Kirchentag Impressions from Milton Keynes

Mary Cotes

A group of us recently returned from Munich where we were attending the Kirchentag - an ecumenical festival of the German Churches. It's a bit difficult to describe it, as nothing we have in this country quite equates - but it was something like the Christian Resources Exhibition, the Edinburgh Festival and Greenbelt all rolled into one, with all sorts of venues right across the city, from church building to ice stadium, and from city square (yes - in the open air and it did rain...) to the trade fair centre! Whilst a Protestant ecumenical Kirchentag has been rolling now for many years, this was only the second Kirchentag which drew together Catholic and Protestant participants - and some 200,000 of them!

The gob-smackingly wide and diverse programme gathered gifted musicians (including our very own Milton Keynes group Testament!) and speakers from all over the world. With the Kirchentag's well-chosen overall theme: 'That You May Have Hope', church leaders and theologians debated with experts from outside the church on a broad range of issues including the environment, fear and fundamentalism, war and peace, as well as traditional ecumenical themes of faith and order. It had national TV coverage. Hans Küng was there, Bianca Jagger, Angela Merkel - to name but three!

One of the reasons we went from MK was to take the opportunity to tell the ecumenical story of Milton Keynes in an ecumenical, European context, where our story is little known. Sometimes we forget how extraordinary our experience is, and how much we have to share. We had a stand in one of the exhibition halls and were at times overwhelmed by the number of people who stopped and engaged with us. (To view our photos look here). It was really interesting to engage with so many different people and to hear their questions and reflections. 'Does this really happen?' some people asked in amazement, as we described the way in which many of our buildings are shared between several denominations. 'Do the leaders of your churches know what you are doing? And are they in favour?' Many were amazed that on the team for our stand were Methodists, Anglicans, a Roman Catholic, a URC member, a Lutheran and a Baptist all working together. We invited each of our visitors to the stand to write a message. One reads: 'Your churches are a real sign of hope! Greetings from the second ecumenical Kirchentag - ....that they may have hope.' Another simply reads: 'The day will come when we are all one.'

Another reason for our going was to learn - and to receive from the energy of the ecumenical journey in Germany. And there's no doubt there was lots of energy around. One incident that sticks in my mind was my trying to attend a debate about global justice. The liberation theologian Jon Sobrino was speaking. I arrived around twenty minutes before it was due to start and found I couldn't get in. Some five thousand people had got there before me. To begin with I felt frustrated and annoyed - but then, I thought, perhaps I should rather rejoice that a session about global justice should be such a total sell-out! On another occasion I was attending a sophisticated debate about international law and the arms trade, and what our Christian response should be. Again, there were thousands there to hear it. But on this occasion I was undoubtedly one of the oldest people there.

I have come away from the Kirchentag energised - not just by the ecumenical nature of the event and the relationships which we built, not just by the experience of being with crowds of Christians, not just by listening to great music - but energised by the questions that were being asked, and by the depth of the debate involved in addressing them. In the current Christian environment which is often obsessed with asking 'How shall we as churches survive?' I was invigorated to be in an environment where really big questions were being asked. Questions like: How shall the planet survive? How shall the poorest nations and indigenous peoples of the world survive? And how can we, God's rainbow people, be signs of hope as we dig deep into our faith and seek to respond? Perhaps in developing new ways to do and be church we need to develop new ways of asking questions and of responding with courage and hope.

The Challenge of a Plural World - Paul Smith

There were four topics around which the gathering of Christians from around Germany and the world were arranged. The overall theme So that you may have hope inspired serious (but not humourless) discussions which were held around the themes of being Christians in the real world. Much cutting-edge theology these days focuses on the challenges of being followers of Christ in a plural world. Our particular type of being plural we call ecumenism, and we pride ourselves in being a certain flagship in the flotilla of ecumenical boats. We went to the ecumenically organised Kirchentag to run a stall through which we tried to share the message of our particular kind of close co-operation. The way I put it to visitors after a brief description was "es ist möglich!" (It is possible!)

We do have something to value and to share. We are feeling the strains of being a flagship that not everyone in our country is convinced they want to follow. The timbers that make up our flagship come from the different "trees" of Christian traditions and being living timbers, they are straining apart. We are facing a kind of intra-pluralism: how do we understand and express our Lord's prayer for unity in the contemporary world? Reconciled diversity is the current way of thinking. Organic unity is out. We've wasted too much time trying to organise ourselves into unity. Now the focus has to be mission. Ecumenism is merely ONE vehicle to help us realise mission. The challenge is how to be Christian in a plural world.

The challenge of a plural world means learning to live with people of very different outlooks to ours and seeking to understand them and engage with them. Many of the seminars and lectures dealt with various aspects of this: I went to hear Hans Küng (Catholic), Walter Homolka (Jewish) and Christoph Schw÷bel (Protestant) discuss Beyond Relativism and Fundamentalism. My main impression was the very different approaches to questions from each: philosophical, anecdotal and scriptural (in the same order as I've listed the traditions).


Two things I was aware of from events that I did not attend but which were referred to either in the closing service or through newspaper reports were to do with crisis in the Church. Abuse of the powerless is now being openly spoken of with the resultant shock waves disturbing the Church. Like lancing a wound, the infection has to come out and be dealt with, painful and messy as it is. The Catholic president of the Kirchentag expressed it as follows: we suffer with the Church and also for the Church. There is a temptation for sceptics and non-catholics to write off the RC Church for its failures. We cannot do that. We are all affected by this suffering. We can applaud and encourage a humble honesty that begins to deal with what has gone on hidden in the past so that healing can eventually come.

The Orthodox seemed to have done something which may provide a bridge that divides Catholic and Protestant at the Lord's Table. The Vespers blessing of the bread event seems to have given real hope to those who long to share together formally and with the sanction of the Pope, in the eucharist. You realise what a deep longing there is, especially in the hearts of Germans who are much more equally balanced between Protestant and Catholic, and where divisions run deep in their history. Our ucharistic sharing, limited as it is, seemed to inspire individuals we got talking to at our MK stand.

I think it was good for us to be there to share our journey so far, as well as to have an ear to the wider world so that the hope we have in Christ is a realistic, open and dynamic one!

Chris Collinge

The weather was awful, I did not know the language and my back was killing me but I still had the time of my life. From May 11th to 17th I was in Munich, Bavaria, at a huge event called Kirchentag, which translates as Church Day or Church Congress. The festival is an ecumenical feast with wonderful opportunities to listen and learn, worship and grow in fellowship. It is a hugely respected event in Germany, attended by hundreds of thousands and involving more as guests are welcomed into the homes of the local people. I was there with a group of fellow travellers from Milton Keynes. Some of my time was spent interacting with visitors who passed our Milton Keynes display and some just experiencing Kirchentag. The band, Testament, who mainly come from Woughton were also there playing at one of the events.

What of my disordered memories? Well, I can see brass instruments held high in the cold and wet open air worship of the last day; I can feel the urgency and the pain of listening to people whose lives are devoted to a living care for the planet; I can enjoy the delight at the smiles of excitement and recognition that finally came on the faces of the lovely people who stopped at the Milton Keynes exhibit as they came to understand what we were about.; I can hear the music of the African choir singing that they didn't have time to die- they were too busy praising Jesus; I can taste the feast of a bottle of beer with the Bavarian meat loaf that the local churches gave to celebrate Kirchentag; I can feel the growth of friendship with Monica, my host, as we shared our hopes and fears with so few words to choose from.

I want to keep going back- it was so good to be among thousands of believers, to have politicians taking the faith seriously, to see the event respected and reported widely in the newspapers, to have the opportunity of listening to the wisdom of speakers from all over the world and to share the deepest understandings about God. If I do go back, I really need to educate myself and learn some German!

Kirchentag - Final Service: Sunday 16th May on the Theresienwiese

Some of the Milton Keynes party did not have to beat a hasty retreat back to that fair city; instead we headed for the huge open area of Theresienwiese just 15 minutes walk from the centre of Munich. The weather was at its most discouraging; cold, blustery and wet. Puddles were our land marks and we stood next to a generous one, in what we felt to be a prized position because the brass band was behind us. Also behind us, on the skyline were the churches of Munich and at 10.00 a.m. their sonorous bells rang out in a variety of impressive tones. The focus of the service was the "wide and rebellious" Magnificat and the path it took us in was awesome in its sounds, its words, its silent action and its vision. It was such a shame it rained!

Ecumenism so often has to accommodate and this service accommodated no less than four sermons- from the Greek Orthodox, the Roman Catholic, the Methodists and the Chair of the Council of Protestant churches. Each caught the challenge of the Magnificat-
"The hungry are to be filled with good things- without those of us who are rich going hungry. Women and children are to be valued - without we men being humbled and brought down."
Throughout Kirchentag there was an awareness of how the Catholic church in the country had been hurt by revelations about child abuse. I found this especially so in my conversations with my host where the hurt and the fear for the future were palpable. At this final service Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, reminded us that the encouragement the Magnificat gives to those who suffer has often been used in an attitude of silencing victims.
"What have we done to Mary's song?" she asked.
There was a banquet of music, eclectic and challenging and remarkably present in that vast, cold and wet open air space. We were led by choirs, bands, huge Bavarian horns, Jazz musicians and an orchestra. Music ranged from powerful brass orchestrations, to Gospel; from Bach for choirs to gesture poetry with body percussion. At the end the brass bands saluted by lifting their instruments and only then did we realise we were surrounded by musicians!

We left the Theresianwiese cold and wet with strains of the Halleluiah Chorus bidding us a Kirchentag farewell.

I was astonished by Kirchentag. I was astonished by its size, the esteem in which it was held, the involvement of youth, the participation of politicians and people of expertise, the seriousness and the joy of it all and its acclamation that the task of those of faith is to work for justice. I love Green Belt but this was something else!

I mainly went to events which were concerned with the environment and demographic changes in our society. The tone was always challenging and I felt uncomfortable for much of the time because I was faced with my own personal lack of action and my own deeply felt fears, some of which fill me with shame. Dr Vandana Shura, holder of the Alternative Nobel Prize and consultant to the United Nations, spoke of the forest people of India and their battle against land grabbing; she pointed out that the forest is our best teacher on pluralism because of the interconnection of mutuality there is in its life. Diversity is to be celebrated not tolerated and real life is about an overlay of identities, caused and denied by history. "We seek a home because we have forgotten we are at home."

I was thoughtfully accepting this when Dr Hans Joas, sociologist and social philosopher, declared that many people cannot recognise home. Munich was losing its local traditions because people did not care, the airport was built on marshland and settlements. He challenged the thinking that says religion and custom matter let to people and that pluralism is a new European phenomenon.

At this Kirchentag in which the strap line was "That you may have hope" there was a harsh facing up to the reality of what might previously have had the status of rumour. I heard phrases like
"collective suicide" (Alberto Acosta, economist and politician);
"30,000 people have to use toxic water left behind by Texaco in Ecuador (Bianca Jagger, human rights and climate protection activist);
"Climate change is happening on our doorstep. We can no longer drink the water or use electricity" (Feiloakitau Kaho Tevi, Pacific Conference of Churches)
and, finally, "Climate change begins and ends with water." (Dr Ottmar Edenholer, climate ecomomist)

There were times when there were so many truths to face that the hope seemed to be buried. Yet, the hope came through to me by the fact we were there. That it seemed the finest people had come to Munich to be applauded and challenged and that people were totally engaged in the issues. There was an earnestness and intelligence about the audiences that the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures would have died for! Hope also came through words that spoke of building trust, through the passion and commitment of the speakers and through the evidential free communication and valuing of Christian and non Christian expertise.

Dr Norbert Rottgen, politician, talking on Romans 8. 16 -25, spoke of the redemption of creation in its interconnectiveness with human beings and of the relation between God the creator and God the saviour. For him hope is a form of life making us strong in our longing for the freedom that only God can give. Words that were applauded with much the same enthusiasm as he was later chastised for being part of the government move to cut subsidies for renewable heating systems. Such is the spirit of Kirchentag!

Kirchentag: The Milton Keynes Stall

The first day at the Kirchentag was dominated by things we had forgotten - blue tack and decorative material; we went shopping, catching the U-bahn line to the city centre. Much, much later we realised there was a shopping centre nearby! The Milton Keynes stall was in the Agora, part of a vast complex that for much of the time, for me, became the world of the Kirchentag.

The aim of our stall was to present an image of Milton Keynes the city and the ecumenical life of the churches within it. The stall was very much the work of David Moore, artist and sculptor, from Milton Keynes, who wanted to reflect both the creativity of ecumenism and the fact that in Milton Keynes there is an awareness that the journey has only just begun. The stall was dominated by a tall sculpture, created by David, which he fondly called Mrs Lazarus. Mrs Lazarus was symbolically wrapped in white muslin to both give a sense of mystery but also to indicate the beginning of a journey, as the worn and torn feet of the sculpture were revealed. We also had two beautiful and intriguing quilts which reflected the life of both the city and of the Christ the Cornerstone church. So people were able to look, be perplexed, try to grasp what we were trying to say; but they were also able to write their own messages of hope to the people of Milton Keynes, on significantly old postcards, which were then slotted into Mrs Lazarus' wrapping.

It is quite difficult to begin a conversation with people about a statue which is covered and there were many who glanced and then walked on. But if they dared to linger in their looking we were there! I found my most successful opening was "Would you like to come and meet Mrs Lazarus?" Somehow the struggle to explain why she was wrapped with the lack of a completely common language produced a bond as, finally, there was a glimmer of understanding. My lasting memory is of how delighted and astonished people were to hear that the different denominations worked so closely together in the city. Something that we take for granted and which has lost the original excitement of conception brought smiles, wide eyes, wonder onto the faces of many. Our visitors found real pleasure in sending messages of hope to be carried by Mrs Lazarus back to England. The conversations we had were significant- I listened to people expressing anguish at living in a Christian community with doubts, of belonging to a dying church, of confusion that we would involve ourselves in dialogue with people of other faiths. I appreciated with others the skills that had gone into the making of the hanging quilts and the loveliness of a city with so many trees. It was, overall, a good time of communication with the hope that some, at least, of those who stopped will one day visit us.

Thanks must go to David for his insightful ideas. I know he echoes the feeling that what we did created some fruitful opportunities but, as ever, doing it again will mean doing it differently.

Cheryl Montgomery

I spent most time visiting stands and experiencing presentations by small groups:
  • There was a Sikh gentleman in a T-shirt who walked every centimetre of the event proclaiming that Jesus is the "founder" of Sikhism and that we are all brothers. He had an orange Sainsbury bag (usually containing a banana and bottle of water) and walked his helper everywhere in complete serenity.

  • I was moved by the stand on "pack up your hopes for the future" and went back a few times to observe both objects and visitors. This is something we could pick up as an art project across MK.

  • There was also a really good memory/reminiscence project for the elderly but which could be adapted as a project to unify congregations across MK (sort of like "a history of the world in 1000 objects"). There were suitcases neatly packed with small fabric squares. Visitors were invited to look and especially touch these. If one in particular brought back a specific memory, the visitor was asked to cut off a small piece, staple it to the A4 sheet and write a brief story of their memory on the sheet - some were really moving.

  • I practically haunted the liturgy stands which produced visual aids and worship for children. I've got a lovely service for holy week about the passion flower that includes a paper card similar to an advent calendar, a Christmas carol sheet that opens into a free-standing/hanging ornament and a couple of really nice Easter card ideas.

  • Picked up a book on making church candles that has some really good imagery - simple line drawings that could be used in embroidery/with children, etc.

  • I spent some time with the Network of Christian Cafés; they have an interesting training programme for people who participate - a bit more subtle approach that focuses on befriending. They use a special "tablecloth" which I have yet to figure out completely. I did struggle at times with the nature of some of the language (surfeit of Christian jargon in another language!)

  • We had a visit on the stand from an Orthodox Priest based in Shrewsbury whose comment was "why don't we do something like this in Britain" - It would be good to contact him as follow-up.

  • I spent some time with a lady in a wheelchair who was connected to the Bonhoeffer Church; she told the story of how the church had been experiencing a slow decline and was unable to maintain the congregation. The nearby catholic priest had made contact with Carmelite nuns who were drafted in to help. She was a bit larger than life but left her details - another person it may be interesting to contact.

  • I was moved by the small orange ribbons being passed out and quietly but proudly worn which declared literally: "a common meal" but which indicated support for the movement toward common communion.

  • Walking through the centre of Munich on Wednesday evening, there was the prayer-drumming circle. A circle of candles in the centre of a couple of hundred people who picked up a rhythm instrument and were invited to join in - all non-verbally. The atmosphere was really contemplative (in the midst of the organised noise) and I hadn't experienced anything like this since participating at University. There was a support person with a huge bass drum who came along every so often to subtly alter the beat.

  • There was a huge stage and substantial crowd at the concert given by "behinderte Leuten" - handicapped people. They were really good. It would be like moving the Groovey Gecko out into a tent in the Theatre District.

  • There was tremendous support from the city government - obviously a warm welcome is good for the local economy - but I wonder if we would get the prime minister to address a gathering of ecumenical Christians!

  • Rehearsal for the Theresienwiese service was underway in the first hall where I rested my feet - it was amazing! At least a thousand instruments, one conductor and to be included all you needed to do was bring your instrument, buy a music book and sit down. The sound was awesome - I hope the final service was equally great.

  • There were inflatable churches! What fun!

  • On Tuesday there were no crowds then on Wednesday there were CROWDS! Local rivalry amongst brass bands, experiencing young people in charge, feeling safe in the street - all really good memories still digesting.

  • And I couldn't pass the YMCA stand without calling in. An amazing group of young people who danced to gain attention - really danced!

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