OK, it’s a tacky title from a tacky song. But, I was reminded of it during a fascinating cross-cultural session at the College of Bishops meeting in Oxford today.

Bishop Wolfgang Huber had made some great observations about the need for the church in an ‘aesthetic post-modern culture’ to find new ways of engaging people with Christian faith. In Peru all those being confirmed are required to memorise passages of the Bible, creeds and other texts. The Bishop’s point was that memorising might not be exactly trendy, but it is very effective.

It is the memorising that grabbed my attention.

Charles Wesley (or his brother…) once said that we learn our theology not from what we hear from the pulpit, but from what we sing. His point was that if you put a good tune to something, it is easier to remember. Then he got on and wrote hundreds of hymns to memorable and easily singable tunes.

(This once led me to observe in a different context that if you sing rubbish, you believe rubbish. It caused me endless grief when taken out of context.)

Wolfgang Huber suggested that we ought to agree on a selection of texts that all Christians should be required to remember – to commit to memory. I agree with him.

We no longer require children to learn poetry or songs. After all, anything can be looked up immediately on the phone; so, why go to the effort of memorising songs or poetry?

Well, I am useless at it. The only poetry I can remember in full is from the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band (Neil Innes) and it helpfully reads:

“I am such a pedant,
I’ve got the brain of a dead ant,
All the imagination of a caravan site…
But I still love you…”

Not exactly Shakespeare, but it stuck.

I need to think further about the power of memorising texts that become part of you. Many people have experienced the power of repeated liturgy: prayer that eventually becomes so much part of you that it prays you.

Requiring candidates for Confirmation to memorise a creed or the Decalogue or the Beatitudes might seem demanding. But, the question is whether we are demanding enough of young Christians and whether or not the memorising of texts would be helpful in maturing them in the faith.

This is not the same thing as indoctrination. It is about creating the space in which people can reflect on what has become part of their ‘vocabulary’ – their mental and spiritual language.

I will take this to the Meissen Commission at the end of this week – of which more anon.

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There we were, thinking the Anglican Communion was all about conflict and tension, scrapping and bitching, and someone has to spoil it by telling a different story. Where’s consistency when you need it?

I am in Oxford for the annual meeting of all the bishops in the Church of England. It might surprise some, but what we see and hear here blows a mighty wind through some of the preconceptions we assume to be normal.

For example, Chad Gandiya, Bishop of Harare in Zimbabwe, describes movingly how his dispossessed and oppressed people are resiliently growing the church through heroic witness to Christ and a rejection of violent resistance to the Mugabe police state. The Anglican Church in Zimbabwe – a place where the rule of law is an idea soaked in fantasy – faces enormous struggles in the face of unjust and often violent state action; but, they refuse to bend to the pressure to deny Christ. Furthermore, they depend on the solidarity and prayer of Anglicans around the world: they know they are not alone and are not abandoned.

In this place of oppression Anglican Christians have no option but to focus on what matters and not be sidetracked by other stuff (matters that preoccupy those of us who do not have enough to do). And they know how to rejoice when the pressure is on. Their song won’t be silenced – and we sang it with them this morning.

Listening to Chad, whom I last met up with in Harare, I was conscious of the importance of the strong and unique links between the Diocese of Southwark and four dioceses in Zimbabwe (the fifth, Harare, is linked with the Diocese of Rochester). And although my new diocese, Bradford, is linked with dioceses in Northern Sudan, Zimbabwe is seared into my heart.

Chad was followed by the Bishop of Peru who described a very different context for Christian discipleship and ministry. The contrast was striking. South America is a different country (if you see what I mean) and the outworking of Christian faithfulness and witness is necessarily different. Working with very poor people, the Anglican Church there (and in other parts of the Southern Cone) is deeply rooted in soil that refuses to separate discipleship from social action and pastoral care.

Bishop Wolfgang Huber was the Protestant Bishop of Berlin-Brandenburg and Chair of the Council of the EKD until his retirement a couple of years ago. Since then he has been deeply involved in national ethics bodies, writing and lecturing, and doing public theology in and through the media. He was the inspiration behind the courageous launch of a decade of reform for the EKD which will culminate in 2017, the 500th anniversary of the birth of the Reformation in Wittenberg. This has meant a sometimes reluctant church facing the reality of a changing world and asking hard questions about form and substance.

The point I am making here is really simple. There is no such thing as ‘discipleship’ that isn’t worked out in a particular context. And the context dictates the shape and priorities of that discipleship. Which is why the realities of particular contexts often generates tensions with those whose context is different: Africa is not America is not Germany is not England.

Which brings us back to the point the Archbishop of Canterbury made, following the model of Jesus himself (compare Matthew 5 with Matthew 10): disciples are first learners (incompetent) who are called to take responsibility (growing competence) and create the space in which other people can then learn and grow and take responsibility and so on.

But, the learning demands the humility of listening and not imposing my own contextual complexion on those for whom this might not be immediately appropriate. In other words, we stand back and look and listen and learn about what it means to be the Christian Church in Zimbabwe or Peru or Germany or England. And what is revealed can be enlightening, challenging, disturbing and encouraging at the same time.

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This week’s edition of Die Zeit is fronted by a picture of a large twin-towered German church sinking under the waves of modernity. The huge banner headline reads: ‘Ist die Kirche noch zu retten (Can the church still be saved)?’ The sub-text asks: ‘How Christianity is struggling for survival in modern society’ and promises an interview with the elderly Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Küng.

The church in central (Germanic) Europe is undoubtedly going through interesting times. This has (in my humble opinion) much to do with the rapid changes in receipts from Church Tax and a wrestling with the cultural and missional implications of such changes. If ‘membership’ of your church is denominational and your tax payments buy you your baptism, wedding and funeral, to what extent are evangelism or other elements of mission perceived as necessary or urgent?

Of course, this isn’t the whole story. The Church Tax in Germany has enabled the church to provide amazing (and amazingly high-quality) social provision for children, young people, elderly and sick people. It’s reach has gone beyond the limits of ‘what is good for the interests of the church itself’ and seen care of society as it’s remit. Few would talk this down.

But the world has changed, fewer people attend the churches and the taxes a reducing. rather than simply ignore this, the EKD under Bishop Wolfgang Huber bravely launched a decade of reform leading to the 500th anniversary of the launch of the Reformation in 1517. But even this wasn’t a desperate measure. It was a measured response to change – something churches have to do in every generation.

And I am writing this in Basel where we are staying with friends and looking forward to an ecumenical festival across the city tomorrow. Here the situation is similar to that in Germany. Church buildings have been converted for other (mainly cultural) uses. And therein lies my problem with the Zeit assumption that the church is preoccupied with it’s own survival. Die Zeit is asking the wrong question.

Of course, the church’s role in society has changed, is changing and always will keep changing. Yes, the Christendom model is dead and there is a need for reform in many respects; but this is not primarily for the sake of the survival of an institution. Dietrich Bonhoeffer got it right when he wrote:

“Jesus ruft nicht zu einer neuen Religion auf, sondern zum Leben. (Jesus doesn’t call us to a new religion, but to life itself)” (Gedicht an Eberhard Bethge, Tegel, 18 Juli 1944 – Das Ausserordentliche wird Erreignis: Kreuz und Auferstehung, S.63)

The survival of the church is not the end to which the church aspires. But elements of all churches – in England as well as Europe – need to recover the vision for which they exist in the first place: to be a reflection of the Jesus we read about in the gospels for the sake of the world we live in now.

Now, there are those in England who like to think (in a rather uncommitted liberal way) that if we could only shake off the institution of the church, we could create a new way of being church without all the stuff we find embarrassing or shaming. I recognise that what I am about to say goes wholly against the grain of the self-fulfilment, instant-gratification culture we now inhabit, but such attitudes are naive. They ignore the massive achievements of the church in our cultures – intellectually, socially, educationally, politically, morally, etc. – and collude in the selective memory that encourages costless fantasy.

The Christian Church, in the UK as well as here in Switzerland and Germany, needs to recover confidence in the church itself and the vocation of the church to serve its society. Show me what difference the National Secular Society or the British Humanist Association makes to local communities in every corner of the country. Show me how those Christians who want to re-invent church in terms of like-minded people joining together to re-write theology in their own convenient image change one iota of their local community for the better. If you want to do that, you need buildings, people and organisation, vision, commitment and enormous patience. All things the organised church has and uses for the sake of the society around them. The organised church has a unique vocation and needs its people to start having confidence in it again – not for its own sake, but for the sake of those it serves.

So, survival of the church is not our task. Shaping the church to better be able to serve our communities in the name (that is, according to the character of) Jesus Christ is the challenge. It isn’t an easy one, but it is more interesting and exciting than simply trying to keep an institution afloat. Or, as Stephan Schaede, Director of Evangelische Akademie in Loccum puts it (in the Zeit article):

Church is interesting for society if it says what sort of a society it expects – rather than asks how it can fit into society.</

Ps. I just discovered that the headline in Die Zeit is actually the title of Hans Küng's new book!

The Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (EKD) is meeting in Ulm for its annual Synod and I wish I could be there. My diary prohibited it, so the Meissen Commission/Church of England is being represented by one of my colleagues. The exciting thing about this year’s Synod is the election of the EKD’s new governing Council (Rat der EKD) for the next six years. The election of the Rat is followed immediately by the election from its numbers of the President/Chair (Ratsvorsitzender).

kaessmannOK, that doesn’t sound exciting, does it? But it was always going to be a hard job to succeed the retiring Ratsvorsitzender, Bishop Wolfgang Huber, who, as well as leading the Church, has also driven the Reformprozess and is a superb communicator and representative of the Church in the public sphere.

The election this afternoon has seen the Hannoversche Landesbischöfin Margot Käßmann resoundingly elected- the first time a woman will have led the German Protestant Church.

I am biased. Margot Käßmann kindly wrote the foreword to the German-language version of my last book, Finding Faith (In höchsten Tönen, LVH 2009). She is a very popular church leader and bishop of the largest Landeskirche in Germany. She is a superb speaker, preacher, media operator and communicator both in and outside the church. She will bring a renewed and powerful dynamic to the Christian message in Germany and beyond.

It also makes the relations between the EKD and the Church of England interesting as we contemplate the consecration of women as bishops. It will make relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the EKD in Germany even more interesting to follow – with a German Pope and a female Ratsvorsitzenderin of the largest Protestant Church in Europe.

… which, of course, is the title of a Leonard Cohen song – best version by Jennifer Warnes.

In England we have this rather sad envy of all things German. In Germany – so the story goes – everything is top quality, everything works as it is supposed to work, the trains run on time and they all speak English anyway.

Well, they do ‘do’ quality – just look at their buildings. Everything works everywhere – and, if it doesn’t, they put it right very quickly. Most speak English – which can be a little frustrating if you want to work on your German. But – and it is with some relief and a certain Schadenfreude that I report this – the trains no longer run on time.

Or, at least, mine didn’t yesterday. The Deutsche Bundesbahn was late!

September 2009 011I took part in the final ‘pilgrimage’ walk with 1000 people through Kassel, concluding with me and Carla Maurer (from Switzerland and on the right of the picture) sending people on their way home with God’s blessing. This final event also involved Bishop Wolfgang Huber and the President of Germany, Horst Koehler and his wife. So, I sat with them on the stage, had a good conversation with them afterwards (in which I suggested he didn’t come to Berlin Cathedral on Sunday morning) and then had coffee with friends before catching the fast train to Berlin.

September 2009 012

It took 90 minutes longer than it should have done. By the time we got into Berlin I had missed the lecture I had planned to go to at the Humboldt University by Professor Dr Christoph Schwoebel. That’s ninety minutes late! So, I checked into the hotel, got a meal and had an early night.

September 2009 013This morning I was preaching at the Berliner Dom and I have worried about this for weeks – probably annoying everyone else by moaning about it too openly. In Kassel a good friend of mine, Christoph Roemhild, helped me with the German; so I was able to mount the extraordinarily enormous and intimidating pulpit with more confidence than I deserved. There was a congregation of (so I was told) around 700. I preached on the raising of Lazarus (you can read the basic text on the Berliner Dom website) and when I finished there was spontaneous applause. That has never happened to me before. I think they were so relieved it was over that they couldn’t contain themselves.

The service was wonderful and nearly had me in tears. The choir and orchestra led the setting by Johann Sebastian Bach and the service was led by the Dompredigerin, Frau Petra Zimmermann, and the EKD Bishop for Ecumenical and Foreign Affairs, Martin Schindehuette.

This service was, however, more than an opportunity to hear an Englishman speak German in public – which is usually good for a laugh. It represented yet another opportunity for German and English Christians to worship and serve together. This month represents a number of anniversaries: 70 years after the outbreak of the Second World War; 60 years of the German Constitution (Grundgesetz); 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall; and almost 20 years of the Meissen Agreement (bringing together the German Protestant Church and the Church of England in a common service of the people of Europe).

In my sermon I did draw attention to the fact that much of the reconciliation after the war was only possible because of the readiness of the churches to admit guilt, reach out and provide a rationale and locus for forgiveness, reconciliation and hope. We take it for granted now, but I found myself deeply moved by the unity we demonstrated and genuinely felt as we worshipped together this morning.

September 2009 014While waiting for the bus to the airport (where I am writing this) I looked again at the Berlin television tower – an embarrassment to the East German authorities during the Communist years. Every time the sun shone on it, the reflection took the form of a cross!

Incidentally, the reason I advised the German President to worship elsewhere this morning was because it is Election Day in Germany and he told me he would normally go to church before voting. I thought he might prefer to hear a German sermon rather than an outsider’s ruminations. I hope he had a good morning – he is a very nice man.

HuberWhere else would you find people queuing early in the morning to hear a Bible Study in a hall that seats in the region of 10,000 people? We turned up for Bishop Wolfgang Huber’s Bible study on Genesis 3 an hour before it started and joined the queue that was already enormous and very good-humoured. Huber (who retires as Bishop of Berlin-Brandenburg-schlesiche-Oberlausitz and Chairman of the Council of the EKD later this year) is a brilliant communicator and the hour goes quickly – full of memorable phrases and passionate rhetoric. He also knows how to press the right buttons and he is constantly interrupted by applause. It felt a bit like a rally.

The most interesting parts of Huber’s address will need separate treatment later when I have read the text. But he made some intersting observations about power, responsibility and the human propensity to deny responsibility, shift it or blame someone else. Assuming that Genesis 3 asks ‘how we got to where we are as human beings?’, he also pointed out those parts of the ‘Eden’ narrative that easily get forgotten: that the serpent lied – Adam and Eve did not die – and that, despite everything, it was God who searched for Adam and Eve (not the other way round) and God who clothed them. Draw your own conclusions about what this says to a humanity that knows it is naked and can be seen through by the eyes of a God who is interested not only in exposing the badness, but caring for the consequences.

Angela MerkelHuber’s address was followed by a remarkable discussion between Angela Merkel (Bundeskanzlerin) and Prof. Dr. Timothy Garten Ash (Oxford). The theme concerned ‘freedom and responsibility’, but ranged over democracy, history and memory.

TGA asked whether the Germans had been able to build such a good and strong civil structure because it had had to deal with a difficult past: the Protestant Reformation, two World Wars and Nazism, then the DDR. He later observed that it is hard to hold on to two histories (FRG and GDR), but that the GDR would soon be forgotten: it was too short-lived and was artificial anyway. The discussion was interesting because Merkel (a daughter of the ‘manse’) is from East Germany and twenty years ago had a very different future ahead of her.

tgaI cannot do justice to the discussion as I had to leave after only forty minutes, but it was robust, informed, intelligent and really interesting. (TGA spoke very good German.) Is this why something like 7,000 people listened to Huber and Merkel, many of them sitting on cardboard boxes?

Enough for now. I am leading an ecumenical service this evening, but will return to say more about the Ratskeller, the 1908/09 exchanges and what it is that makes this event so unique.