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Germans lament shortcomings of Luther events

10 November 2017


Light show: the Martin Luther memorial in Wittenberg is illumin­ated on 31 Oc­­tober

Light show: the Martin Luther memorial in Wittenberg is illumin­ated on 31 Oc­­tober

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.

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