25 years of Kirchengemeinschaft by Vikarin Elga Zachau

25 years of Kirchengemeinschaft by Vikarin Elga Zachau

Vikarin Elga Zachau
Ruhr-Universität Bochum
UCC-EKU/UEK Konsultation
Berlin, November 2005

Please allow me to begin with three preliminary remarks:

First, a formality: when in the following I use the term “Kirchengemeinschaft”, I use it referring to the relationship between our two churches, between EKU, now UEK, and UCC.

Second, I will speak about the present situation, where UCC and UEK meet as denominational partners.[1]

hird, I regard the issue from two intersecting viewpoints: one relating to personal experience and the other one to critical analysis.[2]

And here I stand before you: a contemporary witness, one of the younger people in our churches, for whom the experience of Kirchengemeinschaft has been a special blessing in her life, and also as an observer. Since Kirchengemeinschaft is a living relationship between people here and today, I think it’s impossible to approach it in an exclusively academic and neutral manner. In the following, I would like to interweave some analytical aspects, some personal experiences, as well as some of my own wishes for the future of our relationship.

1 What is EKU/UEK-UCC Kirchengemeinschaft?

If I would like to pass this question on to you, I am convinced we would hear as many different answers as we are people gathered in this room. And each answer would be justified; because it is its great scope and its many dimensions that constitute Kirchengemeinschaft. This has been a fact from the very beginning. There has never been only one interpretation of what Kirchengemeinschaft is and what its goals are.

In the official documents, like the resolutions of our synods of 25 years ago, we find very diverse approaches to the term Kirchengemeinschaft:

– Theologically, Kirchengemeinschaft is interpreted as a “Covenant in Mission and Faith”[3] in the Presence of the Lord.

– Kirchengemeinschaft is gratefully celebrated as a “gift from the Spirit”[4].

– In regard to its inner-church implications, Kirchengemeinschaft is determined to be a mutual acknowledgement of “the integrity of mission and faith”[5] of the partner church.

– During the preparations for the synods in 1980/81 one thought became very prominent: Kirchengemeinschaft was regarded as the long existing relationship between our two churches which had developed over decades; the former and current encounters were recognized as a way of experiencing Kirchengemeinschaft.

– In the context of the ecumenical movement, Kirchengemeinschaft is seen as a conscious deepening of the relationship of individual United and Uniting Churches with one another.

– Both churches regard Kirchengemeinschaft as a common task, as a “mandate for renewal in mission and faith”[6].

Next to these written testimonies, there are numerous personal interpretations. Related to the written and personal approaches I see different dimensions of Kirchengemeinschaft. It is my concern today to introduce to you ten of these many dimensions.[7]

2 The diverse dimensions of Kirchengemeinschaft

2.1 The dimension of family relationships

In 1994, my own relationship with the UCC began with the knowledge of having “church relatives” on the other side of the Atlantic. To say it right away: I do have “real” relatives in the USA, but they belong to other Protestant denominations. It was through them that I got to know US-American church life when I was a youngster in the 1980s.

Several years later, already a student of theology, I wished to deepen my impressions of that time. I wanted to complete a practical study of parish life in a US-American congregation. When I began my practical planning, the following thoughts entered my mind: On the one hand, there were the positive memories I had of the Baptist congregation that my family in California belongs to. But on the other hand, I could remember from confirmation class that our Westphalian Church had a special relationship to the UCC in the USA. And so I thought: This time I will not visit the denomination of my relatives again, but instead a denomination which is a “relative” of my own denomination. I was looking not only for the experience of American church life in general, but I wanted to get involved in this church-family-relationship. I simply had the feeling that the UCC would be the church in the USA which I as a Westphalian divinity school student should go to. I was curious und excited, to meet this “relative” in the USA.

My practical studies at Trinity UCC in Canton, Ohio, in 1995, were mentored by Rev. David Schoen, who is now leader of the Evangelism Ministry Team of the UCC. The experience was among the most impressive ones in the course of my studies. My church relatives welcomed me with open arms like a family member. In the life of this congregation of the former Evangelical and Reformed Church, I discovered many familiar features and much that I could relate to. Many members of German origin were glad that, through me, they could get back in touch with their own family tradition and hear about life in church and society in Germany today. For both sides, these encounters had the nature of a family reunion. And in yet another sense I felt like I had found a family in the US. I stayed with a wonderful family from the congregation, who had a 13- year-old daughter by the name of Abbey. Abbey also had two elder brothers. She was happy about my presence in the family and soon adopted me as her big sister. For me, an only child, this was a unforgettable experience. I enjoyed my new role and tried to do my best. Abbey’s dream was to become a ballet dancer. I accompanied her to rehearsals and performances. One year later, Abbey was diagnosed with bone cancer in her leg. She was immediately operated on. I spent my vacation with her while she was between chemo therapy and physical therapy. During the next 4 years, Abbey and I stayed as close as possible while living so far apart from each other. She shared her dreams and joys with me – in fun teenager e-mails and very serious letters. Her illness progressed inexorably. These days, as I write these lines, Abbey has been dead 5 years. Kirchengemeinschaft has given me a little sister; only for 5 years, but with everlasting memories. Kirchengemeinschaft means to share life as a family in good times and bad.

2.2 The dimension of prayer and worship

At all times of our relationship, all parties have always stressed that for them, common worship services, common bible studies, a shared spiritual life represent the deepest dimension of Kirchengemeinschaft. When we are gathered together around the communion table, we can feel that it isn’t us who call one another to Kirchengemeinschaft, but that the relationship is God’s gift to us. We experience ourselves as being called to common service; we hear God’s promise to be with us and God’s assurance that the covenant of Kirchengemeinschaft is grounded in God’s covenant with us.

These days, we celebrate worship service with each other and pray together and for each other. I wish that the experience of this dimension of Kirchengemeinschaft will strengthen us for the path ahead, but also that it will be a relief of our burdens. A relief, insofar as we will not expect and demand everything of ourselves and each other, but are reminded of who is the Lord of the church and Kirchengemeinschaft.

2.3 The dimension of the ecumenical bond between United and Uniting Churches

Kirchengemeinschaft is a way for churches to shape individual bilateral (or trilateral) ecumenical relationships. Kirchengemeinschaft is not a model for churches to maintain all their ecumenical relationships.

Decades ago, United and Uniting Churches, gathered under the roof of the WCC, made the conscious decision not to form their own world federation. At the same time they were looking for ways to deepen their relationships between individual United Churches worldwide. At the Consultation of United and Uniting Churches in Toronto in 1975, UCC President Bob Moss and Oberkirchenrat Reinhard Groscurth from the EKU could already look upon the developing bilateral relationships between EKU and UCC. They recognized a promising way for their respective churches, but also for all other United Churches. The consultation picked up the recommendations of Moss and Groscurth that United and Uniting Churches should maintain intensified bilateral relationships with one another. EKU and UCC continued on the path they had set out on – the results are known to us. And we celebrate them in great gratitude today.

In the years following the declaration of Kirchengemeinschaft, this impulse towards Kirchengemeinschaft coming out of the ecumenical movement was given less priority.

In both churches there were critical voices, questioning Kirchengemeinschaft, indeed, turning it into a justice issue: “Can it be justified to invest much more strength in one ecumenical relationship than in others? How will our different partner churches react to this?” The fact that EKU/UEK and UCC were both churches of the northern hemisphere doubtlessly intensified the issue.

I think it is very important to stress: Kirchengemeinschaft between EKU/UEK and UCC is not a depreciation of other ecumenical relationships of our churches. The UCC-resolution to the EKU-UCC Kirchengemeinschaft in 1981 expresses this in an outstanding way by pointing to other partnerships of the UCC as well. At the same time, however, the resolution emphasizes that Kirchengemeinschaft with the EKU “offers us new possibilities among the pathways of global Christian witness to the truth.”[8]

I think that against the background of the Toronto-Declaration, it is appropriate to view Kirchengemeinschaft like this: with gratitude for the variety of possibilities that can be found in an ecumenical relationship that covers all church levels and at the same time with the unemotional assessment that we can live a relationship of such depth only as an example and with a very small number of partners – even if we wished it might be otherwise.

We can, however – in the ecumenical context – tell other churches about our good experiences and encourage them to intensify individual relationships in a similar way. Even today, we can remind the churches worldwide of the appeal of Toronto from 1975!

2.4 The dimension of mutual theological acknowledgement

In the context of worldwide ecumenism, we often experience how much many churches differ in their theological core issues – even between churches linked with the WCC. These experiences can be very, very painful. That is why it is so important to know that there are churches that are spiritually and theologically very close.

The synod declarations of 1980 and 1981 were preceded by years of theological dialogue, where representatives of both churches stated that there are no “theological (…) grounds that would prevent full communion between EKU and UCC”[9]. As mentioned above, our churches maintain many ecumenical partnerships on the national and international level. But the mutual recognition of baptism, communion and ordination still expresses a special form of closeness.

Everything that has developed between our churches during the last 25 years stands on this foundation. Whenever new contacts developed among our churches, no elaborate research was needed as to who exactly this other church was. The synod declarations told us: We have pulpit and table fellowship with this church. We can be grateful that the mothers and fathers of Kirchengemeinschaft began the theological work and carried it this far. Thereby they gave us the opportunity to build on the existing, diverse forms of encounter.

But at the same time, they’ve left us the task to continue and intensify Kirchengemeinschaft by “accountable theological conversations concerning the common understanding of the Gospel”[10].

Theological thinking is never static; Christians of every generation are called to be witness of the Gospel in their time and to face the challenges of their present. Kirchengemeinschaft accounts for this fact in a special way: From 1977 on until today, they have asked for “Sound Teaching”[11] under ever new aspects.

In all the years of Kirchengemeinschaft, the task to intensify theological thinking has proven a great chance for all involved, in both churches. Especially the consultations, which take place every few years in regular intervals since the 1980s are a good place for such theological work. Our consultation is – depending on which count – the 11th in this tradition.

During the first years of Kirchengemeinschaft, the theological interest of the UCC in their talks with the EKU was directed particularly towards Reformation theology, the theology of the Confessing Church, and, in the 1980s, the question of “The Church under Socialism.”

The EKU very gratefully picked up impulses in social ethics from the UCC. The publications and resolutions about “The Just Peace Church” and “Christian Faith and Economic Life” have been influential and well-known in the EKU.

The resolutions of these consultations were widely received in our churches. One could witness the birth of a new form of theological-ecumenical work; the commitment of Christians in the USA and in both parts of Germany courageously standing up against the political and economical zeitgeist and for reconciliation and more social justice.

In the early 1990s, people thought about the issue of Christian Education. What was the nature of our hopes as Christians, and how could we pass them on to the coming generations? Being at home in both churches, the German-American theologian Frederick Herzog lived Kirchengemeinschaft like nobody else. He hoped that one might be able to write a catechism for the present, completely different from traditional catechisms.

In the mid 1990s, issues like “Diaconal Ministry” and “Spirituality” moved to the center of interest. In 1998, the question of “The Congregation in the Secularized Society” was discussed. In 2001, at the consultation in Cleveland, issues like the challenges of economic globalization and poverty, racism, gender identity and sexual orientation were named as burning issues.

What are the challenges in our world today? The political situation calls our attention to the Middle East and particularly to the situation in Iraq. We are aware of the difference in attitudes of the people in our societies and in our churches particularly on that issue. That is why, at this place, it is so important to me to point out one dimension of Kirchengemeinschaft that has been a central one from the start and that still is very much up to date:

2.5 The dimension of constructive dialogue and reconciliation

Until today, the topics of “World War II and the Holocaust”, the “role of the USA in the liberation of Germany from NS-Dictatorship, and in the time after 1945” have great relevance in our encounters. People realize that their fathers and grandfathers fought against each other. During city tours, American visitors ask with concern about the extent of the destruction caused by Allied bombers. In the course of the Young Ambassador Programs, German and American teenagers get together to visit memorial sites at former concentration camps and deal with the different forms of genocide past and present.

For the young people in our churches today, it is probably hard to imagine how enormously important the encounters between Christians from East Germany with Christians from West Germany and the US were in the 1970s and 1980s, and what it meant to experience, in common communion, how the political walls of hostility ceased to exist.

And in the debate on peace-ethics in Western Germany in those years, it was very important to perceive the critical voices from the UCC on the NATO dual-track decision and the nuclear arms race and the courageous “Swords into Plowshares” struggle in Eastern Germany.

Yes, it was important for both parts of the EKU to maintain their common contacts to the UCC. Christians in East and West Germany did not only get in contact with brothers and sisters in the UCC but also with one another. I would like to stress here that even today, I still consider this a very important aspect. Some of my most memorable experiences of the Cleveland Consultation in 2001 were the discussions with younger theologians and pastors from the former East of the EKU about differences in our regions and Landeskirchen in the past and today.

2.6 The dimension of the familiar from a new perspective

It was a very good idea to name the youth exchange programs of Kirchengemeinschaft “Young Ambassadors”. That is exactly how we feel in our encounters – we become ambassadors of Christ, of faith and mission of our church and also of our own denomination, and ambassadors of our nations and cultures – whether we are in support of their politics or at a critical distance.

Here in Germany, there are no Sunday schools for adults and so there is too little opportunity to really discuss our faith with each other. In our encounters with the UCC, however, such talk about faith often develops automatically. Joint mission projects like the Young Ambassadors Programs or German volunteers participating in UCC camps, often turn out to be key experiences for the unity of faith and mission – according to the motto of the UCC: “To believe is to care. To care is to do.”

It isn’t always easy to be an ambassador of one’s own church, especially if one is inexperienced in the matter. But it can turn out to be an incredibly enriching experience.

In my experience, it was through the encounters with the UCC that my relationship with the EKU gained a new depth I had not been aware of before. Before practical studies in Canton, Ohio, I had met with Ralph Quellhorst, Ohio Conference Minister at that time, at a UCC-forum in Westphalia. Being a 21 year old theology student talking with a Conference Minister spontaneously was exciting and challenging. Ralph Quellhorst had a list of topics about which I should prepare presentations. One theme was: My united-church identity. To be honest: up to that moment I had never thought about what was so special about Westphalia belonging to the EKU, other than from a church-historical perspective. I was far from having a united-church identity, but I still had a few months until my journey to Ohio. So I prepared my papers and concentrated on studying the EKU. It would be an exaggeration to say that in 1995 I arrived in the UCC with a united-church identity, but I think that in the meantime I have acquired one – and experiencing how the UCC lives the perspective of being “united and uniting” has contributed a good deal. Our encounters challenge us to deal with the features of our own church from a new perspective.[12] Particularly those aspects of our church life that we like to leave in the dark are inevitably brought into light in our common discussions.[13] We urgently need this mutual and critical perception. It is only by open and trusting talks beyond all diplomatic phrases that we can help each other effectively and can pay more attention to critical developments in our churches in order to give each other advice as brothers and sisters.

There are many areas where we can learn from the respective special competencies and experiences of the partner church. For, as much as our churches may differ in certain structural questions, there are many similarities in our thinking, our idea of church structures, of church administration, of local church and wider church ministries.

This spring, I completed a study project in the Hawai’i Conference, and visited New Church Starts that were formed by immigrants from the Pacific area. During my talks with the ministers of these congregations I suddenly realized that, in many cases, Cleveland and Berlin are much closer than Cleveland and Honolulu. What I mean to say is: To understand the structure of the UCC was a special challenge for the ministers of Micronesia. Their idea of a church is quite different from that of our institutions. When I spoke with a minister of Pohnpei/Micronesia and drew a sketch for him of the New Structure trying to answer some of his questions, he looked at me and said: “No wonder, you understand this whole system. You Germans think just like the Americans. That is a western church concept. In Polynesia, we live and understand church in a completely different way.” In the UCC and EKU/UEK we have developed different competencies through which we can support each other, but in our western way of thinking and our church concept, we are so much alike that we can really understand and relate to the problems and challenges of our partner church. It is from this perspective in particular, that an ecumenical partnership between two churches of the so-called First World isn’t only justified but downright essential.

2.7 The influence of political parameter

It may surprise you, but I would find it easier to report on key events between our churches from the years 1957 to 1990, than on the last 15 years of Kirchengemeinschaft, although I have been a part of this partnership for the last 11 years now. Why is that?

The beginnings of the relations between our churches were very clear. In the course of synods and at official encounters, individual theological leaders came together. It was in the mid 1970s, that working groups were formed from experienced and committed individuals and staff members.[14] These boards have developed the theological and conceptual guidelines of Kirchengemeinschaft. Our relationship took time to grow.

An important reason why it is easy to keep track of our relations in the 1970s and 1980s should also be considered, namely the political parameter in the GDR and the considerable restrictions the churches in the GDR were subject to. For the younger members in our churches the enormous efforts that were required for church encounters and particularly ecumenical ones in the GDR are hardly conceivable.

The Eastern section of the EKU was trying to signal to the state representatives that their relationship with the UCC was stable and transparent and based on long-term planning and agreements between state institutions and the church, including representatives of the GDR and the UCC. Guests from the UCC were also received in the Department for Church Matters of the GDR.

And we mustn’t ignore the other side either: The GDR did have an interest in demonstrating to the outside world that the churches could maintain independent western contacts and be ecumenically active. A special cornerstone was an interview that Erich Honecker gave in 1974 to a western press agency, where he pointed out the close relationship the churches in the GDR had to the UCC.

In the face of the political parameters in the Eastern section of the EKU, the West deliberately held back, or rather, in the first years, the West more or less allowed the Eastern section to go ahead and shape the relationship. Kirchengemeinschaft was always supposed to be an equal-rights partnership of three churches. Even if it had easily been possible for the Western section to expand the relationship with the UCC irrespective of the Eastern section, they refrained from doing this.

Looking back we can say that for many reasons, the circle of people closely connected to Kirchengemeinschaft until 1990 was considerable smaller than in the last 15 years.

2.8 Changing forms of encounter

Kirchengemeinschaft is actualized in different forms of encounter. Some of these forms have been maintained since the 1950s, others have developed in more recent years. And I am certain, that the times ahead will also bring new impulses.

In the beginning, there were mutual official visits of church leaders at the occasion of synods. The classical form of encounter since the mid 1960s have been the annual EKU/UEK-UCC exchange delegations. The national working groups in both churches have been in constant contact, in correspondence as well as in person. They take a leading role in consultations on the national church level.

But these forms of encounter already show: Kirchengemeinschaft is a different category of ecumenical relationships than the top-level ecumenism of the World Council of Churches or the National Church Councils. From the beginning, Frederick Herzog coined the term “grassroots ecumenism” for Kirchengemeinschaft. Not only theologians and national staff people were supposed to get together, but the grassroots of our churches should participate in the partnership: Herzog hoped that experiencing personally what it meant to live in a “global village” would offer guiding impulses for the local churches and their members.

However, it wasn’t until the systematic increase of partnerships between Landeskirchen and conferences about 15 years ago, that the possibility of firmly establishing Kirchengemeinschaft among the grassroots became a reality.[15] There isn’t time for me to present all forms of encounter that have been developed in the meantime. There are too many of them. And they vary from Landeskirche to Landeskirche, from conference to conference. And last not least, it is you who bring all your experience from where you come from. Many of you have come to Berlin as experts in these regional partnerships.

I think one of the most important tasks during our consultation will be to study the survey on the present levels and forms of encounter that has been prepared for us. Perhaps we can add whereever something may be missing and discuss our thoughts: Which Landeskirche has what kind of experience with which project? What works well, where are there difficulties?

Please allow me, as a Westphalian, to point to the core element of our UCC-work in Westphalia. I am enthusiastic about this mode working, because it suits us, it suits Kirchengemeinschaft; it expresses what grassroots ecumenism can be: every fall, there is a 3-day UCC-forum in Westphalia, where all who are interested are cordially invited. Visitors and lecturers from our partner conferences Ohio and Indiana/Kentucky often attend these forums as our guests. The forum is a bit like a UCC-reunion: friends from Kirchengemeinschaft meet, latest news are exchanged. Home-comers give their reports, and those about to go abroad receive first-hand information. Every forum has its motto. This year the topic was “Religious fundamentalism”. So it often happens that some people register to participate out of their interest in the topic and through the forum acquire a taste for Kirchengemeinschaft. Kirchengemeinschaft can be experienced in those three days: as a community of old and young, of people who travel to the UCC and those who experience the UCC from Germany, in worship service and prayer, in critical dialog und reflection, based on a long tradition and at the same time perfectly up-to-date and future oriented.

2.9 Structures

The current strength of Kirchengemeinschaft lies, without doubt, in a great range of forms of encounters on all levels of our churches. Because of the regionalization, conferences and Landeskirchen are free to develop their programs in accordance with their interests and possibilities. However, I have the impression that these regional partnerships develop independently from each other. It is in this independence that I currently see a particular challenge for our relations. I think that we pass up many a chance to benefit from the experiences of other Landeskirchen and conferences.

Particularly in the face of structural and financial changes within our churches, I am worried that we might lose sight of the identity of the Kirchengemeinschaft as a whole. Therefore maintaining a network of structures including all regional and national levels is indispensable. I consider it very important that these structures communicate closely, consciously complementing one another, and perceiving themselves as part of the overall project that is the UEK-UCC Kirchengemeinschaft.

The UCC-EKU-Working Group of the UCC and the UCC-Forum of the UEK see themselves as parallel structures. However, they differ considerably in how they work. On the German side, a board of representatives of the Landeskirchen meets, representing the regionalized partnerships. On the American side the circle of Working Group members has a wider definition: the moment of representing the denomination as a whole is more emphasized. The Working Group is more directed towards the theological foundation of, and the fundamental reflection on, Kirchengemeinschaft. We need both perspectives – in both churches!

By gathering on a national level reports on what happens in the different regional levels; by passing on information and invitations from Landeskirche to Landeskirche, from conference to conference, we can keep and intensify the “corporate identity” of Kirchengemeinschaft as a whole.

In Germany, there is a growing awareness that not all local churches can offer everything, but that different congregations can distinguish themselves by specific focal points. I would recommend this to Kirchengemeinschaft: if not all the Landeskirchen are able or willing to offer e.g. an annual forum like we do in Westphalia, it would be great if interested groups or individuals from other Landeskirchen were specifically invited. Incidentally, this way the exchange of thought between the individual Landeskirchen would deepen as they once did between the East and West section of the EKU.

2.10 Funding

These days, financial issues are a central topic in our churches everywhere. Positions and programs are threatened by budget cuts. Even within our Kirchengemeinschaft-relations, this issue is of great relevance. The financial issues are a challenge we have to face with all our creativity.[16]

My generation is – in spite of all problems we are confronted with – convinced that there is “Church with a Future”