Philip Bonnier had been trying to persuade Kathleen Brown and I to go to the Kirchentag for a few years without success. Every two years, the Kirchentag takes place in a different city in Germany and this year Dresden sounded a good venue and one which neither of us had visited. However as I cannot speak any German I was very apprehensive, although I was assured that most German people speak English.
What is the Kirchentag? A gathering of 150,000 Christians of all ages and denominations wanting to interact and share their faith on topics as varied as euthanasia, climate change and living a more simple life style. Not all serious events, because there were also a number of large stages with sound systems, lighting and giant screens with performing 'pop groups', much to the delight of the younger element.
Kathleen and I were billeted with a lovely family about 6 miles out of Dresden in the village of Cossebaude. We had bed and breakfast there and we joined our host for breakfast, sometimes with the two children but also friends dropping in (just to clear away the dirty crockery and set a fresh place). Transport on train, bus or tram was free so there was no problem getting about. Trams in particular were very crowded, but extra ones had been put on so it was often best to let the first one go by and wait for one behind.
My main impression of the Kirchentag was the huge gathering of Christian people walking from venue to venue - no pushing and shoving - everyone patient to wait for a space to be part of an activity and then move on. The programme was meant to be the morning followed by a talk in a small hall or discussion with a panel in a conference hall, then another talk or discussion after lunch and a concert in the evening.
Our day began at 9 am. and finished at 10pm. Of course none of this was compulsory - in fact neither Kathleen nor I made it in to a bible study.
The only morning we were early was the day we had been offered a free trip on the 'Dresden' (a paddle steamer) with the Community of the Cross of Nails (a twinning group with Coventry). The boat was leaving at 9am. and our host drove us in to the centre of Dresden on his way to work. The boat took a leisurely river Elbe to Pillnitz and then back downstream again. There were various dignitaries on board giving a welcome, and a sermon on a passage from Ephesians but as we couldn't understand the language we just enjoyed the scenery. There was also a pianist on board which didn't require any translation! Waitress service with a lovely hot chocolate for Kathleen and a milky coffee for me.
Another highlight that particular day was to find an open air concert of Verdi's Requiem with dance. Orchestra, chorus and soloists, and the added bonus for me was a group of about 50 children acting out the story of the struggle between good and evil, life and death. As this was all shown on a large screen it didn't matter that we were sat at the back. It finished at 10pm and we then had to catch a bus back to Cossebaude. At least this particular night we were in before our host. The family had been to one of the Kirchentag's open-air 'pop' concerts.
The first full day of our stay Kathleen and I had been rather late, not getting back till midnight and although we had been given a key it was difficult to find the keyhole in the dark. Fortunately the family were still up and could let us in but they had thought we were in bed and had been moving about very quietly. The young 12 year old lad devised a scheme with a piece of paper with 'we are in' on one side' and 'we are not in' on the other, and this was pinned to the notice board to save any future confusion.
Kathleen and I did get to one talk on Iona which was led by Kathy Galloway, in English. In order to get a place we had to arrive half an hour before the starting time and although several people were able to sit on the floor, a number were sent away. The talk was held in a small room to the side of a very large hall where people were crowded in to listen to a panel discussion. We had to walk through the hall which felt rather odd, but this was happening all the time. In the main corridor of this building were stalls with books and various materials for worship. Near to this venue was a sports field with numbered marquees housing stalls for various groups. We did find the Waldensian stall and stopped to chat. We also spent time at the stall run by people from Christ the Cornerstone in Milton Keynes.
On our final full day Philip accompanied us to the Botanical Gardens where there was an exhibition of plants mentioned in the Bible. As the descriptions were all in German, Philip kindly translated for us. As it was a very hot day it was good to find a café in the shade for a welcome 'Apfelsaft' gros!
Our return journey proved a bit chaotic. Philip had booked our seats, but when the train arrived none of the carriages were marked so it was a mad scramble, with everyone carrying a suitcase, to even get on the train. In the end someone said 'sit wherever you can find a seat and it can be sorted later'. At least everyone was able to get on the train. Philip only got a seat right at the end of the two hour journey as it was non-stop to Berlin. Our flight was slightly delayed due to earlier problems, but I was rather pleased as while we waited a thunderstorm passed over the airport and by the time we took off it was clear. Otherwise we had a good journey arriving back in Oxford at 1am.
Finally, I would thoroughly recommend experiencing the Kirchentag.