Kirchentag Stuttgart: That we may be wise
Angela Merkel, Kofi Annan, and a 500 page programme of Bible studies, political talks, podium dicussions, and concerts - a report from Germany's huge Protestant festival. By Jonathan Barr
“Lehre uns bedenken, daß wir sterben müssen, auf daß wir klug werden.” reads Psalm 90 verse 12 in Luther’s translation. “Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” This was the slogan plastered over the town of Stuttgart last week, the scene of the 35th Kirchentag, the German Protestant Church Assembly.
The Kirchentag takes place every two years in a different German City, and brings together over 100,000 people from different parts of the country, and abroad, for a festival of music, theatre, for engagement in discussion on matters of politics, church and society, and in celebration of the Protestant faith.
The festivities opened with large open air services in different parts of the city, leading into a so-called ‘Encounters Evening’. The streets were filled with small stalls selling the delicacies of different regions and cities. There is no better way to get to know Germany. Happily one could roam about, from one stall to the next, sampling Maultasche from Swabia or Himmel und Erde from the Rheinland, collecting all sorts of leaflets and trinkets from various places, and pausing now and then to soak in the buzzing frivolity and warm dusk.
Finally, once it was dark, a large choir took to the stage in the central square of the city and launched into a medley of local folk songs interspersed with hymns. The crowd of people in the square joined in with enthusiasm. Meanwhile the young Kirchentag helpers gave out candles, and soon, once the singing had given way to a short service of blessing, the night scene was aglow.
The Kirchentag began in earnest the following day, and, equipped with a Kirchentag ticket which entitles the holder to free, unlimited travel on public transport and a 500 page programme of Bible studies, political talks, podium dicussions, and concerts, the participants darted about the city to attend their choices.
The events were all to a greater or lesser extent focussed on the title theme: that we may be wise. To offer a few highlights: Wolfgang Schäuble studied the parable of the shrewd manager and how no one can serve both God and Money. He said that as Finance Minister of Germany he found the text ‘useful.’ Angela Merkel, shortly before the G7 talks in Bavaria, contributed to a discussion group on the digitilisation of communication and transactions. Kofi Annan, the former secretary of the United Nations, spoke on “A World Falling Apart.”
Truly there was plenty to choose from. The only trouble was that the summer heat warmed the rooms to that temperature where it becomes a struggle to remain awake, let alone to follow fully what was being said.
Fortunately there were things to do other than listen to talks. Brass bands played on just about every street corner; there were open air group singing sessions all over the place; and the ‘Market of Opportunities’ - 17 large marquees full of stands relating to different clubs, social groups, charities, companies and churches – was always open to visitors.
Time passes quickly at the Kirchentag, and soon it was all brought to an end at a huge televised service in Stuttgart’s 35 hectare festival grounds. An invitation was issued to all those present to attend the next Kirchentag, which will take place in Berlin in May 2017, and as it falls upon the 500th anniversary of the 1517 Protestant Reformation, it will include special events at nearby Wittenberg (where Martin Luther nailed his famous “95 Theses” to the church door and thereby began the Reformation in Germany) to mark the occasion and to look forward to the next five centuries of Protestant life.
The Kirchentag is one of the few things which have achieved the feat of making church ‘cool’. If events on a grand scale which facilitate a meeting of religion, culture and society are your thing, then I can only recommend you pencil it into to your diary.
Jonathan Barr is a member of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church