Sunday, 10 August 2014


BELONGING AND NOT BELONGING PART 1 : Ahlfelds: A thin link to J.S. Bach, Offen Fur Alle! Friedensgebet und Montagsdemonstrationen and radical Christianity from Leipzig to Leiden   

 "That you are patriotic will be praised by many and easily forgiven by everyone; but in my opinion it is wiser to treat men and things as though we held this world the common fatherland of all". Erasmus of Rotterdam

There is a  big stooshie going on over at the Catholic Herald because German Catholics and Lutherans are planning to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation  As you can see from the comments thread, this idea appears to be tantamount to heresy and completely unacceptable for the Herald readership.

For me, this issue is a little more complicated. Like Erasmus of Rotterdam, I'm happy to be Catholic in the heart and soul (but perhaps a little Protestant in the head) We don't need to change any of our deeply held beliefs and we don't need to agree with the reformation, but we must accept the existence of  the Reformed Churches as a reality and work hard to continue to move closer to our Protestant brothers and sisters. There are good people,  friends, family, sincere and devout Christians and much to admire in the Protestant tradition, from Methodists to Mennonites. I believe that the way forward lies with  the ecumenical outlook, and spirit of kindness, simplicity and reconciliation which comes from people like the late Brother Roger's Taize Community in France, from our own Catholic Worker Movement,  from Jean Vanier's L'Arche Communities and from the spiritual works of the great Dutchman Henri Nouwen. My reasons for feeling like this are pretty much covered in the two blog posts below. R.

1. The power of a book
15 years ago I was sent a very old book by a distant Ahlfeld relation in the US. The book was called "Das Leben im Licht des Wortes Gottes". It is a book of sermons written in 1886 by an even more distant relation called Pastor Friedrich Ahlfeld. Pastor Ahlfeld was a Lutheran Minster at the famous St.Nikolai Church in Leipzig. Despite being a Catholic, this book introduced me to the Protestant faith of my North German ancestors. Which in turn introduced me to the works of Bonnhoeffer, Moltmann, Barth and so on.  More importantly, it introduced me to the history of St Nikolai Church in Leipzig, a Church strongly associated with non-violent protests against the Government during the Communist era in East Germany. In 1989 St. Nikolai's was at the centre of peaceful revolt against communist rule since it was the meeting place for the "Monday Demonstrations" (Montagsdemonstrationen).

In earlier times St Nikolai Church had been strongly associated with the music of J.S. Bach. The church saw four performances of Bach's St. John's Passion on Good Friday. Reading and learning all about this eventually left me with a deep love for the works of J.S. Bach as well as an interest in the idea of radical Christian peace activism as a positive force for social change. So today my book is a strange oxymoron for me, on the one hand it had a profound effect on my faith by moving me away from a safe, unthinking, cultural Christianity towards a more demanding, active Catholicism. It made me take seriously the idea of "a people set apart" and a special devotion to Friedensgebet (prayers for peace). Yet on the other hand, the book also symbolizes family, history and place. Or in other words, belonging and not belonging.

Today St Nikolai Church describes itself as a Church which is "Offen Fur Alle" (Open for ALL)which means that it is a Simultaneum Church, meaning that the Catholic Church is allowed to use it too. Simultaneum was a term first used in 16th-century Germany for Churches where worship is conducted by both Catholic and Protestant denominations. Such churches became common in  Germany after the reformation.
One other interesting point on this topic. Amazingly, there was another Pastor Ahlfeld at another Simultaneum Church in the middle of the 18th Century at the Old Saint Peter's Church in Strasbourg. Pastor Ahlfeld is also commemorated in a book published in 1910 called  "Monsieur l'abbé Ahlfeld, curé de Saint-Pierre-le-Vieux de Strasbourg"  You read about the Church here's_Church,_Strasbourg

BELONGING AND NOT BELONGING PART 2: More J.S. Bach, Gothic Brickwork, the Dorpskerk in Wassenaar, the Oude Kerk in Katwijk and the Pieterskerk in Leiden

"The veneration of Mary is inscribed in the very depths of the human heart." Martin Luther (Sermon, Sept. 1st 1522)

2. Travels in the Bijbelgordel

I was recently reminded of all these  European and ecumenical ideas once again while visiting South Holland last month. This was especially true while visiting the Pieterskerk in Leiden. The Pieterskerk was the church of the Pilgrim Fathers while they were in based in The Netherlands before sailing on the Mayflower to the new world.,_Leiden Below is a commemorative plaque to the Pilgrim Fathers at the Pieterskerk.

It reads, "BUT NOW WE ARE ALL, IN ALL PLACES, STRANGERS AND PILGRIMS, TRAVELERS AND SOJOURNERS". For me this statement captures the very essence of no longer belonging, a Christianity which challenges the social order and can find no home in the Nation-State. A Church community which is called to be a people set apart wherever it finds itself in the world. In Leiden I was reminded of the Scots Calvinist community based there during the Killing Time. I was reminded of all my Ahlfeld cousins in America and other Germans and Dutchmen settling in Pennsylvania (The City of Brotherly Love) and the works of Hauerwas and Yoder which have influenced me greatly. I was reminded of the book of Pastor Ahlfeld's sermons taken from Germany to America.  

Yet Dutch tolerance is not just an abstract concept or a period of The Netherlands past which allowed Jews, Catholics and Mennonites live in relative peace in a Calvinist country during the Dutch Golden Age. These values of tolerance and understanding still persist in The Netherlands today. Down in the Dutch Bible belt (Bijbelgordel) Calvinst Christians are quiet conservative and devout yet somehow they are able to get along living in one of the most liberal, post-Christian, secular countries in the world. For all Dutch Christians, being ecumenical has become a necessity. South Holland was traditionally Catholic while the North was Calvinist so the area around the Hague and Rotterdam where I was is quite mixed. Historically, Dutch Christians lived under a pillar system which basically meant that each group lived apart, left each other alone and managed their own affairs. But in the 1980's Catholics and Protestants came together to form a united political party called Christian Democratic Appeal which has participated in all but three governments since it's foundation.

I encountered this spirit of ecumenism and unity for myself at two different Churches in The Netherlands. One Sunday evening after Mass in the local Catholic Church I cycled by the Dorpskerk in Wassenaar, pictured above. They were hosting a performance of J.S. Bach's "Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes". I was quickly invited in and made to feel very welcome. It was the same story of hospitality and kindness at the Old Kirk in the strongly Calvinist-Bible belt, old fishing town of Katwijk. Here is the beautiful Bach Cantata below

So where does all this leave us? I once read that Pope Benedict loved the countryside, the old churches and rustic villages of his native Bavaria. That his Catholicism was, in some part, a love affair with the Catholic world of his childhood. I can certainly relate to such feelings of "Heimat", that deep sense of belonging and history. I am at home in the costal Lowlands and the flat country stretching from the Rhine to the Wesser. I love the old Gothic Brickwork Cathedrals of the North Sea Coast from The Hague all the way up to Bremen. Is this true faith or is it an emotional attachment the Hanseatic world of my ancestors? The herring?, The beer? The Bach? Perhaps we both belong and do not belong? Yet, we Christians always remain outsiders and "Sojourners" in America, Scotland, Holland, Germany, Iraq, Palestine, Syria...Most of all we remain Prodigal Sons who are lost and returning to the loving Father. This concept is brilliantly captured by two great Dutchmen, the artist Rembrandt and Priest and writer Henri Nouwen.

All that aside, I am also grateful to have been able to take my family on a holiday and a pilgrimage. I am grateful and thankful for a period peace, rest and healing from a previous holiday a few years earlier which had been filled with hurt and pain caused by a bad accident. Hopefully we can learn from the Dutch and Germans to put the final nail in the coffin of sectarian bigotry in our own country and come together to defend ourselves from the worst excess of Militant Secularism in Scotland.

God Bless

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