Former GMP remembers ‘kind, gracious, encouraging’ ecumenical partner Reinhard Groscurth
In a reflection, former United Church of Christ General Minister and President the Rev. John Thomas recalls his partnership with the Rev. Reinhard Groscurth, former ecumenical officer of the Evangelical Church of the Union (EKU) in Germany and a longtime friend of the UCC. Groscurth was key in creating a “church communion” — Kirchengemeinschaft — between the UCC and the EKU, affirmed by the UCC’s General Synod in 1981. The EKU is a historic union of the Lutheran and Reformed traditions in Germany and thus an ancestral root of the UCC’s history.
Groscurth died May 29, 2023, in Berlin at the age of 93.
Toward the beginning of my tenure as assistant to the President for ecumenical concerns of the United Church of Christ, I had my first opportunity to meet Reinhard Groscurth in a meaningful way.
It took place during a meeting of the UCC-EKU working group in Cleveland in the early 1990s, shortly before Reinhard’s retirement as ecumenical officer of the EKU.
The working group was a formidable theological gathering in those years. While others were present, the theologians dominated the meeting with their interests and their rather passionate voices. The conversation was animated, vigorous and frequently heated in the way that academics — especially those who had known and argued with each other over many years — like to engage.
Relatively new to my position, and as a first-time attendee of the working group, I was mostly quiet, observing what was — for me — a very atypical UCC gathering. I came away from the meeting with three impressions of Reinhard.
First was his irenic spirit, eager to affirm elements of each speaker’s passionate interventions and adept at building bridges across obvious divides. It was easy to see the wise ecumenist at work employing skills honed during his years on the staff of the World Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Commission to identify common ground.
Much of his tenure as EKU ecumenical officer came during Germany’s time of postwar division. I had certainly been aware of his key role in the development of Kirchengemeinschaft and had been privileged to serve as a delegate to the General Synod in Rochester in 1981 where the formal vote to enter into this full communion was taken and the relationship celebrated.
During my years on the Council for Ecumenism in the 1980s, I learned of his ministry with the Faith and Order Commission, his support for the community of United and Uniting churches and his critical and courageous partnership with the Rev. Christa Grengel, ecumenical officer of the EKU in East Germany, that enabled vital communication to be made between churches separated by the Berlin Wall.
‘A gentle healer and reconciler among us’
Second, along with the Rev. Fred Trost — then-Conference Minister of the Wisconsin Conference — Reinhard was clearly, to use a term from that time, a “churchman.” While both were significant theologians in their own right, they also were grounded in church ministry rather than academia and, as a result, both sought to make the ecumenical relationship meaningful in the lives of congregations and the ministry of pastors.
As a relatively young ecumenist and national staff member still trying to shape the identity of a new position in the UCC national structure, Reinhart’s and Fred’s approach was instructive.
Trost offers this reflection on Reinhart’s life and ministry:
Reinhard was a humble servant of the Word and a gift of God to the Church throughout the world. In Reinhard, faith, hope and love found a home. He had a deep and abiding love for the UCC, and his presence among us was a blessing. After service as theological secretary for the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, he became the Ecumenical Officer for EKU, a position he held from 1969 until his retirement in 1994. Reinhard was, along with his colleague, Dr. Christa Grengel, the chief architect in Europe of Kirchengemeinschaft.
His faith lived out the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount. His ecumenical spirit was shaped by the biblical longing for Christian unity, that we might “all be one.” In 1973, Reinhard helped to guide the steps of UCC President Robert Moss into East Germany, the first Western Church leader allowed to speak publicly in that country since the appearance of the Iron Curtain.
Kind and generous, thoughtful and compassionate, he paved the way for many of us to understand what Dietrich Bonhoeffer intended in response to the question: “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?”
Reinhard opened the eyes and ears and hearts of thousands of church leaders to the light that shines into the darkness of ecclesial and political differences. He was a gentle healer and reconciler among us, who invariably caused us to “lift up our hearts.” Reinhard understood what Saint Jerome had in mind when he said that a minister of the Gospel is called to be one in whom “the tongue, the heart and the hand agree.”
‘Kind, gracious, encouraging’
Third, Reinhard was exceedingly kind, gracious, and encouraging. I experienced this especially around the edges of the meeting as he took time to talk with me about my new role and about his enthusiasm for the work I had taken up. No doubt these personal qualities derived from many influences over the years.
But I suspect part of it was his own experience as a young adult — first, as a young adult steward at the WCC assembly in Evanston in 1954, and then as theological secretary at the Faith and Order Commission in Geneva.
Surrounded by renowned senior church leaders, he certainly would have valued the elders who took him under their wings, encouraging him in his own development. Now, he was the wise, encouraging elder to me, passing on the gifts that I suspect once nurtured him.
Bequeathing a legacy
A second memorable encounter took place over a decade later. By then, I was General Minister and President of the UCC. A large gathering of leaders from UCC Conferences that had relationships with partner Landeskirchen — regional churches in Germany — took place at a retreat center along Lake Erie east of Cleveland.
This was a kind of transitional moment in Kirchengemeinschaft as leadership was passing to a younger generation of clergy and laity active in youth and adult exchanges, pastoral placements and joint mission engagement. Reinhard had been invited to come as one of the founders, and he and his friend Fred Trost both gave addresses reflecting on the origins and development of the partnership.
What I remember most about Reinhard’s address was the sense of joy he seemed to find in being able to turn over to eager hands a gift that he had helped to shape but which he no longer needed to control. The address was a bequeathing of a legacy.
And, in its own way, another act of kindness, grace and encouragement.
A pastoral moment
A third meaningful encounter was the most intimate, personal and pastoral.
Peter Makari — who had been a national staff liaison to the working group — and I were in Berlin for my introduction to some of the leaders of the now renamed Union of Evangelical Churches (UEK) within the Evangelical Church in Germany.
The day before our meeting on Sept. 12, 2001, we had had our itinerary dramatically altered by the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.
It had obviously been an emotionally draining two days. On the morning of the 12th, we drove past the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, which had been bombed during World War II. A new, modern church building had been constructed alongside the broken tower of the old church that had been left standing as a reminder of the violence we so often inflict on each other.
I had not known that Reinhard would be at the meeting, but he and some other retired church leaders had come to Berlin the day before and had stayed over for our meeting.
I have almost no recollection of the meeting that morning, of the topics discussed or who was present. What I do remember vividly was seeing Reinhard, colleague and friend, making his way to the door as Peter and I arrived.
With tears in his eyes, he embraced me with great warmth and emotion. The eminent church leader, ecumenist and theologian was now the sensitive pastor. It was a profound experience of Kirchengemeinschaft in a most personal way. Kind. Gracious. Encouraging.
My last time with Reinhard was two years ago. I had written a 20th anniversary reflection on Peter’s and my experience in Germany during those difficult days in 2001. The piece had found its way to Germany, and Reinhard had received a copy and read it.
On a September afternoon when my phone lit up with Germany’s country code, I was surprised and delighted to hear Reinhard’s voice. He had called to thank me for my reflection, to add his own memories of those days and to exchange news of our lives and families over the ensuing years.
The call was a gift I will always remember. Kind. Gracious. Encouraging.
Others knew Reinhard far better than I did, worked with him far longer and more intimately than I did, shared a closer friendship with him than I did. But what I did experience with him was a treasure for which I am profoundly grateful.
Whether in ecumenical relationships or personal friendships, Paul’s admonition in his Epistle to the Romans to “love one another with mutual affection” was, it seems to me, Reinhard’s calling and vocation. A gift now bequeathed to us.
May we receive it with grace, share it with kindness and offer it as encouragement to others in grateful and loving memory of him.
The Rev. John Thomas served as the UCC’s General Minister and President from 1999-2009.
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