Any conference in Germany is haunted by the 20th Century. The fact that churches in Germany and England maintained their contact and solidarity during the worst years of that century gets forgotten amid the horror stories of war and holocaust and death. So, here at the eighth Meissen Theological Conference at Arnoldshain (near Frankfurt, Germany), the theme of reconciliation is neither merely academic nor idealistic.
We meet in the Martin-Niemöller-Haus to discuss papers that can never be abstract because of the history that brings us together and sets the context for our conversations. After all, this is the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and the seeds of the slaughter that bore the Second. Since 1945 English Christians and German Christians have worked hard at confronting their history and the hard questions raised by their theological handling of political and economic realities.
This conference, co-chaired by the Bishop of London and Professorin Dr Friederike Nüssel (Systematic Theology, Heidelberg), takes conflict and reconciliation with the utmost seriousness. (Although, as usual, the friendship is funny, warm and very enjoyable.)
The conference began this afternoon – within half an hour of arriving – with introductions and then an initial paper by the Bishop of London on Perspectives on Religion and Reconciliation that took us from WW1 through WW2 to the challenges of today's world of religious (and other forms of) conflict. Rigorous questioning highlighted the importance of “symbolic act and apt liturgy” in enabling a society to take responsibility not for changing the past, but for shaping how we remember it and deal with it honestly.
The second paper was presented by Professor Dr Martin Wallraff from the University of Basel, Switzerland, and reached back into patristic considerations of Eucharist, Communion (Gemeinschaft) and communion (Kommunion) (a linguistic distinction that is too arcane, but too important, to deal with in detail here). The Christian tradition digs deep into the wisdom of the ages and does not satisfy itself with mere pragmatic reactions to current phenomena that always appear to be both original and 'ultimate'. Discussion addressed head on the scandal of division in a Christian church that lives with and works at the ideal of unity. The fact that the church even considers unity woth considering is, of itself, remarkable and worthy of proper consideration.
The third paper was presented by the Revd Peter Anthony, a parish priest from London, on 'Seeing and Being Seen' – in relation to texts in the Gospels of Mark and Luke regarding the Transfiguration of Jesus. Again, vigorous debate ensued – not least about what this means for us today.
So, the conference is typically rigorous and stimulating. Set in a centre named after a hero of the German resistance to Hitler, rooted in rigorous theological and biblical thinking and conviction, it isn't inevitable that such a conference would challenge comfortable 'truths' about theology, society, history or academic disciplines. But, we intend to do business on behalf of our churches – not in order to satisfy nice theological chat, but to bring our churches closer together… and to compel us to see through the lens of another culture and history the culture and history of our own people and church. This cannot but make us see differently and with a bit more questioning humility.