THIRTY years after reunification, the old divisions between East and West Germany have not been fully overcome in German Churches or wider society.
For the first time since reunification, in late August, the five church leaders of the East German regional Protestant Churches of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) met. The meeting, in the East German city of Greifswald, was labelled a laboratory for the future.
“The sense of community in the Church is different” in their Churches, the president, the Revd Joachim Liebig, from the west, said.
East German churches played a significant part in the fall of the Wall. A service for of prayer for peace in St Nicholas’s, Leipzig, on 9 October 1989, triggered the chain of events that, one month later, led to the opening of the Berlin Wall, and, barely a year later, to reunification of the partitioned Germany on 3 October 1990.
Since reunification, church structures have been dominated by leaders from the former West Germany. Until a year ago, there was no East German-born head of a regional Church in the east. Many former East German church officials had been tainted by a Stasi past. In 1989, the Bishop of Greifswald, Bishop Horst Gienke, was outed as an unofficial collaborator with the secret police, the Stasi.
At their August meeting, the clergy exchanged views on the challenges facing the Church in the future, in times of rapid change. They discussed issues such as their response to the coronavirus, digitisation, youth work, shrinking membership, and lack of money. They agreed that the challenges that regional Churches in the east were experiencing today could, in future, affect all churches in Germany. They see this as both a challenge and an opportunity.
The Bishop of Berlin, Dr Christian Stäblein, said: “Digitisation means that the physical boundaries of the regional churches are becoming less important.”
A specific East German church-life mentality is hard to pinpoint. It is more prevalent among people over the age of 50, who were already adults when the two Germanies reunited. The church leaders said that this attitude to church community should be taken into account without dissociating themselves from the western Protestant regional Churches.
“It’s all about the fine nuances,” Bishop Friedrich Kramer, of Magdeburg, who was born into an East German family, said.
Bishop Tobias Bilz, of Dresden, the new leader of the Saxonian Church, also comes from an East German family. He succeeded Dr Carsten Rentzing, a West German, who resigned a year ago after only four years in the post, after criticism of connections to the extreme political movement New Right.
Today, churches in eastern Germany contend with not only dwindling numbers, a legacy of Communist rule, but with the fact that among the few who attend church are many members who belong to, or are sympathetic to, the far-right AFD (Alternative for Germany) party.
“Our Church and our country urgently need a public discourse about the sometimes more, sometimes less, obvious existence of marginalising, anti-human. and anti-democratic convictions in the midst of our church communities,” the grass-roots church organisation Frei und Fromm (“Free and Pious”), which seeks to promote an open society, wrote in February.
This was after protesting that, for the third time, a regional AFD Party Congress was being held in Weinböhla, in Saxony. “The years of concealing the discrepancy between these attitudes and the Christian message, in order to practise supposed tolerance towards those who think differently and to preserve diversity, paralyses church communities,” they said.