Address at the summer reception of the Institute for Confessional Studies (KI) on “Ecumenism”, on September 3, 2019 in Bensheim

Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, Chair of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany

Ladies and gentlemen, sisters and brothers,

“A fresh start for ecumenism” is the topic you have given me for the KI’s summer reception today. This topic can be understood descriptively or programmatically. If you understand it descriptively you will probably want to add a question mark. After all, it is debatable whether we are experiencing a fresh start for ecumenism or whether the hopes that have perhaps arisen particularly in the last few years have been disappointed. One of the KI’s most important tasks is to provide analyses assisting us to assess the situation so that, on this basis, we can come up with the wisest possible strategies to strengthen ecumenism.

But despite the undisputable value of this sober, analytical approach, it seems to me that the task of the KI is not solely descriptive. The EKD would not maintain this institute if there were no programmatic intentions behind it. As a place of ecumenical research and learning, the KI exists due to the insight and theological conviction that the division of the church is not something we can get used to. And no one can express the reason for this better than Paul did in his first letter to the Corinthians:

“Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. (...) What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to

Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ’. Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptised in the name of Paul? (1 Cor 1:10-13).”

Has Christ been divided? We all know the answer. There is no Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox Christ, there is only one Lord Jesus Christ, who is the cornerstone of the church. And that is why the church as the body of Christ can never be satisfied with division.

That was the reason why the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 was celebrated as a great festival of Christ. During that year I always countered those who wanted to highlight our Protestant identity by showing our superiority over the Catholics with Martin Luther himself. Luther’s highest concern was always to rediscover Christ. Therefore the only truly Lutheran form of celebrating a Reformation anniversary was to find the way back to a common, ecumenical witness to Christ. And if anyone was still not convinced, I reminded them of the famous quotation from Martin Luther:

“The first thing that I ask is that people should not make use of my name and should not call themselves Lutherans, but Christians. What is Luther? The teaching is not mine. Nor was I crucified for anyone. St. Paul … would not tolerate anyone calling themselves Pauline or Petrine, but only Christians. How did I, poor stinking bag of maggots that I am, come to the point where people call the children of Christ by my unworthy name? Not so, dear friends. Let us eliminate the names that identify various parties and just call ourselves Christians, after Christ, whose teaching we have.“

No one needs to rename the Lutheran Church now. But we may certainly let Luther remind us that all confessionalism obscures our view of Christ, and that in our different denominations we constantly need to be called anew to Christ himself.

So it will not surprise you that I wholeheartedly approve the topic set me today, also in its programmatic sense. “A fresh start  for ecumenism” – that is just what we want!

Now, by detailing a few highlights from the last few years, I will try to show that there are good reasons for taking up this topic in a descriptive sense as well, and thereby adding – instead of a question mark - a cautious exclamation mark, if there is such a thing.

The Busan Unity Statement

At the Tenth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 2013 in Busan (South Korea), the representatives of 500 million Christians from all over the world adopted a statement on church unity that, at world level, breathes exactly the spirit that I described regarding our Reformation quincentenary. As moderator of the working group that had to present the document to the assembly I had first-hand experience of the constructive spirit in which we worked together – representing Protestant and Orthodox churches, but also the Roman Catholic Church. The document, which the assembly finally approved unanimously, states:

“Only as Christians are being reconciled and renewed by God‘s Spirit will the church bear authentic witness to the possibility of reconciled life for all people, for all creation… (para 11).

We affirm the place of the Church in God’s design and repent of the divisions among and within our churches, confessing with sorrow that our disunity undermines our witness to the good news of Jesus Christ and makes less credible our witness to that unity God desires for all. We confess our failures to do justice, to work for peace, and to sustain creation. Despite our failings, God is faithful and forgiving and continues to call us to unity. Having faith in God’s creating and re-creating power, we long for the church to be foretaste, credible sign and effective servant of the new life that God is offering to the world. It is in God, who beckons us to life in all its fullness, that joy, hope and a passion for unity are renewed (para 14).”

From my viewpoint these words are very relevant to our German situation in 2019. This year we got the figures of the Freiburg study, which say that an extrapolation of present trends will lead to our membership falling by half. Our lack of unity undermines our witness to the good news of Jesus Christ and reduces the credibility of our testimony that unity is God’s wish for all – this diagnosis is of great relevance when we come to deal with the Freiburg figures.

We have failed “to do justice, to work for peace, and to sustain creation”, and people do not really sense that we ourselves radiate what we talk about – this could also be an explanation for people losing their links with the church. Credibility is perhaps the strongest element of the church’s missional outreach.

Lately I have become aware of this in a way you would not expect when speaking of missional outreach. During my time as bishop I have never received so many approving emails, Facebook newsfeeds and letters as since my visit to the Seawatch crew in Sicily and the subsequent Palermo Appeal. Many people write: finally the church is not only talking but giving hands-on support! Or: now I know why I pay church tax. Naturally we also received critical letters about our commitment to search and rescue (SAR) of refugees in distress at sea. But unlike what I had expected, the number of those encouraging us not to give up in our commitment is much greater; they want us to take up the idea aired at the Kirchentag to share in providing a ship for SAR.

Naturally we do not take our decisions in the EKD bodies on the basis of the number of letters we get on certain topics. Before deciding on the idea from the Kirchentag we will give it due consideration. But it is already clear that such a decision has an impact on the way the church is perceived, precisely by groups that doubt the credibility of its commitment to people, particularly to the most vulnerable. If we really take seriously the Busan Statement that we have failed “to do justice, to work for peace, and to sustain creation”, then we have no alternative but to draw conclusions for our future actions, whatever the implementation of these basic orientations then specifically involves.

Moreover, at the last meeting of the contact group of the EKD and the German Bishops‘ Conference we agreed that we could indeed become more ecumenical in our diaconal activities and that this is also necessary, in order to give a truly credible church witness to the love of God for all people.

I will now skip forward from the 2013 Busan Unity Statement to 2017. I have already briefly mentioned why for this centenary, for the first time in history since the Reformation, we did not celebrate in such a way as to try and reinforce our identity as Protestants by disparaging Catholics, but rather through a joint ecumenical reference to Christ.

Insights from the Reformation anniversary

The Reformation anniversary signalled a fresh start for ecumenism, which was enabled, in my view, by two crucial experiences. The first one was the pain at the existing division between the churches, which we felt all the more deeply as we grew closer in a personal sense. And the second was the spiral of appreciation that developed as we reciprocally rediscovered each others’ strengths.

In October 2016 I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with the EKD Council and nine Catholic bishops. There we held a service in the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes in the Tabgha monastery right at the Sea of Galilee. It was a Catholic Eucharist and we Protestants had to stay in our seats. I believe that all of us still feel the pain of not being able to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together at this special place. And we pledged to work even more passionately towards church unity.

Only two weeks later, at a joint service, the leaders of the Lutheran World Federation and Pope Francis stated together:

“Many members of our communities yearn to receive the Eucharist at one table, as the concrete expression of full unity. We experience the pain of those who share their whole lives, but cannot share God’s redeeming presence at the Eucharistic table. We acknowledge our joint pastoral responsibility to respond to the spiritual hunger and thirst of our people to be one in Christ. We long for this wound in the body of Christ to be healed. This is the goal of our ecumenical endeavours.”

And then on 11 March 2017 the ecumenical service on the “healing of memories” took place in St Michael’s Church, Hildesheim, and was broadcasted live on TV by ARD. Many people were greatly moved by it, including myself. I was particularly touched when Cardinal Marx addressed the following words to me as the representative of 21 million Protestant Christians in Germany:

“We thank God for the spiritual, theological and ethical insights of the Reformation, which we can share in the Catholic Church. One is the valuing of God’s Word and Holy Scripture. Another is the doctrine of justification: it is important for the Catholic Church, too, that a human being is justified not by works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ. We see the commitment of so many men and women in Protestant congregations as a living witness to faith. We highly esteem the intensive discussions and responsible decision-making processes in your synods. We are impressed at the strong involvement of the Protestant church in diakonia, in our country and all over the world. We could name much more. Protestant sisters and brothers: we thank God for you and that you bear the name of Jesus Christ.”

In response, I then stated what we appreciate about our Catholic brothers and sisters in faith:

“We thank God for the witness to faith of the Catholic Church. We see that it is a world church, in the true sense of the world, connecting nations, languages and cultures. With great respect we look at the love of liturgy nurtured in the Catholic Church. We highly esteem the special attention to the traditions of faith, confession and thought that have shaped the history of Christianity and hence our own history too. We know we are challenged to deepen our own understanding of the church and church unity, of ordination and ministry, in dialogue with Catholic theology. We are impressed by the charitable ministry of the Catholic Church in Germany and all over the world. We could name much more. Catholic brothers and sisters in faith: We thank God for you and that you bear the name of Jesus Christ.”

The Hildesheim liturgy was also used by many parishes in services all over Germany. The reports I heard about these services touched me and strengthened my hope that this new ecumenical dynamic cannot be reversed. It was very pleasing when, as a consequence of the anniversary year – after some ups and downs and concerns about another ecumenical standstill – practical steps were taken to make it easier for interconfessional couples to receive the Eucharist together.

And we have made such great progress on the way to the ecumenical Kirchentag in Frankfurt 2021 that mutual Eucharistic hospitality seems possible, or at least not entirely out of the question. We can dream...

At any rate, what we are experiencing is an “ecumenism on the way”. I pray that the Holy Spirit can both hurry us up and give us the necessary tailwind.

In 2018 Pope Frances visited the World Council of Churches in Geneva on the occasion of its 70th anniversary. His sermon is also encouraging:

What binds us to one another, said the Pope, “is much stronger than what divides us“. Walking together ecumenically “in the eyes of the world (...) often means operating at a loss. Let us not be afraid to operate at a loss! Ecumenism is ‚a great enterprise operating at a loss‘. But the loss is evangelical, reflecting the words of Jesus: ‘Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it’ (Lk 9:24).”

And he continued:

“After so many years of ecumenical commitment, on this seventieth anniversary of the World Council, let us ask the Spirit to strengthen our steps. All too easily we halt before our continuing differences; all too often we are blocked from the outset by a certain weariness and lack of enthusiasm. Our differences should not be excuses. Even now we can walk in the Spirit: we can pray, evangelize, serve together. This is possible and it is pleasing to God! Walking, praying and working together: this is the great path that we are called to follow today.”

From bilateral to multilateral ecumenism

The ecumenical path referred to by Pope Francis includes all denominations. Although all the member churches of the Council of Christian Churches in Germany (ACK) were involved in the 2017 anniversary, it strongly emphasised relations between Protestants and Catholics. Now and in the coming years, we must move on even more from a bilateral towards a multilateral ecumenism.

The history of the Bensheim Institute for Confessional Studies itself shows such a movement. In the heyday of the institute there were three (!) Catholica officers but little attention was paid to other denominations. From 1981 intra-Protestant and Roman Catholic ‘ecumenism’ was supplemented by research and dialogue with Free Churches and Orthodox Churches. That was a good course of action and we should continue to pursue it.

This is reflected in the history of the Ecumenical Kirchentag (EKT). The first one (EKT 2003) in Berlin was the responsibility of the two major churches in Germany. EKT 2010 in Munich also brought the ACK on board. The Orthodox traditions contributed the Artoklasia (breaking of bread) which became its strongest ecumenical symbol.

EKT 2021 in Frankfurt now intends to focus more strongly on worldwide Christianity. The Free Churches, Pentecostal and migrant churches, which have so far been on the fringe of ecumenical attention, should become more visible as part of the ecumenical community.

And naturally my hope to strengthen multilateral ecumenism applies all the more to the WCC Assembly in Karlsruhe. Its theme:           “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity” is a really good basis for that.

I therefore hope that the descriptive dimension of my presentation indeed deserves an exclamation mark!

Let me conclude by sharing a vision of the future.

A vision for the future

Let us hope for a moment that in 2030, the 500th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, which cemented church division in 1530, the visible unity of the churches in reconciled diversity will have arrived and we will be gathered together at the Lord’s Table. 50 years after that – two generations – let us imagine that the One Church of Jesus Christ in 2080 celebrates the 50th anniversary of church unity and gratefully looks back to how it came about. And let us finally imagine the 600th anniversary of the Reformation in 2117. The unity of the two mainline churches has become normality. Three generations have grown up not knowing anything else. And now, in a church history symposium in 2117 they try to understand how, for heaven’s sake, Christians – a hundred years ago – were able to so confidently skate over all the biblical texts referring to unity, one faith, one baptism, the one Lord and Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ’s invitation to his table, addressed to all who follow him. They will attempt to understand why their predecessors were able to simply ignore the fact that there is no Catholic Christ, no Protestant Christ and no Orthodox Christ, but only the one Lord Jesus Christ!

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the church historians at that symposium said, looking back over the preceding century: 2017 with its ecumenical services and so many other events marking the quincentenary of the Reformation became a turning point in people’s hearts – at the top as much as at the bottom in the church. It led to a profound feeling that we all belong together as Christians and no one can tear us apart. Only together can we give a strong witness to reconciliation in a fragmented world. 2017 gave the decisive push needed for all doctrinal conversations,all the consensual agreements achieved and all the experiences of ecumenical communion finally led to the goal of visible unity in reconciled diversity13 years later. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people 100 years from now could say that about the Reformation anniversary year and the years thereafter?

We should not be satisfied with less!

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