It’s not often a bishop gets treated like a rock star. It almost certainly couldn’t happen in England (even if anyone was stupid enough to want it). But, here in Germany the media have celebrated the return of Margot Kässman to public ministry and given her huge affirmation. They probably couldn’t have done anything else, given the massive affection with which she has been greeted here at the Ecumenical Kirchentag.
The first full day of the Ecumenical Kirchentag was always going to be dominated by the return of Margot Kässmann, the charismatic and immensely popular former Chair of the Council (Ratsvorsitzende) of the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland. After only four months in office, she felt compelled to resign – along with her post as Bishop of Hannover – after having driven through a red light when well over the permitted drink-drive limit. This was her first major appearance since her resignation and she looked tense when she appeared in the hall to do a Bible study for more than five thousand people. She was accompanied by huge numbers of TV cameras and press phtotographers.
She was probably surprised to get to her seat on the front row and find me and two Church of England colleagues sitting right behind her. One of my colleagues had blagged his way through the barrier and we got prime seats on the second row from the front.
Once she got on stage and got going with her Bible study (on Genesis 9:8-17, Noah’s flood), she visibly relaxed and seemed completely at home. Met by repeated standing ovations, she could not have been other than moved by the love of her audience. And there was no self-pity, no self-reference, no milking the occasion for the sake of her ego, no attempt at self-justification or indulgence in satisfying the voyeurism of other people. She just did her stuff and did so with confidence, freedom and clarity.
She took five elements of the story of the flood, but explored briefly the nature of the story as an archetype of human fears of death, destruction and loss. She addressed the fact that we speak confidently of human and technological progress in a world that can still bring suffering to Haiti and in which volcanic ash can ground the world’s aircraft.
Given that suffering and tragedy are part of what being alive in a contingent world involves, the rainbow becomes not only a reminder to God of his promise, but the symbol of hope. Kässmann’s point was that shafts of hopeful light shine into the darkness of the world’s experience – not when we want them and never according to some engineered formula – and the rainbow becomes a symbol of the vision that there can be a future after destruction.
This brings to mind Brueggemann’s phrase, ‘newness after loss’ – in reference to the prophets of the Old Testament who not only saw the inevitable destruction coming, but also held out the hint of a hope that death, destruction, humiliation and exile do not have the final word after all.
The fundamental challenge here relates to views of the world that hold out no hope and offer no vision other than wishful thinking. Hope is not fantasy. Rather, hope is rooted in trust that the evidence of our eyes does not convey ultimate truth about the totality of reality. No Christian can be a stranger to the sort of mockery we often attract these days – but Noah built his ark, looked to an apparently absurd future when everyone else thought he was crazy.
Kässmann was calling for Christians to stop talking endlessly about (and take their focus off) their divisions and offer the world instead images of hope of a future – a bit like planting a tree in a desert, building a house during a war or buying a field when you are about to be thrown out of the country.