3 - 2001
German churches - 10 years united
"On National Remembrance Day and for Furnerals"
A church in a north German village
by Jürgen Jessen-Thiesen
The West German regional churches still appear to have the traditional, national church structures intact. But what is the actual status of the church today, for example in a village? This is what the pastor is wondering in Tellingstedt, in Schleswig-Holstein in northern Germany.
"Do you go to church regularly?" "Yes, on National Remembrance Day with the fire brigade, and for funerals!" This brief extract from an interview conducted by confirmation class members, on the streets of Tellingstedt in Dithmarschen, demonstrates the place, which the message of the church has in the village culture.
The villager who was being interviewed is a volunteer fireman. He feels his obligation to the community and the tradition, which has grown up there. Like other members of village societies, members of the fire brigade go to church on National Remembrance Day - wearing their uniforms and carrying their organisation's flag. Going to church on National Remembrance Day is part of village culture.
Life in the conventional village community is defined by traditional values. These handed-down patterns of behaviour communicate security, direction and stability. Steeped in his traditions, the individual is relieved of the need to make independent decisions. People know how to behave towards their neighbours, at ceremonies or in situations of conflict. Values and patterns of behaviour are prescribed for them.
Belonging to the village community is not a matter of individual choice or decision. You belong to the village the same way you belong to your family - by birth. Thus you identify yourself with your village and the values of its community life.
Societies and groups have great significance in this scheme of things. They make possible social relationships according to set rules, even to the point of quasi-religious elements such as honouring deceased members. In the societies and groups, village values are preserved and cultivated. These values include a sense of responsibility and a feeling for the common good. Helping one's neighbour is also characteristic of traditional village life. People know that they depend on each other. We belong together, we help each other.
The principle of mutual help also defines the commitment of the Volunteer Fire Brigade. "Help in need is our command", it says on our village fire brigade's flag; and under these words, as guarantor for the validity of this motto, is a picture of our old village church.
Relationships within the family and among relatives also help to carry the community. Even during a falling-out with one another, family members stick together. People no longer live as extended families in one house, but the whole family still gathers as always at times of important celebration - baptisms, birthdays, funerals.
Celebrations not only foster companionability, but also serve as a safety valve for conflicts, which have built up steam within relationships. Over beer and schnapps the usual values and patterns of behaviour are relaxed for a while, so that people can get over a quarrel or find it possible to integrate outsiders. If this does not work, the conflicts are handed on ("even to the third and fourth generation"), and other family members become involved in them.
Also part of the behaviour patterns in village culture is settling collective conflicts and crisis through ritual, or keeping them quiet through taboos. - Take the National Remembrance Day, again. On one hand, the ritual of going to church, and afterwards laying a wreath at the monument to the dead, is a part of village tradition. On the other there is the taboo against speaking of any responsibility or guilt of one's own for the horrors of war.
Social control ensures that village values are preserved. People know each other. They know what one another's family relationships are like, and what social status each family has. If someone is sick, or other help is needed, the news spreads by word of mouth. People pay attention to and watch one another, and talk about each other. Unusual behaviour is noticed and becomes a subject of conversation. Anyone who does not conform his or her behaviour to the traditional values of the village culture, ends by shutting himself or herself out of the community. Anyone whose actions seriously offend the community is excluded from it.
It is part of traditional village life that the church, religion and faith are things one needs. The presentiment that there must be more to reality, and that not everything can be explained or done for oneself, belongs to village wisdom. - When a death is being mourned, this religious awareness comes especially to the fore. Like the volunteer fireman, everyone takes for granted that a funeral is a time to go to church. The same goes for baptisms, confirmations and weddings. They reaffirm the set place, which the church has in the village, helping people deal with transitions and crises in their lives.
"We want to have a pastor, but we hope we won't need him", is a proverbial saying, which clearly expresses this function of the church. The pastor - the church, the Gospel - must be there for the crisis situations. However, people hope they can get through life without crises, and that means also, without the church and its Gospel.
The village church is seen as the guardian of tradition and of village culture. In our village of Tellingstedt, the strongest symbol of this function is the 860-year-old stone church, which stands at the centre of the village. The church remains when everything else passes away or changes. It symbolises the endurance of the traditional village way of life. "The church belongs in the village", we say. It is the church's job to be conservative. This is the arena of expectations within which the Gospel is to be preached. All efforts by pastors and other church staff members to move with the times run counter to the deeply felt need for the stability of traditional village culture. Change and modern life are concepts with negative connotations.
Since the village values have grown out of inherited and proven experience of life, they agree in many areas with the values of the Gospel and merit support from the church. However, the Gospel cannot be made subject to other values. It is in itself an independent context of meaning and can be a source of criticism of village life values.
Based on the freedom of the Gospel and the self-understanding of the church, which results from it, the church is an independent entity over against the village. In one way it is part of the village, in another way it is a foreign element. The inner independence of the Gospel and the structural self-containment of the church are seen as offensive and lead to tensions between church and village. These tensions come out openly in the many and diverse ways in which the church and the commune experience rivalry with one another.
This appears most clearly in the way village inhabitants (and church members!) distance themselves inwardly from the church, its programme and the concerns about which it speaks. "We're members, but we don't go." The person being interviewed, with whom we began, goes to church on National Remembrance Day and for funerals - otherwise not!
Our description of traditional village culture, in fact, only covers one side of village life. It has long since been true that traditional values and structures are not the only ones to be found in the village. New people moving in, people fleeing the city, and changes in the way careers are structured, the media and increasing mobility have brought the city culture into the village and are threatening the survival of village culture. Increasing numbers of people are coming to the village who consider themselves emancipated from tradition, who create their own lifestyles. This rocks the boat of security and stability, which the village system offers.
On one hand, the message of the church reinforces village community values, such as helping and loving one's neighbour. On the other hand, it proffers criticism of village traditions, when the understanding of community becomes too narrow, for example in treatment of marginalised persons and foreigners, or with regard to willingness to forgive or to allow topics of conversation which have been silenced by taboo. The tensions, and the diversity of church work, become clearer when the goals of the work are clarified with reference to different areas of village culture.
This article appeared in the magazine Nordelbische Stimmen (Voices from the North Elbian Church), No. 11/2000. We present it here in abridged form.