On the way to the Brocken with friends a couple of days ago, we drove through a village called Elend. Elend is the German word for 'misery'. There is a place nearby called Sorge – which translates into English as 'worry'. Who says the Germans don't have a sense of humour?
Well, humour has had to be tempered with real seriousness on day three of the Meissen Theological Conference at Arnoldshain. Two papers this morning tackled the contextual interplay of reconciliation, patriotism and memory. Ecumenical rapprochement between German and English churches takes place in a context of a century of conflict, theological compromise and an occasional dogged unity that national interest – even in times of war – cannot expunge.
Landesbischof Professor Dr Friedrich Weber, the soon-to-retire Bishop of Braunschweig and German co-chair of the Meissen Commission (I am the Anglican co-chair) reviewed the Meissen process since 1988 and asked hard questions about what has actually been achieved. He concluded with a statement by Michael Weinrich to the effect that “there is no lack of official declarations in the ecumenical movement, but there are dramatically fewer cases of reception”. In other words, statements are not backed up (or followed up) by action.
The same Professor Dr Weinrich, Professor of Systematic Theology (Ecumenics and Dogmatics) at the University of Bochum – and who is also a German member of the Meissen Commission – then expanded on the Weber discussion by presenting a paper of observations and reflections on the Meissen process thus far. His starting point about ecumenism is a heartening one: “… one must constantly evaluate whether the functions these criteria were originally designed to serve are being carried out.” In other words, is a process that began over twenty years ago still fit for purpose – or has it got distracted by its own internal dynamic and is now not doing the very thing for which it was set up.
This led him on to a discussion about how 'identity' can be shaped without having to have endless debates about that identity. Put crudely, it must be possible to create unity without constantly talking about what unity might look like. Of course, I am polarising to make the point – one does not exclude the other and both are necessary. But, two sentences go to the heart of Weinrich's concern: “It is possible … that down to earth Anglican pragmatism has established a beneficial boundary for the German zeal for systematisation… Given the background of the trust that has developed [in the Meissen process], it would be nonsensical to make the vitality of the church fellowship dependant on progress in ecclesiological questions.”
I cite this simply because the discussions that followed both Weber and Weinwich's papers led very quickly on to the place of our ecumenical relationship/conversations in the wider national agendas, especially in this significant year of memory: the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. What is – or what should be – the role of the church in helping wider society 're-member' the events at the heart of progressive, technologically developed and Christianly-shaped Europe that tore the world apart in 1914? How might the church – with its language of and facility for symbolic act, repentant relationship and truthful speaking – create the space and place for a wider rehearsal of our common narrative? And how might the churches remind our wider (and sometimes conveniently and selectively amnesiac) societies of how, when the divisions seemed insuperable at the heart of conflict, many Christians refused to allow national boundaries and obligations expunge their deeper unity in Christ?
Now, this might sound a little arcane – the usual stuff of closed theological conferences that are enjoyable in themselves but do not translate into wider world-changing action – but the debate kept bringing us back to practicalities. Reconciliation is neither sentimental nor consequence-free. We will move on later to decide on practical recommendations for joint action this year and beyond as we reappropriate the narrative that has shaped us thus far. Questions about 'memory', ideology, patriotism and what today's generations consider to be the priorities (or touching places for questions of conflict, threat, fear, etc.) come to the fore. Faithfully remembering the past only has validity if what we learn can be applied to what we face now and how we might be in the future.
As Bonhoeffer would have said in the early 1930s as Nazism exploded into violent life, universal ethical principles are no substitute for 'choosing now' and taking responsibility for the ways we choose to be.