Home > Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2017 > Prayer and Worship: Ecumenical Situation in Germany

JANUARY 18–25, 2017

PRAYER / WORSHIP: The Ecumenical Situation in Germany

2017 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Prepared by the Council of Churches in Germany (ACK)

Working Together in a Changing Society

Of the 81 million inhabitants in Germany today, 50 million are Christian. Most of them belong either to the Roman Catholic Church or to one of the Protestant regional churches which together make up the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD). Although the other churches in Germany, “free churches,” the Orthodox church, and all other churches, are small by comparison, all major Christian traditions are present in Germany today.

Centuries ago, Germany consisted of many kingdoms and principalities but was united by a common church. The Reformation, led among others by Martin Luther, resulted in schisms within Western Christianity and ultimately in wars between Catholic and Protestant forces. The Peace of Augsburg (1555) temporarily put an end to these conflicts by stipulating that the people of a kingdom or principality were to adhere to the faith of their ruler. Those who believed differently were forced to convert or move to a different region. These provisions applied to Lutherans and Catholics, but not to the followers of Calvin and the Anabaptists, who were thus subject to persecution. The Peace of Augsburg held for over six decades until the outbreak of the Thirty Years War (1618–1648). Peace was regained again by the Peace of Westphalia which affirmed the Peace of Augsburg, this time, however, including the Calvinists. As a result, the German people lived in regional denominational isolation. Confessional diversity within a sovereign land was unthinkable and, driven by the horrors of war, mistrust and loathing between the denominations were rampant. The 19th century saw the advent of other churches and denominations in Germany, among them the Baptist and Methodist as well as old-confessional churches. Their rise was often due to inner church protest movements. As a result, these churches were relatively small in number and mostly disinclined to ecumenical relations.

After World War II, the situation of the Christian churches in Germany changed significantly. Refugees from the East of the German Empire moved to the West, and the allied forces saw to it that they were settled in Germany so as to bring Protestants and Catholics in contact with each other. Later economic growth led to a shortage of labour, resulting in agreements between the German government and many Mediterranean countries to have “guest workers” brought to Germany. In this way, people from Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Morocco, and Tunisia came to Germany, which increased the confessional and religious diversity in the country. This saw in particular an increase in the Orthodox presence in Germany. Although it was initially thought that they would return to their home countries after a couple of years (hence the name “guest workers”), they stayed and left their mark on German life and culture. The 1980s saw an increase of ethnic German immigrants, many of whom were Orthodox, Baptist, or Jewish. In recent years, war, terror, and social unrest in the Middle East, Africa, Afghanistan, Ukraine, and many other countries has generated a large flow of refugees. While most of them flee to neighbouring regions, there are increasing numbers of migrants trying to find refuge in Germany and in other European countries.

In former Eastern Germany, the churches, most 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 that, however, did not prevent the Christian faith from losing its significance in East Germany. The British newspaper, “The Guardian,” even reported that East Germany was “the most godless place on earth.” The rule of the communist government was by no means the only reason for the lack of religiosity there; the Christian faith had been on the decline in East Germany even before the communists came to power. The atheism there is not all aggressive in nature, like that of the so-called “new atheists.” Instead, it is characterized by a deep-rooted indifference to any kind of faith. When people in Berlin were asked whether they considered themselves to be believers or unbelievers, one answer was: “I’m neither, I’m normal.”

Today, Germany is home to people of many different cultural backgrounds and of different—or no—beliefs. About one third of the population belongs to one of the Protestant regional churches in the EKD, one third is Roman Catholic, and just under one third does not adhere to any faith. 1.7% of the population are Orthodox Christians, another 1.8% are members of one of the free churches. These are mostly churches which have strong historical and theological links to the Reformation but do not have ties to the state like the Roman Catholic Church and the EKD. 4.9% of the people in Germany are Muslim, 0.1% are Jewish.

The churches in Germany have not yet overcome all their differences, but they have learned to work together. During the rule of the National Socialists there were Christians who collaborated with the government. Others, however, offered resistance and were even imprisoned or sent to a concentration camp. The common experience of living and suffering under the dictatorship of the Nazis brought Christians of different traditions closer together. Today, German churches do a much better job of cooperating in order to fulfill the mission of the Church and witness to the Gospel in word and deed. Because the Roman Catholic Church and the EKD each have many members, they also make up a large part of the ecumenical cooperation that takes place in Germany.

Much of the ecumenism in Germany occurs at the grassroots level, for example, the Prayer Week of the Evangelical Alliance, and the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Neighbouring parishes and congregations often organize ecumenical activities like Bible study, discussing theological topics, celebrating festivals, creating a common website, visiting people who are new to the community, and distributing leaflets at a local train station that contain information about the Christian churches. This kind of work is usually done by volunteers who are members of the local churches. In some regions, congregations and parishes enter into local ecumenical partnerships, signing a formal agreement that shapes their cooperation. These agreements are usually based on similar written agreements between the leaders of the churches concerned.

Ecumenical work also occurs on the church leadership level. For example, a group of Catholic and Protestant bishops from the EKD meets twice a year to discuss current topics that affect the churches. Another group discusses theological issues—such as the concept of human dignity. In addition to these bilateral meetings, there are also regular meetings between representatives of the Orthodox Bishops’ Conference with Roman Catholic and with Protestant bishops, respectively, and between the Association of Free Churches and the EKD.

Large church conventions or gatherings for the members of a church are typical of the German Christian landscape. For Catholics they are called Katholikentage, and for Protestants, Kirchentage. Both take place every two years and are organized by the Central Committee of German Catholics and the German Evangelical Kirchentag (DEKT), respectively. In principle, they are primarily gatherings for the members of one church, but for many years now, members of different churches have attended or have even been invited as guest speakers.

In 2003 and in 2010 all the member churches of the German Council of Churches joined together to organise a similar convention on an ecumenical level called an Ökumenischer Kirchentag. Many issues that are important to German society were discussed there (the global financial crisis, climate change, ethical questions concerning human life, justice, etc.). Of equal importance were the many Bible studies, theological discussions, and ecumenical worship services. Holding these gatherings, especially the ecumenical Kirchentage, is an excellent opportunity for Christians in Germany to demonstrate not only that they are still active, but also that they are prepared to work together and to engage the rest of German society in dialogue.

The Council of Churches in Germany

The Council of Churches in Germany (Arbeitsgemeinschaft Christlicher Kirchen, ACK) was founded on 10 March 1948, i.e. a few months before the World Council of Churches was established. The founding members were the EKD, Mennonites, Baptists, Methodists, and the Old-Catholic Church. In 1974, ten years after the Decree on Ecumenism had been adopted by the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Germany joined the Council of Churches. The Orthodox Church, too, became a member in 1974. After the reunification of Germany, the West German and the East German Councils of Churches merged. Both councils had had different structures and membership, so it was necessary to form a new ecumenical body with a new statute. Today, the Council of Churches in Germany has 17 member churches. In addition, six churches are guest members and four ecumenical organizations have observer status.

In 2003, during the first Ecumenical Kirchentag in Berlin, representatives of all member churches of the ACK celebrated an ecumenical service and signed the Charta Oecumenica produced by the Conference of European Churches and the Council of European Episcopal Conferences of the Roman Catholic Church. The ACK also published its own text which reflects on the meaning of the Charta Oecumenica in the German context and on how the Charta can be put into practice in Germany.

In 2010, during the second Ecumenical Kirchentag in Munich, the ACK established an “Ecumenical Day of Creation,” thus implementing one of the recommendations of the Charta Oecumenica. The Ecumenical Day of Creation is intended both to be a common witness to our belief in God as Creator and to remind us of our joint task in preserving God’s creation. This Day of Creation is to be celebrated each year on the first Friday in September. The initial celebration of the Ecumenical Day of Creation was held by the ACK in an Orthodox church in Brühl. Today the Day of Creation is observed in cities all over Germany. The ACK encourages all German Christians to celebrate this day and publishes suggestions for worship services and additional material well in advance of September so that people can use it to plan their own celebration.

Another topic to which the Council of Churches has devoted much time and discussion is that of Baptism. In 2007, eleven member churches signed an agreement on the mutual recognition of Baptism. Five members of the Council of Churches, among them the Mennonites and the Baptists, felt unable to sign. Since then, the ACK has worked further on the issue of Baptism. The subject was discussed by the General Assembly of the ACK, and a public conference was held in March 2014. The ACK also held a consultation with the Finnish Ecumenical Council on the same topic. Articles 10 and 11 of the Charta Oecumenica recommend intensifying dialogue with representatives of the Jewish faith, and they encourage encounters between Christians and Muslims. Accordingly, the ACK has worked together with one Jewish and two Muslim organizations in an initiative called “Weißt du, wer ich bin?” (“Do you know who I am?”). This initiative offered advice and financial support in encouraging people of all three faiths to get to know each other and to engage in common activities at the grassroots level. A young Muslim woman was employed to coordinate this effort. Funding was also given by German and European state institutions.

The ACK has also given much thought to the document “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World”, and has set up a task force to coordinate work on the subject. In 2014, a conference was held that gave representatives of the member churches of the ACK and of the Evangelical Alliance (EA) the opportunity to discuss matters of witness and interreligious dialogue. As a result, the EA and the ACK have developed closer ties, and the EA has asked to join the ACK with observer status.

Ecumenical Challenges

One of the main ecumenical challenges Germany faces is maintaining a platform on which churches that are smaller in number can meet with the two large churches eye to eye. The Roman Catholic Church and the EKD are about the same size and have the same kinds of resources at their disposal. For that reason their cooperation comes naturally and covers a wide variety of topics—everything from “ecumenical weddings” to questions concerning the relationship between state and church. Many times, however, they work together on a strictly bilateral basis, the result being that other churches and even the ACK itself often do not have their due say in ecumenical matters. Doing justice to the fact that there are more than two churches in Germany and encouraging and enabling multilateral discourse and cooperation are some of the ACK’s central goals.

Another challenge is the frustration that many people feel, especially those who have laboured for a long time at the grassroots level, when they cannot see any progress in ecumenical matters. This frustration is felt most sharply when it comes to sharing the Lord’s Supper across confessional boundaries, known as Eucharistic sharing. There is a vast number of couples in Germany in which the two people belong to different churches. They not only yearn to be able to take communion together, but also feel deeply that the ecumenical movement should be bearing more fruit than it is, and are dissatisfied when they see stagnation instead of bold steps forward.

Many people in Germany today have no real knowledge of the Christian faith, and they do not seem interested in understanding, let alone embracing it. If the churches take their mission seriously to “go to all nations and make them my disciples” (Mt 28:19), it should be a priority for them to engage these people in dialogue. Instead of dealing with this challenge by themselves, churches should face it together, learning from each other’s experience and encouraging each other. Focusing on their common faith can only strengthen the bond among the churches. Also, trying together to communicate the Christian faith in an understandable way can lead the churches themselves to a deeper understanding of their own faith. The 500th anniversary of the Reformation can be seen as an opportunity to remind the public—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. That is why the churches in Germany have decided to make the anniversary a celebration of Jesus Christ (“Christusfest”).