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Helen Harrell

During my Sabbatical, I had the opportunity to take part in the Kirchentag in Stuttgart. The Kirchentag is major event in the calendar of the German Protestant churches. Over 100,000 Christians come together over a period of five days to worship, to pray, to study the Bible, take part in workshops, attend concerts and to demonstrate. The programme consisted of 500 pages and more than 2000 events were laid on under the heading "that we might become wise" (Ps 90 vs 13). Obviously it was only possible to take part in a small part of what was on offer. Some events were very popular and crowds featured prominently outside the meeting places, with queues beginning to form 2 hours beforehand!

Not only do notable theologians, popular musicians and artists take part, but also prominent politicians. I had the good fortune to gain entry to a forum where the German Foreign Minister, Kofi Annan, former General Secretary of the United Nations, and the Bishop of Leeds came together to discuss whether or not the world was spinning out of control, what our involvement in foreign politics should be, and the consideration that should be given to what happens when we withdraw that involvement, in the light of what is happening in Iraq and Syria.

But it is not just Christians who take part. In the Women's Forum, I listened to a Jew who is involved in campaigning for Jewish women to pray without restriction at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. There was the opportunity to engage also with Muslims in the Centre for Interreligiosity.

Around a coffee table, I entered into debate with others over the Israeli/Palestinian situation, hearing stories from young people who had spent a year volunteering in Jerusalem or Ramallah. I wanted to go to a forum about what reforms the EU perhaps needed - but the heat got the better of me.

I attended Bible studies led by John Bell of the Iona Community, Martin Schleske, a violin maker who reflects theologically on his work, and Brother Richard of the Taizß community. I thoroughly enjoyed taking part in a dance workshop - it's amazing how one can engage with other people without words, through touch, movement and looking into another's eyes.

I took time out to pray, in the Marienkirche, communally at 1pm in a short time of devotion led by my hosts and also individually at the prayer stations, with a justice and peace focus, which were available 24/7 for the duration of the Kirchentag. In the same church I went to a prayer concert where Brian Heasley from the 24/7 Prayer Movement based in Norwich preached a very inspiring sermon about how prayer should lead to action.

The International Centre, for Kirchentag visitors from abroad, was an opportunity to receive hospitality and to engage in conversation with Christians from all over the world and share our various experiences of church in our own situations.

One of the things that struck me was the freedom to wear one's faith on one's sleeve - or head, or shoulders, around one's waist or tied to a rucksack by means of the Kirchentag scarf. It was a very moving experience to stand alongside my brothers and sisters and speak the words of the creed in the opening service, publicly, in the middle of Stuttgart city centre. Sharing communion with 100,000 people, under blue skies and searing temperatures, in the closing service where a 4,000 strong brass band helped lead the worship, is something I shall never forget.

The next Kirchentag is in Berlin in 2017, which is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. I already have the dates in my diary!


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