This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show:

I have just got back from ten days in Germany. The first half was work – speaking engagements in Halle, Jena and Berlin; the second bit was holiday with friends. Now, I know this wouldn’t be everyone’s idea of fun, but one of the best bits was a tour of the German Foreign Ministry – used to be Hitler’s bank, then became the HQ of the East German ruling party. History haunts the corridors here.

But, the absolute best bit of the trip was a Bible exhibition in Wittenberg. Yes – a Bible exhibition in Wittenberg.

Wittenberg is where 500 years ago an angry monk got fed up and started a row with the Pope. Martin Luther triggered the Reformation, and the Reformation changed Europe and the world for ever. So, last weekend 100,000 people came together in a field outside the town to celebrate under the blazing sun.

While there we popped into the exhibition where, among other things, we saw Elvis Presley’s Bible. In fact, two of them. In one of them he has written against the note of his mother’s death: “I love you Mama.”

Now, Elvis recorded a lot of Gospel music, but it’s hard to know how he related what he read and believed to how he lived. I sympathise with him, and no one should stand in judgment. And we should remember that, 61 years ago yesterday when he introduced his new single Hound Dog on the Milton Berle Show and shocked the world by wiggling his hips, he probably wasn’t thinking about world revolution. Yet, he changed music for ever, didn’t he?

Now, Martin Luther and Elvis Presley are not equals in what they achieved, but they both knew about what Christians call grace. Both show that the world can be changed by ordinary people who take the risk of doing something extraordinary – usually without calculating the cost or the consequences. Both men were conflicted – a bit of a mess in many ways. Which makes them just like you and me.

You can see why Elvis called his home Graceland, can’t you? Maybe ‘Love me tender’ was a plea. Hounded by the dogs of other people’s demands on him, he still, ultimately, found himself in the same place as Martin Luther… and me: all shook up by mercy.

Yesterday was Remembrance Day (der Volkstrauertag) in Germany.

I left Erfurt on Sunday afternoon, having taken part in the morning service in the Predigerkirche. This is where Meister Eckhart was the prior, and you can still touch the wood that he touched when leading his Dominican monks in worship here in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century.

The service was packed – loads of young families with loads of children, elderly people, and everything in-between. The Lektorin who preached was excellent. I just brought a Grußwort at the beginning of the service, then enjoyed the rest of it without responsibility.

It's always instructive to share in someone else's memory. The poignant-yet-triumphant patriotism that sometimes characterises Remembrance Day events in England was entirely absent. Not only is Volkstrauertag for remembering the dead and the fallen in war, but it is also for rehearsing what caused war in the first place.

No romanticism, then, in the place where Hitler did his worst – and even the Roman Catholic Cathedral still has a wooden carving in the chancel of a Christian crusader knight on his horse fighting (and defeating) a Jew riding a pig. No sanitising of history here in order to shape a different – or more convenient – narrative. No hiding behind fantasy from the shocking consequences of conventional inhumanity or fearful silence.

I was reminded of a line from RS Thomas's poem The Evacuee: “… she leaped from a scorched story of the charred past”.

The other place that brings this home is outside the Stadtkirche in Wittenberg. This is the town where in 1517 Martin Luther allegedly nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Schlosskirche, thus igniting what became the Reformation. This is where the grace of God was found and proclaimed… and where the Stadtkirche still has built into its exterior (just below the eaves of the south-east end) a relief of Jews being baited in a pig sty. It could have been removed as an offence – and this was considered at the time it was rediscovered after German reunification when buildings neglected by the soulless DDR were being renovated in the 1990s. But, it was kept as a reminder that history cannot simply be removed in order to temper our contemporary sensibilities… and beneath it was placed a permanent memorial to the Jews of Wittenberg who experienced a more contemporary form of the old brutality.

Sitting there in Meister Eckhart's church yesterday morning another German memory revived in my mind. In 1999 I stayed for five weeks with German friends in Jakarta, Indonesia. While there I was taken on a trip through Bandung and other places. Up in the hills one day we drove for miles, visiting a tea plantation and then heading up into the terraced hills. Way off the beaten track we came to a small settlement in the middle of nowhere and I had no idea why we were there.

A short walk led us to a small cemetery containing (if I remember accurately) just half a dozen European-style graves. The story goes that during the Second World War a group of German soldiers was posted here. When the war ended, so ashamed were they of what had been done both by them and in their name, that they decided not to return immediately to Germany, but to stay and serve that small community of Indonesians. They all died of diseases fairly quickly and they are all buried here. The German Government pays for the upkeep of this small piece of earth that is pregnant with both the sadness and generosity of humanity.

Everywhere there is a story to be told and a story to be heard. And often the heard story will challenge the prejudices, preoccupations and absolutisms we nurture when confined to the familiar and the assumed.

The final bit of memory on Sunday actually arose the previous day. I was shown round the Roman Catholic Cathedral and the Severikirche by the Dompropst. The Severikirche contains the tomb and relics of St Severus who was elected Bishop of Ravenna in 342AD. Two things struck me whilst standing before the tomb: (a) there is a clear relief showing the Holy Spirit sitting on the head of Severus, identifying him as the one chosen by God to be bishop; and (b) atop the tomb the reclining figures of Severus, his wife and his daughter.

Think about it. (I asked the Dompropst what the Pope thinks about the great saint-bishop having been a married father and still chosen by God and the church to be a bishop. This led to an interesting conversation – for which I am very grateful – about the nature of priestly ministry, celibacy and other matters close to the church both here and there.)

(And then I got my highest ever score for my fantasy league football team…)

 

When I suggested I might post 9.5 Theses from Wittenberg (a poor substitute for the 95 Theses Martin Luther supposedly nailed to the door of the Schlosskirche in 1517), I didn’t think it would be too difficult.

It is.

It is commonly thought that Luther, angry with the dodgy theology of the Pope, launched the Reformation and split the Church. However, Luther was doing more than this. The Church was raising funds to build St Peter’s in Rome by selling forgiveness and guarantees of heaven to gullible sinners. His protest was not just at the control-freakery of the Roman Catholic Church and its dodgy theology of atonement, but was also a strike against the political, cultural and economic power of the day. It was rooted in theology, but was aimed at ‘the Powers’.

So, against whom would he protest today? Not just the Church, but those political and cultural ‘powers’ that imprison people in today’s world. He went to the heart of what made life worth living for people of his world: key to this was the radical idea that you could be made right with God (happy?) without being manipulated by the Church. So, the Theses I propose here are aimed at wider targets than just the Church, but they include the Church.

Anyway, here goes (but I admit it sounds a bit trite – I can’t work up the anger of a Luther and it’s late):

1. Today’s big lie is that you can earn or buy happiness. Consumer culture is seductive, but things won’t being you joy. Nor will working yourself to death. There is more to life than ‘stuff’. Freedom from our slavery to consumer culture can be found in discovering that we are known by a God who cannot be surprised.

2. Systems are supposed to serve people, not the other way round. Visa does not make the world go around. Money might bring power, but it does not necessarily bring freedom and it certainly brings accountability. If banks cannot be allowed to fail, why can millions of poor people? If banks can be saved, why is it the poorest who will suffer the most?

3. Economic decisions have moral consequences – what is done in one part of the world affects real people everywhere else. Everything is connected and moral responsibility for the fate of others cannot be ducked. (That also goes for discouraging use of condoms in Africa…)

4. The material world should not be exploited by today’s powerful or greedy consumers, the price being paid by our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. We must be prepared to pay a price for reducing our consumer demands. Responsibility means making hard choices now.

5. Celebrity culture is a form of distraction therapy from the reality of the world. Think of Weimar Berlin… or Marx’s ‘opiate of the people’ observation (which he aimed at religion). Ask why our media collude in this destructive and ridiculous fantasy.

6. Get a sense of perspective. Human beings might be clever, but we are not omnicompetent and we are expert in screwing up the world, ourselves and our societies. It is not clever to be selective in our historical remembering, harbouring grievances from long ago that serve merely to fuel (justify?) our corporate resentments and narcissism. (And, pace the French, you can’t just pretend Europe’s Christian history – for good or ill – did not happen…)

7. Security will only be found where the security of ‘the other’ is also protected. Building fences and walls will not ultimately protect – just prolong (and justify?) the cycles of violence. Love of one’s neighbour makes forgiveness possible and new relationships imaginable. Self-protection without regard to the security of others is futile.

8. Those who hold others to account must themselves be made accountable. Freedom of the press cannot be extricated from the responsibility of the press to act justly, fairly and accountably. If no other group (MPs, for example) can be trusted to police themselves, then why should the media be allowed to do so?

9. Hierarchies of victimhood are a symptom of a feeble, introspective and rootless culture. Some Christians (including the Pope) and others who think Christians are being ‘persecuted’ in Europe need to drop the whingeing. Vigorous debate should be enjoined with confidence, joy and freedom. Not surprisingly, this demands a recovery of intellectual rigour and apologetic confidence.

9.5. The Christian Church should get into perspective its primary vocation which is to look, feel and sound like the Jesus we read about in the Gospels. Anything else is a fraud. The divisions between Christians – and the ways they are expressed – are a scandal, an offence and a distraction for the world that needs to discover joy, freedom, forgiveness, new life and generosity.

OK, this is a start. I could have written 9.5 specifically addressed to the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope while he is in my country and I am at the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation. I could have addressed them to the Church of England, business, the banks, the ubiquitous gambling industry or the military. I could have addressed them directly to myself. It all gets a bit confusing in the end.

So, there is my ‘starter for 9.5’ (as it were). Over to you for your ‘Theses’ to ‘the powers of this world’.

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…

What a difference a single letter makes.

While the Pope is in the UK next week I will be popping over to Wittenberg for the annual joint meeting of the Meissen Commission (of which I am the Anglican co-chair). The coincidence is both unfortunate and funny: Wittenberg, of course, is where Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Schloßkirche in 1517, thus igniting what became the Protestant Reformation in Europe. See also the post of a few days ago.)

I have informed the Archbishop of Canterbury that there is no theological or ecclesiological significance in me being there while the Pope is here…

While preparing for next week (Meissen begins on Thursday immediately after the annual College of Bishops Meeting in Oxford – so, it’s a bit of a week of fun fun fun…), the ‘noises off’ were dominated by the threatened burning of the Qur’an in the USA. A tiny spark, ignited by a remarkably … er … insensitive … er … ‘pastor’, has created a huge conflagration of unnecessary anger and frustration. Not the most intelligent of Christian pastors, is he – whichever way you look at it?

Goering's old Air Ministry & Berlin Wall from Topographie des TerrorsThese threats of book-burning brought to my mind the pictures I saw again recently in the harrowing exhibition Topographie des Terrors in Berlin (built on the site of where the old Gestapo HQ used to be). On 10 May 1933 tens of thousands of books were burned in Berlin by the Nazis – including those by the poet Heinrich Heine. Ironically (or not), Heine had once written:

Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen (Where they burn books, they will, in the end, also burn people.)

Draw your own conclusions. The phenomenon of book-burning is well explored in today’s Guardian by Jon Henley – which I spotted just as I was about to write something similar here. He does it better, so I defer to him.

Of course, burning books does nothing to kill the ideas contained within them. And if ideologies and regimes cannot stand the scrutiny of people who think differently, they are ultimately doomed anyway.

I am tempted to post my ‘theses’ while I am in Wittenberg and the Pope is here in London. I don’t think I can run to 95. I might post 9.5 in the medium Luther might have used had it been available to him in 1517. (The door he nailed them to has since been burned and replaced with a bronze one.) Watch this space…

There is an interesting report in Ecumenical News International about Reformation Day celebrations in Wittenberg – where Martin Luther set in motion what became known as the Reformation. It shines an interesting light on the Pope’s recent venture into disaffected Anglicanism.

Cardinal Walter KasperCardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, joined other Christian leaders at a tree-planting ceremony ahead of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. He said:

It is possible for us today to together learn from Martin Luther… This newly planted tree reminds us that Martin Luther’s call for reform in the Church was a call of penitence that also affects us today.

Cardinal Kasper went on to say that he hoped the 500th anniversary of the Reformation would be marked jointly by Catholics and Protestants. The 16th-century events,

divided our people and divided the Church… It is a day we hold in common and for which we have a joint responsibility… Now again that which belongs together grows together.

Read the whole report and read in what you will.

I am back in Germany for a few days. The EKD (the German Protestant Church) – which is more fun than it sounds – is going through a process of reform in order to re-shape the church for the next few decades. This began in 2006 with a conference in Wittenberg and has been driven with determination and vision by the soon-to-retire top bishop of the EKD, Wolfgang Huber. The conference this time is in Kassel and has brought together over 1200 people from all over Germany – and it is excellent.

kircheimaufbruchekdThe Germans also know how to do hospitality. The food and drink is wonderful and they attend to minute details in making sure everything works and everyone is comfortable. I am here to represent the Church of England as an ecumenical partner and have spent the whole of today taking part in discussions and addresses. Unfortunately, my German is struggling with the complicated stuff and, although I understand everything, I do have to think hard when speaking. (Which wasn’t a problem during the evening awards dinner where the wine flowed like the Rhine…)

Martin LutherThe EKD launched this visionary and very brave exercise in reforming itself, with a view to celebrating in 2017 the 500th anniversary of the Reformation started by Martin Luther when he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg. This time a full programme has seen celebration go with worship, wine with serious engagement with the contemporary challenges for the church in Germany and in Europe, and a market place of what we in England would probably call ‘fresh expressions of church’. Creativity is being encouraged and – believe it or not – the Church of England’s experience is regarded here as exemplary.

Of the many impressions and lessons, three things stand out for me:

1. Bishop Huber spoke in his opening address of what he called ‘mentale Gefangenschaften’ – mental imprisonments. One of the things that I brought into today’s session was the assumption that anything we start must have the potential to last for ever. But the church needs to find the courage to start initiatives, let them run for a while and then kill them or move on. The second example I used was the fear of failure. We must encourage churches to take risks and not fear failure. I, as a bishop, will never refrain from supporting a church that takes a risk and fails; I worry more about those that try to play everything safe. Or, as an Austrian bishop put it this evening: ‘Too many churches fears disappearing less than they fear change.’

Huber2. Many Protestant churches in Europe are small. This means that their voice is hard to get heard in the cacophany of voices in the public square. The churches in Europe need each other to offer a combined voice on matters of huge importance in Europe such as assisted suicide, economics, ecology, etc. Christians are for ever whingeing about the way the world is going, but have no idea what to do about it. Well, the message here is clear: swallow your pride and join with others (whether you agree with every jot and tittle of their theology or not) as Christian churches with a common task.

A wonderful young woman from Switzerland made this clear in a very strong critique of the input at this afternoon’s forum on ecumenical matters. One of the things that worries me about the fragmentation of English Christians into new alignments such as New Wine, etc. is that they don’t contribute to a Christian coalition on these matters of massive human and social import beyond the church – they fragment our voice. This is not a criticism of New Wine or any other renewal movement in the Church for what they do do, but simply a way of asking a question about whether our preoccupation with our church brand keeps us singing spiritual songs while the world goes to pot for want of a coherent and united Christian voice.

3. The young Swiss woman, Carla Maurer, took me to task for speaking of ‘a cacophany of voices in the public square’ and challenged us (older generations) to accept the fact that the world has changed: that people like her are now citizens of Europe who embrace eclecticism and diversity. She called for the churches to prioritise what she called in German ‘Chaoskompetenz’ – an ability to cope with, live with and master ‘chaos’. She is right.

Perhaps I might add a fourth thing that impressed me. The Book of the Year award by the EKD for 2009 went to a retired pastor called Christian Fuhrer who opened his church in Leipzig to the opposition movement in the 1980s. He is a humble and unassuming man with a backbone of steel when it comes to his conviction about what is right and wrong – and what the Christian’s responsibility is. In his autobiography, Und wir sind dabei gewesen, (And we were there) he records the events that led to the peaceful challenge to and downfall of Communism and the obscene Berlin Wall in East Germany in 1989. It is increasingly common these days to read about these events as if they were the result of post-Enlightenment rationalist inevitability – and forget that the Christian churches offered the space, the consistently intellectual rigour, the moral courage, the political encouragement and the spiritual vision that led to those remarkable days 20 years ago when the world changed for the better.

Tomorrow we finish here in Kassel with a Reisesegen – a journey of blessing. Several thousand people will walk through Kassel, stopping to pray and meditate on the Church’s vocation in the world. Then I will give the final blessing in the company of the German President Horst Koehler and the head of the EKD. Then I get the train to Berlin to catch the end of an academic conference on the Reformation and preach in Berlin Cathedral at an ecumenical service on Sunday morning.