URC members travel to Germany to see Oberammergau Passion Play

Members and friends from all around the United Reformed Church travelled to Germany in May to see the famous Oberammergau Passion Play. 

A group of just of over 50 people, led by the Revd Dr Michael Hopkins, Clerk of the General Assembly and Minister of The Spire Church Farnham in Surrey, spent a few days in the Austrian Tyrol exploring a beautiful area, where many friendships were made and renewed.

Innsbruck, Austria.

The Oberammergau Passion Play has been performed every year from 1634 to 1680 and every 10 years since 1680 (with a few exceptions) by the inhabitants of the village of Oberammergau, Bavaria, Germany.  In the past it has been criticized as antisemitic, but a multi-decade effort has changed this beyond recognition. It also makes more of the resurrection than ever before.

According to legend, an outbreak of bubonic plague devastated Bavaria during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648). The village of Oberammergau remained plague-free until 25 September 1633, when a man named Kaspar Schisler returned home after working in the nearby village of Eschenlohe.

Over the next 33 days, 81 villagers would die, half of Oberammergau’s population. On 28 October 1633, the villagers vowed that if God spared them from the plague, they would perform a play every 10 years depicting the life and death of Jesus. Nobody died of plague in Oberammergau after that vow, and the villagers kept their word to God by performing the passion play for the first time in 1634.

A cross in the Alps.

As is often the case, the actual story differs from the legend. There was an outbreak of plague in Oberammergau, but it took place from September 1632 to March 1633, when there were a total of 84 deaths. Deaths followed an epidemic curve instead of ending suddenly. There was one death in September 1632, rising to 20 deaths in March 1633, and ending with one death in July 1633.  There is also no record of a man named Kaspar Schisler.

The production involves over 2,000 performers, musicians and stage technicians, all residents of the village. The play comprises spoken dramatic text, musical and choral accompaniment and tableaux, which are scenes from the Old Testament depicted for the audience by motionless actors accompanied by a choir. These scenes are the basis for the interpretation of some figures and events in the Old Testament as foreshadowing the New Testament.

Attending the Oberammergau Passion Play was much more than just a holiday or a theatre trip, rather it was a serious spiritual experience.

One participant said, “The Passion Play is something I shall never forget and will always grateful for the chance to be part of this group and to see it.”

The next performances are expected in 2030 – bookings will begin in 2027, which is only five years away. Might you be interested in joining a group then? If so, please email Dr Hopkins.


Images: The Revd Dr Michael Hopkins.