Kirchentag, or to give it its full title, Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag, is a gathering of all the German Protestant churches, which has been held every two years almost since the end of the Second World War.
The first thing you have to say about Kirchentag is that it is BIG. In terms of English comparisons, it’s as if every major Christian event we have in this country were rolled up together: Greenbelt, Christian Resources Exhibition, Spring Harvest, New Wine, and all the diocesan conferences and events at once. But this is not a collection of sectional interests, it’s mainstream. Each Kirchentag is held in a different major city: this year in Hamburg. It needs a whole city, too. In the course of 5 days, there may be up to 300,000 visitors of whom perhaps 100,000 have signed up for the whole thing, the rest as day- or occasional visitors. The 600-page programme booklet lists events in numerous venues throughout the city, in churches, open spaces, exhibition and conference centres. Lectures, bible studies, worship services, concerts, discussions, films and shows. The themes covered include not just theological ones, but every imaginable social, political, environmental, economic, ecumenical or cultural issue.
For something like 90 Euros, you can buy a ticket for the whole Kirchentag. This gives free admission to all the events, as well as travel on all the city’s public transport systems, throughout the Kirchentag. Then, hospitality is a great tradition of the Kirchentag. Many groups travel from all over Germany to take part, and they often share basic accommodation, for example in one of the city’s schools. (Because of this, all the schools in Hamburg were closed for a week’s extra holiday.) For those who prefer more comfort, and especially the many overseas visitors, accommodation in a private home is available; and in Hamburg last week, 12,000 visitors were welcomed into people’s homes. Hosts provide bed and breakfast free of charge, and often give much more of themselves besides, providing other meals as well as guided tours of their localities and church communities.
Nick Baines writes in his blog
The Kirchentag has to be experienced to be understood. The sheer enormity of scale is mitigated by an organisation that marries efficiency to intimacy. It is estimated that around 300,000 people will come through Hamburg for the Kirchentag in the next three days, but somehow it never feels hassled or crowded.
How does this work? Well, in addition to months of back-room organization, there’s also the presence of hundreds if not thousands of young helpers: scouts and guides and members of other church youth groups, who give up their week to ensure the smooth running of events. And have a great time into the bargain. For those of us who mostly know only the complete absence of teenagers in church, this army of young people is a huge surprise and joy.
Going to Kirchentag is bewildering, thrilling, exhausting. How can you even begin to try and go to everything you’d like to? Even if you choose from the programme the things you most want to see, there’s a good chance that others will want to see the same ones. The signs Saal überfüllt, or sometimes even Kirche überfüllt (ever seen that in England?) are strictly enforced. If the hall’s full, no way are you going to get in. I was so perplexed by the huge choice that I decided to let serendipity or the Holy Spirit guide me. I headed for the general area of the city I thought I might like to be in, and then just looked in wherever anything seemed to be happening. It probably worked as well as planning: this way I got to hear a masterly and deeply spiritual exposition of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, by a member of the Taizé community, and joined in various classical singalongs of Bach chorales and Mozart’s Requiem. (Note to self: listen to lots more Bach!)
Above all, the experience of Kirchentag is mindblowingly mind-broadening. The German church is so much further on than we are, in the complete acceptance of women’s ministry, including women bishops. They are much more at ease with the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life and ministry of the church. They are socially and politically engaged to a greater degree than the Church of England, for all our vaunted supposed voice in the affairs of State. Hey, politicians go to speak at Kirchentag because it’s important for them to be there: they value the views and support of the Church and Christians. (Ever heard of that in England? The land where there may be an Established – sic – Church, but most politicians “don’t do God”.) And it was challenging to be brought face to face with such a different view of Europe. A, well, EUROPEAN view. We are so insular, so little-Britainish. We only get the view of Europe that our politicians or tabloid press want us to see. There IS another, bigger continent out there. Do we still think that we can be an island, entire of itself? What would it be like to know that we are, after all, a part of the main?
I return home with a deep sense of repentance about my small-mindedness. My need to rediscover that we are actually a (tiny) part of Europe.