It is a bit odd to be in Germany at a Meissen Theological Conference while the General Synod meets in London – especially as both bodies seem to be addressing similar themes from different directions. This morning the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke plainly and clearly (and truthfully) about the urgent need for a culture change in the Church of England – from fear to love:
When the Church of England works well it is because love overcomes fear. When it works badly it is because fear overcomes love.
In one sense he is calling the bluff on pious theological sentiments that are not backed up by sacrificial acts of the will in choosing to live, speak and relate differently. Where 'difference' becomes a zero sum contest, it is only fear (of loss) that drives us.
Here in Arnoldshain we have been thinking this morning about reconciliation (as addressed by St Paul in the New Testament) in a stimulating paper by Professor Dr Friedrich Wilhelm Horn who teaches New Testament at the University of Mainz. This set the ground for two papers – one English and one German – about the difficult challenges of faith and patriotism from which Christians in our two countries cannot escape. However, this was not just some random excursion around academic themes, but, rather, was rooted in a real historical examination of Bishop George Bell and the role of the church in time of war.
Bishop Christopher Hill took us on a journey from English appropriations of German theological literature prior to 1914 through two world wars and beyond. Key to this was both the blindness of churches in Britain and Germany to the ethical demands of developing political, cultural and economic circumstances, and the shaping of their choices by the theologies that had shaped the lens through which they saw, expereinced and understood the world. Patriotism was both challenged and enjoined in ways that beg further questions. What is little understood and rarely noted is the efforts of German and English Christians in 1908 and 1909 to use their common fellowship and unity in Christ to confound the growing conflict between their countries. War mostly finished off such contacts, but could not kill off the relationships that were rooted not in nationalist priority, but in common Christian identity.
The hard question, of course, is how the church should determine its 'line' in the face of political or military crisis. This was taken up in a paper by Professor Dr Nils Ole Oermann from the University of Lüneburg. Following Bishop Bell through the war years – sometimes standing alone against both the political and public mood in refusing to demonise all Germans and opposing the 'obliteration bombing' of cities like Dresden – reveals a man of “impartiality and integrity”, both of which charateristics gave him the moral authority to command a respectful audience.
And this where the link to the Archbishop of Canterbury's speech comes in. On 9 February 1944 Bishop Bell prepared to make a difficult and unpopular speech in the House of Lords. Prior to the debate his friend Lord Woolton famously said to him: “George, there isn’t a soul in this house who doesn’t wish you wouldn’t make the speech you are going to make. You must know that. But I also want to tell you that there isn’t a soul who doesn’t know that the only reason why you make it, is because you believe it is your duty as a Christian priest.” The greatest respect was held in a context of complete disagreement.
Isn't that something to do with reconciliation? To respect the one from whom you differ – and to recognise the integrity that compels that disagreement to be expressed?