celebration of Jesus Christ (“Christusfest”). This anniversary can become an opportunity to engage people in dialogue and remind them – Christians and non-believers alike – of what the Christian faith is all about: God’s love in Christ for us humans and for all creation.
1 -This text has been condensed from a document reproduced under the sole authority and responsibility of the Council of Churches in Germany (ACK).