July 2011

 My previous post told of worshipping in France at a Cathedral in Le Havre, while being ignorant of the spoken language but knowledgable concerning the ecumenical language of liturgy.  A week after that attempt to experience Holy Communion at Mass in Le Havre, Joan and I were in Copenhagen worshipping in a large Lutheran church, Grundtvigskirchen.

Joan was particularly interested in seeing this church because of its exterior architecture. The church and surrounding neighborhood, all designed by the same person, look like organ cases and pipes. The interior of the church is modern and airy, with seating for up to 1200, a model schooner suspended from a side aisle ceiling, and a wood sculpture of a strangely contemporary-looking Jesus hanging from a cross in what we would call the vestibule or narthex.

We took the bus that morning from our bed and breakfast and walked the courtyard to the church. At one of the front entrances, we noticed several families with babies gathered at the door and correctly surmised that the worship service would include the sacrament of Baptism. We entered and took a quick look around the church, but soon found our seats for the service. We were pleased that the magnificent pipe organ was being played for this service, and while no one welcomed us verbally (in Danish or English), we were able to communicate the need for some kind of worship guide so we’d be able to follow what was going on.

Unlike many tourists in such worship spaces, we are there primarily for worship, not sight-seeing. So we were happy that a church member found us a hymnal-worship book, and with some ingenuity we could guess our way through the liturgy. We noted right away that the hymn tunes would be as unfamiliar as the language, but Joan and I are both good at humming along! A pleasant surprise was the sound of ten or twelve singers, young adults, who sang liturgical responses beautifully. (Since there were few, if any, other worshippers their age at the service, I’m guessing they are paid singers, not a volunteer choir. I’ll be happy to post a correction if someone from Copenhagen happens upon this blog and tells me I’m wrong about that.)

As was the case at the Catholic church the week before, there was lay leadership for some liturgical elements, and then the pastor read the Gospel lesson and preached the sermon, in Danish, of course. Since I couldn’t understand anything he was saying, I glanced through the hymnal, looking through the list of composers and tunes to see what might be familiar. Then, in the midst of the Danish homily, Joan and I clearly heard the pastor say, “C. S. Lewis, ‘The Chronicles of Narnia.'” Good for him, I thought to myself: a contemporary reference to popular literature. That was the only thing we understood, language-wise, through the rest of the service.

Apart from language issues, though, we understood much of what made for a worship experience in that church. The flow of worship was akin to our own Reformed understanding of liturgy. When it was time for the sacrament of Baptism, we could follow the rite as we understood it from our “home” church(es). Families came forward and gathered around the font. The pastor spoke words of welcome and asked the traditional questions of the adults who presented their infants and children for baptism. I noticed that as the pastor moved from one child’s baptism to another, some parents nodded or spoke their assent to the questions, but a few were silent and motionless, as if 1) they had no idea what was being asked of them, or 2) by their silence they were saying “no way” to the vows they were requested to make.

The children, however, by the grace of God, were baptized, and none complained.

Unlike the week before in Le Havre, this time we were able to remain for the sacrament of Holy Communion. When it was evident to us that the congregation was being invited forward to kneel at the rail for the Meal, several worshippers came down the center aisle from the back rows. While no one was “ushering” people forward row-by-row, it looked as if there were room in that group for two more, so Joan and I joined the procession. When we got to the rail cushions though, there was room for only one of us, so I encouraged Joan to kneel while I stood off to the side to await the next wave of worshippers.

Problem was, there was no “next wave.” When that first (and only) group returned to their seats, no one else came forward.  I awkwardly followed Joan back down the aisle, and we both wondered if maybe this Communion thing was not for the whole congregation, but maybe only for church officers or…or what? The rest of the worshipping community there (and certainly the vast majority of folk) remained in their places, and the minister carried on to the end of the service.

We kept waiting for the offering to be received, having worried a little about whether we had enough Danish cash to put in the plate. (By this time in our trip, we might have donated a few Euros, a couple of US dollars, a Kroner or two, and/or a few British pounds. We needn’t have worried; there was no offering. In fact, there were no plates at the back of the church for a “free-will” offering either. Turns out, it is a state-supported church. The Danish church is Lutheran, and citizens of Denmark are assessed (taxed) to support the Church. (Those who do not wish to participate in that assessment must claim atheism as the alternative. At least that is what we were told by U.S. parents of an adult son who lives in Denmark.)

That explained how such a magnificent structure designed to hold 1200 people could be supported by the meager gathering of souls who attend there each week. That also explained why so few people went forward for Communion. It turned out that after the service, as I was taking pictures of the sanctuary, the pastor came out of his office in his “civvies,” sport shirt and jeans. I asked him if he spoke any English and he smiled and said, “Yes, some.” I asked about Communion, and he replied that this was his first Sunday as the interim pastor of the church, but he guessed that most of the people there that morning had come for the baptisms, and that for them, the sacrament was more or less merely a rite of passage. For the most part, they are not committed Christians who would participate in the life or worship of the church. They were content to simply get the kids baptized, bear with the rest of the service, and go home.

Such is the state of the church of that State. One more note about something we found a bit odd. As the church was being closed up, someone had placed a sign over the large brass bowl of the baptism font. It read (in both Danish and English) “Do Not Touch…Alarm Will Sound.” The pastor explained that the sign was there to discourage visitors from either stealing or staining (by touching) the brass bowl. Then, he confided, “I’m not sure there actually is an alarm.”

I guess that better be our secret.




On a recent visit to Le Havre, France, Joan and I chose to spend part of Sunday morning at worship. The most convenient setting for us was the Church of Saint-Joseph, a Roman Catholic church downtown. We had seen a schedule of Catholic services at various other locations, and saw that most churches offered only one service. Saint-Joseph’s hour fit the “right place, right time” requirement of two Americans on a whirlwind tour of Le Havre and Rouen, a visit squeezed between the ship’s arrival and departure that day.

We do not know much French. Our proficiency is limited to “please” and “thank you.” So we knew that we would be worshipping with little understanding of the words of liturgy, homily, or hymns. Yet, because of the gift of growing ecumenicity among global Christians, the service would follow a general flow familiar to us as liturgical Presbyterians. As we entered the church, walking in among several tourists who were  there only for gaping and picture-taking, we glimpsed a couple of hymn sheets for that morning’s service and saw that some of the music came from Taize. We might know the tunes, if not the French words, and that seemed welcoming.

We did look around at the beauty of that sacred space, and then found our seats prior to the beginning of Mass. There was the usual bustle of activity as folks readied themselves for the service, with tourists still (and always) oblivious to the fact that worship was about to begin. I decided to look for the “men’s room” before the service started, and saw a stairway leading in what I assumed was the right direction. (Not knowing the language, I couldn’t ask anyone. Note to self: next time…)

Downstairs, I looked for some sign of a “rest room,” or some universal graphic that would show the way. I started down the hall, glancing toward two or three women who were busy in a room to my left. I pretended to know where I was going. But one of the women quickly came into the hallway and met me with a question in “broken” English. (That adjective applied to her English language skills puts her way beyond my French language skills, which, as I’ve already noted, deserve the adjective “non-existent.”) “May I help you, sir?”

I had no idea how to explain what I was looking for. Rest room? Men’s room? Bath room? (That one is odd, since I knew there was nowhere to take a bath.) So, for some reason, having come from visiting a British city, I said, “Toilet?” As in toi – LET? She frowned and shook her finger at me, saying in clear English, “No, no, no.  English?” I took that to mean, “Do you speak English?” But she meant, “Are you English?”

“Yes,” I admitted…wrongly. And somewhat sheepishly.  So, she pointed me down the hall to a door marked clearly “W.C.”

A few minutes later I was heading back into the sanctuary and she greeted me more cheerfully, and said, “Hello, again. May I ask, sir…Are you a Christian?” Wondering why she was asking, I said, “Yes!” And I began to pull on the chain of my cross, a Celtic cross that hangs inside my shirt, as if to prove my faith. Silly, I know. And she thought so too, and said (again), “No, no, no.” Or, maybe there were only two no’s this time.

“Would you like to make an act of devotion?” It was a wonderful gesture of inclusion on her part. Not knowing exactly what I was about to agree to, I told her that I would, and she handed me a candle (though she didn’t recall the English word for it). “You take this… this… [‘candle’ I told her]…yes, and after the priest’s homily…you know, homily?” [Yes.] You light this from the peace, uh, candle, and put it on the stand,” she said, pointing to a black metal stand with spikes on which several candles could be placed.

When I returned to my chair for worship, Joan asked what the candle was for, and I admitted that I hadn’t a clue, except it was to be “an act of devotion.” Now I was worried about my “cue” in the service, whether someone might catch on that I wore a Celtic cross and not a crucifix, and that I had no earthly idea what was being said in French as the time came for my “act.”

Joan helpfully pointed out that several other worshippers also had long white candles, and I relaxed a bit, knowing that I could just follow the flock, the ones who would know a) when the homily was over, b) where to stand, and c) what to do.

Again, we knew enough of the flow of the service that though it was all in French, we knew what was happening and could hum and mumble the unfamiliar hymns and responses. “Alleluia” and “amen” are universally pronounced in any language, so we could at least make an affirmative response when the liturgy called for it. We had thought that the use of hymns from Taize that morning might provide a familiar tune or two, but even the music was “foreign” to us. It was evident, however, when the priest had finished his homily, so I was on alert for the candle lighting part of the service.

When I saw some folks rise from their chairs with candles in hand, I followed them to the altar area, and we stood as the priest read something and asked us questions. “Oui,” I responded in unison with the others. (Even if I had meant to answer in the negative, I wouldn’t have had the French word for it!) We lighted our candles, placed them in the holder, and waited for a brief prayer. Then we returned to our seats for the Mass.

It is unfortunate that our allotted time for this visit was running out. We needed to catch a bus to move on to a pre-arranged tour of Rouen. We waited until an almost appropriate break in the liturgy before packing up jackets and cameras and leaving the church. I had hoped that my guide to the W.C. hadn’t witnessed our early leave-taking. What kind of a candle-lighting, devoted Christian leaves before the Meal? We sneaked out the best we could and caught the bus.

Holy Communion would have to wait until the next Sunday, when we were in Copenhagen. And there’s a story there, too.  Another service in a tongue we didn’t understand. And another Meal I missed.  [That will be my next entry…]