After a dramatic 186-year history, the UCC's ecumenical partner in Germany—the Evangelical Church of the Union (EKU)—will cease to exist later this year.
During East Germany's "Wende" (the 1989 "turning point" from communism to democracy), the EKU's congregations provided sanctuary for protest meetings while its pastors kept the peace between demonstrators and police.
But now the EKU has reached its own "turning point." After a final synod in April, its seven regional churches will join a new Protestant body: the "Union of Evangelical Churches" (UEK).
The EKU may be the UCC's closest partner in Europe. The two churches share a commitment to social and economic justice, and a courageous EKU pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer—executed on Hitler?s orders in 1945—exercised a decisive influence on the generation that founded the UCC in 1957. The UCC Statement of Faith honors Bonhoeffer with a familiar phrase inspired by his writings—"the cost and joy of discipleship."
Influence on the UCC
The EKU?s influence on UCC history dates back to the 19th century, when German immigrants in the Midwest organized "Evangelical" congregations partly inspired by the "Union" of Lutheran and Reformed churches in Prussia.
The Prussian Union was "ecumenism from above" if not actually a shotgun marriage. In his royal decree imposing unity on his kingdom?s warring Protestant communions, Frederick William III announced that on Reformation Day, 1817, "both confessions will become one."
The world?s first "united" church, it chose the name "Evangelical" ("of the Gospel"). In 1945, the "Evangelical Church of the Old Prussian Union" became simply the "Evangelical Church of the Union." Divided by the Cold War into western and eastern synods—both of which voted for full communion with the UCC in 1980—the EKU was reunified in 1991.
No new ?bloc?
Supporters of the new Union of Evangelical Churches do not see it as a new confessional "bloc" but as a steppingstone to fuller ecclesiastical unity with Germany?s Lutheran churches.
The enlarged union will be a loose federation of 17 regional churches. Besides the EKU's member churches, they include the Evangelical Reformed Church and several "united" regional churches that, like the EKU, combine the Lutheran and Reformed traditions but were never part of the Prussian Union.
As a transitional body, the UEK will have no churchwide "synod" with authority to determine policy for the union as a whole. Instead, like the UCC's General Synod, a "Plenary Conference" with limited powers will have the authority to "speak to but not for" the UEK?s member churches.
This decentralized structure has raised questions about the future of the UCC's partnership with the new union.
In principle, the UEK will honor all of the EKU?s ecumenical relationships. Agreements of full communion will remain in force. But in practice, the UEK's proposed structure makes no provision either for an ecumenical officer or a budget for ecumenical relations. Instead, the EKU's various ecumenical commitments would be delegated to regional churches.
EKU ecumenists fear that this solution could balkanize the church?s ecumenical relations. If, for example, one of the wealthier churches in western Germany takes over responsibility for the UCC-EKU partnership, will this leave the poorer eastern churches out of the loop?
Support still strong
The issue was raised on the floor and in committee meetings at the EKU's churchwide Synod in June. The result: the Synod approved two strong resolutions urging the UEK as a whole to assume responsibility for ecumenical relationships, including some provision for a churchwide relationship with the United Church of Christ.
No one can predict, of course, how the new union will respond to the Synod?s action. In any case, no decision can be taken before the union's first Plenary Conference meets in October.
Support in the EKU for the UCC partnership remains strong. The two churches grew even closer together after September 11, adopting nearly identical positions urging their governments to seek nonviolent alternatives to the war on terror.
For a brief history in English, go to www.bbevangelisch.de/english/tasks/history.htm.
Andy Lang, the UCC?s website coordinator, was a UCC observer at the EKU's Synod in June 2002.