AN AMAZING EVENT IN GERMANY

Every two years I go to Germany for a week for a most amazing event – the Kirchentag.  It means Church Day.  It is a gathering of the Lutheran Church in Germany from Wednesday evening to Sunday afternoon which has been going on since 1947.  This year it was in Berlin and celebrated 500 years of the Reformation, started when Martin Luther nailed a paper with 95 theses to reform the church onto the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.  Over 200,000 people attended!  The programme booklet has over 570 pages of events! There were 120,000 at the final communion service on a meadow outside Wittenberg.   I have been trying to learn German for the last two years, but I knew I needed to go to English speaking events.  Here is what I experienced:

A WORLD-WIDE VIEW

Thursday morning there was a last minute change – a discussion between Angela Merkel and Barack Obama at the Brandenburg Gate.  Over 70,000 went to that.  See article in www.theguardian.com.  I didn’t go.  Instead I went to a discussion about theology in a multi-faith world.  Everyone agreed how important it was for women to be included and how there were radical young women Muslim theologians coming up.  Someone said, “Since the Holocaust, Christian theology has never been the same; since 9/11, Muslim theology has never been the same.” 

In the afternoon I went to the beautiful town of Potsdam and heard a discussion about climate change and how it affects the poorest countries in the world.  A young Muslim woman from Egypt spoke of the harvest failure throughout the Middle East in 2010 and how it destabilised the countries around.  A young woman from Chad said how rains used to come twice a year; now they only once a year with disastrous results.  We heard how Pacific islands like Tuvalu are literally disappearing into the sea.  (Does Trump care?  Does Theresa May care?)

On Friday morning came a real highlight:  Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, (the oldest university in the world, over 1000 years old), the most important imam in the Muslim world.  He spoke alongside the German Home Secretary on “Tolerance and Peaceful Co-existence”.  The Sheikh said that God’s word is full of calls to peace and brotherhood, and that the source of all religions is the same.  He was convinced of this when he was young;  he was brought up in Luxor, and the amazing Pharaonic temples there witnessed to real religion being present long before the prophet Mohammed (Peace be on him).  “We don’t need to compete with other religions, we need to have respect for people, animals and plants.”  At Al-Azhar they offer two month’s intensive teaching on the values of tolerance for imams all over the world, with an on-line portal in 11 languages.  He works with Coptic and Protestant church leaders, and has had joint lectures at Al-Azhar for the last 5 years.   “Islam is easy concerning differences.  God likes diversity.”  The split between Sunni and Shia is purely political.  “We have to save Islam from extremism.”  At the end he asked us all to stand in silence for a minute to remember the the 28 Egyptian Christians gunned down by terrorists that morning.

On Saturday evening I went to a joint Anglican/Lutheran communion service in a packed church in the middle of Berlin and were invited to a reception afterwards.  We were hosted by the Armed Forces Bishop, or Militärbischof, who has a lovely dry Riesling wine we could all imbibe.  I sat with my own bishop, Graham Tomlin, Bishop of Kensington, who has an excellent blog – grahamtomlin.blogspot.co.uk.

MUSIC, MAESTRO! 

There is music all over the Kirchentag.  Before and after every talk, small brass bands in the streets, and over 400 concerts over three days!  In Potsdam I went to a great performance of a Luther Mass by a modern church composer, Michael Schütz, with orchestra, choir and pop group -a bit like Haydn meets the BeeGees.  An hour of really enjoyable music – we even had to clap along in the “Sanctus”.  You can find it on youtube.

On Friday evening I went with two German friends to an open air Orthodox service with sharing bread at the end.  There were choirs from the Serbian, Greek and Syrian Orthodox churches – you would never have them all in one place at the same time, their music is very different from one another.

On Saturday morning the music introducing the talk was by “Stilbruch”, a quartet of violin, cello and percussion, who really did “break the style” by creating a fusion of classical and hard rock.  Brilliant!  And typical of the way that German musicians naturally break out of conventional categories.  Various songs on youtube.

TOP TALK 

The highpoint for me was a talk by Nadia Bolz-Weber – a Lutheran pastor in Denver USA who created her own church, the “House for All Sinners and All Saints”.   She was talking about Martin Luther’s phrase, “ecclesia semper reformanda” – the church is always needing to be reformed.

I cannot recommend too highly her book “Cranky Beautiful Faith” or her website, nadiabolzweber.com.  Here are some of the things she said in Berlin:

“Martin Luther’s work as a theologian was not primarily academic or political.  It was first and foremost pastoral.

“What thoughts do you have most often about yourself?  The things that people wrote on those post-it notes (after a sermon on repentance) broke me:  I am a failure.  I’m not enough.  I’ll never be a good enough mom.  I am fat and worthless…  What do people thinking these thoughts need when they come to church?  Interesting facts about first century history?  Recipes for self-improvement?  

“What would Jesus think of the church if he came back today?  I don’t think he would worry about the robes or the fancy buildings.  I think he would wonder why it doesn’t talk about forgiveness of sins nearly as much as he did.

“The Christian faith allows for imperfection.  In fact, to be in a right relationship with God is simply to know our need for grace.

“So much of our spirituality culture or our self-help culture is to sand down the jagged edges of ourselves.  But it’s our jagged edges that actually connect us to God and to one another.

“When Luther was struggling with this, he read Paul and found, “We are saved by grace, not by works.”

“God is not waiting for you to get thinner or less crazy or more spiritual to love you.

“I am grateful to the Lutheran Church that has faithfully handed down the sacraments and proclaimed the gospel of grace that has saved my life.  But that is not where I place my trust, or where I give my heart, for that belongs to God.”

And finally,

“Forgiveness of sins is real, and people matter more than things.”