Twenty years isn’t a long time in the grand sweep of history. Which makes it remarkable that agreements made in a very different world only two decades ago can have had such an impact on how countries and churches relate to each other.
In the mid-1980s Germany was divided and the Cold War was quietly defrosting in Europe. The German Church was also separated by the Berlin Wall and the role of the church in East and West looked very different. The then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, visited the GDR and proposed a living connection between the Church of England, the EKD (in West Germany) and the Federation of the Evangelical Churches in the German Democratic Republic.
The result was the Meissen Agreement – written in 1988 and signed at Westminster Abbey in 1991. It was written in a divided Europe and was signed in a different world.
Twenty years later this agreement has formed the basis of most of the Church of England’s European ecumenical developments and paved the way for the multi-national Porvoo process. The Meissen Agreement has led to very effective diocesan and parish links, exchange of people, thinking and expertise, and the establishment of theological, ecclesiological, ethical and other conversations between the churches.
The Meissen Commission meets each September alternately in Germany and England. The national committees meet three times per year in their own country. Added to this are other exchanges, visits and engagements with particular members of the Commission. I have chaired the English Committee for the last five years; the German co-chair is Professor Friedrich Weber, Bishop of Braunschweig and an Ecumenical Canon of Blackburn Cathedral.
In the last five years we have done a good deal of work on (and thinking about) interfaith experience, education (religious, historical and linguistic), and have agitated about the disastrous state of language teaching/learning in England. We have shared experience of church reform, fresh expressions and evangelism in a rapidly changing world. The next five years will see some continuity, but also one or two new points of focus.
The reason for writing this today is simple. This afternoon the Commission began the celebration of it’s twentieth anniversary with a seminar and reception at the German Embassy in London. The German Ambassador is a brilliant man and he hosted not only the seminars on the Meissen Library in Durham and expert reflections on interfaith work in our two countries, but also a very generous reception with nearly 70 guests. It was such a good evening and demonstrated the genuine friendships that have grown between our countries and churches. Bishop Weber reminded us that our parents were enemies – now we are friends.
Work will continue in Limehouse on Friday and Saturday (with visits to see how two churches in the East End are engaging with the Christian Gospel in a multi- faith and multicultural environment). On Sunday I will be preaching at a morning service at the Christuskirche in Knightsbridge (in English, fortunately) before we go to Westminster Abbey for a celebration Evensong at which Bishop Weber will preach. The Commission will conclude it’s work and celebrations on Sunday night and Monday morning. A new Commission will then be appointed for the next five years and I will continue as the English co-chair. There will be some change in the membership of the English Committee – three of the five members will retire this time.
But Meissen, not widely known about in England, is a very significant ecumenical relationship. It is living, is not bureaucratic, and is rooted in real relationships of respect, mutual learning and active friendship.
And it compels me and us to keep banging on about the dire situation in England vis-a-vis language learning. We are impoverished as well as incapacitated by our inability to understand (let alone speak) the languages of others.
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