Since 1985, the city of Augsburg has awarded the Augsburg High Peace Festival Prize every three years, together with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria. The prize honors personalities who have rendered outstanding services to a tolerant and peaceful coexistence of cultures and religions.
Below, Bishop Bedford-Strohm and Cardinal Marx reflect on the foundations of their work and their vision for the future.
Many times, the Augsburg Prize goes to individuals but in your case has gone to you as a team working for unity, justice and peace. When did you begin working closely together?
Bishop Bedford-Strohm: We have known each other already from before our common work as bishops. When I was still a professor for Systematic Theology and ethics and co-chair of the social issues committee of the German Protestant Churches, I was invited to the comparable committee, which was chaired by Cardinal Marx. Thus, one could say that our common ecumenical work started with reflecting together the sorrows and needs of peoples’ lives in these times. Our close work together began when I became bishop of the Lutheran Church of Bavaria and engaged in intense mutual exchange with Cardinal Marx as chairman of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Bavaria. His office in Munich is a bike ride of five minutes away from mine.
Cardinal Marx: The geographical proximity definitely helps, as we meet frequently, and can come to an agreement quickly. What is even more important is the spiritual and intellectual link and the personal closeness and friendship, that has been able to grow between us over the years. I am very thankful to Heinrich Bedford-Strohm for this gift, and this experience that has been very enriching for me. We had particularly intense contact around the Reformation year 2017, which we celebrated as a joint festival of Christ. It was and is important to us, to show people in our country and beyond, that real reconciliation of the denominations is possible. Ecumenism is not about raising your profile at the cost of others, but to find common ground and emphasize it, for the sake of the people and the gospel. It is not only the two of us that practice this approach, it is also fundamental for countless ecumenical contacts such as the parishes and communities, and has characterized the ecumenical movement for decades. In ecumenism as in all other encounters, the following applies: without goodwill, without friendship, there is no real understanding.
In accepting the award, what would you like to say to your ecumenical family as they warmly congratulate you?
Bishop Bedford-Strohm: My first word would be: Thank you for your generous response to this award! My second word would be: Never underestimate the importance for social friendship for ecumenical progress. To love one another as sisters and brothers in Christ also has a social dimension. I am extremely grateful for my friendship with Cardinal Marx, for the trust we have in each other and for the joy of being together. It cannot be separated from the deep spiritual experience we have had in many ecumenical worship services we celebrated together.
Cardinal Marx: I fully agree with these words. And I would like to add, that we accept this high distinction with great gratitude to all our brothers and sisters in faith, who are on the path to ecumenical understanding with us. I am encouraged in my ecumenical efforts by the works of Pope Francis, for whom the unity of Christians and the reconciliation of the religions is very close to his heart. In Germany, we have a particular responsibility for the ecumenical, due to our church history, which we should live up to, because the schism came from Germany. I personally believe that there is no alternative to ecumenism and the unity of Christians.
What is next for you in your work together?
Cardinal Marx: We will continue to work on mutual understanding in our churches, in the contact discussion group of the German Bishops’ Conference and the Evangelical Church in Germany, on the theological and pastoral questions, so that we can stay on track to achieve more visible unity. The aim of visible unity in reconciled difference is very appealing to both churches, but not unrealistic. Above all, I am convinced that Christianity—not only in Germany and Europe—will have a future, if we as Christians work strongly together ecumenically. Christ must be the focus here. Especially in our times, characterized by the coronavirus pandemic and so many (geo) political and social tensions, the message is important—that we are all linked worldwide, and all people are children of God, and brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ.
Bishop Bedford-Strohm: The next challenge is to accompany our parishes and the people in our country with comfort and care through these difficult times of the pandemic. This voice of comfort and care will be heard even more, if we speak together. In a time of potential division in society the church needs to speak together to witness Christ and to truly be salt of the earth and light of the world. Therefore, Cardinal and I are planning an open air ecumenical Christmas Eve Service in the centre of Munich. We want to offer a possibility to celebrate the wonderful message of Christmas for more people than the coronavirus protection necessities would allow inside a church. We hope to provide a space for truly hearing the powerful message of the angels: Do not fear!