Mystery Worshipper: Portola
Church: Evangelische Kreuzkirche
Location: Frankfurt am Main, Germany
Date of visit: Saturday, 15 May 2021, 6:00pm
The first documented reference to this church was in 1275. But the foundations of an earlier church on this site go back to the 8th century. In the 9th/10th centuries a stone church was built and expanded. In the 11th century a tower was added. On the east wall are two paintings from the 13th century: one depicting Mary with child on a throne and the other depicting St George. During the Middle Ages there were reconstructions and expansions. Starting in 1716 the church was transformed into a Baroque hall church and the present pulpit was installed. In the 19th century seating galleries were added on three sides of the church and the pews were put in. The two rows of windows behind the altar area, created in the 1930s, depict harvest/eucharist symbolism on one side and the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus on the other; they are a focal point for the congregation. All windows were damaged by Allied bombing during the Second World War, but have been restored. A large wall painting on the south wall above the altar, depicting Jesus giving a blessing to farmers and invalids, was added in 1946/47. A modern ambo, a hanging cross, and a new altar, which allows the presider to stand behind it, were installed a few years ago.
In the former Baroque parsonage adjacent to the church is a museum, maintained by volunteers, that illustrates the history of the church and of the Preungesheim district of Frankfurt. In contains a former bell of the church installed in 1586. Below the museum is a rustic wine cellar that was used in pre-pandemic times for church and social gatherings. Because of the pandemic, the life of the congregation has been shut down since the middle of March 2020. During the first public lockdown, places of worship were closed for six weeks. But it is remarkable that since May 3, 2020, places of worship in Germany have been allowed to remain open for worship and prayer on the basis of clearly defined restrictions that have been endorsed by health officials: these include registration of the contact information of all participants, disinfection appliances at the entrances, mask-wearing at all times, one and a half meters between worshippers, three meters between speakers and congregation, six meters between a soloist and the nearest person, no congregational singing, no seating on balconies, shortened services, reduced capacity that varies according to the size of the church, one-way movement in and out of the church, at least one hour between services to allow for ventilation and disinfection of seats. As far as I know, mainline churches have never been the source of outbreaks of infection in Germany (in contrast to so-called ‘free churches’ or charismatic assemblies).
Preungesheim is a former village, first documented in 772, which became incorporated into Frankfurt in 1910. It is on the northeastern area of Frankfurt and adjoins large open fields that feature gardens, old fruit trees and underbrush: a pleasant area to take walks and breathe fresh air. The ‘immediate neighbourhood’ was the Third Ecumenical Kirchentag (Church Assembly), which was originally expected to attract more than 100,000 participants, who would be meeting in Frankfurt on plazas, in arenas and churches to discuss current events with high-ranking politicians, study the Bible, experiment with forms of worship, and celebrate faith. The pandemic forced the organizers to reduce drastically the number of happenings and present almost everything online.
One of the priests of the Roman Catholic St Franziskus parish presided and preached. The pastor of the Evangelische Kreuzgemeinde was the host and participated in the liturgy.
What was the name of the service?Celebration of the Eucharist on the Eve of the Seventh Sunday in Eastertide.
How full was the building?
Because of pandemic restrictions, the current capacity is between about 25 and 35, depending upon how many family members sit together. Twenty people were present, divided evenly by confession. This service had not been advertised in either congregation and was not part of the official program of the Third Ecumenical Assembly. Because of the lack of publicity there were more empty seats than there should have been.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A church council member was standing at the door to greet people and determine if they were registered for the service or needed to be signed in.
Was your pew comfortable?
I sat on a stool with a heater as my backrest. Very cosy.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People who knew one another greeted each other briefly; otherwise people sat quietly. The bells started ringing ten minutes before the beginning of the service and could be heard loud and clear through the open entrance door.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘To our worship service this evening I welcome you.’ The greeting continued by mentioning that this eucharist/holy communion was occurring within the context of the Third Ecumenical Kirchentag as a sign of fellowship between Christians of various confessions, and that similar services were being celebrated on this evening in other parts of the city.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There was a program sheet with the order of service and texts of hymns. In order to reduce infection risk it was not handed out, but was available to be picked up near the entrance. Since congregational singing was not allowed, the hymn texts could be used for prayer and silent meditation when the organist played the hymns. Biblical readings were from two translations: an ecumenical translation called Einheit (Unity) and the current updated Luther Bible.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ with 14 stops, installed 1959/60 by Eberhard Walcker Organ Builders of Langenargen, Baden-Württemberg.
Did anything distract you?
I was distracted by the ambiguity of what was happening in this service. For the first time since at least 1548, a Roman Catholic priest was celebrating a eucharist in this church! And he was doing this in cooperation with the Protestant pastor. The church bells should have been ringing during the entire service to mark this historic occasion.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service was a bare-bones eucharist without any frills, quietly dignified and low-key. The subdued atmosphere was enhanced by the masked faces of the congregation and the prescribed distance between worshippers. Organ music partially filled the vacuum created by the prohibition of singing. Parts of the liturgy, which were not mentioned on the program sheet, were spoken from memory by the RC worshippers. The closing blessing was spoken by both ministers simultaneously.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 — The preacher spoke in a way that conveyed empathy.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
‘Stop the world, I want to get off’ is a song text that expresses the feelings of many people who suffer from the never-ending pandemic restrictions and the disturbing complexity of events. People would like to retreat to a quiet private world. However, in the prayer of Jesus for his disciples, as recorded in the gospel of John, he expressed his will that his followers should remain involved in the world, even though they are like foreign bodies that arouse antagonism. We Christians are called to become involved with what is happening, so that we can help shape the world by making the love of God visible.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
This service was indeed a foretaste of heaven, because only in paradise will there be a complete and unrestricted fellowship between Catholics and Protestants. Leading up to this event, the diocesan bishop had stated that even though the official doctrine is that there is no such thing as an ecumenical eucharist and that complete sacramental fellowship between the confessions does not exist, individual Protestants would be ‘welcome guests’ at the RC eucharist and could on the basis of ‘conscience’ decide whether or not to receive the communion host. The Vatican explicitly rejects this modest form of invitation. Therefore, during the entire service I was trying to determine whether or not I was actually invited to come forward during the distribution. But after much examination of conscience, I decided that I would be welcome at the Holy Table. And so for the first time in my life I consciously received the Bread of Heaven from the hand of a RC priest. This was a moving moment for me.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
But at the first Ecumenical Kirchentag in Berlin in 2003, a Roman Catholic priest was suspended permanently for doing the same things that the RC priest was doing at this service, so I had to worry whether or not he would suffer similar consequences.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Hanging around at the back of a church is not allowed at the moment, because people are supposed to leave the church immediately after the service. Hanging around outside was also not an option because of heavy rain.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The pandemic has cancelled after-service coffee.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 — This ancient village church is a jewel, offering Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque and modern features that make up the complex pattern of this sanctuary. One can sense and see the continuity of worship that goes back to at least the 13th century. It is mind-boggling to think of people worshipping on this very spot in the 8th century or perhaps earlier.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, indeed – with the emphasis on the word ‘Christian’ and not ‘Lutheran Christian’ or ‘Catholic Christian.’
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The moment I touched the communion host.