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Dresden Diary: a vicar's eye view of the 33rd German Kirchentag

Monday 30th May

The journey out wasn't great. As the Eurostar pulled into Brussels the train manager warned us that the 1825 Inter-City Express (ICE) to Cologne had been cancelled. This was a blow, because I needed that connection to make Cologne in time for the overnight train to Dresden. Belgian Railways put us on the express to Maastricht, which took us as far as Liège. This was where things became rather less pleasant. Those who had been bumped off the cancelled ICE were crammed into a standard Belgian two-car suburban electric - along with all the regular passengers. We were relieved to change at Aachen onto a longer and more comfortable train for the last stage to Cologne, where my plans for a proper evening meal had to be jettisoned in favour of a sausage and a mineral water before I boarded the sleeper to Dresden.

Tuesday 31st May

We arrived at about 7.30 a.m. (about 35 minutes late). Breakfast on the station was followed by various pieces of administrative sorting out (not least organising my press pass) before the rest of the group arrived. Camilo Seifert and the rest of the staff on the International Desk were as efficient and helpful in the flesh as they had been on-line in the preceding weeks.

After a visit to the International Centre, housed in an imposing modern building beside the River Elbe, I had a hurried lunch and set off to meet my host family. The journey took roughly half an hour by suburban train service (S-Bahn) and bus. As I rang the doorbell of the imposing detached house in Kleinzschachwitz which would be my base for the next five days, I wondered to which generation my hosts, Herr & Frau Reibiger, would belong. This was not idle curiosity. If they were in their forties, the odds were that they would have some knowledge of English. If they were older, they would have grown up entirely under the Communist regime of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) and their second language would be Russian.

The door was opened by a grey-haired woman with a strong Saxon accent and I realised that my limited skills in German would be given a thorough work-out in the coming days.

The hospitality shown by the people of Dresden was warm - not so much "putting us up" (or "putting up with us") for the days of the Kirchentag, but showing genuine Gastfreundschaft, the German word for "hospitality" which means literally "guest-friendship". As I encountered the different members of the group, I was told a new story of some kindness which had been shown.

The Reibigers were no exception - and they had a full house. Their home is shared with their son Christian and his partner (the organist at their church), who have a separate flat upstairs. They were entertaining Christian's two sisters, who had come with their children to the Kirchentag, while Herr and Frau Reibiger were looking after not only me, but also cousins from north Germany (a Lutheran Pastor from Lüneburg and his deaconess wife). Had we all sat down at the same table at the same time, there would have been around a dozen of us.

On that first evening, while Frau Reibiger was preparing dinner, Herr Reibiger took me for a walk round Kleinzschachwitz. Originally a tiny village clustered around one of the ferry crossings on that stretch of the Elbe, it had developed over the years into a leafy suburb, with many fine 19th-century houses built by wealthy people who had moved to Kleinzschachwitz "for the air". One of them was a Ukrainian aristocrat, Nikolai Putyatin, who had moved to Dresden with his wife and their consumptive daughter. Putyatin loved Kleinzschachwitz and was a great benefactor of the village, providing it with its first school and the local Lutherans with their church of St Stephen. He is commemorated by the "Putyatin House" (the original school building, now used as a community centre) and by a statue in Putjatinplatz, the central square of the village.

As we walked, Herr Reibiger pointed out the original houses and the many new developments since 1990. Kleinzschachwitz remained remarkably free of the kind of Communist-era building which disfigure many towns in eastern Germany. He also told me something of his and his wife's life story. She is a professional musician (a violinist). She was born in Dresden and has lived in the area all her life. Herr Reibiger is from Wittenberg and first came to Dresden to study at the Technische Universität (Dresden University of Technology, usually referred to as TU Dresden or TUD), one of the ten largest universities in Germany. After a short time in industry, he became a member of staff in the Faculty of Electrical Engineering at TUD, with the result that he can hold his own in English, provided that the conversation is about technology. He and Frau Reibiger are devout Christians, with a deep and unaffected Lutheran piety that expresses itself in such simple acts as saying grace before meals - even breakfast. I also learned something of what life was like during the Communist era as Herr Reibiger told me the story of a close colleague who discovered that his best friend had been an informer for the Stasi (the GDR's state security service).

Our evening meal was taken on the covered balcony of their home, with a spectacular thunderstorm forming the backdrop to some animated conversation. Then I retired to bed, in a downstairs room decorated with a Beatles poster from 1963 and several shelves of books in German and Russian.

Wednesday, 1st June

This was the first day of the Kirchentag. Although the formal opening was not until the afternoon, I had to be in central Dresden by 10.00 a.m. to meet the oldest member of the group from Oxford. I caught the bus from to the S-Bahn station at Niedersedlitz where I connected with the train into Dresden's main station. This journey was to become very familiar in the succeeding days. I spent much of the morning in and out of the International Centre, greeting members of the group as they arrived, as well as other friends from Britain, and meeting several visitors from outside Europe, among them a party of pastors from Chennai (formerly Madras).

Walking around the city centre, I continued to marvel at how much had changed since Sandra and I first visited Dresden in October 1990. The wonderful skyline seen from the Elbe is now more like the one that Canaletto painted in the 1750s and the Frauenkirche has been restored (not without controversy) from a pile of charred stones to its former glory. The historic centre is still pockmarked with building sites, although fewer cranes now tower above the domes and steeples.

In the early evening over 100,000 people made their way to the north bank of the river for the opening service. The clouds which had been hanging over the city since last night's thunderstorm suddenly parted at the end of the service as the Kirchentag President, Katrin Göring-Eckhart, wished us well for the days to come. A visit to the Congress Centre for the briefing for international guests was cut shorter by the painfully loud music - and then we were off for the Evening of Encounter on both sides of the Elbe. This was an opportunity for local churches to meet and greet the visitors, and to provide abundant hospitality. Sausages, potato cakes, snacks and sweetmeats of many kinds were on offer at the stalls along the roadsides and in the squares. Bands and choirs provided the soundtrack and there was the spectacle of a procession by the miners' guilds from the Erzgebirge in traditional costume, on their way to a service in the city centre, a tradition that has endured since Martin Luther's time. Eventually I made my way back to the station and arrived back in Kleinzschachwitz just before midnight.

Thursday, 2nd June

Herr Reibiger said he hadn't heard me come in. Frau Reibiger asked, a little pointedly, if I was planning to be out quite so late again. I assured her I wouldn't (not now that I knew the train times)! After breakfast I headed off to the Congress Centre for what was billed as a dialogue Bible study on Matthew 5:1-12 between a Lutheran pastor (female) from Beirut and a Muslim leading light with strong links to the Lebanese government. Sadly the political situation next door in Syria had caused the latter to cry off, and no substitute could be arranged in time. Despite this drawback there was much that was worth hearing, and the dulcimer which provided musical interludes was played with great virtuosity. The rest of the morning was given over to further Christian-Muslim dialogue, between Mohamed Ceric, the Grand Mufti of Sarajevo, and Nikolaus Schneider, the chair of the Protestant Church in Germany. I found myself sitting alongside Kathy Galloway (formerly leader of the Iona Community and currently heading Christian Aid in Scotland) and an old friend and former colleague, Murdoch MacKenzie, who was Ecumenical Moderator of Milton Keynes 1996-2003.

After lunch I went with Paul Willis (Team Vicar of St Anne's and St Peter's) and his sister Yvonne to celebrate Ascension Day at the EnergieVerbund Arena, a large indoor sports venue. What was billed in the Kirchentag programme as "an Anglican liturgy Caribbean style" turned out to be an Agape led by Soul and Gospel singer Judy Bailey (a Barbadian married to a German) and Bishop Nick Baines of Bradford. It was not, Judy Bailey assured us "the Sister Act church", but it was (as the programme had promised) "celebratory, inspiring, full of life" - until the distribution of bread at the climax of the service. Here the folk in the gallery were forgotten until someone from the gallery went down to the main distribution point and took half a dozen loaves back upstairs to share with those who missed out.

For most of the day I had been busy trying to track down Swedish colleagues from Växjö. With the help of our mobile phones we eventually made contact and shared an evening meal in a side street off Dresden's main square, the Altmarkt. May and June in Germany is "Asparagus Time" and even the Italian dishes on offer at the café included this wonderful vegetable. All of them are currently working at S:t Sigfrids folkhögskola where we shall be staying in the autumn, for the second part of our visit to Bredaryd. They were looking forward to meeting us then.

After an ecumenical evening Eucharist, I headed for "home" - and, despite a missed connection, was in much earlier than I had been the night before. This was partly thanks to having bumped into the last member of our group to arrive and being dropped off in Kleinzschachwitz by his host family, who had come to meet him.

Friday, 3rd June

My host and hostess went to a Bible study by Reinhard Höppner, the Prime Minister of Saxony and, once upon a time, a fellow student of Frau Reibiger's. For the first time I had to wave my press card to get into an event. Even though I arrived long before the start time, Richard Rohr's Bible study (Deuteronomy 30:6-20) was already packed out. I squeezed in and found a space right at the front, sitting at the feet of an amused Bishop Alan. As it happened, the "Centre for Spirituality" was sited in the Dresden Hilton. The paradox of a Franciscan friar speaking in such a luxurious location would, I suspect, not have been lost on St Francis. Fr Richard was, as always, good value, and more so in the session which followed, in which he spoke about male spirituality, a theme to which our Church Council will be turning in the autumn.

In the afternoon I met our Swedish friends again and went with them to hear Kathy Galloway speak on the spirituality of Iona. Sadly it was not to be. This hall also was uberfüllt. Because I was with others, I did not feel comfortable using my press card to get in, while leaving them outside, and a press card covers only the person who wields it. Instead I spent some time exploring the Market of Possibilities, where the Milton Keynes Mission Partnership had a stall. There I met some more old friends, including Martha George, who had shared accommodation with Brenda Matthews at Stuttgart in 1999. When I returned to the city centre I spent some time exploring the Hofkirche, Dresden's Catholic cathedral, built for the Catholic Kings of Saxony and their court before setting out for Kleinzschachwitz and the Friday night celebrations.

It is traditional at the Kirchentag that on the Friday evening each parish invites the Kirchentag participants to a celebration Eucharist. When I arrived I was greeted by an open-air gathering which involved not only members of the Lutheran parish of St Stephen, but also the Catholics from Holy Family Church just down the road. A shared Eucharist was out, but together they celebrated an Agape, focused on the story of Ruth, the foreign migrant who became the great-grandmother of Israel's greatest king. After the service there was an opportunity for both communities to get together and to meet the guests - and for the guests to meet each other. I found myself giving a crash course in English (and American) Church history to one and discussing with another the problems and joys of Catholics and Protestants sharing their life. There was, as usual, abundant hospitality - and, for the first time in my life, I tasted Schmalz.

Saturday, 4th June

I was grateful for Herr Reibiger's instructions on how to get to TUD. The Bible study there was being given by Michael Lapsley. Born in New Zealand, he had joined the Society of the Sacred Mission (the Kelham Fathers) and been posted by them to a community in South Africa. There his horror against the injustices perpetrated by the apartheid regime led him to join the extra-parliamentary opposition and to a long period in exile (in Lesotho, the UK and Zimbabwe). He was on the security service's hit-list and lost both hands and one eye in a letter-bomb explosion. Since 1998 he has been director of the Institute for the Healing of Memories. His Bible study on Matthew 6:19-34 brought insights from his own experience and from around the world.

Following the Bible study's inspiration is was back to the perspiration of ecumenical dialogue. In the main concert hall of Dresden's Kulturpalast the leaders of the Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox churches in Germany offered an overview of current areas of cooperation and unresolved problems, chief among them, as always, the twin questions of Eucharistic sharing and the mutual recognition of ministries. Here Archbishop Robert Zollitsch received some mild barracking from impatient fellow-Catholics in the audience. All three were put on their mettle by a presentation by the Prime Minister of Thuringia, herself a theology graduate and former Lutheran pastor and by contributions from two young women theologians, one Protestant the other Catholic who, being asked to finish the sentence "At the fifth ecumenical Kirchentag in 2025, my hope is...", said "that there will be opportunities for the women priests of our three traditions to bond together more closely." After lunch the ecumenical theme continued with a celebration of the Meissen Agreement in the chapel of the Diakonissenanstalt, an important contributor to Church-based social care in Saxony. This was a good place for Anglican participants to meet and to share experiences. Three of those other Anglicans were my oldest god-daughter and her parents, who had rented a flat overlooking the Altmarkt for the duration of the Kirchentag. We took refuge there for a cup of tea and a chance to catch up with each other, followed by an evening meal just around the corner.

Sunday, 5th June

On the Sunday morning I finished my packing: then my hosts and I left together for the Closing Service which, like the opening act of worship, was to be held on the banks of the Elbe. The weather was glorious. My press card again came in useful, as I found a place among the photographers right by the podium and was able to listen to the boys of the Dresdner Kreuzchor and the musicians of the David Timm Quartett without the PA system. Despite the reputation of "paparazzi" I was impressed by the attention with which my colleagues followed the service. Yes, they wanted good images for their publications; but several of them were also clearly praying through the liturgy, and listening attentively to the words of the preacher, Ulrike Trautwein, whose father, the late Dieter Trautwein, wrote the words and music to the hymn "Bless and keep us, Lord", which we occasionally sing in our church in Terriers.

At the end of the service, as Dr Gerhard Robbers and Bishop Gerhard Ulrich issued the invitation to the next Kirchentag, to be held in Hamburg (which also stands on the River Elbe) in May 2013, a flotilla of rowing-boats set off downstream bearing the Kirchentag flag to the next host city. Then, as the crowd of 120,000 began to drift away, the 6,000-strong brass band struck up the tune of "Nun danket alle Gott" ("Now thank we all our God") and PS "Dresden", the flagship of the fleet of river steamers, which had been moored on the south bank of the river directly behind the podium, slipped her moorings and set off upstream. It was a quite amazing "Kirchentag moment", after which the details of my journey home seem totally superfluous.

Canon Tony Dickinson is vicar of St Francis of Assisi, High Wycombe

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