Thoughts on worship, congregational song
and the life of the church.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Postcards from Worship: Evangelical Lutheran Church of Geneva

Wood-cut print of Geneva Lutheran Church (right).
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Geneva recently celebrated its 300th birthday, and its English-speaking congregation is thriving. The church building is situated at the edge of the Place du Bourg-de-Four, a chic square boasting myriad handsome cafes and chocolatiers, where you can sip Calvinus beer – named for the renowned reformer of the church – or pay $25.00 for a garden salad (don’t worry, you’re never far from a bank). Nearby, a gracious park on the grounds of the University of Geneva features not only a giant chess set, but the monumental Reformation Wall, honouring the great thinkers of the Protestant Reformation who did their moving and shaking in Geneva, such as William Farel, John Calvin, Theodore Beza, and John Knox (and if you look really, really hard, Marie Dentière).

The church was built in 1707, a time when ideological and cultural tensions were such that the Lutheran congregation was forced to intentionally construct their building not to look like a church, to avoid any competition with the Swiss Reformed Cathedral of St. Pierre which looms on the hill just above it. Consequently, the church more closely resembles a handsome old-world apartment building; observing the wrought-iron gates and helvetican lettering proclaiming it the Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche in Genf, you half expect twelve little girls in two straight lines to come out and go filing up the Bourg.

A church in such a context could be forgiven for exclusively employing the liturgies and modes of worship shaped during the enormously influential century in which it was built – a model which many nearby churches doubtless employ, I imagine to great effect. However, as the only English-speaking Lutheran congregation in a city of global expatriates, this church has evolved into a multicultural community whose leadership push the envelope of creative liturgy. The church website’s welcome statement says “We claim many parts of the world - even Geneva - as home.” The city is known as the headquarters of the United Nations, as well as of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Lutheran World Federation, the CERN research installation, and other international organizations. The church’s membership includes representatives of all of these bodies, and their families. 

I had the pleasure of worshipping at Geneva Lutheran during a three-week period in April of 2012. My first experience of their worship was a very full weekend of Holy Week observances, culminating in an Easter Vigil and worship on Sunday morning. I then attended worship on the Second and Third Sundays of Easter.

Pastor Lusmarina Campos Garcia grew up in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and studied theology and law. She has worked closely with the World Council of Churches, in particular with their Decade to Overcome Violence initiative, and her hunger for justice for oppressed and marginalized peoples pervades her approach to ministry. An acknowledged expert in the uses of movement in worship, Garcia loves to dance and has fostered this love in the congregation over the course of her ten years there. 

Minister of Music Terry MacArthur served for twelve years as the Worship Consultant to the World Council of Churches. By training he is a United Methodist pastor, and served for many years in parishes in Michigan before his call to the WCC. Owing to this background, MacArthur has a very globally-minded approach to music ministry, and one which is fed by the understandably transient but open-hearted and willing members of his choir. The congregation observes the Ecumenical Prayer Cycle as a spiritual discipline, and MacArthur supports this by drawing many of his musical selections from Thuma Mina (Dieter Trautwein, published by the WCC in 1995) and Sound the Bamboo (I-toh Loh, GIA, 2000), among other resources.

“Oh Mary, Don’t you Weep, Don’t You Mourn” - The Paschal Vigil

The heart of this congregation’s Easter observance is the Saturday-night vigil service, the culmination of the three-night worship act also encompassing Maundy Thursday and Good Friday (the “Triduum”). Historically, this Triduum is considered one service spread over three nights, with unifying worship themes building to a liturgical and theological climax at the Resurrection on Saturday night. This year, the worship leadership of Geneva Lutheran extended this concept across all of the proceeding Lenten season, by the introduction of a large bound congregational covenant book, to which members of all ages contributed over the forty days, using it in various symbolic ways in worship. The Saturday night vigil service, which began after sunset and concluded with a late-night congregational supper, was celebrated together by both the English-speaking congregation and the German congregation with whom it shares the building.

In keeping with the ancient Triduum liturgy, we began the service in darkness. Rev. Garcia and Rev. Dagmar Magold of the German congregation, aided by a teenage member of the community, brought the light of Christ into the darkened sanctuary from outside. The sanctuary has a circular, wood-floored main level and a wraparound balcony, with pews arranged in the round with a generous open space in the centre. Alternating English and German, the leaders sang out the ancient call-and-response that opens this service:

L: The light of Christ.
P: Thanks be to God.

Following this, Rev. Marc Blessing of the German congregation intoned the ancient Exultet, a litany of praise and proclamation of the eternal glory of the Paschal Lamb, in alternating English and German, with the brilliance and clarity of a Bachian Evangelist. 

As the service progressed, seeming to form itself out of the darkness of the first days of creation, more and more elements of holy playfulness began to be introduced. Two leaders invited the children forward to participate in a telling of the Noah’s Ark story. The young people entered the “ark” by passing under the opened covenant book, and opened multicoloured umbrellas to shelter them from the déluge. In a delightful moment of holy surprise, water fell from the “sky” (poured from a pitcher held by Rev. Blessing in the balcony) and came splashing forcefully down into the baptismal font – a wonderful representation of the rain, and a reminder of a key symbol of the Triduum, Christian baptism. 

Drawing on the theme of covenant of this Genesis narrative, leaders shared brief reflections of how they have seen God’s covenant at work in the world, from a first-hand account of ministry in occupied Palestine, to the modern-day exodus of the fall of the Berlin Wall. As the service progressed, weaving in songs from many different nations, there was a mounting sense of anticipation and celebration. In commemoration of the infectious joy of Miriam’s Exodus song of triumph and freedom, Rev. Garcia led the congregation in a spontaneous, messy, joyous dance. The song that the congregation sang with perhaps the most full-throated abandon was Per Harling’s communion samba “You Are Holy, You Are Whole.” As the deep night of vigil rolled on, these two congregations celebrated the risen Lamb in a spirit of reverence, fiesta, and play.

“Kudus, kudus, kudus” – The Second Sunday of Easter

Sunday worship at Geneva Lutheran is literally packed with song, as both Rev. Garcia and MacArthur, aided by many musically gifted volunteers, lead music drawn from virtually all corners of the globe. This approach suits the congregation well, as they represent the heritage of so many nations, and indeed each week visitors, who are invited to introduce themselves during worship, hail from surprising and diverse places. The effect is of a family coming together, aware of the differences that might seem to divide them, but willing to navigate one another’s songs as best they can and perhaps learn something from one another in the process. 

Taking in this community as a visitor and slowly learning its rhythms, I had to agree with the sentiment of Psalm 133:1 which we sang in English to a Hebrew melody: Behold how good and how pleasant: God’s people live together!” The liturgical texts for this Sunday draw heavily on scripture, in several places directly quoting 1 John’s message of divine covenant and grace. In keeping with the Ecumenical Prayer Cycle, the congregation prayed for Japan, North Korea, South Korea and Taiwan. A text by Nobuaki Hanaoka, set in translation to the traditional Japanese melody “Sakura,” helped us to express our gratitude for Creation, for our communities, and for the grace of God:

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,
for the blueness of the sky, 
for the greatness of the sea...

Thanks to God, thanks to God,
for the gift of friends in Christ,
For the church, our house of faith...

During the communion liturgy, I was particularly taken by MacArthur’s selection for the Sanctus, an Indonesian setting with an expressive Phrygian modal orientation. Supported by the choir, the congregation sang the unison melody beautifully: “Kudus, kudus, kudus lah Tuhan Allah segala kuasa”; “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might...”

"Owu wotum wohen?" – The Third Sunday of Easter

The opening hymn of this service was penned by a fellow Lutheran, “Come, join the dance of Trinity” by Richard Leach. We sang it to KINGSFOLD, with a rolling, dance-like tempo that did credit to the words: “The dance of Trinity is meant for human flesh and bone; when fear confines the dance in death, God rolls away the stone.” Then from American midwestern Lutheranism to the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition, we responded to the Prayer of Confession by singing the pleading melody “Etegdefene, we e temenenene”; “Do not forsake us, neither let us down.”

I had by this point infiltrated the choir. We had the pleasure at choir practice the previous Thursday night of learning a Ghanaian song from Jane Inkoom, a friend of the congregation. This feisty Easter chorus asks the apostle Paul’s question of 1 Corinthians 15:55: “O Death, where is your victory?” 

I particularly love how the sound of the Fanti language of southern Ghana evokes the defiant quality of the text: 

Wedzi nodo nkonyim. Death he has overcome.
Owu wotum wohen? Death, where is your power?
Jesu wedzi nkonyim. Grave, where is your victory?

The four-part chorus is lively, triumphant, and syncopated. MacArthur happily stepped into the choir to support the singing as Jane led us, intervening only to encourage the choir to follow Jane rather than our printed sheets. As she taught us the pronunciation, I loved the way she said the word “nkonyim;” pure, clipped and definite. I asked what the translation of this word was. “Victory,” she answered. Yeah, baby.

I was struck throughout my time at Geneva Lutheran by a pervasive feeling of welcome in all of the congregation’s meetings. It felt like a community at ease with the immense variety that characterizes its worship life; I did not sense any anxiety over the diversity of their worshipping body, over the continual shifts in language, in tone of the liturgy, in leadership style. While the mercurial, transient nature of the congregation (indeed, of Geneva in general) must present certain obstacles, the leadership exudes a kind of hail-fellow-well-met grace at each service of worship. 

It was exciting to worship at a church whose leadership is committed to creating and presenting imaginative and inventive liturgy, and whose congregation is willing to engage in it freely, and sail along to the next thing when something doesn’t work. Whatever tensions or challenges may exist at a personal level – as must be the case in any church – the congregation creates an environment of openness and welcome to guests, friends passing through, and members, which I have not seen equalled in a long time.

The final song I sang with this community before departing Geneva was this chorus from the Sudan, as taught by Beatrice Mukhtar Mamuzi:

Murassalat nina kulumurassalat le Yesu. We are all ambassadors, we are all ambassadors of Jesus.

"Don't count sheep...... talk to the Shepherd!" -- Geneva Lutheran Church

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