Marienkirche Berlin (Exterior)

Marienkirche, Berlin, Germany


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Mystery Worshipper: Paterfamilias, accompanied by Materfamilias and three of my in-laws
Church: Marienkirche
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date of visit: Sunday, 15 May 2011, 10:30am

The building

The current building dates from the late 13th century. It underwent major changes during the Reformation and again in the 18th century. Unlike many of Berlin's churches (as, for example, the Marienkirche's neighbor, the Berliner Dom), the Marienkirche emerged from World War II relatively unscathed. Many works of art from other churches found a new home in the Marienkirche. A mural in the entranceway from the late 15th century depicts the Dance of Death, a reminder that all human beings are equal before Death. The mural had been whitewashed over during the Reformation and was rediscovered in 1860. Attempts to repair and improve, and then restore, the mural have left it in poor condition today. One aspect I found rather unusual: pews on the left hand side face forward, while pews on the right hand side of the church face the center.

The church

Marienkirchen is now the parish of St Peter and St Mary (St Petri - St Marien), the result of merger with two other parishes. Materials I picked up after the service refer to it as the "sermon church for the bishop of the Protestant church Berlin-Brandenburg-schlesische Oberlausitz." It is open daily, although it does not receive as much attention on walking tours as its much larger neighbor, the Berliner Dom. It celebrates the eucharist each Sunday morning at 10.30, and holds an English language service each Sunday evening at 6.00. There are three choirs, and an extensive array of concerts.

The neighborhood

Marienkirche is located on the Museum Island in the center of Berlin. This area of town is dominated by a collection of museums, such as the Pergamon, specializing in classical antiquities, and the Bode, with an extraordinary collection of Byzantine art.

The cast

Celebrant and homilist was Superintendent Dr Berthold Hcker. Hanns Jrgen Koch was lector. The church warden was Bernd Sawallisch (his primary duty seemed to be that of chalice-bearer). Martina Krschner was organist. A second pastor, unnamed in the service leaflet, stood at the altar during the eucharistic prayer and assisted in the distribution of communion.

What was the name of the service?

Service at St Mary's on Jubilate Sunday (Gottesdienst in St Marien am Sonntag Jubilate)

How full was the building?

I am guessing that the building could seat 750-800, and it was about 40 per cent full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

We rushed in at 10.29, due to some confusion on my part as to the church's location. A kindly woman handed us a hymnal and service leaflet.

Was your pew comfortable?

Quite comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet and reverential.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Im Namen des Vaters und des Sohnes und des Heiligen Geistes."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Evangelisches Gesangbuch, and the aforementioned leaflet with the order of service and most of the chanted portions of the service.

What musical instruments were played?


Did anything distract you?

The hymnal. The melody line was accompanied only by the first verse of text, with subsequent verses of text written below. A couple of the tunes were classical Lutheran chorales that I knew, but some were not, and in one instance the second and remaining verses were on the following page (requiring a page turn). I realize this sort of arrangement is not uncommon in Europe, but it does not facilitate participation for the foreign visitor.

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

A very formal, classically Lutheran liturgy. The celebrant was vested in chasuble, the altar set with six candles and crucifix, and much of the service was chanted. This was also an example of a type of liturgy I doubt one would ever encounter in North America: An authentic Orgelmesse, in which parts of the service (the Gloria in excelsis and verses of some hymns) were replaced by organ improvisations. Martina Krschner's extraordinary improvisations were prominent throughout the service, whether replacing liturgical and hymn texts, serving as introductions to hymns, or accompanying the entrance and exit processions of the clergy. There was a soloist for the extended music before the gospel (Gregorian alleluia, congregational hymn verse, chanted verse, another congregational hymn verse, chanted verse, yet another congregational hymn verse, and finally the Gregorian alleluia again), but no choir. The eucharistic prayer was prayed ad orientem, except that the celebrant and assisting pastor turned and faced the congregation for the institution narrative, which was beautifully chanted.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

11 minutes.

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

9 – Very low key, with few hand gestures. However, whenever he did gesture, it was very effective.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The gospel for the day was John 15:1-8 ("I am the vine..."), but the sermon was on John 16:20-23a ("Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn...but your grief will turn to joy"). I couldn't make out a lot of the German, but Materfamilias tells me that it incorporated a popular devotion that she has encountered before, about the different fingers of the hand representing the family, our responsibilities to ourselves, the workers, etc.).

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The organ playing was simply some of the most extraordinary improvising I have ever heard. I found it so gratifying to realize that the art of liturgical improvisation is not dead. And the method of distributing communion I found quite moving. We gathered in the area in front of the sanctuary in a circle, standing, and communion was distributed by the celebrant, assisting pastor, church warden, and lector. When all had been given communion, we held hands with those to our left and right, and the celebrant quietly prayed the post-communion prayer. It added a bit of warmth, and created a real sense of community, in the midst of a very formal liturgy.

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

Nothing is hellish at Marienkirche. But obviously I wasn't fond of the hymnal's arrangement. And I was surprised that a few congregants got up and left prior to the communion part of the service. Compared to North American Lutheran churches I attend, there were some conservative touches: No sharing of the peace, no reading from the Hebrew scriptures, and the intercessions followed the offertory. It was also more clerically dominated than what I am used to (although the lector read the gospel). But this is their tradition, and they do it beautifully.

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

We remained seated for Martina Krschner's final improvisation, as did the rest of the congregation. Materfamilias went about her appointed duties of getting some additional photographs, and I slowly walked toward the sanctuary area to get a closer look. Then I bought a couple of pamphlets from a small bookshop in the rear of the church, and finally left. All of the clergy were at the rear of the church, and they chatted with us briefly, wanting to know where we were from, etc. We were fairly easily recognizable as foreign tourists. But as these are probably a regular feature at Marienkirche, I suspect the members of the regular congregation saw no need to engage us in conversation.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none. We retired to a Vietnamese restaurant about a block away and had a delightful lunch.

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

10 – Should I ever find myself living in Berlin, I would certainly start here, although perhaps with the Sunday evening English service.

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


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

The extraordinary, atonal beginning of the improvisation preceding "This Joyful Eastertide," which gradually blossomed into a spritely, beautifully registered introduction of the tune. And the way we received communion.

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