Sankt Marienkirche, Waren, Germany

Sankt Marienkirche, Waren, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Germany


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Sankt Marienkirche
Location: Waren, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Germany
Date of visit: Sunday, 7 June 2009, 9:30am

The building

The church was established in the year 1225 as a castle chapel in the Early Gothic style. Damaged by fire in 1637 and again in 1671, it was rebuilt in 1792 as an aisleless church with a Baroque crown. The steeples of churches in Germany are invariably topped with a cross or rooster (a symbol of the Churchs calling to proclaim the dawn of a new age in the midst of darkness). But the steeple of this church is crowned with a swan, which is unique. When the reformer Jan Hus was burned at the stake in 1415, he is reported to have said: "Today you are baking a goose (the literal meaning of Hus), but in a hundred years you will hear a swan singing." A century later, Martin Luther posted his 95 theses in Wittenberg. In four nearby churches I saw a picture of Luther with a swan at his feet. The building is full of curious fixtures and decorations – see the section below on what distracted me.

The church

Mecklenburg became officially Lutheran in 1549. Today only about ten percent of the population in the former German Democratic Republic belongs to a church. One of the challenges of life under Nazi and Communist rule was to keep the church buildings from becoming dilapidated because of lack of financial support; the churches were kept more or less intact via donations from West German churches and the volunteer efforts of members. Whenever one attends a worship service in the former East Germany, these historical memories are part of the fabric of the service.

The neighborhood

Waren, located on a large lake, is a popular holiday destination among Germans. This region has literally a thousand lakes, large pine forests, and broad grain fields. Fifty miles to the north of Waren is the Baltic Sea coast, with its picturesque cities featuring towering brick Gothic churches.

The cast

The service was led by two people: a pradikant (a lay person authorized to preach and administer the sacraments) and a vikar (a pastor in training, not yet ordained). The names of these two people were not to be found in written form; there is no bulletin in German churches and the newsletter of the congregation offered no names for this service. I was able to learn only the name of the vikar, Herr Jean-Dominique Lagies, who belongs to another congregation and was filling in for the vacationing pastor.

What was the name of the service?

Gottesdienst, which means service of God. It is a matter of perspective as to whether Gottesdienst means Gods service to the congregation or the congregations service to God. The Lutheran perspective is that God serves the congregation through word and sacrament

How full was the building?

The church was about two-thirds full which is striking, considering the early time and the rainy weather. According to my quick count there were about 60 people in attendance, including several young families with children and some confirmands. Typically, the first arrivals preferred to sit in the back part of the church; later arrivals thus had no choice but to sit more to the front. Even so, the very front rows remained empty. The children and confirmands were well-behaved, which is not necessarily what I am used to.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

As we entered, a person greeted us in a friendly manner, shook our hands, and gave us a hymnbook and seating cushions. After we sat, another person came over to us, greeted us, and asked us if we were here on vacation. It was a discrete friendliness which was appropriate to the situation, respecting the private sphere that a visitor might like to maintain before a service.

Was your pew comfortable?

The church pews looked as though they were over 100 years old, but they were surprisingly comfortable, especially since we had the cushions.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Lively. The visiting vikar practiced the singing of the liturgy with the organist. A brass choir could be heard in a back room. People who knew one another exchanged words. The bells were ringing. These sounds created an atmosphere of anticipation. A sense of quiet reverence was also conveyed by worshipers who prayed silently before sitting down.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The first words of the service were from Isaiah 6:3, the biblical verse for this Trinity Sunday: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. All the earth is full of His glory." A few words were then said about the season of Trinity. The liturgy began with the words: "We want to celebrate this service of God in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A hymn book: The Evangelical Hymnbook of the Lutheran Church of Mecklenburg. I was delighted to find that the liturgy used by this congregation was included behind the front cover but without musical notes. As a visitor I could actively participate in most of the service, but not 100 percent -- which is reasonable.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ and eight-piece brass band. Each accompanied alternating verses of the hymns organ verse 1, brass band verse 2, organ verse 3, etc.

Did anything distract you?

The main distraction in this church is that there is so much to see. On the altar I noticed that the traditional depiction of the crucifixion, which includes Mary and John standing below the cross, also included Mary Magdalene kneeling at the foot of the cross with a jar of ointment in front of her an indication of Easter Sunday. I found this symbolism so delightful that my eyes kept coming back to it. But there were other features: a symbol of the Trinity above the crucifixion group; a depiction of the Ascension with the words: "Behold, I am with you always, unto the end of the world." The church also has interesting stoves, which are no longer in use but which are decorative. On the side walls are self-made posters showing groups and activities of the congregation. The only genuine distraction was the light attached to the pulpit sounding board; it may have helped the preacher to see his notes, but it glared into the eyes of the worshipers who might want to keep their eyes on the preacher.

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

The service was formal and liturgical, but not stiff. The vikar chanted parts of the liturgy and the prayers, which I found uplifting. Chanting gives an emphasis to liturgical words and prayers which reading alone cannot achieve. Chanting also conveys a sense of other-worldliness of heaven and earth coming together which I consider a dimension of every worship service.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

17 minutes.

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

6 – I feel that 7 to 10 should be reserved for preachers with special gifts or unusual qualities. I think that a 6 is appropriate for this sermon, which I regard as a high mark. The preacher fulfilled his assignment to be a "servant of the word:" he let the biblical text on which the sermon was based speak to the congregation. He seemed to be carefully prepared and conveyed a quiet joy in what he was doing. When he gave personal views they were appropriate to the context. He did not impose his personality on the congregation, but respected the listeners by letting them draw their own conclusions. I was surprised afterwards to learn that this preacher is not yet ordained he had such poise and clarity of expression as though he had been a minister for several years.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The sermon was based on the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3). Nicodemus went to Jesus with questions in his heart; these questions are ultimately about finding eternal life. Eternal life is something that can be received in a moment of grace. It is a mysterious happening that cannot be brought about by human activity. Passive acceptance is what is called for when eternal life reveals itself. This passive acceptance of grace is the foundation of life. Of course, we cannot only be passive; we must remain active as we make decisions. Decisions that affect our future may involve choices that are not as inviting as we would prefer. But ultimately the future is out of our hands. We live by grace.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Singing hymns accompanied by trumpets and trombones was like being in heaven. The words of the vintage Lutheran chorales are full of adoration and express solid contents of faith. Singing hymns of this caliber is undoubtedly a foretaste of eternal glory.

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

In the "other place" there is no singing and this lack of singing also occurred in this worship service. When the congregation sang, it didnt sound as though 60 people were present; I could barely hear any singing at all. What singing there was seemed to be limited mostly to the women; several men were staring into empty space. I was reminded of an ironic book of etiquette for worshipers produced in Germany several decades ago. One of the rules involved "proper" behavior during the singing of hymns: "For men it is not seemly to participate in the singing of hymns." Perhaps a lack of enthusiastic singing is an indication that faith in Germany is often regarded as a quiet, private affair of the heart, not something to be proclaimed boldly.

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

After the service I loitered and tried to look as though I had nothing better to do. No one came up to me. After waiting a while, I took the initiative and talked to a few people, who were friendly and answered my questions gladly. But the main part of the congregation had left the church relatively quickly. I remembered my first worship service in this country 35 years ago, when I was astounded at how quickly the church emptied after the service: it was as though prisoners had been set free.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was no after-service coffee. An ever-increasing number of congregations are discovering how important coffee and tea fellowship can be, but after-service coffee has no tradition in Germany. There is a historical tendency to understand the service primarily as a personal experience, and extended fellowship afterward is traditionally not regarded as part of this experience.

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

8 – In order to worship regularly at a church, I would need to feel that I am part of a Christian community. The quality of worship service is fine, but this alone is not decisive for me. What really matters is what happens during the week: for example, does the congregation offer a Bible conversation group? Are there regular choir rehearsals? Are there indications that the congregation reaches outward? According to the newsletter and the posters in the church, this congregation does indeed offer a good variety of possibilities to participate and become part of a Christian fellowship. For this reason I would give this congregation an 8.

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

Yes, it made me feel good to be a Christian because I experienced so much which makes up my Christian identity. It is a wonder of the Holy Spirit that one can attend a church in any part of the world and feel at home immediately, because the words of the liturgy and the Bible are constants, and the spirit of Jesus is the same everywhere. This spirit speaks through a sermon or through a friendly greeting when one comes through the door of the church. Also, the works of art in the church are part of the proclamation of the gospel which makes up my identity.

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

The faces of the members of the brass band as they walked through the church. They had just finished practising and were on their way to the choir loft at the back of the church. Their faces were cheerful, full of joy and anticipation. Clearly they were looking forward to celebrating the wonderful Lutheran hymns of this service. Their faces were the embodiment of joy in the Lord.

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