This is the text of an article commissioned by the Yorkshire Post for today:

Having grown up in a northern city that in my childhood still bore the violent scars of aerial bombing in the 1970s, I found it powerfully poignant to find myself one Sunday standing in the pulpit of the Frauenkirche in Dresden. I had listened to the stories told by my parents and grandparents of air-raid shelters, bombed houses, destroyed families – especially from the blitz on Liverpool in May 1941. Yet, here I was, standing in the pulpit of a church – now restored – that the Allies had fire-bombed on the night of 13-14 February 1945. And I remembered William Blake’s reference to a “fearful symmetry”.

The Second World War cost an estimated fifty million deaths. The casualties who stayed alive in some way are incalculable. I have had friends in Austria and Germany who were force-marched from their original home in (what became) Yugoslavia to near Paris and then back eastwards to the Danube, confronted by Soviet occupying forces. They were children. War was brutal.

Seventy five years is not a long time really. The unconditional surrender of the Nazi regime on 8 May 1945 brought an end to the conflict in Europe – although the slaughter continued in the Far East until August. It was, as the REM song puts it, “the end of the world as we know it”. A world exhausted by violence, fear and suffering breathed deeply … but then had to turn its collective face towards building a future. Not rebuilding, however. Nobody suggested that the world should return to some mythical golden age of the 1920s or ‘30s. Rather, they knew they had to take responsibility for building something new and untested.

So, while we rightly celebrate the courage and sacrifice of so many during those terrible years of Nazi tyranny and global conflict, we cannot romanticise it and simply stay with the echo of some past glory. We have to look to the future and ask – if we learn anything from history and those who paid the price of victory and peace – what is required of us in building the world our children and grandchildren will inherit.

If you go to the Holocaust Museum at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, you will eventually find your way to the memorial to the Warsaw Uprising. Either side of a door in a courtyard there are two sculpted reliefs: one depicts the uprising, led by a 19 year old who refused to lie down and be slaughtered; the other shows Jews being meekly led like lambs, herded by faceless Nazi soldiers. In other words, people respond differently to threat and dehumanisation – and neither should be judged by those who never have to face the choice.

I asked an academic who took me there some years ago why the Nazi soldiers had not been given any facial features. He said that they could not be depicted as human. So, I asked if that was actually the problem: if we dehumanise the evil-doers by making them faceless, do we also avoid the shocking agony that the immense and systematic cruelties of the Holocaust were perpetrated by people like me and you? He wouldn’t answer, but the question has never left me.

Although I was involved in a distant way in the Falklands War in 1982 (in a previous job in Cheltenham), I was never confronted by immediate brutality or threat. I never had to make the hard choices regarding violent resistance or submission. But, then I also visited the museum in Berlin called ‘The Topography of Terror’ (built on the site where the Gestapo HQ had once stood) – which houses a harrowing account of how civil society gets slowly corrupted by people letting a little bit of civility or humanity go at a time. Eventually it has gone too far. The rest, as they say, is history.

VE Day saw an end to more than conflict. It marked the beginning of a world which needed to build new institutions for peace and stability. It was understood that peace took a very long time to build – especially based on growing trust and mutual accountability – but could be destroyed in weeks or months. And the problem is that we don’t see it happening around us or within us. If VE Day does anything, it should pull us up short and face us afresh with the consequences of both civil corruption and historical amnesia. Peace has to be built and protected.

Seventy five years is not a long time. But, it is long enough for us to learn and lose the lessons bequeathed to us by those who endured suffering in the past. As a Christian, faced with the ambiguous record of the Church in Europe in the 1930s and ‘40s, I can only turn back to the narrative in the Bible that sees humility – not hubris – as the key to peace between people and nations.

VE Day 2020 – a day for celebration and for reflection.

We have just spent two days in the far north of Sri Lanka. This is where the civil war saw its bloody conclusions in Jaffna in 1995 and Kilinochchi only five years ago.

Having met a range of civic and Christian leaders in Jaffna and heard their stories, the tragedy of that civil war is etched in the ruins of homes and the lives that were torn apart in them. The scars of war cannot be avoided – the destruction and all it represents is there to see. And, as the Bishop of Colombo said, the enormity is hinted at when you walk into random ruins and find the remains of a child's doll. A family died there. Probably someone else's war.

This isn't the time or place to go into the nature of the conflict itself. But, the Church of Ceylon (which we are visiting for the first time) exercises its ministry of reconciliation in the conflicted context of the war's aftermath. And its stress is not on working for justice for one side or one community or one language/ethnic group; rather, its concern is to establish justice for all and bring healing to the whole country.

Like the church in most places, this work is done mostly on the quiet – often under the radar. Not all good and effective work is done through a microphone, but in the hidden business of bringing people together, creating the space for a different sort of conversation with a different sort of vocabulary.

I am only a few days into this visit – and have an explosion of images, sounds and stories in my mind – and will continue to think around it all. Today's judgments might well be challenged by tomorrow's experience or the weekend's encounters. So, I continue to listen and look and learn.

Yet, at the heart of it all is that universal conundrum that struggles to hold together the beauty and the violence of human beings, the glory and the evil of human passion, the power and weakness of hope in the face of destructiveness.

Given my connections with Germany and the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland, where Bell is seen as a hero, this is also the conundrum that emerges today from the announcement of Bishop George Bell's sexual abuse crime. Inexcusable and appalling – not only the abuse itself, but also the way it was ignored by the Church of England for so long – Bell's reputation is destroyed. But, what, then, do we do with the courage he showed during the Second World War in supporting Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the resistance movement in and outside Germany itself, and questioning the moral basis of the Allied bombing of civilians in cities like Dresden?

I am not sure how we deal with this. Is it possible to damn the abusing bishop while admiring the courageous defender of the oppressed and the builder of peace?

How we answer this question will say something not just about Bell, but also about us.

And, like the survivors of the civil war in Sri Lanka, the survivor(s) of Bell's abuse, the effects of the crime cannot be expunged by some later compensation. We can only trust that truth is the path to peace.

 

I know Dresden well. I know people in Dresden well. The devastation visited by Allied bombing on 13/14 February 1945 was horrendous. That is a phenomenological fact – apart from any moral consideration of the event.

It is shameful that a so-called free press, so often “defended” by the so-called “popular” press, sees fit to celebrate the freedoms gained by the sacrifice of so many 70 years ago by stooping to lies, misrepresentation, slander and brain-dead ideological nonsense. Is the Dail Mail going to have the courage and integrity – values demonstrated by those who sacrificed so much during World War Two – to apologise for the scandalous headline and story published a couple of days ago? There is no way that a half-thinking sentient being could read from the Archbishop of Canterbury's sermon in the Frauenkirche, Dresden, to a headline that accuses him of apologising to the Nazis.

There are no words adequate to describe the shamefulness of that front page. Is this the free press we fought a war to preserve?

And what was the Daily Mail's motivation in publishing this headline and story on the front page? What was its moral drive?

When can we expect the apology? Or will the absence of an apology be left to speak for itself?

Edited at 23.29hrs: a paragraph was missing from the version that I posted. I add it here:

“Read for yourself the Archbishop's speech in its context. Then read his subsequent blog post and the earlier statement. His sermon in the Frauenkirche today is here. Then tell me this wasn't just a nasty headline looking for a story.”

 

This the script for this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme – the eve of the seventieth anniversary of D-Day:

A rabbi once spoke about how, when memory becomes history, the history becomes a commodity over which people can fight. Memory is held by those people who witnessed or participated in the events themselves. But, as the generations of those who fought in the world wars of the twentieth century now begin to die out, the need to remember well becomes acute.

Well, seventy years ago this morning thousands of soldiers were marching towards the South Coast of England. The plans for the invasion of France had been developed in secret and the time for action had arrived. It is evident from many of the stories told by people involved that the day before the invasion was tense.

Soldiers walking towards the coast knew that something big was about to happen and the locals along the way sensed that this wasn’t just yet another exercise. Clearly, some soldiers suspected that they were going to their death and emptied their pockets of money and cigarettes, handing them to civilians with words such as, “I won’t have any use for these in the future.”

This is where real courage lies. Not just in the fighting when you get there and there is nothing else to do but go for it. The day before, as you walk towards the coast, knowing you might be walking to your death, and your imagination is running riot – that is courage. Picturing the people you might be leaving behind, yet keeping on going – that is courage.

At the root of this is a confrontation with mortality. If ever there were a group of people who were – in the words of the German philosopher Heidegger – ‘beings towards death’ – it was surely these men. Heidegger was making the point that the way we face our dying shapes the way we live our lives – being confronted with our mortality is actually the key that unlocks our freedom to live.

I guess that the soldiers marching south seven decades ago today had mixed feelings. Some would be recklessly longing for action, others would be filled with fear. Some would be looking ahead to what might come, others looking back to what might be lost for ever. But, the common experience was clearly the awareness of mortality.

At the root of Christian faith is this – I would say counter-cultural – starting recognition that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Everything else springs from that. Whether in our bed or in battle – not the only options, clearly – we shall one day die, and we need to come to terms with that reality.

Today we could do worse than imagine ourselves in the shoes of those soldiers. Thousands died on D-Day. But, the dust to which they returned still speaks of the life they lived – and why it was worth losing it.

On the way to the Brocken with friends a couple of days ago, we drove through a village called Elend. Elend is the German word for 'misery'. There is a place nearby called Sorge – which translates into English as 'worry'. Who says the Germans don't have a sense of humour?

Well, humour has had to be tempered with real seriousness on day three of the Meissen Theological Conference at Arnoldshain. Two papers this morning tackled the contextual interplay of reconciliation, patriotism and memory. Ecumenical rapprochement between German and English churches takes place in a context of a century of conflict, theological compromise and an occasional dogged unity that national interest – even in times of war – cannot expunge.

Landesbischof Professor Dr Friedrich Weber, the soon-to-retire Bishop of Braunschweig and German co-chair of the Meissen Commission (I am the Anglican co-chair) reviewed the Meissen process since 1988 and asked hard questions about what has actually been achieved. He concluded with a statement by Michael Weinrich to the effect that “there is no lack of official declarations in the ecumenical movement, but there are dramatically fewer cases of reception”. In other words, statements are not backed up (or followed up) by action.

The same Professor Dr Weinrich, Professor of Systematic Theology (Ecumenics and Dogmatics) at the University of Bochum – and who is also a German member of the Meissen Commission – then expanded on the Weber discussion by presenting a paper of observations and reflections on the Meissen process thus far. His starting point about ecumenism is a heartening one: “… one must constantly evaluate whether the functions these criteria were originally designed to serve are being carried out.” In other words, is a process that began over twenty years ago still fit for purpose – or has it got distracted by its own internal dynamic and is now not doing the very thing for which it was set up.

This led him on to a discussion about how 'identity' can be shaped without having to have endless debates about that identity. Put crudely, it must be possible to create unity without constantly talking about what unity might look like. Of course, I am polarising to make the point – one does not exclude the other and both are necessary. But, two sentences go to the heart of Weinrich's concern: “It is possible … that down to earth Anglican pragmatism has established a beneficial boundary for the German zeal for systematisation… Given the background of the trust that has developed [in the Meissen process], it would be nonsensical to make the vitality of the church fellowship dependant on progress in ecclesiological questions.”

I cite this simply because the discussions that followed both Weber and Weinwich's papers led very quickly on to the place of our ecumenical relationship/conversations in the wider national agendas, especially in this significant year of memory: the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. What is – or what should be – the role of the church in helping wider society 're-member' the events at the heart of progressive, technologically developed and Christianly-shaped Europe that tore the world apart in 1914? How might the church – with its language of and facility for symbolic act, repentant relationship and truthful speaking – create the space and place for a wider rehearsal of our common narrative? And how might the churches remind our wider (and sometimes conveniently and selectively amnesiac) societies of how, when the divisions seemed insuperable at the heart of conflict, many Christians refused to allow national boundaries and obligations expunge their deeper unity in Christ?

Now, this might sound a little arcane – the usual stuff of closed theological conferences that are enjoyable in themselves but do not translate into wider world-changing action – but the debate kept bringing us back to practicalities. Reconciliation is neither sentimental nor consequence-free. We will move on later to decide on practical recommendations for joint action this year and beyond as we reappropriate the narrative that has shaped us thus far. Questions about 'memory', ideology, patriotism and what today's generations consider to be the priorities (or touching places for questions of conflict, threat, fear, etc.) come to the fore. Faithfully remembering the past only has validity if what we learn can be applied to what we face now and how we might be in the future.

As Bonhoeffer would have said in the early 1930s as Nazism exploded into violent life, universal ethical principles are no substitute for 'choosing now' and taking responsibility for the ways we choose to be.

 

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?

 

This is the text of this morning's Thought for the Day on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme:

I’d love to wish everyone a happy new year, but, apart from the general sentiment involved, I wouldn’t actually know what I was wishing you. I’m not sure that happiness – despite its elevation in the US Constitution as one of the ultimate human pursuits – is all it is cracked up to be. It seems to me that most human beings on the planet would settle for survival and freedom from fear.

Well, we are about to launch into a year of commemoration. In fact, we face four years of remembering that only a century ago the world fell apart. All the optimism for the new century, coupled with pride in the inexorable progress of science and technology, would shortly lie bleeding in the fields of Flanders. Humans never seem to change when it comes to violence.

Yet, my guess is that as 1913 gave way to 1914, most people just got on with their life and paid little attention to the seeds of overwhelming destructiveness that were already being sown in Europe. Did anyone really think, when they wished each other a happy new year at midnight, that just after the summer holidays that year a whole generation of young men would begin the four-year slaughter that would in turn sow the seeds of the Second World War? Or did they just wish, as we might do, that everything would turn out OK and that everyone would miraculously start being nice to each other?

If we learn anything from history it must surely be that what appears to be ‘normal’ and stable in the world is actually extremely fragile. Remember the faith we placed in global capitalism until the banking emperors were seen to be naked in 2008 – with many of the poorest of our people still paying the price?

Perhaps the beginning of happiness lies in recognizing this fragility of life, and daring to be challenged by cries for justice even when they cost us dearly. The Hebrew prophets saw through the thin pragmatic veneers of affluence and power, and called on people to be captivated by a vision that was more humane and of eternal value – regardless of how costly its pursuit might turn out to be. Jesus invited people on the edge and people at the centre of power to be drawn by hope and not driven by fear.

I will shortly be back in Germany – a country I visit frequently and one that has lived through two world wars, the Holocaust, Communism and now democratic capitalism. In the city of Halle there is a tram stop called Frohe Zukunft, Happy Future. But the question is: do happy futures just happen, or do we create them? Happiness can quickly turn to horror. And this fragility should evoke humility – the desire to live well and the resolve to live better.