Posted by: Corri van de Stege | April 8, 2007

Protestant churches

Easter is that time of the year that newspapers, radio and TV programmes will seriously ponder the question of the declining attendance in churches and why this is so.  One morning this week, Radio 4 interviewed an English bishop who sidetracked the answer to this question, insisting that it was so obviously true that God’s Son had redeemed the sins of human beings and that we humans could not but be aware of this, somehow.  I could not follow the logic as I have not followed this kind of logic for a long time.  Churches are very uninviting buildings as far as I am concerned.

I have always disliked protestant church buildings, ever since childhood and as children had to walk a mile each way, twice a Sunday, to the nearest Calvinist church in a small village in The Netherlands, even though there was a perfectly respectable, even slightly more grandiose, church half way from our house.   However, that one was Lutheran and definitely unacceptable as far as my father was concerned.  The animosity between a Swiss Calvin and German Luther was lost on me as a child, and I never quite understood the importance of a Luther nailing some proclamation on a church door in Germany and a Calvin who subsequently declared that all this was blasphemy as far as the true belief was concerned.

My father was a religious man who tried very hard to keep soul, children, his shop and his artistic/religious inclinations in check through biblical commandments, and a framework of rules and regulations.  One of these was that on Sundays it was forbidden to use motorised vehicles of any kind, although that rule was slightly bent when he and my mother got older and they decided that it was alright to go to church by car, but that was later, when we were also allowed to use bikes on Sundays.   When still quite small, I walked, and walked and walked and remember the route as never ending Sundays, summer and winter, rain and shine, the only redemption being that I got to wear my Sunday shoes, new ones, not the cast-offs that either elder sister or brother had already worn to such an extent that they began to look tatty, despite being polished once a week.   Strange how such memories stick with you and how they seem to spring as if from a different and distant country, as if they are pictures in a film, half forgotten and not very real anymore. 

In our front room, ‘parlour’ seems too grandiose a description, there was a large organ.  The room was used for Sunday dinners and visitors, the rest of the week meals were taken in the back room, which was an extension of the small kitchen at the back of the house, a much darker affair.  The front room was a light room with windows at the side and front, and patio doors, leading to a smallish yard at the back.  Although not very large, it contained a three-piece suite and some comfortable chairs, one belonging to my father, who also had a footstool, next to the radio, where he would sit and fall asleep after Sunday lunch.  We all had to tiptoe around him, making sure we did not wake him, because we all understood that he was a hardworking and tired man and deserved his additional sleep on a Sunday.  There was a dinning room table with enough chairs around to seat all of us, eight children, noisy and needing to be kept under control.  Tightly placed beyond the dining room table and next to the patio doors was the organ, black and imposing, with three keyboards and a pedal board, Bach scores on the reading panel.  After a good church service and before lunch in this ‘Sunday room’, my father would sit down, stretch his arms and play, play for God and country and Bach, pulling out all the stops, the pedal board moving and losing himself in the reverie of his certainty and belief.  This was personal, this was sweeping away all his week full of worries and battles for survival, the children, the noises, the sheer frustrations of an existence that so clearly was not what he wanted or expected from life.  He was never made to have so many children; we were god’s burden, given to him as a kind of test?  I never knew, but always suspected that we all had been some kind of disappointment, he had been caught between religious rules (no protection when having sex because God gives and takes as he sees fit) and his total incompetence and puzzlement as far as children and young people were concerned.  But then he did not need to understand children; he simply had to bring them up according to God’s manual.

At the side and the front of this part of the house, just outside the front room windows were some shrubs and some containers and baskets with flowers, that my mother somehow or other found time for, balancing the feeding and basic care for children with the demands of the shop.  This was an extension of the house, a retail outlet with household goods, furniture and toys for the villagers, who frequented this shop as their lifeline to a better and more fanciful existence.  When the shop was renovated and extended the yard at the back became smaller still as the land on the other side of the house now became totally built up.  There would be even less space for members of this large family to go outside, play or simply sit on a chair in the sun, away from the melee in the house.  By that time however some of the older children had left, got married or moved away, and the younger ones were now teenagers and less inclined to spend much time in or around the house, when there was no need to. 

My childhood therefore was spent in an environment were God and Retail required equal reverence, symbolised by hard work, organ music and church, the protestant church and the protestant work ethic.  That particular church building was a very austere and drab affair in my eyes, except for some of the windows, with delicate inlay, the colours of which were the only cheer which I absorbed and which provided a lifeline to something else that surely must exist outside all of this, the dreariness and claustrophobia with a minister exulting in old testament exhortations.  At the time I greatly disliked church music and in particular the organ,  as they became synonymous with this overpowering heaviness and gloom and provided a focus for my resentment.  It was only much later in life that I rediscovered the beauty of Bach’s cantatas, however, I never quite got over the organ as a single instrument in performance, still disliking the associations and the emptiness of the message conveyed with such power – organs are terribly powerful and invasive, and can be used as weapons, silencing all other feelings and emotions, willing to suppress them.

Returning to the arguments used by the bishop that god’s redemption is the powerful symbol of churches that should entice people back in  – no, I cannot quite see that logic, and probably never will now.  You see, the minute the organ starts playing in these cold and unforgiving spaces with austere seating arrangements and the pulpit at the front, there is the deep seated association that these buildings destroyed so much of my childhood always threatening that there was a god waiting in the very air that filled them, simply waiting to punish me for whatever I had not done quite right this time, stopping me from living and suffocating me.  I never understood the logic or the arguments.

One redemption however that did work: reading was considered a very worthwhile past time (although censored), so I’ve never stopped reading books since, anything I could get my hands on, Dutch and English Literature, Philosophy, Psychology and Sociology, a degree and a masters, learning languages and using them, learning about the very different worlds that exists outside and interacting with people that are so totally and utterly alien to that world locked inside protestant churches.    I am no longer looking back.



  1. I must say, you have written with precision and exactitude the whole downside of religion and its frightening impact on the parental embracers of generations now gone or fast going. You demonstrate clearly another reason why religion is the root of most societal evils. Keep up the Bach loving. There is a novel in this lot – for you to go write!

  2. I can see how the lives of many people who live thousands of miles away run parallel in matters concerning religion. I was educated during my childhood in a Ctholic school run by La Salle Brothers. An excellent education, indeed, as far as the earthly subjects were concerned, a strict religious education with threats of burning hell for anything that might brush the Church’s canon and teaching.

    I understand perfectly what you mean, seachanges, and it confirms that imposed beliefs will never have long roots.

  3. Crazy Creative: Honoured and thank you for having such fatih in my writing skills! The novel will have to wait until I’m retired I fear – too much work-related reports to write. Meanwhile, writing the stories keeps me on my toes!
    Jose: you are so right about the roots and that they never took! The interesting thing is of course that the world now is so much more focused on religions other than christianity (whether catholic or protestant!) but that similar fanaticism is being displayed, leaving so many more young people in the doldrums. Burning in hell was our punishmen for not doing the right things, whereas nowadays rewards in heaven are promised to those who routinely burn down parts of towns and villages…. However, you have written about religion extensively yourself and in much more depth!(

  4. You are right, seachanges, and that shows how the human being is a gullible creature prone to be seduced by cloaked-siren songs.

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