September 2009


So, the Sun newspaper has decided to switch its allegiance and back the Tories in the next General Election. I guess they’ll be hoping to repeat their ‘It’s the Sun wot won it’ headline from Tony Blair’s triumph way back in 1997.

It won’t come as any surprise that I have no affection for the Sun at all – on two grounds: (a) I am a Scouser and I remember Hillsborough very well; and (b) it’s owned by Rupert Murdoch – whose son recently exposed the values of the family business.

Hillsborough disaster

In Helmut Schmidt’s wise reminiscences over a lifetime in public office and publishing, Ausser Dienst, he makes the following comment about what connects politicians and journalists (my rough translation):

Politicians and journalists live in an antagonistic symbiosis: one can’t live without the other. But they don’t particularly like each other and they observe each other with a mutual and deep suspicion. Yet they have at least two things in common. First, they have to speak or write today about subjects and issues that they won’t adequately understand until tomorrow or the day after; secondly, they are required to fascinate their audience at any one time. So, both professions are subject to the temptations – be they a glance at opinion polls or a look at the numbers. Both are part of the political class, but both professions contain the spectrum from statesmen to delinquents. (p.30)

I thought this was an interesting observation at a time when politicians are smelling the gaining or loss of power and when the newspapers, losing readers by the day, are attempting to increase and exercise their (waning?) influence over the political processes.

It can only be hoped that the British people might be mature enough to make up their own minds and to bring to what they read a critical eye that asks the questions of editorial motive, selectivity and fundamental assumptions.

Perhaps we do need to compel every child to do Media Studies after all – just in order to enable them to take an intelligent and informed part in the democratic process…

Well, I can tell you what it isn’t – according to Helmut Schmidt (former Bundeskanzler in West Germany) in his wonderful book Ausser Dienst. He says this on page 28 of the German edition:

Tradition ist etwas Wichtiges, aber es ist nicht der Hauptzweck des Lebens. (Tradition is something important, but it isn’t the main purpose of life.)

He is actually talking about the tradition he inherited when he left public office and moved into publishing with the great German newspaper, Die ZEIT. But his comments put very succinctly something that bugs me and has done for a very long time.

I grew up in a Baptist church in Liverpool. (Obviously, I grew up in a house with my family, but you know what I mean.) We prided ourselves on having no regard for tradition or liturgy … like those Anglicans down the road who probably weren’t Christians anyway.

But, of course, we did have traditions – inherited ones we revered and assumed to be sacrosanct. They had to do with particular theologies, particular ways of reading the Bible and understanding history and the church. And we did have liturgies … well, just one, really. Every service was the same-ish in the journey on which it took us and it was not hard to predict who would do what in which order and using which words.

Human beings are by nature traditional. We build today on what and whom have gone before us. We make unconscious assumptions about what we regard as essential, useful and desireable in life and they become part of the ‘backstory’ that gives us our identity now.

So, I don’t have a problem with traditions or how to maintain them when they are worth maintaining. I do have a real problem, however, with the sort of people and churches who claim not to have traditions (or ‘be traditional’) or who pretend not to be ‘liturgical’ when it takes only ten minutes of being in a service to work out what actually is going on, who is in control and what the likely future journey will be.

Just admit it: we are liturgical and traditional beings. No shame in being honest about the human condition.

The former Bishop of Sheffield, Jack Nicholls, is a wonderful man. While sitting on a commission with him (and others) for two years at the end of the 1990s, I learned a huge amount about humility, humanity and humour from him.

Jack NichollsHe is speaking at the Southwark Diocesan Clergy Conference at Swanwick and he has already made a huge impression on people here. This evening he spoke – as requested to do so – about what has sustained him through 42 years of ordained ministry in the Church of England. He did so by citing six people who have shaped him and one in particular is going to get to a wider audience now.

A now-deceased nun told him many years ago that there are only three things to be involved with as a priest:

  • the praise of God
  • the pain of the world
  • the repentance of the church.

He went on to say that the place and purpose of prayer is to locate us at the place where the love of God and the pain of the world meet … which happens to be where the cross is to be found.

Churches that emphasise their praise of God without being rooted in and brought into the pain of the world and its people are living the sort of fantasy that the prophet Amos railed against in the Old Testament. The church needs to be constantly repentant because we keep focusing on the wrong things and failing to resemble the one whose name we bear: the Jesus we read about in the gospels. As I said in Berlin yesterday: if the church does not look, sound and feel like the Jesus of the gospels, then we are a fraud and a lie.

Jack clearly built his ministry on those three blocks. So, should the rest of us?

Helmut SchmidtWhile in Germany the other day I picked up a copy of Helmut Schmidt‘s latest (and probably last) book, Ausser Dienst: Eine Bilanz. Basically, it is a collection of ruminations 25 years after leaving office as Bundeskanzler in the Federal Republic of Germany. Schmidt was Bundeskanzler from 1974-1982 and was, to my mind at least, one of the greatest politicians of the post-war years. As well as being probably one of the most intelligent politicians of his generation, he was also a generous and always interesting man. He also managed to keep Margaret Thatcher in check.

In the introduction to his book of reminiscences the chain-smoking 91 year-old (whom I managed to miss when he did a long session at the Kirchentag in Bremen last May – many went to see if he could manage to last a whole two hours in a hall where smoking was banned) says:

Now approaching the end of my life, I simply wanted to put in writing what I believe I have learned politically in the course of the decades I have served.

He left public office in 1987 after three decades as (what we would call in Britain) an MP. So, his reflections and reminiscences bring with them an authority and wisdom that need to be taken seriously. It seems to me that every politician should be forced to read this book … and Denis Healey’s wonderful The Time of my Life.

Here Schmidt discusses the need for politicians to learn the art of compromise and tolerance, observing that the responsibility of a politician is not abstract, but has to be worked out in very real and complex situations. He makes comments about the need for all politicians to do two things before taking public office: (a) travel widely and (b) learn at least two foreign languages. Can you imagine any British or American politician taking that seriously? Yet he is absolutely spot on.

To learn a language is to enter beneath the surface of a people, their history and their culture. It is necessary to learn a language in order to understand how relatively limited is your own culture and understanding of the world. Schmidt handled the British media and people like Margaret Thatcher with consummate ease, speaking English with a rare skill for semantic nuance and shaming the linguistically-challenged British by his unshowy facility to understand the British mindset – even when he clearly thought he was dealing with rather limited intellects.

Whenever I am abroad I feel rather ashamed at my weakness in languages. Compared to what it should be, my German is now not very good. But, I cannot forget the experience of learning French from an early age (but never practicing it) and, later, Russian as an adult and professional linguist. As you learn the language and explore the history and culture of a people, you begin to understand why they think the way they do. You begin to loook through their eyes and comprehend why the world looks as it does from their perspective.

So, why, I ask, are languages relegated to the second division of the English school curriculum? Why are we so stupid as to allow children to drop all foreign languages at the age of 14? Do we not realise that not only do they lose the opportunity I have just described of entering into the soul of another people and, therefore, finding a new way of reflecting on their own identity, but they also put themselves at a massive disadvantage when it comes to making their way in the world of work and business? If young children in some of my Croydon schools can have an easy facility with several languages – of which English might be their third – why can’t English children surmount their island mentality and manage at least one foreign language to some degree of articulacy?

Schmidt says this (in my translation):

My many travels have confirmed for me just how important it is to observe your own country from the outside and to compare its institutions and laws with those of another state.

Reading that on the flight back from Berlin last night, I reflected that the same is true of the Church. When I listen to some Christians extolling the virtues of the Reformers in Europe (usually very selectively), I smile to think how they would react if they saw what that reformed tradition actually looks like in reality. We all need to see through the eyes of others and be willing to see our own certainties differently as a result.

But, as Schmidt suggests in his wonderful, wise and very personal book, to see through the eyes of others is dangerous: you might end up being more generous to them and more critical of your own.

And that would never do – would it?

… which, of course, is the title of a Leonard Cohen song – best version by Jennifer Warnes.

In England we have this rather sad envy of all things German. In Germany – so the story goes – everything is top quality, everything works as it is supposed to work, the trains run on time and they all speak English anyway.

Well, they do ‘do’ quality – just look at their buildings. Everything works everywhere – and, if it doesn’t, they put it right very quickly. Most speak English – which can be a little frustrating if you want to work on your German. But – and it is with some relief and a certain Schadenfreude that I report this – the trains no longer run on time.

Or, at least, mine didn’t yesterday. The Deutsche Bundesbahn was late!

September 2009 011I took part in the final ‘pilgrimage’ walk with 1000 people through Kassel, concluding with me and Carla Maurer (from Switzerland and on the right of the picture) sending people on their way home with God’s blessing. This final event also involved Bishop Wolfgang Huber and the President of Germany, Horst Koehler and his wife. So, I sat with them on the stage, had a good conversation with them afterwards (in which I suggested he didn’t come to Berlin Cathedral on Sunday morning) and then had coffee with friends before catching the fast train to Berlin.

September 2009 012

It took 90 minutes longer than it should have done. By the time we got into Berlin I had missed the lecture I had planned to go to at the Humboldt University by Professor Dr Christoph Schwoebel. That’s ninety minutes late! So, I checked into the hotel, got a meal and had an early night.

September 2009 013This morning I was preaching at the Berliner Dom and I have worried about this for weeks – probably annoying everyone else by moaning about it too openly. In Kassel a good friend of mine, Christoph Roemhild, helped me with the German; so I was able to mount the extraordinarily enormous and intimidating pulpit with more confidence than I deserved. There was a congregation of (so I was told) around 700. I preached on the raising of Lazarus (you can read the basic text on the Berliner Dom website) and when I finished there was spontaneous applause. That has never happened to me before. I think they were so relieved it was over that they couldn’t contain themselves.

The service was wonderful and nearly had me in tears. The choir and orchestra led the setting by Johann Sebastian Bach and the service was led by the Dompredigerin, Frau Petra Zimmermann, and the EKD Bishop for Ecumenical and Foreign Affairs, Martin Schindehuette.

This service was, however, more than an opportunity to hear an Englishman speak German in public – which is usually good for a laugh. It represented yet another opportunity for German and English Christians to worship and serve together. This month represents a number of anniversaries: 70 years after the outbreak of the Second World War; 60 years of the German Constitution (Grundgesetz); 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall; and almost 20 years of the Meissen Agreement (bringing together the German Protestant Church and the Church of England in a common service of the people of Europe).

In my sermon I did draw attention to the fact that much of the reconciliation after the war was only possible because of the readiness of the churches to admit guilt, reach out and provide a rationale and locus for forgiveness, reconciliation and hope. We take it for granted now, but I found myself deeply moved by the unity we demonstrated and genuinely felt as we worshipped together this morning.

September 2009 014While waiting for the bus to the airport (where I am writing this) I looked again at the Berlin television tower – an embarrassment to the East German authorities during the Communist years. Every time the sun shone on it, the reflection took the form of a cross!

Incidentally, the reason I advised the German President to worship elsewhere this morning was because it is Election Day in Germany and he told me he would normally go to church before voting. I thought he might prefer to hear a German sermon rather than an outsider’s ruminations. I hope he had a good morning – he is a very nice man.

I am back in Germany for a few days. The EKD (the German Protestant Church) – which is more fun than it sounds – is going through a process of reform in order to re-shape the church for the next few decades. This began in 2006 with a conference in Wittenberg and has been driven with determination and vision by the soon-to-retire top bishop of the EKD, Wolfgang Huber. The conference this time is in Kassel and has brought together over 1200 people from all over Germany – and it is excellent.

kircheimaufbruchekdThe Germans also know how to do hospitality. The food and drink is wonderful and they attend to minute details in making sure everything works and everyone is comfortable. I am here to represent the Church of England as an ecumenical partner and have spent the whole of today taking part in discussions and addresses. Unfortunately, my German is struggling with the complicated stuff and, although I understand everything, I do have to think hard when speaking. (Which wasn’t a problem during the evening awards dinner where the wine flowed like the Rhine…)

Martin LutherThe EKD launched this visionary and very brave exercise in reforming itself, with a view to celebrating in 2017 the 500th anniversary of the Reformation started by Martin Luther when he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg. This time a full programme has seen celebration go with worship, wine with serious engagement with the contemporary challenges for the church in Germany and in Europe, and a market place of what we in England would probably call ‘fresh expressions of church’. Creativity is being encouraged and – believe it or not – the Church of England’s experience is regarded here as exemplary.

Of the many impressions and lessons, three things stand out for me:

1. Bishop Huber spoke in his opening address of what he called ‘mentale Gefangenschaften’ – mental imprisonments. One of the things that I brought into today’s session was the assumption that anything we start must have the potential to last for ever. But the church needs to find the courage to start initiatives, let them run for a while and then kill them or move on. The second example I used was the fear of failure. We must encourage churches to take risks and not fear failure. I, as a bishop, will never refrain from supporting a church that takes a risk and fails; I worry more about those that try to play everything safe. Or, as an Austrian bishop put it this evening: ‘Too many churches fears disappearing less than they fear change.’

Huber2. Many Protestant churches in Europe are small. This means that their voice is hard to get heard in the cacophany of voices in the public square. The churches in Europe need each other to offer a combined voice on matters of huge importance in Europe such as assisted suicide, economics, ecology, etc. Christians are for ever whingeing about the way the world is going, but have no idea what to do about it. Well, the message here is clear: swallow your pride and join with others (whether you agree with every jot and tittle of their theology or not) as Christian churches with a common task.

A wonderful young woman from Switzerland made this clear in a very strong critique of the input at this afternoon’s forum on ecumenical matters. One of the things that worries me about the fragmentation of English Christians into new alignments such as New Wine, etc. is that they don’t contribute to a Christian coalition on these matters of massive human and social import beyond the church – they fragment our voice. This is not a criticism of New Wine or any other renewal movement in the Church for what they do do, but simply a way of asking a question about whether our preoccupation with our church brand keeps us singing spiritual songs while the world goes to pot for want of a coherent and united Christian voice.

3. The young Swiss woman, Carla Maurer, took me to task for speaking of ‘a cacophany of voices in the public square’ and challenged us (older generations) to accept the fact that the world has changed: that people like her are now citizens of Europe who embrace eclecticism and diversity. She called for the churches to prioritise what she called in German ‘Chaoskompetenz’ – an ability to cope with, live with and master ‘chaos’. She is right.

Perhaps I might add a fourth thing that impressed me. The Book of the Year award by the EKD for 2009 went to a retired pastor called Christian Fuhrer who opened his church in Leipzig to the opposition movement in the 1980s. He is a humble and unassuming man with a backbone of steel when it comes to his conviction about what is right and wrong – and what the Christian’s responsibility is. In his autobiography, Und wir sind dabei gewesen, (And we were there) he records the events that led to the peaceful challenge to and downfall of Communism and the obscene Berlin Wall in East Germany in 1989. It is increasingly common these days to read about these events as if they were the result of post-Enlightenment rationalist inevitability – and forget that the Christian churches offered the space, the consistently intellectual rigour, the moral courage, the political encouragement and the spiritual vision that led to those remarkable days 20 years ago when the world changed for the better.

Tomorrow we finish here in Kassel with a Reisesegen – a journey of blessing. Several thousand people will walk through Kassel, stopping to pray and meditate on the Church’s vocation in the world. Then I will give the final blessing in the company of the German President Horst Koehler and the head of the EKD. Then I get the train to Berlin to catch the end of an academic conference on the Reformation and preach in Berlin Cathedral at an ecumenical service on Sunday morning.

What is a ‘friend’? I know that sounds a stupid question on the face of it, but it is bugging me.

We’ve just been having conversations about contemporary culture in Germany and England and the pressures facing (particularly) young people in societies that are changing rapidly. It has been an informed, challenging and stimulating conversation – it always is when you engage with people from a different culture – and I have more questions than answers. But, then I came across the Guardian article about a Japanese guy who runs an agency for providing ‘rent-a-friend’ facilities for lonely Japanese.

FriendsWell, given Japanese culture and some of the factors mentioned in the article, the creation of a false friend agency might not be totally surprising – even if it is somewhat depressing. But this chimed in with something we were talking about during the Communications Conference in Rome last week: why does Facebook tell you you have ‘friends’ when they are nothing of the sort?

At best most of them are virtual acquaintances. And what sort of friendship do we encourage when we use the word ‘friend’ to describe a relationship in which you can simply delete someone who offends or bores you? How does that help grow people to work at relationships, cope with disappointment, learn to forgive and be forgiven, and so on?

I realise this is sounds like miserable nostalgia-seeking. However, I am not against new ways of building communities or getting people to relate to each other. Indeed, I think new media and social networking facilities are opening up all sorts of new possibilities for relating. But I am not sure that diluting notions of friendship by the shallow use of the word ‘friend’ in such fickle contexts is helpful to concepts of healthy relationships.

facebookI guess I am saying that a friend has to be known. And you can’t know someone you don’t know – or can easily dismiss if the relationship ceases to please you.

So, we shouldn’t sneer at the Japanese initiative unless we also address the weaknesses in our own culture.

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