A foretaste of the Banquet of the Kingdom

Tony Dickinson

A thousand tables set in one of Munich's main squares: a thousand tables laden with a jug of water, a basket of apples, a flask of oil and a loaf of bread. At each table ten people were seated, while on a podium at one end of the square choirs from Orthodox congregations of Munich sang the praises of God in Russian, Greek, Romanian and German, and Orthodox clergy celebrated evening prayer with age-old chants and clouds of incense. And around that throng of people filling the square, was another crowd, estimated at another 10,000, watching and waiting.

picture of crowd sittingThe Orthodox communities in Munich were playing their part in the Second Ecumenical Kirchentag, overcoming the barriers which prevent Christians of different traditions from sharing the supper of their one Lord by breaking bread in a non-eucharistic setting. For those who organised the event it must have seemed a huge step of faith to set tables for 10,000 guests. As it was, they had horribly under-estimated. What would happen to the people who had no place? Would they be sent away, as the disciples urged Jesus to do in the passage from Luke 9 which provided a focus for our prayers? The baskets full of bread were carried round. One loaf was delivered to each table- a loaf designed to be broken into ten pieces, to match the ten apples lying on the white linen.

That was when a kind of miracle happened. Knives were produced. Beakers were filled - and passed round. Break was broken - but not according to the divisions marked by the baker. At each table those who were comfortably seated divided their food with the people standing at the margins of the square. Together we ate. Together we joined in song and prayer, brought together by the generous gift of God who on this evening saw to it that (as we heard in another of the scene-setting readings from Scripture) "those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage".

That evening's sharing summed up in many ways the Second Ecumenical Kirchentag. People came together across long-fixed barriers. The division between the Eastern and Western Churches is nearly twice as old as the divisions brought about by the Reformation and, in some respects, deeper and more bitter but here were Orthodox Christians from different nations sharing their bread with Christians of other traditions. For some of us, who had spent a session earlier in the day agonising about how a divided church can confess its one Lord when they cannot share his supper at the same table, this was a wonderful parable of the Kingdom.

Wonderful, too, was the number and range of people who visited the Diocese of Oxford stand in the Agora, the huge market-place where over a thousand organisations set up their stall to entice and enlighten passers-by. A Baptist pastor from Angola, who had fled civil war in his homeland as a child and now ministered to a congregation in central France, spoke passionately about the Churches' concern for the poor. The Assistant Rector of the American Episcopalian congregation in Munich shared her experience of the challenges of working in a language and a culture not one's own. Bishop Nick Baines of Croydon, the Anglican co-Chair of the Meissen Commission, came to pay a courtesy call on Bishop Alan Wilson of Buckingham, who was one of the stalwarts staffing the stand. A Catholic teacher from Munich took away armfuls of material (in German and English) to share among her colleagues and fellow-worshippers.

Meanwhile, in another part of the Kirchentag forest, Bishop Colin joined the sociologist Grace Davie and Catherine Pepinster of "TheTablet" at the first ever wholly English-language event to explore what Christians in Germany might learn from British experience of being "Church" in a secular society, while Bishop Alan was busy combining his daily blog from Munich with the occasional comment piece for the online section of a national newspaper.

After the bright blue skies of Berlin seven years ago the weather in Munich was a disappointment. For the whole week of the 2nd Ecumenical Kirchentag the sun remained a distant rumour. The opening service stayed dry. The closing service didn't. Those who had been allocated seats in the "VIP area" were given a free plastic rain cape - left over from the World Youth Day in Cologne five years ago (where the weather had been even more vile than it was in Munich).

However, the boast of the joint Kirchentag Presidents, Eckhard Nagel and Alois Glück, that "Ecumenism is weatherproof" was more than justified by the atmosphere of the five days that the 120,000 visitors and the 40,000 local holders of day passes spent studying, celebrating, worshipping and praying together. Large crowds flocked to the discussion between the veteran theologians Hans Küng and Jürgen Moltmann (standing in at the last minute for his fellow-veteran Eberhard Jüngel), to Chancellor Merkel's lecture on "Social Cohesion" (where the "house full" signs went up half an hour before the scheduled start). There was also the public rehabilitation of Margot Kässmann, the former Bishop of Hannover. One German newspaper reported her first Bible study under the headline "St Margot of Munich".

Talks by Andrea Riccardi, the founder of the Sant' Egidio Community, and Laurence Freeman of the World Community for Christian Meditation attracted those for whom contemplation and action are the two sides of the Christian coin. There was also much to ponder for those who are concerned about inter-faith relations. A woman rabbi from Jerusalem commended the way in which Christians had taken the lead on all to do with interfaith discussions and warned those of other faiths not to take this for granted. A Bible study on Matthew 25:31-45 in the form of a dialogue between the British Muslim scholar Ataullah Siddiqui and the newly appointed General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, Olav Fykse Tveit, brought out the commonalities between the two faiths and emphasised the need to develop respectful and hospitable theologies. Dr Siddiqui, in his very sensitive handling of the text, noted that the key division was between those who serve Christ without knowing him and those who know Christ without serving him.

The closing service, despite the rain which made numbers smaller than they might have been, was a great success. An extended meditation on Luke 1:46-55, it used traditional and modern hymns, Taizß chants and sign language to expound the meaning of Mary's song of praise, book-ending the celebration with the first and last movement of J.S. Bach's great setting of the Magnificat. Four short, but powerful, reflections by representatives of the Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and Methodist traditions punctuated the liturgy, which concluded with a final message from the two Presidents. Reflecting on the events of the week their repeated message was that the Churches in Germany "need a new departure" on the ecumenical journey. There is clearly a deep frustration and a growing impatience among both Catholic and Protestant lay-people with the institutional inertia which limits the degree of ecumenical sharing which is possible. How far, I wondered, can this be contained?

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