Dorothee Soelle, the 'political conscience' of Protestantism, dies at 73

May 5, 2003

Dorothee Soelle, a German Protestant theologian who died recently at the age of 73, was a controversial figure in her own church but attracted a large following by combining Christian mysticism and radical political commitment.

'She was and remains the political conscience of Protestantism,' said Maria Jepsen, the Lutheran bishop of Hamburg, where Soelle lived, the German Protestant news agency epd reported.

The author of more than 30 books, Soelle attracted hundreds, and sometimes thousands, to public gatherings in Germany and beyond. Her radicalism and many themes in her early works prefigured the later development of feminist theology.

Soelle never held a full professorship at a German university. Some said it was because of her support for left-wing political causes, such as opposition to the Vietnam war and support for the peace movement. From 1975 to 1987 she spent six months each year in New York as professor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary.

'She was genuinely and deeply rooted in the spiritual tradition of the Christian church and intensely engaged in the struggle for justice,' said the Rev. Konrad Raiser, general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC).

Born in Cologne in 1929, Soelle developed a massive following at the time of the student revolt in West Germany. With Fulbert Steffensky, a Benedictine monk she later married, she founded in 1968 the Politisches Nachtgebet in Cologne, late-evening prayers linking spirituality and politics in churches that became full to overflowing.

'It was the first time, in this form, that conflictual political issues were used as the focus of attention in a context of liturgical celebration and prayer,' noted Raiser, who was then a university assistant in Germany and remembers Soelle from that time.

In 1983 an invitation to be one of the main speakers at the WCC assembly in Vancouver offered Soelle a wider international stage. She opened her speech by saying, 'I speak to you as a woman from one of the wealthiest countries in the world; a country whose history is tainted with bloodshed and the stench of gas.' The offer of a platform to such a controversial figure also irritated leaders of her country's main Protestant body, the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD).

Still, in a tribute after her death, Manfred Kock, the EKD's current head, praised Soelle. Her teaching was no longer a 'marginal stance', said Kock. 'It is a significant part of our church, preserving it from pious exclusivenes

Related Topics: