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Refreshed by the God of Barmen

On Harvest Sunday an old technology made its absence felt in our church. Now, in general, the congregation appreciates the flexibility that a video projector gives; we don't miss our hymnbooks all that much. But at Harvest, as we concluded by singing Henry Alford's 'Come ye thankful people come', the Organ continued into a fourth verse whilst the powerpoint operator, only having three to show, put up the only slide they had left. Cue a congregation lustily bellowing, to the tune of St George's Windsor, 'Please do join us in the foyer for coffee'. Try it, it doesn't even scan.

 

This was, I suppose, one of those situations in which it becomes pretty clear why ‘Sheep’ is a preferred biblical metaphor for people. Such behaviour is often harmless and even benign: but not always. It is still uncomfortable to watch old film of the cheering crowds which greeted the dismantling of democracy in Germany in the spring of1933. It is chilling that, in a modern, technologically advanced, well-educated European nation, books should be so jubilantly burned, and truth so willingly suppressed. Having lived through this period, French philosopher Simone Weil observed that:  'Evil, when we are in its power, is not felt as evil but as a necessity, or even a duty.'

It is, however, a happy rather than a sombre note that I wish to strike. In the midst of the horrors of that time, the Church in Germany was not caught up in the sins of her culture. Instead, she shone out like a beacon: not swept along, but standing firm against a monstrous tide. So impressive and unique was her testimony that it forced Albert Einstein to extoll her virtues. We are not, perhaps, all that accustomed to hearing tales of the Church's heroism from the luminaries of science, but Einstein, lamenting the silence of the universities and the press 'whose flaming editorials in days gone by had proclaimed their love of freedom' wrote from exile:

‘Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing the truth. I never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration for it [...] I am forced to confess that what I once despised I now praise unreservedly.’

This praise was for the so-called 'Confessing church', which on May 31, 1934 issued the 'Barmen Declaration', stating graciously but firmly that they must obey God rather than human powers.

In Germany in the 30's the distinction between God and the creation had become blurred and broken down. God was seen to be a being who was developing along with human culture. What the writers of the Barmen declaration recognised was that, in the end, that fatally undermined the Christian faith. The Church’s identity and message, as they understood it, came from God and could not be changed at will: ‘We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions’ (Article 3). It was widely believed then, as it is now, that if the Church was to survive then she would need to keep up with social and intellectual 'progress'. That belief was profoundly mistaken. In the end, the Church survived as the Church because she refused to change her basic identity.

The Church of England is facing a period of intense challenge. Confronted with apathy from many and hostility by a growing few, confidence in her identity and her message is at a premium. The courage displayed in the Barmen Declaration is a powerful reminder of what the Church can be, even in circumstances much more hostile than those we know face. The secret to that courage was the unshakeable belief that God is right when he says 'I am God and there is no other (Isa 46:9)'. He defines the Church and is supreme over culture, not vice versa.

That is the God in whose service the Confessing Church was able to stand against the ideology that had befuddled the consciences of those around them. This is the God who can give the Church today the courage to be the Church and not some dreary shadow of itself.

Nick Tucker is on the staff of Oak Hill Theological College and is a member of the Latimer Trust's Theology Work Group.

This article was first published in the CEN in October 2013

 
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