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Kirchentag in Stuttgart - Impressions

That we may become wise (Psalm 90:12)

Charlotte Methuen

What does wisdom have to do with being clever? At a bible study on Ascension Day at the Stuttgart Kirchentag, the German minister of finance, Wolfgang Schäuble, asked this question. The passage was Luke 16:1-13: the dishonest steward. It is a difficult passage, he said: "One could almost wish one had learned Greek!" That the German minister of finance, in the midst of complex negotiations with the Greek government, attended the Stuttgart Kirchentag and offered an hour's Bible Study shows the serious engagement of Germany's Protestant church with politics and social questions. Germany's Kirchentag brings together over 100,000 people to a festival of worship, music, prayer and engagement, with input from all areas of life. Over 2500 events are included in the three-day programme: extraordinary riches which add up to an entirely different Kirchentag for each visitor. Several German politicians, including Angela Merkel, spoke, but my own Kirchentag was more focussed on music and reflection.

The days open with Bible Study. Schäuble reflected on the proper relationship between freedom and risk, responsibility and solidarity for society today. At an international Reformed service, led by John Bell of the Iona community, Christopher Ferguson, General Secretary of the World Communion of Reformed Churches preached. He warned of cleverness, as opposed to wisdom, and of those clever schemes which are designed to entrap people. On Friday the Bible Study considered Ecclesiastes 3:9-13. Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German Catholic Bishops' Conference, spoke of faith. Faith is not just a feeling; it must not be allowed to dissolve into excitement. He emphasised the need to experience time, existence as something unrepeatable. Every moment is a precious challenge, he suggested. God has placed eternity in our hearts, but we need nonetheless to be attentive to the here and now: "Am I living a life that is fulfilled?"

Matthew 25:1-13 - the wise and foolish virgins - was the passage set for Saturday. Nikolaus Schneider, former president of the EKD (German Protestant Church) and his wife Anne, suggested that the point of this parable is not that the door is permanently shut in the faces of the foolish virgins. Rather the focus should be on the oil. What oil do we need in the lamps of our lives? What oil do we need to welcome Christ? Time and love, attentiveness and friendship were their answers. Anne Schneider developed breast cancer in summer 2014, and Nikolaus Schneider resigned his post to spend time with her. "In life and in death I am held in the love of God," affirmed Anne Schneider. "Do you know what you hope for?"

Kirchentag is not only Bible Studies. I did not attend the big key-note lectures given by Angela Merkel and many others. However I was at a very moving panel debate on living with suffering and grief. "Suffering calls me to grow beyond myself," said Barbara Pachl-Eberhart, who lost her husband and both her children in a car accident some years ago. "God wants that, but it is painful." I also attended a fascinating workshop on German preaching in the First World War, which links with my own work on British preaching in the First World War. And I experienced two musical highlights: A new Lutheran German mass by Mortiz Eggert, which ended with a truly beautiful sanctus. (Perhaps I can ask him for the music so that we can hear it sung at St Margaret's.) And a new Oratorio by Wolfgang Kleber, "Weg-Farben", which drew together texts from the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions: from Tanakh, Bible, and Quran, and from Lessing (the parable of the Ring), Else Laske-Schüler, Martin Buber and Mahmoud Darwish. The choir sang words by Anthony de Mello: "Wisdom, after all, is not a station you arrive at, but a manner of traveling." And Rumi: "Sometimes we are hidden, sometimes revealed. Sometimes we are Muslims, sometimes, Christians, sometimes Jews. We take many forms until our hearts become places of refuge for all."

Ecumenical daily prayer was offered St Katharine's, Stuttgart's Old Catholic Church. "Prayer is contact to God. And a holiday from daily life. Not to flee from the world, but to look at the world with a little distance: to gather up our experiences and think about what is to come, to find a clear head and a still heart, to praise God and stand before him for the good of all. To pray is to focus on what is most important." The Kirchentag offered an amazing opportunity to do just that.