“We cannot be ecumenical by ourselves”

“We cannot be ecumenical by ourselves”

Five general secretaries of international ecumenical organizations engaged in lively conversation with leaders of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) on Friday 8 April, the final day of the EKD Council’s visit to the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva. The general secretaries are heads of the ACT Alliance, the Conference of European Churches (CEC), the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) and the World Council of Churches (WCC).

“One of the most pressing challenges we face is religious intolerance,” said John Nduna of ACT Alliance, a coalition of churches and church-related agencies working in human development and emergency assistance. 

 As a second concern, Nduna cited “the shrinking humanitarian space around the world, hindering how we can reach people in need of aid.” Partnership among service providers is of key importance, both in promoting dialogue with governments and in advocating before international organizations tasked with improving conditions in troubled locations.

In Darfur, he continued, “we have had excellent results in working with Caritas”, the Roman Catholic global service ministry. “We are asking how we can replicate that in other regions, in interfaith as well as ecumenical cooperation.”

“We cannot be ecumenical on our own,” agreed the Rev. Dr Martin Junge of the LWF. It is necessary to overcome mutual suspicions not only among churches or traditions within Christianity, but also among ecumenical organizations that may seem to be in competition with one another.

The “polycentricity of the communion of churches” should be promoted as a strength, not a weakness, so that it may become the basis of “the language of trans-contextual dialogue” enabling people from widely different backgrounds to meet and to explore “the ecology of knowledges” – not just “knowledge” – arising from the wondrous diversity of humanity.

The Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit of the WCC advanced the idea of combining a commitment to mutual support with an expectation of “mutual accountability” in encounters among churches, agencies, states and cultures. Such partners need to strive for a sense of “unity that has substance,” he said, and to seek new models of dialogue and cooperation that will “bring all sorts of actors together.”

The Rev. Dr Setri Nyomi of the WCRC thanked the representatives of the EKD for their active involvement in ecumenical work “both in the German context and in the world context.”

He saw two principal concerns driving the programme of Reformed churches in coming years: Continued dedication to “fostering the visible unity of the church”, and “addressing the many injustices that are experienced not only in the global South but by people everywhere”. A particular challenge to the WCRC is the call to heal divisions within its own confessional family.

Prof. Viorel Ionita of CEC noted that European churches face specific issues arising from the secularization of nations and a continent that once were deemed Christian. Through dialogue among the churches, CEC finds common ground with the Roman Catholic Church as well as among its own members.

Ecumenical bodies like CEC exist to support churches in their vocation today, to participate with them in bearing the gospel of Jesus Christ within sometimes hostile societies, to advocate on behalf of churches and their members before European political institutions. “In all of this,” he concluded, “the EKD joins in playing an important role in Germany, in Europe and throughout the world.”

Bishop Dr Martin Schindehütte, who is responsible for the EKD office of foreign affairs and ecumenical relations, observed that “we need each other’s insights to be faithful in our own contexts.”

There are “complex relationships and connections within the ecumenical movement”, he said, yet the core of Christian unity and action is the gospel. From this foundation we are strengthened to devise patterns and plans that help the churches coordinate their activities with greater clarity and purpose.

One topic that arose during the EKD’s visit was planning for the year 2017 and 500th anniversary commemorations of the posting of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses in Wittenberg, Germany.

Enthusiasm for the project was voiced by all, with the caution that this is an event of world-wide significance even though it was especially influential in German religious, cultural and political history. It is a world event. There should be signs of interaction between “Wittenberg, 1517” and “The World, 2017”.

Thanks were offered by EKD Council chair Rev. Dr Nikolaus Schneider for the general secretaries’ hospitality and opinions. Council member Tabea Dölker expressed the visitors’ gratitude by presenting a sculpture depicting 16th-century German reformer Martin Luther. The title of the work is “Hier Stehe Ich…” (Here I Stand), a reference to Luther’s statement before the Diet of Worms in 1521.

“Hier Stehe Ich…” is the creation of controversial German artist Ottmar Hörl, based on Johann Gottfried Schadow’s early 19th-century monument to Luther that stands in the Lutherstadt-Wittenberg town square. The sculptures, 98 centimetres in height, were produced in black, blue, green and red, in quantities of 217 exemplars per colour. The Ecumenical Centre received one of the black statues.