Obituary: Bishop Gottfried Forck

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The Independent Online
Soon after the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, Kurt Scharf, Bishop of the United Protestant Church of the Province of Berlin-Brandenburg, was exiled by the East German government to West Berlin, where he remained as a bishop of great distinction. The Communist rulers could not stomach this straight-talking churchman with a passionate commitment to human rights.

The eastern part of the Province was thereby forced to find a new leader and no doubt wise to elect, in Albrecht Schonherr, an astute diplomat to steer the Church through the next 20 turbulent years. He was no fellow traveller, no apologist for Honecker's Soviet satellite, but with him discretion proved to be the better part of valour. His skilful diplomacy assured the Church not only of survival but of a higher public profile than many had thought possible.

But by 1981, when Schonherr retired, the mood had changed. All the hopes of real reform had come to nothing. The signs of stagnation and decay were increasingly obvious, though no one could predict that Communist power would not outlast the decade. What the Church now wanted was an outspoken leader more like Kurt Scharf.

In Gottfried Forck they found him: unassuming, undiplomatic, no careful tactitian, but a deeply believing liberal evangelical with an unswerving commitment to a more just society. He did not stand on ceremony and was never to be seen in the frock coat and winged collar of a traditional Lutheran bishop.

He was no uncritical admirer of the West; his heart was with the grassroots dissidents who dreamed of a radically reformed East Germany. When their leaders went to prison, he was the first to spring to their defence. In appointing as his personal assistant Michael Passauer, for many years the trusted pastor to East Berlin's angry young Christians, he left no one in any doubt as to whose side he was on. So trusted was he by the democratic opposition who, before German unification, were to become East Germany's first and only freely elected government, that he was offered the post of State President. He turned it down; the post was left unfilled. Forck was a priest, not a politician; an East Ger- man Tutu, though without the flamboyant charisma.

Born in 1923 in Ilmenau in the Province of Thuringia, the heartland of Lutheran tradition, a parson's son, he grew up in Hamburg, was drafted into the navy and, as an officer, became an American prisoner of war. Released in 1947, he read Theology in West Germany at Bethel and Heidelberg, where he gained a doctorate in 1956. By this time he had already volunteered for the much harder life of the East.

His first post was as chaplain to East Berlin University. After that came parish ministry, followed by nine years as head of a theological college and a further eight as Assistant Bishop (Superintendent-General) of the Cottbus region. It was with some reluctance that he allowed his name to go forward for what was, in effect, the most important bishopric in the country. His quiet good-humour notwithstanding, he never ceased to see this task as a heavy burden. He bore it with grace, but as life in East Germany became ever more intolerable, with increasing impatience. He did not hide his anger.

Young Christians were in revolt against East German militarism. The police pulled them in for wearing "swords to ploughshares" badges and threatened them with expulsion from school. So Forck walked to his office with the offensive badge on his briefcase. The police backed down. They no longer had the self-confidence to arrest the Bishop of Berlin or to expel him like Kurt Scharf. When, in 1987, a number of prominent dissidents were arrested he used all his influence to save them from a long sentence or - what they feared most - exile to West Germany. In three cases he asked me, might not the Church of England invite them for a period of study in Britain? This the Communist authorities might accept, and give them the right to return. And that is what happened. One of them, who studied for a year in Cambridge, is now a Member of Parliament in Bonn.

At a meeting of his trusted Catholic and Protestant friends in Michael Passauer's flat, a few months before the wall came down (I had the privilege to be present as the only foreign guest), he openly stated that critical solidarity with the status quo was no longer a legitimate Christian option. Before most others, he had read the writing on the wall. Had his words reached the Stasi, he might still have faced a charge of treason. He knowingly took that risk.

Gottfried Forck had deplored the exodus of East Germans to West Germany and castigated Bonn for encouraging it, but at the same time, characteristically, defended their right to go, a right denied by the very existence of the Berlin Wall. Despite all that, Forck was not by nature a political bishop. It was his pastoral care for people, his perceived duty as a bisbop that drove him to make many a stand.

It was equally characteristic that when the peaceful revolution succeeded and the Communist Party chief Honecker was imprisoned and then released because he was too ill to stand trial, Forck provided him with refuge in a church home. He pleaded that the officers of the Stasi who had so often made his life a misery, should now be treated with generosity and not revenge. He showed no trace of bitterness.

And he continued to defend East German interests in the face of what now felt like an insensitive takeover by the West. Many of the values the Church had fought for in the East were now threatened, he feared, by the worship of the new golden calf, the all-powerful Deutschmark.

His personal life had been happy and fulfilled. Of his five children four are musicians, reflecting Gottfried Forck's own love of music. His first wife died in 1988. On his retirement in 1991 he moved to the small town of Rheinsberg, of literary fame, and married the local parson, the Pastorin, a former pupil, and until cancer laid him low he worked happily as her honorary curate. He was more in his element there than in the world of great affairs to which he had contributed so richly.

My last meeting with Gottfried Forck was on his last holiday, a visit to London this summer with his young wife to visit one of his musical children. He was at his happiest at a candle-lit concert at St Martin-in-the-Fields. On one of London's rare Mediterranean nights we then sat until well after midnight in Covent Garden Market, charmed by French waitresses and animated by French wine. That is how I shall remember him.

Gottfried Forck, pastor: born Ilmenau, Thuringia 6 October 1923; Chaplain, East Berlin Univerity 1954-59; Principal, Brandenburg Theological Seminary 1963-72; Superintendent-General, Cottbus 1973-81; Bishop of (East) Berlin- Brandenburg 1981-91; married 1956 Renate Falkenroth (died 1988; three sons, two daughters), 1991 Beatrix Zastrow; died Rheinsberg 24 December 1996.