Christians should be more ecumenical

Ecumenism in the 21st Century

Conditions - theological foundations - perspectives

1. Introduction: Ecumenism - what is it?

Ecumenism - for many it refers to the relationship between Protestant churches and the Catholic Church. For others, partnering with churches overseas. The commitment in the One World Shop or for “Bread for the World” - is that also ecumenical? Do mission and ecumenism belong together? And what does that mean in relation to Jews and Muslims and in dialogue with other religions?

It is true: the term ecumenism encompasses various dimensions. It is comprehensive and concrete at the same time. "The whole inhabited world" (Lk 2,1) - that is the meaning of the Greek word oikoumene - is the space in which the Christian faith, in which Christians and churches move. Christians have been brothers and sisters around the world from the start. What they experience in their community, in their church, is always only "a province in the worldwide Church of Jesus Christ" (Ernst Lange). Their Christian witness and their service in the world also get their own color from what other people say and do in other traditions, creeds, churches, cultures and contexts. The home in a specific place and at the same time in the one world belong together. Christians are baptized into the one Church of Jesus Christ and are thus from the outset in an indissoluble relationship with Christians and churches all over the world. Ecumenism is therefore not so much a geographical as a theological determination. The churches do not have the choice whether they "also" think, speak and act ecumenically; they are already in this context. This is how they are related - to all Christians, even to all people everywhere.

Ecumenism therefore has a lot to do with the shaping of relationships. Theological dialogues ask how churches of different backgrounds can meet and communicate. In partnerships, Christians and churches from different contexts enter into binding relationships. In the ecumenical movement, Christians look for new expressions of faith and community and for answers to pressing questions of our time. In ecumenical institutions and organizations, the coexistence of churches is placed in an orderly framework and their cooperation is facilitated. Churches also take on responsibility in projects and networks in cooperation with other partners. In mission and development, the own and the global context come into focus equally. In encounters with people from other cultures and / or religions, understanding is sought, "conviviality" is practiced and opportunities for common advocacy for justice and peace are sought.

Ecumenism has many dimensions. They are bundled as in a prism in the conviction that every Christian testimony and every service will always remain particular. To be Christian and to be a church, the churches need other Christians and churches. They pray for one another and strengthen one another, they complement one another and correct one another, they argue with one another and sing with one another, they let one another partake of their piety and their commitment, they wonder about the church structures of others and their poverty or wealth, they make each other possible a different view of their own theology and their own view of the world, they take part in joy and sorrow.

The one world takes shape in dialogue and in coexistence with people from other traditions, denominations, religions and world views. One's own belief is related to the belief of others and is brought to mind in contact with the other, including the stranger. Not only "in listening to the sisters and brothers" in faith, but also in the encounter with members of other religions is the chance to reassure oneself and to change and thus to express one's own faith.

1.1 A look back

The Protestant churches in Germany have been heavily involved in ecumenical and ecumenical relations since the end of the Second World War and have benefited from them themselves. The resumption of the Protestant Christians in Germany in the fellowship of the other churches of the ecumenical "family" following the declaration of guilt in Stuttgart seventy years ago was a great sign of reconciliation for the EKD and its member churches and also strengthened their own new beginning. This was also possible because the resistance in the time of National Socialism was often embedded ecumenically. During the Cold War, the World Council of Churches (WCC), the Conference of European Churches (CEC), churches and confederations such as the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the World Reformed Federation (WARC) helped to build bridges between the East in Germany and west. They helped build and strengthen the WCC and CEC. The ecumenical diakonia with the evangelical development service and "bread for the world" [2] emerged from small beginnings. In the ecumenical context, reconciliation processes with the countries and their churches that had suffered particularly under the rule of National Socialism and the Second World War that began in Germany became possible in the 1960s and 1970s. Through the »Ostdenkschrift« of the EKD, the political opening towards the countries of Eastern Europe and the reconciliation with them received significant impulses from the Evangelical Church. Ecumenical relations and the theological work of the World Council of Churches put the concept of mission to the test and helped to create a new, partnership-based understanding of mission, for example under the concept of the Missio Dei.

The Leuenberg Agreement (1973) and the resulting Community of Protestant Churches in Europe made it possible to overcome differences between the Protestant churches in Europe. Theological doctrinal conversations are still important tools in their work. Numerous dialogues between churches and church families were held in order to better understand each other theologically and, where possible, to achieve a common understanding on important issues. The declarations by Meißen (1988) [3] and Porvoo (1995) [4], but also the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999) [5] show that such dialogues can also lead to more far-reaching agreements.

The Charter Oecumenica (2003) [6] was signed by Orthodox, Anglican, Roman Catholic, Old Catholic and Protestant churches in Europe and thus occupies a special position in the field of ecumenical documents in Europe.

The 1970s and 1980s were years of new beginnings in ecumenism, which released a great deal of commitment and aroused great hopes for more binding fellowship among the Christian churches: At that time, many partnerships with churches in Europe and overseas emerged. In addition, the models of the "holistic mission" [7] and the "convivence" in the sense of the coexistence of differently shaped Christians, churches and religions were developed. Intensive theological discussions and practical cooperation with the Roman Catholic Church shaped the decades as well as advocating the rights of refugees and asylum seekers and the search for fellowship with "communities of other languages ​​and origins". At that time the understanding of life in the One World and the related issues of a fairer world economy and the connection between lifestyles here and life opportunities there grew. Ecumenical conferences and assemblies gave many people overwhelming experiences in dialogue and encounter and evoked a broad echo in the church (s) and the public.

Ecumenical units and departments, ecumenical workshops and centers were set up in the EKD and its member churches. Mission organizations redefined their self-image and became brokers and competence centers for partnerships and ecumenical learning. Initiatives and associations inside and outside the churches became driving forces in the ecumenical movement and challenged the churches (leaders) to get more involved and express themselves in ecumenical and political issues. In the “Conciliar Process for Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation”, political issues were partially re-placed on the churches' agenda. Lively and often controversial debates were held at ecumenical meetings, in Protestant academies and church institutes, for example about the WCC's anti-racism fund or questions about arms exports, nuclear weapons and peace services. With their commitment to justice and peace, Christians, especially in the GDR, supported by the »Conciliar Process for Peace, Justice and the Preservation of Creation« and the ecumenical meetings in Dresden (1988) and Magdeburg (1989), contributed significantly to strengthening democratic forces in their country.

This brief review already shows how much ecumenical concerns moved the churches in the second half of the 20th century. In view of the current situation in ecumenism, however, it would not be appropriate to describe the past as a "golden age of ecumenism". Almost all of the new beginnings and topics described were connected with conflicts. Theological questions were contested as well as influence and participation in ecumenical organizations; about political declarations as well as about the church's commitment to social issues. The evaluation of apartheid politics in South Africa and the possible consequences associated with it, the financial support of the anti-racism fund of the WCC from church taxes, the importance of feminist theology, the debates about the "peace service with and / or without arms", the disputes about Dealing with and the rights of asylum seekers and refugees - these and other issues have often turned into crucial tests in the context of the EKD, the Federation of Evangelical Churches in the GDR (BEK), their member churches and their ecumenical relationships. Again and again there were disappointments, breaks and lasting differences.

At the same time, from today's point of view, it can be said that the disputes of that time opened the churches to democratic processes, strengthened their culture of debate and established them as an intermediary body in society. If it seems natural today for churches (representatives) and synods to express their views on current political issues, this could be, for example, B. can also be traced back to the disputes in the »Conciliar Process for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation«.

The conflicts emerging today, which are described below, show how much churches speak and act against the background of their own theological understanding, but also their cultural and traditional context. If the question of traditional values ​​or the power imbalance is understood as a central feature of one's own ecclesiastical identity, this reinforces differences that may have existed before but did not appear to be significant for the relationship between churches. Conversely, current developments also show that supposedly unchangeable self-images of churches can change through intensive encounters and growing closeness among the churches.

The various actors contributed to the fact that theological communication processes could take place with great density and intensity. Many agreements were reached, but with them open and difficult questions came on the table. Differences, for example, in the understanding of the church and in terms of unity could not be overcome. The further work on such questions is not only a permanent or ever new challenge, it is also necessary in view of the continuing pain over their church-dividing effects.

1.2. Crisis of ecumenism?

Today many speak of the »ecumenical crisis«, others see more signs of upheaval. A certain amount of uncertainty has arisen as current developments seem to call into question some of what has already been achieved or clarified. The current problems and challenges are described here on the basis of four areas:

Basic theological questions with regard to ecclesiology (the understanding of the Church), the Understanding of unity and the resulting models of church relations or church fellowship could not be clarified. In the best case scenario, this always results in new search movements. The conversation between the Community of Evangelical Churches in Europe and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity can serve as an example, as can the Meissen Declaration between the Evangelical Churches in Germany and the Church of England. In addition, however, there is still a dispute about how churches from different denominational traditions can theologically advise and make decisions with one another. Practical possibilities of organizing ecumenical relationships have again become controversial, such as the joint celebration of devotions and church services.

Between churches in "North" and "South", in the relationship between large and small, majority and minority churches, in partnerships, in mission and ecumenical diakonia, there are questions of justice in these relationships, but also in terms of justice in the World economic relations and global (environmental) developments on the agenda and are sometimes discussed with great vehemence and controversy. An example of this is the Accra Declaration (2004), which was adopted by the 24th General Assembly of the World Reformed Federation as a "commitment to faith", as a "confession of faith in the face of economic injustice and ecological destruction". The World Council of Churches gave a new impetus with the "Pilgrimage for Justice and Peace" proclaimed at the general assembly in Busan / Korea.

In many cases, political and social changes forced us to critically review the results of ecumenical discussions that had been developed within the framework of a particular social and political system in view of new social and political conditions. The Orthodox churches in Eastern Europe, for example, were faced with this challenge. Since these churches joined the WCC in 1961, the contribution of these churches to ecumenical dialogue could not have been made without regard to the discourse of the prevailing socialist ideology. The state had also promoted the formation of a small elite of ecumenical "cadres" in these churches by restricting the freedom of travel and through the instrument of censorship. Therefore, the ecumenical movement in the countries of Eastern Europe was exposed to massive criticism after 1989, both through the cooperation of central actors with the secret services and through the equation of ecumenical dialogue with state socialism, assumed by public opinion [8]. As a result of these developments, individual churches, such as the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, plunged into an internal crisis that led to the division of the Church and the withdrawal from the bodies of the global ecumenical movement.

In the past few years and until today there were questions of social ethics, but above all Lifestyle issues Reason for disputes, sometimes even for the interruption or termination of decades-long partnerships or dialogues between churches (example: Presbyterian Church of Ghana - Evangelical Church in Hesse and Nassau [hereinafter: EKHN], Mekane Yesus Church - Evangelical Lutheran Church of America [hereinafter : ELCA], Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate [hereinafter: ROK] and Lutheran Churches of Scandinavia). The question of equality between same-sex partnerships in church and society is often at the center of controversy. These take place within churches and denominations as well as between churches of different denominational families (for example between Protestant churches and, on the other hand, the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches). In the case of the Eastern European Orthodox Churches, after the end of ideological repression in 1989, their positions were reorganized in line with the still uncertain political and social conditions. a. in the field of social ethics. In the case of the ROK, these changes led to the formulation of a concept of inalienable moral "values" [9], also in deliberate delimitation from the socio-ethical positions of the "western" churches. In the socio-ethical discussion of ecumenism, surprising new coalitions could emerge, for example between Evangelicals in Germany and the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession (hereinafter: Evangelical Church A. B.) in Poland or between the ROK and Evangelical churches from the United States.

Often in these constellations, other issues are connected with conflicts at the same time: the understanding of marriage and family, human rights, the role of women in the family and society, the ordination of women and their participation in leadership tasks in the church.Within Europe, it is primarily churches from Central and Eastern Europe that - in some cases regardless of their denomination - see themselves as conservative and as guardians of traditional values ​​and thus strongly differ from the churches in the west and north (and also from the European Union) demarcate who, in their opinion, have given up important Christian values.

In connection with the crisis in ecumenism, the lack of reception of ecumenical understanding beyond the circle of ecumenical experts and particularly committed people is often lamented. Indeed it is often no deeper understanding of ecumenism and ecumenical institutions grown in regional churches and parishes. This may also be a reason why the obligations to ecumenical organizations such as the Working Group of Christian Churches, the Community of Evangelical Churches in Europe, the Conference of European Churches and the World Council of Churches are repeatedly questioned. Incidentally, this observation applies not only to the German, but also to the international context. In addition, the prominent personalities who strongly shaped the ecumenical movement and embodied it publicly are no longer responsible. Compared to the optimistic mood of the 1960s, the ecumenical mentality has changed in the last two decades. This raises the question of how each generation gains its own access to ecumenism. The plurality of ways of life, the global networking that has become a matter of course, and the rapid forms of communication shape the world of young people today and are changing ecumenical issues and forms of participation. A lower level of trust in church institutions compared to older generations contributes to the fact that the younger generation is less involved in the existing ecumenical structures. Here it is important that churches and congregations communicate internally and externally that ecumenism in its various facets is part of the core of their faith. For them, for example, questions of new forms of participation as well as theological training and further education, the setting of priorities in their daily work, the support of ecumenical structures and organizations are connected.

Many of the topics mentioned here have in common that they directly affect one's own belief, practice, and understanding of the church. A new phase of ecumenical relationships may become visible in this, in which questions of getting to know and understand and the building of ecumenical relationships and partnerships are deepened or replaced by questions that come very close to the self-image of those involved. Even if dealing with these questions is often difficult and leads to conflicts: They have to be given their place if honesty and credibility are to be preserved. In the relationship between churches in the north and the south, between large and small churches, questions about power imbalances and participation are naturally present. Discussions about global justice correspond to the perception of the world as the "whole inhabited world". Fundamental theological questions cannot be left out or skipped if the partners take each other seriously. Questions of lifestyle and the role of women in church and society are often only superficially discussed theologically or biblically; New approaches and forms of processing will be needed in order to reveal how much attitudes are also shaped here culturally and contextually.

In order to conduct these necessary dialogues and to take further joint steps, the commitment of many people is required. The churches in Germany also need a new start here. Strengthening shared Christian witness and service is just as important as working together for justice and peace in the face of climate change.

A great wealth of insights and experiences has arisen in ecumenical relationships and has already been achieved:

  • the common praise of God in many forms and languages,
  • spiritual encounters and theological fundamental work in bilateral and multilateral dialogues,
  • ecumenical partnerships and the cultivation of church fellowship with other churches,
  • the experience of mutual intercession and solidarity,
  • surprising experiences of closeness when meeting people from other contexts and cultures,
  • joint documents and public statements, representing the positions of the churches in relation to political institutions.

In all of this there is also the experience that unity can shine through diversity. Ecumenism pervades being Christian and being a church from the beginning. This insight has to prove itself anew in the daily life of Christians and Protestant churches in Germany. For the German context as well as internationally, ecumenism in its many facets is needed more than ever as an alternative model of globalization that is determined by faith, hope and love.

Next chapter