Speech by Foreign Minister Steinmeier at the Ecumenical Prize award ceremony

11.07.2016 - Speech

Speech by Foreign Minister Steinmeier at the Ecumenical Prize award ceremony
Cardinal Marx,
Dr Schuller,
Minister of State Merk,
Council Chairperson Bedford‑Strohm,
Professor Sternberg,

I am honoured to receive the Ecumenical Prize of the Catholic Academy in Bavaria. Thank you very much for your kind words, Professor Sternberg.

I was very happy when I received the good news a couple of months ago. But at the same time, I asked myself if I was the right person for the prize.

As some of you may know, I come from a small village in Lippe in North Rhine‑Westphalia. Our part of the world has been Protestant since 1538 and part of the Evangelical Reformed Church since the 17th century – and it takes this seriously! I remember very earnest people and pastors who gave rousing and indeed sometimes thundering sermons. And sermons had to be long and detailed! A service that lasted less than an hour would have been seen as shirking your duties. Our liturgy is plain. In some Evangelical Reformed churches, the only decoration is a crucifix – and many churches have no decoration whatsoever. That was my world. And I knew no other until I finished primary school and started secondary school in the nearest larger town. This was also mainly an Evangelical Reformed Church town, but it also had a Lutheran Church. And that was another world for us children and teenagers. Lutherans were just as foreign to us as Catholics, or to put it another way, the Evangelical Reformed Church was normal, while the Lutheran Church was the “other” religion or the church “other people” attended because there were no Catholics. At least there weren’t any in my small world, where schools and workplaces were close by and labour mobility – even the very term! – hadn’t been invented yet. The district border was just seven kilometres from my village. And it was far more than merely the border to the next district. It marked a strict denominational border, as Paderborn lay on the other side. At the time, the words of the omnipresent bishop still shaped church life and people’s everyday lives through and through there. Although they lay a mere stone’s throw apart, there was hardly any contact – none, for the most part –between these two worlds. Although the school and grammar school in the small Catholic town were closer, people preferred to stay in the Protestant district even if it meant they had to travel a few kilometres further. You didn’t even meet Catholics at football, as the football leagues were also based on the districts.

That is where I come from, so I think I can indeed ask myself if I am the right person for this prize. In other words, I certainly don’t come from an ecumenical background.

Professor Sternberg, in your speech just now you said that the Ecumenical Prize is awarded for the promotion of the Una Sancta movement, the idea of “one church”, and thus for endeavours to foster active ecumenism.

Ladies and gentlemen, I think we have reached a high point of ecumenism today. Before you here in Bavaria, in the Catholic Academy, stands – as you have just learned – a member of the Evangelical Reformed Church from East Westphalia, a Social Democrat who on top of it all is married to a Catholic!

Dr Schuller, your Academy stood for active ecumenism long before you invited East Westphalians to speak here. For many years, it has stood for community beyond denominational and ideological divides. I would like to recall a special seminar that took place here in 1958. I don’t think any of us were there, despite the large number of white‑haired people I see here today. 1958 was the year when the Catholic Academy held the so‑called “socialism seminar”. One person who remembers it well – Heinz Hürten, a former vice‑chancellor of the Catholic University of Eichstätt – described very vividly how the seminar addressed nothing less than the Catholic Church’s relations with the Social Democratic Party of Germany. That was a big deal at the time! It was a very sensitive topic. And it is interesting to imagine the discussions that took place here, for example to think about what Carlo Schmid said. He advocated replacing ideological and denominational divides with a shared, political concept of humanity. The seminar was not only widely reported in the media at the time – it also shook up the political world. It was a seminal event as regards restructuring society in the recently founded Federal Republic of Germany. And it was events just like that one here in your academy, Dr Schuller, that gradually helped to break the ice between the Social Democratic Party of Germany and the Catholic Church.

And that brings me to the topic of ecumenism, the overcoming of divides, that is, denominational, ideological and perhaps also political divides.

What does ecumenism mean in our society? What does it mean in a world in which religious and political differences seem to be clashing with enormous force? And what does it mean in Europe, where powerful forces are trying to pull the continent apart, where nationalism is rearing its ugly head once again? That is the question I would like to focus on today.

It is perhaps not a complete coincidence that the words “Europe” and “ecumenism” both stem from Greek. “Oikein” means “to live” and “oikos” means “house” or perhaps something like “inhabited earth”. Dr Schuller, you once explained here that the Apostle Paul in particular used a verb based on this, the verb “oikodomein” which means “to build” or “to build a house”.

I think this is a beautiful description because it paints a picture of community. Moreover, it describes the formation of this community as a process.

From our own experience, we all know that when we have to live at close quarters with other people, under one roof, we need to be understanding and tolerant. And the greater the range of religions and ideologies under this roof, the more effort one must make as regards mutual understanding, and the more one must persevere to resolve conflicts in a productive way. Locking the doors and isolating oneself are not the answer. Instead, looking at other people, trying to understand their point of view, acknowledging differences and discovering similarities are ways to create real dialogue, understanding and a firm foundation for the community.

This is how I understand ecumenism. I see it as a concept that puts the focus on understanding and dialogue with the aim of creating a “house”, that is, a community. If we see ecumenism in this way, it also has a political dimension because when I stand before you here today not only as a Christian, but also as Foreign Minister, I can assure you that my daily bread involves endeavouring to resolve conflicts and overcome divides through talks and to find a basis for our co‑existence in the international community using common rules and agreements.

The way we Protestants and Catholics live together in a spirit of openness and dialogue is something we often had to learn in the most painful ways in past centuries. But have we really learned all there is to know?

When we look at our world, some may doubt that all of us have fundamentally understood the ecumenical concept of dialogue and understanding.

What is happening? In my lifetime, I have never experienced another period when we were assailed so frequently and so forcefully by crises and conflicts. At the same time, a debate taking place here in Europe is shaking the foundations of our Union. And what I find particularly alarming in these turbulent times are the mindless slogans we are hearing. The tone is becoming harsher, and not just here in Europe. We are also hearing isolationist slogans from the other side of the Atlantic. Fears are being fanned both here and there – fear of the “Other” and particularly fear of Muslims. In Europe, populist parties are exploiting people’s concerns and pillorying Islam as such. Some say that Islam is not compatible with democracy. I strongly disagree with this view as I am certain that democracy provides space for Islam and vice versa. One of the key tasks for our society and for Muslims and Christians in the coming years will be to prove this.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Simplistic slogans may be greeted with applause on the market squares of our European continent, but they do not help us in any way with the challenges facing all of us together in Europe, the challenges for which people expect sound answers.

I am concerned by the way the Brexit debate has led to a rebirth of national stereotypes and egoisms in Europe. “We have enough problems of our own. Let’s forget about the rest of the world and its problems!” This seems to be the message when it comes to tackling the great challenges facing us, such as how to deal with the refugee situation.

The words we heard during the financial crisis were not much better. Many people described a divided Europe in dramatic terms, as a north where there was a mounting feeling of having to serve as paymasters for the profligate countries of the south, and a south that feels bullied by the north.

Ladies and gentlemen, my worry is that the old divides, which we thought had long since been overcome, are returning to Europe in a new form. Rifts are opening up between the peoples of Europe. And we Europeans in particular should really know better!

As Pope Francis warned us in his speech at the conferral of the Charlemagne Prize in May where he spoke about the European house, “[The founders of the European project] laid the foundations for a bastion of peace, an edifice made up of states united not by force but by free commitment to the common good and a definitive end to confrontation. Europe, so long divided, finally found its true self and began to build its house.”

Here we have the idea of “oikodomein” again, including in the words used by the Pope to describe Europe.

It is true that by building and dwelling in our European house we learned to contain conflicts and to conduct them in civilised ways. But now we see that there are cracks in the building. We can no longer take its stability for granted. It is up to all of us to underpin this house. And when we – based on the concept of ecumenism – regard this work as work on a house that has room for everyone, a house where we want to live together, then our answer must be the exact opposite of exclusion and isolation. Then what we need to do is open new paths of dialogue and cooperation in Europe.

We should remember that the churches, despite all their continued differences, were in a sense pioneers of the European idea of “united in diversity”. Indeed, the great achievement of European integration is the reconciliation of differences – and that applies to national identities as well as religious denominations. The majority of EU citizens are Roman Catholic. But Denmark and Sweden are almost entirely Protestant. Many people in the United Kingdom belong to the Anglican Church. Greece, Bulgaria and Romania are mainly Orthodox. The peaceful diversity of Europe’s churches is indeed a model for European society as a whole.

And that is why there is no doubt in my mind that we Christians are called on to defend this tradition, especially now when strong forces are pulling at our Europe and at the walls of the house we built together. When the tone becomes harsher, and exclusion and isolation are the new siren calls of the populists, then it is clear to me that we Christians must state far more clearly that ecumenism also has a political dimension.

Wolfgang Huber once pointed out that the Church’s ability to respect differences and to treat others like brothers and sisters was an important factor for the future of Europe. Never before has this message been so necessary!

And that is why I say: go out into the world! Talk to your brothers and sisters in Poland, Italy, Greece and the United Kingdom! The answers we will hear in these conversations – and I am pretty certain of this – will not always be to our liking. But we still need to listen to them. We need to listen more carefully than we did in the past in order to learn how to understand one another. We need to fight for a European culture that has brought peace and reconciliation for over 70 years to a continent torn apart for centuries by war and bloodshed.

Let us stand up for this European house – before it is too late! It is nice to see that the spirit of Europe is being discovered in the United Kingdom and expressed in demonstrations, petitions and rousing speeches. But where was this passion before the referendum?

In the speech he gave in Rome in May, Pope Francis said: “The Church can and must play her part in the rebirth of a Europe weary, yet still rich in energies and possibilities.” But, he added, “only a Church rich in witnesses will be able to bring back the pure water of the Gospel to the roots of Europe”.

“A Church rich in witnesses”, ladies and gentlemen. And now, at the end of my speech, I have come to my actual question, that is, to whom you are awarding this wonderful prize today. Is it being awarded to a “witness of the Church”, to the Christian Frank‑Walter Steinmeier? Or is it meant for the politician and Foreign Minister?

Obviously, politics is not something you do with a Bible in your hand. The Holy Scripture does not contain an answer to every inheritance tax law regulation. It does not even have the answers to difficult questions as regards dealing with current threats. But even if it does not have all the answers, it is equally obvious I don’t simply set my Christian beliefs aside when I sit down at my desk or board a plane in the morning. My Christian convictions and my trust in God serve as my compass. They provide me with an internal framework that dispels fearfulness (in view of a world that has become so very complex) and gives me the courage to do what is needed.

I live as a Christian and as a politician in our European house. And I regard it as our common task, as Christians and Europeans, to design this house.

At the moment, Europe appears to be moving away again politically from the “reconciled diversity”, which is a key principle of the Christian churches’ ecumenism. But here too, we should remember that this principle does not call on us to overcome all differences, but rather to curb the desire to make differences the basis of identity.

Europe can learn this from the Christian churches. And what do the churches need to learn? They need to learn that the small worlds I described at the start of my speech no longer exist. Nor do the small and large certainties with which my generation grew up.

The traditional conditions in which our parents and grandparents grew up have come to an end. Refugees, displacement, urbanisation, labour mobility and, in recent decades, growing immigration have changed Germany for good. They have changed the country’s social structure, mentalities and relationship with religion. And not only in eastern Germany do we see that while the Christian churches remain important institutions, they have lost much of their influence on society. The process of secularisation in western societies has also left its mark on Germany’s churches. We must take note of the consequences of this. In a world that is becoming increasingly interconnected, a world that no longer revolves only around the European sun, we also need to think about the credibility of Christianity as a whole. As long as our horizon is defined by a village, town, region or country, perhaps one can simply be a Reformed Evangelical, Lutheran or Catholic and not worry too much about it. But when our horizon is defined by the whole world, this is a different matter. Or to quote the Leuenberg Agreement: “The struggle for justice and peace in the world increasingly requires that the churches accept a common responsibility.”

For the sake of the world – but also for the sake of the churches – we must not evade this responsibility.

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