The Night Church of Copenhagen

Article excerpt

"We wish to bring more of everyday life into the church, and take more of the church out into everyday life". (The Night Church of Our Lady)

In 1999, the Night Church project began at the Church of our Lady, the cathedral of Copenhagen. The Night Church has developed during the last seven years, and is now more an integrated part of Danish church life than a mere pilot project. This development has not been possible without the support of volunteers, the host church and staff including the dean, and the bishop of Copenhagen.

The Night Church was established in order to meet the need for a new and fresh way of interpreting Christianity to a postmodern, urban person. The starting point was that a great part of the urban population was seeking and longing for a religious and spiritual dimension in their lives but they did not seem to find that in Sunday morning church services. They were looking for another space both more spiritual and liberated than that provided by the traditional church.

Another dimension was that people wanted free access to the church not only on Sundays but all week and during the night. They felt they were far away from God because the church was closed during weekdays and evenings. They did not understand why the door to the house of God should be locked, when they needed to be in the presence of God.

The Night Church's task was, therefore, to create an open room containing a clearly liberated spirituality and a very distinct religious atmosphere.

The Danish context

The Danish Church is Evangelical Lutheran, and it is a state church. This means that a large majority of the people, some 83%, (1) are members of the church and pay a church tax but it does not mean that they go to the church on a regular basis. The truth is that the church today is seeing a decline in people attending services.

The greater Copenhagen area has a population of around one million citizens. (2)

The Church of Our Lady is also known as Copenhagen Cathedral, and is probably best known for the royal wedding that took place there in the summer of 2004. (3) As an urban area, Copenhagen faces the same problems as I believe do other larger cities in the Western world. This includes the fact that the number of people who go to church is declining, and congregations are getting older. The Night Church has shown it is possible to reverse these tendencies.

To try to explain the story of the Night Church in the Church of Our Lady, I will use three case stories from some typical Night Church visitors.

The first case concerns a young man. He is about thirty years old and has been attending the Night Church service for several years. He is longing for something different in his life than what the material world offers, and he has seen through the fake picture that the western consumer life style paints in order to capture our hearts. This man is seeking for something that money cannot buy. He told me:

   As I enter the room, I get a feeling of tranquillity and peace. In
   the beginning, I regarded the Night Church as a house of prayer. I
   didn't know the people there. Today, I know a lot of the people and
   I'm a part of the twilight congregation. I love the services, and
   quite often I feel the impulse to get on my bicycle and ride out
   into the night in order to participate in the 10 o'clock eucharist.
   To me, the Night Church is prayers by night, singing, friends, the
   coffee table, and the silence lying underneath it all. This peace
   fills me. I just can't stay away from the Night Church.

The second story is about a young woman aged 22. Her attachment to the Night Church began as a teenager, when she sneaked out from home because her parents did not like her going to church. She wrote to me:

   The first thing I see is Christ (she is referring to a statue by
   the altar by the famous Danish sculptor, Bertel Thorvaldsen) with
   his arms spread out in order to welcome everyone who enters the
   church. …