THE special events in Germany for the quincentenary Reformation Year ended last week in Wittenberg with considerable fanfare, but Churches, theologians, and organisers are complaining about a perceived lack of success for this historical commemoration.
Preliminary visitor-figures for this experience, in which no cost was spared to ensure its success, indicate a much lower turnout than was originally expected.
The Wittenberg theologian and former East German human-rights activist Friedrich Schorlemmer, in a 16-page memorandum published last month on the anniversary year, Reformation in Crisis, criticised the Churches for neglecting to address openly the “crisis of the Church in secular society”.
Mr Schorlemmer also said that the Church had “imposed a mammoth programme” with its May mini-Kirchentag in eight towns connected with Luther: Leipzig, Magdeburg, Erfurt, Jena/Weimar, Dessau-Rosslau and Halle/Eisleben. Yet visitors stayed away: in Leipzig, only 15,000 turned out instead of 50,000.
“Overall, the programme became a beacon of grandiose self-deception, and, at the same time, revealed with regards to content and structure the deep crisis of many parishes,” Mr Schorlemmer wrote.
Centre-stage in the dispute is Wittenberg, the small town in eastern Germany where the Reformer Martin Luther is traditionally said to have published his epoch-changing 95 theses on the door of the Schlosskirche.
Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Wittenberg was a centre of theological and political dissent in communist East Germany: protests took place in churches. Today, Christians are a minority in the town, making up just seven per cent of the population. It is half the percentage of a decade ago, and yet the town has held a large number of celebrations, including a 16-week Reformation World Exhibition, which had weekly changing themes.
Mr Schorlemmer told the local MDR TV in October: “And the fact that the churches have such a crisis of being accepted, after they had such a high approval rate after 1989, is probably also due to the fact that we do too little to stay close to our parishioners.
“It is especially true if pastors and other church employees still just manage congregations in a huge area instead of being able to do pastoral work, and being able to bring about a community.”
The Reformation ambassador-pastor Margot Kaessmann disagreed with Mr Schorlemmer, saying that she saw no crisis. A former bishop and the first elected woman to chair the German Evangelical Churches, she reached out to secular people, and drew full churches, not only in Wittenberg.
“The jubilee was a huge encouragement for the Christians in east Germany, which no one can imagine in the former West German federal states. The church life was suddenly present again in public,” she told journalists.
As a sign of her popularity, on the morning of the Reformation Anniversary a long queue of people were trying to get into her service in the Schlosskirche, as opposed to the other two services in Wittenberg.
German theologians criticised Pastor Kaessmann, however, for being too populist and not heavyweight enough. She said, in the summer: “Just give me a church, and I will fill it every Sunday.”
There was heavy state investment in the infrastructure of the industry-poor town to make the year a success. In total, the German government, Churches, the regional governments of Saxony Anhalt and Berlin, and private investors poured almost half a billion euros into the anniversary year.
Yet, midway through the year, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung commented in an article, “Anniversary of the Reformation: Luther is the failure of the year”, that “the anniversary of the Reformation should be the single greatest success. But the interim balance is sobering, because the visitors are missing.”
While the Germans were arguing, the Reformation Year was bookended by services outside Germany, starting in Lund, Sweden, and ending in Westminster. The year started in Lund on 31 October 2016, when Pope Francis attended a joint service with the Lutheran World Federation in Lund Cathedral, in the presence of the King and Queen of Sweden (News, 4 November 2016). It ended in the Westminster Abbey service attended by representatives of the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church.
The biggest event was when the former US President Barack Obama met Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss faith, in front of the Brandenburg Gate, in Berlin, during the Kirchentag gathering in May.
A final report will be delivered this month, but one observer said that part of the problem was the complicated organisational chart: “A case of too many cooks’ spoiling the broth, with far too many players involved in the organisation, often passing the buck to each other.”
The local, regional, and national church bodies were involved, as well as the Kirchentag, the Reformation 2017 organisation, which organised the World Reformation Exhibition, and local, regional, and national government.