The first day of my sabbatical. Thirty books to start on – two months to read as much as possible. I am afraid there's going to be an awful lot of book stuff on this blog in the next few weeks. (Enjoying Lucy Hughes-Hallett's The Pike today.)

Then there's the closing of the January transfer window with Liverpool having bought nobody to strengthen an inadequately broad enough squad. Oh dear.

But, what has grabbed my attention is an article I picked up yesterday on the Die Zeit website. Written by Ulrich Greiner (publisher of Zeitliteratur magazine) and sparked by the announcement that novelist Henning Mankell has decided to record in print his 'journey with cancer', the piece is headed “Man sollte diskret sterben” – one should die discreetly. His point? This sort of description of suffering is essentially narcissistic.

Apparently, Mankell has decided to record his “fight against cancer” (a term commonly used, but essentially meaningless, and one that betrays a pile of assumptions) and to report on progress. He has said: “I want to describe exactly how it is,” and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has decided to publish it in instalments.

So what? After all, there are loads of examples of prominent people who feel the need to tell the world of their expereince of dying. Greiner argues that we live in an 'era of confessions' (im Zeitalter der Bekenntnisse) and that these are seen as a proof of courage.

However, Greiner thinks that filling bookcases with such stuff demonstrates the opposite of courage: courage would be evidenced by discretion. He goes on to assert that this pressure to confess is proof only that the once self-evident boundary between intimacy and publicity (privacy and openness) has now disappeared. If you must spill this stuff into the public sphere, then write a decent novel, he says. Otherwise, keep your sufferings to yourself – pouring it out in print is just narcissism and doesn't achieve anything useful.

Well, I sympathise with Greiner. The hungry media beast can't get enough of 'confessional' material. The publishing industry needs such stuff because people will buy it. Fair enough. But, Greiner has a point about self-referential narcissism: for whom is the account of one's own suffering or dying actually written? In order to help humanity address its mortality? Or as a form of fearful catharsis?

Clearly, the boundary between private and public, intimacy and publicity, has long since disappeared. Look at teenagers' outpourings on social media. Look at anyone's outpourings on social media, for that matter. Not everything should be open and public; some things in human lives and relationships should be kept private and intimate. To lose the distinction means losing something of human integrity. The mere fact that millions of people want to gorge on the self-disclosures (or snooped disclosures) of other people does not in and of itself justify it being done.

However, Greiner is perhaps missing one or two perspectives here. Perhaps the reason people want to read this stuff – and, therefore, sufferers want to write it – is simply that most of us do not find the mystery of mortality easy to live with. Coming to terms with suffering and dying – outside of the control we crave over our lives and resistant to our technological hubris – is not always easily handled in a culture that sees death as an enemy as opposed to a necessary part of life. How do we process this 'coming to terms with dying' in a culture that has lost its communal rituals and lacks a vocabulary for dealing with mortality? Perhaps we need stories and confessions and narratives that offer some incarnated processing of what internally we cannot shape.

Maybe I am missing the point too. I have never been afraid of death or dying and have never seen death as anything other than an integral part of what it means to live. I don't want to die, but I have no desire to 'fight' it. Christian faith is rooted in both the essential contingency of mortality – something God opts into at Christmas and does not exempt himself from – and the conviction that if God raised Christ from being truly dead, then there is hope.

I am really not bothered what happens to me after I die (there is possibly a PhD to be written in exploring the narcissism of individual conversion based on fear of hell). My hope is simply not in a formula or a guarantee, but in the person of the God who raised Christ. The rest is detail. And there is too much of life to enjoy and endure without being obsessed with the detail of personal interest.

Some will object to this. Fair enough – I can only tell it as it is. But, I can also say it is utterly liberating to be grasped by a gospel (good news) of life than one rooted in a fear of death. Christmas was about “God surprising earth with heaven”; Easter will demonstrate what it can mean to be drawn by hope and not driven by fear. The journey from one to the other puts flesh and blood and character and relationships and challenges and choices onto the theology. And that is what our churches are – or should be – working through in their preaching and liturgies and conversations.

 

Struggling through a streaming cold and muzzy head to write a lecture for this coming Wednesday (on Being Confident in an Uncertain World), I was easily distracted by the glories of Twitter. I caught a link which, in the context of all the political upheavals going on around us, stood out. Die Zeit has the headline: Merkel öffnet für Hollande die Arme, nicht die Taschen (Merkel opens her arms to Hollande, but not her pockets).

It’s a weird world.

  • Greece votes against parties that think austerity is unavoidable, but offers no ideas for how the stringencies of economics can be aligned with desired social wellbeing.
  • It looks possible that Greece won’t be able to find a coherent coalition government at all.
  • Russia, against all protests, swears in a president who seems to assume power and the right to power. Ominously, he promises Russians some hard years ahead.
  • France elects a new Socialist president who might not be able to implement (economically or politically) what he has promised.
  • Germany welcomes the new French president to office, but won’t offer him the means to do what he has promised to do for France. (And Merkel has just had a bad election in Schleswig-Holstein, so all is not beautiful in her own garden either).

What is interesting about all these ructions in Europe (and bring into the mix all the other trouble spots across the planet) is the assumption on the part of whole populations that we have rights to certain ways of living or levels of affluence or provision – but rarely does anyone ask where those rights have come from. They are merely assumed. But, as ethicists know, you can’t get an ought from an is – that is to say, you cannot derive a moral imperative from the mere fact that something exists. So, what gives us the right to demand ‘rights’ in the first place?

Anyway, we’ll watch this space as everything changes in Europe and beyond. Putin is not the universally revered man he thinks he once was. Merkel stands firm, but the floor might potentially wobble beneath her feet. Hollande might find ‘reality’ harder to manipulate than he has suggested. And Greece? Er…

At least all is stable and fine at home in the UK, our glorious leaders steering us into a land of plenty. One day. Eventually. Maybe soon. Er…

This week’s edition of Die Zeit is fronted by a picture of a large twin-towered German church sinking under the waves of modernity. The huge banner headline reads: ‘Ist die Kirche noch zu retten (Can the church still be saved)?’ The sub-text asks: ‘How Christianity is struggling for survival in modern society’ and promises an interview with the elderly Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Küng.

The church in central (Germanic) Europe is undoubtedly going through interesting times. This has (in my humble opinion) much to do with the rapid changes in receipts from Church Tax and a wrestling with the cultural and missional implications of such changes. If ‘membership’ of your church is denominational and your tax payments buy you your baptism, wedding and funeral, to what extent are evangelism or other elements of mission perceived as necessary or urgent?

Of course, this isn’t the whole story. The Church Tax in Germany has enabled the church to provide amazing (and amazingly high-quality) social provision for children, young people, elderly and sick people. It’s reach has gone beyond the limits of ‘what is good for the interests of the church itself’ and seen care of society as it’s remit. Few would talk this down.

But the world has changed, fewer people attend the churches and the taxes a reducing. rather than simply ignore this, the EKD under Bishop Wolfgang Huber bravely launched a decade of reform leading to the 500th anniversary of the launch of the Reformation in 1517. But even this wasn’t a desperate measure. It was a measured response to change – something churches have to do in every generation.

And I am writing this in Basel where we are staying with friends and looking forward to an ecumenical festival across the city tomorrow. Here the situation is similar to that in Germany. Church buildings have been converted for other (mainly cultural) uses. And therein lies my problem with the Zeit assumption that the church is preoccupied with it’s own survival. Die Zeit is asking the wrong question.

Of course, the church’s role in society has changed, is changing and always will keep changing. Yes, the Christendom model is dead and there is a need for reform in many respects; but this is not primarily for the sake of the survival of an institution. Dietrich Bonhoeffer got it right when he wrote:

“Jesus ruft nicht zu einer neuen Religion auf, sondern zum Leben. (Jesus doesn’t call us to a new religion, but to life itself)” (Gedicht an Eberhard Bethge, Tegel, 18 Juli 1944 – Das Ausserordentliche wird Erreignis: Kreuz und Auferstehung, S.63)

The survival of the church is not the end to which the church aspires. But elements of all churches – in England as well as Europe – need to recover the vision for which they exist in the first place: to be a reflection of the Jesus we read about in the gospels for the sake of the world we live in now.

Now, there are those in England who like to think (in a rather uncommitted liberal way) that if we could only shake off the institution of the church, we could create a new way of being church without all the stuff we find embarrassing or shaming. I recognise that what I am about to say goes wholly against the grain of the self-fulfilment, instant-gratification culture we now inhabit, but such attitudes are naive. They ignore the massive achievements of the church in our cultures – intellectually, socially, educationally, politically, morally, etc. – and collude in the selective memory that encourages costless fantasy.

The Christian Church, in the UK as well as here in Switzerland and Germany, needs to recover confidence in the church itself and the vocation of the church to serve its society. Show me what difference the National Secular Society or the British Humanist Association makes to local communities in every corner of the country. Show me how those Christians who want to re-invent church in terms of like-minded people joining together to re-write theology in their own convenient image change one iota of their local community for the better. If you want to do that, you need buildings, people and organisation, vision, commitment and enormous patience. All things the organised church has and uses for the sake of the society around them. The organised church has a unique vocation and needs its people to start having confidence in it again – not for its own sake, but for the sake of those it serves.

So, survival of the church is not our task. Shaping the church to better be able to serve our communities in the name (that is, according to the character of) Jesus Christ is the challenge. It isn’t an easy one, but it is more interesting and exciting than simply trying to keep an institution afloat. Or, as Stephan Schaede, Director of Evangelische Akademie in Loccum puts it (in the Zeit article):

Church is interesting for society if it says what sort of a society it expects – rather than asks how it can fit into society.</

Ps. I just discovered that the headline in Die Zeit is actually the title of Hans Küng's new book!

I had an interesting meeting with a newspaper editor this morning. One of the things we discussed (in general terms) was the plight of public figures whose life might be remarkable and admirable for the most part, but who are brought down by a single flaw or misdemeanor. This afternoon I read that the Ratsvorsitende of the EKD (German Protestant Church), Bishop Margot Kaessmann, has been arrested on a drink-driving charge.

I don’t particularly want to respond to this – I hate knee-jerk reactions which pile grief on people who know (without us telling them) they’ve screwed up. People should not be used as fodder for vicarious stone-throwing.

Interestingly, the first article I read was in Die Zeit and it was simply a factual reportage of what had happened and noted that she had cancelled all engagements for the rest of this week. It reported that the EKD would be discussing the matter. No further speculation and no great moralising.

Then I went to Bild, the tabloid newspaper that broke the news. Inevitably, they have started polling the ‘angry people’, sought out the voices who will (inevitably) call for her head, and (reluctantly?) noted at the end of its pieces the fact that lots of church leaders are supporting her. My contempt for the moral hypocrisy of those who produce these ‘newspapers’ is well known, so I won’t say more here.

However, what of Kaessmann herself? There will be lots of cries for her blood elsewhere, so I will approach it from a different angle. She has admitted the charge, expressed shock at her own behaviour and said she will face whatever the law throws at her. But she is media-savvy and will know that she now faces being taken apart as a form of public sport. The following is obvious, but needs saying:

  • Drink-driving is not only criminal, it is crazy
  • Church leaders – in the public eye – should be more careful than most and should not take such risks
  • Driving through a red light (as she did) is dangerous
  • Kaessmann’s sense of judgement on this occasion should be questioned
  • She should be subject to the discipline of her church.

But it is a matter for her and the EKD how she and they proceed from here.

Should she resign? I think not. It would please the self-righteous, but wouldn’t achieve anything else. However, she and the EKD Council will have to ask if this single misdemeanor of itself and automatically obviates all her other gifts and qualities. Does this compromise her ability to represent the Gospel of Jesus Christ through a church that needs little reminder of its own potential for compromise of a more sinister sort?

I still think Kaessmann is a very good thing and am sad to read what she has done. Nevertheless, she has always been startlingly honest in public, and has shown great courage under the spotlight as well as being a powerful articulator of the Gospel and the engagement of theology in the modern European marketplace of ideas. She is flawed as we all are. She is also more gifted than most of us in many respects. I hope the EKD doesn’t lose her.

I doubt if she will ever make this mistake again. I hope, however, that she will be given the chance to start again. Sometimes it is the leaders who need judgment and mercy – with some recognition of the pressures under which they work. That isn’t an excuse or special pleading. Yet, although I don’t drink and drive, I do look at her and think that ‘there but by the grace of God go I’.

More anon…

So, the General Synod of the Church of England has deliberated for a week and generally disappointed the doom-mongers by not splitting apart into enemy factions. In fact, some of the debates turned out to be good and intelligent, allowing a voice to some well-informed and experienced people – the debate on science and faith, for example. What has been described as ‘the conflict metaphor’ got a damn good thumping by scientists and mathematicians who happen to be committed and convinced Christians.

That’ll upset the arrogant fundamentalists.

I was pleased to see Andrew Brown in the Guardian asking if science and atheism are compatible – following a post suggesting that the Synod is boring. Some of us might be relieved to hear it was boring as that means it was probably substantial in terms of content whilst failing miserably to burst into conflict. The Synod isn’t primarily a talking shop to keep the media ‘in story’, but the Church of England’s legislative body; so it does have to attend to insider stuff which has to be done, but won’t get sexy headlines.

Coming back into things following sabbatical (study) leave and time abroad, I was pleased to see generally good media coverage of the Synod. I felt that for the first time in a long time the Synod and its business was treated generally with a seriousness and granted an integrity that has often appeared lacking. It felt almost German…

…which brings me back to another thought provoked by the great Helmut Schmidt, 91 year old former Bundeskanzler. I recently picked up in Friedrichshafen a book of interviews with Schmidt. The interviews are conducted by editors of Die Zeit and may only last as long as it takes Schmidt to smoke a single cigarette – they originally appeared in the German weekly newspaper and have now been collected and edited. It is brilliant and exactly the sort of thing other ‘grand old men’ (and women) should be asked to do: very insightful, revealing and interesting.

There are two things that struck me:

1. Schmidt says that he was generally unwell while serving  as Bundeskanzler. In an interview about politicians and their holidays he says that he has now had five heart pacemakers fitted, ‘the first while in office’. He goes on to describe not only heart problems, but also thyroid and other health deficiencies. He says: ‘We kept this concealed from the public’.

2. When he became Defence Minister he discovered that NATO had a secret plan to bury nuclear mines along the border with the GDR and Poland. He thought this was insane and got his American counterpart to agree to remove the hardware and bin the plans. When asked how this didn’t get out into the public domain, he said that one or two journalists knew about it, but had the restraint and wisdom (for the greater good) to keep quiet. A decision was made in the interests of the social order rather than the private or commercial interests of a newspaper in possession of a certain scoop.

The question this raises is simply this: could this happen today? Or does ‘transparency’ – based in lack of trust in anyone else’s integrity – trump everything else? Is the world a better or worse place for the secrecy exercised only a few decades ago? Would we be better off not knowing some of the things we do – such as Ashley Cole’s phone habits, John Terry’s sexual predilections or Gordon Brown’s parental grief? (Incidentally, how do the press get into Cole’s phone or Terry’s privacy?)

The press will repsond that they simply give us what we want to read or watch. But we are more than mere consumers, bound to be fed the raw meat we demand; we are human beings who might be better for not knowing everything about everything or everyone.

I was aksed to comment on a live radio programme about John Terry’s infidelity. I declined because I was abroad. But I would have declined anyway – not because I think John Terry needs to be protected, but because he has a wife and children and they have not been spared not only the personal anger and grief, but have had to see their life shredded in every paper and screen. I didn’t want to add to their grief with some distant moral condemnation – there were plenty of others filling that gap.

I am just not sure that we are better people for knowing what we know. Or for wanting to know it and being willing to pay for it.

The great German weekly newspaper Die Zeit leads this week with two articles placed side by side. The first has to do with the current problems between the governing coalition partners and the apparent lack of leadership from the Bundeskanzlerin, Angela Merkel; the second is about the hidden power of Google. At first I wondered why they had been put together on the front page, but then I began to understand.

There is a bit of a crisis in Germany over how the Schwarz-Gelb (conservative-liberal) coalition can hold together. They are arguing about everything and a crisis summit is about to take place. However, the real pressure is on Angela Merkel who has remained remarkably quiet and ‘absent’ in recent weeks while the arguments raged around her. It is her leadership style that is now in question.

Merkel’s ‘reserved’ style was welcome after Germany’s electorate had grown fed up of years of endless conflict and controversy. But, as the world around has changed in the last couple of years, this style of leadership has (according to some commentators) led to a vacuum in orientation or leadership of the governing class. What was appropriate in the last Great Coalition is proving inadequate in the new coalition in which the two small parties (CSU and FDP) are at odds with each other and are not being brought to book.

Furthermore, Merkel’s style was helpful in her other role as leader of her party, the CDU. She faces the same problem as David Cameron in the UK: how do you modernise a conservative party without alienating your reactionary core and still remain electable as a coherent party? Quietly-quietly served her well in the last government, but it is coming apart now.

Obviously more could be said about this, but I want to move on. Leadership is a tough matter at the best of times and any leader knows how fickle the ‘led’ can be: waving in support one minute and calling for your head the next. Short-term memories on the part of the electorate do not always lead to good policy-making by those in charge. But Merkel’s plight (which Die Zeit partly attributes to her hands-off approach to the detailed negotiations of the coalition terms) highlights a problem for good leadership anywhere: how to recognise that a different style is now needed and to gauge whether or not I am equipped to offer it.

I have written about this in relation to the Archbishop of Canterbury, so won’t repeat it here. But, leadership is a lonely business, especially when trying to lead at the same time as ‘read the runes’ of the wider mood.

And how does this connect with Google? Well, the article about Google articulates a widespread concern in Germany (Der Spiegel ran it as its cover story last week) that Google knows too much about us all and that this is dangerous. This debate has been running in the UK, too, but it is set against a historical backdrop in Germany that gives it a particular significance if not poignancy. (Interestingly, Spiegel is also suspicious about Google’s weak challenge to the Chinese…)

The link between the two articles (in my mind, at least) is this: how do leaders identify the really important issues that demand their attention? Helmut Schmidt has this week noted the return of the bonus culture amongst bankers and said that the seeds of the next financial crisis have been sown in thsi one because we understand more, but refuse to face the need for radical change. So, the financial crisis is up their with bankers’ bonuses. Then there are the economic and ecological challenges to our world and our societies. There is no end to the list of demanding ‘issues’ – and, as I have observed elsewhere, leaders are regarded as ‘leading’ only when they are shouting loudly what ‘I’ want to hear them say.

While Merkel and other government leaders (including in the UK) find all sorts of issues to concern them and dominate their agendas, there is one that seems to draw attention only from sections of the media and interest groups: the surveillance culture. Even the Church preoccupies itself with a limited list of ‘moral issues’ – sex is always at the top despite Jesus saying little about it; money is much lower down although Jesus said loads about it – while ignoring the tough ones that are more hidden.

Well, I want to stand with the editors of Die Zeit (whether they intended the link or not) and put a challenge to government (and other) leaders to take seriously developments in our surveillance society and put it higher up the list of ‘moral issues’ that demand attention. In the hands of a benign government there might be little to lose from being ‘watched’; but the potential for misuse of information is enormous even in such a society as ours.

So, how about some leadership in relation to the UK government’s will to retain email and mobile information, to collect and retain DNA samples from everybody imaginable, to photograph people in London over 300 times a day from ubiquitous cameras, and to retain as much information on everybody in as compact a manner as possible? Given the interconnectedness of the modern digital world and the propensity of human beings to misuse power in the interests of power, this is a debate that needs to be had now.

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.