Trier, Germany, 24 February (ENI)-- Protestant and Roman Catholic leaders have expressed their regret about the resignation of Bishop Margot Kässmann, the first woman to lead 24 million German Protestants, who belong to the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD).
At a 24 February press conference in Hanover, where she was resident bishop, Kässmann said she was resigning from her leadership positions, only days after she was stopped for a drink-driving offence. When she made her announcement she was flanked by her four grown-up daughters.
Kässmann said she had given up her posts as a bishop and as head of the EKD but would continue as a pastor.
One commentator said the resignation would hurt the EKD more than it would help it because of a shortage of well-known leaders in the church grouping. Still, one cleric from a theologically conservative group said her resignation was necessary.
"Last Saturday, I made a serious mistake that I deeply regret," Kässmann told the press conference. "I would not have in future the freedom to name and judge ethical and political challenges as I had before. I hereby declare that with immediate effect I am resigning from all my church positions. I have given all my energy to these offices."
Kässmann, who is a Lutheran, said, "I remain as a pastor of the Hanover church."
She had been the chairperson of the EKD, the umbrella organization for the majority of Germany's Protestants, until she was caught drink-driving on the evening of 20 February in Hanover. She allegedly jumped a red traffic light, and was found three times over the legal limit.
The general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, the Rev. Ishmael Noko, told Ecumenical News International, "As a church leader, Kässmann has made invaluable contributions to the work of the LWF and to the wider ecumenical circle not only in Germany but globally." Noko recalled a speech of Kässmann's in 2003 in Canada in which she expressed the need for "a society that does not follow the law of the strongest, of power and assertiveness, but practices solidarity, loves justice, makes peace, and safeguards creation".
The vice-chairperson of the EKD, Nikolaus Schneider, who is president of the Evangelical Church in Rhineland, and also president of the EKD Council, plus the Green Party leader and vice-speaker of the German Bundestag, Katrin Göring-Eckardt, issued a joint statement regretting Kässmann's decision to resign.
"The Evangelical Church in Germany will miss her straightforwardness and clarity in her theological, socio-political and societal positions," they said. "Her resignation is a heavy blow for German Protestantism. It personally hurts us a lot. At the same time, her decision to resign also reflects this straightforwardness that we appreciate from Margot Kässmann."
The chairperson of German's Catholic Bishops' Conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, commented, "I regret the resignation of the EKD chairperson, Bishop Margot Kässmann, with whom I have just started to work on matters of common concern. I have known Ms Kässmann for some time as a person who is prepared to take responsibility, and therefore I respect her decision and can understand this step."
Commentator and journalist Heiner Bremer told the German television news channel n-tv that the resignation could damage the EKD. He described Kässmann's resignation as the "second serious loss" for the EKD following the retirement of Wolfgang Huber as EKD head in October 2009.
There were no comparable figures in the "second row" of church leaders, said Bremer. He did not think that Kässmann needed to resign but that the decision might also reflect that she had been the target of a hostile campaign since her controversial statements earlier this year in which she criticised the role of Germany's armed forces in Afghanistan.
In an apparent reference to the drink-driving incident, Bremer said he felt that Kässmann had come under stronger fire than she would have done if she had been a man.
The EKD elected Kässmann, the bishop of Hanover, to be its new leader on 28 October 2009. It was first time a woman had become the most senior representative of German Protestants. The decision was made during a meeting of the EKD's governing body, its synod, in Ulm, southern Germany.
Günter Beckstein, a former Christian Social Union prime minister of Bavaria and vice-president of the EKD's synod, had spoken in support of Kässmann. "A bishop is no saint but just human and fallible," Beckstein told his local paper, the Nürnberger Nachrichten. He believed that Kässmann had made a mistake and should have taken a taxi or used a chauffeur but he did not see it as a reason to resign from her post.
Still, Pastor Ulrich Rüss of Hamburg, who heads the Conference of Confessing Communities, seen as a theologically conservative group, told n-tv that Kässmann had made the right decision. "This step was necessary," he said, adding that through her "misdeed", Kässmann had lost her credibility as a "moral authority".
Rüss said that as the head of the EKD and a bishop, Kässmann, "represented the church and in a certain sense also Christ and the Gospel".
Fifty-one-year-old Kässmann, who is divorced, became the youngest-ever chairperson of the EKD council, and was the successor of Bishop Huber, who retired at the end of 2009 at the age of 67.
The EKD is the umbrella organisation for 22 regional Lutheran, United and Reformed churches. It accounts for most of the country's Protestant Christians.
Kässmann had been bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hanover since 1999.
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