The Kirchentag is now about to conlude under clear blue skies and a warm sun. Tens of thousands of people have made their way to the Buergeweide for the Closing Service, but I have to prepare to leave for a conference in Paderborn. Just time for some concluding reflections on the Kirchentag.

kirchentag-plakat1. The Kirchentag does not take place in a private place, but in the heart of a living city. Every day we walk past the red light clubs and the business of the city goes on. The worship, seminars and workshops (around 2,500 in three days) go on in the public space – a refusal to park religion in the ghetto where people who like that sort of thing can get on with it in private. Last night, as we were looking for somewhere to eat, a reflective service was going on in the Marktplatz – hundreds of people at the heart of the city, unashamedly praying and bringing questions of life, politics, economics, society to the public square.

2. It has caught the imagination locally. The theme of the Kirchentag has been ‘Mensch, wo bist du?’ (Where are you?). The regional SPD welcomes visitors to Bremen with placards stating ‘Schoen, dass du da bist!’ (We are glad you are here!). The ‘pub’ we ate in last night is called Die Staendige Vertretung: waiters wore t-shirts with ‘Mensch, wo bist du? on the back, and underneath ‘in der Staendigen Vertretung!’ (Where are you? I am in the SV pub!). It is great to see how the funny side of a serious business has caught the imagination of the local (secular?) society and the whole city has joined in the fun. Christians have captured the public imagination, partly by choosing a theme and wording that invited response and engagement from all people – wonderful.

3. The press coverage of the Kirchentag has been interesting. The local Weser Kurier has put out a special edition every day of the Kirchentag and has provided good (not always uncritical, but always fair and intelligent) coverage of what has actually been going on here. There is a clear celebration of the event locally – even among those who don’t actually want to be part of it. As far as I have been able to see, the national press has also covered the event with intelligence, fairness and humour. Journalists take the substance seriously and don’t just look for holes and contradictions to exploit – that there will be holes, inconsistencies and contradictions is assumed and accepted.

4. There is a robustness about the Kirchentag which allows for enormous diversity of approach on the grounds that people are grown up enough to think, make their own minds up and argue the toss when they wish. There is an intellectual and cultural maturity to the whole thing that makes me want to stay here. For example, serious and lively discussions about religious education in schools has not been accompanied by the sillinesses we have come to expect in England – look at the recent spat between Ekklesia and others on this matter, for example.

5. Serious questions about the future development of the EKD are being asked and the debates are robust and demanding – as they should be. But what is immediately remarkable is the mutual respect with which ‘opponents’ treat each other and the rigour with which arguments are articulated. With few exceptions (in my experience), people behave like adults and Christians who love God, the church and the world and want to bring all three together.

So, there are some concluding thoughts and the clear suggestion of a regret that such an event in England is hard to imagine. I don’t have illusions about the Germans or their church, but I do have close experience of the way they are proceeding with facing change. I think it is impressive – regardless of whose vision will end up being implemented.

Now to Paderborn.

BremenIn 1908 a group of German Christians saw the clouds of conflict coming over Europe and dreaded the horror of Christians killing Christians as enemies in a war. They formed an ecumenical peace delegation and 131 of them travelled to London and Cambridge in an effort to strengthen the relationships between German and English Christians in the face of the threat. This group of Protestants, Roman Catholics and Free Church delegates met in the Bremer Ratskeller before boarding the ship bound for England. And that is where I was at lunchtime today.

The visit was notable for the journey that began it. German Protestants and Catholics did not know each other – they travelled on different trains to Bremen. But they had to board the same boat. The boat set sail, but hit a sandbank where it sat waiting for the tide to lift it off. You’ll get no marks for spotting the parabolic significance of that one…

Last year a group of Germans visited London and Cambridge in commemoration of the 1908 visit. This allowed for some serious engagement between the Germans and English, including a one-day conference in Cambridge with Juergen Moltmann and Richard Bauckham giving excellent theological papers.

In 1909 the Brits did a return visit – 109 delegates included Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and Quakers. Under the slogan ‘Peace through encounter’, they visited Hamburg, Berlin, Eisenach, Bethel and Bremen. In Bremen 3000 people joined together in the Cathedral at the end of the visit to say farewell and ensure that the relationships would survive whatever events would later lead the countries to war against each other.

The reception today took place in the place where the two groups met 100 years ago and was moving. It could be argued that European ecumenism began in Bremen 100 years ago. The challenges faced today are different, but it remains the case that the relationships will outlive the paperwork. Ecumenism is changing – representative bureaucracy is giving way to a dynamic approach to developing relationships and coalitions in order that Christian churches can be more effective in their engagement with the world (rather than obsessed with details of relations between churches).

On Sunday I lead a delegation to Paderborn to commemorate the 1909 visit.

129So, back to the Kirchentag and what makes it work. Matt Wardman has made some interesting observations in a response to my earlier post. He wrote:

1 – It cannot be on a showground in the middle of nowhere. That is an institutional acceptance of privatisation and a type of sectarianism before you even start – as you say. Perhaps I should recognise that there is definitely place for “resource events” – provided that the resources end up going somewhere.

2 – It must be cross-cutting – denominationally and to transcend any sacred/secular divides.

3 – I’m tempted to suggest that, like the Kirchentag, it should be a lay movement.

How would it work here?

I’d throw out 2 thoughts.

Firstly that the setting must be urban to ensure an “in society” setting, with a full mixture of venues to ensure that it is not religious people talking to each other behind closed doors.

Secondly that one set of organisations with the inherent clout to draw really high profile speakers, and the breadth of projects/networks to pull something together, are the cathedrals – headlined by the Anglicans and the RCs. Then many other venues and organisations could follow that spearhead.

That leaves me with the idea of a varied festival rotating between centres with cathedrals in urban settings every 2 years.

Interesting. The Kirchentag is lay-led and that clearly makes a massive difference. There are no barriers between church, media, politics, culture, etc as everything is regarded as open to discussion and argument. This presupposes a confidence in both the faith and the institution of the church that sponsors (and pays) for it. The Kirchentag takes over an entire city – which obviously brings a huge economic boost to that place. But it makes the point that setting such an event in a ‘holy’ (set aside) place would be hopeless.

As we saw today with Huber, Merkel and Garton Ash, church cannot be protected from the wider world. Nor can the wider world be protected from a church which refuses to be ghettoised into a place of private interest.

HuberWhere else would you find people queuing early in the morning to hear a Bible Study in a hall that seats in the region of 10,000 people? We turned up for Bishop Wolfgang Huber’s Bible study on Genesis 3 an hour before it started and joined the queue that was already enormous and very good-humoured. Huber (who retires as Bishop of Berlin-Brandenburg-schlesiche-Oberlausitz and Chairman of the Council of the EKD later this year) is a brilliant communicator and the hour goes quickly – full of memorable phrases and passionate rhetoric. He also knows how to press the right buttons and he is constantly interrupted by applause. It felt a bit like a rally.

The most interesting parts of Huber’s address will need separate treatment later when I have read the text. But he made some intersting observations about power, responsibility and the human propensity to deny responsibility, shift it or blame someone else. Assuming that Genesis 3 asks ‘how we got to where we are as human beings?’, he also pointed out those parts of the ‘Eden’ narrative that easily get forgotten: that the serpent lied – Adam and Eve did not die – and that, despite everything, it was God who searched for Adam and Eve (not the other way round) and God who clothed them. Draw your own conclusions about what this says to a humanity that knows it is naked and can be seen through by the eyes of a God who is interested not only in exposing the badness, but caring for the consequences.

Angela MerkelHuber’s address was followed by a remarkable discussion between Angela Merkel (Bundeskanzlerin) and Prof. Dr. Timothy Garten Ash (Oxford). The theme concerned ‘freedom and responsibility’, but ranged over democracy, history and memory.

TGA asked whether the Germans had been able to build such a good and strong civil structure because it had had to deal with a difficult past: the Protestant Reformation, two World Wars and Nazism, then the DDR. He later observed that it is hard to hold on to two histories (FRG and GDR), but that the GDR would soon be forgotten: it was too short-lived and was artificial anyway. The discussion was interesting because Merkel (a daughter of the ‘manse’) is from East Germany and twenty years ago had a very different future ahead of her.

tgaI cannot do justice to the discussion as I had to leave after only forty minutes, but it was robust, informed, intelligent and really interesting. (TGA spoke very good German.) Is this why something like 7,000 people listened to Huber and Merkel, many of them sitting on cardboard boxes?

Enough for now. I am leading an ecumenical service this evening, but will return to say more about the Ratskeller, the 1908/09 exchanges and what it is that makes this event so unique.

Kirchentag BremenFunny old world. There I was, minding my own business walking through the Hauptbahnhof in Bremen with a couple of friends, when who do I spot sitting there with his laptop open and a bemused look on his face? While mere mortals like us were trying to find a sausage, Bishop Alan Wilson had researched the availability of free internet access in Bremen and managed to find the only spot (in front of the station) where it was available. And what was he doing? Blogging. What a star!

The Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag (literally, German Protestant Church Conference) takes over a city every two years and draws over 100,000 people. The programme is nearly 500 pages long and Thursday to Saturday is filled with hundreds of options for worship, Bible study, debate, discussion, lectures, theatre, etc. It has to be seen to be believed.

This year’s Kirchentag began this evening with an opening service in three venues. We went down to the banks of the River Weser and joined thousands of people of all ages and from (seemingly) everywhere for worship and a good sermon. It was warm and sunny and everyone was relaxed. The police are around, but there is no sense of anything other than pleasure and enjoyment. The city centre is full of stalls and tens of thousands of people mill around tasting the various foods, meeting (and making) friends, listening to live music, playing games and so on. The organisation is remarkable and it counts as one of the least threatening big events I have ever been to.

Walking through the city centre with the other Church of England representatives (Richard Parrish and Helen Azer), we spotted the ‘real Christian’ with his placard pointing out to the rest of us that we are probably damned. Which was mildly interesting.

I was musing about whether such an event could ever take place in England. I think the answer is ‘no’. What is remarkable in Germany is that Christians of all complexions come together and take Christian faith seriously – spiritually, intellectually, socially, environmentally, etc. I fear that this would simply not be possible in England because the church is to fragmented into ‘interest’ groups: New Wine, Spring Harvest, Soul Survivor, Keswick, Word Alive are some of the evangelical ones, but there are many more besides. I just could not see these having the courage to suspend themselves in the interest of all coming together to explore the faith in all its richness.

kirchentag-plakatMaybe that will be considered a little jaded. But, looking at the sheer diversity of provision in the programme, it is hard to see it happening. The Germans manage to bring together serious media professionals (for example, I will be attending a seminar moderated by the Editor of Die Zeit), top politicians (including the Bundeskanzler, Bundesprasident, Foreign Minister, Interior Minister and other leading politicians), artists, writers and actors as well as pastors, theologians, philosophers, cultural observers and ordinary curious punters.

I am here in two capacities: as English Co-chair of the Meissen Commission and leading a delegation from Churches Together in Britain & Ireland for an ecumenical exchange which will culminate in an academic conference in Paderborn on Sunday and Monday. I am leading and preaching at several ecumenical services, taking part in a podium discussion on church reform, doing media and book interviews and generally meeting people. We will be doing some Meissen business as well.

So, the Kirchentag is open. I hope to get in to a Bible study in the morning by Bishop Wolfgang Huber and then hear Angela Merkel do theology in relation to power and democracy. The theme of the Kirchentag is ‘Mensch, wo bist du?’ (Mortal, where are you?) – taken from God’s question to the hiding Adam in the Garden of Eden and posed to every human being and society ever since. The glib answer is: ‘I am in Bremen’. But I do not believe I will leave Bremen on Sunday unchanged.