In Lower Saxony, the Protestant and Catholic churches want to take a fundamentally new approach to religious education. In the future, instead of separate Protestant and Catholic instruction, there will be joint "Christian religious instruction" in all types of schools. A proposal to this effect was presented on Wednesday by the five Protestant regional churches and three Catholic dioceses in the state, which now want to enter into talks with the red-black state government.
The consultation process is to last a year. Teachers and parent representatives are also to be involved. The new teaching could then be introduced from the 2023/24 school year. The churches involved want to create an ecumenical structure for this, which will develop joint curricula and allow textbooks and courses of study.
With this project, the two large churches are responding to growing difficulties in school practice. Denominational religious education has constitutional status as a regular school subject under Article 7(3) of the Basic Law. Accordingly, religious instruction is given under the supervision of the state, but "in accordance with the principles of the religious communities." This provision is intended to ensure the ideological neutrality of state schools.
As long as most students were either Protestant or Catholic, this system worked in schools. However, the increasing religious plurality of the student body is creating more and more challenges for denominational religious education, because classes have to be divided into smaller and smaller groups. In addition to religious instruction by the two major churches, there is increasing demand for ethics instruction and, more recently, Islamic instruction.
The three smaller states of Bremen, Hamburg and Brandenburg have therefore had different models for joint instruction for years. In school practice, however, ideological instruction is often given to the entire class group in other states, contrary to the rules that apply there.
In order to reduce the pressure of problems, the churches in states such as Baden-Württemberg, North Rhine-Westphalia and also Lower Saxony have been relying for some time on denominationally cooperative religious education. This means that the classes of one major Christian denomination are also attended by students of the other denomination. In Lower Saxony, according to unofficial estimates, about 40 percent of religious education is already taught in this way, with an upward trend. However, there is resistance to this model from conservative Catholic dioceses. In North Rhine-Westphalia, the archdiocese of Cologne refuses this ecumenical cooperation.
In Lower Saxony, the churches now want to go one step further and develop their respective religious education programs into joint "Christian religious education" programs. This is possible because the dioceses of Hildesheim, Osnabrück and Münster are clearly more open to ecumenism than the archdiocese of Cologne or some Bavarian dioceses. On the Protestant side, the plan is supported by the five Lower Saxony state churches of Hanover, Oldenburg, Brunswick, Schaumburg-Lippe and the Reformed Church.
The push originates from the circle of church school officers at the state level. The Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) and the German Bishops' Conference (DBK) were only marginally involved in the deliberations. Kerstin Gäfgen-Track, a member of the Higher Regional Church Council in Hanover, said that they were, however, eager to hear the "nationwide discussion" about the proposal. The head of the education department in the diocese of Hildesheim, Jörg-Dieter Wächter, said that one had first positioned oneself on the state level. He added that the German Bishops' Conference would be happy to participate in the further discussion.
The background to these statements are different orientations. The EKD and DBK are pursuing the interest of defending the previous model of religious education and want to avoid an even greater patchwork. The push from Lower Saxony shows that many school officials at the state level now consider this effort futile. They are pressing for rapid changes to reduce the pressure of problems in school practice.
Photo by Patrick Fore