Rev. Paul Oppenheim, EKD, delivers Schmiechen Lecture at Eden Seminary (Oct. 2007)

Rev. Paul Oppenheim, EKD, delivers Schmiechen Lecture at Eden Seminary (Oct. 2007)

Understanding the German Volkskirche in the context of Kirchengemeinschaft (full communion) between the UEK and the UCC

The Rev. Paul Oppenheim, Hannover (Germany)

In the course of this lecture I will want to draw your attention to the dissimilarity existing  between our churches. I will describe in some detail the present situation of German Protestant Churches. I will then point to some possi­ble fields of future activity in the context of our rela­tionship and thus take us from the past to the present with a glimpse of the future.

Understanding the German Volkskirche in the context of Kirchengemeinschaft (full communion) between the UEK and the UCC

The Rev. Paul Oppenheim, Hannover (Germany)

In the course of this lecture I will want to draw your attention to the dissimilarity existing  between our churches. I will describe in some detail the present situation of German Protestant Churches. I will then point to some possi­ble fields of future activity in the context of our rela­tionship and thus take us from the past to the present with a glimpse of the future.

About a month ago, as I was about to leave for an ear­lier trip to the United States of America, I was looking for an empty notebook to take with me. I couldn’t find an empty notebook, so I started looking for a used one, where I might just tear out some pages and use the rest. What I found was a diary I had written during my visit to the United Church of Christ in 1984. 23 years ago, I was part of a delegation from Germany, a mixed delegation from East and West-Germany. We were mostly pastors, men and women from united Churches belonging to the EKU (Evangelische Kirche der Union) and we were to spend one whole month in June/July of 1984 visiting our sister Churches in the UCC.

Kirchengemeinschaft which, by the way is mentioned only once in my diary, had been agreed in 1980.

I was probably the youngest in that group at the time and I felt very privileged to have been chosen for such a mission. At that time, I was a students’ chaplain at the University of Bonn, an activist in the German Peace movement, and that was probably the reason they took me along. I may have been something of an alibi for the West German Churches since none of the others, as far as I remember, had ever taken part in a Peace demonstration against American missiles or nuclear warheads. Certainly none of them had sat at the same table with Communists to draft appeals and organize human chains.

In 1984 our Protestant Churches in West Germany were still deeply divided over the issue of American Pershing II and Cruise Missiles targeting East Ger­many from US military bases on West-German terri­tory. The West-German Peace movement as a coali­tion of Pacifists, left-wing Socialists, Green and Chris­tian activists had failed to prevent the deployment of these.

The situation in East Germany was different. The Protestant Churches there stood alone and appeared to be more united in their commitment to Peace. Their commitment was not limited to the single issue of Per­shing II missiles. It was of a more fundamental nature. They had rallied around this verse from Isaiah 2:4: “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares“. Many Christians wore buttons with the symbol of the East-German Pacifist movement and to some degree en­dured repression and even persecution from their gov­ernment for it. In the eyes of our American hosts the East German Christians were clearly the heroes, while the West Germans Churches seemed rather half-hearted in their endeavour for Peace.

Obviously, at that particular time in the mid-eighties the Peace issue was very much at the centre of our transatlantic relationship. As Howard Schomer put it, when he addressed our delegation in Washington DC, it looked as if it had been the issues of Peace and Reconciliation that had led straight to Kirchengemein­schaft. According to him the EKU-UCC story showed from 1947 onwards that “the reconciliation of mutually distrustful nations is possible”.

As I turn from past to present, there is one line I can follow over the past 25 years which leads to the pre­sent and goes onward into the future and this particu­lar strand of Kirchengemeinschaft is indeed the quest for biblically founded Peace ethics.

It is my assumption that our concern for an alternative to the traditional Just War doctrine of the Christian Church has been at the core of Kirchengemeinschaft from the beginning. It is also my assumption that Kirchengemeinschaft has produced remarkable results and will continue to be fruitful for the further elabora­tion of an alternative to the Just War doctrine. The West-German Protestant Churches under the umbrella of the EKD, the Evangelical Church in Germany which represents the Churches at the national level, pro­duced its first memorandum on Peace ethics in 1981. After the Reunification of Germany and the end of the Cold war it went on with a memorandum in 1994 which was complemented in 2001 after German troops were sent abroad for the first time since World War II to be part of a military intervention in former Yugoslavia within the framework of NATO. The short statement was entitled “Peace Ethics on Probation -interim re­sults“. Since then various Commissions have been working on a new Memorandum, which has been pre­sented to the Council of the EKD last week and is due to be published before the end of the month.

What is relevant for us in the context of Kirchenge­meinschaft is how the concept of “Just War” was abandoned and substituted by the notion of “Just Peace”.

It is generally said that it was due to the influence from the East-German Churches that the term of “Just Peace” made its appearance in the EKD memoranda and it is a fact that in 1988 an Ecumenical Assembly held in East Germany proclaimed that the concept of Just War had to be replaced by a doctrine of Just Peace. Nevertheless, I am convinced that at the root of this development we will find a connection between the UCC’s Just Peace movement and the present day commitment of the German Protestant Churches to this idea.

In 1985 the UCC General Synod issued a Just Peace Church Pronouncement and thus laid the foundation for the present day self-definition of the Denomination as a “Just Peace Church”. Susan Thistlethwaite’s book about the “Just Peace Church” was published in 1986. It gave the Just Peace movement within the UCC a solid theological foundation, rooting the concept in the biblical notion of Shalom. It was around that time that the UCC’s second president Robert V. Moss was quoted as saying that “as much effort had to be put into defining a just peace as had been in the past in defining a just war.” I know that this was not an easy decision for the UCC and its congregations and I re­member well that when I visited congregations in 1984 their positions on issues of War and Peace, on the ne­cessity for nuclear deterrence went wide apart. We met with many pastors between Vermont and Virginia and even in the Middle West who were active in vari­ous Peace campaigns, but as I noted in my little diary at the time, all of them were Associates, while the Senior Pastors preferred to remain neutral and politi­cally abstinent. But efforts went on and the Just Peace commitment finally became an integral part of your Church’s identity.

Whenever the issue of Peace ethics is raised in the Council of the EKD or in one of its Commissions you can be assured that someone from one of the UEK Churches will mention the UCC and the fact that it de­fines itself as a “Just Peace Church”. And ask: “Shouldn’t we do the same?”

I shall not expound on the Just Peace theory as this was done thoroughly during the Conference that took place in Berlin 2 years ago to celebrate the 25th anni­versary of Kirchengemeinschaft. Much was said then about the history of the notion of Just peace from an East-German, from a West-German and from a UCC perspective.

The new Peace Ethics Memorandum of the EKD wilI be published under the following title: Living in God’s Peace – Caring for Just Peace (“Aus Gottes Frieden leben – für gerechten Frieden sorgen”)

The concept of Just Peace will be preserved but owing to the general trend in public opinion after 9/11, it will accept and justify some forms of military action as long as they are based on an international decision made within the framework of the United Nations or NATO. The Memorandum will underline the European Union’s and other European institutions’ special responsibility for Peace and it will stress the peace-keeping role of the United Nations. A very important chapter is about the use of force to maintain peace and order (“Recht­serhaltende Gewalt”). The arguments are not very dif­ferent from traditional Just War arguments, but they advocate the use of force as a last resort only within the framework of international law and collective secu­rity systems such as NATO or the United Nations. I am certain that the way in which the Just Peace concept has been developed by the EKD will offer new oppor­tunities of dialogue between the UCC and the German Churches within the context of Kirchengemeinschaft.

Another aspect of the Kirchengemeinschaft-relation­ship which I would like to expand on is Ecclesiology. What strikes me and will always surprise any German visitor coming to the UCC and likewise any UCC-guest visiting a German Church is that they are immensely different.

The main difference between our Churches is that the German Protestant Churches to this day are -in spite of all claims to the contrary- what we call “Volkskirche“, a term difficult to translate and difficult to define. Those who already know all about the Church in Germany will excuse me for this digression, but I thought it might be necessary to describe it in order to better under­stand the huge difference that exists between our churches.

The Volkskirche, as you will all know,  has its origins in the Protestant State Church as it existed from the Lu­theran Reformation until 1918 with the Protestant monarch in the role of the Bishop. With the end of World War I came the end of monarchy and at the same time the Church which had been led and gov­erned by the respective rulers, princes or kings be­came independent, independent but not disconnected from the state. The German Constitution while granting full religious freedom grants the former State churches the status of public corporations and institutes confes­sional religious educations as part of the curriculum of all public schools. The Churches which the state rec­ognizes as public corporations such as the former Protestant State Churches, the Roman Catholic Church, the Jewish Community, Orthodox Churches are entitled to raise a compulsory Church-Tax from their registered members. It is amazing that almost 90 years after Church and State were separated, so little has changed in Church polity and structure. The con­cept of Volkskirche implies the principle of territoriality which means that, as there was only one Protestant Church in a particular state or territory, today’s Prot­estant Churches are still territorial Churches.  This one Protestant Church is either Lutheran or Reformed or it is a United Church where Lutherans and Reformed belong to the same church in some way or another. By moving from one part of the country to the other your confessional identity changes but you continue to be­long to the Protestant Church. What we call “Lande­skirchen” or Regional Churches have clearly defined geographical boundaries and you cannot retain mem­bership in the Church of the Rheinland which is a united Church if you move to Dresden in Saxony, where the Regional Church happens to be Lutheran. The EKD as the national structure of the Protestant Churches in Germany is by its own definition “the communion of its Lutheran, Reformed and United member churches”. These 23 member churches to­gether cover the total surface of the Federal Republic of Germany. The original situation whereby all the in­habitants of a particular territory had to follow their ruler’s creed and abide by the principle of Cujus Regio ejus religio is long gone. As a matter of fact Roman Catholics and Protestants live side by side in most places due to the unprecedented intermixture of the population during and after World War II. There is also a number of small denominations such as Methodists, Baptists or Free Evangelicals, various sects such as Jehovas Witnesses, and other religions such as Islam or Judaism as well as a growing portion of the popula­tion that is unchurched and simply not affiliated to any religious institution.

Our Protestant Churches as well as the Roman Catho­lic Church which each make up about 30% of the total population of Germany are churches which history has shaped in such a way, that they have become and still are what we call “Volkskirche“. One definition identifies four characteristics of such a People’s Church:

  • 1) By tradition and custom church membership is the norm.
  • 2) Infant baptism is the norm.
  • 3) Christian norms and principles have a strong influ­ence on the culture and customs, on educa­tion, ethics and the legal system of society.
  • 4) The Church is widely accepted and supported by society.

Some will call this type of church “established” in the same sense as the Church of England is an estab­lished church. Translations such as “People’s Church”, “Folk church” or “Church for the People” are only ap­proximations. American observers often write about them as State Churches, which is certainly not correct, but proves how difficult it is to understand this phe­nomenon from an American perspective.

There is an often quoted saying that Volkskirche, which literally means the People’s Church, is the church for the people who never go to church. That of course is not true, but it does have some truth to it. Yes, it is true that a vast majority of registered mem­bers of the “Volkskirche” never or almost never goes to church. They were baptized, in most cases as infants, they attended religious education in school, and more than 80% of them attend one or two years of weekly confirmation class, but after confirmation most of them will not be seen in a church again, except at their wed­ding or funeral. Amazingly enough most of them con­tinue to pay church-tax and are counted as members of the Protestant Church. Out of 25 Million members a mere one Million attend worship services on a normal Sunday and more than five times as many on Christ­mas Eve.

Just imagine only 40 or 50.000 people out of the one Million members of the UCC attending worship on a given Sunday but the other 900.000 contributing finan­cially to the Church, expecting their children to be bap­tized and to be taught in school and confirmation classes and their pastor to visit them on their birthday.

What is characteristic for the Volkskirche is that it is a Church for the people in the sense that it supplies so­cial services to all the people. In cooperation with the State and often as a substitute for the state and with heavy financial support from the state the Volkskirche runs hospitals, rehabilitation centres, institutions for the handicapped, for children and for the aged. The Protestant institutions which we call diaconal institu­tions are the largest employer in Germany with more than 350.000 persons employed nation wide.

[If you have travelled through Germany you will have noticed that as you enter a village or town there are two signposts, one showing a yellow church and the other a lilac coloured church. The yellow church stands for Roman Catholic and the other one for the Protestant church in town. On each the name of the church building and the starting time of Sunday morn­ing services or mass is indicated. In some rare in­stances there will be a third signpost with a green church on it. That is for a so called free church either Methodist or Baptist or Free Evangelical.]

The main difference between our countries, is the near absence of denominations in Germany and the fact that the Volkskirche whether Roman Catholic or Prot­estant is the normal manifestation of the church in the German context. In general, what you will find in a smaller town or village is one single Protestant Church and one single Roman Catholic Church. Each of them is a parish church which means that all the Protestants living in this town belong to this particular congrega­tion, as all the Catholic inhabitants belong to their local parish. The same applies to cities where you belong to a particular congregation depending on where you live. As you register with the city authorites

when you move into a particular place you are auto­matically assigned to a congregation.

The absence of competition between denominations or even between congregations was and still is characteristic for the situation of the church in Germany. In general the only point of comparison for Protestant church-goers will be the Roman Catholic Church. The same applies to Radio and Television where Protestant and Roman Catholic services alternate weekly on the public national broadcasting networks.

The greatest difficulty for a church such as the German Volkskirche is that the majority of its members have no idea of their own church’s teaching or preaching. Only a small percentage of Protestants will ever hear or read what their church has to say on any particular issue. A very perplexing consequence of this situation is that many members will make no difference between Protestant and Catholic. Whenever the pope makes an unpopular statement in public, Protestants will opt out of their church. The overwhelming majority of church members as well as politicians simply expect the churches to overcome their doctrinal differences.

The present chairman of the EKD, Bishop Wolfgang Huber has been addressing this situation as a professor, as a bishop and as the leader of our church. He has constantly been reminding the leadership of the 23 member churches that the foremost task of the church “consists in delivering the message of the free grace of God to all people”, as it is written in the Theological Declaration of Barmen. When we hear the words “to all people”, “an alles Volk”, in the German context it is a call to the “Volkskirche” to really address all the people and not just those who are already used to hearing what we have to say. It is amazing, but I dare say, that the Protestant Church in Germany has truly been stimulated by Bishop Huber’s call for a change in our own perception of the Volkskirche. Repeatedly he has stated that “If we wanted to hold on to the concept of Volkskirche , we must not any longer consider the Volkskirche to be an alternative to Missionskirche, to a missionary church”.

Together with Synods and bishops from all the member churches Bishop Huber has initiated a movement of renewal of the Evangelical Church in Germany and this Renewal aims at revitalizing the concept and reality of Volkskirche. Whereas ten or twenty years ago German theologians and public opinion alike would have told you that the concept of “Volkskirche” belonged to the past and that an awakening of the church was not possible within the structures of Volkskirche, today we are convinced that a renewal can and must be achieved within the inherited structures of Volkskirche.

The first objective is to draw as many church members as possible to their own church, to reconcile them with the institutional manifestation of the church of Jesus Christ as it is to be found in the German context.

It is part of this objective that we want to double church attendance within less than ten years.

The second goal is to address those who have given up their membership in the church, those who are un-churched. They are a minority in West Germany and the majority in East Germany.

In this sense the German Protestant churches are rediscovering what it means to be a missionary church. They are beginning to understand that being a missionary church is not only about sending missionaries to convert some heathen tribes in far away lands but about delivering the message of the free grace of God to our own people.

When I was a student of Theology in Bonn and Tübingen in the late sixties, and later as a pastor and as a students’ chaplain in the seventies and eighties we would not use the word “Mission” at all. Mission was a thing of the past. We left it to people like Professor Peter Beyerhaus and the Evangelicals from the Lausanne Movement to talk about Mission while we believed that Jesus wanted us to respect other people’s beliefs and that loving one’s neighbour meant that you should make no attempt to convert him or her.

This has certainly changed and makes the American religious situation a great deal more relevant than it was before.

A whole new field of exchanges in the context of Kirchengemeinschaft will be centred on the issues of Mission, of growth, of developing new congregations.

Of course, if I asked: Will the German Protestant Churches in the UEK or the EKD cease to be Volkskirche in the foreseeable future? Definitely the answer is No, nor do I expect the UCC to undergo any radical changes to resemble a German type Church.

What then can be the purpose of Kirchengemeinschaft in the years ahead, if our churches remain as different as they are in their structureand polity?

Both now understand that they are challenged to be missionary churches but in very different ways.

To become an “Open and Affirming” church as has been the UCC’s effort throughout the years would not be an option for the Volkskirche. The UCC has positioned itself as a progressive church within the wide spectrum of American Protestantism. It has distinguished itself as a Just Peace Church, as an asserting church in the fields of social justice, of racial and gender equality, it has made bold steps and taken courageous positions on many controversial issues. This gives the UCC a distinctive profile, something people want to be a part of and identify with. At the same time -and that is the other side of the medal- those who do not share the UCC’s vision and commitment will eventually turn their back on this church and choose to join another denomination. This is the American manifestation of the Church of Jesus Christ, a colourful mosaic of very different denominations and communities, many options, a wide variety to choose from on the marketplace of religion.

Much of this variety also exists in German Protestantism, but it exists within the Volkskirche.  Where Liberals and Pietists, Evangelicals and the followers of Rudolf Bultmann, Leftists and conservative Christian Democrats are still worshipping together within the same Church. To be the church of the people means that a memorandum on Peace ethics must be acceptable to conscientious objectors as well as to Christians in the Army. A public statement, declaration or press release from any regional or national synod is always a carefully worded compromise, even though many in our German churches, particularly in the churches of the EKU tradition have a certain inclination towards the Confessing Church which we never were except for the very few who resisted the ideology of the Nazis. There is also a form of free-church romanticism, an aspiration to be the church of the few, instead of the church of all the people. It is sometimes a heavy burden to have to speak in such a way that no part of society feels unjustly criticized or excluded.

Within our relationship of Kirchengemeinschaft our churches are witnessing to the unity of the body of Christ and they are doing it in the way only Protestants can do that. We are witnessing to Unity in Diversity. In our Protestant understanding of ecclesial communion we “bear witness to the unity of the body of Christ which is hidden to the world through the outward form of the churches.” 

The outward form of our churches is extremely diverse, yet we are in full communion. It will continue to be the task of Kirchengemeinschaft to witness before the world that in spite of our structural dissimilarity we are one in Christ. Our relationship is not about the EKD mutating into a UCC-type denomination, nor is it about the UCC becoming more conservative and less affirming.

What our relationship is about is that our congregations, our synods, our churches “affirm their common understanding of the Gospel of justification and of the sacraments and thus acknowledge Jesus Christ who imparts himself in word and sacrament as the only basis for their communion and hence recognise one another mutually and give practical expression to their fellowship in word and sacrament.”

I am quoting from an EKD document from 2001 entitled: A Protestant Understanding of Ecclesial Communion.

What this means for us is that the purpose of Kirchengemeinschaft must remain the search for a common understanding and affirmation of the Gospel. The UCC and the EKD came to a very similar conclusion with regard to Peace ethics and discovered that in the light of the Gospel it was necessary to abandon the doctrine of Just War. This I believe is an excellent example for the tasks that lie ahead of us, because it shows that in spite of our very different situations and in spite of our structural dissimilarity we are able to proclaim the same truth and thus give a practical and visible expression of our fellowship. It may have taken the EKD somewhat longer and the affirmation of the German documents affirming the Just Peace principle may have been more cautious than some of the UCC statements, but what counts is that we do not contradict each other in witnessing Jesus Christ before the world.

It is important that we take into consideration that our churches may have different vocations. As some prophets of Israel stood before the king and opposed him, other prophets stood at his side and advised him. Thus both churches can be prophetic and yet exercise their prophetic ministry very differently.

The UCC’s “God is still speaking” campaign is a form of proclamation of the Gospel which German churches can learn from, as they are trying to reclaim their own members. Climate Change, Media Justice, Peace in the Middle East, Immigration and Gender Equality are some of the issues that challenge us in the same way and that call for a biblically sound response. Interfaith dialogue and a respectful and principled approach to Islam are also at the top of the agendas of our churches.

If we don’t want to be in contradiction with one another, if we want to be coherent and reliable in affirming a common understanding of the Gospel, we will have to use all available channels of communication that exist between our churches at all levels. We will listen carefully to each other, learn from each other, in some cases even exhort or admonish each other and if need be also wait for the other.

Through our common roots, through history but most of all through the Holy Spirit who spoke by the prophets and is still speaking, we are called into full communion “to affirm our common understanding of the Gospel of justification”. In all expressions of Kirchengemeinschaft at all the levels of our churches let this be our primary task and purpose. Let us listen together to God who is still speaking. Let us find ways of expressing our common understanding of the Gospel and thus let us “witness to the unity of the body of Christ which is hidden to the world through the outward form of the churches”.


Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland

Evangelical Church In Germany

The EKD (Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland / Evangelical Church in Germany) is the “communion of its Lutheran, Reformed and United member churches”. The 23 member churches are largely autonomous regional churches (Landeskirchen) which together cover the total surface of the Federal Republic of Germany. The EKD was established after World War II (1949) Its 8 regional churches located in East-Germany separated from the EKD in 1969 to constitute a “Union of Protestant Churches in the German Democratic Republic”. They rejoined the EKD in 1991, a year after the re-unification of Germany.

The churches of the EKD have a total membership of 26 million baptized members in about 17,000 parishes. 8 of the EKD’s regional churches form the United Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Germany (VELKD) whereas the remaining 15 United, Lutheran and Reformed regional churches belong to the Union of Evangelical Churches (UEK). Both bodies operate within the EKD and have their offices in Hanover in the EKD’s building.

In Germany approximatively one third of the population belongs to the Protestant member churches of the EKD, another third is Roman Catholic, the rest is without any religious affiliation or belongs to other faiths (3 million Moslems, 120,000 Jews), to “free churches” of various denominations (Methodist, Baptist, Free Evangelical etc.) and to several Orthodox churches (1,4 Million). Church membership in one of the Christian denominations varies from nearly 85% in the West and South of Germany to less then 25% in parts of the former Communist Eastern Germany.

The 23 Protestant member churches of the EKD evolved from territorial state churches which came out of the Lutheran Reformation and the ensuing religious strife. They were established as a result of the principle cujus regio, ejus religio whereby the ruler imposed his religion on his subjects.

With the end of the German Empire after World War I (1918), state churches were abolished. The German Constitution (“Fundamental Law” of 1949) grants them the status of independent public corporations which are entitled to raise an income tax from their members. This also applies to the Roman Catholic Church and to the Jewish Community. Church Tax is the main source of income for the German churches. It enables them to maintain their historical buildings and to engage in a wide range of services in the fields of education, medical and diaconal institutions, health care, counseling, social work etc. The churches fulfill these activities in the public interest in agreement with the state. Mutual respect, partnership and cooperation rather than strict separation characterize the relationship between State and Church.

The 15 members of the Council of the EKD are elected for 6 years by the EKD Synod whose 120 delegates gather once a year in November to decide on the EKD’s budget and its activities at the national level. The Rev. Dr. Wolfgang Huber, Bishop of the regional church of Berlin – Brandenburg – Silesian Oberlausitz, was elected chairman of the Council in 2003.

The administration and executive office of the Council are located in the EKD’s headquarters in the city of Hanover. The various activities of the EKD are assigned to the four units within the EKD Church Office:

I:               Leadership, Theology and areas of Church action (Rev. Dr. Herman Barth)

II:              Legal and financial matters (Burkhard Guntau)

III :           Social responsibility and education (Rev. Dr. Friedrich Hauschildt)

IV:            International affairs (Ministries abroad and ecumenical relations) (Rev. Martin Schindehütte)

The EKD appoints a representative (“Plenipotentiary”) to liaise with the government and maintain connections with the Federal Parliament (Bundestag) and other state institutions in the capital city of Berlin.

At the level of the European Institutions the EKD has an office in Brussels which is closely related to the Commission Church and Society of the Conference of European Churches (KEK).