Every Kirchentag has a motto or slogan taken from the Bible and the motto for 2019 was "What confidence is this?" Those words come from 2 Kings 18:19 and Julia Helmke, the Kirchentag's General Secretary expounded their meaning by suggesting that the Kirchentag's slogan is about what we should do when trust and confidence has been lost, or deliberately misused, or undermined at many levels and when familiar sets of rules and hitherto trustworthy institutions and systems have been called into question and the future looks confusing. It is also, she wrote, an encouragement to ponder how we can be actively involved in shaping our world and not just react to things or blank out what is difficult and challenging and how we can keeps the idea of confidence open. She warned, however, that it offers no simple solutions. Indeed, the Biblical story in 2 Kings about King Hezekiah's response to an Assyrian invasion, the story from which these words were taken, shows a king who knows that his opponent has the upper hand, whose coalition partners are either self-serving or weak, whose people no longer know what to believe, and who is himself insecure. "Yet one thing [King Hezekiah] does know", Julia Helmke wrote: "God is faithful and God will point the way. [The king] holds firmly to this and it changes everything."
But, as Biblical scholars will tell you, every text needs a context. The context for this text was provided by Dortmund, the host city. That context can be summed up in four words: post-Industrial, prosperous, sustainable and football mad.
Dortmund lies at the heart of the Ruhrgebiet in the Land of Nordrhein-Westfalen. It was part of the motor which powered the industrialisation of Germany in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Ruhr, like the industrial North of England, was richly endowed with coal, iron ore and fast-flowing water. These were the resources which built and sustained its prosperity. However, the city was largely destroyed by Allied bombing in World War II and lost its industrial pre-eminence in the decades that followed. Thanks to a combination of state and private investment, Dortmund has reinvented itself over the years as Westphalia's "green metropolis". Its present-day prosperity is founded on finance, high-tech industry and research, and on its cultural and educational institutions, including Technical University, Dortmund (TUD).
The collapse of Dortmund's traditional "smoke-stack" industries provided opportunities for reclaiming and transforming significant parts of the urban area. Parks were created. Waterways were opened up. The local football club Borussia Dortmund built its new stadium, the largest in Germany, in several hectares of well laid out parkland. The club also publishes an annual "Sustainability report". Borussia Dortmund is one of Germany's leading clubs and came second to Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga at the end of the 2018/19 season. The Signal-Iduna stadium, sponsored by one of Germany's leading insurance companies, was the focus for a number of sport-related events and housed the Kirchentag's Press Centre.
The Kirchentag was hosted by the Evangelical* Church of Westphalia, one of the twenty regional churches which make up the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD). Its headquarters are in Bielefeld. The Church has over 2 million members, spread across nearly 500 Parishes with more than 800 church buildings (and 200 parish centres). The Church welcomed roughly 80,000 participants who booked for all five days of the Kirchentag. 2,650 of them came from 70 countries outside Germany, including visitors from Rwanda, The Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Nigeria and Lebanon as well as France, the UK, Sweden and Romania. There were also 38,000 mainly local people unable to get time off work, who paid for a one-day pass.
The Kirchentag Programme included more than 2,400 events, among them 87 Bible studies in churches, halls, sports centres, concert halls and marquees, a programme book of nearly 600 pages listing lectures, workshops, dialogues and debates linked with the Kirchentag's slogan, not to mention "spiritual" events (acts of worship, prayer workshops, quiet places) and cultural events (concerts and recitals of all kinds, plays, and free, or reduced rate, admission to museums and galleries). Altogether they made up more than 3000 hours of programming. That is roughly 200 days, with many of the events each day in, or translated into, English. One special feature of this Kirchentag, which marked the 70th anniversary of the first Kirchentag in 1949, was that each of the five living Presidents of Germany gave a keynote talk or took part in a panel discussion. Chancellor Merkel, a Lutheran pastor's daughter and a regular visitor to the Kirchentag, was also present to give another keynote lecture. Another important element in the Kirchentag is the 800 or so stalls (some with a British connection) in the Market of Possibilities. These offer opportunities for church and humanitarian organisations of all kinds to engage with the visitors.
The International guests came from many different nations and spoke many different languages, but most managed to make themselves understood - usually in English, which is effectively the Kirchentag's second working language. Guests from outside Germany were welcomed at a special session in the Reinoldinum, the local Church's central meeting hall and library, after the opening service. During the week they had access to the International Centre, located centrally at the Kongresszentrum in the Messegelände, the city's exhibition centre where many events were held. This was very well used by people from all over the world and for much of each day there was a queue for the coffee and soft drinks served by the volunteer helpers at the Centre. They also provided help and guidance and could arrange for an interpreter to accompany visitors to events where there was no simultaneous translation.
The main events on the Wednesday evening were the Opening Services. There were three of these: the formal opening service at Ostentor, an all-age service at Friedensplatz and a service at Hansaplatz in simple German ("leichte Sprache"), with signing for deaf people. Visitors with little or no German were encouraged to attend this last, and translations of the sermon into English were available. These services were followed by an Evening of Encounter, which was a huge opportunity for local churches, the city and the Kirchentag to make one another's acquaintance. The city centre was like a huge Christmas Market in midsummer, with food stalls and choirs and bands (especially brass bands) filling the streets and squares of the city centre. The evening ended with a "Night Blessing" in the city centre, turning Friedensplatz into a "Sea of Light", as the thousands of participants held lighted candles.
One of the central features of the Kirchentag is the range of Bible studies which begin each day. There was the possibility of attending one in English or with simultaneous translation provided by the expert team led by Elaine Griffiths, an Australian who lives in Heidelberg. One of the English-language studies was led by Jim Winkler of the US National Council of Churches, who tackled the difficult story of the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22:1-19.
Lectures and panel discussions which explored the main themes of the Kirchentag took place in a variety of locations, from the Westfalenhallen, the huge venue where President Steinmeier spoke, to the football stadium, where workshops each day focused on such topics as how to be a Christian football fan and the game's responsibility to society. Other events took place in local churches across the city, in public institutions like the Konzerthaus, or in the marquees erected on the Messegelände. The region's public transport system coped on the whole despite major works at the main station, although some people had to travel considerable distances and sometimes there were just too many people.
Peace-making was among the topics on the Kirchentag's agenda, with a particular focus on peace-building and reconciliation in the Great Lakes region of Africa, which includes several nations with troubled pasts and worrying presents. The climate emergency was another significant strand.
One city-centre church imported its own forest and decorated it with apt quotations from German poets and thinkers. The migrant crisis was a red thread running through the whole Kirchentag, both formally and informally. One of the keynote addresses in this area of the programme was given by Leoluca Orlando, the Mayor of Palermo and the Kirchentag passed by a large majority a resolution calling for the German Churches to sponsor a rescue ship to pick up migrants in the Mediterranean. One of the promoters of the resolution, the Green MEP Sven Giegold, declared that it was no longer enough to provide financial support for the work of the NGOs engaged in the rescue work. "The EKD and its member Churches must themselves become active and show the flag in the Mediterranean."
Among the incidental encounters at the Kirchentag was one with the NGO Brot für die Welt (Bread for the World) whose display helped passers-by to understand how over-fishing by trawlers from the "Rich World" accelerates migration from Senegal's coastal communities. In the International Centre a group of women from Nigeria reminded visitors of the "Thursdays in Black" campaign highlighting violence against women.
The Meissen Declaration unites the Church of England and the Protestant Churches in Germany, so it wasn't surprising to find a "Meissen stall" in the Market of Possibilities proclaiming the importance of friendship between the Churches, while a Eucharist at the Neue Erlöserkirche in Annen provided opportunities for members of both Churches to renew old friendships and make new ones. Inevitably Brexit cropped up - in the setting of "Political Night Prayer" in Dortmund's Melanchthonkirche. The service involved people from England, Italy and Scotland as well as from Germany.
Choirs and brass bands, as always, abounded alongside many other styles of music-making from rock bands to Bach via Europop, jazz, gospel, opera, East-West fusion and cabaret. The Kirchentag shops did a steady trade in affordable mementoes.
All of this (and much else) was brought together on Sunday in the closing service. Thousands of people made their way by S-Bahn and U-Bahn to the Signal-Iduna Stadium. This year, unusually, there was no main podium on the pitch for those leading worship. They were in the stands with the rest of the worshippers. Dozens of Communion tables were set up among the blocks of seating, each served by a minister of the EKD. The singing was accompanied by a brass band 4,000 strong and teams of media people broadcast the service across Germany. The preacher, Sandra Bils from Hannover, ended her sermon with an appeal for Christians not to throw their confidence away (Hebrews 10:35-36). And the balloons which had been carried round the stadium by a team of local cheer-leaders were brought together to symbolise the confidence which lifts God's people up.
The Kirchentag ended with an invitation from Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg to the Third Ecumenical Kirchentag to be held in Frankfurt am Main from 12th-16th May, 2021. This will mark a new stage in the German Churches' ecumenical pilgrimage.
* The Evangelische Kirche Deutschlands (EKD) is a federation of Protestant Churches in Germany.
All pictures © Tony Dickinson.