The Berlin Wall, Shoe Boxes, and Other Symbols in Ecumenical Liturgy

As chairman of the ecumenical commission of our diocese of Innsbruck, Austria, I am regularly involved in the preparation of the main ecumenical service in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. As always, I had a first look at the Order of Service as it was sent out to the entire world from a group of the World Council of Churches. Exactly 500 years after the beginning of the Lutheran reformation it was no surprise that a German group would do that work for 2017.

The material is published on the WCC’s website (PDF).

My reaction? Frustrated. Almost every year a highly motivated group from somewhere in the world uses their chance to put as much content as possible into that service. Which means: Way too much. Here in Innsbruck, we always take the Scripture readings, try to find a good preacher (preferably someone who has experience in a field mentioned in the service or in the country that prepared it), then we have a look at all the other parts of the service and select one or two of them. And of course the opening, blessing, Creed, Intercessory Prayer and Lord’s Prayer.

One thing in the 2017 service bothers me the most, and I think this has much to do with how I understand the role of creation and matter in liturgy. Have a look at pp. 9–10 and 12–14 in the file: During the service a wall is supposed to be built up and then – later in the service – teared town. This is meant to represent the Berlin Wall which is meant to represent separation among people or churches. Furthermore, the wall is meant to represent confession of sins within and between the separated churches. This symbolic and ambiguous wall is made of 12 symbolic stones. But instead of real stones we shall use “shoe boxes” or “transport boxes”, “covered in packing paper”. Each of these boxes has a “key term” written on its front side, such as “lack of love”, “false accusation”, “intolerance”, and so on. During the confession rite each “stone” is verbally explained (“one stone in our wall is ‘lack of love'”) and then built up.

Later in the service, the wall is dismantled and rearranged in the form of a cross.

Sins symbolized by stones symbolized by boxes explained by written words explained by spoken words.

This is exactly what liturgy is not. If a symbol needs explanation, the symbol itself is unnecessary. Liturgy is not a lecture explaining anything. Liturgy is experience. If you want to make an experience with stones, don’t use boxes wrapped in paper. Use stones. Stoney matter bears a meaning in itself, such as bread, water, an immersion, a hug, or a kiss does. If you want the congregation to make the experience of tearing down a wall, do not rearrange shoe boxes step by step. Tear down a wall. And if you really want to do that in our baroque cathedral, you need very good artists and performers. I don’t say it is impossible, but it needs highly professional artistic skills.

Well, we had an inspiring discussion about the service, but eventually I managed to convince my Lutheran, Old Catholic, Serbian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox and Roman Catholic colleagues to focus our ecumenical service on the readings from the Scripture, a good homily, and prayer for unity. No shoe boxes. No packing paper. No explanations. No Berlin Wall in Austria. No symbols for symbols for symbols.


  1. Pink Floyd did this in the 80s with their opera ‘The Wall’. This was also a monument to angst, yet the music, as can be expected, was good. But I think the theatricals, perhaps original in concept, distracted from the show. From my experiences in Universa Laus, I always felt that the German contingent were still a little too preoccupied with angst. This is not the firm foundation Martin Luther envisaged in his bold critiques of Rome. Let walls be bygones because they are not universal symbols. Lesson 101 in Semiotics.

  2. This is a wonderful reflection, and I could not agree more with the points raised about the very nature of symbols, and the use of genuine materials. I’ve been to any number of worship services that are like this, usually (though not always) prepared by people who are from the free church tradition who are interested in performing arts, or those who are engaged in the “emergent church” movement. For me, they remind me of prayer services we had at high school retreats, or in schools. Very earnest, often with a good point in mind, yet ultimately didactic. The fact that such services are never the same twice in a row (a strong presumption for those who believe that repetition or any type of ritual makes prayer inauthentic) is something I find wearying, yet who would want to build and disassemble a cardboard wall (or any other kind) repeatedly? The very idea proclaims itself as a one-time event. Whereas the elements you mention: the scripture, the preaching, the prayers, admit of endless variety within a structure that is repeated. This has a genius of its own.

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