Holy Trinity, Utrecht, the Netherlands


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Holy Trinity
Location: Utrecht, the Netherlands
Date of visit: Sunday, 4 March 2007, 10:30am

The building

Holy Trinity is an early 20th-century stone building with a small pointed steeple. On entering, one finds the sanctuary and choir stalls to the right. The interior is chock-full of ornate features familiar from Anglican churches in England. What surprises is the building's modest size: it's as if an English village church had been put in the wash and come out shrunk but with the colours intact.

The church

One of their leaflets describes Holy Trinity as "an international English-speaking Church that serves a wide variety of people, including students from all over the world, guests from other churches, and visitors to Utrecht." Among the stalwarts are native Netherlanders. After the service, my spouse and I spoke with congregants from Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe.

The neighborhood

Holy Trinity is discreetly tucked away on a small public square in one of the posher suburbs of Utrecht. A large park and the national railway museum are both within easy walking distance. A few of the cafés and tearooms along the main road into town are open on Sundays. We found a wonderful, child-friendly tea-room very close to the church.

The cast

The celebrant was the assistant chaplain, the Revd Peter Staples. The preacher, who was also one of the musicians, turned out to be the resident chaplain, the Revd John de Wit.

What was the name of the service?

All-Age Service.

How full was the building?

Comfortably full. There were close to 100 congregants, including at least 20 children and infants.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

We first went to the church hall next door and asked whether our children could use the toilets. The Dutch woman who answered the door made us feel very welcome. She was enthusiastic but not pushy. On entering the church, we were asked to join other families at the front, where we were warmly welcomed by another Dutch woman. In both cases, our children, who are of infant school age, were also personally welcomed. cSeveral congregants wore name badges.cI mumbled a word of greeting to the elderly woman seated next to me, but she remained impassive. It was only when another congregant came over, bearing large bundles of papers that looked like the church accounts but turned out to be hymn books in braille, that I realised that my neighbour was blind. We were introduced and she turned out to be a charming woman who spoke both English and Dutch like a native.

Was your pew comfortable?

Wooden benches, no cushions. The padded kneelers were very comfortable. Kneeling is something I haven't done in years, given that my regular church is Dutch Protestant, i.e. Reformed. The kneelers could be swung up, making it easier to walk between the benches, for example when going to receive communion.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

We could already hear singing from inside as we approached the church half an hour early. On entering the building, I found the pre-service atmosphere to be relaxed and moderately quiet.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The first to address the congregation was a member of the musical trio. She began with a practical question: "Can you hear me?" Then she greeted us: "Good morning, everybody. It's lovely to see such a full church." So far, so good. But her next sentence caught me completely off-guard: "I was shopping yesterday in Hilversum..."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Common Praise. There was also a service sheet with most of the prayers, the responses, and a hymn from another hymnal.

What musical instruments were played?

Piano, violin, cello.

Did anything distract you?

The opening remark about having been shopping caught me so much by surprise that I failed to catch why we were being told this. Some phrases in the older hymns arrested my attention, such as calling on the Holy Spirit to "this very day invade us", and referring to Jesus as the "purchase of God". Later, a child's screaming threatened to drown out the notices.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Among the more serious complaints made by Dutch Protestants about any worship service is that it is rommelig or "untidy". This service too may count as rommelig, but I thought it was wonderfully wide-ranging. The music spanned from traditional evergreens such as "Rock of Ages" to liturgical responses from other cultures (Ghana and Brazil) and even a children's song with actions. The language was sometimes antiquated, but mostly contemporary. Occasionally there was joy-filled laughter. In short, it represented the broad church that is the Anglican denomination at its best.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

Less than seven minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

8 – The message was delivered with humour and was even participatory, with children answering a few questions. Some of the language and references were not so child-friendly, but for the most part the preacher coped admirably with the challenge of addressing congregants of all ages. Later, at the end of the service, he remembered that he had brought a couple of large cartoons as visual aids for his talk. Better late than never, he showed them to us, which made remembering the sermon even easier.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Jesus' teaching in a nutshell: love is the answer – love God and love your neighbour. The parable of the houses built on rock and sand encourages us to build our lives on the firm foundation of God's love.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Plenty to choose from here. I especially liked the preacher's well-chosen quips, and the mixture of old and modern music. The Kyrie was set to joyful music from Ghana and I recognised the glorious Sanctus as originally from Brazil. Just before the dismissal, we sang "Happy Birthday" to everyone – children and adults – who had celebrated their birthday the previous week. This may seem frivolous, but I found it deeply moving. The postlude was Scott Joplin's "Magnetic Rag".

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The few moments I at first thought might qualify for "the other place" on reflection seem more like pedantic griping on my part. For example: the service sheet, which until then had reliably guided us through the service, left us somewhat in the lurch when it came to the Lord's Prayer. As Dutch Calvinists, we are used to standing for this prayer, whereas most of the congregation behind us needed no prompting to get down on their knees, leaving us in the front pews hovering awkwardly. The most obvious contender for "the other place" was an infant's persistent screaming that threatened to drown out the notices. But we had to smile when the preacher cheerfully reassured us: "Don't worry. It's what babies are supposed to do. It's their job."

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

No doubt it's easier to remain a Mystery Worshipper in a congregation that is large and unwelcoming than in one that is small and friendly. By this stage, my family had been so warmly welcomed that it was no longer possible to look lost.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The coffee was very good, as is to be expected in a country where coffee is far and away the number one drink. Unlike in Dutch churches, which only offer koffiemelk (condensed milk), here regular milk was also available. Tea (the Dutch never take milk with their tea), flavoured drinks for the children, and biscuits were also available.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

9 – We are considering coming again, although next time we would like our children to attend the Sunday school.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Definitely. It resonated with several strands in my life – as a parent of young children, as an English-speaking expatriate, and as someone who cherishes liturgies such as those of Iona and Taizé.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The preacher ending his talk and introducing the song-with-actions by saying: "God put children at the front of the queue. The disciples thought they were awfully important and that they didn't have to do the actions. I encourage you all to make fools of yourselves like I do every Sunday." Later, at the end of the service, he shared with us his delight at having gotten us to do the song-with-actions: "I've waited 25 years to do that."

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