Sankt Johannis, Flensburg, Germany


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Sankt Johannis
Location: Flensburg, Germany
Date of visit: Sunday, 8 December 2019, 11:00am

The building

The red brick structure is imposing and, dating from the 12th century, is older than the town it now serves. The low vaulting, completed in the 14th century, lends the building the character of a cave or crypt. The whole ceiling is covered completely with 15th century paintings. The apostles are depicted with the instruments of their martyrdom and are surrounded by foliage and medicinal plants representative of Paradise and the Garden of Eden. The centrepiece of the entire ceiling is a doom painting, with Christ as judge, the dead rising from their tombs and ascending a tower (looking suspiciously like the church’s tower) into heaven, while the damned are pitched into hell by a crowned Prince of Darkness. The high pulpit with sounding board above, interestingly placed right underneath the painted devil, has a high hinged door with a gilt painting of St Peter. The five panels of the pulpit depict a whistle-stop tour of the new Reformation doctrine of justification (Fall, Nativity, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Last Judgment). A charming 15th century statue of the patron, St John the Baptist, is mounted on the chancel arch. No elevated seating for the clergy here, though there were some more upmarket wooden chairs and benches against the wall of the chancel that remained unused.

The church

This is a kind of team ministry of three priests serving two historic churches. There is also a fourth, an ordained youth pastor, who serves the wider town or region. The priests share some ministries, but each church is served by its own vicar. The church community of St Johannis appears to be very active, according to their quarterly magazine, with regular weekly activities and some monthly ones. There is something on every day of the week: meditation, dancing for senior citizens, chat and social, lunch club, Bible study, knit and natter, choir practice, etc. It was surprising that there were no children in evidence in the service since there seems to be an enviable provision of youth and children’s ministries: a daily six-hour-long supervised youth club, monthly disco, twice monthly children’s cinema, open youth meetings, organised activities. (However, I could not find any reference to toddlers or children under six.) They are also famous for their annual Jazz Mass at Christmas, when people arrive two hours early to grab a pew.

The neighborhood

Flensburg is on the Baltic coast in Northern Germany, the traditional border region with Denmark. Over the centuries it changed hands several times between Denmark and Germany. A small fishing village in the Middle Ages, the town expanded massively at the height of the sugar trade with the Danish West Indies (now US Virgin Islands). The region’s main industries today are agriculture and tourism. The two team churches lie the in the so-called historic ‘Captain’s Quarter’ of Flensburg – both churches are surrounded by small picturesque houses originally occupied by the ships’ captains.

The cast

The vicar in charge of this church did everything except play the music.

What was the name of the service?

Gottesdienst zum zweiten Advent (Service for the Second Sunday of Advent). It was advertised on the website as a ‘Service with the Lord’s Supper,’ but it was in fact a Service of the Word without communion.

How full was the building?

With 30 adults, including some younger people but no children, it felt comfortably busy from where we were sitting in the comparatively small nave. There were also a couple of visitors like us, easily identifiable by their open admiration of the doom painting and excited pointing at various features. All were in the front half of the church, with the rear half left empty – so unlike Anglican preference!

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A welcomer had a friendly greeting for us and handed out an A4 sheet with an order of service, or rather a table of contents on the left half side and, on the right, a colour print of Giotto’s painting L'entrata in Gerusalemme that graces the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. We were also welcomed with a handshake by the incumbent, who was roving up and down the aisle, already attired in the distinctive flowing black Lutheran gown (formerly standard academic dress in Germany). She was also wearing a colourful stole with her white preaching bands, which is more usually worn for special services by German Lutherans. But then, it was Advent, so perhaps that is special enough.

Was your pew comfortable?

Perfectly reasonable. They were light coloured wooden chairs – which was handy, because we could hang our soaking wet coats over the back of the chair in front.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

As we approached in torrential rain and near dark (this is the Northern winter after all!) the warm soft yellow glow cast outside through the plain glass windows was very welcoming and heart-warming. Inside, the huge Advent wreath was suspended from the chancel arch. There were also two very tall burning candles on the modern altar, as well as the Paschal candle. It was reverently quiet, but not silent. Many Lutherans stand quietly for a few moments of prayer before sitting down, so you can usually tell who has just come in. Before the start of the service, the vicar walked towards the front, bowed to the altar, and then moved to the left to sit in the front pew.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

A rather wordy greeting, in German: ‘We meet in the name of God the Father, source of all life; and in the name of the Son (I missed this bit as I was scribbling away); and of the Holy Spirit, Breath of God, which flows through us all. Welcome to St Johannis.’ There followed a brief explanation of the word ‘Advent’ and why the gospel reading on this second Sunday of Advent is from the Passion narrative: the triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-9). We do not only prepare for the arrival of the infant Jesus in the manger of Bethlehem at Christmas, but also look ahead to his Passion. His arrival in Jerusalem and Passion are the reasons for his arrival in the world.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Evangelisches Gesangbuch (edition of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Northern Germany). We also had our service sheet with the print of the Giotto. There were no Bibles in evidence except on the altar.

What musical instruments were played?

The church has a spectacularly beautiful late Baroque organ in the west end gallery. It was built in 1723, extended with two more tall cases for pedal pipes, and further modified in 1965. The organ remained silent during the service, but what a treat we had instead: an all-female flute ensemble of six who accompanied the hymns. They also offered an introit by JS Bach and a postlude by the early 18th century French Baroque master Joseph Bodin de Boismortier which, like Bach’s ‘Gavotte,’ may well have been composed as a dance tune. The church, though small, is a popular venue for concerts, and the acoustics provided the reason why as the six flautists filled the vaulting with their beautiful sound.

Did anything distract you?

I was so absorbed by the sermon that it distracted me from all else, even from timing it. Does that count? There were also some very strange big round holes in the painted vault, which I puzzled over as my gaze swept over the vault during the musical offerings.

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

This was classic German Lutheran worship, often derided as a ‘hymn sandwich’ by more liturgically minded worshippers. If this was a hymn sandwich, it was a good doorstop whopper. It was dignified and solemn: the hymns classic German Lutheran Advent fare, which is sober, solid and dignified – and more comfortable to sing than angelic descants. The flute music was a welcome uplift. We remained seated throughout except for the Lord’s Prayer, grace, and the sending out. The liturgy was kept to a minimum, without even the Creed.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

I forgot to time it, but it ended at 10.43. It was long, but broken up through the singing of individual verses of the hymn it was based upon.

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

10 — This was one of the best sermons I have ever heard. The vicar came across as learned yet with a good sense of humour. She was very solidly a Lutheran intellectual, but she managed to engage the heart as well as the head. It is always good to come out of a service knowing one has learnt something rather than just heard some point of doctrine or staple repeated.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

In a coconut shell: It was based on the Lutheran Advent hymn, No. 1 in all Lutheran hymn books: ‘Macht hoch die Tür, die Tor macht weit’ (‘Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates’). It paraphrases Psalm 24, the appointed psalm for the day. The preacher related the story of the hymn’s origin: it was written during the Thirty Years War (1618-48) that devastated the Nordic countries in particular and brought bitter poverty. Georg Weissel, vicar and founder of the newly-built Reformation church in Königsberg, then in East Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia), felt that the doors of the church had to be open to all. One of the rich traders objected to the poor taking a shortcut to the church and trekking past his mansion. He bought the land through which the path ran and blocked it with a big iron gate. A group of young carol singers came along the path singing the new hymn that Weissel had written for Advent. This shamed the trader into flinging open his gate. Reputedly since then the old footpath has been called ‘Advent Path.’ We sang the stanzas of the hymn individually, and the preacher delivered an excellent interpretation after each, drawing out the progression from a religious practice tightly controlled by a few (Jewish priests) right through to the opening of the gates for all by Jesus Christ, moving from the collective prescribed ritual (Temple worship) to the personal relationship with God that each individual can have through Jesus. She highlighted parallels of green palm branches to welcome the Messiah into Jerusalem with green branches of Advent decoration to welcome the arrival of our Saviour.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

It is difficult to choose: the church itself, the sermon, the flute music. There was a beautiful rendition of music from the film Beauty and the Beast following the sermon. It was perfectly placed for reflecting on it. The final Boismortier piece almost made me want to jump out of my pew and dance down the aisle and fling open the church door. Included in the notices was mention of the recently departed, and it was very moving to hear very personalised prayers for the mourning families. Praying for the dead is not a Lutheran practice.

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

It always rankles with me in German Lutheran churches that the notices are given right after the sermon, breaking into the silence and prayer flowing from it. There was one bright moment though: The forthcoming Songs of Praise was announced, presented on a sheet with a painting of a group of angels (Giotto?). The vicar drew our attention to these angels, some of whom were praying or singing, some distractedly staring around, some chatting to each other, and others ‘doing nothing much at all – just like a parish!’ I also dislike the custom that there are two collections. One is usually during the service, and the other at the end, each for a different cause. In this church they have two offertory boxes by the door.

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

We wandered around this beautiful church, spent some more time inspecting the ceiling, and spoke to the other visitors. None of the locals spoke to us. Unfortunately, nature called and we had to leave. I think I could have spent a few more hours here in prayer, praise and wonder!

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none – none of the famous Glühwein (mulled wine) of German Christmas market fame either!

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

10 — Transplant this church immediately to where I live!

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

Yes, it made me very grateful for the gift of Christ to us.

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

I would like to say all of it, but that would be pushing it a bit. Probably the story of the hymn and Paradise in a cave.

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