I am in Erfurt, Germany, to preach at the Reformation Day service in the Augustinerkirche where Martin Luther studied at the university and became a monk. Having arrived on Friday, we have had a packed programme, including a brilliant (though largely incomprehensible) concert in the Michaeliskirche last night – great guitar playing, especially), meetings with groups of people, a visit to a 'pilgrim church' at Schmira, a day in Weimar, and a visit to the former Stasi prison in the Andreasstraße in Erfurt today.

Yesterday was my first visit to Weimar. This is the place where in 1919 the constitution was drawn up that gave its name to the republic that was created in the humiliating aftermath of defeat in World War One. Yet it is also the place where Goethe, Schiller, Herder and Nietzsche spent their finest and most productive years. Here the culture of what became known as the Enlightenment flourished.

(An aside: one of the best stories we heard was of the pastor of the church in the centre where we attended the morning service. In the sacristy there is a portrait of him. His name was Wessel and he came from an upper-class line of distinguished clergy and military officers. When during the War the poor of Weimar couldn't afford a Christmas tree or presents for their children, he put a “tree for everyone” on the steps of the church and got gifts for the children of the town. He supported Hitler at the beginning, but gradually saw where it was all heading. He resisted and eventually was sent to Buchenwald. He survived only because Hitler pardoned him, leaving him to return to Weimar a da totally broken man. Why did Hitler pardon him? Because he was related to Horst Wessel, whose song – the Horst Wessel Lied – became almost the national anthem of the Nazis. Resistance was brutal and costly.)

The Enlightenment flourished partly as a reaction to the horrendous bloodshed in conflicts that were rooted in the sorts of religious and political power games that emanated from the Reformation. Never again should religion be allowed space in the political sphere: reason and rationality should thenceforth define genuine humanity and humanism. It is not hard to follow the logic and the sentiment. Speaking of Martin Luther today in the Augustinerkirche, there also had to be an acknowledgement of the less-than-gracious elements of his character, to say nothing of his appalling antisemitism. (Like his bowel problems, it got worse as he got older.)

Yet, getting rid of religion in favour of faith in rationalism did not quite go according to plan, did it.

The train from Erfurt to Weimar takes you past Buchenwald. Just around the corner from the famous statue of Goethe and Schiller in front of the theatre in Weimar is the hotel where Adolf Hitler was greeted by the idolatrous crowds that claimed the poets and Herder as their intellectual and cultural heritage.

My point is simple. The problem of the human bias to destructiveness is evidenced in religious conflict and the lust for power at any level. It is not cured by rationalism. How is that the culture, philosophy and idealism of Goethe, Schiller, Herder, etc. was so easily corrupted within a century or less by a populace drawn to populism, fascism and mass slaughter?

If the bloodbaths of religious wars in Europe led to a better way, then that better way also led to Buchenwald and the Stasi. Now listen to the rhetoric of the far right wing groups springing up in Germany and across Europe, blending the language of dehumanising hate under the guise of “cultural realism”.

 

Yesterday was a bit worrying. During my sermon at a Confirmation service in Ilkley an elderly woman began to look unwell. As I came in to land she lost consciousness and, assisted by medics in the congregation, slid to the floor. She came round and was eventually taken off to hospital for a check up. When I got home I picked up my eighteen month old grandson, Ben, and he promptly vomited all over me and the kitchen floor. I began to think that if the service at the cathedral later went wrong, I’d begin to take it personally.

Anyway, last week saw some interesting stuff flying around the e-sphere:

1. A new magazine for Muslims has been produced, called Critical Muslim. I haven’t seen a copy and am not sure how its appearance on the scene has been received within the Muslim community, but it is an interesting development. Dr Philip Lewis’s appraisal is worth a look.

2. Nick Spencer did a great parody of the nonsense trotted out by some of the uncritical New Atheists – that religion is dangerous and divisive and should be confined to the dark corners of private entertainment. He starts from the idea that people claim that sport is a religion. It only gets funnier from there.

3. Giles Fraser hits the nail further on the head with an account of how Nietzsche contributed to his conversion to Christianity.

4. Will Hutton bangs the drum for language learning to be taken more seriously in the UK. I bang on about it often enough, but Hutton is better at pointing out that the philistines in government are unlikely to advocate a culture they themselves don’t ‘get’.

5. Leonard Cohen’s new album has been acquired and is being listened to to death. That voice has been lived in. We used to say that Cohen did ‘music to slit your wrists to’, but this caricature has always only exposed ignorance or illiteracy. He is funny, astute, ironic and wonderfully honest about being a complicated human being. My favourite lines from Old Ideas

Show me the place, help me roll away the stone
Show me the place, I can’t move this thing alone
Show me the place where the Word became a man
Show me the place where the suffering began

This week?

I have just arrived in London ahead of the General Synod which meets here until Thursday. The key item on the agenda is the matter of how we move ahead with bishops who might turn out to be women. It’s no secret that the debate is somewhat fraught – after all, this is one of only two issues that the media have any concern for (the other one being sexuality). Lots of other good stuff that drives and characterises the Church of England’s work in parishes and dioceses won’t get a mention, but the ‘loud stuff’ must not be allowed to distract us from what we should be about on the ground.

The torment about female bishops looks something like this. The Church has agreed that there should be no bar to women being bishops. The debate is about what provision should be made for those who cannot accept this. Huge financial provision was made back in 1992 when the Synod agreed to ordain women as priests. Twenty years on there are those who think enough time and provision has been made already. Then, the question is if the Church should create a ‘safe place’ for those who cannot accept ministry from women or men who have ordained women (like me).

There are many who wish to hold the Church together and make space in the Big Tent for the range of voices and commitments, but don’t want to set up first and second-class bishops. The pastoral urge to hold everyone in is tempered by the pastoral wisdom that advocates (a) making a decision, (b) ending the uncertainty and muddle, and (c) allowing everyone concerned to move on. Clarity has to be better than eternal muddle.

But, it is the understanding of what counts as ‘pastoral’ and to whom ‘pastoral provision’ is made that lies at the heart of the heart-searching going on in the Synod this week. And that is why debate is impassioned: we take stuff seriously and are not indifferent either to the theological/ecclesiological issues or the pastoral/people implications and consequences of the decisions we make. However, if it wasn’t clear before, it should be obvious now that some circles simply cannot be squared. I am not aware of anyone – of any persuasion – who is looking forward with unalloyed joy to this week’s debates.

Liverpool beating Tottenham Hotspur this evening might come as a welcome distraction…

 

I know they sound like a firm of solicitors, but it’s not law that they have in common.

Terry Eagleton wrote an excoriatingly incisive critique of AC Grayling’s decision to leave Birkbeck College in order to set up the New College of the Humanities. Eagleton questions the motives, values and consequences of the establishment of this college – which only rich kids will be able to access. Others suspect it might be a successful venture, but don’t address some of Eagleton’s questions (especially of the values underlying the move).

Giles Fraser has a go at atheistic humanism, stripping bare the pretensions of an assumed humanism that has amnesia with respect to its own roots and fails to follow through the logic of its own case. He cites Nietzsche and Foucault en route to his challenge:

Indeed, the new atheists simply duck the challenge made by atheistic anti-humanism, believing their expensive scientific toys can outflank the alleged conceptual weakness of their humanism. Thus they dismiss the significance of philosophy just as much as they have always done of theology – as if the two were fundamentally in cahoots. But this is nonsense. Nietzsche, Marx and Freud attacked Christianity with passionate ferocity.

Christian theology of the 20th century has spent much of its time wrestling with the consequences. Why won’t the new atheists do the same?

It’s a good question. I wonder of any answers will be forthcoming. Probably not from the New College of the Humanities which appears to be headed towards the sort of thing Grayling & co hate about (their often misguided perceptions of) faith schools: only addressing matters from a narrow perspective that conforms to a set of philosophical assumptions that have been previously agreed – and won’t admit inconvenient theologies or anti-humanist philosophies.

Or will we be surprised?