Is it a church, or a movement? Whatever views are held over the Kirchentag, unequivocally it has helped to promote environmental and social change in Germany, and beyond
Kirchentag is a biennial event hosted in early summer. Kirchen and tag are two German words, which when combined translate literally to Churches Day in the English language. From 19-23 June 2019, the city of Dortmund hosted more than 200,000 visitors from about 100 countries attending the 37th German Protestant Kirchentag.
Dignitaries from politics, science, society and culture, including German Chancellor, Angela Merkel attended the event. Alongside spirituality, political dialogue and worship, this year’s Kirchentag featured insecurity, social cohesion, justice, immigration, integration, environment, and climate protection issues.
The Kirchentag is as old as the German Federal Republic. In 1949, Reinhold von Thadden-Trieglaff and some friends founded the Kirchentag in Hannover. It was founded as a movement of Protestant lay people who believed that independence from the official state church was as important as their Christian faith, which combines spirituality with a responsibility towards society and the world at large. Hence a faith-based open forum for democracy, human rights, ecumenism, and awareness raising against every kind of discrimination emerged.
Numerous initiatives and proposals can be traced to the Kirchentag. In 1961 Kirchentag paved the way for dialogue between Jews and Christians in Germany. In the 1970s new forms of worship: liturgical nights, celebratory communion services and evening prayers combined with modern church hymns and songs enabled visitors to discover new expressions of faith. Discussions over peace and environmentalism which shaped Germany in the 1980s also began through the Kirchentag. In 1981 the Kirchentag in Hamburg City turned political –Protestant civil rights movements called for peace, environmental consciousness, and women’s rights.
Is it a church, or a movement? Whatever views are held over the Kirchentag, unequivocally it has helped to advance environmental and social change issues in Germany, and beyond. Alongside, the Kirchentag has also received its fair share of criticisms. As the book ‘Globalisation of the Churches” shows, discussions over peace and development at the 1967 Kirchentag in Hannover revealed several ambiguities in the approach of churches, and West German society – at the time Germany was divided into East and West – to the problems in many Less Developed Countries, LDCs. The book also shows that no previous Kirchentag had devoted so much time and attention to geopolitics. Tacitly, the 1967 Kirchentag was pivotal in that it facilitated a new way of thinking about German Protestant identity. However, mired by a theoretical focus on world peace, the new approach proved limited and rendered the discussions abstract at best.
Evidenced by dwindling numbers of members, seemingly churches are losing their appeal. Although the Kirchentag remains a major event drawing more than 200,000 people from across the globe, some commentators have said it is becoming difficult to find topics of real interest to motivate all the participants. Further reference was made to churches rebranding themselves through techno music, with services or gatherings taking on a semblance of festivals.
2017 was a significant year for Protestants in Germany. Notably so because the Evangelical Church co-organised the Reformation Day for the first time, during a period of turmoil and rising complexities wherein many people sought orientation. For this reason, Reformation Day marks the anniversary of the day Martin Luther – a German monk – nailed his 95 Thesesto the door of the church in Wittenberg in 1517 (see painting). Reformation Day is now an official public holiday commemorating the Protestant Reformation as enacted by Martin Luther.
The Kirchentag is a forum with a distinct culture of open discussion to ensure people, politicians, academics, theologians, and activists are involved. Its core objectives are to promote a unified world, address theological and spiritual questions. It is grass-roots driven, welcomes proposals for a wide variety of programme components with contributions from thousands of active visitors. Even though the huge event bears “Protestant” in its official name, nationality or religious belief are irrelevant. By delving into real issues and tough choices between different cultures and religions, Kirchentag is more than a regular church event. In the Centres for Jews and Christians, as well as for Muslims and Christians, the wider public, come together. Speakers engage in topics through panels, lectures, workshops, concerts, theatrical performances and cultural activities created by the participants themselves. With more than 2,500 single events including music, dance, cabaret, Kirchentag is diverse and colourful.
Accessibility and inclusion are important aspects. Full participation is facilitated through speech interpretation using sign language, along with induction loop installation and on-screen subtitles. The very young also have a mini Kirchentag. The Children’s Centre offers spiritual, creative and exciting activities providing lots of fun. Other Centres address a range of topics including gender, Bible and local congregations. Visitors over the age of 60 can also visit the Centre on Ageing.
This year’s Kirchentag featured Dr. Ben Sanders III – Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics at Eden Theological Seminary, St. Louis, USA – who delivered a sobering presentation entitled “Until Black Lives Matter, All Lives Won’t Matter.” Speaking in front of a predominantly European audience, Sanders measured his words and touched on many salient issues. He commenced with a historical and social context of black lives matter, followed by the civil rights and black power movements. Alluding to the complicity of churches by turning a blind eye to injustice, Sanders spoke over what black lives mean to the Christian faith, and questioned what the gospel of Jesus Christ has to do with the systemic disenfranchisement of African Americans. On the value of black lives vis-à-vis the Christian faith, Sanders said ‘I imagine some of the people who witnessed, cheered, or celebrated the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abraham Smith were Christians or church-going folks just like many of you sitting in the audience today’. Sanders urged the audience to read a book entitled ‘The cross and the lynching tree’ – a watershed in the conversation over race and religion in America.
Ita is an Environment Consultant and Independent Journalist