Stephen Brown traces the quiet persistence of Heino Falcke
A rebel for peace against the raging world
Heino Falcke is Provost in the small town of Erfurt, in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) - East Germany. Just turned 60, softly spoken and with a shy smile, he does not appear at first glance the rebel that he is.
‘Churches in Europe should support a democratic ecological socialism capable of creating just economic relations between North and South,’ he said during the Basel Ecumenical Assembly in May, a remark which led to raised eyebrows from English Anglicans and Western European Catholics.
Falcke is no stranger to controversy, however. A keynote speech he gave Synod of the GDR’s Protestant Churches in 1972 led to sharp criticism from theto the state authorities. His demand for an open, democratic and free socialism in the GDR sounded too much like the ‘socialism with a human face’ in Czechoslovakia that had been crushed by Warsaw Pact tanks just four years previously.
Falcke, who gave the opening sermon at the Basel Assembly, is respected in the ecumenical movement and one of the ‘spiritual parents’ of the World Council of Churches’ programme for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation, of which the Basel Assembly is part.
Six years ago, at the WCC Assembly in Vancouver, he spoke at a packed press conference of the demand that the GDR delegates would be putting to the Assembly to reject the ‘development, possession and use of weapons of mass destruction’. He said then, ‘The Assembly theme ‘Jesus Christ - the Life of the world’ is a summons to us to repent of our bondage to the powers of death and turn to the life which Jesus Christ gives, in order to serve the life of our fellow creatures.’
With detente between East and West in tatters in 1983 and with the superpowers ready to deploy new nuclear weapons in Europe, he called on the Assembly to con-sider ‘whether the time is now ripe for a universal church council for peace, of the sort that Dietrich Bonhoeffer considered mandatory 50 years ago in face of the threat of the Second World War’.
Bonhoeffer, the German theologian executed during the Second World War for his role in the resistance to Hitler, had warned an ecumenical conference on Church and Society in 1934 that only a single ecumenical council of the Church of Christ could speak out so that the world would have to hear, ‘because the Church of Christ has taken the weapons from the hands of their sons, forbidden war and pro-claimed the peace of Christ against the raging world’.
The idea of an ecumenical council met opposition particularly from Orthodox Churches because of their theological understanding of the significance of councils in the life of the Church. And Christians from the southern hemisphere were concerned that ‘the issue of peace will be separated from the issue of justice, making peace primarily a North Atlantic concern’, as the South African church leader Allan Boesak put it in a keynote address to the Vancouver Assembly.
‘Nuclear’ no, hunger yes
Boesak recounted how an African delegate had said ‘in my village, the people will not understand the word ‘nuclear’ but they will understand everything about hunger and poverty’.
In the end, the Vancouver Assembly’s call for a ‘conciliar process of mutual commitment (covenant) to justice, peace and the integrity of creation’, reflected a somewhat uneasy compromise between these concerns. ‘The threats to justice, peace and the integrity of creation can no longer be named as three different threats,’ says the WCC. ‘The Churches must unite in response.’
Falcke says that he is ‘very happy’ with what has been achieved since Vancouver and with the extent to which this ecumen-ical ‘process’ has been taken up by the European Churches at the Basel Ecumenical Assembly. ‘At the same time I am sorry that this call has found so little resonance in the Two-Thirds World,’ he says.
The climax of the ecumenical process is to be a world convocation in Seoul, Korea, next year, which will include members of the Roman Catholic as well as Anglican, Protestant and Orthodox Churches. Falcke has his doubts, however, whether convocation on Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation with just over 300 delegates will really be able to speak to the world with authority. He suggests that the Seoul meeting should see its task as speaking to the Churches rather than the outside world - a step along the way rather than its end.
In Falcke’s own country, as least, the process of preparing for the conferences in Basel and Seoul has led to unprecedented cooperation between the Roman Catholic, Protestant and smaller Free Churches. ‘All 19 Churches have agreed to the rejection of the spirit, logic and practice of deterrence,’ a demand that was first made by the Protestants in the middle of the ‘80s, he says.
The three meetings of the GDR’s own Ecumenical Assembly have tackled questions of global justice, peace and ecology. At the same time, they have raised issues of justice, peace and ecology within the GDR - the question of dependence on nuclear power, or the premilitary education that school students have to undertake - contributing, perhaps, to that open and democratic society that Falcke called for 17 years ago.
(Photo from the MDR with links to a broadcast about Falcke to mark his 80th birthday)