Written by Rev. Marc Witzenbacher*
A "wall of guilt" to be torn down during the course of a prayer service: this symbolic action marked the central celebration of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity by the Council of Christian Churches in Germany (ACK), as well as celebrations in other parts of the world using the model prepared by the ACK.
The image of a tumbling wall brings up many memories in Germany, not least the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which opened the way to the country's reunification.
Another dividing wall is the one that existed in the minds of Christians of different confessions for centuries. The Reformation events of 1517 had fundamentally changed Germany, with increasing conflicts along confessional lines and even a 30-year war causing destruction and countless deaths, piling up a wall of guilt.
Christians recognize pain of division
"We Christians have a deep historic and human understanding of the cruelty, inhumanity and pain that is in walls, division, exclusion and lack of reconciliation – reaching deep into the inner and most intimate core of society, marriage and families. We know the effects of prejudices, hate speech, persecution; fear and isolation; false pride and mutually degrading arrogance. We have a history – which today makes us blush with shame – that didn't shy away from the means of war and saw us raise arms against our brothers and sisters in the Christian faith." These are the words used by the ACK president and Roman Catholic Bishop Karl-Heinz Wiesemann at the central prayer service in Wittenberg.
He also evoked new walls of exclusion, isolation and division being erected in society: "In the midst of Europe – which has the idea of reconciliation inscribed in its heart as a deep historic commitment – we see a powerful revival of nationalism, the primacy of self interest being propagated, border fences and social walls being erected."
He added: "In the midst of a world that has become global, which can only master its challenges and crises in a common way, we see how universal values are being undermined, such as the unconditional importance of truth as the base of trust, the necessity of encompassing justice as the base for enduring peace, the undivided validity of human dignity and human rights for all, regardless of origin, religion, sex or social status, as the basic condition of all humanity and culture."
Churches in Germany call for peace and reconciliation
The theme “Reconciliation - the love of Christ compels us” (2 Corinthians 5:14-20) was chosen by the ACK because of its ties to the Reformation anniversary in 2017 as an opportunity for reconciliation. As members of the ACK prepared materials for the week, they reflected that the backdrop of current global developments highlights the treasure of the ecumenical movement and what it has achieved over the last decades.
The ACK not only remembers the deep divide between Roman Catholics and Lutherans but also what smaller churches and communities have suffered in terms of marginalization and persecution. "Together we can place ourselves under the reconciling power of the Gospel," said Bishop Wiesemann in Wittenberg.
Five hundred years after the split within Western Christianity occurred, Christians now have the opportunity for reconciliation that can encourage all of humanity, he added. "Being allowed to preach as ACK president and Roman Catholic bishop in such a symbolic place, the mother church of the Reformation, and that we celebrate together this service of reconciliation and of the love which compels and huddles us in, is a strong sign of the new that God has given us."
Celebrations in many places
Regional and local ecumenical bodies in all parts of Germany held numerous celebrations of their own, ordering in total more than 10,000 copies of the service from the ACK.
At a prayer service in Munich, the president of the German Bishops' Conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, urged fellow Christians to "hold on to the goal of one church" rather than to be content with what has already been achieved. He was co-celebrating the service with the chair of the council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, as well as Bishop Sofian of Brasov (Romanian Orthodox Church) and other representatives of the regional ecumenical council of Bavaria. Bishop Bedford-Strohm said at the service that a church without ecumenical experiences is no longer imaginable today.
*Rev. Marc Witzenbacher is public relations manager of the Council of Christian Churches in Germany (ACK), representing the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) on the ACK staff.