Thomaskirche, Leipzig, Germany

St Thomas, Leipzig, Germany


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Mystery Worshipper: Texprof
Church: St Thomas
Location: Leipzig, Germany
Date of visit: Sunday, 12 April 2009, 9:30am

The building

The current late Gothic building was erected in 1496 and the tower in 1537. Renovated, repaired and reconstructed countless times over the years, the Thomaskirche of today is not exactly the one that Martin Luther and Johann Sebastian Bach knew, although much has been preserved. After the reunification of Germany in 2000, the entire church was restored. The exterior, in white and grey, has perhaps been restored a bit too well, giving it an almost surrealistic appearance. The interior features two opposing choir galleries and seems well suited for music. The baptismal font is the one at which several of Bach's children were baptised, as well as the infant Richard Wagner. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels also stood before this same font as godfathers to Karl Liebknecht, co-founder of the Communist Party of Germany.

The church

The Thomaskirche is well-known in Leipzig and famous throughout the world as the church where Bach served as music director for 27 years. For almost 800 years, the world famous St Thomas Boys Choir has been resident at the church. Martin Luther preached here on Whitsunday 1539. In modern times the church continues to maintain a lively music curriculum, but also serves the community with programs for all ages as well as with a social outreach.

The neighborhood

From its earliest beginnings in the 11th century, Leipzig has been an important centre of commerce. It is home to the University of Leipzig, founded in 1409, one of Europe's oldest universities. Heavily damaged by Allied bombing during World War II, the city was restored under the communist policies of East Germany. The skyline of the modern city now includes the university tower and new hotels and commercial and residential buildings. Within the city, former woodlands along the riverbanks have been partly converted to parks. The church is across from the Market and the Rathaus, in other words at the very centre of the city.

The cast

The preacher was the Revd Landesbischof Jochen Bohl, Bishop of Saxony. The celebrant was the church's pastor, the Revd Christian Wolff.

What was the name of the service?

Morning Worship

How full was the building?

The church seats about 1,500. We arrived one-half hour early but the place was already packed.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

As we entered, a person gave us a hymnal and program and extended a greeting. The pastor spoke some words of welcome, but with 1,500 worshippers he could not recognise everyone personally.

Was your pew comfortable?

Traditional German churches have wood pews with a kneeler (under which is often a heating element for winter season) and a rack on which to place the hymnal. It's not plush, but not uncomfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The pre-service time was filled with organ music so the arriving worshippers were quiet. There are two organs, a romantic organ in the west balcony and a baroque organ on the north wall.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

Christus ist erstanden! Er ist wahrhaftig erstanden! (Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!)

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The hymnal and a service program.

What musical instruments were played?

There were significant organ offerings, such as the prelude, voluntary at the offering, and the postlude (for which all remained seated). However, on this Sunday, the St Thomas Boys Choir sang the Easter portion of Handel's Messiah in German, accompanied by the famed Gewandhaus Orchestra.

Did anything distract you?

New visitors to a church might pay more attention to figurative symbols such as stained glass windows than would those who are present each Sunday. As a visual learner, I spent too much time trying to figure out what was going on in all the windows, each of which was different in style and motif.

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

German worship follows a liturgy, so it is formal. The music, however, was glorious, so even if there was no hand-clapping, there were exultant spirits celebrating. German clergy have a certain unique way of moving about during a service – indeed, the Germans have a special word for it, similar to the English word "stride" – and when the bishop walked from the congregation to the high altar to give the benediction at the end of the service, his very formal stride was evident and most interesting.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

21 minutes.

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

9 – The bishop was a self-contained personality. He had no use for laughter or outbursts of passion. It was a restrained, reflective and meaningful presentation.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The sermon was based on Luke 24:13-35 (on the road to Emmaus the resurrected Christ appears to two disciples, who do not recognise him). We live in a world as the disciples did, when financial and political upheavals make us question the future. After the crucifixion, the disciples also wondered whether they had any future. However, the resurrection introduces us to a new world and a new future in which confidence and victory are our assurance.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

When the 100 voice St Thomas Choir sang Handel's Wurdig ist der Lamb from the west balcony accompanied by the Gewandhaus Orchestra, it was as if heaven's gates opened.

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

It was announced at communion that the first three groups to approach the altar would have wine, but the rest would have grape juice. Germans are fairly orderly, but the communion service was extremely chaotic. You had to be careful that you did not fall down the stairs as you attempted to exit through the press of the crowd.

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

We took the opportunity to ask people about some things and they were very friendly.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The building has no facilities for this sort of thing. Besides, on Easter Sunday everyone had places to go.

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

10 – The musical tradition in this place is glorious and the pastor seems to be very personable with his congregation. He has been there for many years. His style is friendly and approachable, so I suspect he is well loved by the members of the parish.

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

Easter Sunday at the Thomaskirche is perhaps an unfair example to use in answer to this question, but one is left wanting to shout in the streets: Er ist wahrhaftig auferstanden!

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

Being watched by Nicholas Selnecker (b. 1532), organist, hymnwiter, preacher, theologian, one of six preparers of the historic doctrinal standard of the Lutheran Church, the Book of Concord, who looked down on me from an oil painting on the wall.

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