Reaching a sabbatical year in 1987, while serving St Paul UCC in Minonk, Jan and I planned a trip to Europe that coincided with our daughter Alicia’s Spanish Club trip. Jan, Nathan, and I flew to London for a week, traveled to Amsterdam by train and ferry, and then met Alicia in Paris on Bastille Day, while she came from Madrid; we stayed in Paris for a week, traveled to Geneva for a few days and then to Frankfurt—these destinations by train. We rented an automobile for the two weeks in Germany, beginning and ending in Frankfurt. All in all it was a month, using $25 a day tour guides and a tight budget.
Western Illinois University provided a course adaptable to my sabbatical plan, which was to study church-state relationships, with a faculty consultation in Paris and Frankfurt. I made contacts for interviews in the cities we visited, mostly making appointments after arriving in the cities. My family were good sports as we moved from church to church, office to office, and museum to museum. I surrendered a few times to their desire for McDonalds, KFC, and pizza, but we did find that the definition of pizza was often as adventurous as other local cuisine, as peas, broccoli, tuna, and squid found their way onto our pizza orders.
The vitality of churches and the means of support for church budgets and buildings varied substantially. We found worshiping groups in all sizes, in traditional and non-traditional settings, and enjoyed facilities that were as new as a Methodist Church in Chelsea that finally rebuilt and opened in 1986 after being destroyed by bombs in the Second World War, and as old as the EKU (United Protestant Church) in Trier that met in a Fourth Century Roman basilica.
Some congregations derived much of their support from state church tax formulas, that for the most part maintained traditional buildings—great cathedrals such as St. Paul’s in London and Notre Dame in Paris, and historic buildings such as Calvin’s church in Geneva. The Kirchentag met in Frankfurt and hundreds of young people from across Germany and many international guests gathered, mostly paying their own way, for a week of worship, lectures, workshops, and service opportunities. Some buildings were supported by international contributions, such as the Synagogue at Worms, where a small Hebrew congregation gathered in honor and memory of the centuries of congregational life before the Holocaust. Some places seemed to be full of worshipers every day, such as Sacre-Coeur in Paris, and others closed even on Sunday, such as the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam. Some congregations were entirely self-supporting, refusing even the offers of voluntary tax-channeled donations, in their traditions of independence.
Often we were noticed as guests and invited to join in meals, as was customary at the Third Order of Saint Francis Hospitality House and the “Pilgrim Church” in Amsterdam, and in many of the places that we visited.
Another thing that we noticed everywhere, whether it was in the active announcements in the services or the bulletin boards of buildings that we visited, even when we were not there during events, was common support for organizations and movements that oppose torture. Also, there were humanitarian efforts for community and international development, food, and disaster relief that we occasionally saw in the United States, but the opposition to torture and political imprisonment worldwide was remarkable, since at the time there was so little evidence of that kind of involvement in American churches. The support was evident in Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish congregations, in settings that otherwise appeared apolitical, conservative and liberal in their creeds.
Far from finding a lifeless church uninvolved in the issues facing people in the world, we found faithful communities actively concerned about the well-being of people throughout the world. If this was the evidence of the “post-Christian era” in Europe, then it held some lessons for self-congratulating religious life in the United States.