Vibrant church gathering sends out message of social hope

By agency reporter
May 20, 2010

An huge church convention which had attracted more than 130,000 participants from across Germany and beyond has given a crucial impetus to the unity movement in the country.

This positive evaluation was given by the two presidents of the Second Ecumenical Kirchentag (12-16 May 2010), as the event is officially known, at the final service celebrated in Munich's Theresienwiese by a crowd of 100,000.

"Ecumenism is alive" said the Roman Catholic president, Alois Glück. The "dream of unity and diversity of the churches" has partly become true already in Munich, his Protestant counterpart Dr Eckhard Nagel added.

The Munich convention, under the theme, "That you may have hope", was the second Ecumenical Kirchentag; the first one took place in Berlin in 2003.

"The Ecumenical Kirchentag is unique in the ecumenical movement, mobilising and bringing together so many people to celebrate the common faith, and to discuss our common call to unity and work for peace," the Rev Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), said.

"I was impressed by the strong involvement of so many young people. More than 100 000 participants from Germany but also 4,000 international guests came here. However, it's not just the numbers that make this event important beyond the national German context. The Ecumenical Kirchentag is a laboratory where crucial issues pertaining to Christian unity are raised. It is a showcase for the most important ecumenical trends," he added.

Tveit's participation at the Kirchentag, where he spoke at the opening event and took part in a number of panel discussions and liturgical celebrations, was his first official visit to Germany since he took office as WCC General Secretary in January 2010.

The Kirchentag in Munich was the first one with full and equal participation from Orthodox churches and the German Evangelical Free Churches. One of its highlights was an Orthodox Vespers service on the Odeonsplatz square in the centre of Munich. It was followed by an ecumenical sharing of blessed bread in which close to 20,000 people participated.

The issue of a joint celebration of the Eucharist by Protestants and Catholics was debated passionately at the Kirchentag, though no such celebrations took place, due to theological reservations on the Roman Catholic side.

The organisers had asked explicitly that the institutional order of both churches should be respected at the gathering's more than 3,000 events. However, numerous speakers as well as grassroots and reform groups called for a change of the positions on joint communion.

"There are theological reasons for the current ecumenical situation but there are even more important reasons for us to proceed," WCC General Secretary Tveit said during a panel discussion with the two highest representatives of the majority churches in Germany, Archbishop Dr Robert Zollitsch, chairperson of the Catholic Bishops' Conference, and Praeses Dr Nikolaus Schneider, chairperson of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD).

Archbishop Zollitsch addressed the issue saying: "I still have the hope that God is planning a surprise for us, in my own lifetime, when we will be able to say: we have been granted more than we ever dared to hope for."

WCC staff and members of its governing bodies also brought an international perspective to various events ranging from panel discussions to liturgical celebrations and a Bible study in dialogue with a Muslim theologian.

One focal point of the WCC presence was the 'Peace-making Forum: One day preparing for the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation'. This series of events included a panel discussion between church representatives and politicians, during which WCC General Secretary Tveit, Praeses Schneider of the EKD and the president of Pax Christi, German Bishop Dr Heinz Josef Algermissen, stressed that peace – in Afghanistan and elsewhere – cannot be achieved with the current narrow focus on military means.

The Peace-making Forum ended with a liturgical evening during which the EKD Bishop for Foreign Affairs and Ecumenism, Dr Martin Schindehütte called on the participants of the event to become part of a "wave of prayers for peace" which will go out from the peace convocation in Jamaica next year. Schindehütte is also a member of the WCC Executive Committee.

Another event at the peace forum was a report on an international expert visit hosted by German churches and church agencies. Five Christian human rights workers from India, Uganda, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States presented their findings on the extent of racism, group focused enmity and right-wing extremism and the responses to these by churches in Germany.

"The organisations which initiated this visit in response to a recent WCC conference on racism and the 700 people who attended this session, committed themselves to overcome racism from within the churches and the German society," said the Rev Dr Deenabandhu Manchala, WCC programme executive for just and inclusive communities, who brought the context of anti-racism work done by churches in other parts of the world to the event in Munich.

Dr Agnes Abuom, a WCC Executive Committee member from the Anglican Church of Kenya, also gave a statement on "State security policy and church-based peace advocacy" at the Kirchentag. In addition, she spoke at a panel discussion on sustainable agriculture.

Economic injustice and the widening gap between rich and poor were the topics of a panel discussion between Praeses Schneider, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bamberg, Dr Ludwig Schick and Dr Rogate Mshana, WCC Director of Justice, Diakonia and Responsibility for Creation. Mshana explained that people in the global South "don't want aid, [they] want justice".

Missionaries and doctors including Dr Denis Mukwege of Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo, were the co-panellists of Dr Manoj Kurian, WCC programme executive for Health and Healing, at the event " Health – yet not for all? The responsibility of Christians for a healthy world".

"I see the sharing of our lives and resources, and the promotion of wellbeing and healing as signs of the extension of the reign of God amongst us," said Kurian.

Pentecostal movements in Latin America were the focus of another discussion, organized by the ecumenical Latin America commission of the Protestant and Roman Catholic mission agencies in Germany.

The panellists noted two strands of Pentecostalism: some Pentecostal churches are part of the traditional and fundamentalist mission from North America and reject local cultures while, on the other hand, there are also local and indigenous churches which can be identified with the tradition and theology of Pentecostalism.

"When talking about Pentecostals, we are no longer talking about the 'others' but about 'us'. Pentecostalism can help us rediscover the fire of the Spirit which is sometimes forgotten in our Christian traditions," said María Chávez, WCC consultant for indigenous issues, who spoke at the panel.

The Kirchentag also saw the first ecumenical celebration using the new prayer book "Laudate omnes gentes", which presents prayers and songs from 2000 years of Christianity worldwide, each of the texts appearing in English, German, French, Spanish and Italian, and one of some twenty other languages. The book is edited jointly by the Council of Christian Churches in Germany (ACK), the Conference of European Churches (CEC) and the WCC.

"We wanted to reap the treasures of our traditions and give them to one another as presents" – this is the idea behind the book; an idea that was born at the Third European Ecumenical Assembly in Sibiu, Romania, in 2007.

"The ecumenical movement has taught me to pray with my eyes open and to see the cloud of Christian witnesses that surrounds us", World Council of Churches General Secretary Tveit said at the celebration.


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