The German Church is continuing its search for ways to curb abuses of priestly power in Catholic life and especially clericalism in the liturgy.

– Bishops’ liturgy commission head acknowledges “there is no such thing as a space free of power” in the Church

This October 28-29 the liturgy commission of the German Bishops’ Conference organised a two-day online symposium on the subject “Worship and Power. Clericalism in the Liturgy”.

That was with the aim of tackling the abuses of power and overemphasis on the priestly ministry that occur in the day-to-day life of the Church, but also and especially the “asymmetries and hierarchies provided for by the liturgical orders themselves… which, legitimised in this sense, can promote various forms of clericalism”, as the German Bishops’ liturgy commission head Bishop Stephan Ackermann of the Trier diocese explained in an invitation.

In his introduction to the symposium Wednesday, Ackermann acknowledged to the 200 virtual attendees that power in the Church is “highly ambivalent… Power means responsibility – but power also means dominance”.

In Catholic life, the bishop went on, “it is not a question of ‘power, yes or no?’ – there is no such alternative. For there is no such thing as a space free of power” in the Church.

“The issue of power pervades all areas of our lives, including faith, the Church and the liturgy”, Ackermann explained. “And as much as it is true that power [in the Church]… is at the service of the message of the gospel, the underlying problem cannot be solved by dismissing the deliberate thematisation of the question of power as ‘unspiritual’ and thus inappropriate. On the contrary: then the danger of power being exercised in an unreflective and uncontrolled manner becomes greater”, the bishop warned.

– Attendees unanimous in calling for more lay participation, space for women in Church’s rites, decision-making processes

The German Bishops’ symposium on clericalism in the liturgy was organised to dovetail with the forum discussing possible changes to forms of the exercise of power and authority in the Church in the context of the German Church’s ‘synodal path’ reform process.

Participants in the symposium – who included sociologists, liturgists, theologians, canon lawyers, ecumenical representatives and even poets, dramaturgists and choreographers – emphasised such themes as the asymmetry of power relations and the need for democracy in the Church’s ceremonies and decision-making processes.

Symposium attendees were unanimous in acknowledging that too often the liturgy is experienced as the work of the priest alone and not of the whole congregation, for which reason they urged priests and bishops to make better use of the creativity provided for in the Church’s rites to ensure worship becomes a more participatory and corporate experience.

Another important point raised in the discussions was that the spatial symbolism of the liturgy and the Church’s theology of ministry give Church celebrations an essentially masculine form.

Admitting women to ordained ministries would not automatically solve that problem, for which reason it is necessary for the Church to get out of binary dichotomies like “priests” and “laypeople”, “women” and “men”, the symposium heard.

– Laypeople becoming “outsiders and silent spectators” of liturgies, especially during coronavirus: theologian

A highlight of the symposium proceedings came from University of Erfurt professor of dogmatic theology Julia Knop, who tackled the challenges to liturgy presented by the coronavirus pandemic.

Decrying that COVID-19 lockdowns are once again making liturgy “clerical liturgy” with lay Catholics once again becoming “outsiders and silent spectators” of priestly activity on screens, Knop insisted that laypeople are “like the clergy, liturgical subjects, not recipients”.

The theologian called on the Church to adopt a new and different, truly “gospel approach to power” which would make the weak strong and set limits to the arbitrariness of the powerful.

Knop acknowledged that the official Church defends with tooth and nail that only ordained men and not laypeople can officiate certain fundamental liturgical acts. Although the differences between priests and laypeople that the Church marks in that respect is part and parcel of the liturgy, the question is “whether the differences are right”, the theologian insisted.

With clericalism in the liturgy, “we are used to that. We find that normal”, Knop recognised. But that ordained men monopolise the liturgy in that way is “neither self-evident nor without alternative when one considers that all the faithful have been ordained to a holy priesthood through baptism and confirmation”, the theologian stressed.

More stories on Novena on the fight against clericalism:

German bishop launches tirade against clericalism: “A priest is not holier or more valuable by virtue of his office”

French laypeople decry “huge damage” done by clericalism, demand say in much-needed “rebirth of the Church”

Former Irish president blasts “self-serving… little old men” running Church: “People are walking away in droves”

German Catholic women demand bishops address Church power imbalance: “We are still a long way from being where we belong”


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.