In a way it feels as if a number of the posts that I wanted to write about my trip to Europe have gotten away from me because while I saw and did a lot of things, I simply haven’t had the time, or the inclination, to sit down and write about all of them. Still, the good thing about that is that I basically have a lot of things to write about for the foreseeable future, and this is not counting the things that I will be doing in the not to distant future. Anyway, one of the reasons that I traveled to Europe, other than for inspiration on what I could write about on my blog, was to visit some churches and to meet with Christians on the far side of the world.
One of the things about Christianity that has attracted me is that not only is it a faith that crosses boundaries of race and nationality, it is also one of those faiths where you can basically turn up in any major city and with not too much effort you can find a community of like minded believers. This is something that I discovered first while traveling around Australia, and then making a move from Adelaide to Melbourne. While I have grown up a Christian, and have had, and still have, many Christian friends, the almost otherworldly feeling that I get when I wandering into St Judes on a Sunday Evening, or attending Bible Study, that I am not only among friends, but among family, is something that I doubt one could get anywhere else.
While I’m am not the first to jump out and claim that the church is perfect – it is far from that – and while there is always the danger of finding yourself in a congregation that is, well, suspicious, if not downright dodgy (as was the case when I went up to Woomera with some friends), of late I have been somewhat fortunate and incredibly blessed in regards to the churches that I have visited. Anyway, as I have been doing in previous posts, this post isn’t so much about the Christian community in general but rather one that I encountered while passing through Amsterdam.
An Incredibly Old Building
Okay, one thing a lot of my Christian friends regularly say is that the church isn’t the building but rather the people. Sure, that might be the case, especially if you are using Christian jargon, but the reality is that if we were to say to somebody that we were going to church their first thought would be that we would be going to a particularly old building with either a spire or a turret out the front. While there are still numerous churches that look like this scattered around the world, the reality is that a lot of church buildings are changing to become more like auditoriums because, to be honest, the old style churches aren’t actually the best design for a building where people come to hear other people talk.
So, the building in which the English Reformed Church in Amsterdam meets is one of those old style churches with a steeple, but the thing is that it is actually one of the oldest buildings in Amsterdam. The building itself dates back to around 1490, but there was a church on this site going back even earlier to 1390 but that one was apparently burnt down. Mind you I’ve known some pastors experience some frustration at the fact that they can’t actually make any modifications to the building, or even knock it down and build something more practical due to the age, and historical importance, of the building. However, these frustrations pale in comparison to a church building that has been around for around six hundred years.
The thing with the Netherlands was that its reformation was actually quite violent, and many of the churches, while not destroyed, did have the windows smashed and the walls covered in plaster. Further, the churches, which were the property of the Catholic Church, were seized by the people and handed over to the civilian government. Mind you, a part of that had a lot to do with Phillip II of Spain attempting to impose his authoritarian rule on the Netherlands, and also attempted to flush out the Calvinists and the reinstitute catholicism. Obviously the Dutch rebelled, and quite violently at that, and this rebellion was said to be one of the causes that brought about the end of the once great Spanish Empire.
Like the other churches in the Netherlands, this particular church was confiscated by the civilian government, and the Catholics basically kicked out. In fact Catholicism was banned in the Netherlands during this period which meant that they had to meet in secret. The Catholics that used to meet in this church simply moved across the street and set themselves up in one of the houses there. In fact, if you pass by here today you will still see Catholic mass being performed there, while the church across the road has changed hands once again.
In 1609, the building was gifted to the English to provide a place for them to meet in Amsterdam. This no doubt had a lot to do with the English providing assistance to the Dutch during the revolt against Phillip because, well, Elizabeth also had a few Phillip related problems of her own, which involved an Armada being built and sent to England (which was in response to the English providing support for the Dutch rebels because, well, Catholicism). Anyway, the church itself was originally staffed by staff from both England and Scotland, but in time the rector ended up coming only from Scotland and it in turn became a part of the Scottish, or Presbyterian, Church. It is now a part of the European Presbytery, of which there are eleven other churches, and also participates in meetings with the Netherlands Reformed Church.
There is only one service on a Sunday, starting at 10:30, so that meant that we spent some time wandering around the streets of Amsterdam, and also stopping off at a cafe for a beautiful Dutch coffee. While I haven’t had a huge amount of experience of English speaking churches in Europe, I was quite surprised to discover that they met in an actual, and rather authentic, church building. I was even more surprised to discover that this was one of the oldest buildings in Amsterdam. The thing is that the two other churches that I visited when I was in Europe, met in buildings of which they were leasing the rooms. Okay, they did seem to have set up the place as if they were permanent members, though I suspect that the church I visited in Paris shared the rooms with other congregations.
Mind you, when we did arrive here the congregation was rather small, but that was because not only was it the middle of the summer holidays, but it was also during the Gay Pride festival, which meant that people from all over the place had descended upon Amsterdam for fun, frivolity, and dressing up rather eccentrically. However they didn’t necessarily mean that the church itself was any less dynamic. Mind you, we should remember that it is an English speaking church in a foreign country, and a country that has its own language, though one thing that we should remember is that the Dutch have a really good grasp of the English language (as well as being incredibly friendly, and warm, individuals).
In making comment about friendly, warm, and welcoming individuals, I found that this was the case in this church as well. Not only did the pastor’s wife and daughter introduce themselves to us, somebody also approached me as I was checking out the pulpit and began to tell me about the history of the church (which I also found online). Mind you, being an historic building, you do tend to have tourists come through checking it out as well, though they discourage this during the services (and I suspect the church is probably locked up at other times). However, I also suspect that they do try to sneak in after the service has finished, though my recommendation would be to come in and sit down for one of the services – it is so much more fulfilling, and they even offer morning tea afterwards.
While that might be a good place to finish off, I will instead finish off with a quote from one of the Netherlands’ greatest painters, Vincent Van Gogh, who also spoke of this church:
“Tomorrow morning I am going to the English church; it lies there so peaceful in the evening in that silent Begijnhof among the thorn hedges, and seems to say:
In loco isto dabo pacem: In this place I shall give peace, says the Lord. Amen, so be it.”