Sankt Marienkirche (St Mary's Church), Grundhof, Germany


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Sankt Marienkirche (St Mary's Church)
Location: Grundhof, Germany
Date of visit: Sunday, 9 December 2018, 11:00am

The building

Photo: © Bera and used under license An imposing 11th century building that is well maintained and stands out in the area. The churchyard is surrounded on three sides by a wall dating to the 1450s. The common (not citrus fruit!) limes inside the wall are said to be 300 years old. The tower with a 15th century spire burnt down in 1756 and was replaced by the present massive structure more akin to a fortification. Three cast iron bells were removed from the tower in 2007 for safety reasons, but two years later the locals donated three bronze bells instead: Faith, Hope and Love. The bricked-up doorway in the north wall of the church was once the so-called ‘women’s door.’ There are no side aisles. The font is medieval; the altar is Rococo. Above Christ Crucified there is the ‘eye of God’ symbolising the Trinity and the all-seeing and all-loving God. The pulpit with an ornate sounding board is post-Reformation. Sixty-five panels by the 18th century German painter and gilder Ludwig Müller, supported on unusually fine wrought iron pillars, present a sort of salvation history, starting with the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses. The final eight pictures surround the altar and depict the blessings of the Sermon on the Mount. The gallery also houses some portraits of the great names of the Lutheran reformation, among them Martin Luther himself, and local clergy.

The church

The church community appears to be quite active in the surrounding villages. Thanks to a recent sizeable legacy, a charitable foundation has been established that supports all aspects of diaconal ministry as well as the historic building. Like many German Lutheran parishes, they also maintain a care home and kindergarten (nursery). Bible study meets regularly, and there are monthly senior citizens’ afternoon teas and also lunches for all. They have a toddler and parent group, and over and above their normal youth work they also run a Scout group. The parish magazine advertises that the Scouts will bring the Peace Light of Bethlehem into the church service on the third Sunday of Advent and also distribute it to households in the village.

The neighborhood

This is rural Anglia (of Anglo-Saxon fame) on the Baltic coast in northern Germany, the traditional border region with Denmark on the Baltic coast. Over the centuries it changed hands several times between Denmark and Germany. Today there is a sizable Danish minority and there is ample evidence of Viking heritage in the region. The nearest town is Flensburg, once a centre of the German and Danish rum production and a garrison town, now a university city. Today the region’s main industries are agriculture and tourism.

The cast

The vicar took the service. Two women from the congregation read the epistle and gospel, while young people took the collection in bags fixed at the end of long poles. A young man played the organ (more about him later).

What was the name of the service?

A Service of the Word on the Second Sunday of Advent.

How full was the building?

It felt comfortably full with 36 adults along with 10 teenage confirmation candidates. All were in the front half of the church, with the rear half left empty. More women than men, but not a huge imbalance.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A young welcomer, who turned out to be one of the confirmation candidates, stood outside the porch and was handing out a leaflet with the psalm for the day. Once inside the porch we were also welcomed by the incumbent, who was already attired in the distinctive flowing black Lutheran gown with white preaching bands (formerly standard academic dress in Germany).

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes. There was a footrest (not to be mistaken for a kneeling board), and hinged hooks for handbags or man bags, and a compartment for the hymn book. The first pew beyond the crossing was much wider (and gated) than the others and had a padded pew runner. In the past this appears to have been the pew for the notable local family. We would have slipped in if it had not been for the coffee and tea that were set out there.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The organ was playing, and everyone was already in their pews when we arrived. A huge Advent wreath made of fir branches, with two red candles burning, was suspended above the centre aisle. We heard no talking. Just before the start of the service, the vicar walked toward the front, bowed to the altar, and then moved to the right to sit in the front pew among the congregation, facing the altar like everyone else. No elevated seating for the clergy here.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Der Herr sei mit Euch’ (The Lord be with you), but there did not seem to be a congregational response. This was followed by the verse for the week, Luke 21.28: ‘Seht auf und erhebt eure Häupter, weil eure Erlösung naht’ (stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near). This was then freely interpreted as ‘Kopf hoch, das wird schon wieder’ (chin up, it will get better) and set the tone for the service. Then followed the welcome to all from far and near, regulars from the many villages this parish comprises, other visitors, and also the confirmation candidates. There were ten of them, all young teenagers.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Evangelisches Gesangbuch (edition of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Northern Germany). We also had the sheet with psalm 80. There were no Bibles in evidence.

What musical instruments were played?

The church has a spectacular late Baroque organ right above the altar, an opus of the 18th century German organ builder Johann Daniel Busch, known for his high quality instruments. It was restored in the 19th century and ‘modernised’ (some might say vandalised) in 1969. The church council decided in 2012 to restore the organ to its original glory, and for this purpose a charitable association has been founded, kick-started by a generous legacy.

Did anything distract you?

I tried to work out the German abbreviations for the books of the Bible under each of the Ludwig Müller panels. Most of these are from Genesis and Exodus, and of course the New Testament, but some were quite unexpected. I also attempted, less successfully, to read the inscription under the carved reliefs of the pulpit, which I am told are in Plattdeutsch (Low German), the local northern German dialect.

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

This was typical German Lutheran worship, but less dry than it has become known for. We stood for the readings, sat for the psalm (which was said responsorially), remained seated for singing, and stood again to say the Apostle’s Creed and to pray. The intercessions were offered by the vicar, who was facing east for these prayers. The organ was played with flair and in a somewhat unorthodox manner: you could actually hear that the young organist was enjoying himself, and he gave us a couple of extra improvised flourishes that lifted the atmosphere, and also a voluntary at the end, which the congregation clearly appreciated. This parish is very fortunate to have a very young organist who introduces a note of joy to a worship tradition that has a reputation for being very serious.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

18 minutes.

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

8 — Though the sermon was a little on the long side, it was easy to listen to. We had been braced for an interminable sermon suitable for a lecture hall, and were pleasantly surprised. Gone are the days of 40-minute-preaching. The preacher was very engaging and created an atmosphere of ‘long ago’ with references to crackling fireplaces and a slower pace of life, while setting it in an entirely contemporary context. It was good to hear that the young confirmation candidates were addressed in the sermon, and challenged.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

It was based on the verses from James 5:7-8 (not the letter you’d expect expounded in a Lutheran church!): be patient until the coming of the Lord. This was neatly linked to the gospel reading of Luke 21.25-33: the Kingdom of God is near. It is hard to wait patiently for many things. However, some things are easier to wait for: the birth of a child for instance, or the child, for all good things take their time and have their season. We can understand why young people are restless to get going when so much needs doing in the world. All, both young and old, must put their faith into practice: the Kingdom of God starts here and with us, with our contribution in the here and now. Our actions today determine the future of the next generation, and generations yet unborn. We need to think about more than ourselves and our own futures, but instead about the impact we will have on the future of others in 50 years’ time. Patience is strengthened through waiting. We need to trust in God and the life we have been given to try the new, to dare to change, for the good of all. God gives us this impatience, and by giving us his Son, this Christmas child, he also provides us with a vision of the world as it could be. We may not see the way at all clearly. Like the marathon runner who only looks toward the end of the race, we look only to the goal, the Kingdom. The names of Jesus (Wonderful Counsellor, Prince of Peace) provide us with this end point, but it is we who have to make the way in the strength of God. Remain patient, and persevere. Don’t give up: ‘Still your hearts and know that the Lord is near.’

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

A well-heated, indeed toasty-warm old church on a wet and cold December day. Why did no one take their coats off? Together with the warm and confidently expectant preaching, it made one ready to wait joyfully for next Sunday.

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

This may be controversial: The magnificent pulpit remained unused, as in most churches these days. But since the eyes are drawn to it, maybe it could be reinstated. Preaching from the pulpit is not necessarily hellfire and brimstone.

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

We were invited straightaway to tea and coffee and chatted to the locals and the vicar.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The homemade biscuits were delicious, but the tea was Rooibos (also called Red Bush, said to have healthful and beneficial properties), which was a little challenging for someone from England! Unfortunately our lunch back home could not wait in joyful expectation, so we did not tarry long.

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

8 — We holiday in the area frequently. Glad to have discovered this gem, we'll be back.

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

I can't wait for the Kingdom!

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

The Picture Bible panels by Ludwig Müller; also the "Resurrection panels" that are part of the pulpit carvings, with the burial of Jesus and the Resurrection reversed! Probably also the verses from the Letter of James: I had to look for the translation, and found Lutheran Bibles have the letter of James in a different place: right before the Apocalypse!

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