I have just got back from Erfurt, Germany, where I spent several days making connections with our (the Diocese of Bradford) link with the Kirchenkreis there. It wasmy first visit to a part of Germany I don’t know. I was recently in Eisenach, but Erfurt is further down the railway line.
It is beautiful – especially in the freezing sun of Saturday. Just google some pictures – it is packed full of great people, wonderful buildings and set in glorious countryside.
I arrived on Thursday evening. After meetings all Friday morning, I was taken on a walking tour of the town by my generous host. It was freezing cold, but, as the Germans say, hochinteressant. Among other things I learned was the fact that Schiller finished writing Maria Stuart at the place that later became Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Humanity and brutality on the same spot, separated only by time.
This is also the place where Martin Luther became a monk, and Napoleon fell for the location, too. It is a place where history is written in stone and that history is as conflicted as any other. ‘Sanierung’ is what was done to the buildings infrastructure once the drab DDR had passed away and colour re-entered the urban landscape. I guess you can clean up buildings in a way that you can’t history.
The last couple of days have seen me meeting key people, saying goodbye to a lovely visiting group from Bradford, enjoying a synod, contributing to a press conference, bringing a greeting to the congregation of the Predigerkirche (before starting the journey back home), going to the pub with some great company, getting a guided tour (by the generous and fascinating Dompropst) of the Roman Catholic Cathedral and Severikirche, discussing ways of growing our partnership link relationships, and having dinner with my hosts and their friends. I even fumbled my way though various conversations in German in which I learned again how much detail I have forgotten – such as vocabulary, genders, endings, etc. (after which there’s not much left…).
I have often remarked that the real benefit of being immersed in another culture is that it forces you to look at yourself though a different lens. the heated issues of the home church, for example, become culturally relativised when seen in the context of another culture that emerges from a different history with different ‘issues’ and in a different language. One particular conversation in the Landeskirchenamt on Friday morning did just this.
The Landeskirchen of this part of the world began around ten years ago to discuss coming together. This was for a host of reasons, and the process has now been concluded. Well, it has reached a certain point of conclusion, but such things are never finished and the end of the journey is never reached. They began by trying to be polite and ‘pastoral’, creating joint ways of working together as a first step on a journey towards unity. One powerful view of some of those involved in making it happen is that this was a mistake. You can put off the tough stuff of change as long as you like, but it won’t mitigate the pain of actually doing it. All it does is prolong uncertainty, foster illusions (that it might never happen), and create space for the sort of imaginative non-engagement that I rather rudely call ‘distraction therapy’.
My point of reflection? The dioceses of Bradford, Ripon & Leeds and Wakefield will vote next March on whether to dissolve in order to create a new Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales. Such a step might be new for the Church of England (what isn’t?), but we could learn from the experience of a church that has already been there and done it. It has not been easy and problems remain – inevitably, as people are involved; but, they have succeeded here in creating the Evangelische Kirche in Mitteldeutschland, creating compromises in order to make it work, and taking a long-term view of how it will develop (and recognise benefits) in the future.
Any change is painful – although often less painful than the pain of thinking about it beforehand – but refusing to face it does nothing to avoid pain… or reality. The key is to be ahead of the game and not always trying to catch up with a world that has already moved on.
The West Yorkshire proposals promise much and I see it as the creative way ahead for the Church of England in West Yorkshire and the Dales. The process is demanding, but also rewarding: it is certainly not boring. But, the lesson from this part of Germany suggests (to me, at least) that it is not ‘pastoral’ to spin things out for ever: after nearly three years (!) of consultation and debate, we need to decide, proceed and lead.