28 April 2009

The "Conciliar Process" for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation

Travelling round churches in the former East Germany it probably won't be long before someone mentions the "Conciliar Process", something whose significance seems self-evident here in Germany but which has an unfamiliar ring to others. Whatever does "Conciliar Process" mean, and why is it so important? In much of the rest of the world the initiative is known as the JPIC process for "Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation". Its symbol was a dove with a olive branch breaking the chains of injustice.

The idea goes back to the Vancouver assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1983. In large part due to the efforts of the delegates from the German Democratic Republic, the assembly called on the WCC "to engage member churches in a conciliar process of mutual commitment to justice, peace and the integrity of creation". Through the efforts of Heino Falcke, dean in Erfurt, where Martin Luther trained as an Augustinian monk, and Christof Ziemer, Lutheran superintendent in Dresden - but also due to the commitment of numerous grassroots groups and individuals in the churches - the Conciliar Process culminated in the GDR in an Ecumenical Assembly of Churches and Christians which met in three sessions in 1988 and 1989 - bringing together Protestants and Catholics, but also Orthodox, Methodists, Seventh-day Adventists, Quakers and others, and people from church hierarchies and grassroots groups.

Of key importance was the decision to apply the themes of the conciliar process to the society of the GDR itself. It used the "See - Judge - Act" methodology of Liberation Theology, corresponding to three assemblies (February 1988 in Dresden; October 1988 in Magdeburg; and April 1989 in Dresden). The first assembly took stock of the reality of threats to justice, peace and creation; the second sought to make a judgement about these realities based on the insights of the Gospel; and the third agreed specific proposals for action.

Before the first assembly, organizers asked parishes and groups to send in proposals and ideas about threats to justice, peace and creation, not only at the global level, but what it meant for the GDR. When the first gathering opened in February 1988, it had before it more than 10,000 such proposals and statements, the overwhelming majority of which concerned GDR society itself. The conciliar process became a mirror for the latent discontent and disaffection latent in East Germany. Heino Falcke has commented:

Our appeal opened the flood-gates of a pent-up longing for change in East German society. Gorbachev's new thinking and the policy of perestroika had opened up the possibility of achieving politically what we had long been calling for in our Basisgruppen. Because the possibility of political change seemed to be within reach, the status quo with all its internal contradictions became more and more unbearable. The ecumenical assembly raised the floodgates enough to release the log-jam of change. It gave an ecumenical inspiration to the dynamic for change, which also in a way gave it legitimacy; and above all, it gave it a direction that was set by the gospel.
The final gathering of the assembly took place in April 1989, less than six months before the GDR was engulfed by the autumn revolution, and in 12 texts, made unprecedented call for change - the separation of the state and the Communist Party, secret ballots for elections, freedom for art and culture, the right to form independent associations. These texts would prove to be an inspiration for the citizens' movements and political parties formed at the time of the peaceful revolution.

That final gathering met from 26 to 30 April. This week, in different places throughout the former East Germany, churches and Christians are remembering the final assembly and its rolein bringing change. But they are also remembering the challenges the texts contain for a society that more just, more peaceful and more respectful of creation - challenges that are still on the agenda, two decades later.


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