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"EKD formulates its ecumenical goals for the first time" — from the German publication Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung — - by Heike Schmoll

November 30, 2001


Two years after the failure of the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” (JDDJ), the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) has, for the first time, formulated its ecumenical goals. Until now, the goal of all ecumenical dialogues has been the visible unity of the church. For the most part, that has always meant the visible unity led by Rome. In fact the Roman Catholic Church has been pursuing actively an ecumenical, canon law decree whereby the bishops and popes govern the church as the direct successors of St. Peter. This idea stands in sharp contrast to the ecumenical model of the EKD, which with its statement, “An Evangelical Understanding of Church Fellowship” (KneV), has now responded to the Roman document “Dominus Jesus”of September 2000. The EKD is pursuing communal fellowship of independent churches that will fully recognize one another's ministries in Word and Sacrament.

Rome's refusal to recognize the Evangelical churches as sister churches, which was already implicit in the footnotes of JDDJ, is seen by the Protestants as a clear rebuff of the efforts for greater ecumenical fellowship. The EKD is using the opportunity to oppose the primacy of the pope, Rome's concept of apostolic succession and the refusal to ordain women in the Catholic Church. In so doing, the public declarations of an evangelical southern German bishop, which had very closely resembled the Roman position, have now been pushed to the outside fringes of the church.

In clear opposition to the Roman understanding of church, the declaration states that the church is first and foremost found in the expression of the local congregations and not in the larger universal church as such. "The one, holy, apostolic catholic church exists historically in space and time," the document states, which has formulated concrete expectations of an Evangelical-Catholic dialogue. The EKD has not given up hope for a joint celebration of the Sacrament of Holy Communion at the 2003 ecumenical Kirchentag. It also insists that the Roman Catholic Church recognize as fully valid all Evangelical-Catholic mixed marriages, without requiring further individual dispensations.

The newly stated goal (for ecumenical dialogues) for the EKD is ecclesial communal fellowship based on the Leuenberger model. The dismissed 1973 Leuenberger Concordat has as its stated goal, not union, but the “defining of and realization of communal fellowship.” Nearly all Protestant churches of Europe had joined it, not only the Lutherans, Reformed and United Churches, but also the Waldensers and the Bohemian Brethren, as well as a number of non-European churches. For the EKD, the coming together of all of the evangelical churches through the Leuenberger Concordat was not without consequences. It now sees itself as a fellowship of Lutheran, Reformed and United Churches and is in a sense practically a United Church itself. A member who relocates anywhere in Germany is automatically accepted into the membership of any other synod (known as "moving van conversions").

Communal ecclesial fellowship in an ecumenical context, for the EKD, now means that participating churches have a common understanding of the gospel of justification by faith and the sacraments. The churches are also expected to recognize that Jesus Christ, who is revealed in Word and Sacrament, is the sole source of their unity, and to fully recognize one another as the church and to begin to live out their unity in fellowship in concrete ways. Such a church fellowship would be required to recognize the understandings of the office of Word and Sacrament of the various churches. It can only take shape and be mutually supportive if the churches jointly "explain and develop through the medium of teaching" their understanding of the Gospel, as the text of the document states.

The Division for Theology of the EKD thus calls to mind the conclusions which must be arrived at from the common understanding of the teaching of justification by faith, which, despite the ceremonial act (of the signing of JDDJ) in Augsburg, remain unrealized because of the subsequent disintegration of the consensus that had been reached. The joint declaration of JDDJ was made in the absence of a joint understanding, there particularly not being one in Augsburg, which unfortunately is also the case with this EKD vote entitled “An Evangelical Understanding of Church Fellowship” (KneV). The only item signed was “A Joint Official Finding” This annex only declares a partial consensus on the theology of justification. The “Joint Official Finding” has given up the structural principle of JDDJ's “diverse consensus.” JDDJ's main point was that the varying confessional positions regarding the teaching of justification by faith were viewed in perspective, yet nevertheless clung to.

The (unofficial) ecumenical team of Evangelical and Catholic theologians (Jaeger - Staehlin - Kreis), attempted to solve the problems inherent in JDDJ, including the Bishop of Mainz, Cardinal Lehman, and the Munich systematic theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, as well as a number of his students. The working group, of course, has no official standing in the church. The group composed a final report with the title “Justified and Sinner Simultaneously?” that is lacking a vision for the future of ecumenism. At the end of the report—which apparently was rather hastily prepared and was not given the blessing of all of the participants in Rome—one reads, in “the evaluation of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism and the remaining state of justification and sanctification with the baptized, we agree.” Even though a common teaching here is affirmed, a few lines further on one reads that this does not rule out various confessional, church dividing traditions that “must be joined together, that is to say, be brought together.” So there is no common teaching to be found here after all?

But it actually gets even more confusing: This final report (by Lehman and Pannenberg) doesn't seek to find a common theological formula for being sinner and saint, for which evangelical teaching gives a common denominator, and has traditionally been rejected by the Roman Catholic Church. The two divergent confessional paths could be acceptable together and understood together under certain hermeneutical conditions, so that they would not be mutually exclusive of each other as teaching proclamations, but rather serve as reciprocal supplemental correctives in a joint exploration of the Holy Scriptures and church tradition. Apparently the authors of this stylistically shocking report haven't learned anything from the history of JDDJ. That is not a claim that can be made against the EKD.

(Heike Schmoll is the religion editor for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and has advanced degrees from German universities, including theology.) (Translated by Pastor Kris Baudler, NY)