How Dutch media portray a rule-balancing church

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How Dutch media portray a rule-balancing church

In the Netherlands, coronavirus measures were not very strict over the summer. There was (and is) a maximum number of people allowed to gather inside. However, religious institutions are one of the exceptions that are strongly advised, though not required, to adhere to the maximum number. As of September, measures were sharpened including in churches, where a maximum number of 30 faithful was advised. Most churches heed government advice. Nevertheless, there are a few that do not. This article will take a look at the case of a conservative church in the Netherlands, and how different media portray the situation.

‘Have a nice funeral’
On October 4, the NOS (the national Dutch Broadcast Foundation) reported that the restored reformed church in Staphorst, an orthodox church, had held three Sunday services, each attended by 600 faithful.[1] Not only were there many visitors, but faithful did not have to wear a face mask and singing was allowed. Although they cannot penalise this, for freedom of religion is one of the Dutch constitutional laws, politicians stated that they expect churches to be a good example and to follow government measures.[2] [3] Politicians were not the only ones to stumble over the decision by the Staphorst church. The church received dozens of death threats via email and phone, ‘have a nice funeral’ being one of the friendlier ones.[4]

Besides the NOS, other national media also reported on the church and their services. Some published opinion pieces, such as a newspaper without any political or religious connections stating the irresponsibility and anti-socialness of the matter.[5] On the contrary, a newspaper reporting from a Christian reformed point of view wrote how Christ is king and that the Bible should be leading instead of the government.[6]

Of course, the question arises why faithful in Staphorst can go to church in great numbers whilst others cannot go to the pub. In the Netherlands, freedom of religion is enshrined in the constitution and faithful must be allowed to practise their religion. According to Rosanne Hertzberger, opinion writer in the NRC (a liberal newspaper without any religious background), the lockdown caused by coronavirus shows us that nothing in secular society is sacred and everything can easily be cancelled, except for that which is sacred to the small part of the country that is still religious.[7] Hertzberger observed that this seems to make secular society jealous as it means they do not have the same privileges as churches.[8] However, Dutch Christians shared Hertzberger’s column widely, as they reckoned someone finally ‘added some nuance.’[9]

Taking the issue of nuancing one step further, the villagers of Staphorst are not happy about how they are portrayed in the media. They say the media need a scapegoat that significantly contributed to the second coronavirus infection wave, but to blame the Staphorst church would be incorrect. In their eyes, they do nothing wrong, as is reported by De Stentor, a regional newspaper.[10]

Issue of image
Trouw, an independent newspaper with a protestant background, reported on another church with many visitors one week later. However, this report showed how in a church service with more than 30 people present, all other government measures were followed strictly. It did not report a single negative comment.[11]

Would the reaction of the media and the Netherlands have been different, if the particular issue of Staphorst happened in another type of church? According to Johan Roeland, religion anthropologist at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, if a modern church in Amsterdam would have held a service with hundreds attending, it would have also received pushback. However, Staphorst has been the representative village when it comes to the orthodox church in the Netherlands for two hundred years. People have been both fascinated by and estranged from orthodox religion. Furthermore, Roeland stressed Staphorst knows how they are portrayed and have been knowingly taking on the victim’s role by not participating actively in national media. Roeland stated this is a missed opportunity – Staphorst could also have taken matters into their own hands.[12]

Is it really just an image issue? Would secular people always react strongly to communities like Staphorst, who stick to their own ways? Or should the orthodox church be less rigid?

Astrid Hamberg

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[1] Onbegrip in landelijke politiek over 600 gelovigen in kerk Staphorst
[2] Onbegrip in landelijke politiek over 600 gelovigen in kerk Staphorst
[3] Weinig begrip in Kamer voor grote kerkdiensten in Staphorst
[4] Tientallen doodsbedreigingen voor drukbezochte kerk Staphorst | NOS
[5] Ik walg van de kerk in zijn orthodoxe varianten
[6] Niet overheid maar Bijbel leidend voor inrichting eredienst
[7] Staphorst is jaloersmakend
[8] Seculier Nederland valt over vrijheid van godsdienst – Kerk & religie
[9] Viral: Nuance na ophef over Staphorst. ‘Ergens was het jaloersmakend’
[10] Minder mensen in de kerk, maar nu is Staphorst wel klaar met alle kritiek: ‘Laat ons met rust’
[11] In Barneveld komt het zingen niet boven het orgel uit
[12] Het imagoprobleem van Staphorst – EO Live – Gemist