The weather in Munich is terrible. So, all those who think I have come on a jolly will have to think again. I spent today meeting people and getting cold. But I was determined to hang around the enormous Messestadt (Trade Fair Centre) waiting for a unique opportunity to hear two old men have a conversation in the evening.

Hans Küng (82) and Jürgen Moltmann (84) are two giants of late-2oth century German theology. The former is a Roman Catholic who had his permission to teach in the Catholic Faculty of Theology at the University of Tübingen withdrawn by the Pope; the latter is a Protestant whose Theology of Hope breathed new life into german theology and inspired a generation of theologians and preachers. Both have never got stuck, but have developed and applied their theology to the realities of a changing world as they have aged.

This evening was remarkable. Thousands arrived early to ensure a place in the auditorium – I got there for 6.30pm thinking it began at 7pm only to find it was scheduled to start at 7.30pm and didn’t in fact get going until 8pm. More people were locked out than could get in. The excluded crowds chanted ‘Wir wollen rein’ (‘We want to come in’) to listen to these two elderly men talk together about church.

Can you imagine that ever happening in Britain? Most of the excluded were young people eager to garner the wisdom of these two theologians. Why? Because their theology is neither dry nor ‘merely academic’, but engages with the real world of economics, politics and culture. They bring to their subject the intellectual rigour that is associated with German philosophical thinking. Yet, they speak with simplicity, clarity and passion – eschewing theological cleverness in order to communicate accessibly with all-comers: they are remarkable men who show no sign of being ego-driven.

A critical but appreciative audience heard them address five questions:

1. Who are the laity?

2. Who are priests and pastors?

3. Who is the Church?

4. What is ‘ecumenism’ and where is it at today?

5. What does it mean to have fellowship in the name of Jesus Christ?

What ensued was a fascinating and impassioned plea for the Church to get real (in the light of the realities of the world in which we live) and recover its vocation (to be found in the Scriptures we have always had with us). This emerged from introductory statements which had Küng calling for a new Reformation in the Roman Catholic Church – one which unites the Church rather than splitting it further. Moltmann pointed out that the Kirchentag is a lay conference in which the role of bishops is to listen to the laity. I took this to heart…

It is impossible to summarise the contributions of the two men in a way that does justice to their contributions. Küng wants the Roman Catholic Church to change, embracing women priests, abolishing imposed celibacy and uniting the Christian churches in mission and sacramental ministry. For his part, Moltmann sees the future of churches in lay people taking responsibility for their own faith and organising the church in house groups that come together sacramentally. Christians are not ‘customers’, there to ‘visit’ the church, but members who take responsibility for the life of the church. As Küng put it:

A church for the people needs to become a church of the people.

Moltmann wants Christians to maintain a critical solidarity with the church whilst Küng sees exit from the Church as irresponsible (if understandable in the light of the current abuse scandal). Both think all churches need to be reformed in the light of the Gospel. Küng even went so far as to claim that the Pope’s title ‘Servant of the servants of God’ has become in practice ‘the Lord of the lords’ (Herr der Herren).

Both believe that there should be eucharistic hospitality between the churches – Moltmann claiming that generous hospitality is the hallmark of a real church, regardless of the role of the priest/pastor.

Perhaps the most interesting element of the conversation was their agreement that Christians belong together whether they like it or not. “What belongs together grows together” – as Moltmann put it. Jesus’ prayer for the unity (in love) of his people is being answered; the church needs to recognise this and make it visible. Baptism is the fundamental element in our common belonging.

Experience of interreligious dialogue has taught us that Christians need to speak with a single voice in a complicated world – a speaking that must follow on from and not precede genuine humble listening. Both agreed that there is no theological or doctrinal reason for continuing the lack of mutual eucharistic hospitality and both called for an end to the nonsense of ‘excommunication’. Moltmann spoke of the absurdity of mixed-confessional marriages in which at shared services eahc partner goes to a different priest to receive Communion:

What God has joined together let not man divide…

Küng very pointedly criticised the Pope for his recent ‘offer’ to Anglicans and noted that the younger Josef Ratzinger had taken part in eucharistic practices that are inconsistent with the line he now appears to follow. (They were academic and priestly colleagues for many years and still maintian contact.) Moltmann took the view that Christians should be like human beings: eat and drink together first, then discuss theology afterwards. It is a nonsense to do it the other way round…

Both made concluding statements of generosity towards the other’s church. But what will remain in my mind is Moltmann’s contention (not opposed by Küng) to the effect that Protestant should welcome ‘communion with Rome’, but not ‘communion under Rome’. Renewal and a new Reformation are needed as ever.

At the end the two elderly men stood on the stage looking bemused as people like me took photographs. We may never see their like again.