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?

 

I have seen some great theatre in my time.

  • King Lear (Shakespeare) at Stratford about fifteen years ago (although after two hours I was wishing Lear would just finish himself off and stop philosophising aloud).
  • The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui (Brecht) at the Contact Theatre in Manchester in 1974 when I went with my sixth-form German group and our Assistentin – who was left in tears. The play (about the rise of Hitler) ended with the stage blacked out between two huge Nazi flags and photos of brutality and the concentration camps projected onto a small screen – followed by the actor who played Ui/Hitler telling the audience (words to the effect that) Hitler may be dead, but his bastard offspring are not. No one could speak as we left the theatre at Manchester University.
  • Mamma Mia (!) – just to be the only bloke in an audience of 20-something women laughing and singing our way through the ridiculous plot and wonderfully banal Abba songs.

But last night beat the lot. I had seen the National Theatre‘s publicity for Michael Morpurgo‘s play – set in the context of the First World War – when it was on at the National Theatre on London’s South Bank, but I never had the opportunity to go. Last night, after dinner with some good friends, we put that right.

Morpurgo wrote the story for children, seeing the war through the eyes of horses who don’t choose which side they are on. The synopsis of the play tells the following story:

At the outbreak of World War One, Joey, young Albert’s beloved horse, is sold to the cavalry and shipped to France.  He’s soon caught up in enemy fire and fate takes him on an extraordinary odyssey, serving on both sides before finding himself alone and in no man’s land.  But Albert cannot forget Joey and, still not old enough to enlist, he embarks on a treacherous mission to find him and bring him home.

War Horse stillIt sounds almost silly. But it is the most engaging, emotionally powerful and arresting production I have ever seen in a lifetime of theatre-going.

The whole theatre is used – with actors standing among, coming out of and running though/into the audience – drawing us into the action rather than leaving us as spectators of someone else’s drama. The sound and light are superb and the projection of ‘scrap book’ images above the stage is powerfully evocative. The horses are operated by teams of puppeteers, but you soon see them as real. They are astonishingly life-like in their movement and behaviour – and it is hard to imagine what research, engineering and work went in to making them work so effectively. The acting was superb and when the explosion that closed the first half ripped through the auditorium, I was sitting on the edge of my seat, body tense and emotions shredded.

Anyone who has read the First World War poets such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke will come to this play already sensitised to the horror and humanity-wrenching futility of war. But Morpurgo has brought to the familiar narratives a new perspective – seeing the action and cost through the experience of an animal rather than a partisan human being.

War Horse posterUntil last night I had no idea that (according to the programme notes) in the 10% of France invaded and devastated by 1918 (from pre-War figures) the number of cattle and draft oxen had reduced from 892,000 to just 58,000; horses and mules from 407,000 to 32,000; sheep and goats from 949,000 to 25,000; and pigs from 356,000 to 25,000. In the same area 293,039 houses were destroyed, 435,961 houses seriously damaged, 436 million cubic yards of trenches and shell holes had to be filled, 448 million yards of barbed wire removed, and so on.

One million horses were taken to France from Britain. Only 62,000 returned.

If the opportunity arises to see this production (currently at the New London Theatre in Drury Lane), don’t miss it. It is stunning at every level.