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Some reactions to the Stuttgart 2015 Kirchentag

Tony Rutherford

How can anyone describe an event with about 140,000 participants, over 5,000 meetings in about 500 venues? Especially if the event is in Germany. Of course, it's impossible but it was still highly significant. It was the 14th time I'd been to a Kirchentag, and once again it worked its unique impact on me, to lift my spirits, challenge my brain and to reassure me of the power of the gift of life.

This year, it was incredibly hot, 34 degrees on one day, so it restricted my travelling to and from meetings. So I only attended seven, plus a couple of tents of the six that made up a massive ideas market.

For a non-German speaking international visitor, language need not be a problem, for at the heart of the KIrchentag is a superbly organised International Centre (IZ), with free coffee and tea, internet connections and the occasional Mars Bar. At the IZ is access to voluntary (and therefore free) interpreters to whisper in your ear at the smaller events that have no simultaneous translation. This year I met Cameronians, Nigerians, Hungarians and all those other Brits who have been coming to the Kirchentag since their university days. However, quite a few addresses are given in English.

The Kirchentag can be summarised in terms of its atmosphere, the friendliness, an openness to chat with everyone you meet, singing on the subways, rocking with the numerous German outdoor oompah bands, reading the Kirchentag's own daily newspaper, and the beginnings of new and life enhancing friendships.

I collected personal cards from many, including Kennedy in Nigeria, Bishop Iteheru also from West Africa, and Christian from Hamburg who helped me to buy a German SIM card for my smartphone. The Kirchentag offers a gift of restoring a tired faith, giving a sense of purpose in prayer and active service, reviving hope, rekindling strength and reminding everyone that we are on a shared and purposeful and world embracing journey.

There were a number of British speakers and musicians in Stuttgart - including Bishop Nick Baines from Yorkshire, John Bell from the Iona Community and Judy Bailey, a German based, singer, guitarist, songwriter and worship leader. John Bell led one of the 30 Bible studies held each morning, each looking at the same texts. He challenged the taboo of not talking about money, wealth and financial injustice. He reminded us that 20 out of Jesus' 42 parables mentioned money. John Bell feels we don't like to hear sermons on money because they remind us of our guilt in having so much money compared with our sisters and brothers in the Two Thirds World.

Each Kirchentag has an overall theme; the 2015 theme was "That they may become wise", and among issues explored were immigration, world development and climate change. These themes were broken down into individual topics addressed by the world's top experts in a 2/3 hour session. Many UK specialists were panellists and participants.

The German Chancellor is a featured speaker at every Kirchentag. This year, Angela Merkel, a Protestant minister's daughter, spoke on digitisation and wisdom. She asked if using the Internet adds to our knowledge and if by using electronic devices we gain wisdom? She questioned the amount of time spent using a hand-held device, and asked if we can ensure if everyone who wants to do so can access the World Wide Web. She concluded by saying, "My freedom begins where my neighbour’s ends", and by quoting one of her predecessors, Konrad Adenauer, who said "Wisdom comes from the seeds of ideas."

One particular highlight of the Stuttgart Kirchentag was the visit of Kofi Annan, the previous UN Secretary General. He attracted an even bigger crowd than Angela Merkel, filling the 15,000 seater stadium and having an even larger number of bodyguards. Kofi Annan's gentle, positive and hopeful attitude shone through all his words. He encouraged us all to be ready to speak up wherever there is injustice, quoting Martyn Niemoller, a 20th century German pastor:
First they (the persecutors) came for the Socialists, but I did not speak for them as I am not a Socialist
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, but I did not speak for them as I am not a Trade Unionist
Then they came for the Jews, but I did not speak for them as I am not a Jew
Then they came for me, but there was no one left to speak for me
Solidarity makes us human, creates peace, and extends justice to all.

Kofi Annan was followed by an interview with Nick Baines, Anglican Bishop of West Yorkshire and the Dales. He urged us all to keep asking questions, to hold governments to account, to clarify their policies, and to show that Christians in Churches are actively concerned to act for peace-making and social justice. He said, "We can’t change the world by having more conferences, talk alone does not achieve anything, but it is the beginning."

We were sent on our way to begin again our own contribution to "Thy Kingdom Come."

Tony Rutherford
June 2015