logo of the German Kirchentag

"You shall be a blessing"

(Gen. 12:2)

was the slogan for this Ecumenical Kirchentag

"It's so BIG!"




Those comments from half-a-dozen young people from the Anglican Diocese of Oxford who had travelled to Berlin at the end of May summed up the experience of many visitors to the first-ever Ecumenical Kirchentag. The alleged world capital of atheism welcomed around 200,000 people who had booked places, plus several thousands more who simply turned up at the gate each day. There were over 5000 participants from outside Germany, representing ninety different nations. About 350 went from the U.K. The Kirchentag office worked miracles in finding bed & breakfast in private homes for around 12,000 participants.

The Kirchentag is clearly a Christian event, and it brought together people of all ages and at different stages of their journey of faith, picture of the opening servicewho gathered to celebrate the faith that they share and to acknowledge the pain of what they cannot yet share. On the opening evening at the Brandenburg Gate, on Ascension Day in the Gendarmenmarkt, and at the closing service in front of the Reichstag, huge crowds of Catholic and Protestant Christians affirmed loud and clear to each other, to the world, and to the authorities in their respective Churches, that what united them was much greater than what divided them. A few (which in the context of such a great celebration means "a few hundreds" - if not thousands) defied a very pointed restatement of Rome's position on Eucharistic sharing by breaking bread together across the confessional divide. It was, said one experienced observer of the Christian scene in Europe,

"an expression of the deep longing of the people of God to be together".

For many participants the symbolism of this Ecumenical Kirchentag was huge. The last Kirchentag in Berlin was in 1989, in a city still divided by ideology and a Wall. This Kirchentag, taking place in the capital of a reunited Germany, was shared by Churches which are slowly working at the process of reconciliation after four and a half centuries of division. For some, this process is going too slowly, despite milestones such as Ut Unum Sint and the joint declaration on justification by faith.

Nevertheless, the sense of sharing and belonging, focused for many people in the signing, on the Friday evening, of the Charta Oecumenica (which still has not filtered down in the U.K. to local churches) made this a Kirchentag to remember, and offered encouragement to those who wish to see such events as a regular part of the German Churches' experience. The words of Keith Clements, General Secretary of the Conference of European Churches, speaking about the Charta Oecumenica, might be applied more widely to the whole Kirchentag:

"This is one more occasion which is both a fruit of the recent past and also contains the seed of a still more exciting future"

For anyone to whom the words "ecumenical celebration" conjures up the image of a few faithful "ecumaniacs" braving the rigours of a January evening, this was an eye-opener. Despite a capacity of more than 1000, the "house full" signs were up three hours before the start, and the media scrum was almost worthy of a pop-star's wedding.

A first-time Kirchentager, the Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, Dr Geoffrey Rowell, who signed the Charta on behalf of the Anglican congregations in Germany, commented that Bishop Rowell signing the Charta Ecumenica

"To have this event at the centre [of the Kirchentag] is remarkable. It is, as all ecumenical things are, an end and a beginning, a great encouragement to the life of the Churches."

Bishop Geoffrey spoke for many British participants when he added,

"As a minority Church in Europe, Anglicans rejoice to share in the European dimension of the ecumenical movement and I hope that we can both learn from and contribute to it."

For the group of young adults from Oxford, the main aspect of the Kirchentag to hold their attention was the music. For other British participants, a pilgrimage to the family home of the theologian/martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer was an important part of their visit to Berlin. For everyone, the celebration of this Ecumenical Kirchentag in a city reunited after four decades of sometimes bitter division was a sign of hope for the future: that the Churches, too, may be enabled to break down those invisible walls of pride and exclusivity that prevent us from sharing together the meal that Jesus our Lord offers to all his people. In the context of generous hospitality from the people of Berlin, who provided accommodation in their homes for nearly 12,000 participants, there were many who found it both painful and incomprehensible that they could not share Christ's hospitality around the same table. As the Berlin-based cabaret group, "Die Distel" put it:

"It's a wonderful thing the Ecumenical Kirchentag. You have breakfast together, but you give up by the time you get to Supper."

passing a bowl of water one to anotherAt the final televised service prominent Protestant and Catholic leaders stood side by side as a witness to a genuine search for unity. The use of water by worshippers to sign one another with the cross and to encourage one another to be a blessing for Christ was an imaginative reference to "our common baptism", linking what Christians can share with the theme of the Kirchentag: "You shall be a blessing." Those who attended from Britain were greatly blessed by the worship, the music, the people they met and the hospitality. Some expressed the hope that somehow their experiences will be a blessing to others, especially to those who are working for the visible unity of the Christian Church.

written by Tony Dickinson with additional material from Jim Knights and Robin Blount

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