I was speaking in a church on Sunday evening about the former (and late) German President Johannes Rau. One of my parishes does a series of evening Compline services through the summer and different speakers are invited to address a common theme – such as, ‘People of Faith’. In past years I have done Bruce Cockburn, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller.

Why Johannes Rau? Mainly because a couple of years ago I picked up a book of some of his sermons and found them lucid and helpful.

Now, I realise that some people are getting spooked already. What is a State President doing preaching sermons? Well, read on…

Johannes Rau was born in Wuppertal in 1931, just as Hitler was coming to power and the terror was digging in. As a schoolboy he was active in the Confessing Church – thus showing not only great courage, but clarity about the ethical and political implications of the theology he had grown up with in church. It is this (developing) theology that fired his political, economic and social passions in the post-War years when Germany was being re-built, divided and, eventually, reunited.

He became a journalist and publisher in 1949 and joined Heinemann‘s Gesamtdeutsche Volkspartei from 1952-1957 when it was disbanded. (Ironically, this is now the name of a neo-Nazi party in Germany.) He joined the SPD in 1958, rose through its ranks until he became Ministerprasident of Nordrhein-Westfalen from 1978-1998. In 1999 he was elected Bundesprasident at his second attempt –  a post he held until 2004. He died in 2006. (In 2000 he became the first German head of state to address the Israeli Knesset in German.)

What is striking about Rau is that he was an intelligent lay theologian whose rigorous thinking about social justice during the reconstruction years was shaped by his theological convictions and understandings. These were rooted in a costly passion for what is now called ‘the common good’.

For Rau the concept of reconciliation – again derived as a theological imperative to be worked into the fabric of social order – was no mere pious ideal or religious construct. Reconciliation had to be worked at at every level and the price had to be paid where necessary.

Underlying this was the root conviction that (in the words of the subtitle of the book I read) God and the world must be brought into conversation. That is, there can be no disembodied ‘spiritualised’ godliness that is not rooted in the real world we experience every day. The corollary, of course, is that the world cannot be cast adrift from considerations of God. The title of one of his sermons nails this: Diese Welt geht nicht zum Teufel (This world is not going to the devil).

And all this was rooted even deeper in Rau’s notion of ‘hope’ – perhaps one that grasped him rather than one that was simply grasped by him. The book is titled, Wer hofft, kann handeln (Whoever hopes can act). The motto of the Confessing Church had been “teneo, quia teneor” (I hold because I am held) and this became his personal maxim throughout his life.

What was remarkable was his ability to relate and communicate at both political and theological levels. His Bible studies and sermons at the lay-organised Kirchentags were not only popular, but also biblically alert, theologically interesting and spiritually challenging/encouraging.

And that’s a condensed snapshot of the great man who is largely unknown outside of Germany. He spanned a time in German history that demanded giants in all areas of life. Rau encompassed several areas and was remarkable for the respect he gained from all sides of German life.

(Now back to the business of the annual College of Bishops meeting in Oxford for the next four days…)