Here in Hannover the talk is all about change. The conference Kirchehochzwei not only has nearly 1200 people attending today and tomorrow, but also is a feat of imaginative organisation. I seem to do a lot of stuff in Germany, but this one has been hugely challenging, stimulating and educative.

The great thing about being out of one's own culture is that you get to look through the lens of another – and then look differently at your own. Perspective changes and new insights are gained – a bit like changing the camera angle or lighting on a film or stage set.

The conference is aimed at opening up German Christians' thinking about how to address necessary change in how the church shapes itself in a changing world. Learning from some of the Fresh Expressions experiences in England, they now want to work out what this might look like in a German context that is simultaneously both similar and very different. Yesterday I saw three superb presentations about initiatives in Austria, Aachen and Erfurt: two of these were Roman Catholic. And that into to the really interesting thing about the nature of the conference itself: it is put on by both the Evangelical (Protestant) and Roman Catholic Churches in Niedersachsen, sponsored by both the bishops.

What is interesting about this is that the ecumenical nature of the event both raises and lowers the guard as critical questions are asked from every possible direction in the exploration of how the 'church' is to change and what changes are legitimate. In my various inputs I have been stressing the importance of 'order' in new forms of church – a bit like the clarity and creativity made possible by painting white lines on a tennis court, without which no game is possible, no creative play is feasible and all you can do is bang a ball around.

Plenary sessions this morning gave way this afternoon to workshops and seminars – hundreds of them. It is amazing to watch it happen. I had been asked to attend a theological workshop on so-called 'liquid church' at which Thomas Söding, a Roman Catholic academic New Testament scholar, presented a brilliant paper in which he took three images from the New Testament of crises in boats. The opening paragraph of his notes (my quick translation) says:

The New Testament is not a model kit for the ship that is the church; rather, it is a log book that establishes the story of its early journeys, a fuel station which fills and empowers it, and a GPS satnav by which it can navigate.

The concluding observations in his notes state:

[This conference] is St Peter's little ship on a great journey. Without a general overhaul and a new crew it will go down like the Titanic. But which renovations are needed and which crew selection is the right one, if the ship is not to sail under the wrong flag and is safely to reach its destination with its freight intact, is the master question.

Not a bad question to pose at the end of the week in which Pope Benedict announced his retirement. And the has been a lot of questioning here about what might happen next in the Roman Catholic Church under a new Pope.

Following questions and discussion from the audience, I was asked to make a few observations on the question of how to change the church in ways that are creative, yet consistent with the New Testament. In reply I noted how one contributor yesterday had said of his 'fresh expression of church' in Aachen, “For me it is an experiment,” and added that in my view “the church itself is an experiment”. Picking up on Tom Wright's notion of biblical history as a five-act play in which we are still writing he fifth act, I suggested that however creatively and innovatively we develop the plot, it must always be consistent with what has gone on in the first four acts. Furthermore (and clearly mixing my metaphors here), although we might find ourselves responsible for steering a new and uncharted course in today's sea, we must not lose sight of what it actually means to be a 'ship' in the first place.

There was loads more. It was interesting later to listen to a moderated conversation between the Protestant Bishop Ralf Meister and his Roman Catholic counterpart Norbert Trelle. They didn't duck any questions either – including the 'challenge' to both churches of how to 'celebrate' in Wittenberg in 2017, the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation.

In all this we have witnessed people changing the guards that protect them from discomfort or challenge. It is a very good thing.

Anyway, that's enough. I am giving the final address in the final plenary session tomorrow afternoon. I have been asked to inspire and encourage the thousand people there. No pressure there, then.

Then I go for dinner with friends before preaching (this time in English, fortunately) at an international service in Hannover on Sunday before catching a flight back to Bradford via Amsterdam.

 

I am grateful to Ruth Gledhill for tweeting frequent updates to the Pope’s condom story. I have been out and about and keeping track of comments on Twitter. Not only did she jump into the story with both feet, but then had the integrity to feed informed comment subsequently – comment that changed the story and posed questions of comprehension to the media commentariat.

The BBC website proclaims (in common with loadsamediaorgans):

Pope’s condom comments welcomed by campaign groups

Well, they won’t welcome them once they’ve engaged brain and thought about them. Why? Because this is a great example of people hearing what they want to hear, responding to it… and only then looking at the actual text of what the Pope said. So, the media story ends up being about the media handling of the issue rather than the content of what the Pope said.

It seems to me, from reading the text and one particular comment on it (fed by Ruth Gledhill and to be found at http://www.catholicworldreport.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=220:pope-benedict-on-condoms-in-qlight-of-the-worldq&catid=53:cwr2010&Itemid=70 – but WordPress won’t let me embed the link) that the Pope hasn’t changed his mind or the mind of the Roman Catholic Church on the matter of condoms, contraception or sexual morality. He hasn’t even opened the door to exceptions to the Church’s rulebook on these matters. He has answered a question with the precision one would expect from him (an academic), but with nuances too sharp for blunt interpreters.

Janet Smith contextualises and then quotes the interview given by the Pope:

There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants.  But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.

Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?

She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.

The comment goes on to make clear that the Pope has not changed his view that the issue is about sexual behaviour, not condoms. The example he uses is of a homosexual prostitute – so he is saying nothing about the procreative element of heterosexual sex. Janet Smith concludes with an analogy that is, at the very least, suggestive:

If someone was going to rob a bank and was determined to use a gun, it would better for that person to use a gun that had no bullets in it.  It would reduce the likelihood of fatal injuries. But it is not the task of the Church to instruct potential bank robbers how to rob banks more safely and certainly not the task of the Church to support programs of providing potential bank robbers with guns that could not use bullets.  Nonetheless, the intent of a bank robber to rob a bank in a way that is safer for the employees and customers of the bank may indicate an element of moral responsibility that could be a step towards eventual understanding of the immorality of bank robbing.

This might not be comfortable – and it certainly will be a nuisance to those who think (or hope) the Pope has opened a door to the relaxation of condom use – but I cannot see that the Pope has said anything remarkable or that deserves the ‘liberal’ headlines dominating our media. It’s a good story – but it smacks of misreading.

Unless I have misread it, of course.

I got back from a great Meissen Commission meeting (in Wittenberg) late last night and have been catching up on the news from the Pope’s visit (as well as emails, correspondence, paperwork, etc.). Tomorrow I’ll be at the consecration of three new bishops at St Paul’s Cathedral in London. The juxtaposition of these experiences sent my mind off at a bit of a tangent.

The Pope clearly went down better than many had thought (or hoped). But, now he has gone, life carries on. Someone pointed out to me that he was in the air on his way here while I was in the air en route to Wittenberg and he was in the air on his way back to Rome as I was in the air coming back form Berlin. Spooky…

But, what I wondered was this: does he ever get do do anything that broadens his horizons or fires his imagination? And I don’t mean Benedict in particular, but the office of Pope. The demands are infinite, the pressures massive and the walls of the Vatican high.

The three bishops being consecrated tomorrow will find that their world changes and it takes some getting used to. The big danger is that we become so churchy and preoccupied with churchy things that we lose the things in life that also feed us. When I became a bishop I virtually stopped doing music – no time for regular rehearsal or playing. Not inevitable, but that’s what happened. So, I have had to work hard at listening to new music, watching films and reading more than theology. The new bishops will have to find their own way, but they shouldn’t neglect their own nurturing.

One of the things that fires me up (and, I think, feeds my ministry) is finding new bands or being pointed towards old stuff I never really listened to. At the moment I’m loving Franz Ferdinand and watching The Wire. I have just finished reading Chris Evans’s autobiography alongside Hans Küng, Terry Eagleton and Tom Wright.

But, how does the Pope ever get the space to watch good theatre, hear new music, watch good films or relax with good fiction? There might be a simple answer to this and it is possible that he has cracked the challenge and has a wonderfully developed ‘hinterland’ that feeds him and fires him. But I wouldn’t bet on it. (The Archbishop of Canterbury does read a huge amount and has an amazing memory: he also knows some interesting and surprising telly stuff.)

Here’s my recommendation to the Pope, the Archbishop and the new bishops: they might not like it, but it will introduce a new world to them.

Tim Hain lives in Surrey, is an interesting bloke and a damn good guitarist. He has also invented a fusion of Blues and Reggae which he calls ‘Bleggae’. He plays loads of small, localised gigs, but he deserves a bigger audience. It’s fun, it’s thoughtful, and it makes you want to dance.

If you bump into the Pope, pass on the link…