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.

 

… is where the Meissen Commission met from Thursday last week until yesterday (Sunday). Locating the annual joint Commission meeting in part of Bradford called Little Germany is not nearly as tactless as the hotel bar showing a war film (Nazi planes bombing England, etc.) while we were grabbing lunch before dispersing yesterday afternoon.

One of the surprising things about Bradford is the stunning Victorian architecture. Little Germany is wonderful and is gradually being re-populated by businesses as part of the city centre's regeneration. And Bradford Cathedral happens to be located right by Little Germany.

This Commission (which I co-chair with the Bishop of Braunschweig, Bischof Professor Dr Friedrich Weber) came to Bradford to learn about how churches are learning to re-define their mission in a complex cultural context. If your parish is 82% ethno-Muslim and the local Church of England primary school is 95% Muslim, what does it mean to be an Anglican parish church or vicar – when Anglicans organise and define themselves territorially?

To help us look at this we met the Vice-president of the Council for Mosques, a leading Hindu businessman, the Anglican chair of the Presence and Engagement Task Group, the new Dean of Bradford Cathedral, the Vicar of Manningham and my interfaith adviser. We visited the wonderfully excellent Bradford Academy and the equally remarkable St Stephen's C of E Primary School. The Commission, in reviewing the visit, was struck by the warmth of welcome and hospitality in Bradford (the Great Victoria Hotel is excellent) and the “creativity and energy” with which the cultural challenges are being met.

The situation in Germany is different in so far as most Muslim immigration there is economic in origin (the Gastarbeiter from Turkey) and not post-colonial as it is here. Therefore, the corporate psychology of interaction is different. The Germans came to Bradford and discovered a church that, rather than buckling under the challenge of being – in some parishes – a minority, has risen to the challenge with vision and amazing imagination.

Just look at the schools we visited and the leadership exercised there.

So, the annual meeting over, I am now in Oxford for the annual meeting of the bishops of the Church of England. No time to write more now, but Meissen continues to fire me up.

 

I didn’t want to see news pictures of a soldier being murdered in Woolwich this week. I didn’t want to see film of violent brutality and, whilst being aware of the dilemma for news organisations and the moral questions about ‘facing reality’, was not sure that the coverage should have been so graphic. Try seeing it through the eyes of his family. It feels voyeuristic.

That said, however, while trying to flip over one photo in a newspaper, I noticed the road sign close to where the soldier’s body lay. It said: ‘signals timing changed’. Despite it referring to the traffic lights, it seemed perversely apposite.

Much of the reporting of this appalling crime rests on iconic images and language. This is what makes it so powerful: it creates associations in the mind of the viewer, not all of which might be healthy. Debate continues to rage over the radicalisation of young Muslim men in England – and a study of media articles between 2000-08 found only 2% framed Muslims positively. Just as newspapers’ use of ‘invasion’ to describe the arrival of around 150,000 Germans in London for last night’s Champions League Final between Germany and Bayern Munich (that’s a little joke for the Germans), so do images of and language about Muslims shape the way we see them.

Yes, the Muslim communities in England face some challenges – including addressing the poisonous rhetoric of some powerful preachers. But, they will not be helped by the perpetuation of purely negative associations.

I was at the Meissen Delegation Visit in Leicester this last few days. This brought a group of German bishops and church leaders to engage with us on how we do interfaith work in a multicultural city like Leicester. (Curiously, the English delegation, which I did not choose, served up three bishops – Bradford, Woolwich and Pontefract – who all served their time in the Diocese of Leicester.) Events in Woolwich, coupled with the long-planned visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Meissen group, brought a brutal relevance to our discussions and debates. In our discussions with Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, we found no ducking the hard questions, no hiding behind a victim mentality, and only a little hiding the particular behind the general. We met openness and generosity.

This has been playing on my mind while waiting for flights today. I read a piece in the Wall Street Journal about the SPD (German Socialist opposition party) celebrating its 150th anniversary in Leipzig last Thursday in the surprising presence of Angela Merkel. The party is struggling ahead of the forthcoming general election in September this year and the commentators suggest that the problem lies in the lack of a clear alternative narrative for Germany’s future in the light of the current economic and fiscal challenges across Europe. So, they look to the past – and it’s reassuring glories – in the absence of a vision that might drive them into creating a different future.

The SPD is not alone in this. It sometimes feels as if Europe is paralysed. The sterile and increasingly febrile debate about Europe in the UK offers no escape. If Europe needs a new narrative – one that relies less on the dynamics derived from twentieth century wars and seeks to create a new narrative that will fire up a new generation of people who see something worth building – then so does England. Muddling through crisis after crisis, reacting to the stimulus provided by a cacophony of voices, lurching between ideological intuitions, making statements about terrorism and ‘our way of life’ – none of this can replace the need for leadership that knows who we are, what we are about and where we are going. As Jeremy Paxman once pointed out in his book The English, we don’t know who we are and, so, cannot know who we want to become.

Reactions to Lee Rigby’s murder have demonstrated again that we have no guiding narrative any longer. As Philip Blond argued on BBC Radio 4 this morning, a culture that obsesses about rights without a fundamental (I use the word advisedly) or radical (again, I use the word advisedly) anthropology that knows why it thinks people matter will simply end up as a victim to the loudest or most powerful ideological competitor. It is the lack of such an anthropology that is the problem.

To cut a long argument short, England’s Christian amnesia has left us with just this problem. The church has not helped promote the memory (partly by complaining about all the wrong things), but it will not have to go far to recover its basic driving narrative and hold it out as one worth recovering for the future. Why? Because at least we know why people matter, why morality matters, why loving your neighbour is not a mere option for the romantic, why losing your life is the only way to gain it, why the common good is worth serving, why “no man is an island, entire of itself”, and why failure is not the end.

The signals timing keeps changing. I think we need to pay attention to how it is changing and what it is saying.

Members of the Meissen Commission worked hard on educational and musical matters all this morning before going up to the Wartburg this afternoon. This is the castle where Martin Luther spent many months being protected after his excommunication by the Pope. Not only did we do the tour, but we also joined in worship in the Kapelle and heard a superb sermon – pointed, brave, sharp, engaging – by the pastor, Martina Berlich. (I hope to get a text and will say more about one particular story, if I get it.)

You can't help but be impressed by the courage of Martin Luther, even if you don't agree with his theology or way of expressing it. To stand out and risk everything is not something we all do every day. Over dinner we were talking about how the churches in this part of Germany handled the Nazizeit…

When I got back after the visit to the Wartburg, with Telemann's cantata and Luther's courage playing around my mind, I discovered a load of emails and tweets about a story I knew nothing about – my 'enthusiastic support' for the churchads.net Christmas advert campaign.

For the record, I don't like it. And I said that when asked about the original concept. But, what I like isn't the point. The advert is aimed at getting people to notice it and talk about it. It is aimed not at those already in the club, but those outside. If it upsets Christians, we have to ask if this is, in fact, what the Jesus of the Gospels did, too. It was the religious people who nailed Jesus because they thought he was 'tacky' and 'blasphemous'. Christians get upset regularly by anything that pushes the implications of God truly becoming human – and, therefore, doing human things.

As I said in my quote, this advert will upset some people. So what? Everyone gets upset by something, and upsetting the Daily Mail is not exactly hard. I couldn't see the Daily Mail in Jerusalem of the first century defending the Jesus of the Gospels. This is just posturing.

I feel a bit cut off from the discussion because here in Germany there are more important things to think about than an ad campaign upsetting people. Also, I just heard on Twitter that Malcolm Wicks MP (Croydon North) has died: a great man, a great MP, great company, and a great servant of his constituency. Very sad and I wish I had known he was so ill.

Just to conclude with some Lutheran perspective: I picked up the following Martin Luther quotes on cards at the Wartburg:

Das ist der Teufel in uns, dass niemand genug hat! (The devil in us is that no one ever has enough!)

Für die Toten Wein, Wasser für die Lebenden – das ist eine Vorschrift für Fische. (Wine for the dead, water for the living – that is a recipe for fish.)

And perhaps the briefest and best wisdom at times of pressure:

Lang ist nicht ewig. (Long time is not eternity.)

It has been a while since I wrote anything remotely useful here. It wasn't for lack of interest, just too many sermons, addresses and writings to do amid a relentlessly unforgiving diary. Add to that conferences and travel and my brain got dimmer than it usually is. Then add to that silly enquiries about who the next Archbishop of Canterbury will be (how should I know – I'm not on the Crown Nominations Commission), and silence might be understandable.

Anyway, I have escaped Blighty for a few days with the Meissen Commission in Eisenach, Germany. We meet once each year as a joint commission, alternately in England and Germany, and three times a year in national committees. I love it – the best, most enjoyable and stimulating ecumenical thingy going.

I have never been to Eisenach before. Johann Sebastian Bach was baptised here in the Georgenkirche (where I will be preaching on Sunday morning before returning to Bradford). Martin Luther preached here. But, more importantly, it was here – in the Wartburg – on the hill that he lobbed a bottle of ink at the devil while holed up for his own protection. He spent from May 1521 until March 1522 there – after he had been taken there for his safety at the request of Frederick the Wise following his excommunication by Pope Leo X and his refusal to recant at the Diet of Worms. It was during this stay that Luther (under the name of Junker Jörg) translated the New Testament into German.

And here it is – as seen from my bedroom window:

Our agenda is concentrating on education, music and keeping up to speed with developments in the Church of England (not a lot going on, really) and the EKD (lots going on…). Taking a long view while physically distant from home is always helpful, so we will make the most of our few days together in this very beautiful place.

I can't see me lobbing bottles of ink at anyone, but they might lob them at me when I preach on Sunday.

More anon.

 

I don't know why I keep agreeing to do this.

A week tomorrow I will be with the Meissen Commission in Eisenach in Germany. I have agreed to preach at the morning service in the Georgenkirche – where Johann Sebastian Bach was once the Kantor and Martin Luther preached. It is their harvest festival, but also the first in this year's series of sermons on the Reformation Decade themes. That's all OK, but I am doing it in German and I always agonise during preparation over how to say it without sounding hopelessly inarticulate.

Fortunately, we have a young German student staying with us and she has agreed to help me sound less stupid in her native language.

Actually, apart from quoting Bruce Cockburn at the end (I bet you didn't see that one coming…), it isn't hard to bring together harvest, creation, gratitude, ethics, music and metaphor in one narrative. But, it has reminded me (yet again) of the inextricable connection between worship and ethics: don't sing one thing and live another. Try Amos for what happens when we bear God's name and then institutionalise injustice and corruption.

In a week that saw further calls for justice to follow truth (Hillsborough), an appeal by certain football managers to end celebrations of innocent victimhood, further admissions of abuse by churches, police officers murdered in Manchester and violence erupting around the world because of bad film, a reconnection of the songs we sing with the ethics we enshrine seems all the more essential.

 

The Archbishop of York preached at an ecumenical service in the Frauenkirche in Dresden this morning. This service marked the conclusion of the German celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Meissen Agreement in 1991 (obviously). It also marked the end of the Delegation Visit. We were in Meissen yesterday.

However, it wasn’t all about partying. We also had work to do and this time the theme was ‘visitation’ – which sounds unbelievably dull until you get into it. The basic question is: how do our churches provide for effective pastoral supervision and support of clergy and parishes? In both the Landeskirchen of the EKD and the dioceses of the Church of England part of the bishop’s role is to find a way of encouraging and challenging clergy and local parishes. The genius is in getting the balance right between the encouragement and the challenge.

The Germans contributing to this visit described a very thoroughly worked out approach to visitation, instigated by the bishop, but involving a team of people. Lots of paperwork is required before the team visits and meets with people involved in church and local life. Reports are written afterwards, with an emphasis on the local church identifying it’s priorities for the next five or ten years. It clearly involves a huge amount of time and resource.

This process was described at one point as ‘pulling the cupboard away from the wall and seeing where the spiders are hiding. The process leads to some clergy deciding their future ministry lies elsewhere; some parishes decide they need a change of minister. Most, however, find the whole process constructive, helpful, encouraging and challenging because it compels them to examine their corporate life and ‘own’ its future shape and direction.

In the Church of England ‘visitation’ is driven by the bishop and archdeacon. We try to minimise the bureaucracy and maximise the impact, but there is no single, simple way of doing it across the country.

The interesting point here, however, is not the specifics of how visitation is done in a particular Landeskirche or diocese, but, rather, how the exercise of thinking about it away from home – and seeing it through the eyes and experience of another culture – is immensely helpful. I might have been away from Bradford for four days, but the benefit for the Diocese of Bradford comes from the bishop thinking through how to shape the pastoral care, support, encouragement of and challenge to clergy and parishes from 2012 onwards. Amid the sheer busyness of normal life in Bradford it is hard to take a step back and think clearly; thinking with others in Dresden has been very useful and stimulating.

Basically, it looks like this. I have so far visited six out of the eight Deaneries in the Diocese of Bradford – the last two will follow before Christmas. Having by then met all the clergy and seen many of the churches and parishes, how do I best ensure from 2012 that I and my colleagues know the clergy and the contexts in which they work? What sort of achievable and manageable structure of regular visitation will help the clergy and parishes best whilst also keeping me up to speed with developments? How do I best support what is going on in the parishes?

Some see any such thinking about visitation as threatening. Indeed, we asked the Germans how these visitations are regarded by their clergy and churches: most welcome it because (a) it means they are being taken seriously, (b) it means they will get a reality check with the help of people who see from a different perspective, (c) it will force some strategic thinking, (d) it will raise confidence in the ability of the bishop to understand the realities of the particular parish’s life, and (e) it will ensure that accountability is taken seriously on all fronts.

But, some will see it as some sort of Ofsted inspection from hierarchy.

It seems to me that good management and supervision equals good pastoral care. Such visitations – however they are shaped – brings the benefit of an outside eye and must be essentially supportive. Which is the same principle as coming away and looking through the eyes of another group in order to better see and understand what is going on at home.

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