This morning I was planning to go to Liturgy in Utrecht. I’d been to the church there once before, knew how to find it and the time of the service and so, in retrospect rather foolishly, didn’t think to look up their website before I left. And that resulted in me standing outside a locked and deserted church, where, for whatever reason, there was obviously no Liturgy. Having come all the way, it seemed rather a waste to just go home again and so I decided to try the Protestants. I was partly motivated by wanting to see inside the historic Dom Church, and partly because I have been conscious in recent months of how ignorant I am of Dutch Protestantism and had been thinking that it would good to attend a Protestant service sometime.

This ignorance is more specifically an ignorance of the Dutch Reformed Churches than of Protestantism generally. I once studied with Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians and other mainline Protestants, to say nothing of having once been an Anglican. But because of various linguistic, geographical and political factors in my South African upbringing, I never had much contact with the Dutch Reformed Churches. And, given their role in propagating and upholding apartheid, I never had any motivation to seek contact with them, despite the real admiration I had for the prophetic leaders they produced such as Beyers Naude and Nico Smit. The only N.G. Kerk service that I can remember attending, although there may have been others, was in my final year of high school on the day of the vow, which was then a quasi-religious public holiday that commemorated the victory of the Boer armies over the Zulus at the Battle of Blood River in 1838. I had just completed a history research project on religious influence on Afrikaner nationalism and was curious to see what an N.G. day of the vow service was like. Whether because this was the Natal south coast rather than the heartland of the old Transvaal republics, or whether because by this stage (1983) the bonds of ideology were beginning to weaken, the service did not contain anything particularly remarkable. But it did reinforce my image of the N.G. Kerk – of a staid service, dominees (ministers) who wore white ties, the centrality of the pulpit in the church, and a communion service only once every three months.

Now I did know that contemporary Dutch protestants would be considerably different from the image I had of the N.G. Kerk. (And I’m also somewhat aware that the N.G. Kerk itself is in search of its own identity). But going into the Dom Church this morning I had no idea what to expect and felt about as clueless as western Christians who encounter an Orthodox Liturgy for the first time. I was late and entered during the homily and slipped into a seat in what I thought was a sort of annex near the pulpit. But I was really totally disorientated, for the pulpit, which I had assumed to be the central focus of the church, turned out to be at the back of the church. The seating was based on the elliptical model of two monastic choirs between the two poles of ambo and altar. The ambo, with a candle burning next to it, was just in front of the pulpit, and like it was facing East towards the altar. Moreover, the dominee was not wearing a white tie, but was clad in a black cassock and a green stole and, at a glance, could easily have been mistaken for an Orthodox priest. And after the homily, the action shifted towards the front of the church, to the altar, and the basic structure of the Eucharist that followed was fundamentally the same as an Anglican or Catholic Liturgy.

It was clearly a carefully prepared liturgy, people were welcoming, and there was a reverent spirit, far more so than one would find in some Catholic parishes. During the liturgy of the Eucharist everyone stood in a large circle, or rather oval, which they stayed in until after receiving communion which was passed around. When I heard that this was what one did I planned to leave before they went into the circle, as my experience elsewhere has been that it is often difficult not to receive communion in situations like that. But the circle started at the beginning of the eucharistic prayer and I was rather curious to see how it would proceed. And it was actually loose enough to make it easy to step back and not receive communion and nobody had a problem with that. The anaphora was probably not quite adequate according to Orthodox or Catholic standards, but I have known Catholics to use worse ones. In fact, if I were to be critical of their liturgy, it would not be because it is Protestant, but rather because of a certain vagueness of language that too-easily facilitates a transition from revealed religion to human religiosity – but that is a topic that is by no means confined to Protestants and which I intend writing on soon.

And so it was quite a disorientating experience. I have no idea how typical it is of Dutch Protestants, or what Calvin would think of it. And I found myself wondering whether this is part of the fruit of the ecumenical movement – that processes like BEM have actually led to Protestants discovering deeper sacramental roots and engaging in serious change. And then I can understand a little of their hurt that Catholics and Orthodox will still not recognise their sacraments. But it also made me realise that the issues dividing Christians are not as simple as they once were, and that the new divisions are often much more subtle and more difficult to name.