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Germany's Christian churches show unity

May 12, 2021

Germany's Christian churches are facing similar problems in the ongoing COVID pandemic. Now they are holding a digital ecumenical assembly. Chancellor Angela Merkel will not be the only top politician attending.

A person with COVID mask sits on huge blue chair by blue table in central Franfurt
An art installation in Frankfurt was set up to sympbolize a change in perspective at the ecumenical assemblyImage: Arne Dedert/dpa/picture alliance

"It's precisely at a time like this that the third ecumenical church assembly is especially relevant," says Bettina Limperg. The trained lawyer has a dual role. Since 2014 she has been the president of Germany's Federal Court of Justice and she is also president of the German Protestant Church Assembly.

In that capacity, she is this weekend working side by side with the president of the Central Committee of German Catholics, Thomas Sternberg, at the head of the third ecumenical church assembly to take place in Germany. The motto is: "Take a look" and, says Limperg: "We want to look and see where people are suffering. Where we can help them to heal. Where we can have an impact."

That motto —  "Take a look" — can be traced back to the Gospel of Mark and it was chosen for the third ecumenical assembly long before the outbreak of the coronavirus. Now, though, against the backdrop of the COVID pandemic, it has taken on a completely new dimension.

The assembly organizers are calling on the faithful to look more closely than ever before at what is happening in the world, both at home and abroad. To look with compassion at the growing social divide that is a feature of COVID. To look at the challenges facing Europe. And also, to look at the growing threat to humanity's well-being posed by the climate crisis.

Faith Matters - Inter-confessional Churches in Germany - Divided and yet United

Going virtual

Of course, the assembly can only be a virtual gathering. It had been hoped that hundreds of thousands of Christians would make their way to the city of Frankfurt for four days of spiritual inspiration. But then came COVID and initial doubts that the assembly could take place at all. "There were several moments," said Thomas Sternberg, "when the whole thing was in the balance." Not least when the Frankfurt authorities warned that nobody would be permitted to stay overnight in the city in order to attend the assembly.

Sternberg regrets that things are definitely not what they might have been: packed trains and buses, large groups sharing in passionate singing, and committed debate. Instead, hopes have focused on bringing together thousands of participants in a digital debate and some 300 smaller events and services transmitted across the country digitally.

It is all part of the decades-old tradition in Germany of colorful and emotional large-scale assemblies of Christian worshippers. Such assemblies have done much down the years to shape German society. And, in the country of the Reformation these large meetings of the divided churches — Catholic and Protestant — have tended to take place if not together, then side by side.

Crowd gathered by a stage on Theresienwiese in Munich
Thousands of people took part in the previous ecumenical assembly in Munich in 2010Image: Peter Kneffel/dpa/picture alliance

Third joint assembly

Germany's Catholics have been gathering in this way since back in 1848 — a time of political upheaval across the country and the continent. Fiery young church activists came together for the first Catholic assembly in the city of Mainz. The last convention took place in 2018 in Münster: the 101st so far.

The Protestant church assembly also goes back a long way. But in its present form, the bi-annual gathering began in 1949. The 37th meeting was in 2019 in Dortmund.

The first ecumenical assembly was in 2003 in Berlin and the second event of its kind followed in 2010 in Munich. It has taken eleven years for the third joint gathering. Eleven years in which the Catholic and Protestant churches, still divided, have increasingly come to realize that they are both facing very similar problems.

Year after year, the disillusioned have been leaving Germany's two main churches in droves. The result is that only half of all people belong to one of the two churches that have been so influential in post-war Germany. Both churches have struggled to come to terms with widespread scandals involving sexual abuse of children by members of the clergy.

Too white and too Eurocentric?

No buzz this time round

Senior figures from across Germany's political spectrum have, this time too, been invited to contribute to the conversation at the assembly. But there will be little or none of the live, festival-style, events that have in the past often been compared with rock concerts. It is an atmosphere that many, including the politicians, will miss; The buzz of the crowd as they debate tough issues like justice and solidarity.

Nevertheless, some big names have been penciled in for this weekend. After all, it is an election year in Germany and Chancellor Merkel is set to put in an appearance. And, at a separate event, the shooting star of German politics — Annalena Baerbock of the Green Party — will be setting out why she believes that she can be the woman to succeed Angela Merkel as Germany's next leader, with the spotlight on combating climate change. Also on hand: two other contenders for the country's highest government office — Armin Laschet for the Christian Democrats and Social Democrat leader Olaf Scholz. They will be mapping out how best to move forward economically after the pandemic.

Angela Merkel smiling and waving
Angela Merkel is a regular at the ecumenical assemblies, like here in Munich in 2010Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Setting the agenda

It is worth pointing out that church assemblies — and especially the Protestant gatherings — have throughout the years had a significant influence on the political agenda in Germany. Many remember the fierce debates over the rights and wrongs of the arms race in the 1980s, where the churches played a vocal role. Andboth confessions have often served as beacons of justice at home and internationally.

Saturday evening, meanwhile, is eagerly awaited. Four Frankfurt churches will be the venues for Catholic and Protestant services. In each, there are only set to be small representative congregations. But they will, perhaps more explicitly than ever before, be seen to illustrate the conviction that each and every Christian can and should have the option of worshiping with and among the other confession. It is truly a hot topic.

Sunday mass at the drive-in

Everybody welcome

"It is without any reservations that we welcome all and any Christians from other denominations," said Georg Bätzing, the Catholic bishop of Limburger on Wednesday. Bätzing is chairman of the German bishop's conference, and Frankfurt is part of his diocese. Which makes him a key player. So, it seemed all the more significant when, on Wednesday, he came out with an announcement on the future course of church assemblies in Germany: "We want to send out a signal of unity."

This article has been translated from German.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year’s elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.

Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C