[WCC] Former United States president Barack Obama joined German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in front of tens of thousands of people on 25 May, the first full day of Germany’s biggest Protestant gathering, the Kirchentag, or “church festival”.
During a 90-minute podium discussion on democracy and global responsibility, Obama spoke of the need for the renewal of the international order against the background of xenophobia, nationalism, intolerance and anti-democratic trends. “We have to push back against those trends that would violate human rights, or that would suppress democracy, or would restrict individual freedoms of conscience and religion,” said the former US president. “We can’t isolate ourselves. We can’t hide behind a wall,” Obama said, speaking at the place where the city was once divided between East and West by the Berlin Wall.
Organised every two years in a different German city, the Kirchentag this year has gathered more than 100,000 participants of all ages in Berlin. “We hope the Kirchentag will promote a holistic vision of justice and peace that addresses the dynamics of conflict in different regions, the impact of foreign powers and changing global realities such as economic globalization, migration and climate change,” said Dr Agnes Abuom, moderator of the World Council of Churches’ (WCC) Central Committee.
Dr Abuom is to speak at a Kirchentag podium on responsibility for peace with German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel, one of the 2,000 events during the Kirchentag, many of which involve representatives of WCC member churches from several continents.
Bringing together figures from church, political, economic and national life, the Kirchentag serves as a major forum for debates on current social and political challenges, as well as offering opportunities for worship, music and culture.
Meeting from 24-28 May, the Kirchentag falls in the year of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and is one of the main events in Germany celebrating the jubilee. It concludes with a televised service in Wittenberg, the town about 90 kilometres away that is celebrated worldwide as the place where Martin Luther’s Reformation began.
Organizers hope the impetus of the Reformation will help face challenges such as the integration of refugees, climate change, and financial and economic governance. “The ideas and fundamental convictions of the Reformation have changed the world,” this year’s Kirchentag president, Christina Aus der Au, a Swiss theologian and philosopher, said on the opening day. “Its anniversary falls in a year, at a time, characterized by rapid change. The world is being rocked by crises and wars.”
The Kirchentag will observe one minute’s silence on 26 May for the more than 10,000 people who have lost their lives on their journey to Europe, fleeing war, hardship and terrorism. Founded in 1949 by Protestant lay people in Germany to strengthen democratic culture after the Nazi dictatorship and the Second World War, the Kirchentag has gained European and global reach in recent decades. This year there are more than 6,000 foreign participants from 105 countries - a record, say organisers.
Addressing the Kirchentag on the opening day, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, spoke of the terror attacks in Berlin before Christmas and in Manchester, Britain, this week.
“We pray, we mourn, we lament, we cry out, we protest,” Archbishop Justin said, in an address described by organisers as the first to a Kirchentag by an Archbishop of Canterbury.
Alongside Dr Abuom, other members of the WCC leadership speaking at Kirchentag events include the general secretary, the Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit; the WCC president for Africa, the Rev. Mary-Anne Plaatjies van Huffel; and other members of the WCC Central Committee.
[ACNS]: The Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba, is one of the leading international guests invited to this year's Kirchentag. He will preach to a festive service on Sunday outside Wittenberg, to mark the 500th anniverary of the Reformation. On the first days of the celebrations, he blogs from Berlin:
The opening service was beyond my expectations: there were about 20,000 people at our venue and there were two others. The papers say that in total there were 70,000 people present. Then there was a great reception, addressed by the President of the Kirchentag, Professor Christina Aus der Au, the chair of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, and Chancellor Angela Merkel.
This was followed by a dinner in which we spent the evening in her company, as well as that of Archbishop Justin Welby and other church leaders. It was a delightful evening, talking about the church in the political life of nations and the church’s vocation to care for all - including a reflection on South Africa.
This morning I led a Bible study in Hall 18, an exhibition hall. There was a choir from Limpopo, which was very special. They sang Senzeni Na? and Hake Le Tjee Ke Le Mobe, then it was to an exposition of the Bible study. (You can download my notes here.)
Bishop Ebenezer Ntali of of Grahamstown is also here, in the same hotel, but we have not yet had a chance to meet. The crowds here are multitudes beyond measure.
Then we were fetched and whisked to the Brandenberg Gate in Berlin, where Chancellor Merkel had a discussion on faith, religion and politics with former President Barack Obama. It will remain with me as a most memorable interaction, two world leaders talking opening and sincerely in the public square about, willing to be vulnerable, admitting their failures not pretending to be omnipotent. You can see a recording of the interaction here.