The Hallgrímskirkja was named in honor of the Icelandic poet, clergyman and hymnodist Hallgrímur Pétursson. The church was built between 1948 and 1986 and is a massive surrealistic stone structure looking like a cross between a Gothic cathedral and something off the set of The Lord of the Rings. The west facade features a tall belltower flanked by stone columns resembling organ pipes (the guide books say icebergs but my eyes say different). The interior is vaulted, spacious and bright. The organ console dominates the rear of the nave, with the organ pipes encased in the gallery. A free-standing high altar graces the sanctuary. To the right of the altar is a canopied pulpit, and to the left is a tracker organ in a case that complements that of the gallery organ.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church is, according to Iceland's constitution, "a national church supported and protected by the State." About 90 percent of all Icelanders are Lutheran, but few, we are told, attend church regularly. In addition to the usual parochial ministries, the Hallgrímskirkja sponsors a variety of artistic and cultural events throughout the year, including organ recitals, choral concerts, and exhibitions of paintings by Icelandic artists.
Reykjavík, meaning "smoky bay", was named after the billows of geothermal steam rising about the area. The city reminds me a bit of San Francisco, climbing up from the bay out of the mists via a series of hills. Both cities are colorful in a Bohemian sort of way, but both (alas) are a little tarnished, a little torn, with graffiti and chipping paint in evidence. Reykjavík is known for its throbbing nightlife and fine shopping. The Hallgrímskirkja sits high on a hill and dominates the Reykjavík skyline.
The Rev. Jón Dalbú Hróbjartsson, pastor, assisted by Hörður Áskelsson, organist and choir director
What was the name of the service?Messa með altarisgöngu (mass with baptism).
How full was the building?
There were about 600 seats and I would estimate they were two-thirds full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A gentleman said hello and asked me if I was there for the service and would an English service leaflet be good for me. He was reluctant to give me a hymnal, though I had to ask for one.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. The pews were cushioned in plush green upholstery. The backs could be reversed, thus letting the congregation sit facing the rear of the church for organ recitals and the like.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and reverent, although two elderly ladies and a gentleman engaged in a protracted and distracting conversation.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
No idea, as it was all in Icelandic. The procession consisted of the baptismal party (two infant candidates with their families and friends) followed by the minister in a green chasuble. The baptism preceded the start of mass, and the minister read a long series of prayers before inviting the parents to present their candidates.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Sálma Bók (hymn book) in Icelandic containing hymns and service music. There were also service leaflets available in Icelandic, English and other languages. An effort was clearly being made to accommodate visitors.
What musical instruments were played?
The gallery organ. A choir of eight voices sang from risers in the back of the nave.
Did anything distract you?
Trying to figure out what the Icelandic words meant was something of a distraction. A woman sitting in front of me sang all the hymns and chants in a strong soprano distracting, but a nice distraction. And I always like to keep an eye on the behavior of baptismal parties. It may be devilish of me to assume that they generally are not regular churchgoers, but there we are. This baptismal party did not disappoint me, as will be seen.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
For a Lutheran service, very high up the candle indeed! I would call it a missa cantata. The Kyrie, gloria, collects, creed, sursum corda and preface, sanctus, and Lord's Prayer were chanted to unfamiliar tunes (well, the sursum corda and preface were familiar, but with embellishments). During a long, chant-like hymn between gospel and sermon, the minister removed his chasuble, preaching only in alb and stole. Although the altar was free-standing, the first part of the mass was celebrated facing east, but after donning his chasuble once again, the minister faced the people from the offertory on. The sacred elements were elevated at the consecration and again at the great amen. At communion no one sipped from the chalice, but rather everyone intincted, including the minister. There was no peace ceremony.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – I didn't understand a word Pastor Jón said, but it seemed a lively delivery and was accompanied by numerous hand gestures. The sermon concluded with a short prayer, for which we all stood.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
(As explained to me later) Pastor Jón preached on the gospel for the day, the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. It's the same old story with the poor they are always with us, as Jesus himself pointed out. It is our Christian duty to wipe out poverty and it can be done! The poor are special favorites of Jesus, for it is they whose inheritance shall be heaven.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I thought just about everything was heavenly the solemnity of the liturgy, the unfamiliar but beautiful chants, the hymns (especially as sung by the soprano sitting in front of me), and the worshipful attentiveness of the congregation.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
At communion, the right-hand line returned to their pews via the side aisle, but the left-hand line insisted on plowing their way down the center aisle all except Miss Amanda, who had her eye on the baptismal party. The father of one of the candidates spotted some friends who had arrived late, and so made a bee-line for where they were sitting, infant in arms. Miss Amanda saw to it that she returned to her pew via the side aisle so she could see what this little gathering was up to. And sure enough, there they were, chatting away as if in their front parlor. One young gentleman even had his foot propped up on the plush green cushion of the pew in front of him. Not the behavior of a regular churchgoer, one would suspect.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
During the organist's postlude, a very nicely done Bach prelude and fugue (the soprano lady thought so too, as she stood at the organ console the whole time grinning at the organist), everyone filed out quickly and quietly. The Icelandic service sheet had mentioned that there'd be kaffisopi eftir messu, and so I followed the crowd, hoping they'd lead me to it.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Hot, very strong coffee (just the way I like it) served in proper china cups with saucers. There were also some store-bought chocolate chip cookies. Very few people stayed for coffee, and those who did gathered in small cliques to chat. I told Pastor Jón that I was impressed by the solemnity of the service, and he explained that the Icelandic Lutheran church, like the Swedish church, has always enjoyed a strong Anglican influence. I also asked him if he would tell me what his sermon was about, which he did.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – If I lived in Reykjavík I probably would. The Hallgrímskirkja is a magnificent building, the liturgy was very moving, and I liked the people's approach to worship.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. Even though I didn't understand a word of the service, I somehow knew exactly what was being said. I felt that I had prayed in Icelandic! Now I think I know a little of how the apostles felt at Pentecost.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The soprano lady singing all those hauntingly beautiful hymns and chants.