THE biennial German Protestant Church congress, held in Berlin and Wittenberg last week, was topped and tailed by Anglican archbishops who made a strong plea for mutual support, unity, and one humanity in a world inhabited by fear. The Kirchentag, held from Wednesday until Friday of last week, opened two days after the terrorist attack in Manchester (News, 26 May).
The Archbishop of Canterbury, addressing a crowd of 40,000 people in front of the German Bundestag (Federal Parliament) on Wednesday evening, captured the mood of the gathering. Referring to the terror attacks on a Berlin Christmas market five months ago (News, 20 December) and in Manchester, Archbishop Welby said: “The terrorist aims to cause division and disintegration, to separate us from our fellow human beings with fear and horror.
“As Easter Christians who follow the Lord Jesus Christ, conqueror of all death and evil, we reply ‘A Mighty Fortress is our God’ — ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’.” He won loud applause. The assembly organisers said that it was the first time a Church of England Primate had addressed the Kirchentag.
The Archbishop continued, pleading for unity and solidarity: “Whatever is happening politically, across Europe, we belong to each other in our culture, our Christian history. In this year of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, after the most war-torn century in history, we know that the evils of division and disintegration must be resisted.
“I am not speaking of Brexit, nor of any politics, but of an attitude of mutual support and care. God is our mighty fortress, when we stand together. A year ago, one of our Members of Parliament, Jo Cox, was murdered by a political extremist. Before her death, she said, ‘There is far more that unites us than divides us.”’
The next day, in his first important appearance since he ceased to be the US President, Barack Obama joined the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, under the Brandenburg Gate to talk about civic involvement in democracy. Addressing a crowd of about 70,000 at the point at which the Berlin Wall once divided the city, he echoed Archbishop Welby’s words: “The world order is at a crossroads. In this new world . . . we can’t isolate ourselves; we can’t hide behind a wall.”
The German Kirchentag was begun by lay Protestant Christians after the Second World War, to confront and deal with the complacency of the Churches during the Nazi regime. It has been political and outspoken throughout its history.
Observers called this year’s four-day event, which was attended by more than 100,000 people, the most ecumenical and interfaith Kirchentag ever. Many high-profile national and international guests attended.
One of the highlights of more than 2000 events was a discussion between the German Minister of the Interior,Thomas de Maizière, a member of Mrs Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union, and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar University, Professor Mohamed Ahmed el-Tayeb, the leading scholar of the world’s Sunni Muslims.
During the event on the Friday morning, the Minister was handed a note about the same-day attack on a bus in southern Egypt which had been carrying Coptic Christians (News, 26 May). The participants, who had already held a minute’s silence for the victims of Manchester, rose again for a minute’s silence in solidarity with these victims.
The Protestant Bishop of Berlin, Dr Markus Dröge, held a debate with Christians in the extreme right-wing party AfD (Alternative for Germany). He had beforehand earned criticism from both sides of the political divide, but went on to address the people’s fear.
“Of course, there are fears, but what can we do against these fears? Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb told me that alone they cannot solve these problems; we need to deal with it together. Therefore, we need dialogue with the Muslims.”
The sermon at the closing service was delivered by the Archbishop of Cape Town, the Most Revd Thabo Makgoba, on the banks of the River Elbe in Wittenberg, a stone’s throw from the church in which Martin Luther set in motion the Reformation by nailing to the door of Castle Church his 95 theses against church abuses.
Archbishop Makgoba took Martin Luther’s example and that of his namesake, Martin Luther King Jr., to speak of his own dream that “there will arise a global awareness that we are of one humaity.”
The President of the Kirchentag, the Swiss theologian Professor Christina Aus der Au, concluded the four-day gathering by saying: “It was a Kirchentag against fear, against uncertainty, and against fear as a political argument.”