Available in:

75 Years since the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt: Which unity?

Dear friends,

1. A word of thanks


Speaking to you today and having a chance to interact with you is indeed a great joy for me. When Heike Bosien conveyed the invitation for this event to me, I knew I would meet friends of the World Council of Churches (WCC) who have supported the WCC and the ecumenical movement in Germany over many years and in some cases for decades. Heike has been your very capable and active ambassador during her time on the central committee, and she continues to foster the relationships very well.

When I read the names

-        of the EMS, the “Evangelical Mission in Solidarity“,

-       of DiMoe , the Service for Mission Ecumenism and Development,

-       of Pro Ökumene Württemberg,and

-       of KASA, the church-based initiative for South Africa in Heidelberg,

I see friends, sisters and brothers in Christ, supporting and accompanying the WCC both materially and spiritually with great perseverance and steadfastness. This is my opportunity to thank you all for this.

2. Don’t pull the plug out of the socket

This is also an occasion to congratulate Pro Ökumene for its 45th anniversary. Pro Ökumene was established in 1975 during the conflict about the Special Fund of the WCC’s Programme to Combat Racism (PCR). This was a time of deep tensions between the WCC, the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) and a number of churches here in Germany, but also a time of great ecumenical cooperation and solidarity. In her biography published in 2013, Bärbel von Wartenberg-Potter wrote about the situation here in Württemberg: “When the conservative group Lebendige Gemeindedemanded that the church leave the WCC because of its programme dealing with racism, my colleagues and I started a counter-action in Ulm which became ‘Pro Ökumene.’ It gathered ecumenically minded women and men of the church. Funds were raised to support the WCC . . . A graphic artist designed posters with amusing slogans and cartoons. ’The lights go out in Württemberg,’ depicted someone pulling the plug of the church of Württemberg out of the WCC socket.”[1]

Is this not a good image for the energy and clarity which comes with belonging to the fellowship of churches in the WCC? As churches confront the divisions of this world, this fellowship will never be without tensions and conflicts, but it will always serve as a source of energy which is essential for the life of the churches together and for their discernment of the challenges they face in this world. What was at stake in 1945 was exactly the situation that the churches in Germany might remain disconnected from the ecumenical fellowship and would not reconnect to the “socket.” Therefore, the WCC in process of formation, with its general secretary, Willem Visser ’t Hooft requested a statement that would make it possible to stay together not despite the consequences of war, genocide, and holocaust, but precisely because of them. The Stuttgart Declaration was the response of the German churches to this request.

3. The Stuttgart Declaration 1945 and the Programme to Combat Racism

I mentioned already in the church this morning that the Stuttgart Declaration was a result of a much longer process of discussion between the WCC and representatives of the Confessing Church in Germany. It is important to remember that at the origins of the Confessing Church was the rejection of the discrimination against Jewish Christians by the newly formed “Reichskirche.” The “Reichskirche” was imposing the anti–Jewish law of the state on the churches. It was this action by the “Reichskirche” that broke the unity of the church.

Already in 1940, Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to the guilt of the German churches. This was obviously motivated by his deep disappointment about the silence of the churches regarding the deportation and murder of, at the end, millions of Jews in the death camps of the Nazis. The church historian Armin Boyens suggests that a letter written in 1942 by Hans Asmussen to Willem Visser ’t Hooft, in which he wrote about the guilt of the German churches, was not only about the political question of the war guilt, but also about the failure of the churches to be in solidarity with the Jews and their suffering. Visser ’t Hooft’s small team in Geneva received day-by-day updates about Jewish refugees and deportations and even reports about the gas chambers in Auschwitz that they made available to the Allies.

In the Stuttgart Declaration, the leaders of the Evangelical Church in Germany confessed: “Through us, infinite wrong was brought over many peoples and countries. That which we often testified to in our communities, we express now in the name of the whole church: We did fight for long years in the name of Jesus Christ against the mentality that found its awful expression in the National Socialist regime of violence; but we accuse ourselves for not standing to our beliefs more courageously, for not praying more faithfully, for not believing more joyously, and for not loving more ardently.“ Yet, the declaration did not name explicitly the context of the suffering and murder of the Jews, and many people have seen this as the declaration’s weakest point.

There is an important parallel to the apartheid situation in South Africa. What broke the unity among, in, and with the churches in South Africa was both the injustice and violence against Africans and the segregation at the Lord’s table. The South African Council of Churches saw itself in the tradition of the Confessing Church in Germany and the Barmen Declaration of 1934. The Barmen Declaration inspired the Belhar Confession of 1982, which insisted on the relationship between unity, reconciliation, and justice.

The membership of churches supporting the apartheid Regime and practising segregation at the Lord’s table was suspended in 1977 by the Lutheran World Federation and in 1982 by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. The same South African churches withdrew from membership of the WCC.

4. Church and World

The conflict over apartheid challenged the WCC and its partners in the ecumenical movement to reflect more precisely about the ways in which grave injustices in the world impact on the churches themselves and their relationship with each other.  Faith and Order has addressed this concern on  various occasions. The World Conference on Faith and Order in 1993 in Santiago de Compostela said about the quality of the togetherness in the fellowship and the unity of the Church:

(The) koinonia which we share is nothing less than the presence of the love of God. God wills unity for the Church, for humanity, and for creation because God is a koinonia of love, the unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This koinonia comes to us as a gift we can only accept in gratitude. Gratitude, however, is not passivity. Our koinonia is in the Holy Spirit who moves us to action. The koinonia we experience drives us to seek that visible unity which can adequately embody our koinonia with God and one another.

The deeper koinonia which is our goal for the glory of God and for the sake of the world. The Church is called to be a sign and instrument of this all-encompassing will of God, the summing up of all things in Christ. Jesus broke down walls of division in his identification with women and with the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed. A deeper koinonia will be a sign of hope for all or it will not be a true koinonia in the love of God. Only a Church itself being healed can convincingly proclaim healing to the world. Only a Church that overcomes ethnic, racial, and national hatreds in a common Christian and human identity can be a credible sign of freedom and reconciliation.[2]

The study of the commission on “Church and World. The Unity of the Church and the Renewal of Humankind” published in 1990 had explored the link between the being and the mission of the church in this broken world. It spoke of the church as prophetic sign and foretaste of the reign of God. The report quotes an earlier Faith and Order meeting:

The quest for visible unity is related, and must be seen to be related, to the overcoming of human divisions and the meeting of human needs. This does not mean that the unity of the church is only functional, it is also a direct reflection of God's own unity and unitive love. Relating unity to mission, service and sharing the sufferings of humankind is precisely an expression of the love of God which calls

the church into being, as the sign, foretaste and instrument of a new humanity in the kingdom of God.[3]

5. “Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace” and “Unity on the way”

Especially when it comes to the question of the kind of unity we seek, these distinctions between Christian unity, the unity of humankind, and reconciliation and unity as the final purpose of God’s love remain important even though these different aspects are closely interconnected.

The constitution of the WCC states in article 3:

“The primary purpose of the fellowship of churches in the World Council of Churches is to call one another to visible unity in one faith and in one Eucharistic fellowship, expressed in worship and common life in Christ, through witness and service to the world, and to advance towards that unity in order that the world may believe.”

The goal of visible unity is clear. We continue to learn on the way from each other what it entails to be this fellowship committed to unity in faith and common witness to the world, how Christian unity and the unity of humankind and all creation are intertwined. In recent years, we have become far more sensitive about the process of moving together towards the unity that is given in Christ.

Already during the World Conference on Faith and Order in 1993, one of the reports spoke of the journey toward Christian unity as being a pilgrimage. The message of the WCC’s 10th Assembly in Busan in 2013 changed the language of previous assemblies that had declared “We intend to stay together” to " We intend to move together.” And the message continued: “Challenged by our experiences in Busan, we challenge all people of good will to engage their God-given gifts in transforming actions. This Assembly calls you to join us in pilgrimage. May the churches be communities of healing and compassion, and may we seed the Good News so that justice will grow and God’s deep peace rest on the world.”[4] Calling for a pilgrimage of justice and peace, the assembly kept the search for unity and the quest for justice and peace together.

With the pontificate of Pope Francis, the Roman Catholic Church has also changed its language. Pope Francis has spoken on many occasions of the “unity on the way” which is being experienced already now in ecumenical cooperation. Indicative for such a shared approach was the motto of his visit to the WCC in 2018: “Walking, praying and working together. An ecumenical pilgrimage.” This is all about the quality of relationships and the understanding of shared tasks and goals on the way. The door is wide open for ecumenical and inter-faith cooperation for the sake of justice and peace in the world.

6. Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity

This process-oriented and dynamic understanding of ecumenism is also expressed by the theme of the WCC’s forthcoming 11th Assembly in 2022 in Karlsruhe: “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity,” or, in German, “Die Liebe Christi bewegt, versöhnt und eint die Welt.” Using the three verbs – moves, reconciles, and unites – the German translation captures very well the dynamic character of the theme.

As we have reflected on the theme for some time now, we have learned that we need to hear and interpret it in the context of the love of the triune God for the world that was made manifest in the incarnation in Jesus Christ. In this way the possible pitfalls of Christian triumphalism and of a christomonistic Interpretation are being addressed.

Reconciliation and unity are God’s final purpose for humankind and creation. The assembly theme was inspired by the Second Letter to the Corinthians where it speaks of the disciples as ambassadors of Christ’s love (2 Cor. 5:14).  Exploring the biblical basis of the theme, the international group that was asked to reflect on the theme added references to the cosmic Christ found in Colossians (1:19f), and to Christ’s compassion for the suffering in Matthew (9:35-39).

The International Theme Group has also introduced a more sophisticated analysis of the signs of the times by identifying megatrends that are confronting the churches and the world. The group pointed to

-        Covid-19 and its consequences

-       the climate emergency

-       racism and growing social and economic inequalities

-       the undermining of democracy through authoritarian politics of fear and hate, and

-       the ambiguous consequences of digitalization

All these are expressions and dimensions of a multifaceted civilizational crises we are facing.

The Assembly Planning Committee (APC) , which met online in September, added to this list the increasing militarization of conflicts and the growing threat of nuclear warfare. The APC made also a strong plea for the need and opportunity of interfaith cooperation as cutting across all these challenges. It affirmed as well that the assembly needs to confront the injustices of the past and present such as colonialism, the slave trade, genocide, and grave injustices to people and earth if it is to generate hope for the future.

The challenges we face are not all new, but together – and especially with Covid-19 adding to the situation – they appear like an overwhelming wall imprisoning the world. To bring this wall down, we need deep and radical changes, starting with the hope that it is possible to overcome paralysis and breach the wall. The assembly needs to address this situation and speak to the world in clear and direct ways that are accessible to all. It cannot gloss over the deep multi-faceted civilizational crisis. However, it has the chance to explore how Christ’s love opens a horizon of hope beyond the wall. It is indeed God’s purpose to move the whole world and the entire cosmos to reconciliation and unity.

So let us stay connected and contribute together with our knowledge and gifts to the assembly preparations in Germany. Let us spread the news about the WCC coming to Karlsruhe in 2022. And last, but not least: Let us be ambassadors of Christ’s love in this world.

[1] “Als die konservative ‚Lebendige Gemeinde‘ den Austritt der Landeskirche aus dem ÖRK forderte wegen dessen Rasissmusprogramms, starteten meine Kollegen und ich in einer Gruppe in Ulm eine Gegenaktion, aus der ‚Pro Ökumene‘ entstand. Darin sammelten sich die ökumenisch gesinnten Frauen und Männer der Landeskirche. Es wurde Geld eingeworben, um den ÖRK zu unterstützen… Ein Graphiker entwarf Plakate mit witzigen Slogans und Karikaturen: „In Württemberg geht das Licht aus“. Jemand zieht den Stecker der Landeskirche aus der Steckdose ÖRK.”

Bärbel von Wartenberg-Potter, Anfängerin: Zeitgeschichte meines Lebens (Gütersloh: Güthersloher Verlagshaus, 2013).

[2] Thomas F. Best and Günther Gassmann, eds, On the way to Fuller Koinonia: Official report of the Fifth World Conference on Faith and Order, Faith and Order Paper 166  (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1994), 225–26.

[3] Church and World. The Unity of the Church and the Renewal of Human Community. A Faith and Order Study Document, Faith and Order Paper 151 (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1992), 39–40..

[4] Erlinda N Senturias and Theodore A Gill, Jr., eds, Encountering the God of Life: Report of the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2014), 36.