Ministries Abroad Conference in Wittenberg: persevering, bright and cheerful
Opening of encounter in Luther's town with visitors from all over the world
July 4, 2012
In the beginning was the word, but in many different languages: dozens of posters hung from the gallery of the Wittenberg City Church at the opening service. They read, in the languges of many faraway countries, "In the beginning was the Word" or, for example, "Pada mulanay adala Firman" - what language could that be? More language games when reading the Psalm: having women and men read alternately is common in many services but dividing into the under and over 40s - that does not happen every day! Happy and engaging was the singing of the child care team ("He's got the whole world in his hand") and thoughtful the sermon of Martin Schindehütte, bishop of ecumenical relations and ministries abroad, comparing the beginning of St John's gospel (In the beginning was the word) with the slightly modified claim of the Luther decade (At the beginning was the word).
At the beginning was the word, but not just one: "Whenever I say Wittenberg or Reformation or Protestantism, then beat the syllables with me!" with this tactic Katrin Göring-Eckardt, president of the EKD Synod, had got the numerous children involved even before bringing her greeting at the Wittenberg town hall. They listened like lynxes and beat out the three key words every time they came up, which was extremely often. Protestantism had changed the world, she said, but the world had also changed Protestantism, and "the historical and Reformation legacy comes together with the worldwide perspective at such a conference. The German pastors serving congregations abroad form a bridge between Wittenberg and the world as they experience other cultures, thought forms and behaviors every day." Katrin Göring-Eckardt extended her thanks on behalf of the EKD to the about 100 pastors who were in Wittenberg for several days: "You provide an important meeting point for people who live abroad for professional or private reasons, permanently or for a certain time."
Next morning, after the empowering devotions in the Castle Church, participants proceeded to the auditorium of the Leucorea Foundation to hear a subtle, lucid lecture by Christoph Markschies, a Berlin church historian and chair of the EKD's advisory commission on theology. He underlined that a Reformation anniversary in the context of international ecumenism had to include both gratitude at the ecumenical progress achieved and also a description of the remaining painful differences. According to Markschies, the Reformation had aimed at a reform of the whole church and by no means a schism. For that reason, regardless of its failure at the time, the Reformation concern should be reformulated after 500 years but not as a "part-church self- restriction". Markschies: "We should celebrate Reformation not as a confession of guilt for the division of the western church, but also without glorifying that lamentable development." Instead, Markschies continued, it was matter of making a "sober, honest confession of guilt", but also confessing the freedom the Reformation had given the church.
In addition, the church historian urged the audience to look to the future, concluding: "Let us boldly and cheerfully ask how we wish to see Protestantism in the next hundred years. How does the society around us see it, how do other Christians, other religions, people with no religion wish to see the Protestant churches? If we could already be cheerful and serene, energetic and courageous in tackling the ongoing internal church reform processes in the EKD churches (under the heading 'church of freedom') we would end up celebrating a Reformation anniversary that tries to seriously address the reforming side of the Reformation."
The working groups after the lecture were the scene of lively discussions. Lots of questions were asked, e.g. "How should we interact with Charismatics and Pentecostalists?" Others called for "courage to contest", since in ecumenical contacts there was a frequent tendency to understate one's own tradition, but that did not always help. And there was also a complaint that some approaches to the Reformation anniversary seemed more like "problem-oriented religious education"; Protestant Christians often failed to radiate enough "serene, cheerful self-confidence". Nor was there enough courage to take practical ecumenical steps. "We often just stick to our own sides," one pastor lamented and, moreover, in many places there was often not yet a realization of basic ecumenical insights.
The discussions were still going strong at noon, and then the afternoon program featured cultural excursions in Wittenberg. In the evening more discussions were planned, with a sharing of the many perspectives from all over the world - hopefully still so persevering, bright cheerful!