It’s really hot and humid here in Novi Sad, Serbia. This morning threatened thunder and rain, but it’s ended up being just … er … hot and humid. Fortunately, the 500 people in the conference centre don’t have to sit too closely together.

The theme yesterday was ‘hospitality’; today’s is ‘justice’. We began with a Bible study on 1 Kings 21 (Naboth and the art of hiding behind the law when you do terrible things) by a Brazilian theologian, Dr Elaine Neuenfeldt. This was followed by a young German lawyer, Lisa Schneider, speaking (in German) both thematically and practically about justice – her main plea being that the church should never try offering young people simple solutions to complex questions. She stressed the need for young people to see the church demonstrating authenticity (‘practise what you preach, or just stop preaching sort of thing’) – young people, she said, are passionate about truth and justice.

A Swiss Methodist bishop, Dr Patrick Streiff, reflected on this (in French). I found his final point the most interesting: an over-preoccupation with the language of values ignores the actual root of Christian relationship: our unity in Christ. He observed that in many official comment on social themes we refer to “Christian values for Europe”:

Certes, il est nécessaire que les Églises participent au dialogue – et parfois dispute – sur des valeurs. Mais parler des valeurs se base déjà sur une certaine abstraction de ce qui est au cœur de notre foi. Notre foi ne se base pas sur des valeurs, mais sur le Dieu trinitaire qui s’est révélé à nous et dont la relation avec lui se répercute dans certaines valeurs qui nous sont chères.

In other words, Christian faith is rooted in the trinitarian God, not an abstract set of values. He then illustrated this in the following way:

Dernièrement, en Autriche, après une entrevue du ministre avec tous les dirigeants des religions officiellement reconnues, le ministre voulait encore voir le sanctuaire dans notre immeuble méthodiste. Le surintendant le lui a montré et expliqué qu’il y a une paroisse de langue allemande et une paroisse de langue anglaise qui se réunissent chaque dimanche, avec des personnes d’une trentaine de nations. Le ministre était étonné, puis a dit : « oui, il semble que c’est possible si on a les même valeurs ». Un peu plus tard et à nouveau seul, le surintendant s’est dit : « Ce n’est pas vrai. Ces gens ont des valeurs souvent très différentes, mais ils se réunissent ici à cause de leur foi en Christ. »

He concludes with this question: “How are we to witness to that which lies at the heart of our faith when we address ethical questions?”

The point is that Christians in Europe inhabit different cultural and political contexts, these arising from different histories of conflict and loss. Serbian Orthodox Christians will have a different approach to Kosovo, Muslims and justice from that of a Welsh Presbyterian (for example). Our perspectives and values (such as justice, reconciliation and the conditions these demand) might be seen differently depending on our communal experience; what unites Christians is our unity in Christ – which is shaped like a cross before which we must be repentantly hopeful. Unity of relationship and mutual obligation is not the same as unanimity of opinion on values.

In the light of this, this amazingly international and multilingual conference went on to address head on challenges to the future of Europe. No fantasy here, but, rather, a head-on articulation of the hard challenges facing Europe in the light of corruption, populist nationalism, and the collapse of a common vision.

On that cheerful note, we move on to business.

I am in Novi Sad in Serbia for the General Assembly of the Conference of European Churches. The shadow in which 500 Christians from a vast range of churches meet is a rapidly changing Europe. The first day has concentrated on the Christian obligation to offer hospitality to the stranger – pertinent in the face of populist nationalism, mass migration, the corruption of the public (and political) discourse, and the easy equation of the common good with mere economics and self-protection.

However, this is no abstract conversation between lefty snowflakes about bleeding-heart do-gooding; rather, it is intelligent and informed, led by speakers and contributors who are deeply engaged in practical hospitality for refugees and migrants in places like Syria, Iraq, Greece – places on the front line of bitter suffering.

Following a Bible study on Genesis 18:1-8 (Abraham and the strangers who visited him at Mamre), the Patriarch of Antioch made an impassioned yet measured justification for Christians to care for strangers as a biblical imperative. This theme runs through the Bible and rests on the reminder that “we all were slaves once”. Jesus was unequivocal on his own identification with the stranger, the refugee and the dispossessed (look at Matthew 25 for starters).

This is why it is so depressing that in the Brexit debates in Parliament and the media the sole preoccupation seems to be with economics, trade deals and money. Human value, social good, cultural richness – the soul of a society – get forgotten. People are more than cogs in an economic machine; society must be more than simply a functioning economy. For whose benefit does an economy exist? Or, to put it differently, does the economy exist for people, or do people exist to serve the interests of an economy?

The language we use usually gives away the truth of our response to these questions.

Given the contrast between Abraham (the nomad who offers hospitality to the strangers at Mamre in Genesis 18) and the people of Sodom and Gomorrah (who abused hospitality by trying to exploit the strangers/guests), it is perhaps understandable that the stand-out sentence in this morning’s sessions was to the effect that “maybe today’s Sodomites are those who preach against hospitality to the refugees and migrants”.

Discuss.

Why on earth do religious events that happened abroad five hundred years ago have any significance for today’s world? Or for the church? Remember, France and Italy worked hard to omit any reference to the Christian history of Europe from the preamble to the Lisbon Treaty – purely for ideological reasons. How stupid can intelligent people get? You don’t have to sympathise with that history, but to write it out looks suspiciously like blanking Trotsky from the photos.

Well, I am in Wittenberg for an academic conference that goes with the exciting title of Faith and Theology: Basic Insights of the Reformation in Ecumenical Debate. Theologians from around the world have come together to explore from different perspectives how the legacy of the Lutheran Reformation speaks into the situation faced by the church today. In fact, after two introductory lectures – which demonstrated immediately the different cultural approaches to theological method in Germany and the USA – we broke into groups to consider the necessary contextualisation of faith and theology. My group heard from a Brazilian and an Indian who teaches in Australia.

One of the concerns that runs though the conference is a worrying tendency to relegate rigorous academic theological thinking and research into the realms of private interest and out of the world of public truth. In short, faith needs the critical distance and hard thinking of theology, whilst theology has no point if it is not rooted in commitment to what that theology addresses.

Tomorrow morning we will pray together in the Schlosskirche, onto whose doors Martin Luther allegedly nailed his 95 Theses on 31 October 1517. Later we shall explore questions of faith, theology and exegesis, followed later with consideration of faith, theology and human action. We then continue into Thursday when the conference will end with papers on the ecumenical challenges presented by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Berlin, the Ratsvorsitzende of the EKD, and me.

If it doesn’t sound very exciting, all I can say is: you have to be here. It is intellectually stimulating, theologically challenging, and the people are really nice to know.

I am in York for the General Synod of the Church of England – a session that lasts from this afternoon until next Tuesday. The agenda was varied in order to allow for a debate on a motion proposed by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the wake of the EU Referendum. The Synod was encouraged by the Archbishop to look forward, not back.

I stood throughout the substantive debate, but was not called to speak – a little odd and frustrating given that I lead on Europe for the bishops in the House of Lords and chair the Meissen Commission, whose new German co-chair (Landesbischof Ralf Meister of Hanover) had just addressed the Synod.

Much of the debate was good, some was predictable. What was obvious, however, was how few of the ills attributed to the decision by 17million people to vote to leave the EU actually have/had nothing whatsoever to do with the EU. At some point this has to be named. If people wanted to express alienation for the political discourse or protest at the behaviour of Westminster, then the EU should not have been the target.

That said, the vote is a fact on the ground and we now need to get on with the consequences of the result.

Had I spoken in the debate I would have drawn attention back to a less introspective place. The European project had distinctively Christian origins and emerged from a Christian-driven post-war drive to create relationships that would prevent intra-European conflict in the future. Schumann did not dream up his vision from nowhere. So, the debate going forward has to do not only with economics, markets, jobs and currency values, but also with culture, education, hope and integration.

It is not insignificant that a group of German and British Christians exchanged visits as Europe “sleepwalked” (Christopher Clark) its way towards what was to be the First World War. As the world collapsed around them within a few years, the relationships continued. Enemies knew that they were friends because they were untitled by the cross and resurrection of Christ. In the run-up to what became the Second World War it was also relationships between Christians that held while the nationalisms screamed their allegiances. It wasn't just Bishop George Bell and Dietrich Bonhoeffer who kept the fires of love burning amid the conflagration of an 'Enlightened' continent.

So, in looking forward to what might come next for the UK and its place in Europe (if not in the EU), we might just learn from such a brief look back. It is the relationships that matter. And they matter more now, perhaps, than they did three weeks ago.

Church of England dioceses often have strong partnerships with Anglican dioceses around the world – often in exotic or 'other' places. Quite right, too, and very important. Trying to get links with European dioceses has proved more difficult because there is an assumption that “they” don't need us and, anyway, we know them already. But, this is simply wrong. There has never been a greater need for us to build strong relationships and partnerships with European Christians and churches than there is today. It is the relationships that sustain when everything else collapses – and the future of Europe looks more fragile today than it did just a few weeks ago.

I would say this, wouldn't I? After all, I am a europhile. I speak several European languages. I have strong friendships across Europe. I co-chair a European ecumenical body (the Meissen Commission). But, at risk of repetition, I say:

  • Now is not the time to diminish our investment in European ecumenical work, but to grow it.
  • Now is the time to create, build and strengthen sustainable relationships with European churches and Christians.
  • Now is not the time to look just at what is happening in our own islands, but to look through the lens of those on the continental mainland.
  • Now is the time to ask what we can contribute to the future of Europe and not just what we can gain from it (or from leaving the EU).
  • Now is the time to do the step-by-step, hard work of building relationships and making reconciliation a reality – not just in the divided communities of the UK, but also across the continent.

 

Despite my deep European experience and connections (as well as affections), I decided early on in the referendum campaign to treat it like a real debate and listen to the arguments. The whole point of a debate is that those involved should listen and, if appropriate, be willing to change their mind. I wanted to be open to being persuaded either way. Consequently, apart from a couple of general observations about the nature and terms of the debate on the Reimagining Europe blog, I decided not to campaign for either side.

I then intended to put my personal conclusions into writing here around ten days before the referendum itself – on the grounds that after that there would be little or nothing to say or hear that had not already been said or heard. Then, when I was about to do it, Jo Cox MP was murdered in Birstall, West Yorkshire by a man who, in court, gave his name as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”. In the light of this, and wondering what would actually constitute a “free” Britain, I have pondered further.

I had intended to do a longer piece, arguing my points thoroughly. I no longer have the stomach for it – and, anyway, I am now too busy with other things. So, I will keep this brief and to the point, but also point to the Bishop of Chelmsford's excellent and thoughtful piece as the context-setter for what follows here.

Baroness Brady wrote in the Sun – and I think she encapsulates very succinctly and well the struggle many people feel between head and heart – that her heart is saying:

I love my country, I want to protect it. We don't want anyone telling us what to do and we'd be OK on our own.”

And there, I think, is the crunch. A mature country, like a mature human being, is open to seeing itself as it is seen from the outside, and then learning from that. A country that can be interdependent is one that is confident in itself – confident enough to learn from others, to look at itself critically through the eyes of others, and big enough to know that no country “is an island, entire of itself”. It is big enough to hold others to account and to be held to account.

The campaign itself has been depressing beyond words. Project Fear was not a monopoly exercise on either side. But, what pushed me to the limit was the irresponsible quoting of figures and promises that were baseless in fact and unarguable in reality. 'Facts' turn out actually to be assertion or mere opinion. For example, taking the economic statements:

  • Trade deals require at least two parties. Assuming that, were the UK free to negotiate its own deals – as if this can be done independently and in isolation – it is entirely possible that the other parties will ultimately not allow us the best deals for us and on our preferred terms. In fact, countries we have slagged off for being incompetent and corrupt might not forget this when dealing with us in the future. It cannot be assumed that negotiations will always land us with the best deal – and the promise that we will get our own way is questionable on a number of grounds. As Wolfgang Schäuble said with typically German clarity: “In is in, out is out”. It takes two to tango and the other's affections cannot be taken for granted.
  • Access to the single market will require that we obey the conditions the EU will impose (including free movement, etc.), pay the money accordingly, but allow us no vote in the setting of the rules or voice at the table when they are being set. If anything is “undemocratic”, surely that is – it is better to be at the table where our voice can count.

But, the economic arguments are not the most important ones for me. No one can promise what will happen if we stay or of we go. Boris Johnson can say with total confidence (as he did last week) that “Yorkshire will thrive like never before if we vote to leave the EU”, yet he can offer not one shred of evidence that this will be the case, what it might look like or on what basis he can state it as bold fact. I would be interested to hear the argument, but none is offered because none can be made. It is all speculation and wishful thinking. So is much of the Remain case for what might happen if we do vote to leave. This is unaccountable sloganising for emotional impact; it just has little to do with reality.

Furthermore, as relatively little has changed in the banking system since the crash of 2008, it is little wonder that predictions of a further major crash are now coming thick and fast. The threats to the British people come not from membership of the EU, but from the same old sources: a financial system that has not been fundamentally amended since 2008, a growing rift between the rich and poor across the globe, conflicts to which we have all been party, and an increasing disconnect between populations and the political classes.

We know that security cannot be assured in isolation. If we are to be secure, then we also have to look to the security and interests of those alongside whom we live. Britain cannot look to its own security in isolation from the wider continent and the wider world. A fragmentation of Europe – which happened a century ago as the archetype of the Law of Unintended Consequences of series of small decisions that, together and uncoordinated, caused a world war – is entirely possible again. The UK will be affected by what happens elsewhere. The EU is the institution to hold the thing together politically so that we do not find ourselves having to react to decisions made elsewhere over which we have had no say because we have no accountable institutional relationship. Leaving the EU might sound attractive for the UK for certain reasons, but what then happens in the EU (and on the continent of Europe) will impact on our islands: we cannot simply draw up the bridge and pretend we can be secure alone, thrive alone.

The dismissal of 'elites' by… er… elites is bizarre. The constant belittling of 'experts' is both miserable and inane – especially when the same politicians will be building their political cases on the support of experts from next Friday onwards. Migration is a global phenomenon and it will not cease to impact the UK if we vote to leave. The debate has used migration in a way I hoped had been left in the 1930s; few of those who speak of it have actually been out of the comfort of England to see the reality lived with in places like Iraq, Syria and Libya. For years migration has been a toxic subject in our public discourse, Concerns are real; domestic solutions cannot be found in isolation from the global.

“Take back control” sounds marvellous, doesn't it? Yet, it assumes we do not have control of our country. Is that true? If so, in what way? Shared sovereignty is not the same as lost sovereignty. Decisions made in the EU are not done to us, but with us. Yet, the rhetoric pretends that we are victims of powers beyond our control – as if we were absent.

Like many others, I am not blind to the need for substantial reform of the EU institutions. Its democratic accountability and financial probity need serious attention. We can only drive these if we are at the table, holding others to account. I believe we need to be in if we are to hold others in. And, contrary to much of the Brexit discourse, we cannot cannot uphold the interests of Britain without paying attention to the interests of our neighbours and listening to their critique of us. Not always getting our own way is not the same as being subject to a lack of democratic process.

Finally, the language of pure, selfish, tribal self-interest – economic, cultural, social and political – is not one that translates into my understanding of Christian identity or justice. When Paul the Apostle wrote to the Christians in Philippi that they should “have the mind of Christ” and “look not to their own interests, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves”, I don't think he was indulging in other-worldly piety. A confident people is strong enough to face this, not to close it down.

So, everyone must come to their own conclusions on Thursday. Promises and predictions made on both sides should be weighed for their realism and integrity: are they wishful (or fearful) thinking, or are they rooted in something accountable in some way? And how might they be subject to “events” that will inevitably confound both the promises and predictions made before “events” happen? I respect the judgements people will make – there are cogent arguments on both sides, even if these have largely been sunk beneath the tide of bile and sloganising that has characterised this dreadful campaign.

I conclude (as there isn't time to do this properly) with an observation. Closely connected with churches in other EU countries, we will continue – whichever way the vote goes – to work with humility and without hubris for reconciliation and closer relationships with our neighbours. Christian theology might not indicate which way people should vote on Thursday, but it does set a context for hopeful (rather than fearful) imagination; it demands that we do not misrepresent our neighbour's case (the ninth Commandment); it calls for the establishment of relationships of love and grace; it opens up the possibility of generosity and security rooted in a recognition of our mutual humanity; and it calls us to pay attention to the constant and ongoing need for mercy and hope.

I will vote to remain in the European Union. And I will do so because I want to ask not just what Europe can do for us, but for what we can do for Europe … and that means being committed to the European Union.

Whichever way we vote, and whichever way the vote goes next Thursday, who and how will we be on Friday?

 

This is the text of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

In the middle of last week I got back from a ten-day visit to Tanzania. Not only are my feet still moving to the rhythms of the music and the energy of the dancing – in schools as well as churches – but I have come home looking differently at what had previously been familiar.

My experience reminded me of the late German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt who wrote a book several years ago in which he kindly offered his advice to anyone thinking of standing for election to the German Bundestag: don't even think about it unless you speak at least two foreign languages to a competent degree. Why? Well, because, he says, you can't understand your own culture unless you look through the lens of another culture – and to do that you have to know something of (or, better, 'inhabit') the language. After all, language goes deep and some things can't be translated; they have to be intuited.

Well, I don't speak Swahili, but this is partly what was going on for me in Tanzania: not everyone sees the world as I do. For example, how are we to understand the significance of the first meeting in a thousand years between the Pope and the Patriarch of Moscow last week? Seen through an English lens, it might look merely odd. Seen through the eyes of a people whose religious memory goes deeper into centuries of division, and it will resonate more profoundly.

Or, politically, where the resurgence of Putin's Russia appears threatening in the West, but has a different complexion when seen by Russians whose recent history of collapse has been crying out for re-empowerment. Tensions over Syria, for example, have to be seen through Russian eyes, not just our own, if we are to see more clearly what is going on there.

None of this is new. Listening to Tanzanians describing their experience of life and loss, I could not help but look through their eyes at my own. And this exposes the limitations of my own imagination and understanding of the world – even my world. My mind was being changed.

This is what is referred to in the Bible as 'repentance' – the freedom to change one's mind – or, to put it more visually, to re-grind the lens behind the eyes that shapes the way we see God, the world and us.

It is no surprise, then, that for Christians this period of Lent is intended partly to clear away the stuff that stops us repenting. It creates the space in which we can once again, in humility, submit our perceptions, our convictions and our prejudices to the searching eye of love and justice and mercy and generosity. Or, for Christians like me, to have the courage not just to give up chocolate for a few weeks, but to dare to look and see differently that with which we had become comfortable or familiar.

 

I am in Liverpool to chair the Meissen Commission for four days. This Commission brings together the Church of England and the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland. We meet annually, alternately in Germany or England.

It is inevitable, perhaps, that the constant backdrop to our conversations is our common history in Europe. And behind it all is the question of who we think we are based on where we have come from.

This is a question I addressed in a blog post for Reimagining Europe and can be found here.

… is where the Meissen Commission met from Thursday last week until yesterday (Sunday). Locating the annual joint Commission meeting in part of Bradford called Little Germany is not nearly as tactless as the hotel bar showing a war film (Nazi planes bombing England, etc.) while we were grabbing lunch before dispersing yesterday afternoon.

One of the surprising things about Bradford is the stunning Victorian architecture. Little Germany is wonderful and is gradually being re-populated by businesses as part of the city centre's regeneration. And Bradford Cathedral happens to be located right by Little Germany.

This Commission (which I co-chair with the Bishop of Braunschweig, Bischof Professor Dr Friedrich Weber) came to Bradford to learn about how churches are learning to re-define their mission in a complex cultural context. If your parish is 82% ethno-Muslim and the local Church of England primary school is 95% Muslim, what does it mean to be an Anglican parish church or vicar – when Anglicans organise and define themselves territorially?

To help us look at this we met the Vice-president of the Council for Mosques, a leading Hindu businessman, the Anglican chair of the Presence and Engagement Task Group, the new Dean of Bradford Cathedral, the Vicar of Manningham and my interfaith adviser. We visited the wonderfully excellent Bradford Academy and the equally remarkable St Stephen's C of E Primary School. The Commission, in reviewing the visit, was struck by the warmth of welcome and hospitality in Bradford (the Great Victoria Hotel is excellent) and the “creativity and energy” with which the cultural challenges are being met.

The situation in Germany is different in so far as most Muslim immigration there is economic in origin (the Gastarbeiter from Turkey) and not post-colonial as it is here. Therefore, the corporate psychology of interaction is different. The Germans came to Bradford and discovered a church that, rather than buckling under the challenge of being – in some parishes – a minority, has risen to the challenge with vision and amazing imagination.

Just look at the schools we visited and the leadership exercised there.

So, the annual meeting over, I am now in Oxford for the annual meeting of the bishops of the Church of England. No time to write more now, but Meissen continues to fire me up.

 

I was around in Southwark for the 40th anniversary memories of the publication of John Robinson's Honest to God. This year is the 50th anniversary. In this week's Church Times the excellent Mark Vernon runs though the issues again before Richard Harries puts it all in to a personal context.

Honest to God caused a huge debate. Robinson called for a re-think of theology and the purpose of the church. En route he drew on Bonhoeffer's thinking, but didn't quite go where I think Bonhoeffer himself might have been heading. Big headlines didn't help the seriousness of his case, but it did lead to discussions everywhere about God. (In today's world this is the responsibility of the New Atheists who, in trying to diss God and theists end up getting people talking about God and theism – fulfilling the Law of Unintended Consequences, I guess.)

What Richard Harries does is place the phenomenon into the wider cultural and political context of the 1960s, and particularly its idealism. Which, of course, immediately points up the danger of reading history through a contemporary lens. The debates about Margaret Thatcher did the same: it was easy to spot those who hadn't lived through the 1970s and those who had.

The loss of idealism is troubling. Students these days are hardly likely to annoy the hell out of taxpayers by demonstrating; they have to concentrate on minimising and then paying off massive debts before they have even started.

The contrast is acute for me when I go to Kazakhstan and talk with young people who, whilst being realistic about the 'challenges', are immensely proud of their 22 year old country and seriously optimistic about the future. The only way I have been able to think about this is that they are building something and shaping a future – a bit like European countries after 1945. Contrast that with the tired cynicism that characterises Europe and we seem not to be building something, but merely trying half-heatedly on to something we have inherited.

This is also true of European ecumenism. At a round-table discussion with Herman von Rumpoy last year in Brussels, I ventured to suggest that the European narrative derived from two world wars and the shedding of oceans of blood had run its course. Yes, we must learn from our recent history, and, as Bertolt Brecht says in the conclusion of his play The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, recognise that 'the bitch [of fascism] is on heat again. But, I fear that the narrative emerging from mid-20th century Europe does not hold the same power for my children's generation as it does for those of us shaped by the war. We need to create a new narrative that engages the subconscious psyche of a new generation for whom the twentieth century is 'history' and not 'memory'.

OK, it is not exactly a deep observation; but, it is one that haunts me. I think it is a task that is urgent and yet being largely ignored. All efforts go into trying to secure what we have (largely, the institutions that define Europe in terms of administration and process), rather than creating something imaginatively new.

This is on my mind also because I have just finished reading Cees Nooteboom's book Roads to Berlin. It is a strange book. In three parts, the bulk of the text comprises reportage and memoir from immediately before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989/90. It is immediate and has the vivid benefit of recreating the atmosphere in Berlin as the world changed – all seen through the eyes of an outsider (he is Dutch) living through, yet detached from, those epic events. In parts 2 and 3 he reflects back on those events and on Germany and 'Germanness' twenty years later.

It is an uneven book, but better for it. It is unpretentious – although there were many references I didn't get, and this made me feel both uneducated and a bit stupid. But, it is a good read for anyone who wants to think about history, how we live through and reflect on it, how we need to look at ourselves through the eyes of an other if we are to think clearly about who we are and how/why we have become who and what we are.

The trouble with history is that we always think that 'now' is the ultimate – the end – when it is only tomorrow's yesterday and will look different when looked back upon by outsiders.

Oh well. Back to contemplating the future of Luis Suarez…

 

Here in Hannover the talk is all about change. The conference Kirchehochzwei not only has nearly 1200 people attending today and tomorrow, but also is a feat of imaginative organisation. I seem to do a lot of stuff in Germany, but this one has been hugely challenging, stimulating and educative.

The great thing about being out of one's own culture is that you get to look through the lens of another – and then look differently at your own. Perspective changes and new insights are gained – a bit like changing the camera angle or lighting on a film or stage set.

The conference is aimed at opening up German Christians' thinking about how to address necessary change in how the church shapes itself in a changing world. Learning from some of the Fresh Expressions experiences in England, they now want to work out what this might look like in a German context that is simultaneously both similar and very different. Yesterday I saw three superb presentations about initiatives in Austria, Aachen and Erfurt: two of these were Roman Catholic. And that into to the really interesting thing about the nature of the conference itself: it is put on by both the Evangelical (Protestant) and Roman Catholic Churches in Niedersachsen, sponsored by both the bishops.

What is interesting about this is that the ecumenical nature of the event both raises and lowers the guard as critical questions are asked from every possible direction in the exploration of how the 'church' is to change and what changes are legitimate. In my various inputs I have been stressing the importance of 'order' in new forms of church – a bit like the clarity and creativity made possible by painting white lines on a tennis court, without which no game is possible, no creative play is feasible and all you can do is bang a ball around.

Plenary sessions this morning gave way this afternoon to workshops and seminars – hundreds of them. It is amazing to watch it happen. I had been asked to attend a theological workshop on so-called 'liquid church' at which Thomas Söding, a Roman Catholic academic New Testament scholar, presented a brilliant paper in which he took three images from the New Testament of crises in boats. The opening paragraph of his notes (my quick translation) says:

The New Testament is not a model kit for the ship that is the church; rather, it is a log book that establishes the story of its early journeys, a fuel station which fills and empowers it, and a GPS satnav by which it can navigate.

The concluding observations in his notes state:

[This conference] is St Peter's little ship on a great journey. Without a general overhaul and a new crew it will go down like the Titanic. But which renovations are needed and which crew selection is the right one, if the ship is not to sail under the wrong flag and is safely to reach its destination with its freight intact, is the master question.

Not a bad question to pose at the end of the week in which Pope Benedict announced his retirement. And the has been a lot of questioning here about what might happen next in the Roman Catholic Church under a new Pope.

Following questions and discussion from the audience, I was asked to make a few observations on the question of how to change the church in ways that are creative, yet consistent with the New Testament. In reply I noted how one contributor yesterday had said of his 'fresh expression of church' in Aachen, “For me it is an experiment,” and added that in my view “the church itself is an experiment”. Picking up on Tom Wright's notion of biblical history as a five-act play in which we are still writing he fifth act, I suggested that however creatively and innovatively we develop the plot, it must always be consistent with what has gone on in the first four acts. Furthermore (and clearly mixing my metaphors here), although we might find ourselves responsible for steering a new and uncharted course in today's sea, we must not lose sight of what it actually means to be a 'ship' in the first place.

There was loads more. It was interesting later to listen to a moderated conversation between the Protestant Bishop Ralf Meister and his Roman Catholic counterpart Norbert Trelle. They didn't duck any questions either – including the 'challenge' to both churches of how to 'celebrate' in Wittenberg in 2017, the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation.

In all this we have witnessed people changing the guards that protect them from discomfort or challenge. It is a very good thing.

Anyway, that's enough. I am giving the final address in the final plenary session tomorrow afternoon. I have been asked to inspire and encourage the thousand people there. No pressure there, then.

Then I go for dinner with friends before preaching (this time in English, fortunately) at an international service in Hannover on Sunday before catching a flight back to Bradford via Amsterdam.