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.

 

OK, the Church of England appoints a new Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope resigns. Coincidence? Of course! But that doesn't stop people speculating that the Pope's reasons for retiring must be anything other than those he has given. This is a conspiracy-theorist's dream.

Well, now the cacophony of advice aimed at the cardinals has already begun. What seems to be commonly agreed is that the Roman Catholic Church needs to change – although that's the easy bit: what that change looks like is the subject of bitter and contradictory disagreement. It was ever thus.

In a further coincidence I am en route to Hannover, Germany, to speak at an ecumenical conference on how the churches in Germany need to change to face a challenging new world. They – both Protestants and Roman Catholics – are keen to open up creativity in a culture that has assumed its place in German society for centuries, but now finds it harder. There are significant differences between the German churches and the English churches, but the Germans want to learn more from – and be inspired and encouraged by – initiatives such as Fresh Expressions, Liquid Church, and others. I am quite heavily involved in speaking and engaging in discussion at a pre-conference conference today, the main conference (with 1200 participants) tomorrow and Saturday, then preaching on Sunday morning before returning to Bradford.

(I am writing this at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam, having had a dreadful journey! I was supposed to fly from Leeds-Bradford to Amsterdam and then on to Hannover last night. It took three hours to drive the eight miles from home to Leeds-Bradford; the flight was delayed by three hours; I was put in a hotel in Amsterdam – getting three hours sleep – and now am waiting to board the flight to Hannover. This morning's meetings have been mucked up accordingly…)

It is always interesting to look at how a different culture deals with change. I am a close observer of the German churches, but they start from a different point from those in England. There are now some really interesting ad creative initiatives emerging and the seriousness with which these are being addressed in Germany is impressive.

I bring the mixed experience of England. Some 'fresh expressions' have failed, sometimes the rhetoric outstrips the reality, and sometimes they are just a way of 'doing what we want without the hassle of the bits of church we don't want to other with'. But, all in all, they have sparked an explosion of adventurousness, creativity and imaginative courage. On the other side, look at attempts to change the Church of England more substantially – for example, the Dioceses Commission proposals to dissolve three dioceses in West Yorkshire and create a new single diocese with five episcopal areas – and it becomes clear how, in some quarters, resistance to change prevents any creative engagement with either reality (look at the numbers, both people and money) or potential (taking responsibility for creating something new).

Change is always difficult, but difficulty is never an excuse for not changing. While looking though the German lens in the next few days I will also be reflecting from a distance on how change is faced in my part of England. Or not.

The forecast was awful, but the reality turned out nice. The weather in York, that is. Yesterday's torrential rain gave way this morning to blue skies and a big yellow thing in the sky. If yesterday reflected the mood of people arriving for the General Synod, today shines a different light into our concerns… despite all the shouty 'noises off'.

I spoke with a journalist recently who suggested that we arrive at Synod, keep behind our battle lines, then start arguing about sex and women. The reality is a little less dramatic, hugely less violent, and considerably more interesting. This morning, for example, we met in 40 groups of a dozen people for worship, Bible study, discussion and thinking. The conversation in my group led my thinking towards the 'debate-everyone-is-waiting-for-and-shouting-about': women bishops. What follows isn't a dig or a pretence at a solution, just a suggestive reflection derived from the reading we were looking at.

In John 18 Jesus has prayed for the unity of his 'body'. (Presumably, he included Judas the betrayer, Peter the denier, and Thomas the doubter in this.) He then waits with his feckless friends in the garden of olive trees – olives being destined for crushing if the life is to flow from them for the nurture of others. What is remarkable is that Jesus, having taken considerable time to pray and think, now waits for the moment of truth (literally). Three things struck me about him in John's description of this most agonising moment:

  1. Jesus was in control of himself. In modern psychospeak he was 'centred'. Judas, the religious authorities and the Roman soldiers might think they are in control of him, but they don't see that they have no power over him. He knows, he owns what is to happen, he chooses to be here and nowhere else. They can kill him, but that's all.
  2. He didn't play the victim. Contentious church debates too often revolve around emotive language and hierarchies of victimhood. This gets us nowhere. If some circles cannot be squared, someone is going to be 'hurt'. Someone is always going to be hurt when decisions are made about anything of any import. But the decisions need to be made without accusations rooted in perceptions of victimhood. We then move on and take responsibility for what we do in the light of those decisions.
  3. He didn't blame anyone else. He didn't start throwing olive stones at the guards. He took responsibility upon himself and refused to blame others for the situation in which he found himself or the decisions he was now bound to take.

This applies today because too much talk is about perceived (even if not intended) threat. The synod needs to take stock, make its decisions and then see where we go from there. There will be both positive and negative consequences whatever we decide in relation to the women bishops legislation. But we need to eschew the language of blame, of victimhood and of threat, if we want to connect this morning's Bible study with Monday's synodical debate.

Anyway, today has also involved a good debate about engagement with the wider church in the world and how to encourage even more links with other provinces, dioceses, parishes and sister churches. Among the many fringe lunches, I went to hear more about the Near Neighbours scheme at work in several of our cities. The afternoon was taken up with legal matters relating to money, Europe and the Church Commissioners. I had a good hour with the excellent German ecumenical guest before dinner with the Children's Society and an evening on the ecclesiology of Fresh Expressions.

In other words, most of what we are doing here is not about women bishops or sex and there is little conflict about. Contrary to popular reportage or assumption, the church is facing outwards and looking at its engagement with the many worlds that make up the world. Monday will come – with all its immense challenges – but so will Tuesday. And Wednesday. Life will carry on, new challenges and opportunities will present themselves, new conflicts will emerge and new alliances be forged. And God will still be God, the church will still be Christ's, and our Christian vocation will not have changed.

Having taken Ruth Gledhill’s rebuke seriously, I offer this as an alternative way of saying what I wanted to say in the last post.

Some people groan when the term ‘Fresh Expressions’ is introduced into polite conversation. I have even heard people reply with something to the effect that they are quite happy with stale expressions of church thank you very much. But, like the term or loathe it, it represents a setting free of many churches to be creative, innovative and imaginative in their worship and outreach.

OK, it is true that what would simply have been called a ‘Coffee Morning’ or a ‘Pensioners’ Lunch’ ten years ago (attracting little applause for its pastoral or evangelistic cutting edge) can now be labelled a ‘New Way of Being Church’. But, isn’t that the genius of it? Giving ordinary initiatives a label of approval makes the whole enterprise feel more highly valued than it might have done before.

Rowan WilliamsThe Archbishop of Canterbury has just launched a new collection of good stories (or ‘best practice’, as it is usually known) of fresh expressions of church entitled Ancient Faith, Future Mission. These relate to all sorts of people, personalities, interests, backgrounds, passions, problems found in all sorts of contexts around the country. They are aimed at encouraging churches not to reject the old stuff (which is still culturally helpful and appropriate for many people), but to reach out to people not being reached through the old stuff by using cultural forms that are more likely to be effective. After all, the point is to create the space in which all sorts of people can find that they have been found by God.

Now, no doubt this book will attract sneers as well as gratitude. It will be represented by some as yet another pathetic attempt by a failing church to get trendy and pull in young bums to fill the empty pews – which is often how the Church of England is represented in the media. But, this will be a big mistake. And it will be interesting to know how those who sneer are going about reaching the thousands of people who are not worshipping in their existing services and not finding the local church creating the space in which they can find that they have been found by God. ‘Pointless and shallow’ was how one cleric described reports of this book (I bet he hasn’t read it): what is his alternative for effective evangelism and worship that draws more than the usual suspects?

Creative attempts to bring Christ to people and people to Christ have always drawn contemptuous rejection from those who know best. I think I know whose side I am on in this one.

Just about to go and open a new Children’s Centre in Redhill when I got the daily press briefing and spotted an article in the Telegraph about the church. Now, before I go any further, this is not me ‘having a go’ at the Telegraph or questioning the credentials of my friend Jonathan Wynne-Jones whose name appears at the top of the article. But it does illustrate the game we are in and it got me thinking again.

The headline proclaims:

Church of England attempts to broaden appeal with songs by U2 and prayers for Google

Christian services that feature DJs, songs of the Irish band U2 and prayers for the chief executives of Google and Wal-Mart are being promoted by the Church of England.

Ben CantelonIt seems from the article that follows that the Archbishop of Canterbury is launching a book from the Fresh Expressions stable that urges creativity in forms of worship that relate to people of different cultures. But what the article does is repeat the mantra that this is all an attempt to get younger bums on pews. This is the tired old lens through which any new initiative is seen by the media generally: pews are emptying (they don’t bother to look at the filling-up pews because they don’t fit the ‘story’), so any initiative is a sad but trendy attempt to ‘appeal’ to younger people – all slightly embarrassing and half-baked.

I have not read the report, but I bet it is not saying what the start of the article suggests it is. I bet it is saying that we need alternatives to the mainstream, not replacements for it. In other words, the traditional stuff also has its essential place and wears particular cultural clothing; but there is room for other creative and appropriate cultural clothing for worship, providing other ‘languages’ for worship. This is not new! Nor is it aimed at young people; rather, it is aimed at getting the church to think about the plethora of cultural ‘languages’ spoken in our society and trying to learn them. So, it is not ‘either-or’, but ‘both-and’.

This is obviously too difficult to grasp for some observers. When my last book came out (based on songs), the Sunday Telegraph ran a piece about it in which the same mantra was trotted out: bishop wants hymns replaced with pop songs in order to get younger bums on pews. I don’t believe that; the book doesn’t say that and the book isn’t about that in any way at all. But that was the line agreed with the editor and that was the story that had to be published. (It caused me endless grief from – mainly American – fundamentalists accusing me of all sorts of sins and using this article as an example of just how pathetic the Church of England has become. And all based on a headline and report that was fundamentally misleading.)

u2_croke_parkThe article goes on to describe the Fresh Expressions programme as aiming ‘to boost church attendance with more relevant and exciting services’. This also is nonsense. ‘Relevant’ in the sense of ‘comprehensible’, maybe; but where does the word’ exciting’ come from? What I know of Fresh Expressions suggests that worship can be lots of things, but doesn’t have to be ‘exciting’. It might be profoundly moving, might involve silence and stillness, might draw a small number of people into deeper reflection on Scripture, and so on.

As with all journalism now, it is imperative to find someone who holds a contrary view in order to quote them and fulfil the ‘conflict’ demand. So, Prebendary David Houlding offers the following response: “”All this is tosh. It’s just a passing fad, irrelevant, shallow and pointless… There’s no depth to it and it’s embarrassing because it’ll make people think that we’re eccentric and silly.” I wonder if David has read the report and what question he was answering over the phone to the journalist?

CandlesMy real problem is that the headlines bear little or no relation to the article beneath them. That is not the fault of the journalist who wrote the article, but of the sub-editor who has probably not read or even heard of the report being described. Once you get beyond the first couple of ‘conflictual’ paragraphs, the article makes all the reasonable points you might expect and is more  nuanced in its coverage. But I bet  – as with this post – some people won’t read that far; they will see the headline and blow a fuse over the Church of England… all based on a misleading (but prejudice-reinforcing) report.