“Politicized celebration of faith”

"At the interface between church and society," the Kirchentag wants to make its mark, according to its head of organization – and be independent in the process: from the institutionalized church and from politics.

Evangelischer Pressedienst (epd): The 37. German Protestant Church Congress takes place from 19. until 23. June 2019 in Dortmund. You have been general secretary of the Kirchentag for a year now. Have you arrived in this complex organization?

Julia Helmke (General Secretary of the German Protestant Church Congress): From my point of view and with pleasure: yes. After one year, I am no longer "the new girl". I got to know a lot of people, even more structures, contents and forms of work. But of course, lifelong learning applies here as well. So: I have a good overview, but maybe not yet the full picture.
epd: Did something surprise you?
Helmke: The diversity of the committees and the people who are continuously involved in the Kirchentag: Politicians, academics, full-time and volunteer workers. Scouts are there, but also lawyers, craftsmen and doctors. The Kirchentag crosses milieus, and I find that invaluable and precious, especially in today's times.
epd: Let's move on to a current debate: What do you think about the Bavarian decree, according to which, since 1. June a cross must hang in the entrance area of every ministry building?
Helmke: Everything necessary has been said about this on the part of the churches: Faith in that which is embodied in the cross cannot be dispensed with. To impose it contradicts everything that this cross embodies.
epd: What does the cross stand for?
Helmke: The cross is a sign of Christianity, it points us to the suffering in this world, to the fact that we believe in a God who sides with the suffering and has rebelled against injustice. You can and must argue about the cross. This was also the case, for example, at church congresses in the 1980s with the question of feminist theology, whether instead of the sacrificial symbol of the cross, a tree of life should rather be the strong symbol.

epd: Is not only the cross, but also the Kirchentag in danger of being appropriated by politics?? After all, many politicians find a stage there.

Helmke: The Kirchentag is a political discussion event, but also a celebration of faith. It was founded at the interface between church and society, and Kirchentag continues to operate at this interface. We are neither taken over by the institutionalized church nor by politics. We invite politicians to speak on a topic, but we don't just give them the stage. That's why we have dialogue talks and podiums. And how politicians make responsible decisions out of their faith conviction is worth listening to.
epd: How much controversy is desired there?

Helmke: It's important that we don't just move in a bubble where everyone ares each other that they're on the right track. That would be boring. Last year's Kirchentag, with the debate between Berlin Bishop Markus Droge and the then AfD politician Anette Schultner, showed that other opinions are certainly also heard. For me, that was a successful model of an argument: listening to each other, even if you don't agree, and being able to endure that.

epd: Dealing with the AfD is also controversial in politics. Has the position of the Kirchentag been finally clarified??

Helmke: The 2016 Kirchentag presidium resolution states: We do not invite people who openly express racist or misanthropic views. We continue to stand by that. But we observe how the party, which has also been in the Bundestag since last year, is changing. And we are thinking: What does that mean for next year's Kirchentag in Dortmund??

epd: And what is the state of the discussion?

Helmke: We are very aware that in Dortmund topics should be taken up that play a role for many people. We keep ourselves open to respond to current ies with certain events.
epd: Would the AfD parliamentary group leader in the Bundestag, Alexander Gauland, be a conceivable guest after his relativization of National Socialism??

Helmke: The Kirchentag was also founded as a reaction to the horrors of National Socialism. I think that says it all. The Kirchentag stands for society coming together, not being deliberately divided.

epd: Back to a topic of faith: after the recent events in the controversy over the opening of communion, dare you predict what role the topic will play at the Ecumenical Church Congress 2021 in Frankfurt?

Helmke: The reaction of the Vatican to the paper of the German Bishops' Conference on the opening of Catholic communion for non-Catholic spouses was sobering; from my point of view, this is more about power and positional disputes than about theology. At the Catholic Day in Munster in May, the events on the subject of the Lord's Supper and ecumenism were overcrowded and the mood was clear: we want more signs.

But the success of the 3. We can't make the success of an ecumenical church congress depend solely on where we stand on the Lord's Supper. We are not an exclusive dogmatic Protestant-Catholic event, we take the breadth of Christian world responsibility into account as well. We cannot afford and do not want to narrow our focus.

Ies such as the preservation of creation as our basis for life, for example, remain pressing, and the way they are dealt with is often scandalous.

epd: In a few years there should be a European church congress. But especially when it comes to topics such as migration or homosexuality, opinions are often divided. How promising is the undertaking??
Helmke: It is again a new idea that Christians of different denominations and cultures from the different countries of Europe look how a common Kirchentag can look like. As the German Protestant Kirchentag, we support the project, but there is an independent association that is currently looking at where a European Christian meeting can take place: perhaps in Switzerland, which is considered neutral, or in hot spots in Central or Eastern Europe? In view of current developments, it is more necessary than ever that we set an example together. I believe a European church congress can send a signal for more humanity.

epd: The slogan of the Protestant church congress in 2019 is "What a trust". What do you trust in as secretary general??

Helmke: First of all, I trust in the life-giving Spirit of God, who leads us and inspires us. For me, Kirchentag is kairos, time filled. And I trust that real encounters between people will take place and that a crisis of trust will become a gain in trust again.

The interview was conducted by Julia Lauer and Karsten Frerichs.

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