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.
The 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…)
The 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.’
2. 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.