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Five days in Berlin

The Revd Canon Tony Dickinson on his trip to the Kirchentag festival in Germany

THE flags on the Reichstag and the nearby embassies were at half-mast.  The skies were Manchester-grey, as if in sympathy with the people of that city after what had happened less than 48 hours before on 22nd May, 2017.  It was an unusually sober beginning to a Kirchentag, emphasised by the careful search of bags and back-packs before participants were allowed to enter the “events area”.

The approach to the festal service on the edge of Wittenberg. Photo: Nigel Spoor

It wasn’t just Manchester which was on people’s minds.  After the slaughter in Breitscheidplatz just before Christmas, Berliners are all too aware of the vulnerability of large gatherings to fanatics with murder in their hearts.  The link was made openly by Archbishop Justin Welby in his words of greeting,

“Five months ago, in this very city, as people went about preparing for Christmas, a terrorist killed 12 people and injured many more. On Monday night in Manchester terror was once again directed at people – many of them young children – who were simply going about their daily lives, enjoying the excitement of a concert and preparing to return home.

“The terrorist aims to cause division and disintegration, to separate us from our fellow human beings with fear and horror. As Easter Christians who follow the Lord Jesus Christ, conqueror of all death and evil, we reply “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”; “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott”.”

Those words of Martin Luther provided a refrain through the rest of the Archbishop’s greeting.  And we were – Gott sei dank! – kept safe throughout the following days, enduring the occasional security checks with patience and good humour.

Of the 140,000 people who were in Berlin for the Kirchentag, 6,500 came from outside Germany, and a dozen of these came from the three counties. Half of them were URC members, the other half a mixture of clergy and lay-people from parishes in the diocese of Oxford. In addition a group from Milton Keynes joined their partner parish in Leipzig-Grünau to participate in one of the smaller “Kirchentage auf dem Weg” (“Kirchentags on the Way”) which were being held alongside the main event in Berlin.

One member of the group in Berlin was Graeme Fancourt, vicar of St Luke’s and St Bartholomew’s in Reading and chair of the Diocese’s link with Nandyal in India. Graeme was participating in the Kirchentag for the first time – and doing so as a contributor.   His presentation at the Centre for Reformation and Transformation (at which English was the working language) took its title from words of the late Jo Cox MP, “More in Common” and challenged the Churches to use the resources of Christian theology, worship and action to overcome the divisions revealed by last summer’s referendum.

I caught up with Graeme after his presentation and asked him what his first impressions were of this great event.  He highlighted his very first encounters, in the queue at the registration desk for international visitors, which provided an opportunity for getting to know people from all over the world.  “I hate queuing,” he said, “but that was a joy.”

The other first-timers, Jason St John Nicolle of the Churn benefice, and Irene and Nigel Spoor from Prestwood, were also impressed by the rich variety of activities and talks, many of them with contributions in English or with professional simultaneous translation available.  For Nigel and Irene the great surprise was the music, which provided opportunities to praise God in so many different ways and in different styles.  Jason was amazed at how little German he needed in order to get by.  He suspected that it might be difficult for someone with no knowledge of German to survive the Kirchentag, but he found his own smattering of the language was enough.  He was also impressed by the participants’ diversity in age and background and the way in which the world-wide Church was represented.  All of them welcomed the exposure to the variety offered by the input from Christians from around the world, not only in the Bible studies, the formal presentations and panel discussions, but also in the interesting conversations which took place at and on the way to the different venues across the city.

If the opening service was overcast, both by the clouds and by the memories of Manchester and Berlin, the final act of the Kirchentag could not have been a greater contrast.  On a hot, sunny Sunday morning, hundreds of coaches and a shuttle service of trains carried thousands of Kirchentagers the fifty or so miles from Berlin to Wittenberg for a Festgottesdienst.  This was not only the closing service for the Kirchentag but also the launch pad for a “Reformation Summer”, marking the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s pinning up 95 “theses” for debate on the door of the Schlosskirche In Wittenberg, whose spire we could see in the distance.

In his sermon, the Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba, praised Martin Luther as “one of the true fathers of democratic freedom,” adding “He mobilized millions, in an unstoppable movement, to embrace the right to participate. He made it safe to want to be part of something bigger than ourselves.”  But it was another Martin, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, who had the last word, as the Archbishop reminded us:

“Martin Luther King Junior famously spoke about a dream that he had for his country. Like King, I have a dream for the world: that one day soon all the narcissistic, nationalist, isolationist ramblings of our current times will disappear. I have a dream that instead there will arise a global awareness that we are of one humanity. I have a dream that we will all sit together to decide: “What is in the best interests not of this or that group, but of all of society?” I have a dream that your children, and mine, will one day live in an Africa and in a world that has an abundance of unlimited and equal access to education, to health care, to water and sanitation and to economic opportunities.

“Will you, young people and older people, help me realise that dream?”

The Revd Canon Tony Dickinson is the Vicar of the Terriers parish in High Wycombe