Kulturkirche Bremen – Interview with Diemut Meyer

Pastor and managing director of the Kulturkirche or Culture Church Bremen.

On the occasion of a workshop at the International Summer Academy in Salzburg on the topic of “Art in the Blog” I met Diemut Meyer from Bremen. This interview was created during this workshop. It was so interesting to talk with Diemut about the Kulturkirche Bremen that the whole interview became very long, too long for one blog entry. So here’s an extract from the interview.]

Diemut Meyer in Salzburg © Jutta Blühberger

What is a Kulturkirche or Culture Church?

The Kulturkirche St. Stephani Bremen is the third oldest church in Bremen and almost 900 years old. In 2007 the St. Stephani community was faced with the question of how to deal with the large church in the face of a shrinking membership. Since the congregation has always been interested in art and culture, the idea was born to use the main nave of the church as a culture church under the motto “Church makes culture – culture makes Church”.

Publikum in der Kulturkirche in Bremen
The audience in the Kulturkirche Bremen © Kulturkirche Bremen

What activities take place there?

The Kulturkirche or Culture Church is still a true church and a place of proclamation with a special mission to bring the contents, values and existential themes of the Gospel message into dialogue with art, culture, and music.

On this foundation, we produce culture in the church with the three sections Word, Art, Music. The worship service is still the central element of the proclamation. Only that the themes are different: in the cultural worship services we take up themes from music, films and the visual arts. They always have a certain theme. And so our congregation always comes together anew around these themes.

The culture church program is organized by Mr. Günther, the church musician at the Kulturkirche and myself. Mr. Günther is responsible for the Music program, I’m responsible for the Art exhibitions and the Word events. Mr. Günther directs our great Kantorei, the Bremer Kantorei St. Stephani with more than 60 singers, who develop their own repertoire and concert program, but he also invites guests, who then perform with us, with a very broad spectrum.

Tim Günther am Klavier
Tim Günther at the piano © Kulturkirche Bremen

Events in the category Art

Together with the art committee of the Kulturkirche, we conceive three art exhibitions per year. One of the exhibitions is always of our current scholarship holder. This is a wonderful institution of the Protestant Church of Bremen that every year it supports an artist with a scholarship for 10 months. An artist-in-residence so to speak. And at the end of his sponsorship, there is always an exhibition. With an accompanying program, of course. Many artists also apply to us and then we decide in the art committee what we want to show.

Blick in die Ausstellung - Nachtvogel © Kulturkirche Bremen
View into the exhibition © Kulturkirche Bremen

We announce the art scholarship and other competitions for ideas locally; in our jargon, this means “Bremen and Around. Bremen and 50km around it. In this way, we are strengthening Bremen as a location, which has a great art scene with its Art Academy of Fine Arts. This excludes some interesting, national and international artists who would also be interesting, but this is a conscious decision, because the Kulturkirche is financed with Bremen church tax money, so it also benefits Bremen citizens. Bremen has many artists and a big independent scene. I know many of them very well now and I know that many live in precarious circumstances. An art scholarship with stable financing for 10 months is very welcome.

Events in the category Word

In addition to the special culture services, we invite people to lectures on current ethical topics. Since 2016 we have had the Poetry Preacher Slam every year four poets compete against four pastors. Always on the theme of the current art exhibition – that’s a great format.

Kandidat des Poetry Preacher Slam
Candidate of the Poetry Preacher Slam © Kulturkirche Bremen

Another word format is called Blickwechsel or change of perspective, the dialogue between theology and theatre. This is a cooperation with the Theater Bremen. We have a four section house in Bremen: Music, theatre, drama, dance or from the youth field – a theologian and a dramaturge enter into dialogue with current plays.

The Kulturkirche is located on the edge of the old town, directly on the river Weser and the church stands on a sand dune. It is the highest elevation with 10 meters because Bremen is so flat – that is very funny for someone from Austria. As I said, the church is located at the highest point and it is an old water and shipping church and so the theme of water also resonates in our church windows. That is why we have done something about Bo(o)tschaften a play on words with boat and message because the church sends messages. It was an art exhibition with loans. We approached five artists who we knew had worked on the subject of water. That was our summer exhibition this year.

Seestücke in Holz
Ocean pieces in Wood – Exhibition Bo(o)tschaften © Kulturkirche Bremen

You’ve been a theologian there for four years. Do you also have an artistic background?

I have a musical education. I have been playing the piano since I was 10 years old, have sung as a pupil in the Bochum city choir and am a trained church musician (organist and choir director). I was supported by my parents and already in my school days, I was engaged in performing and visual arts. Museum and theatre visits were a must during my childhood and adolescence.

In my professional career as a theologian, I received journalistic training and training as a fundraising manager. I was active for a long time in the media department of the Protestant Church in the Rhineland before I came to Bremen. The two additional formations benefit me in the leadership of the Kulturkirche. One thing is to consider good content and exhibitions, and the other is how to get these topics into the public both through analog and digital channels. You can’t do this without public relations.

My mission is also to connect myself with the cultural events of the city. This succeeds on the one hand through our art committee in which representatives of several renowned museums sit. This is of course also a great luck for us. That must be said very clearly. I am a theologian and not an art historian, and I think it’s good that we think from different perspectives about which themes and exhibitions we want to show. The art committee includes, for example, the deputy director of the Gerhard-Marcks-Haus, the director of the municipal gallery, a professor from the Art Academy for Fine Arts and a freelance art historian who curates many of the Kulturkirche‘s exhibitions.

Pastorin Diemut Meyer mit Gästen © Kulturkirche Bremen
Pastor Diemut Meyer with guests © Kulturkirche Bremen

What is planned in the near future?

From October 11th we will show the exhibition “Group picture – 25 years Guiton“. On the occasion of the retirement of Jean-François Guiton, a professor at the Art Academy of Bremen in the area of new media, the Kulturkirche St. Stephani Bremen presents the exhibition Gruppenbild. Numerous videos, installations, photos, sculptures, drawings and music performances by 70 selected students from the 25 years of his teaching career will be on display.

This is again exciting because it is an exhibition with videos and new media. Otherwise, we often have the focus on painting or sculpture.

The culture church wants to reach people with the message through art. How’s the response?

I notice that many people have a very strong hunger for spirituality and for dealing with biblical contents and then I think it’s a question of how to “package” it, how to present it, because many also think that the church is dusty or outdated. But for me, the Bible is the most exciting book ever. With the most exciting stories of the existence of God and man. Even Berthold Brecht, as an atheist, said when asked what his favorite book was: “You will laugh, the Bible”. It is the task of theology to bring the stories and the themes into a form that appeals to people today. I notice again and again that many people outside the church come up to me who would like to work with me. I see it as a sign that the culture church and the contents we stand for are of interest to many people at the moment.

Kulturkirche innen Fenster mit Altar © Kulturkirche Bremen
Kulturkirche inside, window with altar © Kulturkirche Bremen

Do you also experience negative reactions, prejudices, criticism?

What we as theologians notice, the further away people are from the church, the older images or false images they have what the contents and rituals of the church are. Sometimes I think these are images from the 50s, e.g. about the contents and the ethics we stand for, or how a pastor looks like, that someone like me stands completely in life and has joie de vivre and approaches people. A lot of people are surprised. Well, and many are always afraid that they will be taken over by the church. I see myself as a theologian who goes into dialogue, not as someone who beats others with a frying pan. People don’t want that either; that’s what people are afraid of. And that’s justified because a lot of things didn’t go well: that people were intimidated, that they were charged with guilt, that they were afflicted with fear. For me, the message is something that frees us from the shackles and does not enslave us into small moral trifles.

That is also important for me, a loving contact, a respectful contact, a contact where you feel, every person is appreciated, no matter what their background is. I’m not asking, are you protestant? In the four years during which I have won many volunteers, only one woman has jumped off and all the others have stayed. That’s a positive sign then! If one does not feel seen and accepted, then there is a high fluctuation.

What is also very important to me is the subject of hospitality. For me, generosity and hospitality are very good Christian characteristics that should be fired up and encouraged even more. To be a good hostess is what we work in as a culture church.

Diemut Meyer überreicht einen Blumenstrauss
Diemut Meyer presents a bouquet of flowers © Kulturkirche Bremen

Have you ever met people who think that art and faith don’t fit together?

Yes, of course, there are artists who say, that they can’t really do anything with faith and the church. In the year of the Reformation anniversary we had a very large exhibition and in the run-up, we had an ideas competition on the subject of “500 Years of Reformation – Renewing – Changing – Exceeding”. At this Reformation exhibition, we had an open studio in the church. The artists worked eight weeks day and night in the church on four large rolling towers. It changes people when they work in a large, sublime space. The artists would not call it faith, but they experience transcendence; that there is something that goes beyond the human sphere. That’s what some artists reflected me. It changes them when they design art in the church and also implement their art. That’s very exciting.

Besucher_innen Vernissage
Visitors Vernissage ReFORMation © Kulturkirche Bremen

This is really exciting! Thank you so much for the interview.

I say thank you, too!