When the UCC and the Evangelical Church of the Union (EKU) declared Kirchengemeinschaft - full communion - 25 years ago, Germany was a divided country.
The EKU was divided, too. The ancestral church of the German immigrants who founded one of the UCC's antecedent denominations, the EKU was split into "East" and "West" synods, each corresponding to the territory of the two German states.
So Kirchengemeinschaft was a breakthrough not only in ecumenical but also in East-West relations. For East German Protestants, few of whom could travel outside the orbit of the Soviet Union, the new relationship eased their sense of isolation.
Twenty-five years later, Germany's Protestant churches are reunited and fragments of the Berlin Wall are for sale on eBay. The EKU has joined with other Protestants in Germany to form an expanded "Union of Evangelical Churches" (UEK). The world is no longer divided into East and West, but the UCC and UEK still face the world's other great divide - between haves and have-nots in their own countries, and globally between North and South.
The two churches share a ministry of reconciliation, said Bishop Ulrich Fischer of Baden during the opening service of the 25th-anniversary conference in November in Berlin. "What has begun on the cross at Golgotha has meaning for living together peacefully among denominations and churches in the world, as well as for political actions by the church to achieve a world order of peace based on justice.
"Unity of the church and peace in the world - they are closely connected with each other," Fischer said. "By Christ's reconciling action, lines between churches will be torn down first of all, then fences and then walls. The peace which has been achieved by Christ does not stop at church walls. This peace wants to enter into the entire world."
Advocacy for global justice is at the heart of Kirchengemeinschaft, said Vicar Elga Zachau, a young theologian at the Ruhr University and keynote speaker at the conference.
"Kirchengemeinschaft understands itself as a community of witnesses for God's mission to the world," she said. "Kirchengemeinschaft means to live this community in word and deed, and wants to address the people in the churches and the world community. I think the strength of Kirchengemeinschaft lies in our ability to connect word and deed and in a growing awareness of global contexts among our church members. If we can manage that, we have achieved very much."
The Berlin conference brought together more than 100 bishops and Conference ministers, pastors, theologians and laypeople from the partner churches. The UCC delegation was headed by General Minister and President John H. Thomas; UEK delegates were led by President Wilhem Hueffmeier. The conference honored the two former EKU ecumenical officers who negotiated Kirchengemeinschaft with the UCC: Christa Grengel of the EKU (East) and Reinhard Groscurth of the EKU (West).
"Those were urgent days," Thomas preached at the conference's closing eucharist in the historic Huguenot parish in Berlin. "They were days of crisis when the Wall through this city symbolized the ominous divide between East and West, when Germany played host to foreign armies and when very real weapons of mass destruction were poised to unleash a fury that would end life on this planet.
"Kirchengemeinschaft was an act that recognized the urgency, the crisis of our times, a bold and courageous refusal to allow the Wall with its nuclear weapons to define the church or the creation. The border crossings of Christa Grengel and Reinhard Groscurth may have seemed pitiful in the face of the armed might massed on both sides of the Wall. But in the end they helped undermine the apparatus of destruction and fear. As Luke puts it in the parable, 'whoever is faithful in a very little, is faithful also in much.'"
After the service, delegates were guests at the Berlin office of the Evangelical Church of Germany - the nationwide federation of United, Lutheran and Reformed churches - by the chair of the federation's governing council, Bishop Wolfgang Huber. The exchange of gifts between guests and hosts is an honored tradition in Germany. Particular care went into the choice of the UCC's gift to its UEK partners: a clay sculpture of a man and woman beating a sword into a plowshare by UCC artist Charles McCollough. The image from Isaiah was a symbol of East Germany's underground Christian peace movement during the 1980s.
Today, 11 UCC Conferences have bilateral partnerships with regional churches in the UEK.