|956: Sint Nicolaaskerk, Amsterdam, Netherlands|
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Mystery Worshipper: Pax Britannica.
The church: Sint Nicolaaskerk, Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: An enormous neo-baroque structure opposite Amsterdam's equally magnificent Centraal railway station. The building's gloomy, soot encrusted exterior reveals an equally gloomy interior in shades of black and brown. In fact, this sombre Victorian masterpiece is rich in period decoration relating to the cult of the Blessed Sacrament. The large and impressive high altar includes a throne for exposition over the tabernacle; this is surmounted by a vast imperial crown from which the draperies descend. (An imperial crown forms part of the arms of the city of Amsterdam the gift of a grateful emperor Maximilian.) The building has recently benefited from a superb restoration and is used for concerts as well as religious services. The latter include masses, which are advertised as being under Roman Catholic auspices, and evensong for the visiting Anglophiles.
The neighbourhood: The area in front of the railway station seems constantly undergoing construction and is inevitably a major tram and bus terminus. Beside and behind the church is Amsterdam's "red light"' district, its charms and excitements now much faded. Clouds of marijuana smoke emerge from a mix of seedy hotels, sex shops and bars. However, despite the merchandise for sale, only those of the most sheltered upbringing would be shocked.
The cast: Seven singers, clad in white faux-monastic robes, calling themselves Schola Cantorum Amsterdam.
What was the name of the service?
Vespers. This was the old form of vespers found in the Liber Usualis (the official compendium of Gregorian chant) and is a regular Sunday evening occurrence.
How full was the building?
About 60 in a building that would comfortably accommodate 1000.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. A pile of leaflets containing the antiphons, psalms and readings in Latin and Dutch lay on a table near the door.
Was your pew comfortable?
Not really. The seat was too shallow and the top ledge dug into my back.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
As two of the more beefy singers moved some large reading benches up into the choir area, the room fell silent.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Deus in adjutorium meum intende" (O God, vouchsafe to aid me).
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Leaflets at the door gave the Latin and Dutch texts, but without music. We were clearly not meant to join in.
What musical instruments were played?
None. There is a large organ in the west gallery, but no indication whether it remains in working order.
Did anything distract you?
I was much occupied with the question of whether this was a religious service or a concert or perhaps, more accurately, a group of enthusiasts "playing church." Although the presentation seemed sincere, the lack of any ecclesiastical presence disturbed me. No priest was on hand to lead worship or give the blessing, for example. In a building that had so obviously echoed with exactly this service this music and these words until a few years ago, the event seemed more an elaborate protest at the building's sale by the Catholic Church to the city.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
There was no worship as such. This is not a functioning congregation. I realized this most clearly during the Magnificat, when the church's altar would traditionally have been censed. Instead, one of the singers poured some incense onto a brazier in the middle of the choir. This struck me as being not evidence of Christian liturgy, but rather like part of some pagan rite, with the robed singers grouped in a huddle round the fire.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon, nor indeed any announcements.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Getting an opportunity to see inside this great, sombre and magnificent edifice.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Sadness that this remarkable event was taking place "without ecclesiastical approbation" as the old books used to say.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We were politely cleared out, as the building had been opened only for the event.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No coffee was offered, although the coffee shops in the vicinity have more powerful opiates on sale quite legally, too.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 There is no church here, only a building and a group of singers, skilled and dedicated though they may be no sacraments other than as brought in by visiting priests and no pastoral community. The financial and logistical problems of maintaining the church's architectural heritage in the inner cities of Europe are vast, but I did feel that the Roman Church had committed a serious blunder in jettisoning this monumental structure, along with so many others elsewhere. Fortunately groups such as the Schola Cantorum Amsterdam have found uses for it.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I was glad to hear familiar words and music in the traditional office of vespers. As an act of worship, though, it left a rather empty feeling.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The great crown over the altar, gleaming in blue and red enamel and lustrous gilding, placed there as the proud emblem of a great city to shelter the blessed sacrament which alas is no longer present.