Two opposites collide

On the interaction between church and culture in Lübeck

Two opposites collide

Margrit Wegner and Jörg-Philipp Thomsa

In the parsonage of Lübeck Cathedral, steaming coffee stands on the dining table and self-picked apples have been prepared. Margrit Wegner, pastor at Lübeck Cathedral, is sitting opposite Jörg-Philipp Thomsa, Head of the Günter Grass House. Who better to conduct the discussion when the question is: Clerical Lübeck, secular Lübeck, two opposites with nothing to say to each other or which can indeed find a connection?

“Katz und Maus” (Cat and Mouse)

Domestically, the question has long since been settled between the two interlocutors. They are married with one child and they blend wonderfully as a couple and a team although their respective professions point in such different directions — or not? “We did indeed meet through our work”, says Jörg-Philipp Thomsa laughing. There was an idea at the time for a discussion group with prison inmates on the subject of “Guilt and Shame” on the basis of the Günter Grass novella “Katz und Maus” (Cat and Mouse). “I wrote an email to the Cathedral parsonage to find out whom I could best turn to in the prison on this subject, and whether, for example, a prison chaplain would be the right person to contact. Margrit replied and we met for lunch.” Both of them had already moved to Lübeck for their jobs although originally they come from different parts of Germany.

Love at first sight

Sicht auf den Lübecker Dom

Margrit Wegner was born in Hamburg and she was aware of her calling from an early age. My home parish, church music and youth work were formative influences on me and led to my desire to become a pastor”, she explains. A degree in theology was followed by the post of assistant vicar at Hamburg's Michel church and then that of vicar in the district of Steilshoop, characterised by high-rise apartment blocks, before transferring to Stockholm Cathedral in Sweden. Her first post as pastor finally took Margrit Wegner to the Chapel of St. Jürgen in Lübeck. But how did she come to be the first woman to become pastor at Lübeck Cathedral in 2010? “Martin Klatt who is now my colleague, encouraged me to apply”, she recalls. “I was very keen on the idea of working there as I had already fallen in love with the Cathedral before even moving to Lübeck. I was attending a concert at the time and it was genuinely love at first sight.”

When Margrit Wegner takes up her post at the Cathedral, Jörg-Philipp Thomsa is already Head of the Günter Grass House. Born and brought up on the Lower Rhine, he studied German and History at the University of Duisburg-Essen. He came to Lübeck for the first time in 2005 as a tourist and was immediately fascinated by the town. “I liked the town so much that I returned one year later to serve an internship in the Buddenbrook-House — ideal for a Thomas Mann fan like me”, says Thomsa with a grin. And it was here that they met for the first time after a reading: Günter Grass and Jörg-Philipp Thomsa. The start of an intensive collaboration. Thomsa becomes an academic trainee in the Günter Grass House and finally its Head in 2009, always with the full support of the man who lent his name to it and who died in 2015.

There they are now, the pastor and the museum curator, and the original question about opposites. “There are definitely connecting elements in our work”, Jörg-Philipp Thomsa opines. “It’s a matter of great concern to both of us to relate the themes of our “bosses” to today’s times and identify contemporary references. What are the questions that preoccupy people today?” For example, religion, finiteness, the question of guilt and responsibility — these are central, recurring themes in the works of Günter Grass. “That gave us the chance to find common ways of communication”, Margrit Wegner explains. “For example, one time we held a joint service with a reading from ‘Cat and Mouse’.”

Lübeck needs disruption

Garten mit Statue des Günter-Grass-Hauses

Both of them place great emphasis in their work on addressing as wide an audience as possible and also involving the next generation. There are regular services in the Cathedral for children and productions of children’s musicals while the guided tours of the vaults — available on request — are very popular with young and old.  “I can get the kids excited especially when I show them the marble angel blowing bubbles. I usually have bubbles with me so the children can blow some too. That’s really magical”, the pastor enthuses. Children are also very welcome in the Günter Grass House. “Every year, we organise a children’s festival in collaboration with the Willy-Brandt-House which is very well received, and we have the pleasure of greeting around 2,000 visitors”, Jörg-Philipp Thomsa recounts. “We would like to break down this misguided awe of art and culture”, he continues. “For example, when we opened the new Günter Grass House in 2012, Helge Schneider came as the main act. And from time to time, we also have Jonathan Meese here with an exhibition. Lübeck needs this disruption in its cultural life.”

Churches full of music

Cultural life in Lübeck enjoys an almost symbiotic relationship with the churches in the Old Town. The churches can also be experienced as cultural spaces. Its cultural heritage represents an obligation as Lübeck was after all the stage where major composers and organists such as Dietrich Buxtehude plied their trade. Even Johann Sebastian Bach followed the call once and came to the Hanseatic town to learn from the best. So it’s no surprise that Lübeck’s Academy of Music collaborates with the Old Town churches and that church music enjoys special status. “Culture in our churches is sometimes still not fully appreciated by outsiders”, Jörg-Philipp Thomsa states. “There are so many concerts staged in Lübeck’s churches, that is out of the ordinary.”

In this way, clerical and secular institutions join hands in Lübeck to shape the future of the town together, on an equal footing. With God and Grass and new paths of communication — opposites that resolve themselves.


“A time of reflection in the middle of the day — midday prayers shortly after twelve in St. Mary's church. Good music. Good words. What a blessing! And all free of charge as of course we don’t charge at the door for praying.”
(Margrit Wegner)

“If you’re in Lübeck, you should drop by the Museum for Natural History and the Environment. A wonderful collection devoted to natural environments in Schleswig-Holstein, its fauna and flora, awaits visitors here. The exhibitions are also ideal for families.”
(Jörg-Philipp Thomsa)

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