The Changing Face of the German Church, 1990

Thoughts on German Re-Unification


Some, including Church President Martin Niemoeller, called the old West German state a Catholic and American creation. A Christian-Democratic politician hinted at this recently when he claimed that the new German state would be more northern, more eastern and more Protestant.

That is undoubtedly true.  But it is also self-evident that the East German church will be doing most of the changing.  In view of their meager resources in members and capital, the Eastern churches can be overruled and outvoted nearly at will.


Eastern Protestantism has prided itself in its distance from the state.  That will be changing now.  As in the West, church taxes will be collected from jobholders by the state and religious instruction in public schools is beginning.  In a protest against such developments, the leading bishop of East German Protestantism, Christoph Demke of Magdeburg, refused to attend a top-level church-state service in East Berlin on Unification Day, October 3, 1990.  He chose instead to spend the day in the Soviet capital.  That prompted wisecracks that Demke had "escaped to Moscow".


Such church independence will soon be history.  The Eastern church of the future will not be more voluntary than its Western counterpart.  It will also be a part of the established political order.

But: In contrast to the state-level, Eastern church ranks are not being purged of those on the political left.  Indeed, many clergy have been sympathetic, if not with the practice, at least with the humanistic goals of the socialist and communist movements.  One could put it this way: The East German church will become more conservative, but the entire mix -- German Protestantism in its entirety -- should become slightly more leftist.


There are two East German positions which the all-German church may yet be forced to accept: a more liberal position on abortion and a revision of the West German agreement on military chaplains.  If that indeed is the case, then Eastern church leaders such as Axel Noack and Heino Falcke will not be forced to make good on their threat to resign if their churches ever accept Western-style military chaplains.


Bill Yoder

Evanston near Chicago, December 24, 1990


Written for “Ecumedia News” radio in New York City, 120 words

Note from November 2021: Martin Niemöller, perhaps the most famous German church leader of the 20th century and a prisoner of Hitler in Dachau, lived from 1892 to 1984. Christoph Demke (1935-2021) was bishop of the provincial church of Saxony (Magdeburg) from 1983 to 1997. His successor as bishop was Axel Noack (born 1949), who served until 2008. Heino Falcke (born 1929) still resides in Erfurt.