Review of Keith Clements, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ecumenical Quest

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 21, Number 3 (September 2015)

Review of Keith Clements, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ecumenical Quest (Geneva: World Council of Churches Publications, 2015), 326 Pp. ISBN 978-2-8254-1656-3.

By John S. Conway, University of British Columbia

Keith Clements is a British theological scholar who served for many years as General Secretary of the Conference of European Churches, thus becoming well aware of the churches’ modern ecumenical dimensions. He has previously written a number of shorter works about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but in this more substantial study concentrates on Bonhoeffer’s connections to and involvement with the ecumenical church bodies of the 1930s. Drawing largely on the Collected Works, now fortunately all translated into English, Clements seeks to show that this was the most continuous thread of his life and activity, but one which has been rather neglected in earlier biographies which have concentrated on Bonhoeffer’s theology or his role in the German Church Struggle.

Clements-DietrichIn fact, Bonhoeffer’s participation in ecumenical affairs started immediately after his return in September 1931 from his visit to the United States. He was sent as a German youth delegate to a meeting in Cambridge of the World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship through the Churches. This body had originally been established in 1914, but had to suspend its activities during the war, and had only been resuscitated in 1920. Its support came from influential lay and clerical leaders, particularly in the democratic countries of Western Europe and North America. They recognized the need for programs of reconciliation and peace activities in order to bind up the wounds caused by the destructive violence of the recent war. It was here that Bonhoeffer met with such leading figures as the Anglican Bishop George Bell of Chichester, with whom he was to collaborate for the next decade.In fact, Bonhoeffer made such an impact that he was forthwith appointed as an Honorary Youth Secretary and given responsibility for the World Alliance’s youth work in central Europe. This was a challenge he could hardly refuse, and one to which he brought his newly-minted skills in theological advocacy and his energetic support of the World Alliance’s aims.

As Clements makes clear, however, Bonhoeffer soon saw that the whole ecumenical endeavour was sadly lacking an adequate theology. Passing high-minded resolutions at conferences or engaging in moralistic wishful thinking about the need for peace was not enough. With all the brashness of a twenty-eight-year-old—Clements calls it boldness—Bonhoeffer set out to remedy this deficiency. At the World Alliance’s next major conference held in Denmark in 1934, he advanced the argument that what was needed was for a great ecumenical council of churches to be convened which would commit all its members to non-violence and abjure all forms of militarism. The cause of peace demanded a universal approach and was not a matter just for individuals, or even for local or national churches. In the absence of any such body, the World Alliance meeting should dare to act as that council.

It was therefore especially necessary to attack those theological ideas about “the orders of creation” which German theologians were using to justify their nationalistic sentiments. Against this, Bonhoeffer argued for an order of preservation which would obey God’s commandment to witness to truth and justice, and prepare the way for the reception of the gospel of Christ. But in fact the ecumenical community was not yet ready for this precocious and prophetic vision of Christian witness. And Bonhoeffer himself became fully occupied with the onset of the Church Struggle within Germany, following Hitler’s take-over of power in 1933. He was now taken up with combatting the eager support given to the Nazi Party, particularly by his contemporaries amongst the younger pastors who so eagerly began to spread Nazi militaristic, nationalistic and antisemitic ideas in the fallacious belief that this would bring ordinary people back to the church.

Bonhoeffer’s move to England in October 1933 brought him into more frequent contact with Bishop Bell, who indeed came to rely on Bonhoeffer’s valuable guidance about the hectic developments in the German Evangelical Church. On the other hand, Bonhoeffer was unsuccessful in persuading any of these ecumenical bodies to sever their connections with the now nazified official church structures, and to regard the Confessing Church as the only true vehicle for Christian witness in Germany. The tensions this dispute caused led to the result that no one from the German Evangelical Church was allowed to attend the significant ecumenical conferences which took place in Britain in 1937, or to participate in the discussions in 1938 which resulted in the founding of the World Council of Churches.

By this time, however, Bonhoeffer had returned to Germany to lead the Confessing Church’s seminary at Finkenwalde in the remotest part of east Pomerania. This necessarily cut down on his opportunities to be in contact with his ecumenical partners. But, as Clements points out, Bonhoeffer was insistent that “The German Church Struggle is the second great stage in the history of the ecumenical movement and will be decisive for its future. It is not an ideal which has been set up but a commandment and a promise—it is not high-handed implementation of one’s own goals that is required but obedience. The question has been posed.” But in this idealistic vision Bonhoeffer was to be disappointed.

Clements does not elucidate how far this set-back induced Bonhoeffer to be drawn increasingly into the ranks of those who now sought to oppose Nazism and Hitler by some form of resistance or revolt. But as the war clouds increasingly gathered in the late 1930s, and as the Nazi ambitions became ever clearer, the hopes of the peace party were doomed to disillusionment and frustration. To be sure, it was largely due to his ecumenical friends in the United States, such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Lehmann and Henry Leiper, that Bonhoeffer was offered an escape route from the risk of being conscripted for military service by accepting offers from New York to return to the United States in the summer of 1939. Yet, shortly after his arrival, Bonhoeffer realized he had made a mistake. As he explained in the well-known letter to Niebuhr, it was not the call of family, or of his church, but of his nation which led to his decision to return to Germany:

I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people…. Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization.

Clements rightly comments that in speaking of “Christian civilization” Bonhoeffer recognized the threat posed by the Nazis not just to Germany but to the wider Christian community. He saw himself engaged in the struggle for the widest goals of Christian witness which now required him to go back and face this ”terrible alternative”. It was all part of the costly discipleship to which he was committed.

After the outbreak of war, and his recruitment as an agent of the Military Intelligence Service, Bonhoeffer found that the hostilities virtually paralyzed the activities of the ecumenical movement and forced its supporters to find new ways of upholding their sense of community and mutuality. Clements argues that in these circumstances Bonhoeffer’s commitment to ecumenism became still more pronounced even though carried out in a conspiratorial manner. Thanks to his connections he was able to travel abroad, twice to Switzerland, where he contacted both Karl Barth and Visser’t Hooft, now the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches (in process of formation), and told them about the discussions for post-war renewal going on in the resistance circles in Germany

Bonhoeffer’s most significant journey came in April 1942 to Sigtuna, Sweden, where he met once again with Bishop Bell. Bonhoeffer’s objective was to persuade Bell to urge the British Government to make a public declaration of support for the German Resistance in the hope that any such declaration would provide evidence that, when Germany was defeated, she would not have to suffer an even more vindictive settlement than in 1919. To this end, Bonhoeffer revealed to Bell the names of the leading members of the anti-Hitler conspiracy, and eagerly looked forward to his nation’s eventual defeat, since Germany deserved punishment and ought to express repentance for the crimes committed in the nation’s name. But, in fact, when Bell fulfilled his mission on his return to London, the result was a disappointing rejection. Clements clearly admires Bonhoeffer’s dangerous venture as an example of ecumenism in practice. But other historians are more skeptical, pointing out that this plan was more the product of these churchmen’s wishful thinking than any realistic awareness of the international political scene, or the realities of choices facing the British authorities at the time.

In April 1943 Bonhoeffer was arrested and taken to Tegel prison on the outskirts of Berlin. He was never to regain his freedom. But from the letters, essays and poems smuggled out by a friendly warder, we have the evidence that his dedication to the ecumenical cause remained as before. As Clements shows, he used the opportunity to explore the dimensions of Christian discipleship in the service of the world when the church takes upon itself the needs of the world before God. We have one final glimpse of his ecumenical commitment from the day before he was murdered in April 1945. Together with a group of other notable prisoners, including a British P.O.W., Captain Payne Best, whom Bonhoeffer had discovered was acquainted with Bishop Bell, they were spending the night in a Bavarian schoolhouse. It was the Sunday after Easter, and Bonhoeffer was persuaded to hold a short service for them all. He had hardly finished when two SS policemen entered, and called out “Prisoner Bonhoeffer, come with us”. He had just time to give a message for Best to pass on to Bishop Bell. “Tell him, Bonhoeffer said, that this is the end but for me the beginning of life. With him I believe in the principle of the Universal Christian brotherhood which rises above all national interests, and that our victory is certain”. Then he was led away, taken back to Flossenbürg concentration camp, placed in front of a summary court martial, condemned to die, and on the following morning, 9 April, executed in the prison yard.

Clements’ final chapter describes the post-war reception of Bonhoeffer’s fame and ideas, beginning with the heartfelt tribute paid by Bishop Bell at a memorial service held in a large London church in July 1945, which was broadcast by the BBC’s German service and heard by members of Bonhoeffer’s family. It was the first intimation they had that he was no longer alive. It was the beginning of the process which Victoria Barnett has rightly called “the making of an ecumenical saint”, and culminated in the placing of Bonhoeffer’s statue on the front portal of Westminster Abbey in London, together with other Christian martyrs of the twentieth century. He was seen as a suffering Christian witness and defender of the faith. The emphasis was on his unconquerable piety and his unyielding trust in God.

But in fact, there were also contrasting reactions which Clements does not mention. In post-war Germany, not a few of the more conservative members of the Evangelical Church, including those in the ranks of the Confessing Church, took a much more hostile view of Bonhoeffer’s past. To many of these men, Bonhoeffer was not a Christian martyr but a national traitor. It was inconceivable to them that a pastor should have been involved in a conspiracy to assassinate the head of state, should have openly refused to pray for Germany’s military victories, or should have welcomed the prospect of his nation’s downfall and defeat. It took some twenty years before Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s closest friend and biographer, was able to overcome these prejudices. Another and more favourable reception came in the 1950s in Britain and North America with the English translation of Letters and Papers from Prison and the revelations about Bonhoeffer’s political activism and participation in the anti-Nazi struggle. At the same time, these letters aroused a tremendous excitement, especially in the younger generation, because of the stimulating critique of existing church doctrines and the enigmatic assertions about the “world come of age”, the call for a “religion-less Christianity”, or the necessity of being “the church for others”. These were the themes which gave, and still give, Bonhoeffer an enormous appeal as a major source of inspiration and guidance.

Fortunately, in so praising Bonhoeffer’s legacy, Clements has avoided the distortions and omissions which have marked the recent American biographies by Metaxas and Marsh. Instead he points to Bonhoeffer’s posthumous appeal and influence, which have established his reputation far beyond his native German Lutheran home. Indeed, Clements can claim that in view of Bonhoeffer’s response to Nazism and the Holocaust, he has also become a significant figure for Christian-Jewish dialogue. In so doing, Bonhoeffer belongs internationally and irrevocably to the ecumenical scene. His witness to this cause remains his most lasting memorial and is one which still commands respect. We can therefore be grateful to Keith Clements for so fully and convincingly outlining Bonhoeffer’s contributions to the ecumenical world view to which he was so seriously committed and in which he believed so passionately.