Any conference in Germany is haunted by the 20th Century. The fact that churches in Germany and England maintained their contact and solidarity during the worst years of that century gets forgotten amid the horror stories of war and holocaust and death. So, here at the eighth Meissen Theological Conference at Arnoldshain (near Frankfurt, Germany), the theme of reconciliation is neither merely academic nor idealistic.

We meet in the Martin-Niemöller-Haus to discuss papers that can never be abstract because of the history that brings us together and sets the context for our conversations. After all, this is the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and the seeds of the slaughter that bore the Second. Since 1945 English Christians and German Christians have worked hard at confronting their history and the hard questions raised by their theological handling of political and economic realities.

This conference, co-chaired by the Bishop of London and Professorin Dr Friederike Nüssel (Systematic Theology, Heidelberg), takes conflict and reconciliation with the utmost seriousness. (Although, as usual, the friendship is funny, warm and very enjoyable.)

The conference began this afternoon – within half an hour of arriving – with introductions and then an initial paper by the Bishop of London on Perspectives on Religion and Reconciliation that took us from WW1 through WW2 to the challenges of today's world of religious (and other forms of) conflict. Rigorous questioning highlighted the importance of “symbolic act and apt liturgy” in enabling a society to take responsibility not for changing the past, but for shaping how we remember it and deal with it honestly.

The second paper was presented by Professor Dr Martin Wallraff from the University of Basel, Switzerland, and reached back into patristic considerations of Eucharist, Communion (Gemeinschaft) and communion (Kommunion) (a linguistic distinction that is too arcane, but too important, to deal with in detail here). The Christian tradition digs deep into the wisdom of the ages and does not satisfy itself with mere pragmatic reactions to current phenomena that always appear to be both original and 'ultimate'. Discussion addressed head on the scandal of division in a Christian church that lives with and works at the ideal of unity. The fact that the church even considers unity woth considering is, of itself, remarkable and worthy of proper consideration.

The third paper was presented by the Revd Peter Anthony, a parish priest from London, on 'Seeing and Being Seen' – in relation to texts in the Gospels of Mark and Luke regarding the Transfiguration of Jesus. Again, vigorous debate ensued – not least about what this means for us today.

So, the conference is typically rigorous and stimulating. Set in a centre named after a hero of the German resistance to Hitler, rooted in rigorous theological and biblical thinking and conviction, it isn't inevitable that such a conference would challenge comfortable 'truths' about theology, society, history or academic disciplines. But, we intend to do business on behalf of our churches – not in order to satisfy nice theological chat, but to bring our churches closer together… and to compel us to see through the lens of another culture and history the culture and history of our own people and church. This cannot but make us see differently and with a bit more questioning humility.

 

When the Tories claimed, before the election campaign proper, “we’re in it together”, I responded somewhat scornfully. It didn’t exactly go down well in all quarters… But, given the economic and financial problems facing the world (not just a previously Labour-led Britain), it is simply a statement of fact to say that no one can escape the challenges. Nevetheless, I still maintain that some are “in it” more than others to the extent that some are more financially cushioned and economically secure than others and the view looks different from the bottom.

However, that isn’t the point of this post. While in Germany at the 2nd Ecumenical Kirchentag (until yesterday) it became obvious that the vast range of Christians present in Munich really did think that we are all “in it” together. This presented itself in several different guises:

  • Christians do not feel excluded from intelligent political, social and economic discussion and decision-making in Germany – and assume a common responsibility for the direction in which the country moves. The common ownership (despite variation of view) was striking.
  • The abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church was not something to be gloated over by Protestants or regarded as a problem for the Vatican to solve; rather, it was seen as a source of shame for all Christians who are bound to stand together in repentance, prayer and support for victims. This was not only mature in terms of humanity, but particularly in terms of Christian theology. (Bishop Alan Wilson has had a go at this in his excellent post today.)
  • The need for united Christian mission and service was heard to be almost self-evidently true. Again and again we heard the call (from all ‘parties’) for Christian churches to speak with one voice and work to overcome the scandal of denominational suspicion and division.

Whether this can be maintained is a real question. But, it reminded me of another place where it seems Christians have finally begun to recognise the need for and cost of being “in it together”: Zimbabwe.

The Anglican Dioceses of Harare and Manicaland in Zimbabwe have been subject to what can only be called manipulative persecution by the Mugabe regime. The Government has backed the ousted bishops who no longer have any standing or recognition in the Anglican Communion. Despite pleas for ecumenical hospitality from other churches (that is, allowing regular Anglican congregations to use Roman Catholic, Methodist, etc. church buildings for their services), the Anglicans have most often been left to suffer from this oppression alone. When you see the beatings and other pressures, you can understand why. At a roundtable meeting I chaired recently at Lambeth Palace I raised this matter and together we called for ecumenical identification with the Anglicans who had been picked off by Mugabe.

Last week Jennifer Dube wrote in the Standard:

… representatives of the Zimbabwe National Pastors Conference, Christian Alliance and Ecumenical Support Services who met recently in Harare, endorsed a multi-pronged strategy to help [Bishop Chad] Gandiya’s group, in a move that might mark a new twist to the conflict.

Bishop Ancelimo Magaya of the Grace Ablaze Ministries International said after the meeting: “We need to identify with our brothers and sisters in the Anglican Church. If we do not do that, we will be sinning and if we take time to do it, the evil that is happening in the Anglican Church will come to us… Christians must look at similar divisions in trade, students’ and lawyers’ unions among other sectors to understand the severity of the Anglican saga. For us here in Harare, when some of these things happened to the people of Matabeleland, we bought the dissidents’ story and ignored those people’s suffering. Then came the killing of people with the formation of the MDC and we sat back and said, ‘It’s politics’. The divisions continued with the farm seizures and we said it was for the whites. It came again with the destruction of people’s houses in 2005 and those in Borrowdale said it was for those in the ghetto. It swept through the business sector with the price slashes, continued with the 2008 violence and now, banks and so many other companies are at risk because of yet another divisive piece of legislation. We as the church should refuse to bow to this wave of divisiveness.

This has echoes of Martin Niemoeller’s Stuttgart Confession and represents a much-needed awakening to the fact that when one church suffers, all suffer. Christians can never ignore the suffering of others – whoever they are.

For some reason I had never been to Chartwell, even though it is only a few miles from where I live. Chartwell is where Winston Churchill lived and wrote and painted and found refuge from the world. It is a beautiful house set in lovely parkland with gorgeous trees and wonderful views over the Kent countryside. If I use hyperbolic adjectives, it is only because it is a place that merits them.

image_077Two things struck me today – both probably banal to most people, but I need to be reminded of them from time to time: (a) history seen with hindsight looks ordered and inevitable, but is usually a series of sometimes unintended consequences to well-meant decisions by people who were reacting to the pressures, demands and opportunities of the moment – how it might be different if someone had expressed a liking for Hitler’s paintings in his youth; (b) great men have feet of clay and need to be understood in all their complexity. That is why I have blogged in the past on Martin Niemoeller and others whose human frailty was all-too evident.

churchillChurchill was lionised by people all over the world for his remarkable leadership during the war years. He was quickly dumped after the war, but I remember watching his funeral on telly when I was a child in 1965 and realising that someone great had passed. Yet this man was prone to depression, spent his life wanting the approval of his (dead at 46) father and the love of his mother, was hopeless with his personal finances despite having been Chancellor of the Exchequer and managed to lose jobs and his home with apparent ease.

I hadn’t realised that Chartwell was a wreck when he bought it and that it was brought from him by friends who gave it to the National Trust with the proviso that the Churchill’s could live there until the end of their lives. As you look around the site you find the wall that Churchill built, the paintings in his studio (some good and many not) and bits of manuscripts of his writings. This was a man who knew that despite the responsibility and power of government and global acclaim, he had to be earthed in a place where he could do physical work and get his hands dirty. His painting enabled him to cope with his depressions and observe the world in greater detail.

image_086The statue near the lake is wonderful. By Oscar Nemon, it depicts Winston and his wife and manages to combine intimacy and distance. She is looking at him and her hand reaches across towards him whilst he looks out across Chartwell. Go from here back into the nearby town of Westerham and there is another statue of Churchill on the Green, but it looks suspiciously like the same statue with the wife missing. It is by Oscar Nemon and placed on a plinth donated by Tito in 1969. Here he looks isolated and alone… and incomplete.

25 years ago today (6 March 1984) Martin Niemoeller died in Wiesbaden, Germany. He was Pastor of a wealthy church in Berlin-Dahlem when Hitler came to power and advocated voting for Hitler in 1933 on the grounds that he would clean Germany up. When his eyes were opened to the realities of what was going on (the appointment of Ludwig Mueller as Reichsbischof and the passing of the Aryan Law), he helped found the Confessing Church and joined the resistance. He spent eight years in Moabit Prison, Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps and was eventually released in 1945 from Austria.

niemoellerHe is best known for the ‘confession’ he wrote after his release:

Als die Nazis die Kommunisten holten,
habe ich geschwiegen;
ich war ja kein Kommunist.

Als sie die Sozialdemokraten einsperrten,
habe ich geschwiegen;
ich war ja kein Sozialdemokrat.

Als sie die Gewerkschafter holten,
habe ich nicht protestiert;
ich war ja kein Gewerkschafter.

Als sie die Juden holten,
habe ich geschwiegen;
ich war ja kein Jude.

Als sie mich holten,
gab es keinen mehr, der protestieren konnte.

martin_niemoeller-poemNiemoeller was a great man who did not need to have his memory sanitised, but stood out as a leader who demonstrated in his own life the power of changing one’s mind. A good biography can be found on the EKD website (in German).

Many English people have never heard of him, but he is worth reading and his story is worth telling.