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Facing up to Europe’s wave of populism  

21 September 2018

Churches must oppose nationalism and isolation — but provide space to listen to people’s fears, says Ralf Meister


Far-right protesters gather in the city of Germersheim in Germany, in May, to protest against Angela Merkel’s refugee policies

Far-right protesters gather in the city of Germersheim in Germany, in May, to protest against Angela Merkel’s refugee policies

A FEW years ago, if you had asked a European politician for a vision of the future, he or she would probably have spoken of a future of unity.

The language of unity has to some extent, however, been replaced by populism and nationalism; by separation rather than reunion. Populists all over Europe describe the present as a permanent crisis. They escalate the fear of change, the fear of the unknown, and of a plural and multicultural society. As a remedy, they promote nationalism and isolationism.

Christians must oppose these tendencies. I was irritated that the main reaction in Germany after the Brexit referendum was a discussion about the financial and economic consequences of Brexit. What had become of the dream of a Europe united in peace, shared values, and a common history?

The election of President Emmanuel Macron in France showed that it is still possible, with a true passion for Europe, to win hearts. I long to see more of that passion on the “mainland”.

In 2017, we celebrated the jubilee of the Reformation. It was the first jubilee in 500 years that we celebrated in a deep ecumenical understanding with the Roman Catholic Church and other denominations, parallel to a fruitful interreligious dialogue with Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and others.

We have come a long way, after a history of interdenominational persecutions, discrimination, violence, and war. I suppose we owe our countries the story of that long journey. It has become common among right-wing activists in Germany and other European countries to refer to the “Christian occident” that has to be kept pure from multicultural influences. We must not allow them to seize the meaning of Christianity. Being a Christian means to take responsibility for the well-being of your neighbour, and of the stranger coming to your place as well.

The 1991 Meissen Agreement between the Church of England and the Evangelical Church in Germany stated: “We will take steps to closer fellowship in as many areas as possible; so that all our members together may advance on the way to full visible unity.”

This is an ecumenical sentence, first for us and our Churches. But this is also a strong political proclamation for our worldwide responsibility as Christians; a responsibility to take the challenges of the modern, complex, and anxious world as an invitation from God himself to work for his creation.


OUR voices have to be prophetic: warning of the consequences of hate and separation, but also serving as a reminder that, as St Paul put it, we are “saved by hope”.

The duty of the Churches in Europe is not only to warn, but to give our people the hope that God’s grace will lead us to freedom, justice, and peace. In our families, schools, and parishes we must educate children to solidarity and compassion. We must stay open for people of all classes, and all economic and educational levels. Our parishes could be the places to discuss and to struggle, to express fears and to listen.

In Sachsen, where the anti-Islamic and xenophobic Pegida movement is strongest, some parishes invited Pegida supporters and opponents to meet. Thinking on strategies against populism, we must not forget to talk to those who do not share our positions. Populists protest against what they consider the elites, who do not understand the people any more. The Church must be mindful here, and careful not to be seen as part of these elites. Nobody must be left behind.

In 2017, the Church of Hanover published a paper for parish councils on how to deal with populist positions. We stated that the membership or a charge in a left-wing or right-wing populist party alone does not exclude a lay person from church leadership. But if a person explicitly utters racist, exclusive, inhuman, anti-Semitic, anti-Islamic, or anti-democratic positions, an inspection must take place to ascertain whether that person can be part of a parish council.

A recent study shows some surprising results: It shows that the supporters of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) are not at all different from the average German concerning income, employment, education, and general attitudes.

There is, in fact, one topic that marks the difference: AfD supporters are concerned about immigration. They are afraid of crime rates rising, and fear the changes in a society that is becoming more and more multicultural — even, by the way, if they consider that immigration might be useful for economy.


WHAT does this mean for the Church? The best way to oppose populism is to listen carefully to people’s fears, but also to provide opportunities for neighbours to meet, be it the Ethiopian or Syrian family next door, or European neighbours.

The diocese of Leeds and the Church of Hanover are taking a stand. In the face of Brexit, we have established a partnership. We give English and German Christians the opportunity to get in touch, hoping to win (back) sympathies in England for Germany and Europe. The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, has invited me to preach on Remembrance Day in Ripon Cathedral. I will come and bring our girls’ choir with me as young messengers from Hanover.

The challenges in our Churches are the same: we have to balance our duty to invite the strangers in and our respect for the fears of the locals. We must give a spiritual home and a welcome to a globalised world. It feels good to have partners at our side to do that together.

The Rt Revd Ralf Meister is the Bishop of Hanover, of the Evangelical Church in Germany, and co-chairs the Meissen Commission.

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