This is the text of an article commissioned by the Yorkshire Post for today:

Having grown up in a northern city that in my childhood still bore the violent scars of aerial bombing in the 1970s, I found it powerfully poignant to find myself one Sunday standing in the pulpit of the Frauenkirche in Dresden. I had listened to the stories told by my parents and grandparents of air-raid shelters, bombed houses, destroyed families – especially from the blitz on Liverpool in May 1941. Yet, here I was, standing in the pulpit of a church – now restored – that the Allies had fire-bombed on the night of 13-14 February 1945. And I remembered William Blake’s reference to a “fearful symmetry”.

The Second World War cost an estimated fifty million deaths. The casualties who stayed alive in some way are incalculable. I have had friends in Austria and Germany who were force-marched from their original home in (what became) Yugoslavia to near Paris and then back eastwards to the Danube, confronted by Soviet occupying forces. They were children. War was brutal.

Seventy five years is not a long time really. The unconditional surrender of the Nazi regime on 8 May 1945 brought an end to the conflict in Europe – although the slaughter continued in the Far East until August. It was, as the REM song puts it, “the end of the world as we know it”. A world exhausted by violence, fear and suffering breathed deeply … but then had to turn its collective face towards building a future. Not rebuilding, however. Nobody suggested that the world should return to some mythical golden age of the 1920s or ‘30s. Rather, they knew they had to take responsibility for building something new and untested.

So, while we rightly celebrate the courage and sacrifice of so many during those terrible years of Nazi tyranny and global conflict, we cannot romanticise it and simply stay with the echo of some past glory. We have to look to the future and ask – if we learn anything from history and those who paid the price of victory and peace – what is required of us in building the world our children and grandchildren will inherit.

If you go to the Holocaust Museum at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, you will eventually find your way to the memorial to the Warsaw Uprising. Either side of a door in a courtyard there are two sculpted reliefs: one depicts the uprising, led by a 19 year old who refused to lie down and be slaughtered; the other shows Jews being meekly led like lambs, herded by faceless Nazi soldiers. In other words, people respond differently to threat and dehumanisation – and neither should be judged by those who never have to face the choice.

I asked an academic who took me there some years ago why the Nazi soldiers had not been given any facial features. He said that they could not be depicted as human. So, I asked if that was actually the problem: if we dehumanise the evil-doers by making them faceless, do we also avoid the shocking agony that the immense and systematic cruelties of the Holocaust were perpetrated by people like me and you? He wouldn’t answer, but the question has never left me.

Although I was involved in a distant way in the Falklands War in 1982 (in a previous job in Cheltenham), I was never confronted by immediate brutality or threat. I never had to make the hard choices regarding violent resistance or submission. But, then I also visited the museum in Berlin called ‘The Topography of Terror’ (built on the site where the Gestapo HQ had once stood) – which houses a harrowing account of how civil society gets slowly corrupted by people letting a little bit of civility or humanity go at a time. Eventually it has gone too far. The rest, as they say, is history.

VE Day saw an end to more than conflict. It marked the beginning of a world which needed to build new institutions for peace and stability. It was understood that peace took a very long time to build – especially based on growing trust and mutual accountability – but could be destroyed in weeks or months. And the problem is that we don’t see it happening around us or within us. If VE Day does anything, it should pull us up short and face us afresh with the consequences of both civil corruption and historical amnesia. Peace has to be built and protected.

Seventy five years is not a long time. But, it is long enough for us to learn and lose the lessons bequeathed to us by those who endured suffering in the past. As a Christian, faced with the ambiguous record of the Church in Europe in the 1930s and ‘40s, I can only turn back to the narrative in the Bible that sees humility – not hubris – as the key to peace between people and nations.

VE Day 2020 – a day for celebration and for reflection.

Thirty years ago today the Berlin Wall fell. What follows is the basic text of a lecture I gave at Bradford Cathedral on Wednesday 6 November. It was followed by a very good Q & A which is not recorded here.

In a crowded field I think Timothy Garton Ash’s books on Europe stand out. His The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of ’89 (just updated this month) is an eye-witness account of these momentous events. His book The File is fascinating. His book of essays Facts Are Subversive repays careful reading (and see my review of it here). Yes, I am a fan.

Here is the (very long) basic text of the lecture:

Memory is not an uncomplicated matter. If my own memory is suspect, then corporate memory offers even more opportunities for selectivity. We select those elements of our past that help construct the narrative that makes sense of, or gives shape to, the life we either think we have had or wish we had had. We all do it, and every society, country or community does it.

If you don’t believe me, then look at any tourist display blurb and ask what it doesn’t tell you. Or, perhaps more pertinently to where we are at in Brexitannia just now, listen to the language. I give two quick examples before getting to my main theme.

First, contrary to assertions by some politicians, England (let alone Britain) did not win the Second World War singlehandedly, pluckily standing in isolated bravery against the Nazi empire: our European neighbours provided huge numbers of people not only in the resistance on the mainland, but also fighting with Allied forces across the globe. Then ask further about Commonwealth citizens whose contribution has not always been acknowledged or rewarded.

Secondly, the British Empire was not primarily an example of “the world’s greatest trading power”. It is shocking how the new Brexit appeal to our imperial past stresses our excellence and success in global trade without any mention of oppression, exploitation or military power. (Indian politician Shashi Tharoor, in his book Inglorious Empire, points out that prior to the British colonising his country India held 23% of global trade; by the time the British left India they had 3%. Draw your own conclusions.)

Now, you might wonder why, in beginning a lecture on where the world is thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, I have begun with these particular examples of selective collective remembering. Well, the answer is simply that it might be easier to think about post-1989 Europe and the competing narratives being spun about it if first we have looked closer to home at our own limitations and failures.

St Vitus Cathedral, Prague

Two weeks ago I stood outside St Vitus Cathedral at the heart of Prague’s Pražsky Hrad and opposite the residence of the Czech President since independence post-1989. I went over to look at some display boards that tell some of the history of the residence. There is only a single line about the post-war pre-1989 period. It says something like: “Even during the time of unfreedom some important people visited this place, including the famous astronaut Yuri Gagarin.” That is the sole mention of the Communist period. Did Stalin visit? Or Honecker? Or any other head of state? Or just an astronaut?

I cite this example because what is omitted tells a powerful story – for now, at least. 1945-89: 44 years of recent history – lived through by most people alive today – simply ignored.

Yet, go down the hill from the Hrad and there is a special exhibition of photography celebrating events across Eastern Europe in 1989. To get in you have to pass a chunk of the Berlin Wall with a Trabi sat on top of it. You then get to walk around a garden and through a building with an excellent and haunting display of photographs from the GDR, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Of course, these images capture moments when the people involved did not know how the story would end. There was no guarantee that, despite Glasnost in Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, the troops wouldn’t once again follow the tanks into Wenceslas Square or down Unter den Linden to the Brandenburg Gate. I look at the photographs through a lens that lived (albeit at a not disinterested distance) through the events recorded, and I know what did happen next.

Fall of the Wall exhibition, Prague

I also remember the euphoria. It was hard to believe in late 1989 that the ultimate symbol of division was being demolished by ordinary people while soldiers looked on. The opening of borders between Hungary and Austria, the decade-long demonstrations in the shipyards of Gdansk in Poland, the pressure on the West German Embassy in Prague, to mention just a few phenomena that contributed to the demise of a divided Europe, didn’t quite hold the symbolic power of a wall of death being picked apart.

The world was changing before our eyes, and it wasn’t long before politicians and commentators alike were proclaiming the end of a bi-polar world, the triumph of free-market capitalism, world peace and a glorious future. ‘Freedom’ was the byword and, despite Margaret Thatcher’s serious hesitations about the reunification of Germany, optimism was never going to be defeated by rational judgement.

What happened next might best be related to a parable Jesus told about a man who was delivered of a demon, only to allow a whole community of demons to occupy the now-vacant space. If you want to understand where the Russian oligarchs got all their vast resources of money, this is where to look. The collapse of a structure – not just political, but social and psychological – left a vacuum into which those best equipped to exploit it quietly stepped. As Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 illustrates perfectly, there are particular people whose expertise and instincts lie precisely in exploiting other people’s chaos for their own benefit. We’ll come back to this shortly.

But, first, let’s recall a few facts. Following the defeat of Germany in May 1945, the country was occupied by four powers: America, Britain, France and the USSR – each given their own zone. Berlin, located in the Soviet Zone, was itself divided between the four. The three western zones formed the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, which made the formal establishment of the German Democratic Republic (from the Soviet Zone) inevitable. Movement across borders remained fairly straightforward until the numbers of people migrating out of the GDR into the FRG pushed the authorities into doing the unthinkable: building a wall. On 13 August 1961, Berliners woke to find barbed wire blocking the border roads while workman began to erect a militarised concrete wall across the city. 27 miles long, it eventually held 302 guard towers and 55,000 landmines; 5,000 people escaped over or under the wall (including 1,300 guards). 327 people were killed along the German border, 262 of them in Berlin, including 24 border guards who were shot while on duty (usually for refusing to shoot civilians trying to escape). More than 200 border guards committed suicide, but most deaths involved civilians, 80% of whom were under the age of 35 (of which 10% were women).

The mantra within the GDR was that the wall was needed to prevent people flocking into the workers’ paradise from the western capitalist prison. The real reason was to stop people leaving, especially those needed if the socialist economy was to be built and protected. In 1989 30,000 East Germans fled when Hungary opened its borders temporarily; they sought refuge in West German embassies in other Warsaw Pact countries. The pressure built; Gorbachev, seeing the need for radical economic and political change, had opened the door in people’s imagination, and it would not now be closed. The 40th anniversary of the GDR took place in October 1989. Within a few weeks it began to cease to exist.

There is a strange symmetry to Germany, but one that we might note before looking shortly at what is happening there now. The Holocaust began its public expression and gained public sanction on 9 November 1938 – Kristallnacht, when Jews and their properties were directly attacked by violent Nazis and any pretence at civility in the political sphere died. The nightmare of the Third Reich, followed by the destruction of the war, the subsequent division of Germany and the failure of the Communist experiment in enforced ‘freedom’ – all collapsed into the euphoria of 9 November 1989 when the Wall was finally breached and the prison gates opened at last. Half a century of people’s lives, and now freedom.

The problem with politics is that politicians cannot always afford to tell us the truth. The language of liberation hid the realities and costs of change. Freedom always comes at some cost at some level, but the immediate aftermath of the 1989 Velvet Revolution was the destruction of eastern industry and the loss of a secure way of life. The reunification of Germany took place on 3 October 1990, but was, in fact, a take-over. Overnight many East Germans lost their homeland, their identity, their system, their flag, anthems and institutions, their values and their future. The West was going to put right what had been so wrong in the East; no value was attributed to anything experienced in the GDR between 1949 and 1989. The GDR had been annexed and had to assume the shape of the winners. Christian Wolter, a carpenter, lamented: “There was a uniqueness to East German society that didn’t exist in the West. There was something we had which I can only describe as solidarity.” Gerhard Mertschenk, an official with the East German Olympic Committee and a member of the SED (the Party) was blunt: “There was no unification, there was colonisation. I found myself on the garbage heap at 46.”

Much more could be said – not least that change inevitably brings cost: West Germans paid tax increases in order to invest and transform the former GDR economy and infrastructure. Long-term gain might bring short-term pain. But, if we are to understand what is happening in Eastern Europe today, we must at least try to enter into the experience of many who celebrated the fall of the Wall in 1989 only later to ask if all was as it appeared or, indeed, was promised. The diminishment of memory on the part of the ‘losers’ in the Cold War has only fed the sense of exploitation, resentment and devaluing experienced still by many in the East. (If you want to understand a little more, two films illustrate the phenomenon of change and what life looked like before and after. Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) and Goodbye Lenin are worth a watch.)

Of the many points that might be made from the experience of the last thirty years, it is the disillusionment that holds the key to much of what we are witnessing now. Yes, living standards improved for most people, but, on average, people in the former GDR territories of Germany earn 75% of people in the west of the country; GDP is 66% of that in the west and unemployment nearly 5% higher; the percentage of young people under 20 is considerably lower in the east than in the west. Although other measures are better (for example, life expectancy, completion of secondary education and employment rates among mothers), the rise of the Far Right and the popularity of populist demagogues across the world suggest that, contrary to western capitalist assumptions, people are actually motivated by more than money, security and consumerism. Westernisation has not led to paradise, after all.

I want to come back later to the role of the churches in all this, but, for now, we need to take a look at what is happening now, thirty years after the fall of the wall. And Germany, which I know best, is illustrative of wider phenomena.

Reunification saw a rise in xenophobia and attacks on migrants and foreigners in the east. Neo-Nazi parties gained traction, but never gained enough open support to make a significant mark on electoral politics. That has all begun to change.

Regional elections in Saxony on 1 September this year saw the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) come second with 25% of the vote. On the same day in Brandenburg the AfD got 27.5% of the vote. On 27 October in Thuringia the Left Party won, but the centre-right CDU (Angela Merkel’s party) fell to third place behind the AfD. How and why are the extremes pulling in the votes while the centre is collapsing?

As usual in these matters, there are many reasons and they are complex. Some are even just speculative: extrapolating future electoral behaviour from a vote today is a dangerous game and should be treated with caution. But, we can be fairly certain that three factors are having a powerful impact on electoral behaviour in these former East German Länder:

First, despite Angela Merkel being an East German, her government has increasingly been seen as an elite who take power for granted. Longevity in government, however successful, breeds a sense of tiredness and a need for change. Secondly, Merkel’s welcoming of North African migrants into Germany demonstrated firm moral integrity and purpose, but it legitimised a growing resentment in Germany about how the nature of the country was changing. This in turn was fed by a similar phenomenon to that in Brexit Britain: that global empowerment was leading to local powerlessness, and that local identity was being diminished and diluted by intrusion. Thirdly, the seeds of authoritarian ‘illiberal democracy’ (to use Viktor Orban’s words) found ready soil in those communities that feel increasingly left behind, neglected or fearful of losing their future.

Of course, these phenomena are not unique to Germany. The winners of globalisation do not have to worry about local identity as they treat the planet as an endless resource for their own economic and personal growth. The losers – or those whose grievances can be massaged by populist leaders, even if the loss is hard to evidence – are reasserting the local over against the global … and the costs, where identified, are regarded as a price worth paying.

This picture is being painted across Eastern Europe. As a number of commentators have been pointing out in recent weeks – in anticipation of the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Wall – three decades’ experience have persuaded many people that the gods of western free-market liberalism (economic as well as cultural) have proved as illusory as the defeated gods of Communism, Nazism and imperialism. That’s the problem with empires. Disillusionment creates a longing for security, often searched for in the nostalgic reaches of a romanticised memory.

The result is that Germany is now struggling with the end of the Merkel generation, appears unable to find a successful transition, whilst being challenged by a right-wing nationalist movement that is growing in confidence. It might not last, but it is clearly worrying for many Germans whose memory of the early twentieth century is still raw. They know fascism when they see it.

Frank Richter, a theologian and activist in Dresden, has identified the root of dissatisfaction in the experience of drastic change. “These multi-layered factors [young/old, educated/less educated, urban/rural, etc.] are extremely pronounced in East Germany because the people here have already experienced so much drastic change in their lives. Many people feel overwhelmed, and the populists play this tune terrifically.”

When Pegida started marching in Dresden and other cities in Thuringia they chanted “Wir sind das Volk!” To English ears this doesn’t sound very remarkable. But, this was the cry in East Germany in the run up to 1989. “Das Volk” has a resonance and deep connotations in German that “the people” does not quite capture in English. And where you put the stress matters enormously: “Wir sind das Volk!” or “Wir sind das Volk!” And, of course, there are resonances with the Nazis’ appropriation of the term in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. But, what was the cry of the crowds pushing for change in the GDR has now become the slogan of identity for the resurgent far right. In both cases – 1989 and 2019 – “Wir sind das Volk” articulates a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo and a statement of intent to reassert identity over against the seemingly powerful neglect of ordinary people and their concerns.

Which brings us to the role of the churches.

I have a friend in Berlin who doesn’t like the film Das Leben der Anderen. He thinks it romanticises the role of the Stasi in the GDR and their impact on ordinary people. He once described to me how, coming home one evening as a young man, he heard his parents’ conversation from inside their apartment … on the radio in the car outside. Instead, he pointed me to a film called simply Nikolaikirche. This, he felt, told a truer story.

The Nikolaikirche in Leipzig was the venue for ‘peace prayers’ held every Monday evening. Christian Führer, the Lutheran pastor of the church, described how these meetings grew from 600 in 1988 to over 4000 by September 1989. There were – reportedly – 28 Stasi officers watching the pastor day and night. These prayer meetings were perceived to be a serious threat to the regime. Christian Führer tells some wonderful stories about this time and these events in his book Und wir sind dabei gewesen: Die Revolution, die aus der Kirche kam. The church events led to peaceful demonstrations and, despite provocation, beatings and threats, Führer’s leadership and moral courage shaped the outcome of these confrontations. On 9 October 1989 – one month before the fall of the Wall – over 70,000 people moved from the church through the city of Leipzig chanting “Wir sind das Volk”. Not a single shot was fired. As Führer said: “There was tremendous relief that there was no Chinese solution and a feeling that if 70,000 could achieve what they wanted, then East Germany was no longer the same country it had been that morning. The regime had been expecting everything. The only thing they weren’t prepared for was candles and prayers.” When the church was occupied by 600 communist officials one day, they were shocked to find that instead of stone-throwing counter-revolutionaries, they actually found people praying and singing hymns.

This is an example of how, not knowing the end of the story (and fearing it might be bloody failure), the church opened up space for conversation, dissent and resistance whilst urging peaceful challenge for constructive change. It is probably worth noting at this point that protestors at this point wanted reform and not necessarily abolition of the state. But, the church’s involvement and leadership was crucial.

However, once the revolution had happened and, eventually, Germany was reunited, the church’s influence slowly declined. Church membership in the east is still well below that in the west, and, according to a recent book by theologian and television journalist Arnd Henze (Kann Kirche Demokratie?), membership of the church is statistically more likely to align with right-wing sentiments than with those that motivated East Germans to seek freedom from communist oppression. It is as if the churches had served their purpose and now had little to offer to those shaping a different political future.

Of course, this isn’t all that can be said about the church in the east. But, there is a marked difference between the churches in the west and the confidence of those in the east. Currently, there is a spat going on in Thuringia because the Protestant (Evangelical-Lutheran) bishop of Saxony, Carsten Rentzing, resigned following discovery of things he had written in the past in support of far-right ideologies. (Saxony is the Landeskirche in which our link Kirchenkreis Erfurt is located.) He was clearly conservative on many social and ethical issues, but when challenged from within the church to respond to criticism of his earlier views, he simply went silent and eventually submitted his resignation. I have read the materials in question – and much of the reportage arising from his resignation – and it is hard not to sympathise with those church members wanting him to explain himself, not least how he might justify his views theologically. He still has not spoken. A petition in favour of him remaining the bishop has reportedly been signed by around 15,000 people.

So, even the church is challenged. The source of dissent and peaceful resistance against the previous regime is now divided over the legitimacy of views that would not shame German ideology of the 1930s. What might this have to say to us – in a country where the Labour Party is being investigated for its anti-semitism, several Labour MPs have either resigned or defected because of this anti-semitism, and Jewish Labour has told Jews not to vote for Jeremy Corbyn’s party?

Perhaps the first thing is that people are very fickle. Conviction and passion for justice can take terrible turns when the conditions (or the objects of protest) change. Given the nature of Germany’s fairly recent history, it is hard from the outside to work out how anti-semitism, rejection of dispossessed and powerless migrants and resurgent passion for ‘German identity’ have become popular once again. The churches – certainly church leaders – are once again facing questions they thought had been closed down in 1945.

But, perhaps we need to be realistic about human beings and collective memory. In his great autobiography The Time of my Life Denis Healey suggested that politicians who have never fought in or experienced a war are more likely to send our troops into war in the future. We now have a younger generation for whom Hitler and the Holocaust are the stuff of history books and documentaries that relate to a different and long-gone world. Keeping an honest collective memory alive is a difficult task. Living in the present in the light of the past is not straightforward or simple. The building of contemporary walls, ostensibly to protect a nation’s purity and security, might have some popular appeal, but only if we simultaneously forget the real and symbolic power of actual walls in our recent history. Walls do not work.

Eastern Europe is seeing a resurgence of nationalism. Having escaped the suffocating grip of the Soviet bloc, there is little appetite for handing new political freedoms (or sovereignty) over to what some perceive as another empire – the European Union. Those countries that embraced Europe in the aftermath of communism’s demise have grown confident in trumpeting their own identities whilst commandeering Christianity over against the threats from Islam and ‘people not like us’. This defence of Christendom is unlikely to stand in the longer-term when it is linked inextricably with nationalism, xenophobia, a declining birth-rate and fear of those powers growing in confidence: China, India, and so on. However, it might have contemporary appeal at a time of widespread disillusionment, economic stress and identity anxiety.

This is where we might conclude and move on to discussion and questions. When Ronald Reagan told Mikhail Gorbachev on 12 June 1987 (the 750th anniversary of Berlin) to “tear down this wall!”, he did the easy bit. Knocking down walls is a start; but, shaping the space that is then created is a much more challenging task. And the churches – here, in Germany, in Hungary and elsewhere – face the same old questions, regardless of whether or not we are successful or whether people use us to achieve peace and then forget us. Faithfulness to God’s call to love our neighbour as ourselves and to love even our enemies matters more than packing the pews and winning approval. Times will change and sentiment will move on. But, we read the Bible and the Bible tells a story of transience, unfaithfulness and people who as easily shout “Hosanna!” as they do “Crucify him!”.

Europe faces a challenging future. Thirty years are not long. Things can change quickly. A culture and its institutions can take centuries to build up, but they can be destroyed in days. The Wall should not be forgotten, nor should the reasons for its demolition. But, it should remain not as a mere historical memory of unspeakable division and cruelty in the past, but serve as a living symbol that strikes our imagination as we seek to shape the future.

The limits of one’s own horizons and experience always become exposed when seen through the eyes of an outsider. Since being in Jena for the last two weeks, I have not only read a shed load of books, but also seen a couple of films and listened to some interesting (challenging?) perspectives on life, the world and British political culture.

Before this week I had never heard of Curt Goetz or his wife Valerie von Martens. Goetz was a playwright, novelist and actor who, along with his wife, made some comedy films in the 1940s and ‘50s. Exploring German humour in film and literature is a never-ending task – based in a profound mystery – but, commenting on this to the friend with whom I am staying (a university professor of practical theology), led to two evenings watching Goetz and von Martens. And they are funny.

Das Haus in Montevideo, in black and white and cleverly scripted, actually presents the moral dilemmas involved in finding your strict morals challenged by pecuniary potential. Napoleon ist an allem Schuld sounds like farce, but mocks historical pretentiousness at the same time as depicting human generosity of spirit. You have to see them to get the stories, but they offer a German slant on morality from someone who left Germany in 1939 to avoid working for Hitler, but returned after the war to recover at least some elements of German theatrical culture from the ashes of destruction.

The other gift of these two weeks has been an introduction to theologians with whom I was unfamiliar. My friend has many books of German sermons. I dipped into Wolfhart Pannenberg, Eberhard Jüngel, Martin Niemöller and the poetry of Goethe, Schiller, Ingeborg Bachmann and, in a bookshop, Bertolt Brecht. All of these I knew. But, I had not heard of Manfred Josuttis until I dipped into his Petrus, die Kirche und die verdammte Macht, followed by several books of sermons. Now dead, he was a theologian who clearly knew how to preach in a way that gripped the attention and tackled both the biblical text and contemporary issues with rhetorical clarity.

There are connective threads between a number of the books I have been reading. In Germany history presses in from every side. Jena was the site of a Napoleonic victory in 1806 – we visited the battlefields at Cospeda. Only a few miles from Weimar, where the first German democratic constitution was framed and signed – it lasted only fifteen years before the Nazis tore it up – Jena was bombed during the war and then found itself in the German Democratic Republic until 1989/90. People here have Russian as their second language and English as only the third. The Stadtkirche (in which I preached several years ago) was where the great Old Testament theologian Gerhard von Rad also preached when he was a professor in the Theologische Fakultät in the 1930s and ‘40s. Three of the sermons he preached – in a collection of sermons from the whole of his ministry – have to be read in the light of the context in which he spoke: two to congregations of the Confessing Church in 1943 when the future was still unclear – and one on Easter Day 1943 to a general congregation including, presumably, Nazis and members of the Movement of German Christians.

Manfred Josuttis, in a sermon on Psalm 25:1-10 in Wirklichkeiten der Kirche, says: “Kein kollektivesGedächtnis kann uns davor bewahren, daß sich die Barbarei wiederholt. Schreckliche Bilder lösen nicht nur Entsetzen aus, sondern regen auch zur Nachahmung an.“ (p.80) [“No collective memory can preserve us from the repetition of barbarity. Shocking pictures don’t just horrify us, they also excite imitation.”]

Compare this with Marilynne Robinson in her book of essays What Are We Doing Here?: “It is not always easy to tell a slumbering conscience from one that is weighing consequences,” (p.4) or: “A society is moving toward dangerous ground when loyalty to the truth is seen as disloyalty to some supposedly higher interest. How many times has history taught us this?” (p.20)

We don’t always learn from history.

These questions were not merely academic to preachers and theologians such as Josuttis and von Rad and they shouldn’t be to us now as we cast an eye over developments across the world. We never foresee the future, even when we see the clouds gathering. But, the experience of those who found themselves exposed to existential challenge in relation to truth, integrity and politico-theological consistency is worth revisiting at a time when global norms are under pressure and change is in the air.

This evening I am going to listen to a lecture at the Theologische Fakultät of the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität in Jena where I am staying for two weeks. The lecture will address the response to National Socialism by the university during the 1930s and ‘40s. Apparently, it isn’t a happy story; but, I will await the detail.

History is easy with hindsight, isn’t it? It all looks obvious – or destined. Well, yesterday I had lunch with a wonderful PhD student from the university who is starting her research into ‘collective guilt in the Old Testament’. In our conversation we roamed over 20thcentury German history and the rise and demise of the British Empire, asking at what point does responsibility – collective or personal – cease to apply. Intergenerational guilt has to be held in tension with the consequences of the choices and actions of our ancestors. History is not so easily reckoned with, after all.

So, this morning I sat in a bookshop and read a lecture by Amos Oz, given in Berlin a couple of years ago, but published in 2018 and seemingly only available in German. Judas und Jesus, with reference to his novel Judas, tries to understand the character and motivation of Judas and make sense of a story in the gospels that he says is unnecessary to the gospel narrative. It is a quick, but arresting read, recounting the thinking behind the novel. The text of the lecture is followed by a description of Jewish-Christian relations by a Jewish academic and rabbi.

The immediate pertinence of these three events – the lecture later this evening, the conversation with the student, and the Amos Oz book – is that all are run through by charges of treachery, traitors and betrayal. But, without the benefit of hindsight: who/what did the theologians of Jena think they were betraying if they supported (or didn’t support) Nazism; or who did the Empire-builders think were the traitors to the cause while they were busy exporting Anglicanism to the world and looting the colonies of their riches; or did Judas feel that it was Jesus who had betrayed him by failing to bring in the kingdom of God in the way he had expected or been led to believe?

I ask the question because, although delivered from the burden of emails for a while, I am following the news from a German perspective – not least Brexit. It isn’t a happy exercise. The language and discourse of Brexit is shocking, but also surprising to the Germans who are eager to speak about it (some are, frankly, too embarrassed). When Donald Tusk wondered yesterday which special place in hell has been reserved for those who led Brexit without any plan for how to do it, the emphasis was on the lack of a plan – the sheer recklessness of demagoguery without strategy or vision that knew what it wanted to be free from but no idea of what it wanted to be free for (‘free’ being the word they use for the final destination of Brexitannia). Contra the (utterly predictable) snowflakey screaming in the media, he did not condemn Brexiteers or those who voted for Brexit. He rightly put the responsibility on those who led and promised and then abdicated responsibility for the consequences.

It seems everyone is a traitor. Brexiteers have betrayed the best economic interests of the United Kingdom; Remainers have betrayed democracy and the ‘people’ (das Volk, as they say here); Parliament has betrayed its function; the media (particularly the BBC) have betrayed everyone unless they can be interpreted as saying what any particular group wants to hear them say.

It is an easy accusation to make of anyone whose opinion or judgement differs from mine. It usually bears little scrutiny. I guess history will tell who betrayed whom … and whether or not they knew what they were doing … and whether or not the language of betrayal was even remotely appropriate at the time. In the meantime, the dialogue of the deaf will no doubt continue, and we will perfect the art of self-exculpating blame-throwing. As Donald Trump might say: “SAD!”

(Now for Dostoyevsky for whom the theme and experience of betrayal were no stranger.)

Having returned on Thursday evening from Sudan I left agin in the early hours of Saturday for Jena in Germany. This forms the real beginning of my sabbatical leave and gives the opportunity to read, write, think, meet people and, most importantly, gain a fresh perspective on life, the universe and everything. Somehow, being outside the UK, looking through a different lens and listening through a different language and culture, helps to make space for (what I think I want to call) newly refracted lines of looking, seeing and reflecting.

I am staying with a friend who is a professor in the Theologische Fakultät at the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität in Jena. This is where Hegel taught, and where Schiller met Goethe. Martin Luther spent time here, too. And it is the place where I have already come across thinkers I hadn’t encountered before.

I have on the table before me six books by Manfred Josuttis. Six of them are books of sermons, but it is the title of the other one that grabbed me: ‘Petrus, die Kirche und die verdammte Macht’ (‘Peter, the Church and Damned Power’). I am about to start reading it – and, yes, I probably should have read it before writing about it – but it was the title that arrested my attention. Jesus promised to build his church on the rock that was Peter, but the rock turned out to be more limestone than granite. Power might be damnable, but it is unavoidable in the real world … and that means in the real church. The question is: how do we handle power and in whose interests is power exercised?

Although it is good to be away from the UK for a time, the UK does not disappear. Nor does Brexit. Nor does the complex interplay of truth, power, victimhood and exploitation. If Brexit is bringing out the worst in us Brits, Germany is facing challenges with the Alternative für Deutschland and similar abuse of truth, fact and reality. Wherever we see this phenomenon – it is tempting just to shorthand it with the word ‘Trumpian’ – danger lies in waiting.

I recognise that this is a tenuous link, but Jesus’s friend Peter had to undergo a dreadful, world-shattering loss of personal illusion and confidence. After his denial of even knowing Jesus (just prior to the crucifixion), Peter watched his illusions of  brave new world bleed real blood into the dirt of Calvary. He had to live through the emptiness of Saturday … only to find himself bewildered by the events of Easter Day. Subsequently, he was compelled to wrestle with the other friends of Jesus, with public authorities and political leaders, and with questions of how to lead and shape a church made up of people like and unlike himself. If he didn’t welcome power, he certainly had to face responsibility, costly choices, personality clashes and hard decisions that were bound to divide as well as unite.

So it is with politics. Power – to be exercised with responsibility and humility in the interests of the common good – is a hard business. Decisions will always disappoint someone. Leadership can be very lonely, even in the best of teams. But, it always exposes the truth about character. Our handling of power displays the reality of our character. If we merely resort to lies, game-playing and manipulation in the service of ideology, then the truth about our character, virtue and motivation will become evident quickly. And this, I suggest, is worrying. For, the evidence shows that I am usually the last person to see what everybody else sees quickly and clearly.

Looking at the news from a distance, and seeing it through the eyes of ‘outsiders’, it is evident that we in Britain cannot see how we are being perceived from outside. The news that Nissan will not be investing further in Sunderland is terrible; but, the executive who is reported to have said privately that no one is going to be investing in Britain because we are now toxic (or words to that effect) has put his/her finger on the true cost of Brexit for the UK. Regardless of whether I want or do not want Brexit, the process and the people who have been prominent in it have shown that we are a people who are limited in our insight, still maintain dreams of empire, cannot face reality, like to hear what we want to hear (regardless of facts), and cannot be trusted to be competence. If counterparts in EU countries initially couldn’t believe our decision to leave the EU, they have long past that and are now incredulous about our sheer incompetence as a parliamentary democracy.

I can understand the ideological commitment to leave the EU. Questions of sovereignty, EU values and the bureaucratic machine in Brussels and Strasbourg make some sense to those who want some semblance of independence as a nation state. But, this commitment has to be earthed in relationships, processes, agreements, and future-orientated realities. Wanting to “get out” without paying attention to how to do it (and at what cost) is both ridiculous and dangerous. So, we see rich and powerful people leading the charge, making promises to which they will not be held, and knowing that they will not suffer at all if it all goes wrong for the UK. Poor people in challenging communities will pay the price – as they have been doing during the so-called ‘austerity years’ – and the powerful will exercise their power by maximising and protecting their own benefits … all while blaming everyone else for the ills that follow. We can’t all take our businesses to Singapore or Ireland.

Brexit will bring disillusionment – probably on all sides. Brexit won’t lead to economic or social nirvana for Leavers, and Remainers will continue to resist its consequences. Just as Faragistes never accepted the decision to join (what became) the EU, so many will immediately start the campaign to rejoin the EU one day. Brexit has not, could not and will not resolve the issue on these islands. But, it has exposed our deeper divisions (many of which have nothing whatsoever to do with Brexit or the EU), the poverty of our political culture (how can Labour still be six points behind the Tories in today’s polling?), the weakness of our national character, and our willingness to tell, hear and believe lies.

To return to Peter, his process of disillusionment was bitter, but necessary. Only by going through this and facing the truth about his own self could he grow to be the limestone leader he later became. In this sense, he bids us to do the same collectively: to grow up, lose our need to big ourselves up, see ourselves as we are seen from the outside, and value truth above illusion. The power – however damned – for this lies with us, and we can’t blame anyone else (Tories, Jeremy Corbyn, the EU) if we decline to use it.

This is the basic text of my sermon in the Frauenkirche, Dresden, on Sunday 6 May 2018, based on Colossians 4:2-6:

Seid beharrlich im Gebet und wacht in ihm mit Danksagung! Betet zugleich auch für uns, auf dass Gott uns eine Tür für das Wort auftue und wir vom Geheimnis Christi reden können, um dessentwillen ich auch in Fesseln bin, auf dass ich es so offenbar mache, wie ich es soll. Verhaltet euch weise gegenüber denen, die draußen sind, und kauft die Zeit aus. Eure Rede sei allezeit wohlklingend und mit Salz gewürzt, dass ihr wisst, wie ihr einem jeden antworten sollt. (Kolosserbrief 4:2-6)

Herzliche Grüße aus England und aus meiner Diözese in Leeds. Ich habe 656 Gemeinden und die schönste Landschaft in England.

Danke für die Einladung, noch einmal hier in dieser wunderschönen Kirche in Dresden eine Predigt zu halten. Ich war am Kirchentag in 2011 zum ersten Mal hier, und habe damals in der Frauenkirche eine Bibelarbeit gemacht. Ich erinnere mich klar an das Gefühl, das ich an einem Ort hatte, den die Briten erst vor einer Generation zerstört hatten. Seitdem hat sich die Welt verändert. Deutschland hat sich verändert. Und Großbritannien hat sich auch verändert.

Zuerst möchte ich etwas wichtiges erklären: Brexit – es tut mir wirklich leid. In Großbritannien herrscht momentan ein sehr unangenehmes Klima. Wir verlassen die EU – das ist klar. Ich habe am Montag letzter Woche im House of Lords in einer guten Debatte über den Austritt aus der EU gesprochen – dann am Dienstag sind mehrere Redner auf den Titelseiten einer Zeitung erschienen, die als Verräter und Feinde des Volkes gebrandmarkt wurden. Das ist furchtbar.

Natürlich darf Frieden niemals als selbstverständlich vorausgesetzt werden. Gesellschaften können sich sehr schnell in etwas schreckliches verwandeln, in dem die Sprache über andere Menschen korrumpiert wird. Es ist immer gefährlich, wenn man andere Menschen als Kategorien (und nicht mehr als Menschen) bezeichnet. Und das Gespräch über Brexit in Großbritannien ist tatsächlich schlecht.

Natürlich ist das nicht neu. Als Jesus seinen Freunden das beibrachte, was wir das Vaterunser nennen, ging er durch eine bedrohte Gesellschaft und durch ein gefährliches Land. Die Römer besetzten das Land und erniedrigten das Volk. Die Juden sehnten sich nach und beteten für ihre Befreiung von dieser Unterdrückung durch das mächtige militärische heidnische Reich. Aber diese schwierige Situation dauerte schon seit einigen Jahrhunderten. Wann würde Gott ihre Gebete erhören? Warum war Gott, angesichts dieser Grausamkeit und Ungerechtigkeit, so still und schweigend?

Der Apostel Paulus lebte auch in einer Welt des Konflikts – immer noch vom römischen Reich dominiert. Als er seine Briefe schrieb – diejenigen, die wir im Neuen Testament haben – schrieb er bewusst an Menschen (Christen), die jeden Tag entdeckten, dass das alltägliche Leben oft durch Leiden, Unterdrückung und Angst geprägt ist … aber auch, dass Christen auch hier im Herz dieser komplizierten und oft schwierigen Welt die Gegenwart Gottes spüren dürfen. Auch hier in der Tiefe der realen Welt lernen wir zu beten. Das heißt, wir beten in der wirklichen Welt; wir beten nicht primär dafür, dass wir von dieser Welt befreit werden müssen.

Als die Freunde Jesu ihre eigenen Schriften lasen, entdeckten sie ein Vokabular der Hoffnung im Mund gewöhnlicher Menschen, die in der realen Welt darum kämpften, Gottes Ruf treu zu bleiben. Wie der Psalmist vor dreitausend Jahren sagte: “Wie können wir das Lied des Herrn in einem fremden Land singen?” Mit anderen Worten, wie können wir Lieder über Gott, den Schöpfer, Liebhaber und Erhalter aller Welt singen, wenn alles was wir sehen – alle Beweise unserer Augen – uns sagen, dass dieser Gott uns unserem Schicksal überlassen hat?

Diese Frage, durchzieht die ganze biblische Erzählung – die ganze biblische Geschichte. Genau diese Frage wird ständig aus dem Herzen der Christen und anderer gerissen, die sich nach Erlösung sehnen, nach Frieden schreien und um Heilung und Rettung beten. “Wie lange, o Herr, wie lange?”

Und hier kommen wir zum Kern dessen, worum es im Gebet geht. Es geht nicht darum, dass wir Gott um Dinge bitten, die all unsere Probleme im Hier und Jetzt lösen. Es geht auch nicht darum, Gott zu bitten, uns aus dem weltlichem Leben herauszuheben. Ja, wie die Psalmisten und Jesus selbst, sollten wir immer ehrlich mit Gott sein, und ihm sagen, was wir wirklich denken und wünschen. Es geht nicht darum, dass wir aus der Welt in ein beschütztes und reines Heiligtum flüchten möchten, in dem wir sicher und unbeschmutzt leben können. Das Vertrauen in diesen Gott bedeutet, dass wir dem Jesus nachfolgen, den wir in den Evangelien sehen. Inkarnation heißt: bewusst in die Welt einzutauchen, wie sie ist, und uns nicht davon zu befreien. Denkt an Weihnachten? Und an Ostern? Und an all das, was dazwischen weiterging?

Also, was ist Gebet für dich? Wie betest du? Was betest du? Und was erwartest du vom Gebet?

Lasst mich Ihnen eine kurze Geschichte erzählen.

Drei Männer wanderten in den Bergen. Sie kämpften sich ihren Weg durch die Bäume und versuchten, ihre Hütte vor dem Einbruch der Nacht zu erreichen. Plötzlich stießen sie auf einen reißenden Fluss. Das Wasser lief den Berg hinunter und die Männer hatten keine Ahnung, wie sie den Fluß überqueren sollten. Aber es gab keine Alternative – sie mussten unbedingt diesen Fluss überqueren, aber sie wussten nicht wie.

Der erste Mann betete: „Gott, gib mir bitte die Kraft, um diesen Fluss zu überqueren.“ Pouff! Plötzlich wurden seine Arme größer; seine Brust erweiterte sich und seine Beine wurden stärker. Dann warf er sich in den Fluss hinein und schwamm auf das gegenüberliegende Ufer. Er brauchte zwei Stunden. Ein paar Mal ist er untergegangen und wäre fast ertrunken. Aber, endlich, ist es ihm gelungen, das Ufer zu erreichen, und er schleppte sich total erschöpft an Land.

Der zweite Mann beobachtete den ersten Mann und er betete: „Gott, gib mir bitte die Kraft und die Mittel, um diesen Fluss zu überqueren.“ Pouff! Plötzlich wurden seine Arme größer; seine Brust erweiterte sich und seine Beine wurden stärker; und ein Kanu tauchte vor ihm auf. Er paddelte eine lange Stunde durch das Wasser und schließlich, total erschöpft und nachdem er zweimal gekentert war, schleppte er sich aus dem Wasser und auf das gegenüberliegende Ufer.

Der dritte Mann hatte die zwei Freunde beobachtet und er betete: „Gott, gib mir bitte die Kraft, die Mittel… und die Intelligenz, um diesen Fluss zu überqueren.“ Pouff! Plötzlich verwandelte ihn Gott in eine Frau! Er schaute in seine Handtasche, holte eine Karte heraus, ging hundert Meter das Ufer entlang, und überquerte die Brücke.

Sind wir bereit im Gebet von Gott überrascht zu werden? Neue Einsichten zu spüren? Im Gebet geht es grundlegend darum, dass wir uns selbst öffnen – Körper, Geist und Seele – zu dem Gott, der uns schafft, uns liebt, uns erlöst und uns gestaltet. Zu dem Gott, der uns nicht von allem befreit, was die Welt auf uns werfen kann. Aber zu dem Gott, der uns immer noch ruft, unser Leben für seine Welt und sein Volk niederzulegen. Im Gebet bringen wir uns und unsere Welt – zu dieser besonderen Zeit und an diesem besonderen Ort – zu Gott und finden uns verändert, wenn wir beginnen, durch seine Augen auf das zu schauen, was wir sehen und was wir erfahren.

In seinem Brief an Timotheus lesen wir, wie Paulus den jungen Gemeindevorsteher Timotheus anweist, ständig für die Mächtigen zu beten. Mit anderen Worten, nimm nicht nur an deinem eigenen kleinen Leben teil, sondern richte deine Augen auf die weitere Welt, die eigene Gesellschaft und andere Gesellschaften und diejenigen, die sie formen und führen. Du wirst irgendwo hineinpassen; aber widerstehe diesen kleinen heutigen Göttern des Narzissmus, der Selbstverwirklichung und der Selbstzufriedenheit.

In unserem heutigen Evangelium (Joh 16, 23ff) hörten wir die Worte von Jesus – gerade bevor er zu seinem eigenen frühen und ungerechten Tod ging. Er versprach seinen Freunden, dass ihre Gebeten in seinem Namen erhört werden. Aber was bedeutet es, in seinem Namen zu beten? Nun, sein Name ist sein Charakter – wer er ist und wie er ist. Also, in seinem Namen zu beten heißt, auf eine Weise zu beten, die dem Charakter von Jesus selbst entspricht. Und er betete, dass er sich dem Willen Gottes anpassen könnte, selbst wenn das bedeutet, dass er den Weg an das Kreuz gehen muss und nicht dem Schmerz entgehen kann, den das Leben ihm auferlegt. Es bedeutet, wenn wir in seinem Namen beten, fangen wir an, so verwandelt zu werden, dass wir wie er aussehen und wie er klingen.

Dieses Thema ist ein konsequentes Thema in der Bibel. Die Menschen Israels wurden gewarnt, niemals Gott für selbstverständlich zu halten, sondern allmählich zu lernen, was es bedeutet, ihre Lebensweise, ihre theologische Weltanschauung und ihre Lebensgewohnheiten der Natur, den Prioritäten und dem Ruf Gottes näher anzupassen. Falls sie versagen, falls sie ihre grundsätzliche Berufung vergessen, werden sie dann alles verlieren, was zu ihnen von ihrer Identität spricht. Sie werden die Warnungen und die Ermahnungen der Propheten nicht mehr hören können oder wollen. Diese Menschen werden glauben, dass die Welt ihnen gehört, und werden dann ihre Fähigkeit verlieren, durch Gottes Augen hinaus zu schauen und sich um die Armen, Ausgegrenzten und Schwachen zu kümmern. Erinnern Sie sich an 5. Mose 26? Lassen Sie zehn Prozent Ihrer Ernten am Rand Ihrer Felder liegen, damit Reisende, Migranten und Enteignete etwas zu essen finden können. Bringen Sie die ersten zehn Prozent der Ernte zum Priester, und denken Sie daran, als du vor ihm ein Glaubensbekenntnis rezitierst und wieder erlebst, dass du auch einst ein Sklave warst, dass du einmal überhaupt nichts hattest, dass du einmal gerettet werden musste – dass du ein neues Leben haben musstest, aber das nicht aus eigener Macht gewinnen konntest.

Die Geschichte ist in der ganzen Bibel konsistent.

Paulus schreibt in seinem Brief an die Kirche in Rom so: “Ich ermahne euch nun, Brüder und Schwestern, durch die Barmherzigkeit Gottes, dass ihr euren Leib hingebt als ein Opfer, das lebendig, heilig und Gott wohlgefällig sei. Das sei euer vernünftiger Gottesdienst. Und stellt euch nicht dieser Welt gleich, sondern ändert euch durch Erneuerung eures Sinnes, auf dass ihr prüfen könnt, was Gottes Wille ist, nämlich das Gute und Wohlgefällige und Vollkommene.”

Wir sehen also, dass das Gebet zuerst dazu dient, uns zu verändern, nicht primär unsere Umstände zu ändern und unsere Wünsche zu erfüllen. Aus diesem Grund werden Christen nicht von Angst getrieben, sondern von Hoffnung angezogen – gezogen von dem Gott, der Christus von den Toten auferweckt und einer verwirrten Welt zugesagt hat, dass Tod, Gewalt und Zerstörung tatsächlich nicht das letzte Wort in dieser Welt haben.

Und das bringt uns zu dem Gebet, das Jesus uns gelehrt hat – das Gebet, das wir jeden Tag beten, und das Gebet, mit dem wir so vertraut sind, dass wir seinen radikalen Kern so schnell übersehen.

Vor Ostern habe ich an meinen Pfarrern – 700 von ihnen – einen Brief geschrieben und sie aufgefordert, ihre Gemeinden zu lehren, dieses Gebet anders zu beten. Ich höre oft, wie die Gemeinden dieses Gebet aussprechen, als würden die Worte bedeutungslos sein. Ich höre zum Beispiel: “Dein Reich komme, dein Wille geschehe …” statt: “DEIN Reich komme, DEIN Wille geschehe, auf Erden, wie im Himmel”. Mit diesen Worten bestätigen wir, das Caesar (der Kaiser) nicht der Herr der Welt ist. Wenn wir beten, dann passen wir unsere Gedanken, unsere Weltanschauungen, unsere Motivationen näher an Gottes Willen an. Das heißt Bekehrung, Konversion, Verwandlung. Es ist ein Prozess, kein Ereignis – deshalb müssen wir dieses Gebet jeden Tag beten. Wir müssen es beten, damit es am Ende anfängt, uns zu beten.

Eine Einladung zum Beten – sei es von Moses, dem Psalmisten, Jesaja, Jesus oder Paulus – bietet immer eine Chance an, überrascht und verändert zu werden – durch die Augen Jesu hinauszuschauen, mit seinen Ohren zu hören, und mit seinen Händen zu berühren. Der Vaterunser ist ein Aufruf zur radikalen Jüngerschaft. Es ist ein Ruf zu einem neuen Leben. Es ist eine Ermutigung, sich auf ein Abenteuer einzulassen. Und es ist eine Herausforderung, “durch die Erneuerung unseres Geistes transformiert zu werden”.

Seid beharrlich im Gebet und wacht in ihm mit Danksagung! Betet zugleich auch für uns…

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (broadcast from Berlin and focusing on the impact on Germany of Brexit):

I was in Vienna recently and saw something that sums up the challenge of Germany in the last century. At one end of the Judenplatz is the haunting Holocaust Memorial by Rachel Whiteread; facing it, twenty metres away, is a statue of the philosopher, poet and Enlightenment hero Johann Gottfried Herder who re-shaped German education and culture. The question that cries out is this: how did Germany go from Herder to Hitler in a mere century?

This is the question that Germany has been unable to escape in the last seventy years or so. Walk around any German city and you will find yourself stepping on small brass plaques in the pavement bearing the name and dates of Jews deported to their deaths from the houses before which you now stand. They are everywhere – and they are called Stolpersteine: stumbling blocks that get in your way and compel you to face responsibility for what happened to your neighbours only a generation or two ago.

Because of its history Germany has had no option but to confront its past and choose its future. Yet, as time moves on and memory becomes history, revisionism becomes easier for some people. Recent changes in the political landscape come on the back of concerns about immigration in general and Islam in particular. Yet this phenomenon was almost inconceivable only a decade ago.

What it demonstrates is that human beings all too easily re-shape their worldview according to the world they now live in. We can accommodate all sorts of challenges to our ethics … until we find their foundation has been undercut and we have given away too much. Perhaps history teaches us that it is not a big step from ‘every human being matters’ to ‘some matter more than others’ to ‘these are not really people of value’.

If you go into Berlin Cathedral and look up at the dome, you will see in gold lettering words from the Lord’s Prayer: “Dein ist das Reich” – “Thine is the Kingdom”. I have sat there and thought of the generations of people – from the Second Reich through Weimar and the Nazis, through the GDR and the now-reunited Germany – and wondered what Christian worshippers thought that meant. And how could they so easily confuse the Kingdom of Caesar with the Kingdom of the Jesus we read about in the gospels? Whose Reich/Kingdom do we really serve?

The question goes to the heart of how human beings make sense of themselves and the world – and whether, when the heat is on, the foundation of our ethical frameworks is as sound as we like to think it is. Humility, generosity, loving your neighbour, protecting the weak – or self-preservation at all costs?

Every generation faces the same question. So does every nation.

 

* I originally wrote two scripts for this. The first I set in Weimar where you can stand by the statue of Herder and look to the hills beyond … and Buchenwald concentration camp. I decided this was not the right introduction, so went to Vienna instead. However, I didn’t change the statue from Herder to Lessing. Only one person pointed this out. It doesn’t change the point, but the error should be noted.

Last night we went out with friends to the West Yorkshire Playhouse to see the Kneehigh Theatre Company’s production of Günter Grass’s epic The Tin Drum. It was surprising. It was certainly a powerful experience and an imaginative adaptation of the story. It was a bit like Marlene Dietrich meets Kraftwerk meets Gary Numan – in a good sense.

This was timely as I had just got back from holiday a couple of hours before and had just finished Stephen Green’s excellent book Reluctant Meister: How Germany’s Past is Shaping its European Future. In it he traces not only the formative history of Europe’s most complex and powerful nation, but also explores the themes key to understanding Germany today, its tensions and corporate psyche. I have read a lot on this stuff, but this is by far the best and most accessible account of this remarkable country.

The three voices worth paying some attention to as Europe addresses challenge and change in the years ahead are: Stephen Green in this book and a couple of other small books he has written on Europe; Timothy Garton-Ash – anything he has written; Jeremy Cliffe who is now based in Berlin for the Economist and is the must-read on Twitter on all things German and Brexit. Not surprisingly, all three speak German.

I listened to the morning worship on BBC Radio 4 this morning through the filter of the theatre, the book and my thinking about Martin Luther. I presented the programme, produced by Rosie Dawson and recorded in Wittenberg a couple of weeks ago. Both Grass and Green wrestle with Luther’s legacy for German culture and political development.

Luther made a massive impact on the culture and political development of Europe. The story has not ended yet.

This is the text of my Presidential Address to the Leeds Diocesan Synod this morning. (Disclaimer: I wrote it last night at Berlin Tegel and Amsterdam Schipol airports on my way home from an academic conference in Wittenberg, Germany.)

I returned late last night from Wittenberg in Germany. I was there to present a paper at a conference on Faith, Theology and the Church (from Tuesday to Thursday) and then record a programme for BBC Radio 4 on Martin Luther and the Reformation. Having launched the Reformation jubilee last October, preaching in the Augustinerklosterkirche in Erfurt where Luther was a monk, it was a privilege to end the year in Wittenberg where it all kicked off. As everyone knows, 31 October 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the day when Luther is alleged to have nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Schloßkirche, thus challenging the Pope and the Church to address some serious concerns about both theology and the practices of the church.

Many of the stories of Luther’s words and deeds are now of dubious provenance. There is no record of him having told the Emperor at the Diet of Worms: “here I stand; I can do no other”. (Which hasn’t deterred sock manufacturers from producing huge numbers of their products with the phrase added. I might bear the weight of one’s foot, but it doesn’t seem to bear the weight of history. In fact, there is no evidence that he did actually nail his 95 Theses to the church door – something impossible now because the doors are made of bronze.

Martin Luther’s tomb

But, why let facts get in the way of a good story. Whatever the details of who did what and when, we do know for certain that Luther took his life in his hands when he dared to suggest that the grace of God is there for everyone and cannot be bought – even in the good cause of building St Peter’s in Rome. Fear of the consequences of death were trounced by the mercy of God.

Sitting in the Schloßkirche yesterday morning, looking at Luther’s tomb, I was very conscious that we can’t always control the consequences of the decisions we make. The monk of Erfurt changed the world in ways he could never have imagined when he found Paul’s letter to the Romans opening his heart and mind to the riches of God’s unmerited love. Not only a revolution in the church, but political ructions, too, that too often led to bloodshed on a huge scale. I wonder what he would have made of it today, if he had known what he was about to unleash.

This is not insignificant for us here in the Diocese of Leeds. After giving my paper at the conference on Thursday, I took part in a panel discussion with the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Berlin and the head of the Protestant Church in Germany (the EKD),where both the divisions and affinities of ecumenical relationships were visible. As the church faces big challenges in British and wider European cultures, the need for Christians to prioritise their common baptismal discipleship over their denominational commitments becomes more urgent.

On of the watchwords of the Reformation traditions is ‘ecclesia semper reformanda’ – the Church needing constantly to be being renewed and reformed. Nothing stands still in this world. And the church can be no exception. Change is here to stay.

It would be ludicrously absurd to compare the changes our diocese has gone through in the last three and a half years with the enormity of the Reformation, but we need no telling that change brings pain as well as opening up new opportunities for those who are unafraid to explore them. And not every outcome can be predicted. As Luther found out – and it caused him a whole new set of griefs and concerns – there is the small matter of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Our diocese continues to change as we move on from the initial phase of our creation from 2014 to 2016. We are now functioning as a single diocese with a single administration, and we are now clear about where we are in terms of shaping support for clergy and parishes as they ‘do’ our mission and ministry locally. But, this has all taken place at a time when the church across the country is facing a hefty drop in the number of stipendiary ordained people during the next fifteen years. This inevitably means that we will need to re-shape not only where we deploy our clergy, but the nature of the role, too. A priest cannot do in six parishes what he or she did in one. And we cannot put clergy into jobs that are not do-able.

In other words, we have a lot of work to do in the next few years. We do so in the face of financial challenges, too, but our primary focus has to be on what sort of ministry and mission we can provide within the constraints over which we do not have complete (or any) control. Now, is this a cause for fear or concern? Well, yes and no. We need to be concerned enough to tackle the challenges head on and pay attention to the detail – understanding the cost of growth as well as the benefits. But, we need not fear. We are engaged in God’s mission, and must never lose track of the bigger picture of God’s transforming grace, his call to keep moving – with him – and to be faithful to him and each other.

Clearly, if our models of ministry are to change, then they will involve re-focusing the attention of clergy and reimagining the role of lay people. Now, let’s get away from some of the moany stuff we keep hearing. Clergy exist for the sake of the laity, not the other way around. That will not change, but, the way we do ministry and mission will look different in the future. This is not about power or rights or means of self-fulfilment; rather, it is about identifying the gifts and vocation of all baptised people, developing and deploying those gifts for the sake of the church … which exists for the sake of the world.

But, the primary calling of lay people is not to do stuff in and for the church, but to be disciples of Jesus Christ out there in the world. One of the recognised challenges of the church in more recent years has been that lay vocation has too often focused on lay ministries in the church – largely liturgical or pastoral. This is something we need to tackle as we move into the future. Discipleship first.

To this end we are holding a Lay Conference in Harrogate on Saturday 9 June 2018. More details will be forthcoming soon, but planning is well underway under the guidance of Andrew Norman and Hayley Matthews. This is intended to help us re-frame our strategy for lay discipleship and ministry into the future – although this will be a matter of process rather than event.

Nothing of what we do can be done in isolation. On today’s agenda this Synod will address several matters that, together, help us discipline our development and mission. Asking the General Synod to change the name of the See of Richmond to Kirkstall is not a whim or a bit of ecclesiastical fancy; no, it is to enable those outside the church in the Leeds Episcopal Area (particularly) to identify with the area bishop and our church structure. People assume Richmond is up north and can’t see why the Bishop of Richmond is bothered with the city of Leeds. For the sake of our ongoing mission we need to change this. More later, but I want at this point simply to locate this agenda item in our wider missional context.

A communications strategy for the diocese is not incidental. If we can’t communicate effectively in the world in which we now live, then we might as well just tend a long decline. We cannot address the lack of children and young people in our churches without engaging with social media and a way of relating/communicating that is a million miles away from what I grew up with. Do we have the courage to grasp this nettle and learn a new language of evangelism and pastoral care? That is the question – along with: are we willing to put resources into making effective communications and changing the rumour about God and the church?

Rules about synod elections and sizes of synods might not be the stuff of romance, but they matter. It is vital that our synods – at every level – should drive and enhance our mission … and for that we need people – in the right numbers and variety – who are caught up by a vision of the kingdom of God that grabs popular attention, awakens curiosity, draws people in from being met outside on their territory and in their terms. Are we up for this? It isn’t easy, and it will mean sacrifice; but, we need younger energy and vision to challenge us and drag us into new ways of being a renewed and reformed church in this part of Yorkshire.

Again, this is not for the sake of the church’s organisation or own well-being. Yorkshire faces massive challenges in the wake of Brexit (however that might ultimately look…), but also in terms of its own political organisation. Westminster seems to have a view of how Yorkshire might be governed in the future (under its devolution proposals), but how do we want to help drive this for the sake of the common good of the people of Yorkshire? Do we want to be stuck in the past, with old enmities and thinking within old white lines, or can we be bold about developing a vision of and strategy for a Yorkshire that makes the most of the Northern Powerhouse – whatever that means?

What I am driving at here is that we should not be a church that merely responds to the initiatives of others, but be creative ourselves at fostering debate and proposition that, rooted in our traditions, offers a refreshed view of future potential.

Of course, this is all stuff and nonsense if we would prefer to just keep turning the handle. In the diocese we have proved that, even where we might have differing degrees of affection for the diocese we have shaped, we can commit ourselves to it as mature adults who follow Jesus Christ.

At this point I want to pay special thanks to the Dean of Wakefield, Jonathan Greener, who will leave the diocese in November and be installed as Dean of Exeter. Jonathan vigorously opposed the creation of the new diocese, but, since its creation, has been an excellent friend and colleague, a creative and imaginative shaper of new things (three cathedrals and three deans in a single diocese), and a brave contributor to all we have done. We owe him a huge debt. Personally, I will miss him, his wisdom and advice, even his humour. But, we wish him God’s richest blessing and the fullness of the Spirit’s gifts as he and Pamela move into a not-unchallenging situation in Exeter. They go with our love, gratitude and prayers.

So, let me conclude where we began – with Martin Luther. While sitting with three young Germans in the very room in Luther’s house in Wittenberg, around the table where he and his friends argued about theology, politics, beer and bodily functions (I kid you not), having our own feisty debate about the meaning of Luther’s theology now, we felt close to the heart of passion: the passion that is courageous, contagious, irritating, maybe even hopeful – maybe even the passion for Jesus Christ, his grace and mercy, his call to us and his friends to love one another as he loves us.

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.