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Hamburg and its visitors learn that enough is enough

10 May 2013

Paul Handley travelled to the 34th German Kirchentag, along with 160,000 others


More than enough:left: an estimated 130,000 at the Sunday eucharist

More than enough:left: an estimated 130,000 at the Sunday eucharist

"SOVIEL du brauchst" - "As much as you need". The theme of the 34th Kirchentag, based on God's daily provision of manna for the Israelites, took a while to sink in.

It seemed at first that the theme ought to be "More than you could possibly want". On arriving in Hamburg, the host city of the biennial Protestant Church congress, visitors were handed a 620-page programme - the sort of book a strongman would struggle to tear in half. It listed the 2500 events that were to take place around the city in just three days, topped and tailed by an opening service on Wednesday afternoon, and a vast closing eucharist on Sunday morning.

It would have been a challenge even to the efficient Kirchentaglers who booked in advance and so received their programme through the post in time to plan their week. It certainly bewildered somebody who turned up on Friday morning, and whose German is rudimentary, at least.

To be frank, the scale of the Kirchentag remained bewildering throughout; but what slowly sank in was that you could do only what you could do. The text for the closing eucharist was from Micah: "They shall all sit under their own vines, and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid."

The Bishop of Bradford, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, co-chairs the Anglo-German Meissen Commission, and preached at the eucharist in German. He defined peace in these terms: "There will be no terror or fear, because you will be satisfied with your own tree and not need to capture your neighbour's tree when you don't need it. After all, you can sit under only one tree at a time, can't you?" 

Peace, then, came from accepting that you could attend only one event at a time. That was as much as you needed.

THE modern Kirchentag began in 1946, as a means of bringing the various concerns of the Protestant Churches together after the Second World War. It was first annual, then biannual, and has developed growing ecumenical and interfaith elements.

There is nothing like it in Britain. Weekend events such as Greenbelt and the Big Day Out attract about 20,000 people; Spring Harvest and Soul Survivor draw in about 28,000, spread over three or four weeks.

Kirchentag sales passed 119,000, and another 35,000 day tickets were sold. In one of the city's parks, a pop concert - just one of more than 70 events on the Friday night - attracted 65,000 people. The organisers estimate that the congregation at the open-air eucharist on Sunday reached 130,000.

But the difference is more than size. Most of the British events take place in a resort, or a few fields; but none of them takes over a city in the way that the Kirchentag does. Financially supported by the state and city authorities, it takes over virtually every church and every available public hall. In addition, temporary stages and pavilions sprang up in many public squares.

Roads were closed, underground trains ran through the night, and all Kirchentag ticketholders had the freedom of the public-transport system. About 180 school halls were opened to accommodate young people, but most visitors were given bed and breakfast, free of charge, in 11,500 private homes, in answer to a public appeal a few months earlier.

For three euros, Kirchentaglers could buy a blue cotton scarf that bore the festival motto, and these could be seen in abundance wherever you went in the city, worn by young and old alike. There was a daily Kirchentag newspaper that dominated the city's daily, the Hamburger Abendblatt; interviews with prominent politicians, Chancellor Angela Merkel among them, featured on the television news; and there was even a pop song, "Soviel du brauchst", recorded by the winner of a TV talent show.

The nearest equivalent in terms of impact and atmosphere might be London during the Olympics last year.

Despite all the official openness, more than 150,000 extra people are difficult to fit into a city. The answer in Hamburg was the Messehalle, a vast conference centre of 11 adjoining halls, each the size of an aircraft hanger. A four-minute walk across a park was the Congress Centre of Hamburg, the CCH, with two more halls, with raked seating, as well as another ten or so rooms, ranging in size from the huge to the merely big.

Here, many of the seminars took place. Most important, three of the largest halls were devoted to the "Market of Opportunities" exhibition areas, where about 800 organisations could promote their activities, sell their wares, and attract supporters from among the crowds. The programme described it as a place of dreams and ideas, visions and choices.

It was busy: many in the crowd came with a serious intent to get involved with a charity, discover more about overseas mission, contribute more hours to working with the disadvantaged, and so on.

IT IS probably time to confess my cheat. The Kirchentag bills itself as an international event; so, with my schreckliches German, I put it to the test. The good news is, for "international" read "English". It is taught in German schools from kindergarten. When I spoke English, I was invariably answered in English. When I spoke in German, I was usually answered in English, too.

More to the point, the Kirchentag international committee had translated the programme, picking out the events where language would not be a problem - cultural or musical events, or sessions in the talks programme where simultaneous translation was available - all in a manageable 90 pages. (Thank you, Sheila Brain and your team.)

Armed with this, my bewilderment at the original programme largely evaporated. With this in one hand, and the city map in the other, I was able to navigate my way through the festival without difficulty (apart from constantly underestimating the time it would take to get from one side of a hall to the other).

A few of the speakers chose to address the audience in English. At one seminar, two of the speakers were German, and the other Kenyan; so, at times, the translation through the earphones switched to German. Simultaneously, both were translated into sign language.

I bumped into few British travellers - although, of course, it was hard to tell.

But I was clearly not alone. The congregation at the closing eucharist was divided into nine squares, one of which was designated for international visitors. It looked pretty crowded. We had an English translation of the order of service, and of Bishop Baines's sermon; in addition, two of the songs were in English: "Let us break bread together on our knees," and "This little light of mine".

AND so the initial panic faded. I was not going to get to even one per cent of the events on offer; nor was there any way of ensuring that the events I chose were the most significant. Most of them were not.

I cannot, therefore, report on the specially commissioned opera, based on the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that was sold out weeks before the Kirchentag began; or the talk by a Holocaust survivor which was attended by 800 people, who gave him a long standing ovation at the end; nor the Jesuit-led pilgrimage to the red-light district around the Reeperbahn; or the lecture by Dr Merkel on globalisation; or anything from the feminist-theology programme; or the open dress-rehearsal of an activist work by the National Youth Ballet; und so weiter, und so weiter

I can report on a three-hour session about religious education, with a panel that included Professor Margot Kässmann, one of the most respected German theologians, these days introduced as "ex-Bischöfin" on account of her resignation after a drink-driving charge. I attended it largely to see how an audience was expected to sit for three hours (it was broken up with music and prayerful callisthenics).

We heard Professor Kässmann argue that, of course, you should pass on your faith to your children, as you pass on everything that is important to you. She was answered by a journalist, Angela Krumpen, who had left it up to her children to decide, and thus has one Buddhist son, and one Christian; and by a Muslim scholar, Dr Milad Karimi, who, to sympathetic laughter from the audience, declared that he could not teach his three-year-old anything, and especially not faith.

Another panel discussion, on disability and inclusion, brought out a further aspect of the festival theme: that many people in the world did not have as much as they needed. Dr Samuel Kabue, from Nairobi, reminded his audience that whereas advances in access in the developed world meant that attention was switching to intellectual disability, in the developing world physical disability was often insurmountable: wheelchairs were unaffordable, and those with a handicap were either dismissed as fools or patronised as being clever despite their difficulties.

I can also report on one of the exhibitions put on to coincide with the Kirchentag: the most complete collection ever of Paul Klee's drawings and paintings of angels, beginning with two drawings from the age of five to one of his last works: sometimes disturbing, occasionally humorous, always intriguing.

AT THE closing eucharist, the president of the festival, Professor Gerhard Robbers, ran through a long list of thanks. The congregation laughed when he mentioned "this typical Hamburg weather". It is hard to know what the Kirchentag atmosphere would have been like without sunshine, as there was never a chance to find out. Unbroken skies lasted throughout; so evening concerts were a delight.

I attended two of them: one given by Kraja, a group of four women from northern Sweden, singing unaccompanied except by birdsong; and a gospel concert in Hafen City, the newly developed and still-being-built waterside district. It was loud, colourful, and exuberant.

As the sunshine took hold during the day, it divided the crowd. Those who were taking the programme seriously continued to seek the shade of their particular vine or fig tree, in the shape of an indoor seminar or concert. Large numbers of young people, however, seemed content to ignore what had been laid on for them, choosing instead to lay themselves out on the grass in the parks.

Their approach was infectious. There were, of course, glitches, breakdowns, last-minute changes, and "Halle überfüllt", or "Kirche überfüllt" notices for the most popular events. But the sunshine, the leafy open spaces, and the surprisingly relaxed organisation meant that Hamburg managed to pull off something quite extraordinary.

The next Kirchentag is in Stuttgart, 3-7 June 2015. For more information, in German, visit www.kirchentag.de. For information in English, visit www.kirchentag.org.uk.

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