Since returning from the big gig in Germany last week there hasn't been much time for blogging. Life is full and the days are demanding. But, Alex Ferguson has retired, so a new world beckons.

But, even this causes me a problem. David Moyes, Ferguson's successor as manager of Manchester United, is hugely impressive in every way – despite having spent over ten years with Everton. How can I now start dissing him just because he's going over to the Dark Side? I realise that there are more complex ethical issues, but this is a tough one for a Scousers like me.

Anyway, I haven't had time to recover from the exertions of the wonderful Kirchentag in Hamburg. Today, for example, I met with the police early in the morning. Then I went to a brilliant primary school and taught over 400 children a couple of songs in their assembly. Having toured the school with two children, I then went back into Bradford to be one of the speakers at the national launch of Community Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE). Back to this in a minute, but just to complete the diary stuff… I took a couple of excellent education people to lunch before meeting a vicar at home, doing diocesan finances with the Chair of the Diocesan Board of Finance, having a diary session with my secretary, writing a piece for the June edition of the Bradford Diocesan News, then joining the Sikh Forum for wonderful hospitality at their big Vaisakhi celebration.

The big news, however, was the launch of CAASE. This body has been founded by various bodies such as the Islamic Society of Britain and Hope not Hate. They reined in the police, local councillors, community leaders and me. Despite problems of communication and association in the planning of today's event, it marked an important development. And why is this significant?

The grooming of young girls for sexual exploitation is appalling and news is constantly breaking about such shocking predatory criminality. This is a human problem and a male problem (principally). Yet, there is always a particular cultural context to every instance of such abuse. In West Yorkshire the pattern is broadly that online grooming is a white phenomenon, whilst street grooming is almost entirely the domain of Asian men. And here we need to sound a loud note of caution.

Much reporting of sex grooming is loose with the language. 'Asian' is a broad term and many Asians are fed up with being lumped in with criminal cultural behaviour from other parts of the continent. Secondly, to confuse religion (Islam) with ethnicity (Pakistani Kashmiri Mirpuri, for example) is not only a category error, but can lead to serious misrepresentation and misunderstanding. When using language in such circumstances we must be clear and precise.

My contribution was simply to commend the Asians and Muslims who have had the courage to grasp this difficult nettle. Demonstrating maturity and courage, bodies such as the Bradford Council for Mosques, the Bradford Muslim Women's Council and the Bradford Imams Forum have refused – against pressure from some who find it too hard to face the reality of such shameful criminality in their midst – to hide from their responsibility. When it comes to the particular forms of exploitation carried out by Asian men, then it is the Asian and Muslim communities that need to take the lead in addressing it.

This is not my line; rather, it is the line given to me by Asian Muslims. I will stand by them and support them, but they have to take the lead here. And they have recognised that if they don't shape how they handle this phenomenon, they will always be reacting defensively to the lead taken by those who wish to make political points out of the situation.

Yes, sexual grooming is not an 'Asian' issue; but, there is an Asian issue with grooming here in West Yorkshire and elsewhere. The particular must be addressed and not hidden behind the general. (Something the church knows a good deal about…)

Facing this challenge here in West Yorkshire requires mature and confident leadership – and we are seeing this emerge. It also raises challenges for patriarchy and the treatment of women by men generally. Cultural behaviours that diminish women must be challenged. In fact, we heard from a Muslim woman that although their girls are taught about spotting the seductions of potential exploitative approaches and relationships, the boys are not. Models of patriarchal mysogeny are perpetuated.

Here in Bradford there is a really encouraging waking up to the realities that need to be tackled here. This offers immense hope for the future and I end the day encouraged.

 

It’s a weird world. I posted on 21 February stuff related to the concerns that prompted 43 Church of England bishops, backed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, to sign a letter to the press. Published today in the Sunday Telegraph, it has caused a bit of noise.

Clearly, the substance is not the issue, or it would have hit the headlines some time ago. It is the fact that a pile of bishops has signed it that makes it a story. And that’s good.

Let’s get one thing straight: this letter is not anti-government or anti-Cameron; it is pro-children.

wpid-Photo-9-Feb-2013-1604.jpgAnd another thing: read some of the comment threads on this story on news websites and a repeated (outraged) question has to do with the competence of bishops to dare to voice concerns in this way. Who are they to speak? Well, (a) we are people who participate in civil society, (b) we also have a voice with others in the democratic process, (c) we have people in every community in the land and are probably closer to the ground than most politicians, (d) it is our responsibility to speak truth without fear or self-regard, (e) if we can make a voice heard, then we have a responsibility to do so, and (f) such questioning is just silly and simply distracts from the issue at hand.

Thirdly, the question of priorities remains unanswered: we can bail out banks to the tune of billions of pounds, but it’s the poor who have to pay? The government’s language has become increasingly and deliberately disingenuous, lumping people on welfare benefits into the category of ‘feckless scroungers’ who lie in bed watching other people go to work. Yet, they know that most people being hit by welfare cuts and the bedroom tax are low-paid working people. Why is this being done? (See the recent report The lies we tell ourselves – another intrusion by those pesky Christians who really should be silenced…)

Here’s the letter as published:

Dear editor,

Next week, Members of the House of Lords will debate the Welfare Benefit Up-rating Bill.

The Bill will mean that for each of the next three years, most financial support for families will increase by no more than 1%, regardless of how much prices rise.

This is a change that will have a deeply disproportionate impact on families with children, pushing 200,000 children into poverty. A third of all households will be affected by the Bill, but nearly nine out of ten families with children will be hit.

These are children and families from all walks of life. The Children’s Society calculates that a single parent with two children, working on an average wage as a nurse would lose £424 a year by 2015.

A couple with three children and one earner, on an average wage as a corporal in the British Army, would lose £552 a year by 2015.

However, the change will hit the poorest the hardest. About 60% of the savings from the uprating cap will come from the poorest third of households. Only 3% will come from the wealthiest third.

If prices rise faster than expected, children and families will no longer have any protection against this. This transfers the risk of high inflation rates from the Treasury to children and families.

This is simply unacceptable.

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Children and families are already being hit hard by cuts to support including to Tax Credits, maternity benefits, and help with housing costs. They cannot afford this further hardship penalty.

We are calling on Members of the House of Lords to take action to protect children from the impact of this Bill.

It seems that anyone can call himself a poet these days. Just put words together with some sort of vague rhyme and suddenly Milton's got a rival – Shakespeare's under style-threat.

Yet, poetry is more than this. It has to be worked at. Words have to be shaped and re-shaped in order to squeeze evocation from them, forge associations, echo emotion, pierce the predictable and let the light in through the cracks that secure our familiarities.

Bruce Cockburn always saw, however, that it is the poets who awaken imagination and do the stuff politicians can never do:

Male female slave or free / Peaceful or disorderly / Maybe you and he will not agree / But you need him to show you new ways to see.

Don't let the system fool you / All it wants to do is rule you / Pay attention to the poet / You need him and you know it

An old mate of mine has retired from being a vicar and now proclaims himself to be a poet. And I think he is. He sent me the draft of his first collection of poems and I liked them. So, I offered a strong endorsement… and was glad to do so. Paul Canon Harris has produced a book that repays re-reading because the poems themselves make you stop – make your imagination quietly fire up.

Best Before should not have a sell-by date.

Last week I interviewed fourteen ordinands prior to their ordination as priest (yesterday evening) or deacon (this morning) in Bradford Cathedral. Since Thursday they have been on retreat at the gorgeous Parcevall Hall.

One of the questions I asked them (apart from: “Why should we ordain you?”) was how they might summarise the gospel – or the biblical story – in a single sentence. It wasn't easy. But, I still remain convinced that if the church and its ministers are to communicate into a sound bite and visual culture, we must work harder at the words we use – especially when put on the spot by people who have no idea about Christian faith (even if they think they do).

One good one came after some discussion and is the sort of line that opens up, rather than shutting down, further inquisition: “You can't pin God down… but we did nail him.”

I still come back to something I once said on the radio when unexpectedly asked what was the point of the church. I simply blagged: “The job of the church is to create the space in which people can find that they have been found by God.”

I am open to other creative suggestions! But the point is that we need to work hard at finding and shaping language, then using it repeatedly to see how it works and if it resonates.

In similar vein, I was watching a DVD of a film about the great Leonard Cohen – my daughter and son-in-law gave it to me recently. Towards the end Cohen said with a smile: “For many years I was known as a monk. I shaved my head and wore robes and got up very early. I hated everyone, but I acted generously and no one found me out.”

Discuss.

 

One of the challenges of listening through the ears of a different culture is trying to work out (a) what is being said, (b) how is it being said, (c) to whom is it being said, (d) why is it being said, and (e) what is being heard from what is being said.

Listening to a keynote speaker at a conference is always a welcome experience. For one thing, it means I am not having to do it. But, it offers an opportunity to think, to hear afresh and to learn. But, listening this morning, I realise that being the outsider makes me listen differently. I don’t know how people are hearing Angela Ifill’s address or whether she is scratching where the people are itching. I think she is. But, if she is, then the context, the audience and the challenges are not the same as those we face at home.

Inevitably I listen through my own ears and my point of reference is the context of the Church of England in the Diocese of Bradford. The issue of ‘welcome’ is pertinent everywhere, of course, as hospitality and generosity are key signs of God’s kingdom. But, I realised this morning that, despite the fact that I understand every word that was spoken and am familiar with every element of the presentation, I don’t know how this has been heard, understood and appropriated by the local audience for whom it was intended. I don’t know what ‘welcome’ might look like on the ground in the particular churches of this diocese.

So, nothing deep here. Just another fresh experience of how some questions have to be asked of any communication prior to knowing what the words mean – and what response they are intended to provoke.

Two days in and three books down.

 
I haven’t the first idea what an algorithm looks like or what it does or how it does it. It’s something mathematical and that finishes it for me. But Robert Harris‘s The Fear Index takes an interesting look at the sort of thing that went wrong in the financial and banking sectors: hubristic gamblers ceding too much to computers on the grounds that they can do the sums quicker. The moral questions come thick and fast.
 

Julian Barnes has written a beautiful novella in The Sense of an Ending. Apart from the narrative itself, which kept me intrigued until the final page, the writing is wonderful. The idea of someone having to re-write their history in the light of information that arises later in life about events that happened when younger is a familiar one to anyone with a pulse. But Barnes ruminates on mortality, relationships, loss and regret. And there is a poignancy running through the narrative that captures the common experience of thinking that life should be better than it usually is:

Just as all political and historical change sooner or later disappoints, so does adulthood. So does life. Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. (p.105)

 
Discuss.
 
John Bell needs no introduction. For many people his name is synonymous with the Iona Community. HIn addition to his prolific output of music and hymnody, he broadcasts on Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4′s Today programme. He is never boring – he uses words as if each one matters and finds the language to engage as well as inform. Rooted deeply in the language and content of the Bible, he brings to his speaking and writing a prophetic, reasoned passion that demands an equally biblical response. His second volume of ‘thoughts’ and essays is entitled All That Matters and cannot be read without some response.

 
One taste reflects back onto the questions raised by Harris and touches on Barnes’ sense of mortality:

The prophet is someone who reads into the present state of society and discerns two things: the consequence of present actions in advance of a crisis, and an alternative reality which is worth striving for. (p.55)

 
A fourth book, which I am reading a bit at a time, is David Crystal‘s wonderfully informative and entertaining The Story of English in 100 Words. Number 7 is ‘Mead’ and in Old English you could call someone who had drunk too much of it ‘medu-werig’ (mead-weary). From Barnes I learned the word ‘lucubrations’ (look it up – I had to!), but I can see I’m going to get far more use out of ‘medu-werig’.

Prime Minister David Cameron delivered a speech yesterday in which he praised the impact of the King James Bible, stamped all over the nonsense assumption of secular neutrality, and called for Christians to be confident about their faith, the Bible and their right (nay, responsibility) to speak into public life. Not surprisingly, it has caused a bit of a stir amongst the commentariat whose assumptions got a bit of a kicking.

Cameron was speaking in an Anglican cathedral, so was duly confident in his laudatory observations on the impact of the King James Bible. He also used the occasion to give the Church of England a bit of a kick in relation to its wrangles over women and sexuality. Fair game, I say. And it was good to hear a British politician ‘do God’ without embarrassment, hesitation or self-exonerating caveat.

But, having praised the phenomenon and some of the content, I am still left with a cautious hesitation myself. And I think I know why this is.

He managed to talk up the language of the Bible without really referring to the content of it. Yes, the KJV has powerfully influenced our language and, proclaimed by the Church, has shaped our culture and law as well as our worship. But, we can’t just leave it there.

It reminds me of a rude remark I made recently at an interfaith gathering. I said that many of the global interfaith conferences I attend are a bit like a glorified BT commercial: ‘It’s good to talk’… provided we don’t actually talk about anything. Yet, avoiding ‘content’ is a sure way to waste time and money on non-engagement and the fostering of a false sense of coherence when all we have done is avoid speaking about ‘content’ that might prove contentious. Of course, this is a caricature, but it made the point: we have to move beyond talking about talking to talking about something.

Well, Cameron lauded the language and spoke eloquently about the need for moral codes and ethical foundations in private as well as public life. He argued for a thought-through moral and spiritual basis for our ethics – rather than just assuming one.

But, the problem with the Bible is that as soon as you get beyond the language to what it says, you begin to find it challenging – on lots of fronts. Beautiful language is a means to comprehension, not an end in itself. And it’s taking a bit of a risk challenging the Church of England on its ethical conflicts when those conflicts arise precisely from going through the language and on to conflicted ways of reading the text in its integrity. So, it is alright for the Prime Minister to “recognise the impact of a translation that is, I believe, one of this country’s greatest achievements” and to claim that “the King James Bible is as relevant today as at any point in its 400 year history” as long as we don’t delve too deeply into what it says. He goes on:

One of my favourites is the line “For now we see through a glass, darkly.” It is a brilliant summation of the profound sense that there is more to life, that we are imperfect, that we get things wrong, that we should strive to see beyond our own perspective. The key word is darkly – profoundly loaded, with many shades of meaning. I feel the power is lost in some more literal translations. The New International Version says: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror”. The Good News Bible: “What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror”. They feel not just a bit less special but dry and cold, and don’t quite have the same magic and meaning.”

I take the point (and basically agree with him), but the Bible isn’t meant to dazzle us with poetic magic; it is meant to open us to the mind of God… which tends to be a little bit challenging.

Like Shakespeare, the King James translation dates from a period when the written word was intended to be read aloud. And this helps to give it a poetic power and sheer resonance that in my view is not matched by any subsequent translation.

Again, point taken. But, resonance isn’t enough. It isn’t a performance prop. Like with Shakespeare, it is possible to enjoy the spectacle and experience of a play while going home oblivious to the point of it all. It won’t kill you, but you are missing out on rather a lot.

Cameron (or whoever wrote the basic text) does a good job of exposing assumptions of neutrality, affirming the role of the Bible in the development of British politics and culture, the fundamental power of biblical anthropology in shaping what would now rather weakly be called ‘human rights’, and the importance of biblically informed theological and spiritual motivation in social altruism. He says:

The Bible has helped to shape the values which define our country. Indeed, as Margaret Thatcher once said, “we are a nation whose ideals are founded on the Bible.” Responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, love… pride in working for the common good and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and our communities… these are the values we treasure. Yes, they are Christian values. And we should not be afraid to acknowledge that.

I didn’t know we were afraid to acknowledge that. But, we are not told which biblical origins these virtues are derived from… or just how to deal with the fact that some people who read that same Bible will not recognise in the same way Cameron does how those virtues should be worked out in concrete priorities, policies or practices. He is absolutely right to knock on the head the utter nonsense that confident Christianity confounds those of other faiths – usually a patronising and ignorant gesture from secular humanists who think they know better than Muslims what offends them. Christianity has indeed created the space in which all people can freely worship or not.

However, Cameron’s conclusion made me wince a little – not at what he said, but at the unarticulated assumptions behind it:

I believe the Church of England has a unique opportunity to help shape the future of our communities. But to do so it must keep on the agenda that speaks to the whole country. The future of our country is at a pivotal moment. The values we draw from the Bible go to the heart of what it means to belong in this country
…and you, as the Church of England, can help ensure that it stays that way.

And what might the ‘agenda that speaks to the whole country’ actually be? I suspect it has to do with stuff that some Christians, precisely because of their reading of the Bible – in whatever translation – believe is contentious on moral grounds. I am not saying they are right or wrong; my point is simply that Cameron’s point is itself contentious… as soon as you move beyond vague generalities about ‘values’ and ‘magic’ and into the text itself.

But, maybe he has just opened the door a little to a willingness to take the content of the Bible seriously and invite people to look at the text itself rather than some general or selective bits of nice language. (‘The Word became flesh’… which is when it all got a bit difficult…)

Two cheers for a brave and serious speech. One cheer reserved for the reservations above.

OK, it’s a tacky title from a tacky song. But, I was reminded of it during a fascinating cross-cultural session at the College of Bishops meeting in Oxford today.


Bishop Wolfgang Huber had made some great observations about the need for the church in an ‘aesthetic post-modern culture’ to find new ways of engaging people with Christian faith. In Peru all those being confirmed are required to memorise passages of the Bible, creeds and other texts. The Bishop’s point was that memorising might not be exactly trendy, but it is very effective.

It is the memorising that grabbed my attention.

Charles Wesley (or his brother…) once said that we learn our theology not from what we hear from the pulpit, but from what we sing. His point was that if you put a good tune to something, it is easier to remember. Then he got on and wrote hundreds of hymns to memorable and easily singable tunes.

(This once led me to observe in a different context that if you sing rubbish, you believe rubbish. It caused me endless grief when taken out of context.)

Wolfgang Huber suggested that we ought to agree on a selection of texts that all Christians should be required to remember – to commit to memory. I agree with him.

We no longer require children to learn poetry or songs. After all, anything can be looked up immediately on the phone; so, why go to the effort of memorising songs or poetry?

Well, I am useless at it. The only poetry I can remember in full is from the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band (Neil Innes) and it helpfully reads:

“I am such a pedant,
I’ve got the brain of a dead ant,
All the imagination of a caravan site…
But I still love you…”

Not exactly Shakespeare, but it stuck.

I need to think further about the power of memorising texts that become part of you. Many people have experienced the power of repeated liturgy: prayer that eventually becomes so much part of you that it prays you.

Requiring candidates for Confirmation to memorise a creed or the Decalogue or the Beatitudes might seem demanding. But, the question is whether we are demanding enough of young Christians and whether or not the memorising of texts would be helpful in maturing them in the faith.

This is not the same thing as indoctrination. It is about creating the space in which people can reflect on what has become part of their ‘vocabulary’ – their mental and spiritual language.

I will take this to the Meissen Commission at the end of this week – of which more anon.

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Location:Oxford

Driving over to York this morning I was interested to listen to a piece on the abortion debate on BBC Radio 4. What was intriguing was not the (rather predictable) discussion, but rather the fact that it was the ‘Science Editor’ who commented on it. This betrays the assumption that we are dealing with a medical matter rather than an ethical one. (OK, the bill going through Parliament today would come under that brief, but it still begs the question.)

Maybe I was attuned to this because yesterday I was chairing the Sandford St Martin Trust in London. The Trust’s objective is to ‘promote excellence in religious broadcasting’ and it seeks to do this in a variety of ways, but principally by making prestigious annual awards.

At the Awards Ceremony at Lambeth Palace in May 2010 Roger Bolton made a bold case for the appointment by the BBC of a Religion Editor. He was not asking for an apologist or an evangelist, but an interpreter.

We live in a world in which, whether the commentariat like it or not, religion is (a) a powerful motivator of both individuals and communities, and (b) a social, political, economic and cultural phenomenon – that is, a reality that cannot be simply ignored (because “we don’t like it and wish it wasn’t there”) and cannot be neutered by uncritical assumptions about secular or ‘scientific’ neutrality.

The public discourse needs an interpreter to do for religion what Evan Davies did for economics.

The discussion on the radio this morning was good, but it would have been even better if there had been a brief interpretation or explanation of why different people see things the way they do, derived from the assumptions they assume. If you know what I mean.

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Location:Bishopthorpe, York

One of the gifts of an event like the Kirchentag is the opportunity to think along with others about things that can get crowded out by the sheer volume or busyness of normal work.

I bumped into a friend today who has spent his life in the business of reconciliation. Not notional reconciliation or spiritualised reconciliation, but the hard, bloody stuff of (among other things) Northern Ireland. We were then joined by a Professor who engages in bioethics and a junior professor of systematic theology. We had a conversation that ranged widely, but touched on a question that still puzzles me in relation to the conflict that currently afflict the Anglican Communion. When did ‘diversity’ cease being a phenomenon and become a virtue?

‘Diversity’ simply describes the reality that there is (whatever one might think of any particular element of it) a diversity amongst human beings in relation to nature, experience and opinion/conviction. That is a phenomenological fact. It describes reality, but ascribes to that reality no particular moral value.

But, at some point in recent years the word became transformed into a virtue – one in relation to which we are compelled to be either for or against. To question diversity as a value is to be described as a bigot by some. This stifles genuine debate and turns discussion into polemic that divides.

I just wonder if this confusion lies at the heart of our conflicts over matters such as sexuality. I just wonder if the same word is used to mean different things to different interlocutors (or antagonists).

I also wonder if differentiating between the two might be helpful in promoting peaceful coexistence where resolution is not possible.


I once said in a public dialogue with an Imam friend of mine that, as a Christian, I think it is vital that he should become a Christian… and that, as a Muslim, he will think it vital that I should become a Muslim… but that it looked extremely unlikely that either of us was going to convert. That then brings us on to a different set of questions which can be summed up as: How then shall we live together?

It is important not to confuse the questions. The question of ‘content’ (the truth of Christianity or Islam) is hugely important and should be pursued with integrity and humility as well as confidence and generosity. But, the question of how, given the unresolved differences, we should now live together for the benefit of the common good, is equally vital. But they are different questions and shouldn’t be confused.

The sort of clarity needed in such sensitive conversation was illustrated in a debate this afternoon in Dresden. The top man of the EKD (Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland), Präses Nikolaus Schneider, was in discussion with Dresden’s elder statesman, Professor Kurt Biedenkopf, about which economic system might make us ‘happy’. They both set out their stores and then engaged in what I thought was intelligent and respectful argument. But, much of the argument was about the meaning of words.


Schneider rooted ‘happiness’ in relationships, whereas Biedenkopf located it in achievement. Schneider questioned whether achievement means anything if there is no one to share it with. Both kept having to check the assumptions behind the apparent intention of the other’s words. Schneider was pro Market, but could not allow the Market to set its own rules. He wanted some attention paid to solidarity. Biedenkopf, on the other hand, did not want economics set over against the rest of public polity, but to be restored (with necessary correctives) to being one part of that polity. He questioned, however, who should set the boundaries: state or responsible individuals? He thought Schneider was unrealistic in wanting some social correctives for the poor and vulnerable and asked the (pertinent and reasonable) question as to who should decide – for example – what should be cut and who should cut it. He would not allow abstract questions about economics without practical implications being considered. (None of us wants our children to pay the price for our economic profligacy, but that common desire doesn’t of itself guide us to the precise and costly decisions that then need to be made in re-stabilising the economy.)

Biedenkopf then went on to question the meaning of ‘solidarity’ – concluding in the end that (a) the Market is us: we can’t be forced to send our money on what we don’t want, so we decide how much cars or mobile phone sell for; and (b) that freedom demands risk as well as responsibility.

In one sense the debate itself wasn’t exactly illuminating other than to demonstrate that our assumptions about what the other person means can be misleading. It was an interesting exploration of semantics.

But the other point of note was that this discussion didn’t take place in a confined space for people who like that sort of thing. It wasn’t shut off in a private place where some people believe ‘religious’ discussion should be confined. It took place in a full-to-overflowing Frauenkirche, but was relayed to a huge screen in the square outside. I watched and listened to it in the sun… in the marketplace… amid all the competing voices… along with hundreds of others.

The Germans didn’t lock this up in some dodgy compartment, but opened it up to an intelligent marketplace where it would stand or fall on it’s merits. And that’s the power of the Kirchentag: it runs through the public space of a city and is not confined (as, for example, Greenbelt) in a place for those who have chosen it.

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Location:Dresden

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