logo of the German Kirchentag

Köln 2007 - from Richard Mortimer...

The 31st German Protestant Kirchentag took place from June 6th to 10th 2007 in Cologne. The Cologne region is significantly Catholic and there were rumours some time back that, to the end of sharing riches from another tradition, something with a significant Protestant emphasis had been requested. Hence: "Lebendig und Kraftig und Shärfer" - "Living, powerful and sharper" as in "The Word of God is alive and active, sharper than any two-edged sword". ( Hebrews 4, 12 ). [ Note the subtle distinction between "active" and "kraftig" which I think is more about possessing strength and resources ]. In his sermon at the opening service Prases Nikolaus Schneider, leader of the Protestant Church in the Rhineland, cleverly linked the first term to Christmas ( God comes to live among us as one of us ), the second to Easter ( God has the resources to bring new life, hope and possibility from the seeming dead end of Good Friday ) and the third to Pentecost ( God's gift of the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus gives the new-born Church its edge ). Thus the catchphrase encompassed and opened out a way of life in response to the mighty acts of God celebrated in the Christian Year.

But around what themes in particular did that focus coalesce in Cologne? At the same time as the Kirchentag was taking place, the G8 Summit was meeting in Heiligendamm on the North German coast. Issues around poverty, the fulfilment of promises the G8 made in 2005 and climate change were thus central, as was the question of the conduct of the Heiligendamm meeting itself. "The fence { behind which the G8 leaders met, 12 kilometre long, razor wire topped } that divides the political elite from those who criticise globalisation has become a symbol of the division of the global community", said Ellen Ueberschär, the new General Secretary of the Kirchentag. At the rally in shadow of Cologne Cathedral to send a call to the G8 Summit those present heard from an African bishop, part of the meeting of religious leaders from the G8 industrial nations and from Africa, who had met just before the Kirchentag and who had issued a statement lamenting the G8's failure to deliver on its 2005 promises. He pleaded for the establishment of time frames to deliver on the promises and for a place for African representatives in the discernment of the way ahead, rather than this being restricted to a club of the rich. Later at that same event, Desmond Tutu weighed in with his own message to the G8. Calling on the African concept of ubuntu 'a person is a person through other persons', he declared, "I am a man. I am an African. I am not a recipient of charity. I am a human being.………I want what you want. I am your brother".

On the Saturday morning Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor came to the Kirchentag hot foot from HeilIgendamm to report on progress. She had some movement on climate change and carbon reduction to share ( but, reading the small print, still only an aspiration for 2050 ). What did seem to impress several who heard her - the hall was overflowing long before she spoke and people started queuing at 7.30.a.m. in order to get in - was her honest admission of how much remained to be done and what a long, hard complex process it all was. This in the week that a writer in The Tablet defined the currency of politics as compromise. But that she came, and came so directly, at such a distance from prospective elections said a great deal about the place of the Church and Kirchentag in German public life, much less privatised than in England.

The other big issue that seemed to be around was inter-faith dialogue and, specifically, Protestant-Muslim relationships, against a background of recently perceived tensions. A programme under this heading ran throughout. The Revd Dr Samuel Kobia, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, speaking on theme of religions working together, stated that Christians needed to acknowledge the oppressive violence they had used towards those of other faith in the past. "God does not need us to defend him….What kind of God wants us to destroy the holy places of others?…..In order to overcome histories of domination and oppression we must learn to share life and become one human family as God intended". Desmond Tutu, in a bible study on Jeremiah's warning about false prophets, faced the full implications of Jesus' words in John's Gospel, "I, if I be lifted up, will draw all to me", and challenged limited views of salvation. 24 hours later Richard Rohr found an equal breadth in Paul's speech at Athens, with a universal message appealing to one humanity and quoting ( Acts 17, 28 ) a pagan author to the effect that we are all God's children.

The logo of a fish with a shark's fin drawn on it elicited much admiration for its simplicity and directness, with some questioning about how far things were sharp and edgy rather than "right on" and working to a focussed agenda. There was, however, some pondering of what it meant to live an alternative truth in aggressive market capitalism and globalised consumerism. Kathy Galloway, leader of the Iona Community, made a telling contribution to a session on Spirituality and Politics when she spoke of her Community's commitment to mutual accountability, to exploring what it meant to live with limits and to finding identity through the discovery of calling.

All in all, then, a Kirchentag rich in input, which more than made up for the problems caused by intense heat, humidity, lack of air conditioning in the International Visitors' Centre, and the hard to believe but crucial fact that, by the standards of German Trade Fair Centres, Cologne was a small site. Therefore it was hard to escape from crowds and an all-pervading air of relentlessness. Still Centres had to be established off the main site and visitors to the one Stillness and Meditation Room in a conference hall had to cope with someone often holding forth at length on how to meditate. Given these circumstances, it was in some ways hard to judge the impact of the Kirchentag's being under new management.

At a time when understandings of organic unity are being redefined, some of us have been led back to the definition of organic unity offered at the Second World conference on Faith and Order at Edinburgh in1937: "a church so united that the ultimate loyalty of every member would be given to the whole body and not to any part of it". That definition is splendid, but in homage to it, perhaps we need to put up a modern version alongside it in the same idiom. The final formulation escapes me but, in the light of the Kirchentag, it may be something like, "A church so united that the ultimate loyalty of every member would be given to God, alive, active and sharp in what is equivalent, similar and different in the whole body". I think it offers one possible elucidation of Archbishop Rowan's call to the ecumenical movement to practise radical hospitality. For those who want to go there, it also opens up the intriguing question of where we discern the body and its limits.

...and from Tony Dickinson.

I suspect that I came as an awful shock to my hostess when she opened the door of her flat in suburban Cologne. We had tried to communicate by e-mail before my arrival, but the internet was not being co-operative, so she had missed the fact that I was (a) a clergyman and (b) nearer sixty than fifty. She had, after all, told the Kirchentag's accommodation office that her accommodation was suitable for a young person. Furthermore, for her as a cradle Catholic - admittedly non-practising - it was not at all the thing to have a priest dossing down on the bed-settee in her living room. Both of us, however, survived and some very interesting and, I hope, fruitful conversations took place late at night after I had finished my day's Kirchentagging in the city centre.

Cologne was hot. From Wednesday to Friday the coolest place in the city was the cathedral, which houses the relics of the "Three Kings" in a magnificent golden shrine behind the high altar. The thunderstorm that hit town on Saturday afternoon was a welcome relief (though probably not to the poor bride who had to hoist her billowing skirts as she negotiated the square between the cathedral and the hotel where she had booked her wedding reception). The Kirchentag was crowded. The official figure was 104,163 participants, including the more than 5,000 who came from 84 countries outside Germany. The official group from Oxford Diocese made nineteen of the 450-strong British contingent, and there were others from Berks, Bucks and Oxon who travelled independently, including a group from Oxford city who took in the Friday of the Kirchentag as part of a week-long visit to Oxford's twin city, Bonn. The programme was, as usual, full of music and theatre, serious biblical scholarship and equally serious political discussion, much of it focused on the linked themes of world poverty and climate change. The slogan of the Kirchentag, "Living and Active and Sharper", pointed participants to the description of God's word in Hebrews 4:12. That word and its interpretation was a theme that ran through Bible studies, through the main lectures and panel discussions, and through numerous encounters (formal and informal) between Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Cologne, incidentally, has a larger Turkish population than any city in the world after Istanbul.

The Market of Possibilities (which makes the Christian Resources Exhibition look like a village hall jumble sale) spread over three of the huge halls at the Messegelände (exhibition centre) and had outstations in a number of others, including an extensive and very glossy presentation about the Church in China. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, came straight from the G8 summit in Heilgendamm to report to the Kirchentag on what had happened. As her session followed a Bible study by one of the most popular and venerated Christian writers in Germany, Jörg Zink, there was total impasse for several minutes as the crowds trying to get into the hall to hear her found their way blocked by a similar number of Jörg Zink's disciples trying to get out.

For English-speakers, Archbishop Desmond Tutu led a lively, challenging (and at times hilarious) Bible study that filled one of the biggest halls at the Messe and thoroughly deserved its standing ovation. More than one British participant found a high-powered seminar on the future of Europe high-lighting the similarity between the UK's relationship to the rest of the EU and the old joke that "everyone's out of step except our Harry". Other things that stick in the memory are the hospitality of the Anglican congregation in Bonn; a German choir, later the same evening, singing Anglican Evensong very beautifully and prayerfully in the darkness of St Maria im Kapitol; the music of Cologne's own pop group "The Wise Guys": the opening and closing services on Poller Wiesen, a huge stretch of grass on the eastern bank of the Rhine, especially the arrival at the closing service of a Hansa cog under full sail, bearing the invitation to the 2009 Kirchentag in Bremen.

Less agreeably, a "dialogue" Bible study led by the leader of the Protestant Church in the Rhineland, Nikolaus Schneider and Cardinal Meisner, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cologne, degenerated into what one member of the audience later described as a "rant" by the Cardinal against the Vatican's usual targets. With such a colleague, it is, perhaps, little wonder that the President of the Catholic Bishops' Conference in Germany, Cardinal Karl Lehmann of Mainz (who has become something of a fixture at the Kirchentag in recent years), always looks as if he has the cares of the world on his shoulders. However, as a senior figure in the German Protestant Church pointed out, for Cardinal Meisner to have taken part at all was a major step forward, and his welcome of 100,000 Protestants to his staunchly Catholic city at the opening service seemed genuinely warm.

So what have I brought back from my five days in Cologne? An impression of the warm hospitality of the people of Cologne (despite the occasional officiousness of the Kirchentag Helpers), and the excellence of the city's beer: a greater awareness of the rich variety of Christian traditions and a consciousness that the word of God is indeed "living and active and sharper" in its impact on our life both inside and outside Church, if we attend to it seriously: and, above all, a renewed sense that the Christian Gospel is inclusive of all humanity. The Bible studies led by Desmond Tutu and Richard Rohr in particular left me in no doubt that, as Fr. Richard put it, "Jesus did not come to create a smug, self-satisfied group of people". God's hope for the world is universal and his gift is as available and accessible as the air we breathe. That is a message we need to take to heart in this time of growing division within and between faith communities.

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