It has been a while since I wrote anything remotely useful here. It wasn't for lack of interest, just too many sermons, addresses and writings to do amid a relentlessly unforgiving diary. Add to that conferences and travel and my brain got dimmer than it usually is. Then add to that silly enquiries about who the next Archbishop of Canterbury will be (how should I know – I'm not on the Crown Nominations Commission), and silence might be understandable.

Anyway, I have escaped Blighty for a few days with the Meissen Commission in Eisenach, Germany. We meet once each year as a joint commission, alternately in England and Germany, and three times a year in national committees. I love it – the best, most enjoyable and stimulating ecumenical thingy going.

I have never been to Eisenach before. Johann Sebastian Bach was baptised here in the Georgenkirche (where I will be preaching on Sunday morning before returning to Bradford). Martin Luther preached here. But, more importantly, it was here – in the Wartburg – on the hill that he lobbed a bottle of ink at the devil while holed up for his own protection. He spent from May 1521 until March 1522 there – after he had been taken there for his safety at the request of Frederick the Wise following his excommunication by Pope Leo X and his refusal to recant at the Diet of Worms. It was during this stay that Luther (under the name of Junker Jörg) translated the New Testament into German.

And here it is – as seen from my bedroom window:

Our agenda is concentrating on education, music and keeping up to speed with developments in the Church of England (not a lot going on, really) and the EKD (lots going on…). Taking a long view while physically distant from home is always helpful, so we will make the most of our few days together in this very beautiful place.

I can't see me lobbing bottles of ink at anyone, but they might lob them at me when I preach on Sunday.

More anon.

 

I don't know why I keep agreeing to do this.

A week tomorrow I will be with the Meissen Commission in Eisenach in Germany. I have agreed to preach at the morning service in the Georgenkirche – where Johann Sebastian Bach was once the Kantor and Martin Luther preached. It is their harvest festival, but also the first in this year's series of sermons on the Reformation Decade themes. That's all OK, but I am doing it in German and I always agonise during preparation over how to say it without sounding hopelessly inarticulate.

Fortunately, we have a young German student staying with us and she has agreed to help me sound less stupid in her native language.

Actually, apart from quoting Bruce Cockburn at the end (I bet you didn't see that one coming…), it isn't hard to bring together harvest, creation, gratitude, ethics, music and metaphor in one narrative. But, it has reminded me (yet again) of the inextricable connection between worship and ethics: don't sing one thing and live another. Try Amos for what happens when we bear God's name and then institutionalise injustice and corruption.

In a week that saw further calls for justice to follow truth (Hillsborough), an appeal by certain football managers to end celebrations of innocent victimhood, further admissions of abuse by churches, police officers murdered in Manchester and violence erupting around the world because of bad film, a reconnection of the songs we sing with the ethics we enshrine seems all the more essential.

 

The Archbishop of York preached at an ecumenical service in the Frauenkirche in Dresden this morning. This service marked the conclusion of the German celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Meissen Agreement in 1991 (obviously). It also marked the end of the Delegation Visit. We were in Meissen yesterday.

However, it wasn’t all about partying. We also had work to do and this time the theme was ‘visitation’ – which sounds unbelievably dull until you get into it. The basic question is: how do our churches provide for effective pastoral supervision and support of clergy and parishes? In both the Landeskirchen of the EKD and the dioceses of the Church of England part of the bishop’s role is to find a way of encouraging and challenging clergy and local parishes. The genius is in getting the balance right between the encouragement and the challenge.

The Germans contributing to this visit described a very thoroughly worked out approach to visitation, instigated by the bishop, but involving a team of people. Lots of paperwork is required before the team visits and meets with people involved in church and local life. Reports are written afterwards, with an emphasis on the local church identifying it’s priorities for the next five or ten years. It clearly involves a huge amount of time and resource.

This process was described at one point as ‘pulling the cupboard away from the wall and seeing where the spiders are hiding. The process leads to some clergy deciding their future ministry lies elsewhere; some parishes decide they need a change of minister. Most, however, find the whole process constructive, helpful, encouraging and challenging because it compels them to examine their corporate life and ‘own’ its future shape and direction.

In the Church of England ‘visitation’ is driven by the bishop and archdeacon. We try to minimise the bureaucracy and maximise the impact, but there is no single, simple way of doing it across the country.

The interesting point here, however, is not the specifics of how visitation is done in a particular Landeskirche or diocese, but, rather, how the exercise of thinking about it away from home – and seeing it through the eyes and experience of another culture – is immensely helpful. I might have been away from Bradford for four days, but the benefit for the Diocese of Bradford comes from the bishop thinking through how to shape the pastoral care, support, encouragement of and challenge to clergy and parishes from 2012 onwards. Amid the sheer busyness of normal life in Bradford it is hard to take a step back and think clearly; thinking with others in Dresden has been very useful and stimulating.

Basically, it looks like this. I have so far visited six out of the eight Deaneries in the Diocese of Bradford – the last two will follow before Christmas. Having by then met all the clergy and seen many of the churches and parishes, how do I best ensure from 2012 that I and my colleagues know the clergy and the contexts in which they work? What sort of achievable and manageable structure of regular visitation will help the clergy and parishes best whilst also keeping me up to speed with developments? How do I best support what is going on in the parishes?

Some see any such thinking about visitation as threatening. Indeed, we asked the Germans how these visitations are regarded by their clergy and churches: most welcome it because (a) it means they are being taken seriously, (b) it means they will get a reality check with the help of people who see from a different perspective, (c) it will force some strategic thinking, (d) it will raise confidence in the ability of the bishop to understand the realities of the particular parish’s life, and (e) it will ensure that accountability is taken seriously on all fronts.

But, some will see it as some sort of Ofsted inspection from hierarchy.

It seems to me that good management and supervision equals good pastoral care. Such visitations – however they are shaped – brings the benefit of an outside eye and must be essentially supportive. Which is the same principle as coming away and looking through the eyes of another group in order to better see and understand what is going on at home.

I am in Dresden for a Meissen Delegation Visit with the Archbishop of York until Sunday. I am the Anglican Co-chair of the Meissen Commission which handles relations between the EKD and the Church of England since 1991.

Apart from the hard work on theological and practical issues, we have also had some fun. This evening we attended a brilliant organ concert at the incomparable Frauenkirche – the church the Allies destroyed during WW2 and in which I delivered a Bible Study during the Kirchentag last May.

I am not a great fan of organ music, but this exposition of JS Bach’s Die Kunst Der Fuge (14 fugues and 4 Canons) played to a packed house by the Frauenkirchenorganist Samuel Kummer was just brilliant. Organists must be the best musicians there are – they have to use so many fingers and toes – and this performance was mesmerising.

It made me think about the importance of ‘live’ music. Like with preaching, it is the event itself that defines the performance and content. Recorded music is wonderful, but the live event is by definition unrepeatable, utterly unique, of the moment. It is risky – anything could happen and anything could go wrong, especially in something so long and complex as the Bachzyklus XVIII.

Why were there hundreds of people in the church, many of them young and including a number of children? What on earth brings such a cross-section of humanity to a church to listen to an organ that is so high up that you cannot see the organist anyway? Why bother to turn out on a cold night to listen to something you could hear on a CD in the warmth and comfort of your own lounge – and probably for the same price?

The answer is probably complex. But, the combination of architecture, ambience, the shared experience, the live nature of the event, the atmosphere and the sheer artistry all combine to draw people to experience something unique and uniquely beautiful. You just can’t imitate in your living room the volume and nature of a major organ played in a vast and beautiful space.

It is a pity that the ‘event’ is so easily traded for a lesser, more accessible experience. I wonder if the experience of ‘live’ music is something that every child should be exposed to early on – something that should be commended and recommended to anyone wanting to know they are alive. And I wonder if people like me – those who preach, debate, communicate in a variety of media and contexts – need to make the ‘event’ so unique, so unmissable, so unrepeatable that curiosity and the need to discover one’s pulse will draw people to it?

Musings in Dresden after a long day.

Tomorrow we continue the business as we go to Meissen itself to begin celebrating 20 years of the Meissen Agreement. We end back at the Frauenkirche in Dresden on Sunday before the long journey back home.

There we are, trying not to be too complaining about everything, and the Guardian gets me going again.

Having moaned – with absolute legitimacy – about the state of language learning in England, I open today’s Guardian and find Simon Jenkins pressing another button: the history curriculum’s obsession with the Nazis.

Under the header ‘Britain’s Nazi obsession betrays our insecurity – it’s time we moved on’, Jenkins asks:

What is the matter with us? We seem unable to get the Nazis out of our system.

He goes on to put his finger on a point we in the Meissen Commission have been trying to address for several years:

Small wonder Hitler is now the ruling obsession of the national curriculum. I remember my son asking me, after a punishing term of the Weimar republic, if there was a second world war when was there a first? The GCSE history website scores 417,000 mentions of Hitler against just 157,000 for Henry VIII and the Tudors.

My own son managed to study history right through school and university, but it was only at uni that he managed to find an alternative to Hitler and Stalin.

Is it a mark of Britain’s insecurity that we can’t let Hitler go? Is it simply that 1945 was the last time we ‘won’ anything? Why when we play Germany at football do tabloids still do puns on Nazi imagery or football crowds sing such inanities as “Two world wars and one world cup – na na na na na.”?

The tragedy is that post-1945 Germany is an extraordinary story of division, political brinkmanship, economic re-engineering, social and psycho-social reconstruction, conflict, re-culturisation in Europe, and so on. If I didn’t like Berlin and Berliners so much, I would suggest that every school child in Britain should be taken to Berlin for a few days. Walk 100 metres down Unter den Linden to the Brandenburger Tor and you have to embrace language, history, geography, theology, economics and politics. You can’t understand German politics or culture without knowing history and how it has been shaped by theology.

The Meissen Commission is trying to address the English obsession with one exciting period of German history in two ways: (a) pressing for reform of the history curriculum in schools, and (b) embarking on what we are calling the Meissen Schools Initiative, aimed at establishing live links between schools in England and Germany.

Simon Jenkins concludes:

I must not fall foul of Godwin’s law, but the demands now being made of Germany “to show leadership” come with ghostly overtones of reparation for past guilt. Nothing is more likely to incur German resistance than to imply that rescuing Europe is somehow an obligation on a present generation of Germans for the deeds of a past one. Misreading Germany was a lethal failing of Europe’s 20th-century leaders. It is surely time to consign the Nazis not to oblivion but at least to history.

Like Jenkins, I suspect our obsession with Hitler and the Nazis is indeed a mark of our insecurity (or envy?). It is time we grew up.

The Meissen Commission finished its five-year work period on Monday and our report will now be completed and published in due course. The new Commission will begin work in the new year, completing its work in 2016 – leading into Germany’s Reformation Year, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.


In a podcast recorded at the German Embassy last Thursday evening I referred to the deplorable state of language teaching and learning in England. This was picked up by several newspapers and has gained some wider comment.

In fact, I wasn’t criticising teachers. Language teaching in our schools is heroic. But, many teachers feel they are fighting a losing battle against cultural and political forces that are rooted in an island mentality. We might understand the emphasis on science and technology in schools, but the relegation of language learning to a not-very-enthusiastically-encouraged poor option says much about the British understanding of identity, communication and business.

First, language learning is essential to a good and broad education. Simply to be able to read or listen in one’s own language is severely limiting to potential. As Helmut Schmidt wrote in his marvellous book Ausser Dienst, no politician should think of entering the Bundestag (Parliament) unless they speak at least two foreign languages to a competent degree. Why? Because, says Schmidt, you can’t understand your own culture unless you have looked at it through the eyes of another culture. And, to do that, you have to know something of the other language.

I said this to Ken Livingstone in a television studio last year and he laughed and said that we wouldn’t have any politicians in the UK. I thought that spoke volumes.

Second, we are disadvantaged in the business world with which we seem in this country to be obsessed. As I said in the podcast, business isn’t all done in English over the table; the real stuff goes on behind your back and if you can’t understand what they’re saying privately, you’re stuffed. It is appalling that we produce so few professional linguists, but – more seriously – we don’t produce ordinary business people who can cope with a foreign language.

Third, we Brits seem to find language learning too hard. Yet, we have Asian kids in our schools who move easily and unselfconsciously between two, three or four languages.

Fourth, we have a political class that is narrowly focused on an economic prejudice that concentrates on technique and technology as if they could stand independently of wider linguistic, communication or cultural factors. Language learning is being presented as less important than other studies, ignoring the importance not only of ‘knowing stuff’, but also ‘being able to communicate it’.

This isn’t special pleading by a one-time linguist. It stands for itself as an important cultural deficit in England. And, not only are we depriving our own children and young people of a vital dimension of human living, but also we are shrinking the cohort of potential language teachers for future generations.

It is serious and needs some intelligent attention.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Bradford

Twenty years isn’t a long time in the grand sweep of history. Which makes it remarkable that agreements made in a very different world only two decades ago can have had such an impact on how countries and churches relate to each other.

In the mid-1980s Germany was divided and the Cold War was quietly defrosting in Europe. The German Church was also separated by the Berlin Wall and the role of the church in East and West looked very different. The then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, visited the GDR and proposed a living connection between the Church of England, the EKD (in West Germany) and the Federation of the Evangelical Churches in the German Democratic Republic.

The result was the Meissen Agreement – written in 1988 and signed at Westminster Abbey in 1991. It was written in a divided Europe and was signed in a different world.

Twenty years later this agreement has formed the basis of most of the Church of England’s European ecumenical developments and paved the way for the multi-national Porvoo process. The Meissen Agreement has led to very effective diocesan and parish links, exchange of people, thinking and expertise, and the establishment of theological, ecclesiological, ethical and other conversations between the churches.

The Meissen Commission meets each September alternately in Germany and England. The national committees meet three times per year in their own country. Added to this are other exchanges, visits and engagements with particular members of the Commission. I have chaired the English Committee for the last five years; the German co-chair is Professor Friedrich Weber, Bishop of Braunschweig and an Ecumenical Canon of Blackburn Cathedral.

In the last five years we have done a good deal of work on (and thinking about) interfaith experience, education (religious, historical and linguistic), and have agitated about the disastrous state of language teaching/learning in England. We have shared experience of church reform, fresh expressions and evangelism in a rapidly changing world. The next five years will see some continuity, but also one or two new points of focus.

The reason for writing this today is simple. This afternoon the Commission began the celebration of it’s twentieth anniversary with a seminar and reception at the German Embassy in London. The German Ambassador is a brilliant man and he hosted not only the seminars on the Meissen Library in Durham and expert reflections on interfaith work in our two countries, but also a very generous reception with nearly 70 guests. It was such a good evening and demonstrated the genuine friendships that have grown between our countries and churches. Bishop Weber reminded us that our parents were enemies – now we are friends.


Work will continue in Limehouse on Friday and Saturday (with visits to see how two churches in the East End are engaging with the Christian Gospel in a multi- faith and multicultural environment). On Sunday I will be preaching at a morning service at the Christuskirche in Knightsbridge (in English, fortunately) before we go to Westminster Abbey for a celebration Evensong at which Bishop Weber will preach. The Commission will conclude it’s work and celebrations on Sunday night and Monday morning. A new Commission will then be appointed for the next five years and I will continue as the English co-chair. There will be some change in the membership of the English Committee – three of the five members will retire this time.

But Meissen, not widely known about in England, is a very significant ecumenical relationship. It is living, is not bureaucratic, and is rooted in real relationships of respect, mutual learning and active friendship.

And it compels me and us to keep banging on about the dire situation in England vis-a-vis language learning. We are impoverished as well as incapacitated by our inability to understand (let alone speak) the languages of others.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:London

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 10,343 other followers