A meeting of bishops from the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Churches is coming to an end here in Birmingham. It has been a stimulating, encouraging, challenging and good time together. In brief, we have looked at the international scene, the European scene, prayer and evangelisation, and where we go from here together.

Haunting the meeting is the spectre of a Trumpian revolution in the United States – with considerable implications for the rest of the world – and the debate about Brexit.

One of the interesting features of debate about the USA and Brexit is the constant attempts to close down debate on detail on the grounds that “we won, so shut up and let the winners get on with it”.

Politics cannot be run only by politicians. Politics is about people who hold different views, different values and have different priorities. In other words, all of us. A vote does not end the conversation. Had the UK voted to remain in the European Union, there is little chance that those who ‘lost’ would be accepting the status quo and going quiet; nor should they.

The referendum on membership of the EU delivered a decision to leave. However, almost half of those who voted did not vote that way. It was not overwhelming or decisive (as has often been stated). The country is divided – almost in two – over the matter. So, how we proceed from here must take seriously the concerns of the half the country that does/did not want to leave the EU. How we leave matters. The language we use in the course of the debate (on how to leave) matters.

From my own experience – and despite some of the public posturing – some of those in government take the 48% seriously and understand the need to hold the country together.

I have not changed my view that much of the language of certainty and promise is at least speculative and at worst fantasy. This means that we have to be prepared for huge disillusionment and further resentment when many of the Brexit promises turn out to be unfulfilled. Yes, the gains must be identified, too, it is the deficits that will provoke the reaction.

Donald Trump might well be doing what he said he would do – which is his prerogative – but democracy means that the debate continues. If lies are told, this matters; and the nature of the lies must (if we believe truth has any value) be named. However, not everything inconvenient to my preferences are necessarily lies.

It is right that serious questions are asked about policy from any democratically elected government. Protest must be legitimate. The questions we must ask about the questions raised pertain to very basic stuff: what is a human being? why do people matter? what is a good society? from what (theological) anthropology do our values and moral judgments derive? what responsibility do I take as a citizen for shaping our collective common life?

For Christians the answers will be rooted in the nature of the world as God’s creation, people as made in the image of this creator God, and neighbourliness being rooted in more than seeing others as commodities or merely economic entities.

 

There is something simple and dead good about a new pope beginning his pontificate by saying “Good evening” to the world. Nothing pious or 'deep', but simply human. I loved it.

It was quite funny watching the instant expertise all over the media from people who, ten minutes earlier, didn't know the Argentinian bishop from the Argentinian centre forward. Within minutes people were making instant judgements on him, his record, his character, his likely priorities. Utterly ridiculous, really. As I said on BBC Radio 5Live (!), we look for the 'iconography' of his appointment whilst ignoring the fact that the new man will have to come at the new role/challenges with a completely fresh approach. The past might give hints, but it won't necessarily set out a predictable future.

That said, however, Pope Francis might well bring an outside eye to the Curia, a South American perspective on both faith and social priorities, a fresh (and credible) critique to the world's dominant cultural obsessions, and a realignment of the Church's priorities with those of Jesus. Who knows if there will be any radical change – probably not in terms of the tough stuff around culturally. Probably both continuity and discontinuity – a bit obvious, really. We shall see.

To do any of this at the age of 76 is a tough call, isn't it? He will need the prayers of those who want him to grasp the nettles of change, and he will covet the encouragement of those who know just how hard it is to bring about change in any institution or organisation.

Anyway, Francis 1 started with human informality. He then asked people to pray for him before he blessed them. He then led people in the prayer that Jesus taught his friends – not as a mantra of pious wishful thinking, but as a manifesto for responsibility and change. As the noise rose around him he stood motionless – a place of rooted calm while the sea raged around him. A good external symbol that might (must?) indicate the internal centredness of the man.

Keep it simple, Francis. Please.

 

Here is the basic text of my final address to the Kirchehochzwei conference in Hannover which finished this afternoon. Nothing new or earth-shattering, but the joke worked…

Kirche hoch zwei, Hannover, 16 Februar 2013

Wir haben zwei oder drei Tage miteinander erlebt, vieles gehört und gesehen, und jetzt kommen wir zum Schluss. Wir haben darüber nachgedacht, was es eigentlich bedeutet, Kirche zu sein und Kirche zu tun. Vielleicht sind wir ermutigt; vielleicht sind wir enttäuscht. Und ich? Ich bin ermutigt und enttäuscht: ermutigt, weil es so viele guten neuen und alten Initiativen in den deutschen Kirchen gibt; enttäuscht, weil Liverpool am Donnerstag 2-0 gegen Zenit St Petersburg verloren hat. Gibt es wirklich ein Gott?

Also, lass mich dieses Sendungswort mit einer kurzen Geschichte anfangen.

Drei Männer wanderten in den Bergen. Sie kämpften sich ihren Weg durch die Bäume und versuchten, ihre Hütte vor dem Einbruch der Nacht zu erreichen. Plötzlich stießen sie auf einen reißenden Fluss. Das Wasser lief den Berg hinunter und die Männer hatten keine Ahnung, wie sie den Fluß überqueren sollten. Aber es gab keine Alternative – sie mussten unbedingt diesen Fluss überqueren, aber sie wussten nicht wie.

Der erste Mann betete: „Gott, gib mir bitte die Kraft, um diesen Fluss zu überqueren.“ Pouff! Plötzlich wurden seine Arme größer; seine Brust erweiterte sich und seine Beine wurden stärker. Dann warf er sich in den Fluss hinein und schwamm auf das gegenüberliegende Ufer. Er brauchte zwei Stunden. Ein paar Mal ist er untergegangen und wäre fast ertrunken. Aber, endlich, ist es ihm gelungen, das Ufer zu erreichen, und er schleppte sich total erschöpft an Land.

Der zweite Mann beobachtete den ersten Mann und er betete: „Gott, gib mir bitte die Kraft und die Mittel, um diesen Fluss zu überqueren.“ Pouff! Plötzlich wurden seine Arme größer; seine Brust erweiterte sich und seine Beine wurden stärker; und ein Kanu tauchte vor ihm auf. Er paddelte eine lange Stunde durch das Wasser und schließlich, total erschöpft und nachdem er zweimal gekentert war, schleppte er sich aus dem Wasser und auf das gegenüberliegende Ufer.

Der dritte Mann hatte die zwei Freunde beobachtet und er betete: „Gott, gib mir bitte die Kraft, die Mittel… und die Intelligenz, um diesen Fluss zu überqueren.“ Pouff! Plötzlich verwandelte ihn Gott in eine Frau! Er schaute in seine Handtasche, holte eine Karte heraus, ging hundert Meter das Ufer entlang, und überquerte die Brücke.

Heutzutage müssen wir neue Sicht- und Denkweisen im Blick auf die Kirche suchen, damit wir nicht die Realitäten, die Gelegenheiten und die Herausforderungen verpassen, vor denen wir stehen. Wie die Chinesen sagen: “Wir leben in einer interessanten Zeit.”

Aber die Herausforderungen und Gelegenheiten, vor denen wir als Kirche stehen, sind nicht neu. Vom Anfang an hat die Kirche lernen müssen, wie man Kirche kreativ schafft. Vom Anfang an hatten die Nachfolger Jesu die Verantwortung auf sich nehmen müssen, der Kirche Form zu geben und immer wieder frische Ausdrucksformen zu entwickeln. Diese Situation, in der wir heute sitzen, ist nicht neu. Und, wenn wir das Kirchenschiff durch die Stürmen steuern wollen, dann müssen wir bereit sein, die Fahrt zu genießen.

Gestern sagte Thomas Söding in einem Werkstatt: “Mithin ist es ein Privileg, mit im Boot zu sein, aber keine Garantie vor Stürmen und Schiffbruch, Angst und Schrecken.” Und die Wahrheit? In diesem Schiff sind wir miteinander zusammengebunden, ob wir einander mögen oder nicht. Und, während wir versuchen einander besser zu lieben, schläft Jesus seelenruhig unten im Boot. Seid ermutigt!

Wenn wir richtig und ernsthaft andere Christen lieben wollen, dann müssen wir auch die Kirche echt und ehrlich lieben – auch wenn uns eine solche Liebe wirklich Weh tut.

Von 1992 bis 2000 war ich Pastor in einem kleinen Dorf in der Mitte von England – Leicestershire. Die Fundamente des Kirchengebäudes sind angelsächsisch und es gibt neben der Kirche ein Kreuz, welches 1200 Jahre alt ist. Innerhalb des Kirchengebäudes steht ein Taufbecken, das normannisch ist – das heißt, tausend Jahre alt. Jeden Sonntag tranken wir aus einem Kelch, der aus der Zeit der ersten Königin Elisabeth stammt – das heißt 500 Jahre alt. Und in der Nähe der Nordtür stand an der Wand eine Tafel, auf der die Namen der Pfarrer von Rothley seit dem Jahre (ungefähr) 1060 geschrieben waren. Und das heißt 'Perspektiv'!

Wir sind immer noch da. Durch Kriege und Plagen, Reformation und Invasionen (mehrmals durch die Franzosen, die Dänen und die Deutschen!), wir sind da. Wir beten und singen und klagen und jammern und feiern und weinen und lachen und so weiter. Familien sind durch Tod und. Ehetrennung, Geburt und Arbeit, aufgebaut und zerstört – aber die christliche Gemeinde betet noch und versucht immer in die Welt durch die Augen Gottes hinauszuschauen.Die Welt ändert sich ständig, aber das Lied der Gnade und der Hoffnung kann nicht gestillt werden. Ich liebe auch die unfrische Kirche.

Aber die Welt hat sich geändert. Und meiner Meinung nach, wie ich schon an dieser Konferenz gesagt habe, ist es sinnlos und eine verpasste Chance, nur darüber zu klagen. Wenn die Kirche ihren Auftrag erfüllen will, muss sie die Sprachen der heutigen Welt erstens verstehen und zweitens sprechen können. Wir müssen uns daran erinnern, dass die biblische Geschichte uns zeigt, dass Gott sein Volk dazu beruft, sein Leib in der konkreten Welt von heute zu sein, und so zu leben, dass die Menschen, die mit der christlichen Gemeinde in Kontakt kommen, etwas von dem Christus erfahren, von dem wir in den Evangelien lesen.

Ich bin überzeugt, dass es Aufgabe der Kirche ist, einen Raum zu schaffen, in dem Menschen herausfinden können, dass Gott sie schon gefunden hat – auf Englisch klingt das: 'to create the space in which people can find that they have already been found by God'. Dazu müssen wir dort anfangen, wo die Menschen sind – und wir müssen eine Sprache sprechen, die die Menschen tatsächlich verstehen. Wir Christen müssen lernen, klar, einfach und mit Vorstellungskraft zu sprechen – Bilder mit Worten zu malen, damit Menschen neugierig auf Gott und die Welt werden. Und meines Erachtens ist das eine spannende Aufgabe, die wir genießen sollten.

Die Kirche steht vor einer großen Herausforderung: Wie können wir im alltäglichen Leben einer Kirchengemeinde den Raum schaffen, wo Menschen zu Christus kommen, als Christen wachsen, und als verantwortungsvolle Christen in und durch die Gemeinde leben können? Wenn so viele Menschen überhaupt keine Ahnung mehr vom christlichen Glauben haben,wie fangen wir eigentlich an, sie zu erreichen? Und welche Formen von Kirche oder Gottesdienst können wir schaffen, um solche Menschen in den Raum einzubringen, wo sie Gott und seine Kinder besser kennen lernen werden? Es ist von der Bibel klar, dass wir dort anfangen müssen, wo die Menschen sind – und nicht wo wir denken, dass sie sein sollten.

Es interessiert mich sehr, dass Jesus seine Freunde nicht in der Kirche zum ersten Mal traf, sondern dort, wo sie arbeiteten: auf dem Strand. Und gleich am Anfang des Evangeliums lädt sie Jesus ein, mit ihm spazieren zu gehen. Er sagte ihnen nicht, wo sie hingingen. Er sagte ihnen nicht, wer sonst mitkommen würde. Aber er machte klar, dass jeder Nachfolger etwas hinter sich verlassen müsste, um mit ihm zu gehen und gemeinsam etwas Neues zu entdecken.

Das heißt, die Nachfolger Jesu müssen immer neugierig sein und eine große und kreative Vorstellungskraft entwickeln.

Und so, gleich am Ende des Matthäusevangeliums sehen wir klar, dass sich die ersten Freunde von Jesus vor einer großen Herausforderung standen: nicht auf dem Berg zu bleiben, wo Jesus einmal war, sondern wieder den Berg hinunterzugehen, um durch eine veränderte Welt zu wandeln und auf sich eine neue Verantwortung aufzunehmen: zu entscheiden, was es bedeutet, als Leib Christi in der heutigen Welt zu leben.

Das heißt, die Kirche soll nichts anderes tun, als weiterhin der Leib Christi zu sein und das Evangelium weiterzusagen und damit zu erfüllen, was Jesus in Markus 1:14-15 schon getan hat, nämlich: die Menschen einzuladen, Gott zu sehen und Gott anders zu sehen – und sie dann eine Gemeinschaft von Menschen vorzustellen, die bereits gewagt haben, dies von sich aus zu tun, und die nun verpflichtet sind, es anderen zu ermöglichen, zu sehen, wie Gott ist und an wessen Seite man ihn finden kann. Anders gesagt: die Aufgabe der christlichen Kirche ist es, eine Gemeinschaft zu sein, in der sich die kreative Barmherzigkeit und Gnade, die versöhnende und heilende Liebe Gottes finden lässt. Und das sollten die Leute durch die Kirche erleben.

Ja, es gibt immer Beispiele von Christen, die in einer Weise reden und handeln, die Jesus' Prioritäten, wie wir sie in den Evangelien finden, nicht widerspiegelt. Man muss nicht allzu fest an der Oberfläche kratzen, um Unbeständigkeiten, Widersprüche, Schwächen und Fehler bei Christen wie mir oder in unseren Kirchen zu finden. Doch das sollte nicht überraschen. Schließlich erhebt die Kirche nicht den Anspruch, der Standort absolut beständigen Verhaltens und vollkommener Verwaltung der 'Wahrheit' zu sein. Auch wir sind nur Menschen, immer noch am Lernen, unser Verständnis ist immer noch unvollständig, und wir schaffen es immer noch, es tausend Mal im jeden Tag falsch zu machen. Aber die 'Linse' unserer Wahrnehmung wird immer noch neu geformt, und unsere Reise mit Jesus und seinen Freunden geht weiter.

Eines der bemerkenswerten Dinge an den Evangelien ist die Art, wie sie Jesus' Jünger beschreiben. Es waren ganz gewöhnliche Leute. Während sie mit Jesus reisten, stellten sie fest, dass sie anfingen, einen Blick auf Gottes Gegenwart unter ihnen zu erhaschen, wie Jesus es angedeutet hatte. Die Veränderung der theologischen Weltanschauung war radikal und brauchte Zeit. Doch Jesus verachtete seine Freunde nie wegen ihrer beschränkten Wahrnehmung, ihrer moralischen Verfehlungen oder ihres aufgeblähten Selbstverständnisses.

Stattdessen gab er ihnen den Raum und die Zeit, zu schauen und zu beobachten und zu sehen und zu berühren und zu denken und ihre Dummheiten auszusprechen – alles, ohne aus der Gruppe ausgestoßen zu werden. Ihre internen Streitigkeiten und Machtkämpfe wurden zwar angesprochen, wenn sie entbrannten, doch Jesus schien es nicht eilig zu haben, sofort Vollkommenheit von ihnen zu verlangen.

Also hier werden wir das Leben der Kirche finden – hier in alten oder frischen Ausdrücken von Kirche, wo es Menschen gibt, die zuerst Jünger von Jesus sind; Menschen, die sich bewusst von Jesus haben rufen lassen; Menschen, die am Auftrag der Kirche in der Welt beteiligt sind; Menschen, die bewusst den Leib Jesu Christi wachsen lassen und dazu beitragen, die Kirche aufzubauen, die Gaben der Christen zu identifizieren und zu entwickeln, und neue Christen zur Neugeburt zu bringen.

Ich möchte mit einer kurzen Geschichte zum Schluss kommen, um dich zu ermutigen.

Mike Yaconelli war Jugendarbeiter in Amerika bis zu seinem frühen Tod bei einem Autounfall vor einigen Jahren. Er hat ein Buch mit dem Titel Messy Spirituality veröffentlicht – auf Deutsch heißt es: Gott liebt Chaoten. Yaconelli war auch Pastor einer freien Baptistengemeinde und hatte immer Angst davor, dass er nicht gut genug sei, Pastor zu sein. In seinem Buch beschreibt er, wie jeder andere Pastor ein gutes, ordentliches und theologisch konsequentes Leben führt. Im Vergleich mit den anderen war Mike Yaconelli eine Katastrophe. Einmal hat er gesagt: “Ich bin Pastor einer wachsender Kirche – aber sie wächst immer kleiner.”

In diesem Buch erzählt Yaconelli einen Traum, den er nachts immer wieder hatte. In diesem Traum sitzt er in einem Zimmer mit vielen anderen Menschen. Plötzlich kommt Jesus herein. Jesus spricht eine Zeit lang mit ihnen, dann steht er auf, dreht sich um, deutet mit dem Finger auf ihn und sagt laut und klar – mit den Augen auf ihn gerichtet: “Komm, folge mir nach!” Yaconelli kann es kaum Glauben: Jesus hat ihn auserwählt. Er steht auf, bereit, Jesus überall hin in der Welt zu folgen. Dann dreht sich Jesus um und sagt: “Err… nein… es tut mir leid… ich meinte den Kerl hinter dir.”

Jesus macht das nie!

Wir sind dazu berufen, immer auf den wandelnden Gott zu vertrauen, mit Jesus zu gehen, nie zu fürchten, immer neugierig zu sein, und Kirche zu formen. Seid mutig!

Aber die elf Jünger gingen nach Galiläa auf den Berg, wohin Jesus sie beschieden hatte. Und als sie ihn sahen, fielen sie vor ihm nieder; einige aber zweifelten. Und Jesus trat herzu und sprach zu ihnen: Mir ist gegeben alle Gewalt im Himmel und auf Erden. Darum gehet hin und machet zu Jüngern alle Völker: Taufet sie auf den Namen des Vaters und des Sohnes und des Heiligen Geistes und lehret sie halten alles, was ich euch befohlen habe. Und siehe, ich bin bei euch alle Tage bis an der Welt Ende.

Und Jesus blieb stehen und sprach: Ruft ihn her! Und sie riefen den Blinden und sprachen zu ihm: Sei getrost, steh auf! Er ruft dich!

 

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.

 

OK, the Church of England appoints a new Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope resigns. Coincidence? Of course! But that doesn't stop people speculating that the Pope's reasons for retiring must be anything other than those he has given. This is a conspiracy-theorist's dream.

Well, now the cacophony of advice aimed at the cardinals has already begun. What seems to be commonly agreed is that the Roman Catholic Church needs to change – although that's the easy bit: what that change looks like is the subject of bitter and contradictory disagreement. It was ever thus.

In a further coincidence I am en route to Hannover, Germany, to speak at an ecumenical conference on how the churches in Germany need to change to face a challenging new world. They – both Protestants and Roman Catholics – are keen to open up creativity in a culture that has assumed its place in German society for centuries, but now finds it harder. There are significant differences between the German churches and the English churches, but the Germans want to learn more from – and be inspired and encouraged by – initiatives such as Fresh Expressions, Liquid Church, and others. I am quite heavily involved in speaking and engaging in discussion at a pre-conference conference today, the main conference (with 1200 participants) tomorrow and Saturday, then preaching on Sunday morning before returning to Bradford.

(I am writing this at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam, having had a dreadful journey! I was supposed to fly from Leeds-Bradford to Amsterdam and then on to Hannover last night. It took three hours to drive the eight miles from home to Leeds-Bradford; the flight was delayed by three hours; I was put in a hotel in Amsterdam – getting three hours sleep – and now am waiting to board the flight to Hannover. This morning's meetings have been mucked up accordingly…)

It is always interesting to look at how a different culture deals with change. I am a close observer of the German churches, but they start from a different point from those in England. There are now some really interesting ad creative initiatives emerging and the seriousness with which these are being addressed in Germany is impressive.

I bring the mixed experience of England. Some 'fresh expressions' have failed, sometimes the rhetoric outstrips the reality, and sometimes they are just a way of 'doing what we want without the hassle of the bits of church we don't want to other with'. But, all in all, they have sparked an explosion of adventurousness, creativity and imaginative courage. On the other side, look at attempts to change the Church of England more substantially – for example, the Dioceses Commission proposals to dissolve three dioceses in West Yorkshire and create a new single diocese with five episcopal areas – and it becomes clear how, in some quarters, resistance to change prevents any creative engagement with either reality (look at the numbers, both people and money) or potential (taking responsibility for creating something new).

Change is always difficult, but difficulty is never an excuse for not changing. While looking though the German lens in the next few days I will also be reflecting from a distance on how change is faced in my part of England. Or not.

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.

In 1517 Martin Luther is purported to have nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg, an act that ignited the Reformation in Europe and divided the Church. (Of course, it divided much more than the Church and much blood flowed as a consquence. But, it is naive to draw a straight line between the Luther’s action and the bloodshed without recognising the inextricable interplay of culture, politics, economics and education.)

Well, here I am in Wittenberg, having happily and efficiently completed a substantial part of the Meissen Commission’s agenda and about to do a tour of the Lutherhaus. The sun is shining – unlike the first time I came here in February 2006. Then it was freezing cold, windy and inhospitable. It was then that I was struck by my own thesis that the Reformation could never have happened in southern Europe. It goes a bit like this:

  • In the climate of northern Europe you have to associate indoors with people you choose to speak with. This means it is easy to argue, discuss and see the world in narrow terms.
  • In southern Europe, where the climate is warmer and drier, people spend much more time outside and, therefore, bump into lots of other people. This shapes both conversations and views of the world. It also slows life down.
  • No wonder, then, that northern Europe is Protestant and southern Europe Catholic.
  • Stand in the snow and wind in Wittenberg and you realise why Luther was impatient and had a bad temper…

So far nobody has pursued this suggestion, let alone agreed with me that there is a question worth pursuing!

The story of Luther nailing his Theses to the church door is disputed. No matter, the Theses were disseminated quickly via the equivalent of the Internet of the day. Printing was not welcomed by many in the Roman Catholic hierarchy on the grounds that control is lost when any old pleb can get hold of, read and interpret stuff like the Bible for him- or herself. Luther not only saw the potential and importance of new media, but exploited them to great effect.

Now, I promised that while the Pope is in London I would post not 95 Theses on the church door, but 9.5 Theses on this blog. The intention is partly just to make me think about what might be spoken to ‘power’ today. But, now I am here I have hit on a problem: what or who today is the equivalent authority to the Roman Catholic Church of Luther’s day? In other words, to whom should my Theses be addressed?

There is a wonderful medaeival map in the British Library that places Jerusalem at the centre of the world. The geography represents status, authority and claims to universality in the things of the world. It just looks curious and amusing now. Britain is stuck at the bottom left of this map rather than in the middle of the northern hemisphere as in contemporary maps. Having been in the Vatican it is easy to see how the Curia can think itself to stand at the centre of the world today. But, this is a curious notion when seen from the outside.

The Roman Catholic Church is huge. But it cannot ignore the fact that there are more Christians outside it than inside. In real terms, it is one church among many. This might be an inconvenient and ecclesiologically suspect statement/perspective, but one only has to step back a bit from planet earth to see that the Christian Church is rather big and widespread and more differentiated than we would perhaps like. Simply maintaining that Lutherans, Reformed, Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals and Anglicans are ‘ecclesial communities’ (rather than ‘proper’ churches) looks increasingly limited.

This fact is unavoidable when we sit (as I am doing this week) with Christians of other histories, cultures, ecclesiologies and traditions and see our own in relation to them. I am praying for the meeting of the Pope with the Archbishop of Canterbury, but the world is changing rapidly and common Christian cause should be seen to be more important than constant talk about who is in and who is out.

However, this still leaves me with a problem – here in the place where Papal Bulls were rejected nearly five hundred years ago. Would Luther have been arguing with the Roman Catholic Church today, or would there be a greater ‘authority’ (with greater claims over human life, destiny, values and potential) against whom he would have felt himself compelled to protest? If so, who or what might that authority be?

After all, Luther wasn’t simply obsessed by ‘theology’ (in a privatised, churchy or introspective sense), but by the invitation and demands of God in the whole of life. Power, whether political or ecclesiastical, was always limited: God was top of the pile. And human flourishing depended on (a) getting the theology right and (b) living it out.

So, to whom should I address my 9.5 Theses? And what should they be?

Suggestions welcome before I post tomorrow…

It’s not true that I left the country this morning because the Tories are back in power. But it is certainly interesting to see the processes of British politics through the eyes of a different country and culture. The Germans seem not to understand what all the fuss is about – they have a permanent ‘hung Parliament’ and seem to have done reasonably OK.

I am in Munich for the 2nd Ecumenical Kirchentag which began this afternoon and finishes on Sunday. The Protestants do this every other year, but this is the second time the Protestants and Roman Catholics have done it together (the last time seven years ago). Several hundred thousand people of all ages will be here during the next three days and tens of thousands joined together on the Theresienwiese for the opening service.

The service was interesting, but typically wordy. The theme of the Kirchentag is Damit ihr Hoffnung habt (‘So that you may have hope’) and the service attempted to get the word ‘Hoffnung’ into every sentence without ever really explaining what Christian hope might actually look like when ‘dressed’ in human flesh rather than existing simply as a theological idea.

The best bit was – surprisingly – the words of greeting brought at the end by the Bundespräsident, Professor Dr Horst Köhler. This is a bit like the Queen turning up and doing a talk to get the event going. Whereas Protestant black and Catholic Episcopal pink was to be seen everywhere, it was this lay politician who articulated what needed to be said and did so in language that was unambiguous, direct and honest. The scandal of child abuse by Roman Catholic priests has shattered Germany and, in Köhler’s words, hung a cloud over the churches and the Kirchentag itself. He spoke of the many people who had turned their back on the churches or been ashamed by their church, and called for support for victims of abuse.

The President then called the churches (a) to united witness by united worship and service; (b) repentance and transparent addressing of the sins of the church; but (c) not to lose sight of the good done by Christians in, through and from their churches. He strongly urged the churches to face the reality of their failures, but to remain confident both about the Gospel and the powerful good done and still to be done by the Christian churches in Germany. He was constantly applauded before concluding (along with Brother Roger of Taize) that Christians need both to struggle (its mission in and for society)and to be contemplative (rooted in reflective worship and prayer).

It was eloquent, passionate and articulate stuff. To hear a Head of State speak so powerfully, simply, clearly and honestly was very impressive. He was followed by the President of the State of Bavaria (Ministerpräsident), Horst Seehofer, who was equally direct, encouraging and funny. He welcomed us to his Land (state) and added that his Cabinet had agreed on Tuesday that there should be five days of good weather. He commented that we would soon find out what a politician’s word was worth. (Despite every weather forecast promising thunder storms and heavy rain, the evening was pleasant, cloudy and dry.)

Tomorrow begins with thousands of people flooding into the Messegelände for Bible studies, seminars, lectures, concerts, arts presentations, worship and every other kind of encounter. Rather than being preoccupied with abstract theology or disengaged spirituality, the programme is courageously aimed at addressing environmental, political, economic, social and ecclesiastical issues head on and making theology apply to the hard questions facing human beings in our societies now and for the future.

The Kirchentag probably couldn’t happen in Britain – but it is uniquely wonderful here.

There is a lot of talk about Anglicans becoming Roman Catholic, but we rarely talk about those who cross the Tiber in the opposite direction.

In December 2006 I was in Paris, having been invited to preach at St George’s Church there. A few weeks before I went I was asked to confirm a young Frenchman called Régis Blain during the service. Since then we have kept in touch from time to time. Recently we were in email contact and I invited him to write something brief about why he decided to become an Anglican in France – several people here were intrigued, especially after Régis created a page for Common Worship on Facebook. This is what he wrote (in the form of a letter to the most famous Englishman to have converted to Roman Catholicism in recent years) – I thought it was an interesting ‘take’ on things I don’t often refer to:

A letter to Mr. Blair : a new French Anglican writes to a new British Roman-Catholic

Recently, Bishop Nick Baines, who confirmed me at the Anglican St Georges Church in Paris in December 2006,  told me that some of his colleagues were ‘intrigued’ by the fact that a French citizen would choose to be Anglican. I’d like to explain how this is possible by writing an imaginary letter to the former Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair.

Mr. Blair,

You are British Citizen and you have an Anglican background. You decided to become Roman Catholic 3 years ago. It’s your right and I respect it. I ‘m a French Citizen with a cultural Roman Catholic background, and I decided to become Anglican from the Church of England 4 years ago.  It’s my right too. 

Guardian journalist Andrew Brown reported (June 22,2007):

For the last decade at least he has made it plain that he prefers Catholic services, and perhaps Catholic priests, to Anglican ones.

I myself prefer William Temple, the ‘Anglican Churchill’ (who was in Normandy  in June 1944) or the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams to all the Popes of Rome (except John XXIII). I had the chance to meet different priests from the Episcopalian Church and the Church of England here in Paris, in the US and in Turkey and I find I like them perhaps better than the Roman-Catholics priests. 

I have to confess that I praise you for your honesty and consistency in becoming Roman Catholic. I become sceptical when the ‘extremes’ want to change the spiritual and liturgical history of the Church of England. I have always thought: if you are deeply evangelical, why don’t you join a true Protestant community? If you  feel more Catholic than everything, why don’t you join the Roman Catholic Church? There is no problem in the end.

So you did right and I’m sure I did right too.

I like the diversity of the Anglican Communion – from all the countries – and I do recognize that everybody can be ‘high’ or ‘low’ church. But people like me, and former Roman Catholics who were looking for freedom of thought and worship, have joined the Anglican Communion. I think we are strongly opposed to any form of intolerant orthodoxy (sorry for the pleonasm), but at the same time we need tradition, history, honesty and also freedom. 

I like also in your former church what it has taken from Catholicism, Protestantism and Latitudinarism. Therefore it seems to me that the Church of England is a proof of historical consensus and wisdom,  a moral and spiritual space for everybody, a pact between the community, the church and the state.

Anglicanism represents also, for those who know history, the memory of refuge in the 16 and 17th centuries. Some French pastors and lay people were integrated within the Church of England during this time. I guess you know this fact. For example, today the  old Huguenot Church Eglise du St Esprit in New York City belongs to the Episcopalian Church. To this day there is still a Huguenot Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral.

What I like above all about the Anglican Church is its modesty and tolerance.  Like Mr David Cameron, I don’t have any ‘direct line’ to God and I need – I guess like you and him – a priest and a prayer book.

I know there are good places for worship and good priests within the Roman Catholic Church. But in my case after attending so many services and talking to so many priests and pastors, I could not find better representatives of Christ than Anglican priests and in particular those I met from the Church of England.

From my perspective, the diversity, tolerance and creativity of my church offer the best means to win the fight for an updated and renewed Christianity, far from extremes and anomie. I also hope that all Anglicans, Catholics and Protestants can work together to keep the churches open and full and not open bars or galleries in them. We will try to keep honest in our thinking and behaviour as imperfect Christians with varying degrees of faith.

My wish is that your compatriots could really appreciate the religious patrimony they have and I’m sure you do.

Yours sincerely,

Régis Blain (France)

I haven’t exactly been blogging alot in the last few weeks. I haven’t lost my nerve (or my interest), but there hasn’t been time to give attention to it. Loads of meetings, some wonderful visits to wonderful places to meet wonderful people and just a bit of problem stuff. A six-week series of Lent Addresses, a lecture last week on Christianity & the Media, loads of sermons and a Quiet Day tomorrow (Telling Tales: Recovering our Scriptural Nerve): very creative.

But the world isn’t boring, is it?

  • Today the USA and Russia have agreed a massive reduction in nuclear missiles/warheads.
  • The Pope is under fire, as is his Church, because of historical sexual abuse and a flood of apologies.
  • There is about to be regime change in Iraq (again)
  • The General Election has all but begun.
  • And the future of Rafa Benitez remains uncertain (despite the protestations) – look at the face and behaviour of Gerrard and Torres.

What’s interesting about these matters is that they all have something to do with power.

Mutually Assured Destruction was as mad as it sounds – and now belongs in the 1980s. Post Cold War generations can’t believe that this was ever seriously considered a reasonable approach to global security. So, Obama adds a foreign policy victory to his domestic (health care) achievement of last week and thus puts another question mark over what many Americans understand by ‘freedom’. And about time, too.

The Pope is in a mess, but so is much of the criticism of the Roman Catholic Church. The particular criticism I refer to has to do with the knee-jerk stuff about celibacy, homosexuality and priesthood. I don’t believe in celibacy as a dogma (I think my wife is relieved), but it is ludicrous to say that celibacy itself turns priests into paedophiles or abusers. What does that say about single priests whose celibacy is a definite (and often costly) vocation?

Surely the problem is with people who abuse their privileged access (to people), trust and authority to exercise power over vulnerable people. Removing the insistence on celibacy might make some priests happier, but it won’t address the essential problem of those who abuse the power they have – and rightly attract the opprobrium of those who are betrayed. (Bishops asking for ‘forgiveness’ sounds a bit too easy…)

Like everyone else, I feel horror at the abuse exercised by priests over a long period of time. But, seeing Rome squirm is not a reason for vicarious mocking (as is being heard in some quarters); it is a tragedy and a crime and the focus should be on restoring those whose lives have been wrecked by abuse. Both they and the abusers need our prayers, but our prayers should be realistic.

I was reflecting on all this while visiting the excellent Cross Purposes exhibition at Mascalls Gallery in Paddock Wood, Kent. We went there after visiting All Saints’ Church, Tudeley, the only church in the world to have all the windows decorated by Marc Chagall. The windows are beautiful, powerful, moving and challenging. Go from there to the exhibition at Mascalls and you are confronted by representations of crucifixion that make you stop and stare.

Chagall’s drafts for his Tudeley windows are also there, but it is his Apocalypse en Lilas, Capriccio (1945) that speaks most arrestingly – even today as we think about power (and its abuse) in all its guises, and especially as we face increasingly confident right-wing parties gaining ground in the forthcoming election. Here’s the picture:

The Jewish Chagall has the crucified Jesus blocking access to the blackened Nazi as ruin lies around. Here we see the confrontation of two contrasting concepts of ‘power’.

One far-right party in England asks (in its attempt to attract naive Christians to its causes): ‘what would Jesus do?’ I think Chagall offers an answer.