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Basel church adds new dimension to worship

The Red Pulpit Exhibition

Churches conjure up images of kneeling parishioners murmuring prayers, but a multi-denomination centre in Basel is taking a different approach.

Jesus probably would have been fascinated by the Open Church of St Elizabeth in Basel, where, it seems, anything goes as long as it brings people closer to (their) God.

The church is not so much a religious institution as a community centre. And the best place to start the guided tour is the church café. “It’s not a sin to stop off at the bar on the way to church,” says the café’s manager, pouring a tipple.

The church is a lively meeting place, tastefully decorated to take full advantage of the Gothic arched windows of the 150 year-old building.

The smell of home-made quiche and soup wafts under the solid oak door into the pews, where worshippers of all denominations make the most of the facilities on offer – facilities you wouldn’t necessarily expect in a place of worship.

Catholic/Protestant partnership

At the helm of this inner city church are Father Hansruedi Felix Felix, representing the Protestants, and Eva Südbeck-Baur, for the Catholics.

Felix Felix is tanned and relaxed looking in his chinos and silver jewellery. Eva is kitted out in a purple satin trouser suit – a far cry from the stern vestments of her more conservative male counterparts.

A tour of the building puts the philosophy of the open church into perspective – it is all about making visitors feel comfortable in their place of worship, whatever their religion.

Fun for All

The walls are lined with wooden carved pews, above which hang sets of headphones playing fairy tales. They’re intended to entertain children while their parents attend sermons. But the audio tapes also provide a sort of panacea for adults seeking solace.

Childrens’ drawing materials grace a side table. Near the vestry is a nappy changing area. On the other side of the church, a collection of bibles and religious texts in different languages await consumption. There’s even a copy of the Koran and a book about Buddhism.

Felix Felix tells me that the church has been rented for a banquet in the evening. It’s not uncommon for this house of God to pound with the disco beat. DJs spin, lights flash and wine flows in the corridors. Felix Felix points out that “there is room in this church to be quiet, to weep, but also to dance and celebrate”.

Not a Sin to Be Gay

The church reaches out to people who may feel marginalized in society. Once a month, for instance, there is a service just for gay people. The aim is not to win converts to Christianity. “I accept everyone on the basis of their own way of living”, says Felix Felix.

The Basel Open Church has also become known as a centre for spiritual healing. Beatrice Anderegg Stehlin, a former actress trained at Britain’s school for dramatic arts (RADA), provides healing sessions every Thursday. Many of her patients are cancer sufferers.

Red Pulpit

There is no shortage of cultural events either. Earlier this year, a photo exhibition featuring child victims of the war in Afghanistan filled the building. This was replaced by an installation cocooning the pulpit in red thread. The thread criss-crosses the church like a giant spider web, binding cornice to parapet and to gargoyle. For Eva, this symbolises connecting people through spirituality.

There are three other Swiss Open Churches operating in a similar way in Zurich, Bern and St Gallen. The Elisabethan church has an open door policy, so it’s expensive to run – SFr100 an hour. The priests’ wages are paid by their respective churches, and the rest of the running costs are raised through donations and renting out the building.

It’s a church that likes to keep abreast of the times. You can book a chat with your preferred priest on the church’s website (see link below) or find out what the press has to say about the larger than life Felix Felix.

He’s going to be leaving Basel soon to start work at a more conventional church in St Gallen. Eva is looking for a new Protestant partner, but has vowed to stay true to the founding strategy. It is a formula that attracts some 8,000 visitors a month, which means they must be doing something right.

by Julie Hunt

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR