Ermatingen – Europe’s Biconfessionality Champion
Few parish churches can be more ‘remarkable’ than St Albin at Ermatingen in the Thurgau region of north-eastern Switzerland. Originally ruled by the abbot of Reichenau in southernmost Germany, the area became subject to the Swiss cantons in 1460. The latter acted as overlords with high jurisdiction, but the lower rights remained in the abbey’s hands (before they passed to the Diocese of Konstanz in 1540). Substantially rebuilt in the 1480-90s (main picture), the church boasts a fourteenth-century St Catherine chapel and a commanding view over the Untersee lake.
In 1524, the newly appointed parson Alexius Bertschin introduced evangelical ideas into the community, whose majority soon converted to the new faith. This met with the severe disapproval of the Swiss governor at Frauenfeld, causing the parson to flee to nearby Konstanz (where the Reformation was also – briefly – successful, until Charles V forced its re-Catholicization). Yet after Bern had turned Zwinglian, Bertschin could return as an evangelical preacher in 1529 and two years later the Second Peace of Kappel (following Europe’s first religious civil wars) allowed parishes in the Swiss condominiums – including Thurgau – to practise two religions at the same time! Confessional minorities were granted protection, prompting some Catholic families to settle at Ermatingen. When the parish’s morrow mass benefice became vacant in 1536, the Abbot of Reichenau ensured that it would go to a follower of the old religion, making the new incumbent Hans Hopp effectively the first parson of the Catholic congregation. From that point until – startingly – today, St Albinius has been a Simultankirche, a church in which two confessional groups worship side-by-side. The situation fostered plenty of conflicts (the Catholics demarcated ‘their’ choir with a rail, the Protestants responded by hanging a curtain in front of it), but also co-operation on practical issues like fabric maintenance and eventually mutual acceptance. The most notable testimony to this co-existence is the early eighteenth-century font, which contains a Catholic (nearside on the left picture) and a Protestant basin!
Today, the church notice board is still divided into two confessional sections (right), the list of parish incumbents is arranged in parallel columns and the timing of services remains staggered: in odd months, evangelical worship starts at 9 am, with the Catholics meeting at 10.30; in even months, the order is reversed. When I visited on a sunny May Sunday, the sexton kindly removed the cover from the font and explained its peculiar design almost in passing, if clearly with some pride. During the mass, seven young women were confirmed by a Catholic canon, followed by a drinks reception outside the church and family meals at the nearby Eagle, an early modern inn first documented in 1590 and serving excellent Müller Thurgau white wine from local vineyards. Some places just seem to have it all.
Information courtesy of the church guide, community website and a little field work; pics: BK; for the wider context see R. Head, ‘Fragmented dominion, fragmented Churches: The institutionalization of the Landfrieden in the Thurgau 1531-1610’, in: Archive for Reformation History 96 (2005), 117-144.