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German Church rejects

—Historic Episcopate as sign of unity [full text]

by Pastor Kris Baudler (St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Bay Shore, New York)

Date unknown

In a bold move that has stunned the international ecumenical community and has thrown into question the future of ecumenical dialogues, the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (EKD), which is the largest Protestant church in Europe and comprises the Lutheran and Reformed Churches of Germany, has rejected “apostolic succession,” as it is defined in the Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions, as a basis for or sign of the unity of the church of Christ.

The document, known as "Kirchengemeinschaft nach evangelischem Verstaendnis" (KneV), or "An Evangelical Understanding for Church Fellowship," became official on Oct. 30, but was largely lost in the headlines following Sept. 11. The product of the German Church's official theological "chamber" or think tank (Kammerfuer Theologie der EKD), the document is most noteworthy for its bluntness and conditions for future ecumenical dialogues. It is being hailed as the German Church's official response to the Roman Catholic document known as "Dominus Jesus,” issued by the Vatican in September of 2000. Tuebingen theologians Dorothea Wendebourg and Eberhard Juengel head up the think tank. KneV rejects any dialogue for visible unity under Rome, and instead demands that future dialogues begin with mutual recognition of one another as sister churches, not as mere "ecclesiastical communities," as Dominus Jesus refers to any church other than Rome. Dominus Jesus also requires that its ecumenical negotiators refrain from referring to ecumenical partners as "sister churches."

All future dialogue for the EKD is to be based on the Leuenberger Concordat of 1973, which advocated ecclesial communal fellowship without a stress on visible unity. Claiming that "the church" is found in the expression of the local congregations and not first and foremost the universal church, the document states, "The one, holy, apostolic catholic church exists historically in time and space." Future ecumenical dialogues will require a mutual understanding of the centrality of the Gospel understanding of justification by faith and a practical sharing of the ministry of Word and Sacrament. To that end, the EKD is still expecting the Roman Catholic Church to celebrate Holy Communion with it in a very public forum, t e 2003 German "Kirchentag," a sort of ecumenical world's fair. They may be in for a long wait. Among other things, the EKD requires Rome to fully recognize evangelical/Roman Catholic mixed marriages without any further individual dispensations necessary from the Roman side.

The evangelical document, which has been adopted by the EKD and is now official church policy, sees Jesus Christ revealed through Word and Sacrament as the sole source for the unity of the church. It specifically addresses the Roman Catholic Church in rejecting the primacy of the pope, apostolic succession via the historical episcopacy and chides it for its failure to ordain women. Speaking to the Anglican Communion, the "Kammer," or chamber, didn't reject episcopacy per se, but stated that "while it (the bishop's office) can serve structurally as an expression of ecclesial communal fellowship, it cannot serve as the basis for it," adding, "a common understanding of the function of the office is not a condition for communion."

KneV is also seen as a reaction against the "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification," (JDDJ), signed two years ago in Augsburg between the Lutherans and Roman Catholics. At the time, 300 German Lutheran professors signed a joint protest against it, stating that the joint declaration between Rome and the Lutherans was premature in its assertion that the two churches were in full agreement on the doctrine of justification by faith. Many of them have been further frustrated by the fact that, implicit in the footnotes to JDDJ is Rome's recognition of the Protestant bodies as "sister churches," which became a mute point under Dominus Jesus. Most prominent among them is Eberhard Juengel, one of the authors of KneV.

The traditional ecumenical dialogue, which stressed visible unity with Rome, and was championed by the Evangelical Bishop of Bavaria, Friedrichs, has now been shelved. As one German theologian from Ravensburg stated, "Well, that pretty much leaves the ELCA hanging out there on the branch by itself."

[For more information read Pastor Baudler’s translation of a German report in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung]