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