Foundation of the Federation of German Protestant Churches
Prof. Dr. Alf Christophersen / Protestant Theology
Photo: Astrid Padberg

When Protestantism reorganized itself

Prof. Dr. Alf Christophersen on the founding of the Federation of German Protestant Churches

The Federation of German Protestant Churches was a union of the Protestant regional churches in Germany founded on May 25, 1922. Why were the Landeskirchen merged in the first place?

Christophersen: The problem with the Landeskirchen in Protestantism as a whole, in contrast to the Roman Catholic Church, is that they have not been a unity since the Reformation. They were always tied to the respective regional rulers, who had their own territory and in each case also presided over the regional church structure. These individual regional churches were also determined by the fact that they had different confessional configurations, they were Reformed or Lutheran, later also Uniate, and existed side by side, feuding, fighting and getting along with each other. And this goes on throughout the history of the church. In this respect, it is a characteristic of Protestantism that it has never had a unified ecclesiastical structure.

Didn't the independence of the regional churches get lost in the merger?

Christophersen: Historically, you have to take into account that the First World War had just ended and the imperial rule had also ended, so that there was a situation that virtually called for reorganization. The Weimar Reich Constitution granted the churches freedom, there was no state church and each community had the right to give itself its own structures within the prevailing law. In this situation, people came together and tried to find something integrative and forward-looking, while the independence of the regional churches remained the highest good. This was a very clear premise for all involved. Autonomy was always in the foreground, so that at that time there was never the impression that the regional churches were being disempowered.

Did the merger take its cue from the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches, which had closed shortly before?

Christophersen: I would say that a certain symbolic character can be discerned, because Switzerland has always been a point of reference, but I would not overestimate that. At this point, the momentum of German conditions was comparatively more significant than the Swiss role models. But that does not apply in principle, because so-called religious socialism, for example, came from Switzerland with the theologian Karl Barth, who was largely responsible for the Barme Theological Declaration. In this respect, there is of course a strong orientation there, but not in relation to the large area of the national churches. If one asks for something like models, then for the emergence of the German Protestant Church Federation it is rather decisive that there is a long run-up in the 19th century: starting from 1848 with assemblies, or later also church congresses, in Wittenberg, Stuttgart, Elberfeld and so on, then from 1855 also the "Eisenach Conference" - these are all preformations of later developments, carried by the striving for unity, not least triggered and accelerated by the events and the spirit of the March Revolution.

An essential purpose of the union was "to cultivate the overall consciousness of German Protestantism." Why had this not been possible before?

Christophersen: That's a somewhat subtle question. I would say that it was also quite possible before, and that it was now starting from a basis that already existed. But it would be more interesting to ask what this overall consciousness of German Protestantism is supposed to be? What is it based on? What does one want to cultivate there? And here it is highly relevant that this merger took place in Wittenberg in 1922, because Wittenberg is the place of remembrance par excellence for Protestant self-confidence. Of course, there are also Worms, Augsburg, Nuremberg, and Eisenach plays a major role in all these founding structures, but Wittenberg is the core center. In 1917, the great 400th anniversary of the Reformation had already taken place, and even then, everything that had rank and name had appeared. The empire had once again celebrated itself with the emperor at the head of Protestantism, and now, after the First World War, people were trying to reorganize themselves in the same place. There it was about core components of Protestantism. The doctrine of justification, the independence of the church vis-à-vis the state, the role of conscience, the shaping of culture, the shaping of the state. The claim did not disappear just because the emperorship no longer existed. Protestantism did not renounce its claim to be the pinnacle of what constituted the connection between church, Christianity and state. This is also connected with a certain pathos, which should underline its own significance. And it should not be forgotten that we had quite conservative patterns during this period. It would be a misconception to say that these ecclesiastical structures, newly formed there, now parallel the democracy efforts of the ongoing experiment of the Weimar Republic. On the contrary, there was rather a skepticism of democracy, something rather anti-republican that was expressed there. There was no universal optimism of progress that wanted to modernize society politically and socially.

The Church Federation had three constitutional bodies. What were they, and why were they so important?

Christophersen: It is typical of Protestantism that it tries to combine different elements, and the character traits that result from this emerge again and again. In particular, it expresses a high emphasis on the power of the laity. This can also be seen in the so-called German Protestant Church Congress, which first took place in Dresden in 1919 - as a predecessor of today's church congress, which was established in 1949. Out of the defeat of the war, an attempt was made there to become active again in a meaningful way through a lay movement. This motif also determines the synodal structure of the Kirchentag, which takes place every three years. The Church Federation Council then ties in with this. It is made up of leaders and people who have emerged from these Kirchentag structures. And then there is an executive body, the German Protestant Church Committee. It then implements what is expressed at the other levels in terms of topics and challenges. That then also passes over to an authority, the Federal Church Office.

What was the task of the German Protestant Church Federation?

Christophersen: What seems a bit strange from today's perspective, but was very important at the time, was foreign relations. That is, not only internal cohesion, but also the question of how Germany, which wants to carry Protestantism to the outside world, is represented. There are many congregations abroad that still exist today. And one of the primary tasks was to provide these congregations with pastors, in reconnection with the heartland of the Reformation. Then it was a matter of contact with other religious communities and churches. This then boils down to the concept of ecumenism. A misunderstanding that is still often thought today is that it is not only about ecumenism between Catholics and Protestants. Ecumenism is much more. There is also an inner-Protestant ecumenism with the Reformed and the Lutherans. There are the Anglicans and all the groupings in North and South America, or even in the Asian framework. This perspective was much more important than the internal forces, because the national churches did not like to be interfered with.
One of the central issues in Germany was the typical 'social question'. It began as early as the 19th century, especially in the second half. For example, with questions like: Where to with the working-class youth? Where to go with the big city youth? Where to go with those who, due to industrialization, are no longer able to exist and work at a level that is no longer humane? This also played a decisive role in the Ruhr region at that time. What position does the church actually take there? At the same time, there was a tremendous housing shortage, people lived in completely unacceptable conditions, in part. Social work would be the key word here. The assassination of Rathenau (Walther Rathenau was Reich Foreign Minister and was murdered by right-wing radicals in 1922. As foreign minister of the Reich, he was the epitome of a person who made too strong a pact with the victorious powers. He was an enemy image for reactionary-conservative forces. The Protestant Church also took a stand on this. Also the war guilt, the "truce" of Versailles. All these topics were present and discussed in the German Protestant Church Federation.

The German Protestant Church Federation existed until 1933. What happened then?

Christophersen: In July 1933, the German Protestant Church came into being with Reich Bishop Ludwig Müller as its supreme representative. Under National Socialism, therefore, an imperial church was formed that had not existed in this form before. At the same time, everything that we call the church struggle, the German Christians, the Confessing Church, Pastor Niemöller with his Pfarrernotbund, and also the question of the regional churches, was moving. There are "intact" national churches that have remained as they were, then there are some that have been destroyed. The increasingly urgent problem is the church constitution. For Martin Niemöller, the symbolic figure of the Confessing Church, who was in the concentration camps of Sachsenhausen and Dachau, the episcopate, which went hand in hand with the new state church structures of the Weimar Republic, was the enemy image par excellence. In his view, a leader was installed who took no account of internal dynamics and embodied a rigid system of office instead of a living Protestantism. He rejected this bishop model. After all, it was not yet known what the National Socialists intended to do with it, because according to their ideology, the churches were something to be overcome. For Wuppertal and the entire region, the aforementioned Barmer Declaration of May 1934 is very important, in which the Confessing Church spoke out massively and rejected all efforts to unify and identify with the Führer principle. A central insight was that it is not arbitrary how the church is organized. It cannot simply submit itself to the march of time if it does not correspond to its inner nature. This was followed in 1945 by the founding of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD). The forces sort themselves out anew, in quite tense discontinuity and continuity to the preceding decades. The EKD also maintains the independence of the regional churches. In 1948, its basic order was adopted at Wartburg Castle in Eisenach, again a place of remembrance that created identity for Protestantism. However, the fact that East Germany and West Germany are now developing more and more apart means that the dynamics are going in different directions, and this again has drastic consequences for the further development of the ecclesiastical landscape. And the long road, theologically speaking, is the one to communion, because it only became an institutional reality in 1973 with the Leuenberg Agreement.
What remains important is the inviolable autonomy of the regional churches, which has been preserved and proven to this day. The Federation of German Protestant Churches has been a historical transitional form, in times of changing power structures. The theme associated with it is still relevant today. The religious, moral worldview of the Reformation. What is ethics? What is morality? What is the contribution of Protestantism? The very assumption of a religious, moral worldview has a very high claim. In today's scenery, this view crumbles in many places, sometimes becoming a caricature. One of the foundations of the former church federation, however, is and remains through all transformations the church congress, which even then played a major role. It always expresses anew the hope that Protestantism has the power to shape society.

Uwe Blass (interview from 01.02.2022)

Alf Christophersen has been teaching as Professor of Systematic Theology in the Faculty of Humanities and Cultural Studies at Bergische Universität since 2018.

More information about #UniWuppertal: