Celebrating 180 years of St. Thomas à Becket Hamburg

The prosperous north German city of Hamburg has a couple of very distinctive features. One is the Alster Lake. At 1.6 sq. km. this is Germany’s largest city-lake, a delightful centre for recreation, watersports and occasional festivals. The other is a striking skyline dominated by five church spires, three of which are shown here. They testify to the historic strength of Lutheranism in this part of Germany.

Our visit was the on the weekend before Advent. The city was just gearing up for its pre-Christmas celebrations and Christmas markets. The picture shows the impressive Rathaus (City Hall) in the background.

England has a longstanding trading relationship with Hamburg, and 400 years ago the Company of Merchant Adventurers was granted special permission by the Lutheran authorities to hold religious services according to the rites of the Church of England. The community thus forms one of the oldest Anglican churches in mainland Europe. The present church building was constructed 180 years ago, and consecrated ‘Thomas à Becket’ after the patron saint of the Merchant Adventurers. During November 2018 special events were held to celebrate its history.

Our weekend began with a concert given by the Chinese countertenor and church member – Meili Li – accompanied on the harpsichord by Nicola Procaccini. Meili sang a programme of Baroque music by Purcell, Handel and Monteverdi. In the excellent acoustic of the church, the effect was enchanting. A great deal of effort had been put into publicity, sponsorship and ticket sales. I was told that the result was a very welcome boost to church funds of the order of 10,000 euros. This just shows what can be achieved with a well-planned event.

The following day, an exhibition was launched that used a short film and 8 long banners to tell the story of the church. The film was very nicely balanced between charting the heroic founding efforts of British Consul Henry Canning (cousin of the British foreign secretary George Canning), and the equally heroic efforts of a church caretaker by the name of Mabel Wulff who stayed in the premises throughout the Allied bombing campaign of the Second World War, even when the building was partially destroyed. I was deeply impressed at how a history that could have been all about ‘great men’ had been constructed to emphasise the contribution of a redoubtable and devoted woman. The picture shows Nicholas Teller, the British honorary consul and Canning’s modern-day successor, telling part of the story.

The roots of the Anglican Church in Hamburg lie in British trade. But, especially in the last few years, the character of the congregation has changed markedly. It is very definitely ‘not just for the English’. For a start, the chaplain (Canon Leslie Nathaniel) is from India, and the two assistant priests are German.

Looking out across a full church it was evident that many of the congregation are from the Global South.

And they are all ages! St. Thomas à Becket has a Sunday School, a youth group (the Becket Mix), a young adults group (some members pictured above) and a young families group.

It was a delight to be plunged into the history, culture and fellowship of the Anglican Church in Hamburg for a weekend. It is a privilege for me to have a small part in supporting the growth of faith of our diverse and exciting congregations. Church life is sometimes challenging for St. Thomas à Becket, and they are very conscious of not sharing in the church tax system that supports most of the German churches. But this weekend was a wonderful celebration and a great encouragement.

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