The Auditoire de Calvin (Calvin's Oratory) is a Gothic chapel that dates from the 13th century. This is the very building where John Knox preached and John Calvin taught missionaries his doctrines. An impressive flight of stairs leads up to the main entrance. The interior of the building breathes simplicity. The modern feel of the coloured windows contrasts with the traditional seating arrangement: straight rows of chairs, all facing the front. A side door leads to a tiny courtyard from which one can ascend by lift or stairs to the church hall.
The Church of Scotland in Geneva is one of several English-speaking congregations that minister to the many expatriates who live and work there. While it is part of the Church of Scotlands Presbytery of Europe, the congregation is made up of over 30 different nationalities representing more than a dozen different denominations. The congregation shares the building with two other congregations, the Dutch Protestants and the Italian Waldensians.
The Auditoire de Calvin is located in the heart of Geneva's historical Old Town and is dwarfed by its immediate neighbour, the huge Cathédrale St-Pierre of the French-speaking Protestant Church of Geneva, stripped bare of its religious images by Calvin and his followers. Underneath the cathedral, one can visit an amazing archaeological site that features the remains of two 4th-century Christian sanctuaries, mosaic floors from the late Roman Empire, portions of some early churches, and an 11th-century crypt. Also on display is a chair said to have been used by Calvin, suitably austere and practical.
The minister was the Revd Douwe Visser, executive secretary for theology and ecumenical engagement for the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. The regular minister was away on holiday.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Service.
How full was the building?
With about 100 worshippers of all ages, the church was more than half full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Several ushers were posted by the entrance to welcome the worshippers. A friendly woman welcomed me and gave me a hymnbook and order of service.
Was your pew comfortable?
The wooden chairs were modestly padded and I had enough legroom to feel comfortable. Only afterward did I notice that the preacher had sat on Calvin's chair.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was quiet chatting, especially by the entrance at the back of the church.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"You are all welcome here."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The denomination's standard hymn book, the Church Hymnary (fourth edition, 2005).
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
The main distraction, in an odd sort of way, was the guest preacher himself. He seemed ill-at-ease before the start of the service, wandering around at the front but shying away from contact with congregants. Only once he got into his sermon did he seem more in his element.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was uplifting, with a good selection of hymns and an inspiring sermon, but at times it felt awkward. Pastor Visser tried to inject some humour into his remarks, but he was thwarted by his "polder English." There was a baptism this morning read on!
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Pastor Visser seemed more in his element when he read his prepared sermon than when he spoke off the cuff. Pleasingly, the sermon was both clear and engaging.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The story told by Jesus of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) is a parable about conflicts that are within each of us. We cannot live with the bitterness displayed by the older son. We each need to be reconciled with God and with ourselves. God is like the father who wants to reconcile what seems irreconcilable.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I especially enjoyed the selection of hymns that were familiar to me from younger years, but which I had not heard for quite some years.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Now, I'm used to baptisms where the mother holds her infant child at all times. And so I was caught completely by surprise when the minister took the baby away from his parents and headed for what appeared to be the exit. (As it turned out, he was presenting the child to the congregation.) But he held the child for the entire ceremony. Baby did not seem to mind and there was some laughter from the congregation. But it seemed like the parents were reduced to mere onlookers. Perhaps that's how Calvin baptised infants in his day, and presumably there is some theological rationale to back it up, but I had not seen it done this way before and found it strange.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
As I hung around near the main doors, a friendly woman was quick to ask me a little about myself and invite me to stay for coffee in the church hall. The invitation to stay for coffee and fellowship was also prominent in the order of service.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The coffee was OK, served in one of an eclectic range of mugs. Tea was also available, and there were some functional-looking biscuits. On reading the congregation's website afterwards, I learned that all coffee and tea served during the coffee hour are fair trade.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I don't live in Geneva and so this does not apply. However, it was a good service and a friendly congregation.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. I especially enjoyed the selection of hymns, the sermon, and the diversity of the congregation.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The disturbing episode in which the minister took the infant away from his parents and seemed to walk off, only returning the child after the act of baptism.