Mystery Worshipper: Portola
Church: Cathedral St Nikolai
Location: Greifswald, Germany
Date of visit: Sunday, 14 June 2009, 10:00am
A monumental brick Gothic church, perhaps one of the most impressive sacred buildings in northern Germany. The church was first mentioned in a document dating from the year 1280, but little more than fragments of masonry remain from that structure. The present building is the result of over 700 years of construction, expansion, remodeling and restoration, which culminated in 1989.
A memorable event, the effect of which could be sensed even in today's service, was the rededication of this church on 11 June 1989. Germany was still divided then; the fall of the Berlin Wall, just five months away, could not even have been imagined. The bishop, Horst Gienke, invited the head of the government, Erich Honecker, to the worship service of rededication, but without consulting anyone. This naturally aroused a storm of controversy. Honecker was the embodiment of a highly oppressive regime. The bishop's intention was to improve the relationship between church and state. His reasoning was that government representatives such as Honecker had never had a positive experience with the church. But others regarded the invitation as a disastrous mistake which had compromised the integrity of the church. State Security infiltrated the rededication service with informers, some of whom were recruited by means of blackmail. Every church member had to reckon that any statement critical of the government would be documented and could lead to some form of reprisal. It was revealed that the bishop had ties with the regime and State Security, which further undermined his position. Gienke was pressured to resign five months later. This event, which occurred exactly 20 years ago, is still being discussed. Some observers claim that the church in East Germany is still feeling the effects of this controversy.
Greifswald is in northeastern Germany on the Baltic Sea, approximately 200 km to the north of Berlin. After the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), Greifswald became part of Sweden, where it remained until 1815. The city survived World War II relatively intact, but in postwar years under the German Democratic Republic most historical buildings in the medieval parts of the city fell into neglect. After the reunification of Germany most of the old city was restored. The University of Greifswald, dating from 1456, is one of the oldest universities in the world.
The pastor of St Nikolai, Pfarrer Matthias Gürtler, conducted the service. Bishop Hans-Jürgen Abromeit, bishop of the Pomeranian Evangelical Church, gave the greeting. The sermon was preached by Bishop Axel Noack, retired bishop of the former Evangelical Church, Province of Saxony. The choir and orchestra of the Greifswalder Bach Festival were led by Jochen Modess, with Frank Dittmer presiding at the organ. I am not sure if I heard correctly (a question of acoustics, not my understanding of German), but I had the impression based on the introductory words of the service that former Bishop Gienke was actually present in the congregation, although I could not confirm this.
What was the name of the service?Festgottesdienst (Celebration Worship Service). This service was part of the annual Greifswald Bach Festival week, which also involves other churches and locations in the city. Featured was the Cantata BWV 31 of Johann Sebastian Bach: Der Himmel Lacht! Die Erde Jubilieret
How full was the building?
Packed (about 1000 people according to my estimation); the only empty seats were in parts of the church where there was no visibility.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No personal welcome. It was assumed that everyone knew that they should take a hymn book (or a hymn sheet after the hymn books ran out), but there were people standing near the hymn books who were ready to provide information.
Was your pew comfortable?
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Exciting. Forty-five minutes before the service, a brass choir played hymns from the high church tower. Standing outside in the bright sunshine among the trees surrounding the church, one could hear the brass band somewhere high above and at the same time hear the orchestra and choir, who were rehearsing the Bach cantata inside the church.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"We celebrate this service in the name of God: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." Traditionally, the service should begin with the words: "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit," which emphasize God as the one speaking and acting in the service. More and more this invocation is being replaced by the words heard today, which emphasize what the congregation does. I prefer the traditional form.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The hymn book has probably the longest name in the world: Evangelisches Gesangbuch fr die Evangelische Landeskirche Anhalts, die Evangelische Kirche in Berlin-Brandenburg, die Evangelische Kirche der schlesischen Oberlausitz, die pommersche Evangelische Kirche, die Evangelische Kirche der Kirchenprovinz Sachsen. Ironically, among the standard hymn books of Germany this is probably the smallest, because it contains no liturgies at the beginning and has no regional supplement of hymns. The word Evangelisch is translated officially as Protestant, not Evangelical, because "Evangelical" is a term for a pietistic movement in Germany, with which the historical church does not want to be identified. The word Evangelisch is also an indication of a mixed confessional identity: a mixture of Lutheran and Reformed tradition. Aside from the hymn book, for 5 one could purchase a booklet with the words of the cantata as well as all the texts that were sung during the festival week.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ and small orchestra (about 20 to 25 musicians including trumpet and tympani).
Did anything distract you?
Distracting were the people who moved about taking photos; one person even climbed into the pulpit to get a better angle for his camera. But otherwise the congregation were well disciplined. It was a minor miracle in this day and age that I did not hear a single mobile phone during the entire service, although a thousand people were present. Either East Germans are more disciplined than their Western counterparts, or they have not yet been infested with cell phone mania.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was formal and disciplined in style, but it was not stiff, because the greeting at the beginning, which set the tone for the service, was friendly and engaging. In fact, this greeting was the most remarkable that I have ever heard. No service can feel stiff after such an introduction. Herr Bischof Abromeit made reference to the events of 20 years ago, making it clear that the former bishop was not being snubbed but that the controversy still requires open discussion. He was addressing a small minority of insiders, however, not the entire congregation, and so his meaning was a bit ambiguous. But he was obviously speaking from the heart, and it was a moving moment. After the bishops greeting, the choir director gave a few words of introduction. Another person announced that a childrens worship service was taking place in a neighbouring church; about 12 children were led out to attend that. Finally, an invitation was given for Kirchenkaffee (church coffee) after the service. This long introduction was heart-warming. It gave the service a personal touch.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Herr Bischof Noack was easy to listen to. He spoke with liveliness and humor. He preached the gospel in a way that was uplifting. There were no wasted sentences. He came across not as a bishop but as a real human being. On the basis of previous experience I had never expected to give a higher rating than 7, but I have to give him an 8 because of his clarity of expression, solid content and personal style of humor.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The biblical text for the sermon was the gospel for the first Sunday after Trinity: the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Most people do not consider themselves rich, but in comparison with the rest of the world, we are. The rich person was not necessarily perverse or evil: it is not mentioned that he refused to help; he just wanted to enjoy his life like all of us. Perhaps he did not know that Lazarus was at his doorstep. He was probably the type of person who would listen to a Bach cantata. And he apparently paid attention in religious instruction classes because he knew who Abraham was. A lot of people today do not even know that much about the Bible. And he was genuinely concerned about his brothers because he wanted to warn them. Does this story want to teach us compensatory justice? Are we supposed to believe that it is not a good idea to enjoy life too much, so that we do not end up in the wrong place? Is it a good idea to be poor, because the poorer you are, the better will be your joy in heaven? This type of thinking has led to rebellion against this caricature of biblical faith. The rich man wanted to warn his brothers, but who pays attention to warnings – the warnings of a doctor or of the bathroom scales? Warnings about injustice are necessary and they are part of the Christian message, but ultimately they do not really change anything. Bach did not write cantatas about warnings. The cantata we listen to today celebrates a resurrection. And it is resurrection faith that really changes people and makes them effective; it helps us to see the world as it is and to do what is necessary. But ultimately it is not what we do that saves us: the Resurrected One pulls us across from death into eternal life.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Hearing a mighty Bach cantata that celebrates Easter, accompanied by drums and trumpets, is the closest thing to heaven that one could think of. I can imagine that Bachs music is enjoyed in heaven. Its hard to decide if listening to Bach was the high point of this service or the singing of the final hymn by Bach about the glory of the heavenly Jerusalem ("Gloria sei dir gesungen"), which the congregation sang standing and in four parts, accompanied by the Bach choir and the mighty cathedral organ. As my wife said at the end of this hymn, "This would be a perfect moment to die."
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
This service demonstrated how close together heaven and "the other place" are. Even with the words in front of me, there were moments when I did not know what the choir was singing; this was due to the acoustics of this monumental church. To hear this magnificent music and not understand the words, to be cut off from the message – even momentarily – is a taste of "the other place." But another glimpse of "the other place" was to see the musicians not participating in the worship service. In order to perform a Bach cantata it is necessary to engage professional musicians who do not necessary believe the message which they help to proclaim. During the hymns they did not sing (except for one tenor). When the congregation stood for the gospel reading and prayers they did not stand up. This non-worship saddened me, as it indicated an alienation from a life in God. And as long as this alienation exists there cannot be complete joy in heaven.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Hanging around after the service did not attract attention, because a lot of people were hanging around afterwards, reluctant to leave the church after such a glorious worship service.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Impressive. Refreshments were served on the lawn in front of the main entrance. Coffee in Germany is always excellent. Home-made potato soup, Schmalzbrote (bread which had been spread with a form of goose fat), and home-made cakes were offered. It shows how well-organized this congregation is, that they prepared enough to handle such a large crowd.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – It would be a privilege to be a part of this congregation. Aside from the beauty of the church and the quality of music (of course, there would not be a Bach cantata every week), the congregations of Greifswald work together to provide a rich variety of activities: conversation groups, choirs, Bible study, etc. Anybody can join the choir. But Im not sure if I could ever really feel at home in such a huge church. Even so, as a potential spiritual home this congregation deserves an 8.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
This service epitomized the joy and glory of being a Christian.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
What I might remember the most in seven days' time was the tenor soloist. He not only sang the hymns with the congregation, he sang them from memory without a hymn book in his hand. This was a touching sight.