Berliner Dom (Exterior)

Berliner Dom, Berlin, Germany


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Berliner Dom
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date of visit: Saturday, 6 May 2017, 6:00pm

The building

The Evangelical Supreme Parish and Collegiate Church in Berlin, often called the Protestant St Peter's, is not officially a cathedral, since it is not the seat of a bishop. There has been a church on this site since 1451, but the present building dates from 1895. It is Baroque, with Italian Renaissance influences. Heavily damaged by Allied bombing during World War II, it remained unusable, protected by a temporary roof, until 1975, when restoration began. Reopened in 1993, the Berliner Dom is now resplendent. Above the doors on the facade is an image of Christ with the welcoming words (in German):"Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you." The inside of the church features mosaics and excellent stained glass. Images of the evangelists and reformers like Luther and Calvin sit on high. I found the pulpit particularly attractive. In the crypt beneath the church can be found more than 80 sarcophagi of Prussian royals.

The church

As a parish church, the Berliner Dom boasts over 1000 parishioners, with about a half dozen new members joining each month. Membership is by application only and is open to any baptised Protestant Christian living in Berlin or the immediate vicinity. There's a diverse range of services at the church, ranging from communion services with orchestra and procession for holy days, to vespers and Anglican evensong, to Taize services. Guided tours for a small fee are available each day but are suspended during church services.

The neighborhood

The Berliner Dom is located in what was formerly East Berlin on the Museumsinsel (Museum Island), in the Spree River, home to some of Berlin's most famous museums. Neglected under communist rule, the museums were restored and modernised during the 1990s.

The cast

The officiant was Pfarrerin Birte Biebuyck, honorary pastor. The choir was conducted by Kathleen Bird. The organ was played by the church's own organist, Andreas Sieling.

What was the name of the service?

Domvesper in Anglikanischer Tradition (Cathedral Vespers in the Anglican Tradition).

How full was the building?

There's no quire in the church, so the congregation sat in the nave. I arrived half an hour early and was one of the first to do so. I took a seat in the second or third pew from the front and did not turn around or twist my head until the choir processed in at the start of the service – and to my shock, a congregation of at least 300 or so had assembled in the nave in the meantime, making it about half full! Quite a change from weekday evensong at an English cathedral, where the choir often outnumber the congregation!

Did anyone welcome you personally?

One smartly dressed lady and one smartly dressed gentleman were handing out service sheets at the entrance to the nave. An elderly gentleman spoke to me in my pew after it transpired that I'd stolen his seat while he'd been in the loo!

Was your pew comfortable?

The pew was a standard wooden pew, but kneelers were neither built into the pews nor provided separately.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet. I heard an Englishman a couple of pews behind me explaining how evensong usually works to his German companion, who must have been attending such a service for the first time.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"O Lord, open thou our lips..."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Bilingual service sheets containing the entire order of service for evening prayer, minus the text of the psalms, the first collect and the anthem, but including the words to a congregational hymn, were provided upon entry.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ, an opus of Wilhelm Sauer of Frankfurt. At the time of its dedication in 1905, it was the largest organ in Germany and said to be one of the last of the Romantic orchestral organs – the largest that has survived in its original condition. Not that the choir needed any help from extra instruments – I counted a full 38 members!

Did anything distract you?

Turning around at the start of the service to discover I was in an evensong congregation of several hundred definitely caught my attention!

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

There's not a great deal of scope for deviation from the liturgical mean in cathedral evensong, but I noticed that the officiant faced the altar while praying and that the congregation crossed themselves almost to a man at the blessing at the end. The mish-mash between English (for the sung parts of the service) and German (for the lessons, first collect, intercessions and a short sermon) seemed to work well for most of the service, but the Creed was spoken and the hymn sung in both English and German by different members of the congregation, which made it a little difficult to keep track of where one was in the Creed and hymn!

Exactly how long was the sermon?

4 or 5 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

7 – Frau Biebuyck had a very soft, mellifluous voice.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

She preached on the first lesson, which was the creation story from Genesis. She spoke about the transition from darkness to light and starting new beginnings in life, whether that be through baptism and initiation into the church or in other ways.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The acoustics of the church, combined with the 38-strong choir, produced a wonderfully atmospheric reverberative effect. It made the music sound less polished and clean but wonderfully rich.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Despite it being the next evening, I was still a little hung over from the previous night, so the realisation that I would have to sit through an (albeit short and interesting) sermon at evensong was not a pleasant surprise!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

Everyone was ushered out at the end of the service and the congregation departed without anyone staying behind for a chat. The choir all assembled on the steps in front of the church for a photo – I think it must have been their last commitment before summer. They were photobombed by a man in a rather garish green suit and wig – I'm not sure whether they noticed but I certainly did!

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There were no refreshments after the service.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

5 – I am not a Lutheran, so I would feel more at home in an Anglican church. However, there was nothing about worshipping here that one could object to. If I was a Lutheran, I am sure that I would be very happy to come to the Dom to celebrate the red-letter days in the church calendar.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Absolutely. It was lovely to see such a large (and I assume largely "native" German Protestant) congregation showing such an interest and taking so warmly to a liturgy and tradition so very dear to me.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

Turning around at the start of the service to discover that I was one of 300, not 30 worshippers!

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