Kirchentag BremenFunny old world. There I was, minding my own business walking through the Hauptbahnhof in Bremen with a couple of friends, when who do I spot sitting there with his laptop open and a bemused look on his face? While mere mortals like us were trying to find a sausage, Bishop Alan Wilson had researched the availability of free internet access in Bremen and managed to find the only spot (in front of the station) where it was available. And what was he doing? Blogging. What a star!

The Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag (literally, German Protestant Church Conference) takes over a city every two years and draws over 100,000 people. The programme is nearly 500 pages long and Thursday to Saturday is filled with hundreds of options for worship, Bible study, debate, discussion, lectures, theatre, etc. It has to be seen to be believed.

This year’s Kirchentag began this evening with an opening service in three venues. We went down to the banks of the River Weser and joined thousands of people of all ages and from (seemingly) everywhere for worship and a good sermon. It was warm and sunny and everyone was relaxed. The police are around, but there is no sense of anything other than pleasure and enjoyment. The city centre is full of stalls and tens of thousands of people mill around tasting the various foods, meeting (and making) friends, listening to live music, playing games and so on. The organisation is remarkable and it counts as one of the least threatening big events I have ever been to.

Walking through the city centre with the other Church of England representatives (Richard Parrish and Helen Azer), we spotted the ‘real Christian’ with his placard pointing out to the rest of us that we are probably damned. Which was mildly interesting.

I was musing about whether such an event could ever take place in England. I think the answer is ‘no’. What is remarkable in Germany is that Christians of all complexions come together and take Christian faith seriously – spiritually, intellectually, socially, environmentally, etc. I fear that this would simply not be possible in England because the church is to fragmented into ‘interest’ groups: New Wine, Spring Harvest, Soul Survivor, Keswick, Word Alive are some of the evangelical ones, but there are many more besides. I just could not see these having the courage to suspend themselves in the interest of all coming together to explore the faith in all its richness.

kirchentag-plakatMaybe that will be considered a little jaded. But, looking at the sheer diversity of provision in the programme, it is hard to see it happening. The Germans manage to bring together serious media professionals (for example, I will be attending a seminar moderated by the Editor of Die Zeit), top politicians (including the Bundeskanzler, Bundesprasident, Foreign Minister, Interior Minister and other leading politicians), artists, writers and actors as well as pastors, theologians, philosophers, cultural observers and ordinary curious punters.

I am here in two capacities: as English Co-chair of the Meissen Commission and leading a delegation from Churches Together in Britain & Ireland for an ecumenical exchange which will culminate in an academic conference in Paderborn on Sunday and Monday. I am leading and preaching at several ecumenical services, taking part in a podium discussion on church reform, doing media and book interviews and generally meeting people. We will be doing some Meissen business as well.

So, the Kirchentag is open. I hope to get in to a Bible study in the morning by Bishop Wolfgang Huber and then hear Angela Merkel do theology in relation to power and democracy. The theme of the Kirchentag is ‘Mensch, wo bist du?’ (Mortal, where are you?) – taken from God’s question to the hiding Adam in the Garden of Eden and posed to every human being and society ever since. The glib answer is: ‘I am in Bremen’. But I do not believe I will leave Bremen on Sunday unchanged.