It is hard to describe an arena filled with around 10,000 people listening to a Bible study. I thought there would be no problem getting in to hear Margot Kaessmann, Bishop of Hannover, taking us through the Good Samaritan. My money is on her to get elected as Chair of the Council of the EKD in the autumn in succession to the excellent Wolfgang Huber.
Margot Kaessmann (MK) is one of the best communicators in the German Church today. She is brilliant with the media and she has the rare gift of being as good in print as she is with the spoken word. It is not surprising that her preaching attracts huge crowds and that she is immensely popular. She is unafraid to tackle tough subjects, but does so with a directness and generosity that is very attractive. And, in case you think I am being an uncritical fan, I need to confess that she wrote the foreword to the German edition of my book Finding Faith (launched this month).
She recognised at the outset that some biblical texts become over-familiar with repetition and that it can become hard to get behind them in a fresh way. But, she said, the context in which the texts are being read does keep changing – and this presents the challenge of how to read and expound the text at different times and in different places. She then took the parable in three stages and drew from it implications for the church in the world, called to prove its love for God by ‘love of neighbour’.
Without going through her address systematically, I’ll just note several points:
1. She told the story of how on Kristallnacht a synagogue (in Hannover or Hamburg – I didn’t catch that bit) burned down. The fire brigade stood back and let it burn. The synagogue was located next door to the Church Office (the equivalent of our diocesan offices). As it wasn’t a church that was burning, the business of the Church Office just continued the next day without interruption. Quoting some scary anti-semitic propaganda from the NPD (neo-Nazis), she asked if we are a church that loves our neighbour and reaches the wider world, or one that is preoccupied with internal churchy reform at the expense of the world.
2. Challenging the cynical appeal of former free-market capitalists for social protection (when the markets let them down and their own lives were affected), she questioned whether love of neighbour allows us to continue to assume that ‘cheap is good’. She raised the interesting question of who decides when someone becomes ‘handicapped’? Is there a scale according to which when some reaches a particular point they qualify as ‘handicapped’ or ‘disabled’? Who decides which criteria apply?
3. She identified generosity as characteristic of Christian love. She concluded (among other things) that the church will only be renewed by looking outwards and being less concerned with its own internal business.
What is notable (but impossible to convey) is the massive affection and respect in which bishops like MK are held here. There is a deep humanity about MK which comes over: a woman small in stature and tall in theological and spiritual integrity. It was a privilege to be there, even though I have heard her severla times before today.
I went from there to be interviewed by the EKD Media on what they call ‘the Red Sofa’. The interview revolved around my two books in German and the place of contemporary music in the church’s engagement with culture. It was a stimulating conversation with a good audience and good interviewer – even though my German let me down a couple of times in the half-hour we were talking.
The evening took us to the other side of Bremen for a Meissen Service at which I was preaching in English. The church was packed, the music was great and the host pastor wonderful. We worshipped together and then experienced the generous hospitality that we had been told earlier is characteristic of genuine Christian love: food and beer. It made the miserable weather seem brighter and warmer for a while.
So, no great revelations. Just the sort of day the Kirchentag allows: variety, stimulation, fun and serious conversation with friends and strangers.