50 years after the 4th WCC Assembly in Uppsala, Sweden − again one in Europe, and for the first time in Germany? Who would have thought that would happen!
In 2016, when I was at the WCC Central Committee meeting in Trondheim, Norway, I was asked for the first time whether I could imagine Germany as the location for the next assembly. I didn't have to think twice! I could very well imagine that! However, such an invitation needed the joint support of the German churches and a kind of polyphonic ecumenical consortium that would have to participate in the organization, implementation and, not least, financing.
In an initial conversation with the Chair of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, I was encouraged to contact all ecumenical partners to motivate them to issue an invitation together. In his speech of invitation he passionately reiterated:
“There are many things that we as Germans and Europeans can give to the WCC and a possible assembly in our country and on our continent. And we would love to give what we have to offer so that it can become a powerful, empowering, and well-organized gathering. The most important reason to invite you to Europe, however, is that we hope to receive. Europe needs you. Europe needs your spiritual inspiration. Europe needs your encouragement. Europe needs your joy in faith. Europe needs your questions about peace and justice. Europe needs your presence as a visible sign of the one world we all long for."
We were very pleased to learn that our enthusiasm was shared by so many in the German Protestant church leadership, by our sisters and brothers of other confessions, as well as by the government and secular authorities.
The joint invitation issued by the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), the Protestant Church in Baden, the Council of Christian Churches in Germany (ACK), the Union of Protestant Churches of Alsace and Lorraine (UEPAL) and the Evangelical Reformed Church in Switzerland was successful.
Thus, for the first time in the 70-year history of the WCC, the assembly will take place in Germany. A special feature was highlighted in the application: the 11th Assembly is to take place in the triangle between Germany, France and Switzerland and so will also cross national borders. Events are planned for Karlsruhe and the surrounding area, in Strasbourg and Alsace, in Basel and the Swiss region. The triangle is a place of great symbolism for us when it comes to meeting and talking about peace and reconciliation.
In close cooperation with the WCC, the host churches in Germany, France and Switzerland are preparing for their activities during the Assembly. This includes ecumenical encounters, excursions and the weekend programme with a cultural evening, which is intended to offer an entertaining insight into the history, special characteristics and challenges of the European region. Numerous public figures from politics and society are to be invited to this cultural evening.
There are many expectations of an event like an Assembly. It will certainly not be possible to fulfil them all, especially since it must now be planned and carried out under conditions caused by the Covid pandemic.
My expectation is that there will be a real encounter. We in Europe need to meet the churches from all over the world. I hope that we will learn from them to see our work and our role as churches from a different perspective. I hope for inspiration for our faith and a clear and unmistakable testimony for justice and peace, for hope and confidence. I hope for an important boost for our ecumenical situation in Europe and in Germany.
Often we have the feeling that we have already clarified a lot theologically, but on a practical level we do not yet dare to draw the conclusions. The Assembly and its witness to stronger unity could help us to be more consistent and courageous in our ecumenical cooperation on the ground.
Last but not least, I hope that the Assembly will strengthen the role and responsibility of the churches in our society. The preparations show that secular and cultural institutions and politicians are particularly interested in the Assembly. They recognize that the churches and religious communities are important multipliers and drivers for social development.
I hope that the Assembly will send out a wake-up call around the world. Especially in a situation in which cohesion and closeness are put to the test by the Covid pandemic, where our vulnerability comes into focus, the Assembly can send an important message: only together can we manage to face the challenges of our time. Those who merely pursue their own interests cannot build a peaceful and just society. Privileges erode constructive coexistence, and racism and injustice destroy a stable community. If we can counter these current trends not only with a clear message but also with a lived testimony of unity, justice and peace, then all the effort will have been worth it.
Together with other churches around the world we can be a strong voice for peace and justice. We can denounce abuses. And we can work for the great potential for peace that exists between the religions of the world on an interreligious basis. When looking at present political realities, I think that such partnerships across continents are perhaps more important today than ever before - as are international ecumenical church fellowships like the World Council of Churches.
In Uppsala in 1968, the ecumenical movement took an important step forward with the public commitment of the 4th Assembly to work for justice and peace throughout the world. Which path will the 11th WCC Assembly take − 54 years later in Karlsruhe?