This is the only relatively free day I have at the Kirchentag in Hamburg. I started work this afternoon with an interview on the 'Red Sofa'. This is a stage in front of the Congresshalle in which people are interviewed, interspersed with music from Chris Paulson and his band (which turns out to be his two sons). I only ever see Chris every two years at the Kirchentag and on the Red Sofa.

Following Margot Käßmann's Bible Study this morning, we stayed put to listen to a discussion including Joachim Gauck, the Bundespräsident. Moderated superbly by a ZDF TV presenter, Gauck engaged with Samuel Koch (a quadraplegic actor who had been an athlete), Rainer Schmidt (a pastor/cabarettist and Paralympic winner) who was born with no forearms, and a business woman called Monika Labruier. The theme had to do with creating a 'strong society' and focused on disability issues. It was intelligent, moving, challenging and very, very funny. Again, the hall was full – 7,000 people – and many were locked out.

The remarkable thing about this conversation was the lack of self-pity on the part of the disabled participants… and their refusal to allow any romantic idealising of them or their attitude to life. And nothing was considered out of bounds.

One interesting question revolved around the identification of victimhood. According to Gauck and his fellow interlocutors, responsibility has to be taken by those whose lives are 'diminished' insofar as they are active players in shaping their life; but, society also has a responsibility to provide for and create optimum space for people to thrive. This involves making space in schools for the development of proper provision for disabled children – and this cannot be done over the heads of disabled people, but in discussion with them. Cost should not be a tool for making life hard for disabled people (but, try saying this to parents of disabled children in England – some of it would sound like a conversation from a different planet).

The discussion concluded with questions of how we cry against God. Gauck made the point that we all cry against God for what 'might have been', but asked how much do we need? Schmidt put it this way: “Ten fingers or just my single thumb? I can do what I need to do.” Schmidt went on to describe how he 'discovered' at the age of six that he was disabled and described an inclusive society as one in which different people are enabled to live together and thrive.

It is impossible to do justice to this. Whatever I write here is open to question and the language to criticism. So be it. Gauck ended by saying that he thanks God that he is here to hear this conversation.

Music at this event was provided by a rock band of mentally-handicapped people.

Schmidt went on to discuss abortion in a way that would not be possible in England without polarising people immediately. Noting that if he had been expected now, he claimed he would almost certainly have been aborted. This then led to debate about abortion and the grounds for it in Germany – including discussion about the reasons why fewer children are being born in Germany today.

What is striking is how the Kirchentag encourages and allows intelligent debate about serious matters without people having to polarise. The ethical divides are not ducked, but nor do they force people behind barricades. It is a model of intelligent and respectful difference.

Anyway, the afternoon for me involved visiting the huge book hall and then heading over for my interview. I caught the last 45 minutes of a podium discussion between Israelis and Palestinians before going to eat with friends and get back to the hotel to bung up this blog.

Now for bed. Tomorrow is busy and looks like hard work.

 

The Kirchentag has to be experienced to be understood. The sheer enormity of scale is mitigated by an organisation that marries efficiency to intimacy. It is estimated that around 300,000 people will come through Hamburg for the Kirchentag in the next three days, but somehow it never feels hassled or crowded.

Unless you don’t get to some venues early enough to get in, that is. The was almost a riot outside the enormous hall where Margot Käßmann was doing a Bible Study this morning: the hundreds that couldn’t get in to this or the subsequent discussion involving the Federal President, Joachim Gauck, were not happy bunnies.

The Opening Services last night took place in four places. The sun shone on the tens of thousands of people (of all ages) who sang, prayed and listened together. This was followed by the Abend der Begegnung where the city of Hamburg opened its arms in welcome, cultural invitation and generous hospitality.

The theme of the Opening Service on the Rathausmarkt was basically a call for the Church to grow up and take responsibility. There was a particular edge for those of us from Bradford and Wakefield as the preacher spoke of the fusion last year of three Landeskirchen (dioceses) into the single Nordkirche. This new Landeskirche maintains the distinctives not only of regional identity, but also of the three Protestant traditions that make up the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (EKD): Lutheran, Reformed and United. The call was clear: stop complaining about change and shape what can be.

And I thought I was coming here to get away from all that…

Anyway, this morning we had to get to our venue an hour early in order to get a seat for just one of the many Bible Studies being led each day. We wanted to hear Margot Käßmann on Luke 18:1-8 – the story of the persistent woman and the unjust judge. 7,000 people; many more unable to get in. Inconceivable in England.

I will put a link up to her text, but she spoke powerfully of the need for persistence in challenging injustice, annoying those who wish to deny justice to the weak and the powerless in society. I can’t do justice to her text here, but will cite one – almost incidental – comment she made about a woman called Elisabeth Schmitz (of whom I had never heard.

Elisabeth Schmitz corresponded with the great Protestant theologian Karl Barth between 1933-36, trying to get Barth to engage with the ‘Judenfrage’ – the fate of the Jews. Barth declined. Theology always has to be read through the prism of history and culture; it never stands alone in some abstract world inhabited by a remote God or a disengaged church. When Schmitz died in 1977 only 7 people attended her funeral – it was only the later discovery of a load of personal documents that gave an indication of the relentless courage of this woman who resisted Hitler and kept a prophetic call alive.

Germany always provides glimpses of people whose integrity is remarkable and whose fearlessness in facing challenge is humbling. Käßmann reiterated the importance of seeing irritating people as ‘persistent widows’ who compel us to not lose sight of other people’s – particularly the weak, the powerless, the abandoned and the refugees – fundamental humanity.

The Kirchentag has to be experienced to be understood. The sheer enormity of scale is mitigated by an organisation that marries efficiency to intimacy. It is estimated that around 300,000 people will come through Hamburg for the Kirchentag in the next three days, but somehow it never feels hassled or crowded.

Unless you don't get to some venues early enough to get in, that is. The was almost a riot outside the enormous hall where Margot Käßmann was doing a Bible Study this morning: the hundreds that couldn't get in to this or the subsequent discussion involving the Federal President, Joachim Gauck, were not happy bunnies.

The Opening Services last night took place in four places. The sun shone on the tens of thousands of people (of all ages) who sang, prayed and listened together. This was followed by the Abend der Begegnung where the city of Hamburg opened its arms in welcome, cultural invitation and generous hospitality.

The theme of the Opening Service on the Rathausmarkt was basically a call for the Church to grow up and take responsibility. There was a particular edge for those of us from Bradford and Wakefield as the preacher spoke of the fusion last year of three Landeskirchen (dioceses) into the single Nordkirche. This new Landeskirche maintains the distinctives not only of regional identity, but also of the three Protestant traditions that make up the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (EKD): Lutheran, Reformed and United. The call was clear: stop complaining about change and shape what can be.

And I thought I was coming here to get away from all that…

Anyway, this morning we had to get to our venue an hour early in order to get a seat for just one of the many Bible Studies being led each day. We wanted to hear Margot Käßmann on Luke 18:1-8 – the story of the persistent woman and the unjust judge. 7,000 people; many more unable to get in. Inconceivable in England.

I will put a link up to her text, but she spoke powerfully of the need for persistence in challenging injustice, annoying those who wish to deny justice to the weak and the powerless in society. I can't do justice to her text here, but will cite one – almost incidental – comment she made about a woman called Elisabeth Schmitz (of whom I had never heard.

Elisabeth Schmitz corresponded with the great Protestant theologian Karl Barth between 1933-36, trying to get Barth to engage with the 'Judenfrage' – the fate of the Jews. Barth declined. Theology always has to be read through the prism of history and culture; it never stands alone in some abstract world inhabited by a remote God or a disengaged church. When Schmitz died in 1977 only 7 people attended her funeral – it was only the later discovery of a load of personal documents that gave an indication of the relentless courage of this woman who resisted Hitler and kept a prophetic call alive.

Germany always provides glimpses of people whose integrity is remarkable and whose fearlessness in facing challenge is humbling. Käßmann reiterated the importance of seeing irritating people as 'persistent widows' who compel us to not lose sight of other people's – particularly the weak, the powerless, the abandoned and the refugees – fundamental humanity.

 

This morning we met with four of the bishops of Sudan. Each explained the situation in their own diocese and we had a very fruitful conversation about how we can best build on our relationship to mutual benefit. The talk was open, honest, trustful and opened several doors to future work together.

One bishop was missing. Andudu, Bishop of Kadugli, is in Juba, Southern Sudan, as he is unable to return to his own diocese for reasons of safety. In June 2011 he was in the USA for medical treatment when Sudanese forces started their attack on the Nuba Mountains. While there he made some comments – perhaps without on-the-ground direct knowledge – and the Sudanese government took exception, making it impossible for him to return without endangering his life. His family is in Uganda. He was represented at our meeting this morning by one of his Canons who has had to flee Kadugli and is being cared for by the Diocese of Khartoum.

The situation has confused me a little – the rhetoric in the UK sometimes attributing motive and consequence where convenient, but not making complete sense. I fully accept that this might be evidence of my stupidity rather than a comment on the people doing the reporting or commentating. I could not understand why the bishop (and others could not return, especially as it is more peaceful in some areas right now than it has been). Today I began to grasp it (although what follows is not intended to be a full analysis).

The Sudanese government is attacking supporters of the SPLA. Kadugli itself is under government control, but other areas of South Kordofan are controlled by the SPLA. Thousands of people have fled and the humanitarian cost is being paid for by neighbouring states which are absorbing them. However, the government does not want a repeat of Darfur and, so, has prohibited the erection of refugee camps. This means that people escaping have to find their way to relatives in other cities – leading to families of ten or twenty living in very tight accommodation that was already overcrowded with a single family.

The other dioceses are caring for the refugees who exited by the gateway of El Obeid en route to places like Khartoum. These people have nothing and the people looking to help them have little. More could be said, but suffice it to say here that the courage, tenacity and quiet commitment of the bishops and their people to care for these displaced people is admirable. Last year I launched a 'Kadugli Appeal' in Bradford and so far we have raised £100,000 to enable these people to feed and assist those displaced. Of course, the need goes further – for example, children being absorbed into church schools in Khartoum – but at least something useful is being done.

Each diocese in Sudan faces this need for care of displaced and often traumatised people at the same time as losing some of their leading people to the South. This is another matter to which I will attend when I return to Bradford next week. But, the challenge is enormous… and is being tackled by good people with quiet determination and a shed load of love. It is very humbling.

It is also clear that government attacks in South Kordofan cannot be reduced to simple categories of political allegiance, race or religion, but is shaped by various mixtures of all three. Any analysis that seems simple… is probably wrong.

Our conversation went beyond the diocesan situations to wider issues such as the influence of Saudi Arabia in Sudan and other parts of the region. I was reminded of the need for people like me (who are involved in global interfaith dialogue) sometimes to check the western liberal perspective and look through the lens of Christians in places like Sudan where Islamic rejection of conversion from Islam to Christianity is more than an academic matter. Enough said… for now.

It is salutary that I have just started reading Walter Brueggemann's 2012 book The Practice of Prophetic Imagination. His starting point is that Christians operate in the real world with a 'narrative' that refuses to accept the 'dominant narrative' of the world in which we live. Without ducking the challenges of this, he maintains that Christians must constantly rehearse their own narrative, with God at the centre… even though this God is rejected in the world's dominant narrative (which he later describes as 'self-invention, competitive productivity and self-sufficiency' resulting in 'military consumerism'). Against this, the Christian narrative has to do with 'wonder (instead of self-invention), emancipation (instead of the rat-race of production), nourishment (instead of labour for that which does not satisfy), covenantal dialogue instead of tyrannical monopoly or autonomous anxiety), a quid pro quo of accountability (instead of either abdicating submissiveness or autonomous self-assertion), waiting (instead of having or despair about not having)'.

His point – which (a) he draws out from both Old and New Testaments and (b) reflects the call to responsibility as the heart of freedom that Joachim Gauck speaks about in his little book Freiheit: Ein Plädoyer – is that the world's narrative does not prove adequate (see how an obsession with security leads to massive insecurity, for example), but that this is too often not recognised or appreciated… even by Christians who are supposed to sing from a different hymn sheet. You'll have to read the book to get the point, but Brueggemann bangs the drum he has been beating in almost all his writing and preaching: that Christians must refuse narratives of defeat, ending, destruction and loss by holding to one that affirms perseverance, newness, creation and hope. “Choose life,” is the challenge of the Deuteronomist – which assumes that choices must be made and responsibility taken for those choices. In other words, Christians cannot be escapists from the challenges of power in the world, but, rather, challenge that world's assumptions (and exertions of power) by choosing to live differently in it.

It is perhaps not surprising that this reads with particular power here in Sudan as the day draws towards its close and the Muezzin calls the people to prayer.

 

The last time I was stopped at a police roadblock was in Zimbabwe in 2007. In fact we were stopped at a number of them, mostly while we were en route to Victoria Falls. This morning we were stopped in the dark just outside Khartoum while driving to visit the new Diocese of Wad Medani. Our passports were taken while another bloke with a big red stick poked his head through the car window, saw the white man and asked where we were from. “England” elicited a frown and a sucking of teeth – after which he said, “Football?” I wondered if giving the wrong answer might make our plight worse. “Liverpool,” I said with a smile. He looked at me and said: “You'll never walk alone.”

That's globalisation for you!

Further on in the two-and-a-half hour journey and I got another lesson in how not to jump to conclusions… or misreadings.

The road runs alongside the Blue Nile and either side of it runs a sort of 'ribbon development' in the making (as well millions of plastic bags and bottles, accompanied by an exotic range of animal carcasses at various stages of decay). What I thought I was looking at as we drove (hairily, at 60mph, as if we were playing dodgems) was strings of derelict buildings surrounded by low and deserted compound walls. Another bit of unfinished or neglected infrastructure? Or evidence of communities now abandoned because of conflict or expulsions?

Neither, in fact. These were buildings and walls in process of being constructed. What I saw as falling down was actually being built up. My prejudices – of which I am not proud – were confounded yet again. And it made me wonder how many other such judgements I make that reality might embarrass. All I did was ask the Bishop of Khartoum (our host) and he, unaware of my thinking, just told me people find it cheaper to buy land and gradually build houses outside the city. I didn't know how to read what I saw.

Having cleared that up – and resolving to ask before judging – we received wonderful and generous hospitality at the Cathedral in Wad Medani. This diocese was established only a couple of years ago, carved out of Khartoum which was imply too big. It is still enormous. And it still covers territory that is currently subject to war – creating enormous numbers of displaced people. All the clergy, including the Diocesan Bishop, are volunteers – they are setting the whole thing up from scratch and, already poor, have next to nothing.

But, what they do have is faith in God, a strong commitment to serve the people of that area, and a refusal to give in to any easy option. They are remarkable. Why is it always the church that runs (for example) literacy projects and creates community for people who don't belong to them? It seems that wherever you go in the world, the church is there, using its often meagre resources for the betterment of their people.

At the moment this diocese depends on links with dioceses like mine even to produce a modicum of working capital. They are explicit about wanting to be self-sufficient, but need to get the resources (for example, build shops and a guest house on their land in order to raise a little revenue to then be able to fund clergy and further sustainable projects).

If you know anyone rich who wants to see some cash go to very impressive people in a tough part of the world, point them in my direction.

And now for a meeting with the bishops of Sudan – excluding the Bishop of Kadugli who is now based in the South and cannot return to his own diocese because of the war going on there. More anon.

(Oh… and I have just re-read Joachim Gauck's little book on Freiheit: Ein Plädoyer – basically, we need to know how to use freedom for and not just enjoy freedom from – before moving on to Walter Brueggemann's The Practice of Prophetic Imagination. It's all fun, fun, fun…)

 

The last time I was stopped at a police roadblock was in Zimbabwe in 2007. In fact we were stopped at a number of them, mostly while we were en route to Victoria Falls. This morning we were stopped in the dark just outside Khartoum while driving to visit the new Diocese of Wad Medani. Our passports were taken while another bloke with a big red stick poked his head through the car window, saw the white man and asked where we were from. “England” elicited a frown and a sucking of teeth – after which he said, “Football?” I wondered if giving the wrong answer might make our plight worse. “Liverpool,” I said with a smile. He looked at me and said: “You'll never walk alone.”

That's globalisation for you!

Further on in the two-and-a-half hour journey and I got another lesson in how not to jump to conclusions… or misreadings.

The road runs alongside the Blue Nile and either side of it runs a sort of 'ribbon development' in the making (as well millions of plastic bags and bottles, accompanied by an exotic range of animal carcasses at various stages of decay). What I thought I was looking at as we drove (hairily, at 60mph, as if we were playing dodgems) was strings of derelict buildings surrounded by low and deserted compound walls. Another bit of unfinished or neglected infrastructure? Or evidence of communities now abandoned because of conflict or expulsions?

Neither, in fact. These were buildings and walls in process of being constructed. What I saw as falling down was actually being built up. My prejudices – of which I am not proud – were confounded yet again. And it made me wonder how many other such judgements I make that reality might embarrass. All I did was ask the Bishop of Khartoum (our host) and he, unaware of my thinking, just told me people find it cheaper to buy land and gradually build houses outside the city. I didn't know how to read what I saw.

Having cleared that up – and resolving to ask before judging – we received wonderful and generous hospitality at the Cathedral in Wad Medani. This diocese was established only a couple of years ago, carved out of Khartoum which was imply too big. It is still enormous. And it still covers territory that is currently subject to war – creating enormous numbers of displaced people. All the clergy, including the Diocesan Bishop, are volunteers – they are setting the whole thing up from scratch and, already poor, have next to nothing.

But, what they do have is faith in God, a strong commitment to serve the people of that area, and a refusal to give in to any easy option. They are remarkable. Why is it always the church that runs (for example) literacy projects and creates community for people who don't belong to them? It seems that wherever you go in the world, the church is there, using its often meagre resources for the betterment of their people.

At the moment this diocese depends on links with dioceses like mine even to produce a modicum of working capital. They are explicit about wanting to be self-sufficient, but need to get the resources (for example, build shops and a guest house on their land in order to raise a little revenue to then be able to fund clergy and further sustainable projects).

If you know anyone rich who wants to see some cash go to very impressive people in a tough part of the world, point them in my direction.

And now for a meeting with the bishops of Sudan – excluding the Bishop of Kadugli who is now based in the South and cannot return to his own diocese because of the war going on there. More anon.

(Oh… and I have just re-read Joachim Gauck's little book on Freiheit: Ein Plädoyer – basically, we need to know how to use freedom for and not just enjoy freedom from – before moving on to Walter Brueggemann's The Practice of Prophetic Imagination. It's all fun, fun, fun…)

 

Aong other things (like 'work'), this last week…

I read Francis Spufford's wonderful, funny, totally engaging and sweary Unapologetic – the best book on Christian faith I have read for ages.

I read Joachim Gauck's little book on Freiheit: Ein Plädoyer (Freedom: A Plea). The recently-appointed President of Germany was a Lutheran pastor in East Germany (Angela Merkel was the daughter of another). I heard him speak a couple of years ago in Hannover and he was brilliant. Intelligent, reflective and passionate, I can't think of a UK equivalent.

I listened (in the car) to Johann Sebastian Bach's gorgeous Weihnachtsoratorium – a 2-CD recording by the Thomanerchor from Leipzig which I bought at inflated price while visiting the Bachhaus in Eisenach a couple of weeks ago. Beautiful, inspiring and intricate, it takes you out of the present and into the eternal – Christmas being the irruption into history of the God who pours himself out for a world he loves infinitely.

I listened (in the car) to Mumford & Sons' new album Babel – great contemporary folk music, but very similar to their excellent debut album Sigh No More. Whack up the volume when alone and stuck on the motorway.

I listened (not in the car) to Bob Dylan's superb Tempest – as great as Modern Times and needing many re-listens. Let's hope it isn't – as rumoured – his last one.

I wondered about the sheer moralistic envy of us Brits who insist that anyone in a position of responsibility be cut down to size. I have no time for Chancellor George Osborne or his 'something for nothing' millionaire Cabinet colleagues, but it is quite absurd to prevent MPs and ministers from travelling first class on the trains. I travel on trains a lot – always cattle class… apart from getting on the wrong part of a German train from Eisenach to Frankfurt and being told to enjoy first class by the conductor – and use the time to read papers, catch up on briefings, draft writings, etc.. I also know how hard it can be to concentrate and get stuff done if penned in. If I want ministers and MPs to do the best for their constituents, why would I not want them to travel well and perform well when doing what they were travelling to or for? I suspect the sneering is simply envy or our obsession with pulling people down.

Liverpool won. At home. At last. Nuff said.

I preached (this morning at a service of baptism and confirmation in a parish church) on James, John and Bartimaeus from Mark 10: the 'seeing' are blind (obsession with power, status and personal kudos) while the blind sees. And those wonderful words spoken by the friends of Jesus (who clearly saw their job as to keep people like Bartimaeus away from Jesus): “Take heart. Get up. He is calling you.” Or: “Receive grace. Take responsibility. Don't duck the implications.”

I drove up to Ingleton to preach at an ecumenical service. Ingleton. Up in the Yorkshire Dales between the southern part of the Lake District to the north and the complex urban areas of Bradford and Keighley to the south. The sun shone, the sky was blue, the leaves gorgeously yellow-green-red-brown, the rivers sparklingly beautiful, the hills a reminder that they remain as we come and go.

Bring on this week…