German president challenges churches to unity not division

By staff writers
February 19, 2007

German President Horst Kohler has called on Christian churches to redouble efforts to promote unity, warning they risk squandering their opportunities by letting differences and disputes drown out the message of their faith - writes Stephen Brown for Ecumenical News International (ENI).

"I too strongly believe in the importance of dialogue between the various Christian denominations. But the engine of ecumenism seems to have stuttered," Kohler told 150 representatives of Europe's main Christian traditions gathered in Wittenberg, where in 1517 Martin Luther set in train the Protestant Reformation.

"Every one of us as Christians has a role to play here," said Kohler, a Protestant, speaking on 16 February in Wittenberg's town church, where Luther once preached. "I can assure you – and you yourselves are aware – that many people in our country wish to see greater cooperation and mutual recognition between the various Christian Churches," he said.

"Shared Communion, for example, is a major issue," Kohler noted, referring to the desire for Protestants and Catholics to share in the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, something ruled out in most cases by Catholic teaching.

Kohler said he hoped the churches in Germany, where there are roughly equal numbers of Protestants and Catholics, would help give new impetus to ecumenism.

"I know that there are good reasons for your differences. Belief systems and religious practices developed over hundreds of years cannot simply be ignored," he told the delegates from Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches. "But communities are continuing to call for more fellowship and greater rapprochement - particularly at a time when church-goers increasingly feel part of a minority."

At the same time, Kohler noted, there is a great interest in religious topics and issues, and the views of churches on ethical matters are greatly sought after.

Churches, he said, "can take advantage of this opportunity by pooling the range of opinions to promote the central message of their faith and beliefs. But they can also squander this opportunity by letting differences and disputes drown out the message of their faith."

The Wittenberg meeting is being organized by the Council of European (Roman Catholic) Bishops' Conferences (CCEE) and the Conference of European Churches (CEC), which groups most Anglican, Protestant and Orthodox churches in Europe. It is one of a series of events that will culminate in September in the Romanian city of Sibiu at the Third European Ecumenical Assembly, which will gather several thousand people from Europe's main Christian traditions.

"I wish you the strength and courage to act in the spirit of ecumenism," said Kohler, quoting a prayer from Luther's collaborator, Philipp Melanchthon, calling on God to "consecrate and unite [the Church] with your Holy Spirit." The German president said, "May the Third European Ecumenical Assembly and the meeting here in Wittenberg today serve this same end."

[With grateful acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches]

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