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What Manner of Gathering is Kirchentag?

Is it a church, or a movement?Whatever views are held over the Kirchentag, unequivocally it has helped topromote environmental and social change in Germany, and beyond

Kirchentag isa biennial event hosted in early summer. Kirchen and tag are twoGerman words, which when combined translate literallyto Churches Day in the English language. From19-23 June 2019, the city of Dortmund hosted more than 200,000visitors from about 100 countries attending the 37th GermanProtestant 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.

Numerousinitiatives and proposals can be traced to the Kirchentag. In 1961Kirchentag paved the way for dialogue between Jews and Christians inGermany. In the 1970s new forms of worship: liturgical nights, celebratorycommunion services and evening prayers combined with modern church hymns andsongs enabled visitors to discover new expressions of faith. Discussions overpeace and environmentalism which shaped Germany in the 1980s alsobegan through the Kirchentag. In 1981 the Kirchentag in HamburgCity turned political –Protestant civil rightsmovements called for peace, environmental consciousness, and women’srights.

Isit a church, or a movement? Whatever viewsare held over the Kirchentag, unequivocally ithas helped to advance environmental and socialchange issues in Germany, and beyond. Alongside, theKirchentag has also received its fair share of criticisms. As the book ‘Globalisationof the Churches” shows, discussions over peace anddevelopment at the 1967 Kirchentag in Hannover revealedseveral ambiguities in the approach of churches, and WestGerman society – at the time Germany was divided into Eastand West – to the problems in many Less DevelopedCountries, LDCs. The book also shows that no previousKirchentag had devoted so much time and attentionto geopolitics. Tacitly, the 1967 Kirchentag was pivotal inthat it facilitated a new way of thinking about German Protestantidentity. However, mired by a theoretical focus onworld peace, the new approach proved limited andrendered the discussions abstract at best.

Evidencedby dwindling numbers of members, seemingly churches are losing theirappeal. Although the Kirchentag remains a major event drawingmore than 200,000 people from across the globe, some commentatorshave said it is becoming difficult to find topics of realinterest to motivate all the participants. Further referencewas made to churches rebranding themselves through techno music,with services or gatherings taking on a semblance offestivals.

2017 was asignificant year for Protestants in Germany. Notably sobecause the Evangelical Church co-organised the Reformation Day forthe first time, during a period of turmoil and risingcomplexities wherein many people sought orientation. Forthis reason, Reformation Day marks the anniversary of theday Martin Luther – a German monk – nailed his 95 Thesestothe door of the church in Wittenberg in 1517 (see painting). ReformationDay is now an official public holiday commemorating theProtestant 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.

Accessibilityand inclusion are important aspects. Full participationis facilitated through speech interpretation using signlanguage, along with induction loop installation and on-screensubtitles. The very young also have a mini Kirchentag. The Children’sCentre offers spiritual, creative and exciting activities providinglots of fun. Other Centres address a range of topics including gender,Bible and local congregations. Visitors over the ageof 60 can also visit the Centre on Ageing.

Thisyear’s Kirchentag featured Dr. Ben Sanders III – Associate Professor ofTheology and Ethics at Eden Theological Seminary, St. Louis, USA – whodelivered a sobering presentation entitled “Until Black Lives Matter, All LivesWon’t Matter.” Speaking in front of a predominantly European audience, Sandersmeasured his words and touched on many salient issues. He commenced with a historicaland social context of black lives matter, followed by the civil rights andblack power movements. Alluding to the complicity of churches by turning ablind eye to injustice, Sanders spoke over what black lives mean to theChristian faith, and questioned what the gospel of Jesus Christ has to do withthe systemic disenfranchisement of African Americans. On the value of blacklives vis-à-vis the Christian faith, Sanders said ‘I imagine someof the people who witnessed, cheered, or celebrated the lynching of ThomasShipp and Abraham Smith were Christians or church-going folks just like many ofyou sitting in the audience today’. Sanders urged the audience to read abook entitled ‘The cross and the lynching tree’ – a watershed in theconversation over race and religion in America.

Ita is an Environment Consultant and Independent Journalist

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