By Jessica Quinn *
This year, the World Council of Churches (WCC) celebrates the 75th anniversary of its founding in 1948. Throughout that 75-year history, the WCC has been a space and a movement for visible Christian unity, eucharistic fellowship, and a joining in common witness for justice and peace in our world.
While the work of the WCC towards unity and ecumenism is a global effort, this mission has been particularly significant in the German context. Forming in the years after World War II, the WCC, and German churches engaged in the ecumenical movement, sought to nurture a sense of unity despite the division of the Cold War.
In more recent history, Germany has been host to and facilitated much ecumenical cooperation and conversation within the country and globally. Enthusiasm for the ecumenical movement was on full display at the WCC 11th Assembly in Karlsruhe, Germany in 2022, and again at the celebration of Kirchentag in Nuremberg, Germany earlier this year.
A member of the Protestant Church of Westphalia (Evangelische Kirche von Westfalen), Wolfgang Dzieran shared that “since the disciples of Jesus began to build our church,” ecumenism “has developed in many different ways. As diverse as the birds in the sky are dressed, so are the manifestations of our churches. The ecumenical movement reminds us that despite the many different colors, we all have a common foundation, our Christian faith.”
Susanne Dzieran, also a member of the Protestant Church of Westphalia, shared a similar positive view of ecumenism. “It is always inspiring to get to know people from other cultures…and then to realize that there is a common basis in the Christian faith that goes far beyond what people alone are capable of creating.”
The WCC has, and should continue to play, an important role in the fostering of this ecumenical movement, according to Christian Germans. A student of Protestant theology at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, and a member of the Protestant Church (Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland), Ulrike La Gro says she has “always appreciated the idea that there are people from so many different contexts coming together and organizing to fight for a better world.”
She finds it “both inspiring and concerning how some of the declarations of the WCC or the texts of the anti-racism program from the 1980s still speak to us as though they were meant to address us today.” Inspiring, she says, “because there is a liberating tradition” she can draw from, and concerning because there is still much work to be done to address racialized global capitalism.
Pastor Ulrike Bischoff, a prison chaplain and a pastor in the Protestant Church in Central Germany (Evangelische Kirche in Mitteldeutschland), received a scholarship from the WCC to study orthodoxy in St Petersburg. Bischoff would like opportunities like this to be more widely known, and sees the role that the WCC might play as “a platform for exchange” between denominations.
Wolfgang Dzieran says that for “church insiders,” the WCC is well known in Germany, “especially after the WCC 11th Assembly in Karlsruhe last year—or for older folks, the years when Konrad Raiser acted as chairperson of the WCC.” To some in his community, knowledge of the WCC comes from “engaging in local activities like the pilgrimage of justice and peace.”
Although important, clergy and lay Christians say the ecumenical movement between Christian denominations is not the only source of connectedness they deem valuable for their spiritual practice.
“There aren’t many Christians in the East,” Bischoff stated. “We Christians can learn a lot about ourselves and our traditional behavior by speaking to non-religious society. God also wants to enter into dialogue with us through the exchange with this non-religious society.”
For La Gro, this connectedness came from working for the German Sanctuary Movement. “What is important is that we are willing to open our spaces to the most vulnerable who are under threat of deportation from Germany. No matter what faith they have.”
Be it fostering ecumenism for Christians in Germany and globally, or seeking connection with those of all faith or secular backgrounds, clergy and lay Christians agree that the WCC can be that source where unity and justice can be found amidst division.
Wolfgang Dzieran wishes for a unity where “all gather together for the Lord’s Supper on an equal footing,” and where we might “stay in conversation with each other despite great differences,” citing the war in Ukraine and LGBTQ+ rights as examples.
La Gro values the work of the WCC for “the idea that there are people from so many contexts coming together and organizing together to fight for a better world.” She says she longs “for a feeling of unity that does not include unification in the sense that we have to be similar to be united.”
Ecumenism can help us “become more aware of [our] own faith,” Susanne Dzieran says, “and so ‘church’ can really become a piece of ‘home’ everywhere in the world.”
* Jessica Quinn, MBA, is an online communications specialist with Justice and Local Church Ministries for the United Church of Christ. She was part of the communications team of the WCC 11th Assembly in 2022.