"That we may become wise"
A report from the 35th German Protestant Kirchentag
Stuttgart 3rd - 7th June, 2015
The Stuttgart Kirchentag's slogan, "that we may become wise", is taken from Psalm 90:12. The preparatory material for the Kirchentag suggested that it is about answers to the questions of our times, specifically about the long-term considerations of our deeds. It also reminds us that faith in God becomes a source of wisdom and a beginning of a joint way of learning and it calls on us to shift gears in our lives and our routines. Wisdom includes guilt and reconciliation, education and economic responsibility as well as the global challenge of a rapidly changing world. In particular, the topics of sustainable thinking and "wise" economics bear a special significance for a Kirchentag in a city like Stuttgart, which houses both several large corporations and many family-owned businesses. The Kirchentag's General Secretary, Ellen Ueberschär, commented "An affirmation of God is an affirmation of a finite life which demands to be lived wisely."
Stuttgart - the host city
The adjectives which perhaps best characterise Stuttgart are "pious" and "prosperous".
Stuttgart is also a historic city and a green city.
Stuttgart, like much of Württemberg, became staunchly Protestant at the Reformation. The principal leader of the Reformation in Stuttgart was Johannes Brenz (1499-1570).
In later times the Protestant Church in Baden-Württemberg was strongly influenced by pietistic movements. To the present day many congregations are conservative, both theologically and socially. Württembergisches Pietismus is a powerful force in the Church in Baden-Württemberg.
Bosch, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche are among the major companies who have their HQ in or around Stuttgart. There are also many smaller family-owned concerns, part of the "Mittelstand" which has been the backbone of the German economy since 1945.
The earliest mention of Stuttgart in the historical record dates to c.950CE, although archaeological evidence reveals that there was a Roman military presence on the banks of the Neckar as far back as the 1st century CE. Stuttgart gained the status of a city in 1321 when it became the official residence of the Counts of Württemberg, an upwardly mobile dynasty within the Holy Roman Empire, gaining for their territory the rank of a duchy (1495) and later a kingdom. In 1805 Stuttgart became capital of the Kingdom of Württemberg, which survived until the end of the First World War.
In 1846 the city began to grow with the coming of the railways. During the next half-century it became an important centre for industry, with Gottlieb Daimler establishing his first automobile workshop in the 1880s, around the same time that Robert Bosch was setting up his engineering business.
In 1871 Württemberg joined the German Empire, during the unification of Germany. In the 1930s, the first prototypes of the VW Beetle were manufactured in Stuttgart. The city suffered heavily during the Second World War with over two-thirds of its buildings destroyed by Allied air raids.
Stuttgart is the seat of the state government, which is led by a Green first minister, Winfried Kretschmann. The parliamentary elections of March 2011 resulted in a coalition government made up of the Green Party and the SPD, which is committed to achieving sustainability, expanding the use of renewable energy sources, and to nature conservation and environmental protection. The government's stated aim is to make Baden-Württemberg a pioneer of sustainable mobility by enhancing public transport and supporting the development of green automotive technologies.
Württemberg - the host Church
The Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Württemberg has its headquarters in Stuttgart. It numbers 2·3 million members spread across nearly 1,400 Parishes and served by 2,400 Pastors and around 15,000 Parish Employees and Voluntary Workers. The Landesbischof, Frank Otfried July, leads a team of four regional bishops, each of whom is responsible for one of the four "Prelatures", which are based on Stuttgart, Heilbronn, Ulm and Reutlingen.
There were 97,127 participants who booked for all five days of the Kirchentag. In addition 36,200, mainly local, people paid for a one-day pass. Although the overwhelming majority of participants in the Kirchentag come from Germany, 5,000 visitors came beyond the country's borders. They included visitors from Indonesia, South Korea, India, Nigeria and Sierra Leone as well as from nearer neighbours. Guests from outside Germany were welcomed at a special session in Stuttgart's town hall after the opening service. The non-German languages represented at that gathering included French, Hungarian, Czech, Slovenian, Norwegian, Finnish, Swedish, Dutch, Korean, Ukrainian, Russian, English, Polish, Italian and Romanian. Among those who gave greetings were members of the Kirchentag's International Committee and Dr Ellen Ueberschär, the General Secretary of the Kirchentag. The international guests had their own space, the International Centre, which was situated close to the main entrance of one of the principal venues and very well used.
The Kirchentag Programme
There were more than 2,500 events, including 100 Bible studies, in churches, halls, arenas, hospitals and cinemas. The printed programme ran to 620 pages, of which 500 listed lectures, workshops, dialogues and debates linked with the Kirchentag's slogan, not to mention spiritual events (acts of worship, prayer workshops, quiet places), and cultural events (concerts and recitals of all kinds, plays, and free, or reduced rate, admission to museums and galleries). Altogether they made up around 3,000 hours of programming with around fifty events in, or translated into, English. The Market of Possibilities, which was located in marquees beside the NeckarPark, comprised 800 or so stalls from a wide range of Church-linked and other organisations, some with a strong British connection.
The Opening Service and Evening of Encounter
There were three opening services at locations in central Stuttgart. Many of the international guests took part in the one in Marktplatz, which was in simple German ("leichte Sprache"), with signing for deaf people. This was followed by the welcome for international visitors and by the Evening of Encounter, where 4,000 people from the churches of Baden-Württemberg took part in running stalls and events. One open space hosted two of the more eye-(and ear-)catching performances: traditional music and dances from Schwäbisch Hall followed by an alphorn quintet. The evening ended with candle-lit prayers in the city centre, turning the streets into a "Sea of Light".
The daily Bible studies
Each day began with a range of Bible studies, including a choice of studies in English (or with simultaneous translation). Some were ecumenical or inter-faith (Christian-Jewish or Christian-Muslim). The leaders of English-language studies included John Bell of the Iona Community, Lisa Sharon Harper of the Sojourners movement, and Nadia Bolz-Weber from the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado, while those translated into English included expositions by Margot Käßmann, Br. Richard of the Taizé Community and Winfried Kretschmann. Some of them, especially those given by "names", attracted full houses. Early arrival at these was essential. The queue of people waiting to hear Nadia Bolz-Weber expound Matthew 25:1-13 at a city-centre cinema stretched round three sides of the precinct in which it was located.
Lectures, workshops and panel discussions
The range of offerings was, as always, mind-boggling. A visitor to Stuttgart could focus on interfaith relations (including inter-faith feminist theology), the role and future of the EU, aid and development issues, the refugee crisis, climate change (Dr Thomas Hale from Oxford gave a challenging, but up-beat, assessment of the possibilities for halting the rise in CO2), liturgy, music (including opportunities for performance), reading and interpreting the Bible, young people, growing old, guilt and reconciliation, issues in human sexuality, and more. Gender inclusiveness was a significant strand which caused some tensions with the more conservative Christians of Baden-Württemberg.
Stuttgart itself is quite small, so events took place in a variety of locations in the surrounding communities, such as Fellbach and Bad Canstatt, which make up the conurbation. The locations varied from a mediaeval barn (the Alte Kelter in Fellbach) to the Porsche Arena, via local churches, public institutions such as the Hospitalhof, and the rows of marquees erected on Cannstatter Wasen, an open space beside the River Neckar.
The list of speakers was equally impressive. Chancellor Merkel and President Gauck both took part. Kofi Annan entered into dialogue about responsibility in situations of crisis and conflict with Bishop Nick Baines and the Foreign Minister of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Professor Michael Sandel (Radio 4's "Public Philosopher") drew a large crowd to the Porsche Arena for a discussion of "what money can't buy". There was, as usual, a strong European dynamic, with lectures and panel discussions about the concerns which matter to the rest of Europe - not the possibility of "Brexit", which was barely mentioned, but peace and stability on the EU's eastern borders and reform of the European institutions in ways that would eliminate the democratic deficit and make "Brussels" more accountable to the people.
Two people who were very much missed at this year's Kirchentag were former President Richard von Weizsäcker and Reinhard Höppner, Prime Minister of Saxony in the 1990s, both of whom had died in the preceding twelve months. Höppner's widow, Renate, a Lutheran Pastorin in Magdeburg, reflected on his passing in her sermon at the opening service in Marktplatz and there was an event remembering von Weizsäcker, whose links with the Kirchentag went back to its earliest years, on the Friday evening.
Meissen, Music and Merchandise
The Meissen Declaration unites the Church of England and the Protestant Church in Germany (EKD). This was illustrated by a map of "Meissen links" (and the Anglican-Lutheran Society's stall) in the Market of Possibilities and was reinforced by a Eucharist in the Stadtkirche in Bad Canstatt at which Bishop Nick Baines preached (with a congenial gathering afterwards).
Gospel choirs and brass bands, as always, abounded - alongside many other styles of making music. The Kirchentag shops did a steady trade in a range of Kirchentag-related merchandise (a good source of reasonably-priced souvenirs for people back home). The city's public transport service coped brilliantly, although sometimes there were just too many people and strict crowd control measures were necessary at NeckarPark.
The Closing Service
All of this (and much else) was brought together in the Sunday morning Eucharist. 100,000 people made their way by S-Bahn and U-Bahn to Cannstatter Wasen. The worship went forward on the main podium, while dozens of temporary altars lined the main aisle, each served by a minister of the EKD. There was space for all with places allocated not only for special guests, but also for people with disabilities. International visitors, too, had their gathering-place, under the coffee pot, and a brass band 4,000 strong accompanied the hymnody. The service was broadcast nationally across Germany.
The service ended with invitations to the Katholikentag in Leipzig in 2016 and to the next Protestant Kirchentag, which will take place in the year of the Reformation Jubilee in Berlin and Wittenberg (and on the way at Dessau, Erfurt, Halle, Jena, Leipzig, Magdeburg and Weimar) at the end of May 2017.