On Wednesday I had an (eventful) trip to Amsterdam to meet up with John Cowie, the minister in the Church of Scotland there. This was part of an opportunity to get to know some of the other churches in the Presbytery of Europe and to get to understand a little of their uniquenesses and similarities.
The first thing that you notice about the church in Amsterdam is that it is The English Reformed Church – English in the sense that it is is English-speaking. But, like Brussels, it is an international congregation, drawing from all corners of the world and spanning the social spectrum as well.
The second thing you’ll notice is that you’ll not notice the church. It’s tucked away in a courtyard, through a door from the street. The courtyard was, originally, a Beguine community and, even now, only women are allowed to live there. It’s a lovely, tranquil little spot and the church has an almost ‘Tardis-like’ feel to it as you step into a lovely, airy and bright sanctuary that seems far bigger than it ought to be. (Sorry,with the early start, I wasn’t awake enought to remmeber my camera.)
As well as John, the minister, I also met Julia, his assistant/auxiliary. Julia is from Poland, has recently finished a Masters at New College and is working hard at getting the CofS to think of a way to allow her to be ordained even though she doesn’t neatly fit any of the CofS categories for ministry trainees.
After lunch and a tour of the church we all headed back to John’s and then went on a whistle-stop tour of some of his ‘parish’. Many of his congregation travel in from the outer suburbs of Amsterdam where the housing is more affordable. The problem with many of these areas, especially the older ones, is that they are high-rise ghettos. It is changing as the older high-rise blocks are being demolished and giving way to more community-friendly housing. It did highlight though the commitment to coming to church that many of his congregation have. Some of these suburbs are an hour’s travel to the church.
John was also saying that, in many of these suburban areas, many small (and not so small) ethnic church communities spring up; and then disappear just as quickly, often relying on a very charismatic leader, but often splitting and failing when disagreements crop up.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Amsterdam and Brussels is not really an issue of geography or logistics, but of style of ministry. Andrew is about getting out and about to meet people. John operates an appointment system where people come to see him at the church or the manse. For John it’s as much about that working better given the larger travelling distances. But it’s also about business. John was explaining that he is often ‘consulted’ abot many things in his congregation’s lives – jobs decisions, family decisions, all sorts of stuff. The minister is very much the ‘sounding board’ and respected giver of advice. Maybe that’s a cultural thing or it might be as much about John himself. That’s not to say that Andrew is any less busy, but it feels like a different ‘type’ of ministry. But maybe that’s just down to limited contact with both.
Anyway, yet again, much to think about on the nature of ministry and how it is affected by cultural context. The day was rounded of with dinner and the ‘interesting’ journey back to Brussels.
Next visit is to Rotterdam. I’ll try and remember my camera for that one.