Let the dissolution of Catholicism in Germany commence! First Ecumenical Co-operative Parish set to open doors.

Ecumenical worship team, joint projects, joint structures: Germany's first ecumenical co-operative parish is being built in Münster. In the katholisch.de interview, the two leading pastors give an insight into where the path is to lead - and talk about liturgical togetherness.

On Saturday, 02 February, there was a special service with lots of light, music and smoke in the St. Sebastian Church in Nienberge.

Pastor Daniel Zele, together with Deacon Reinhard Kemper and many churchgoers - including many children and young people - celebrated the service with a difference. For the Feast of the Candlemas, the background was presented to the congregation in a modern way by a light and sound team, which was also explained by young people of the congregation in a play.

Many churchgoers were enthusiastic and stayed in the church afterwards, listening to the music and being enchanted by the play of light. The young people of the local light and sound company had programmed music with light installations on a voluntary basis in hours of preparatory work and also put many hours into setting up and dismantling during the weekend.

But a picture is sometimes worth a thousand words!  (Cathcon: You can say that again!) A repeat performance is already being considered.

In December 2022, the starting signal was given: since then, the Catholic Parish of St. Sebastian and the Protestant Lydia parish in the Nienberge district of Münster have formed the first ecumenical cooperative parish in Germany. This is a pilot project of the Diocese of Münster and the Protestant Church of Westphalia: The aim is to advance ecumenism locally in a practical way based on the division of labour. The two congregations have already been working closely together for around twenty years. Catholic pastor André Sühling and his Protestant colleague, Oliver Kösters, reveal in a double interview what changes the project could bring about and what is specifically planned in the cooperation.

Question: Mr Kösters, Father Sühling, both the Protestant and Catholic churches are struggling to maintain church life. Do you understand this pilot project primarily from this point of view - or is the horizon a little broader?

Kösters: Maintaining church life is of course an aspect that plays into it, but ecumenism in Nienberge is far too old and far too deeply rooted for this issue to be considered only against this background. All those who are active here today are working on the ground that others have prepared. Even the land on which the Protestant community centre was built - Protestant life in Nienberge started in the post-war period - was donated by the Catholic community. A lot has already happened there, and it has intensified over the past decades. When we had to close our Protestant community centre because of financial constraints and had to look for a new place of worship, it was completely natural that we could not only ask in the Catholic community, but were welcomed with open arms. We have been living together in Nienberge for decades as a matter of course, and of course we are both facing changes - perhaps in different ways, but still in many ways together. We are now looking at this: How do we want to live the Christian church locally? But not in a deficit-oriented way, but in the sense of our mission to proclaim the Gospel.

Question: How concrete is the ecumenical co-operation in your congregations already - independent of the project?

Sühling: A milestone was that we got together relatively early and drew up an ecumenical charter - to show that ecumenism is not just something nice to do on the side, but is an essential part of our understanding of being Christians locally. In 2002 there was a first ecumenical agreement, which was renewed in 2008. Last year it was adapted to the current conditions because the two congregations are no longer independent but part of larger alliances. On the structural level, there are joint meetings between the main staff, where, for example, the annual planning is coordinated. There is an ecumenical working group of both congregations which is a great driving force. The ecumenical cooperation is wanted by the people in the congregations - and is lived by the congregation members.

Kösters: We have a seniors' ministry that has been ecumenical for decades, and an open youth ministry that is ecumenical. New is an ecumenical family and children's service team, which was responsible for the Christmas services last year. This has been very popular. The need of the people is clearly going in this direction, because hardly anyone actively lives the confessional distinction any more.

Question: So in a way this means that your cooperation has now received an "official" framework and, as it were, the blessing of the diocese and the regional church through the pilot project.

Kösters: That's a little more accurate. We were chosen precisely because ecumenism is known to be very wide-ranging here. Of course, we will continue to be two independent congregations, but the cooperation is to be given a more binding form. There is no higher level that can determine this for us, so we can only make it binding for ourselves. The project should then become a kind of guideline for communities that are considering taking the same path.

Question: What specific effects could the project have?

Sühling: The concern of the Catholic diocese and the Protestant regional church is, of course, to see how things can be better organised structurally without having to rely only on the good will of the people on the ground. For example, can questions about the use of space be reflected in concrete contracts? Is it possible to jointly coordinate the deployment of staff, especially in administration? But if we say that another aspect is more important for us, then that is also fine. We don't have any fixed guidelines - the dynamics here on site are decisive.

Question: What are the immediate steps that need to be taken now to move the project forward?

Kösters: In our ecumenical working group, we clustered what church offers there are here in Nienberge. What surprised us was that almost everything is ecumenical: Almost everything is ecumenical. We don't want to invent anything new now, but we want to look more closely at where we can be more present locally as a Christian church and also appear more strongly together in public.

Question: Let us turn to the topic of liturgy. You have already mentioned the ecumenical family service team. How is the liturgical co-operation in general - and are you striving to expand it?

Kösters: We regularly celebrate ecumenical services, on average five to six per year. Recently it became clear that there is a desire for more, and we want to support that. It is indeed the case that most people look across denominations to see what appeals to them. And that is particularly striking in the area of children and families, because there are many interdenominational marriages in our country. Of course, there are also some who say that their denominational home is important to them - and that, of course, is also perfectly okay.

Sühling: Another consideration is how to combine liturgical forms without renouncing one's own traditions. For example, at Easter: one service ends, a meeting takes place on the church square, and then the invitation to the following service follows. That one does not only celebrate next to each other, but that the focus is more on togetherness.

Question: You just said that liturgically there is a desire for more - what about the question of communion?

Sühling: Some people certainly have the idea. One of the topics at our initiation meeting with the regional church and diocese in December was whether there are also "no-goes" on the part of the higher level. Then the question came up: Is our project also an invitation to celebrate Holy Communion together? Clearly no. That is not something we can simply do here locally - even if it would certainly be a clear expression for many to take a further step in ecumenism. However, the respective theological convictions must be respected.

Question: But can you still succeed in creating a kind of ecumenical identity in your congregation?

Kösters: I can do a lot with that. I am also very influenced by Taizé and how faith is lived there. The boundaries are respected to the necessary extent, but nevertheless many things are done that go further than what the official churches say. For me, this has a certain model character. This does not mean that everything is levelled out and that differences no longer play a role. But they are not an issue in common worship and prayer.  Of course, I cannot transfer Taizé to the situation here. Personally, I would always 

Kösters: I can do a lot with it. I am also very influenced by Taizé and how faith is lived there. The boundaries are respected to the necessary extent, but nevertheless many things are done that go further than what the official churches say. For me, this has a certain model character. This does not mean that everything is levelled out and that differences no longer play a role. But they are not an issue in common worship and prayer.  Of course, I cannot transfer Taizé to the situation here. Personally, I would always like to go one step further, but I know that's not possible. And neither do we. But why not think about what an ecumenical pastoral plan could look like, for example, without one now being responsible for the funeral of the other? Or to no longer say that there is a showcase for the Protestants and there for the Catholics, but to say that these are the services - and every responsible person can decide where to go. These are all ideas that for me go in the direction of ecumenical awareness. Anything else, for me, is no longer in keeping with the times.

Sühling: We simply need a certain joy of discovery. Of course, I also get feedback from people who do not understand that we want to intensify ecumenism. There is talk of watering down our own message. But ecumenical cooperation is above all about doing what is possible together.

Question: What do you think: Will church life sooner or later only be possible in this co-operative format?

Sühling: On a formal level, it is becoming increasingly clear that resources - personnel, infrastructure - are limited. I do believe that from this practical point of view, it is becoming more and more possible to discover and develop common ground. But overall, it is of course about an inner attitude, an inner being on the way.

Kösters: I would tend to answer the question with a big yes. Of course, you can't answer it globally, it always depends on the respective place. But I think it will go in this direction - for many reasons. Yes, on the one hand out of necessity, but also for many positive reasons. Let's trust in the Holy Spirit. And when Christ asks that we all be one, then we can also hope in his power, in which we can entrust ourselves.

Source

Cathcon: This is why they hate the Latin Mass so much.  You cannot be ecumenical with the Mass of Ages.  They give primacy to dialogue over truth.  At one stage in my life, I often travelled in the car along the approximate geographical dividing line between Northern Protestant Germany and Southern Catholic Germany.  It is a line which with each passing year will be getting more and more diffuse.   In each village that I visited there would be a Protestant church and a Catholic Church and on questioning the inhabitants I would find that their closeness would mean that they thought the two bodies were just the same and there were no differences or they knew exactly what the differences were and there was no question of ecumenism.

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