German Protestants and Catholics face their own image crises

By Anli Serfontein

Trier, Germany, 3 March (ENI)--Germany's churches may be facing the biggest credibility crisis in their parishes for decades after a bout of unprecedented negative media coverage.


At the end of February, Margot Kässmann, the first woman to lead the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), resigned as bishop and leader of the Protestant church grouping after only four months in office, because of a drink-drive offence.


In the same week, a Catholic Bishops' Conference consultation in Freiburg addressed the issue of widespread sexual abuse of children by clergy and lay people that surfaced late in January, and damaged the largest church in the country.


In Germany, a close relationship exists between State and Church. The churches have a strong moral voice and, as the country's biggest single employer, are an economic force.


Some members of the Protestant church believe Kässmann's resignation has thrown the EKD, an umbrella group for 24 million Protestants, into an unpredictable crisis of theological, moral and political proportions.


Police in Hanover stopped Kässmann after she allegedly jumped a red traffic light on 20 February, and then charged her with driving with more than three times the legal limit of alcohol in her blood. She resigned four days afterwards.


Steffen Burkhardt, a media analyst at the University of Hamburg, and a commentator on public controversies, told Ecumenical News International, "In crisis communication, the worst mistake one can make is to lie. Ms Kässmann did not make that mistake. She dealt with her mistake in a very professional and open way."


"Ms Kässmann was a popular but also a polarising personality, who stood for human closeness," Burkhardt said. "There was a lot of interest in her as a private person, and not only as a theologian. This unfortunately can have a boomerang effect."


He noted that the front page of Bild, Germany's biggest-circulation tabloid newspaper had splashed the story of Kässmann's rapid resignation across its pages. Burkhardt said the way the German bishop had dealt publicly with her situation contrasted strongly with the Catholic Church which had, "over decades, systematically covered up sexual abuse in its institutions". Burkhardt said, "It has disastrous image management."


He also noted that by dealing openly and decisively with her situation, Kässmann was able to put forward a human face for Protestantism and of her misdemeanour, while "sexual abuse has no face".


He noted, "The Church now loses an important spokesperson for an open, communicative church. It is a setback for the liberal movement in the Church and for the progressive, socially involved church she stood for."


On 1 March, the weekly German magazine Der Spiegel had the bishop as its cover story. The magazine editorially praised her as an example of how one should morally take responsibility. "Bishop Margot Kässmann fell very far after she jumped a red traffic light with too much alcohol in her blood. However, with her quick, simple resignation she serves as a role model. Until now politicians acted hesitantly when they were to blame."


Kässmann had been bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hanover, the biggest Protestant Church in Germany, since 1999 and was known for her forthright opinions.


She had faced criticism from politicians after a 2010 New Year sermon in Dresden in which she said that, "nothing is right" in Afghanistan regarding the military deployment of German troops there. Others noted that she was merely echoing what 71 percent of the population was thinking.


Adding to controversy around her since her election, the Russian Orthodox Church had refused to talk to her as a bishop because it does not believe women can be ordained.


In October 2009, the 51-year-old bishop of Hanover was elected as the first woman and youngest chairperson of the EKD, which is made up of 22 largely independent regional Lutheran, Reformed and United churches in Germany.


Many churches in Germany say they are feeling the financial pinch as more people turn their back on traditional churches and giving dwindles. Some Christians believe Kässmann was a bishop who could potentially stem the tide, and attract new members.


They say that, like no other German bishop, she has a telegenic presence and can reach a sceptical public in a warm, human way. She dealt openly with her breast cancer in 2006, followed by her divorce a year later.


Potentially damaging, her divorce did not stem her popularity and shortly before her election as EKD chairperson she published a memoir of her personal experiences, which quickly climbed to third place on Der Spiegel's best-seller list.


When the German national soccer goalkeeper Robert Enke committed suicide in November, Kässmann opened her church in Hanover the following evening to lead prayers for his stunned fans. About 800 people, including members of the German national team, attended, while outside on the square 3000 people listened to the service.


On the Sunday after her resignation, in church services across Germany, Protestant clergy dealt with Kässmann's resignation. In her Hanover diocese, a letter from Kässmann was read out from 1500 pulpits, and in it she thanked the congregations for their support, and apologised for disappointing them.


In Trier, pastor Guido Hepke criticised a statement that the EKD Council had issued the day before Kässmann's resignation which he said was clouded in ambiguity while not really standing by her as it should have.


After the resignation of Kässmann, the new chairperson of the EKD is Nikolaus Schneider, the 62-year-old president of the Evangelical Church in Rhineland, the second biggest single Protestant church in Germany. He received the most votes after Kässmann in the October election.


Church insiders say Schneider is a quiet team player, has experience in ecumenical matters, and co-operates closely with Catholic dioceses in his area. He is also outspoken on socio-political and economic matters, and will not abandon the line of Kässmann and her predecessor Bishop Wolfgang Huber in being a critical voice in society.


The new vice-chairperson of the EKD is the journalist Uwe Michelsen, 61, who represents the NDR television programme, Church and Society. [1010 words] ENI News Headlines and Featured Articles are now available by RSS feed.


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