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St Nikolai, Greifswald, Germany
St Nikolai, Greifswald, Germany.
Lutheran, more or less – actually Evangelical
Church in Germany, a federation of 22 regional Lutheran,
Reformed and United Protestant church bodies.
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.
The date & time:
14 June 2009, 10.00am.
What was the name of the
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
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
"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
What books did the congregation
use during the service?
The hymn book has probably the longest name in the world: Evangelisches
Gesangbuch für 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
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
bishop’s greeting, the choir director gave a few words of introduction.
Another person announced that a children’s 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
Exactly how long was the
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
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 Bach’s music is enjoyed in
heaven. It’s 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
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 this church your regular (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 I’m 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
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.
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