It was always going to be tricky. The 38th Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag ended in Nürnberg on 11th June, four years after post-industrial Dortmund and two years on from the pandemic-stricken virtual event which was the 3rd Ecumenical Kirchentag - nominally in Frankfurt-am Main, actually "somewhere in cyberspace". Before the opening services on 7th June, many were wondering how vigorously this great Christian gathering would bounce back from Covid-19. And how would the organisers, spiritual heirs of the anti-Nazi resistance, whose commitment to the peaceful resolution of conflict had underlain the Kirchentag movement from the beginning, respond to the way in which their plans for a Kirchentag focused on the climate crisis had been overtaken by events in Ukraine?
What did it mean to echo the words of Jesus at Mark 1:15 - 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news'? What, indeed, is the good news in a time of climate crisis and armed conflict on a scale not seen in Europe since 1945?
For one of an earlier generation of leaders, Margot Käßmann (General Secretary of the Kirchentag 1994-1999, Bishop of Hannover 1999-2010, and a life-long pacifist) German military support for Ukraine was too much, and she withdrew from participation amid reports of serious differences with Thomas de Maizière, President of the Nürnberg Kirchentag and a former Federal Defence Minister. For the majority of participants, however, practical solidarity with Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression appears to have outweighed a thorough-going commitment to resolving conflict by peaceful means. At a service in the city's Lorenzkirche on the Friday of the Kirchentag a congregation of more than 800 people grappled with questions raised by the German Churches' self-understanding as peace-makers, not only in relation to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, but also in relation to the long-running conflicts in the Middle East and in the Great Lakes region of Africa. At around the same time, a crowd of nearly 5,000 gathered at one of the main open-air podiums to reflect on their participation in God's mission and to seek an answer to the question: "What kind of peace do we want?"
But it was not all agonising and reassessing. There were celebrations, too. The Revd Dr Susan Durber of the United Reformed Church (and current European President of the World Council of Churches) and Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm of the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (EKD) in Bavaria had emphasised the potential of an "ecumenism of the heart" to an audience filling the Jakobikirche. "We Christians", said Dr Durber, "are not colleagues. We are family." It is important to make and maintain friendships with people of different traditions. It isn't enough simply to learn about them. That lesson was reinforced later on the same Saturday evening when a mixed Anglo-German congregation gathered in the Paul-Gerhardt-Kirche to give thanks for the close connections between the Church of England and the EKD which have been established through the Meissen Declaration and the various partnerships to which that has given rise. Basing her sermon on the readings for St Barnabas' day (11th June), Bishop Dagmar Winter of Huntingdon encouraged the congregation to "Be more Barnabas", seeing the potential rather than the problems in situations of change and challenge.
Sadly, some German journalists covering the Kirchentag did not take her advice. Reinhard Bingener in Frankfurter Allgemeine focused on "the dwindling and ageing of church membership..." and noted that "in view of the church abuse scandals, the Kirchentag's do-gooder attitude is also meeting with increasing incomprehension and rejection in society." Nevertherless, he also noted that "at the Kirchentag it was once again possible to experience in a physical way that there are still very many Christians in Germany. The events, which as always included many church services and many musical offerings, were well attended. The signs "Halle überfüllt" ("Hall full to overflowing") were again very well used. The good weather and the old Protestant imperial city of Nuremberg with its short distances, its excellently organised local transport and its friendly inhabitants did the rest."
The 70,000 people who bought a season ticket for the whole five days would almost certainly agree with Reinhard Bingener on that, even those who, like my family, were staying some distance out of the city. So, too, I suspect, would the 130,000 who thronged central Nürnberg on Wednesday, 7th June, for the Evening of Encounter after the opening services in Hauptmarkt and Kornmarkt. And now the Kirchentag prepares to move on - to Hannover from 30th April to 4th May, 2025 - with South African pastor Quinton Ceasar's words from his sermon at the closing service in Hauptmarkt echoing uncomfortably in our ears:
"When you preach about the love that conquers all, and yet you discriminate against my brothers and sisters and me... because of our income, the colour of our skin, or our disability or our queer identity. Then we say: Moetie liegie daai child! [Afrikaans for "That child must be lying!"]
"My siblings and I - we are church. We are not opponents. We don't need charity or attention from above. We are church.
"And my brothers and sisters and I say: Now is the time! We have no confidence in your love. We have no safe places in your churches."