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Church reconciliation

May 14, 2010

"The Church is not only about abuse" is the message the Ecumenical Kirchentag, a meeting between Germany's churches, endeavors to relay. Re-instilling trust among the public could be a tall order.

Aerial view of people attending outdoor opening mass of the Kirchentag
People are seeking orientation, says the co-president of eventImage: AP

Still reeling from scandals, both the Protestant and Catholic Churches have much to make up for in their fall from grace. While the Catholic Church must atone for now countless reports of sexual abuse of children in its schools and organizations, the German Protestant Church is still trying to grapple with the shock-waves following a drunk-driving charge that prompted their former leader to resign in February. The Second Ecumenical Kirchentag, a conference being held from May 12-16 in Munich, looks to soften the blow of the scandals.

Alois Glueck
Alois Glueck took up his post as president of the Central Committee of German Catholics in NovemberImage: AP

Deutsche Welle spoke with the President of the Central Committee of German Catholics, Alois Glueck, about his take on the Kirchentag's mission of fostering dialogue among Christians and those of other denominations.

Deutsche Welle: The Catholic Church is in its biggest crisis ever; the Protestant Church is in a slightly better position. How have you been able to mobilize some 100,000 people to attend the Kirchentag event?

Alois Glueck: Because the Church is not just about abuse. It is a painful chapter, an uncomfortable reality, and of course many people are worried. The risk that people will become alienated from the Church is there. On the other hand, participants at the Kirchentag and the public will see how lively the churches are. People will see that the churches are not just the sum of their problems, but at the same time, we are addressing the abuse very openly. Many people are interested in the Kirchentag, both participants and the media alike, because we are living during a time when people around the world are searching for orientation. So, we are at the right place at the right time.

Priest calling to prayer in front of a church
Fewer people are participating in this year's Kirchentag than in the previous one in 2003Image: picture alliance/dpa

But you are also addressing the scandals involving sexual abuse - how?

We are very open about the subject. We have organized two major discussion events about the topic, and are offering counseling sessions. One of the events addresses more of the societal problem; abuse is generally suppressed throughout society. The other event looks specifically at the experiences in the Catholic Church, and the conclusions that can be drawn from them.

The German film and theater director Christoph Schlingensief has said that, for the time being, he would not leave the Catholic Church. Many others hold the same view. Is that some kind of defiant stance, along the lines of "now I really will remain a member of the Church"?

Those who are truly faithful - who have a strong connection to their faith and their church - and do not see it as an institution of glory, but as a mediator of their faith, should not be led astray by the misconduct of individuals or the problems resulting from structural insufficiencies. We all feel bad about the Church, especially those who have been very committed. But it still remains our church, and we are involved and devoted. The shockwaves are still being felt, but surely the crisis also offers us all potential for growth. That will be a decisive question: whether the crisis, as so often in history, will launch a new era.

Former Head of German Protestant Church, Margot Kaessmann, speaking at the Kirchentag
Former head of the German Protestant Church, Margot Kaessmann, spoke at the KirchentagImage: picture-alliance/Sven Simon

This is the second Ecumenical Kirchentag. The first one, in Berlin in 2003, drew some 200,000 participants - twice as many as this year. Is that a sign that ecumenism is also in crisis?

Ecumenism is not merely a subject matter for church directors or theologians; it is shared life and cooperation among Christians. And that got a bigger push in Berlin. The different numbers of participants don't really play much of a role, but the city where the event takes place does. Hundreds of individual churches have worked and prayed together to organize this second Kirchentag, and to get projects going. The motto "Christians in and for the world" stands side-by-side with the theological theme "So that you have hope," and that is reflected in thousands of events.

You just mentioned the theme "So that you have hope." Did you not hit the nail on the head in two ways by choosing that theme, even though when it was selected, you couldn't have predicted the abuse scandal?

It's not just about the current crisis the Church is in. There is a lot of despondency and insecurity about our future among members. Of course, the Bible does not offer us pat solutions for these concrete problems, but on the other hand, I do hope that we, as people of faith, can show that God has a human dimension, that he became human in form, and therefore understands our existence and our woes. And that he accompanies us on our path through life and helps us. That's why there is a dimension there in terms of life orientation that goes beyond the rational.

What is the aim of the Kirchentag, in your opinion?

That we can grow together even more, and that we can experience the diversity of Christian life. The Kirchentag provides the potential for enrichment and offers new impetus for individuals, for our churches and for the societal questions of our time.

Alois Glueck is president of the Central Committee of German Catholics, a lay organization of the Catholic Church. He is also one of the two presidents of the Ecumenical Kirchentag, the other being Protestant.

Interview: Petra Nicklis (als)
Editor: Kate Bowen