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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was speaking in a church on Sunday evening about the former (and late) German President Johannes Rau. One of my parishes does a series of evening Compline services through the summer and different speakers are invited to address a common theme – such as, ‘People of Faith’. In past years I have done Bruce Cockburn, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller.

Why Johannes Rau? Mainly because a couple of years ago I picked up a book of some of his sermons and found them lucid and helpful.

Now, I realise that some people are getting spooked already. What is a State President doing preaching sermons? Well, read on…

Johannes Rau was born in Wuppertal in 1931, just as Hitler was coming to power and the terror was digging in. As a schoolboy he was active in the Confessing Church – thus showing not only great courage, but clarity about the ethical and political implications of the theology he had grown up with in church. It is this (developing) theology that fired his political, economic and social passions in the post-War years when Germany was being re-built, divided and, eventually, reunited.

He became a journalist and publisher in 1949 and joined Heinemann‘s Gesamtdeutsche Volkspartei from 1952-1957 when it was disbanded. (Ironically, this is now the name of a neo-Nazi party in Germany.) He joined the SPD in 1958, rose through its ranks until he became Ministerprasident of Nordrhein-Westfalen from 1978-1998. In 1999 he was elected Bundesprasident at his second attempt –  a post he held until 2004. He died in 2006. (In 2000 he became the first German head of state to address the Israeli Knesset in German.)

What is striking about Rau is that he was an intelligent lay theologian whose rigorous thinking about social justice during the reconstruction years was shaped by his theological convictions and understandings. These were rooted in a costly passion for what is now called ‘the common good’.

For Rau the concept of reconciliation – again derived as a theological imperative to be worked into the fabric of social order – was no mere pious ideal or religious construct. Reconciliation had to be worked at at every level and the price had to be paid where necessary.

Underlying this was the root conviction that (in the words of the subtitle of the book I read) God and the world must be brought into conversation. That is, there can be no disembodied ‘spiritualised’ godliness that is not rooted in the real world we experience every day. The corollary, of course, is that the world cannot be cast adrift from considerations of God. The title of one of his sermons nails this: Diese Welt geht nicht zum Teufel (This world is not going to the devil).

And all this was rooted even deeper in Rau’s notion of ‘hope’ – perhaps one that grasped him rather than one that was simply grasped by him. The book is titled, Wer hofft, kann handeln (Whoever hopes can act). The motto of the Confessing Church had been “teneo, quia teneor” (I hold because I am held) and this became his personal maxim throughout his life.

What was remarkable was his ability to relate and communicate at both political and theological levels. His Bible studies and sermons at the lay-organised Kirchentags were not only popular, but also biblically alert, theologically interesting and spiritually challenging/encouraging.

And that’s a condensed snapshot of the great man who is largely unknown outside of Germany. He spanned a time in German history that demanded giants in all areas of life. Rau encompassed several areas and was remarkable for the respect he gained from all sides of German life.

(Now back to the business of the annual College of Bishops meeting in Oxford for the next four days…)