The Reimagining Europe blog continues to provide space for a different sort of conversation about the future of Europe ahead of the UK referendum in 2017.

2017 is, of course, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (when Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Schloßkirche in Wittenberg). And, of course, you can't understand the shape of Europe or its history without understanding the Reformation.

So, I have posted a piece about the need to remember well, even when this might offend our prejudices or ideological interests. All in the interests of promoting the debate.

 

The General Synod of the Church of England is meeting for three days in London. Like many others, I approach such meetings with a mixture of serious anticipation and reluctant resignation. I might be unusual, but I usually need some prior wider preparatory thinking that sets the particular agenda in a constructive context.

So, I was belatedly reading some papers on the train this morning and found in them some useful stuff. Dr Isolde Karle presented a paper at the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung conference in Italy recently in which she addressed some of the challenges and perspectives arising from the role of the Church in a society differentiated by function (Kirche in der funktional differenzierten Gesellschaft: Herausforderungen und Perspektiven). Having examined the changes in society that have led to a diminution in influence on the part of the Church in the west, she differentiates between the dominance of status/order (up to the 18th century) and that of function/individualism thereafter. She looks at Luther (who wanted freedom from the – perceived – totalitarian claims of the Roman Catholic Church) and Schleiermacher (who wanted to free the church from the state) en route and summarises: “Religion war vor allem eine Sache der Ordnung, nicht der Überzeugung.”

Having stated that the church both gains and loses from the changes that now shape the modern world, she goes on to identify three 'dimensions of church life' that are significant for wider society:

  • Preservation of the Christian cultural memory
  • Church as an intermediary institution
  • Inclusion of the excluded.

Now, although these will take on slightly different complexions depending on the particular German or English contexts, they seem to me to offer a corrective to the common defensive misery or under confidence of the church in a changing world. Yes, there are other dimensions that could be identified, but these three matter enormously. Dr Karle is unapologetic in stating that this cultural memory cannot be taken for granted. “It is completely imaginable that one day the story of the Good Samaritan will no longer be known/understood. Solidarity with the powerless, deliberate care of the marginalised, of the sick and of people in need are not self-evident.” (Es ist aber durchaus vorstellbar, dass die Geschichte vom barmherzigen Samariter eines Tages nicht mehr verstanden wird. Die Solidarität mit den Schwächeren, die explizite Rücksichtnahme auf Ausgegrenzte, auf Kranke, auf Menschen in Not versteht sich nicht von selbst.)

The church is well placed to create the space in which other societal bodies can meet and thrive – hence the 'intermediary' role which the church exercises for the common good… on the basis of the vital rooting of our cultural memory in Christian theology and ethics.

In a functionally-differentiated world in which fragmentation is one consequence of societal change the church remains one of the few institutions that make space for all-comers regardless of background, status, qualification, wealth or ability.

OK, this is a rough summary of a longer and well-argued paper (that will be published next year). But, given that we will be debating women bishops (there's a surprise!) and 'intentional evangelism' (with the clear challenge of what this looks like among the poor and on our large urban estates where many churches are struggling to grow), Dr Isolde provides a background consideration of the cultural pool in which the church currently swims.

 

I am back in Germany for a few days. The EKD (the German Protestant Church) – which is more fun than it sounds – is going through a process of reform in order to re-shape the church for the next few decades. This began in 2006 with a conference in Wittenberg and has been driven with determination and vision by the soon-to-retire top bishop of the EKD, Wolfgang Huber. The conference this time is in Kassel and has brought together over 1200 people from all over Germany – and it is excellent.

kircheimaufbruchekdThe Germans also know how to do hospitality. The food and drink is wonderful and they attend to minute details in making sure everything works and everyone is comfortable. I am here to represent the Church of England as an ecumenical partner and have spent the whole of today taking part in discussions and addresses. Unfortunately, my German is struggling with the complicated stuff and, although I understand everything, I do have to think hard when speaking. (Which wasn’t a problem during the evening awards dinner where the wine flowed like the Rhine…)

Martin LutherThe EKD launched this visionary and very brave exercise in reforming itself, with a view to celebrating in 2017 the 500th anniversary of the Reformation started by Martin Luther when he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg. This time a full programme has seen celebration go with worship, wine with serious engagement with the contemporary challenges for the church in Germany and in Europe, and a market place of what we in England would probably call ‘fresh expressions of church’. Creativity is being encouraged and – believe it or not – the Church of England’s experience is regarded here as exemplary.

Of the many impressions and lessons, three things stand out for me:

1. Bishop Huber spoke in his opening address of what he called ‘mentale Gefangenschaften’ – mental imprisonments. One of the things that I brought into today’s session was the assumption that anything we start must have the potential to last for ever. But the church needs to find the courage to start initiatives, let them run for a while and then kill them or move on. The second example I used was the fear of failure. We must encourage churches to take risks and not fear failure. I, as a bishop, will never refrain from supporting a church that takes a risk and fails; I worry more about those that try to play everything safe. Or, as an Austrian bishop put it this evening: ‘Too many churches fears disappearing less than they fear change.’

Huber2. Many Protestant churches in Europe are small. This means that their voice is hard to get heard in the cacophany of voices in the public square. The churches in Europe need each other to offer a combined voice on matters of huge importance in Europe such as assisted suicide, economics, ecology, etc. Christians are for ever whingeing about the way the world is going, but have no idea what to do about it. Well, the message here is clear: swallow your pride and join with others (whether you agree with every jot and tittle of their theology or not) as Christian churches with a common task.

A wonderful young woman from Switzerland made this clear in a very strong critique of the input at this afternoon’s forum on ecumenical matters. One of the things that worries me about the fragmentation of English Christians into new alignments such as New Wine, etc. is that they don’t contribute to a Christian coalition on these matters of massive human and social import beyond the church – they fragment our voice. This is not a criticism of New Wine or any other renewal movement in the Church for what they do do, but simply a way of asking a question about whether our preoccupation with our church brand keeps us singing spiritual songs while the world goes to pot for want of a coherent and united Christian voice.

3. The young Swiss woman, Carla Maurer, took me to task for speaking of ‘a cacophany of voices in the public square’ and challenged us (older generations) to accept the fact that the world has changed: that people like her are now citizens of Europe who embrace eclecticism and diversity. She called for the churches to prioritise what she called in German ‘Chaoskompetenz’ – an ability to cope with, live with and master ‘chaos’. She is right.

Perhaps I might add a fourth thing that impressed me. The Book of the Year award by the EKD for 2009 went to a retired pastor called Christian Fuhrer who opened his church in Leipzig to the opposition movement in the 1980s. He is a humble and unassuming man with a backbone of steel when it comes to his conviction about what is right and wrong – and what the Christian’s responsibility is. In his autobiography, Und wir sind dabei gewesen, (And we were there) he records the events that led to the peaceful challenge to and downfall of Communism and the obscene Berlin Wall in East Germany in 1989. It is increasingly common these days to read about these events as if they were the result of post-Enlightenment rationalist inevitability – and forget that the Christian churches offered the space, the consistently intellectual rigour, the moral courage, the political encouragement and the spiritual vision that led to those remarkable days 20 years ago when the world changed for the better.

Tomorrow we finish here in Kassel with a Reisesegen – a journey of blessing. Several thousand people will walk through Kassel, stopping to pray and meditate on the Church’s vocation in the world. Then I will give the final blessing in the company of the German President Horst Koehler and the head of the EKD. Then I get the train to Berlin to catch the end of an academic conference on the Reformation and preach in Berlin Cathedral at an ecumenical service on Sunday morning.