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Last week I was with my wife in Cologne, Münster, Bremen and Lübeck.

I refer you all to her site for the pictures.

This is me in front of Bremen cathedral

Comparing Cologne cathedral with Münster cathedral is like comparing night and day. Münster cathedral I have always loved, with its sense of light and space. I visited it frequently in 1980-82, when I knew that I had to move out of the business world and into the church, often visiting the neighbouring Aegidi-Kirche for evening mass on the way back from Bremen to Düsseldorf.  The presence of Cardinal von Galen remains compelling. Cologne cathedral, by contrast, is miserable: a dark, disordered Rumpelkammer not helped by some of the most horrible stained glass in Germany. 

Lübeck I took to. The reformation here was clearly more gentle: no Bildersturm, the old church wall paintings and carvings kept and covered or changed only when the interior was restyled. The two churches we visited, the Dom (cathedral) and the Marienkirche, though both Protestant and both heavily restored after war damage, felt like places you can pray in. In particular they did not have that perfection which can quickly sterilize a religious building - which is the case in Bremen cathedral.

And the collection of carved altarpieces in the St-Anna museum is remarkable, not to mention the incredible and excellently-restored Memling altarpiece.

Memling remains for me the most Christian of the Flemish Primitives: clearly a man with a huge sensitivity to human psychology, but never harsh or condemning in the way that, for example, Dirk Bouts sometimes is.

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The bright summer light streamed in, masses of fresh air came through the open windows.  Such a relief from the stained-glass darkened, poorly ventilated fug of my home church in Brussels. This was last Sunday and I was guest deacon in Würzburg, Germany, in wine -growing country east of Frankfurt. I know it’s easy to be attracted to other people’s churches on a first visit, and compare them unfavourably with one’s own, so I’ll be careful. This was a parish founded over 20 years by German converts to Orthodoxy, which seems to have integrated the Russian ‘invasion’ of the 1990s relatively well. One of the invaders, Fr Vladimir, in his 30s, is now priest-in-charge.  The church is in an early 19th century listed building rented from the city, no iconostasis, a good choir and some surprisingly good locally produced icons.

The service is mixed-language, so I was juggling two sluzebnikki. But the balance feels right (even if the German grammar of some the ektenias puzzled me), and the choir was clearly at home in both languages. They also use modern Russian rather than Slavonic for both the epistle and the gospel, and certainly for the epistle (a long passage from the Acts of the Apostles read by an older Russian women rather like she would read to her grandchildren!) I was convinced. There was also a pleasant unhurriedness and relaxedness about the whole service – which I guess there has to be with a long gospel in two languages and the sermon also in two languages. Which is rather nice – our own cathedral services tend to be fast and tense, timed down to the nearest second like the Bolshoi ballet.When I got a bit nervous, Fr Vladimir whispered 'Wir haben den ganzen gottgebenen Tag vor uns' (We have the whole God-given day ahead of us).

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Philipp Jakob Spener

Coming back from Germany and wanting to understand more the theology behind the Baroque buildings of Fulda, Würzburg and elsewhere, I bought Professor Johannes Wallmann's 'Kirchengeschichte Deutschlands seit der Reformation'. First published in 1973 and in its 6th revised edition, both the thought and the German language flow beautifully. It is a standard textbook, I gather, at least on the Protestant side – Wallmann is Protestant, and while not unsympathetic or unfair to Catholicism, it is clear that he has a much greater historical sensitivity, and interest, for his own confession.

Protestantism gets the lion’s share (over 90%) of the 50 pages he devotes to the period I am interested in, that is between 1648 (Peace of Westfalia) and the end of the Holy Roman Empire. It is not what I was looking for, but the history of the Pietist movement makes fascinating reading. It is basically the story of people feeling the 'if you want to be perfect' calling in a mono-confessional situation - changing confession (a common solution now in a multi-confessional society, if you feel the need to take your Christianity deeper), not being an option. People like Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705), the founder of the Pietist movement in Frankfurt, his more separatist con-disciple Johan Jakob Schütz (1640-1690), August Hermann Francke (1663-1727), the founder of the so-called Halle Pietismus, which developed a huge social work, with schools and orphanages, and started serious missionary work, and Count von Zinzendorf (1700-1760), and his Brüdergemeine, were clearly animated by a desire for God, and an experience him in their hearts, which largely overcame the strictures of Protestant theology.

The paradox here lies in the constant reference back to the ‘dead’ church from which they come, and with which most of them kept formal links, however tenuous and at times strained. This remains in the background, somehow providing a reference and a stability without which these smaller, 'going deeper' (I want to avoid the word 'extremist') groups would have foundered. In fact, both sides, I suspect, lived in a sort of unconfessed symbiosis, the first keeping the second from drying up totally, the second providing a theological and moral reference preventing the first from going off the rails into the chiliasm and sexual excess to which such groups are always prone.

I suspect there are lessons for today here.

Apart from that Wallmann’s book doesn’t really answer my question as to the theology behind the Baroque, other than one rather lapidary sentence:  “The image-filled magnificence of the Baroque, which the Jesuits brought as a church building style to Germany, reflects the rich imagination-rousing effect of the Exercises [of St Francis of Loyola]. The ‘Jesuit style’ presented the soberness of the Protestant cult with the richness and superiority of Roman Catholicism’”.  

 Yes and no, Professor Wallmann: the understanding of the faith in terms of a series of ‘mysteries’ is certainly there (instead of the straight Bible narrative of the Middle Ages). Magnificent, yes if it’s your cup of tea. Full of ‘soul-working’ imagery – once you strip out the putti and the women representing mater ecclesia in various guises – I am less sure. I sense a dearth.

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Last Tuesday we visited two churches, both now Protestant, in Erfurt.

The first, the Predigerkirche, the former Dominican priory, was home (when in Germany) to Meister Eckhart, born exactly 750 years ago. Even if my mind is not quite made up on Eckhart, I instinctively liked the place. Its honest austerity smells of the spiritual discipline that is conducive to good theology.

       My wife next to Eckhart’s prior's stall

What smelt wrong is the Augustinerkloster, famous as Martin Luther’s home monastery. We had the misfortune to have to join a group with a guide whose enthusiasm for Luther equalled her misunderstanding of the Christian ascetic tradition. Luther got it wrong, she got it even more wrong. We didn't take any photos and, as soon as we decently could, we ran.



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Standing in the very naked St Klara Kirche in Nürnberg (Germany) last Monday, I was asking myself as an Orthodox: if I were a priest (out of the question as I am a divorcee) and was asked to celebrate the eucharist in a form of my choosing (again very hypothetical), in this building and for a majority native population (i.e. not the largely refugee populations of most Orthodox parishes in the west), what would it look like? Answer:

- liturgy:

- a traditional western rite (possibly reworded to de-emphasize the sacrificial aspect), or St John Chrysostom with some judicious cutting between the Gospel and the 'Lift up your hearts'

- all prayers, other than the priest’s prayer of confession, said out aloud

- communion of the faithful immediately after the priest

- priest’s position: west facing

- vestments: simple, of modern western cut, in good material

- utensils: plain but of good quality

- music: Gregorian or derivative, eventually znamini (if it works with the language)

- language: as much Latin (the traditional Church language of this part of the world) as I can get away with. But every word said, in Latin or the vernacular, to be understood and believed by the speaker, and intended to be understood by the congregation

- sermon: prepared beforehand, maximum 7 minutes

- other decoration: four or five large, good icons, eventually with an early western medieval feel to them

- movements: well defined and controlled (in particular any processions). Rehearsed where necessary

 While this is all totally hypothetical, and would feel culturally strange to a Russian or Romanian Orthodox visitor, I do not think there is anything inherently non-Orthodox in it. It would not be to everyone's taste, and would not suit every building either. But dare I suggest that this is perhaps what Orthodoxy is going to have to look like, and the quality it is going to have to aim for, in the west if it is ever to get beyond its ghetto status?

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Driving up the new motorway from Schweinefurt to Erfurt, across the Thuringian forest into the former German Democratic Republic, I suddenly understood the concept of ‘Reich’: a large, solid expanse of land and peoples that belong together through shared language, history and tradition. Traversed as it were by the deep currents of a collective sub-conscious –  powerful if Christianized, outright dangerous if not. Stretching beyond Germany's pre-1919 borders, mutilated by the Treaty of Versailles, its territorial integrity restored under the Nazis and then repaganized, this Reich became so scary to both Russia and France that after the war they sought to break it up irrevocably.


I ask two questions: first, is the German ‘Volk- und Bodenmystik’ is so very different from that of ‘Holy Russia’? Second, what of Europe? Is it too something given, deep-rooted, like Germany or Russia, or just the artificial construct of economic pragmatism?
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Tomorrow we head eastward to Germany to visit my brother for 10 days near Würzburg. High on my list of places to go are Erfurt and Dresdner, both on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain when I lived in Germany from 1974 to 1982.

It's strange, I have a degree in the language, I was the de facto adopted son of a German family which fled to the west, and have travelled the length and breadth of the country (at least what used to be West Germany). Yet I realize just how little grasp I have of the 'true' German identity. 

I am beginning to suspect that the last person who got the German identity right was Dr Goebbels (Hitler’s propaganda minister), so right indeed that the Germans have been running away from it ever since. Certainly they were running away very fast in the 1960s, when I travelled Germany as an English teenager with near-fluent German (a rarity in those days). 

I’ll see if I can understand the country any better forty years on.

Posts may be a bit irregular for the next 10 days……


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