05 October 2011

Ordination of deacons in Koblenz, and the future of the north

Hat tip to Walter Jungbauer for the link to the photos.
Yet more pictures are available from Heike Kiefel. Many thanks!

On 3 October 2011, day before yesterday, three deacons were ordained by Bishop Matthias Ring in Koblenz. (I had hoped to go myself, but because of my day job and a critical deadline Tuesday, I decided against it.) One of them, Jörn Clemens, will be our full-time deacon in Hannover, which will be very welcome for our rector, Oliver Kaiser, who was under immense strain and pressure during the whole project of building the church.

Stefan Neuhaus-Kiefel, a priest and vicar in our diocese, took lovely photos which you can see on his photo album page. Additionally, Heike Kiefel also posted pictures from the service. Many thanks to both!

Not only was the planning of the church and managing its construction a Herculean task, but the position of rector of the Hannover-Lower Saxony parish was already taxing enough. Our parish has by far the largest territory of any in the diocese, essentially the entire state of Lower Saxony, and also by far the most members, around 1600 scattered around the state, with clusters in Hannover, Osnabrück, Braunschweig and East Frisia. By way of comparison, the average parish in our diocese has around 300-400 members and usually is only a few Landkreise (roughly the German equivalent to a county in the US) at most. The parishes in Nordstrand (an island in the North Sea close to Denmark) and Berlin also have similar problems, but are smaller in membership -- though it has to be said that Nordstrand's rector has to drive even farther, since his parish is responsible for mentoring the Hamburg parish, which has no rector of its own, and the small number of Old Catholics in Bremen.

Thus the situation in the northern part of Germany is particularly problematic for anyone to manage -- just plain too much area for one person to cover, in both cases of Hannover and Nordstrand. Until recently, the parishes in the north (Hannover, Nordstrand, Hamburg) were not even in their own deanery, but rather were directly under the bishop, with the vicar general (roughly the Old Catholic equivalent to an Anglican archdeacon) acting as dean.

The good news is that this is finally changing. Some months ago, right after he was ordained and took office, Bishop Matthias initiated a project that had been proposed by the rectors and vestries in the north. This project envisions a dramatic reconstruction of the parishes and their pastoral care. First and foremost, these parishes are now in the Deanery North (Dekanat Nord), and our rector was promptly elected dean. Second, the cluster in Osnabrück will be split off and made into its own parish, although the pastoral care will still be in the hands of the Hannover rector. Third, the so-called Speckgürtel (literally "bacon belt") of Lower Saxon counties adjoining Hamburg will be split from our parish and attached to Hamburg's, and eventually Hamburg will have its own full-time priest, thus relieving Nordstrand of the considerable strain of caring for Hamburg and Bremen.

Another bit of good news that is coincidental, but further helps this project, is that we have a new priest (albeit non-stipendiary) who lives in Osnabrück and who serves as a part-time priest there, saving our rector the effort of driving to Osnabrück every Sunday evening to conduct the services there (a good two-hour trip each way, roughly 160 km).

And now that we have a full-time transitional deacon, who will be ordained as a priest and become our vicar, the load on all the clergy in the north ought to dramatically lessen. Which is good, because frankly the load on the priests in Hannover and Nordstrand was downright inhuman. So I'm particularly happy that Bishop Matthias supported this project so well, and am also happy for our priest, who can now spend much-needed and much-deserved time for himself and his family.

So where to from here?

I'm hopeful that this new plan will also have a positive effect on mission work. "Mission" is a bit of a dirty word 'round these parts, but let's face it, membership in all churches here is in free-fall. It is not at all unusual to hear parts of Germany being described as "post-Christian". Many people have turned their backs to the church -- or rather all churches -- not least because of pedophilia scandals and maladroit handling of them. The deeper reason, though, is because the churches have singularly failed to stay relevant to people's daily lives and to actively reach out and spread the Gospel, rather than just sit and wait for people to walk in. The contrast with the US is striking. There, it is still common to attend church every Sunday; that is almost unheard of here, and saying that you do generally raises eyebrows.

In the US, the building of a new church would attract some mild attention, but not much, since it just isn't that unusual. In fact it seems like Americans are constantly building and re-building churches. But here, the fact that a parish is actually building a new church, in a climate where dozens of churches are being closed down and shuttered, was something of a sensation.

We got a lot of free press for it, and indeed attendance at the church's consecration was immense -- in the ballpark of 300 people. Our attendance has also noticeably gone up. Whereas our average Sunday attendance was around 17 or 18 people each Sunday, since we began using the new church at Easter Vigil in 2010, my rough estimate is that the average is now around 25 or even 30. In fact, what amuses me a little is that whenever I think our group is rather small, I count the people attending -- and invariably it's the old average, and rarely below it.

So we have lots of opportunities, and I think the hand and glory of God is clearly recognizable in all of this. We now have a great chance to stem the tide of the collapse of the church in Germany, maybe even to turn the tide, at least in our area. And we have the chance to revitalize ourselves after the strain of building our church, to reconnect with who we are and to carry the Gospel into our neighborhood. And that is all worth celebrating indeed.

Glory be to God on high, and on Earth, peace, goodwill towards men.

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