First woman to lead German Protestants says she will speak out

28 October 2009

Anli Serfontein

Bishop Margot Kässmann. Photo (c) Stephen Brown/ENI

Ulm, Germany (ENI). Bishop Margot Kässmann, the first woman to lead the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), has pledged to work to promote relations with other Christian denominations, something that originally inspired her in her church work.

"There is more that unites us than divides us," Kässmann told a media conference following her 28 October election as chairperson of the EKD's council, the main governing body of the country's biggest Protestant grouping.

The 51-year-old bishop of Hanover said also that she would continue a reform process to strengthen the EKD, which is made up of 22 largely independent regional Lutheran, Reformed and United churches in Germany.

"And, lastly, although we are not politicians, I will get involved in political and ethical debates as I have done before," said the bishop known for forthright and outspoken opinions.

Kässmann was elected during a 25-29 October meeting of the EKD's highest governing body, its synod, in Ulm in southern Germany. She received 132 of the possible 142 votes.

As a 25-year-old youth delegate to the 1983 assembly of the World Council of Churches, in Vancouver, Canada, Kässmann was elected to the central committee of the Geneva-based church grouping, a position she held for 19 years.

In answer to a question from Ecumenical News International, Kässmann said that under her leadership the EKD would continue to be involved in ecumenical issues worldwide.

"Ecumenical dialogue widens one's horizon. The Church is a world church," she stated.

Kässmann, however, defended her decision to resign from the WCC's main governing body in 2002 after a commission on the participation of Orthodox churches recommended against having "ecumenical worship" at WCC events.

Explaining her decision at the time, Kässmann said that ecumenical worship services are "at the heart of the world council".

Kässmann, who is divorced, is the youngest-ever chairperson of the EKD council, and is the successor of Bishop Wolfgang Huber, who is retiring at the age of 67.

She praised Huber saying he, "like no chairperson before him, became the face of Protestant Germany".

The election of Kässmann means that for the first time the two senior posts in the EKD - chairperson of the council and president of the synod - are held by women. The president of the EKD synod is a Green Party politician, Katrin Göring-Eckardt.

Noting the swearing in on the same day as her election of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, to a second term in office, Kässmann said, "Today is a good day for Protestant women in Germany."

The chairperson of the EKD is elected from among the 15 members of the council.

When the candidates for the council introduced themselves on 25 October, Kässmann spoke of the joy of being able to combine motherhood and a profession, and raise four daughters. However, she said she had with sadness realised, "that for me a life-long marriage was not a gift". Kässmann received a standing ovation lasting five minutes.

She had announced in June 2007 that she was divorcing, 10 months after she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. In a recent book, Kässmann has written of how she experienced sympathy and support in her fight against breast cancer, while her announcement that she was getting divorced from her husband of 26 years, also a pastor, set off an avalanche of hate letters, mostly anonymous.

The chairperson of the (Roman Catholic) German Bishops' Conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, congratulated Kässmann on her election.

"Our path as Christians is the path of ecumenism. It is a path that we have to go along together and as equals. That is what Christians in Germany expect from us," Zollitsch wrote in a letter to Kässmann.

Of Germany's 82 million people, about 24.8 million are Protestants and about 25.5 million Catholics.

Kässmann has been bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hanover since 1999, and will continue in this position while also heading the EKD.

The Rev. Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, to which the Hanover church belongs, praised Kässmann's election.

"The election sends a signal to the church worldwide that God calls us to leadership without consideration of gender, colour or descent," Noko, a Zimbabwean theologian, told Ecumenical News International.

In a letter to Kässmann, Archdeacon Colin Williams, general secretary of the Conference of European Churches, said, "In your public ministry over the last decades, you have demonstrated your own commitment to the ecumenical vision, and not least through your consistent support for the … priorities of justice, peace and integrity of creation."

Kässmann is a former member of CEC's central committee.

She has frequently spoken on the relationship between the church and media and she is a former moderator of the first governing board of Ecumenical News International.

Kässmann studied in Tübingen, Edinburgh in Scotland, as well as in Göttingen and Marburg, where she received a doctorate.

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