A German Catholic bishop has welcomed the proposal of a Protestant counterpart to establish ecumenical congregations across denominational lines.

Driving the news

“I firmly believe that there is much more connecting than separating the two major German churches”, Catholic Bishop of Hildesheim Heiner Wilmer told the EPD news agency January 3.

“As Christians, we are all called to testify and preach the gospel”, Wilmer continued.

The Catholic bishop added: “How we can work together in pastoral care is a right and important question for the future. We will certainly continue to deal with this in ecumenism”.

The big picture

Wilmer was responding to an invitation from Bishop of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Hanover Ralf Meister that the two main German Churches – the Protestant and the Catholic – explore ideas for practical collaboration, “all the way through to the foundation of pure ecumenical congregations”.

Meister, who is also a trained theologian, admitted that his desire for interdenominational congregations was improbable.

“But one can still express it”, the bishop said, especially in a Germany in which the Protestant-Catholic divide is becoming less and less noticeable and important.

“Many people no longer ask whether someone is Protestant or Catholic, but only whether they are Christian”, Meister observed.

Go deeper

Meister recognised that there was a way to go yet on the ecumenical path before interdenominational congregations could be set up, and “differences, for example with Communion”, have still to be resolved.

But he added that initiatives must be set in motion to challenge both Churches.

“I think that will be very important for the future of Christianity in our country”, Meister explained.

It wasn’t just to ecumenism, though, that the Protestant bishop was looking to renew the Church.

He also proposed ‘pop-up’ churches without a pastor or a permanent church building, with only volunteers to preach and lead services.

“Why shouldn’t there also be a pure youth church designed and supported solely by young people or an internationally-shaped congregation? We could immediately take up such initiatives and provide financial support”, Meister said, recalling that evangelisation and pastoral care also take place on social media:

“Isn’t that already a community?”, the bishop asked.

Meister hinted that such developments could take place in his Church within the next two or three decades, but admitted that the change in style “will of course be difficult and painful for those of us who represent the Church as an institution”.

Nonetheless, the bishop recalled that changes to the Hanover Evangelical-Lutheran Church constitution last year mean new worship and meeting styles are, in theory, at least possible.

“My wish is to interpret our constitution so openly and liberally that other forms of congregation are accepted in our Church”, emphasised the Protestant bishop, adding that “that would also revitalise us”.

Why it matters

Meister and Wilmer’s theoretical agreement on the future establishment of ecumenical congregations is important in the German context, where in the Catholic Church, at least, there has been fierce debate over how best to care pastorally for people in interdenominational marriages.

That debate boiled over in 2018, when in February of that two-thirds of the German Bishops voted in favour of allowing priests to give the Eucharist to the Protestant spouses of Catholic faithful “in individual cases” and “under certain conditions”.

That February vote led to the protest of seven bishops to Rome over the plan, and the subsequent intervention in May 2018 of Vatican doctrinal watchdog Cardinal Luis Ladaria, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and in June that same year of Pope Francis himself, putting the brakes on the German Bishops’ intercommunion proposal.

In June 2018 the German Bishops then went ahead and published not binding instructions on the matter of sharing in the Eucharist in mixed marriages – as originally planned – but instead a statement on “pastoral guidance” in that type of situation.

Leaving the responsibility to individual bishops “as an aid to orientation” on the question of intercommunion, the German Bishops admitted that the topic needed “to be explored in greater detail” in communion with the Vatican and the rest of the global Catholic Church.

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