Are Czech Churches welcoming?

Salvátor Church © Ricky Yates

Salvátor Church © Ricky Yates

Back on the last Sunday of January 2016, we were joined at St. Clement’s for worship by Alex and Kathleen, a Czech-British couple, together with about fifteen of their family and friends. Alex and Kathleen live in the UK and are regular worshippers at their local parish church. But they also maintain a flat in Prague and, whenever they spend time here, they always join us for worship at St. Clements.

Alex was celebrating his ninetieth birthday, hence his family and friends had travelled from various parts of the world, to be in Prague to mark this special occasion. And attending our Church service that morning, was seen as an integral part of the weekend of celebrations.

A few months previously, Kathleen had asked me if they could invite a young Czech soloist called Jan, to sing during the service that morning. Jan is a personal friend of Alex’s and had studied music under our regular organist, Professor Michal Novenko. I assured her that this would be a wonderful addition to our worship and Michal was very pleased to cooperate and accompany Jan from the organ.

Therefore on that Sunday morning, Jan sang three different arias from Handel’s ‘Messiah’ – one after the sermon, before we said the Nicene Creed, and two during the administration of communion. He did so, standing on the balcony at the west end of the Church, where the organ is also located. From that vantage point, he watched and followed all of the service.

During the colder months of the year, following worship, we have Coffee Hour in the hall across the road from the Church in Klimentská 18. It is an opportunity both to share fellowship and to warm up after spending around eighty minutes in a Church with limited heating 😉 That morning, we also all got to share in a special birthday cake that Kathleen had provided.

At Coffee Hour, Jan sought me out in order to speak with me. He firstly thanked me for giving him the opportunity to sing during the service. But he then said to me, ‘ I want to bring a whole series of Roman Catholic priests to your services, to show them how to be warm and welcoming to everyone who comes to worship’. He then went on to say how he appreciated that everyone had a complete Order of Service containing all of our liturgy. How I explained when to stand, when to sit, when to join in, etc. For me, this is what I normally do. To him, it was a revelation!

As always, it is nice to be complimented and appreciated for what I do. But I was also deeply saddened to once more hear of the lack of warmth and welcome experienced by those who have attended Czech Churches, in Jan’s case, Czech Roman Catholic Churches.

Four and a half years ago, I wrote here on this blog, about the conversations I had with Czechs in their twenties, thirties and forties, at the reception following the wedding of Petr and Kristin. That they found the way I led that wedding service both warm and welcoming and in total contrast to their past experience of attending occasional Czech Church services. As I wrote then:

‘It is not the primary purpose of my being here in the Czech Republic, to minister to the spiritual needs of Czech people, but rather to the spiritual needs of native English-speakers. But I increasingly feel that the main reason that the Czech Republic is as atheistic or agnostic as it appears to be, is not because of a deliberate rejection of Christian faith by its population, but rather as a result of the failure of the Czech Christian Churches to be an attractive advert for the Christian faith.’

In recent months, I’ve tried to understand the reasons for this lack of welcome to newcomers or occasional worshippers in Czech Churches. So far, I’ve come up with two possibilities which I will now outline. I would welcome feedback, especially from native Czechs, as to whether I’m correct.

One reason is that it is a hangover from Communism. During the nearly forty-two years of communist rule in Czechoslovakia, those who attended Church worship; those who were Church members, all suffered. They were restricted in the area of employment, often being forced to only do menial tasks. Their children were limited regarding educational opportunities. Therefore Church congregations turned inward, seeking to mutually support each other. They didn’t welcome any outsider who wanted to join them, suspecting such individuals to be informers.

The second reason is not unique to the Czech Republic – I’ve come across it many times in England. It is the attitude that those who decide to come to Church, should already ‘know what to do’. They shouldn’t need any explanation – they should know!

Both of these attitudes have got to change! It is nearly twenty-seven years since the fall of Communism. The outsider is to be welcomed and not feared. And there is now an almost completely un-churched generation who cannot be expected to know what ‘we do in Church’.

Sadly, the answer to my question in the title of this post is that many Czech Churches are not welcoming. If they do want to grow and not die, habits need to change – rapidly!

22 comments to Are Czech Churches welcoming?

  • Stephen Morris

    I’ve seen the same phenomenon in Moscow and Minsk, although I was last there in the mid-1990s. I remember in particular that one parish in Moscow locked all the doors into the church as an adult baptism was about to start because that’s what everyone learned was “proper” during the Communist regime to hinder spies and informants discovering who was being baptized.

    The times I’ve attended church in Prague and received slightly more chilly receptions than I had anticipated, I had chalked up to my lack of CZ-speaking ability!

    • Ricky

      It does appear that attitudes and practices from the communist era sadly live on, to the detriment of the long term future of the Christian Churches. Thank you Stephen, for your ‘interesting’ example from Moscow.

      With regard to your own experiences in Prague, whilst not being proficient in the language doesn’t help, as I’ve written in the blog post, many native Czech speakers have experienced similar ‘chilly receptions’ too.

  • Em

    I’ve only attended English-speaking services in Prague so have not experienced this; what a shame that a person would not feel welcome in a place of worship. I sometimes feel in this country that things happen the way they do because “it is so” – i.e. this is how we’ve always done it, therefor there is no reason to change it. (You broached this in your posts about Czech bureaucracy.) However, I also know a Czech who is a Christian and a scientist who has been heavily ostracized, so, like you mentioned, being insular may be a form of self-preservation…

    • Ricky

      It is a great shame that as person would not feel welcome when attending a place of worship. But as I recount in this post, it is the experience of many Czechs. Unfortunately, part of the reason is as you describe – ‘This is how we’ve always done it, therefore there is no reason to change it’. Though I would add, I’ve also heard that said more than once in the UK too!

      I feel very sorry for your scientist friend who has been ostracised because of his Christian faith. Sadly, people of faith are often not highly regarded by many sectors of present-day Czech society.

  • Your analysis is really interesting – I too have pondered why exactly this is and have thought of your first reason, but not your second reason (the churchgoers already knowing what to do/being expected to know), which I think is an issue in the Catholic church that goes far beyond Czech Republic. Why should the service feel so cold and unwelcoming? Change is the only way people are going to start coming, but of course many priests seem unwilling to do so.

    • Ricky

      I’m glad you found this post interesting, Cynthia. You are perfectly correct when you say about my second reason, that this ‘is an issue in the Catholic church that goes far beyond Czech Republic’. Another friend made exactly the same point on Facebook, despite me asking for comments to be left here on the blog 🙁 Likewise you are right – change has to come, but sadly, so many priests are both unwilling and see no reason to change.

  • Though I’ve not been to any services in Prague, other than at at St Clements, your suggested reasons for the lack of welcome do seem to me to be very likely. Sadly old habits die hard, but I’m sure they need to change before the church itself dies. I too believe in explaining the service gently as it proceeds, not relying on everyone to follow the printed instructions in the service leaflet. If we can’t make people feel genuinely at home, we are failing badly.

    • Ricky

      Old habits die hard indeed, Perpetua!

      I think it’s essential when leading worship, to provide reassurance to the congregation, so they feel that they are doing ‘the right thing’, rather than the ‘wrong thing’, and that they know exactly where we are in the liturgy. As you rightly say, ‘If we can’t make people feel genuinely at home, we are failing badly’.

  • Dear friends!
    I believe both reasons can very well be true as far as your church is concerned. In Sweden we have similar problems but I fear we have gone quite the opposite way in many cases. We tend to make services more appealing, we have done so since the seventies, and the number of worshippers keep diminishing. We have an experimental kind of church, some congregations VERY traditional and some not at all. You never know what to expect when entering the gates to a new church. In some churches they are now trying concepts like Fresh Expressions or Messy Church. Church and Spaghetti. Services without preaching, services with only music, services without communion or services with nothing but communion. Old recitings are being changed in the liturgy to appeal to newcomers and those not accustomed to church. In many of these cases you fail to communicate any gospel at all, it all becomes a blur. So, here you can get confused by the ever-changing messages and liturgy rather than the stiff-necked. Church must become alive, alive with worshippers and happily salvated people coming together in that dependable mixture of the holy Scriptures clear teaching and the generations of worshipper interpreting it in music, liturgy and life! Safe in your faith you can welcome and guide newcomers with love and patience.

    • Ricky

      Hi Solveig – there is nothing wrong in offering something new such as ‘Fresh Expressions’ or ‘Messy Church’. But it should be made clear what is on offer! However, the most important thing is make sure newcomers feel welcome & secure, explaining clearly what we are doing within worship, when to join in etc.

  • Sean Mccann

    Ricky it is hard to disagree with the last sentence of your post and not alone in the Czech Republic. As you and Cynthia both state this is an international problem for the ‘Catholic’ Church and the lack of welcome and inclusion does not rest solely with the clergy or hierarchy but extends into the lay faithful in many parishes. Church attendance rates here in Ireland have collapsed in the past two decades, due to a variety of causes (not solely the child sex abuse scandals within the church) including the growing secularisation of Irish society – albeit at a slower rate than in most western countries. Many people only attend church for weddings and funerals or to have children baptised, receive First Communion or be confirmed. Teenagers and young adults are a rarity in all our churches not just in urban areas and those who do attend are often there because their parents would be ashamed of them or angry with them if they didn’t attend. 🙁

    Sadly, in my experience there are few priests willing to lead, encourage and explain as you do in your church. A large number of people are still lost, following liturgical changes a few years ago which altered responses to some prayers and changed practices regarding when the congregation knelt, sat or stood. Many genuine people are perplexed by these changes and there is a sense of an ‘in’ crowd and an ‘out’ crowd in some parishes where those who have learned the new responses, etc can be seen as an elite within the congregation. Perhaps I am painting too dark a picture of the situation because I’m sure there are priests with your welcoming and inclusive spirit it just seems they are few and far apart. Thank you for expressing your thoughts on this sad state of affairs. I hope the necessary changes do come quickly.

    • Ricky

      Thank you, Sean, for your long and thoughtful comment and your description of the current situation in Ireland. As you and Cynthia both say, this lack of welcome & inclusion goes beyond the borders of the Czech Republic. It also isn’t purely a Roman Catholic problem. My good friend Rev’d Dr Karen Moritz, told me that the main Czech Protestant Church had similar problems. She eventually discovered that some liturgy they used, was hidden away in the hymn book sitting on the pew shelf. But nobody explained to her where to find it. Once more the attitude that I describe – ‘people should know’ 🙁

      There is certainly something wrong with a Church if there is an ‘in’ crowd and an ‘out’ crowd. The clear message of the Gospel passage I preached on last Sunday, (Luke 15. 1-10 – the parables of the lost sheep & the lost coin), is that each individual matters to God.

  • Zuzana

    As a native Czech, I do feel that church is a very intimidating place. Being in my late 20s, the whole concept of going to church sounds very alien to me, and on the very few occasions I have stumbled inside I do feel a lot of pressure to behave “correctly”. For me, churches are cold places with hard benches, where I feel like an intruder or worse, if I try to blend in, like an imposter.

    I have heard that in my current place of residence, Brno, the “student worships” are starting to gain popularity and are much more relaxed than average. I am a convinced atheist, but I would like to know more about the Roman Catholic Church, as it was so central for a lot of my forbearers and had such a great influence on the Europe in general. But the “mental wounds” I have received during the very few services I have attended in past (usually weddings or funerals) are very discouraging. In this aspect, I am like Jan, I have never heard of a service being explained, and the sad thing is that it never even occurred to me that it could be done this way.

    • Ricky

      Thank you, Zuzana, for this very thoughtful comment, even though it just sadly confirms what I’ve heard from other Czechs, especially ones in your age group. It saddens me deeply when you speak of receiving ‘mental wounds’ from attending a Church service here in the Czech Republic. It doesn’t need to occur to you that what is happening in a Church service needs words of explanation, it needs to occur to those who lead them!

  • Hello again!
    I just read the comment by Zuzana, and it strikes me again that a young person like her could get lost in both the very traditional and stern kind of service, and the non-committing and non-revealing ones we sometimes pour out . The leader and those who welcome at the door really should be guiding, tenderly and with much respect. When someone as open-minded and honestly seeking as Zuzana gets wounded mentally trying to get close to the faith of her elders, this is such a great failure!! See how they love each other!!! Explained services might do the trick, but worship and gospel must be allowed to find it’s way to the seeker, and in my ministry that must be one of the most important challenges. As you said before Ricky, there must be no doubt of what we are celebrating, no doubt what the message is. Modern young people are no fools, they want sincerity just as any of us, Please don’t give up, Zuzana, keep searching the truth!

    • Ricky

      Thank you for commenting again here, Solveig. Zuzana’s articulate comment sadly just confirmed so much of what I wrote in the blog post. And I totally endorse your last sentence – ‘Please don’t give up, Zuzana, keep searching the truth!’

  • Calling Prague!

    I have downloaded the link to your sermons, that is really nice! Now I can take part of your thinking as well as your voices and the nice echoing of the church!

    In Sweden and also in other northern countries, we are experiencing massive loss of members . They leave for different reasons but one, in various forms, is money. We support our church through taxes, a part of the income tax goes to membership in church of Sweden. One part of that is compulsory due to laws concerning funeral services. Even if you do leave your membership in church, being granted a place for the final rest is secured by that compulsory fee.

    In the Czech church situation, or the catholic church, the trouble seem to be that the service is closed to newcomers by not opening up . Here, I think the message sometimes is so vague that newcomers find no reason to come back and learn more. When I first came to church, the mystery was so strong that I just had to find out more. But without help and explanations, support and patience, and, I believe, perseverance from the Lord, I might have wandered off to other places.

    We are losing members. In Sweden, we need to reconsider the patterns of church, we have a serious lack of theology students, very few to fill the gaps of ministers in retirement. Parishes have to either cut down or join forces with a number of smaller parishes, causing alienation for the parishioners who doesn’t know who to contact any more. Right now we also have the second version of a new handbook, the first one was refused because of vagueness and too much emphasis on catchy tunes and lyrics. The one that is up for decision now is a confused mix of everything, but we need to settle on something!! Most important is still to give word and action to the gospel!!!!

    We have to pray for each other’s churches, pray for those who seek and most of all pray that the church will continue to create hope and life in a dark world.

    With that conviction we can reach out to the seekers and the bewildered, knowing we don’t have all the answers but we have all the hope and all the light. The world is not abandoned, and we have to speak out!

    • Ricky

      Hello again Solveig,

      Glad to know that you’ve found the sermons page of our Church website & are enjoying listening to some of them 🙂 Thank you too, for all that you say here, about the Church situation in Sweden.

  • David

    This is a rather improbable debate for me to weigh on, as a Jewish atheist, but for what it’s worth, it does appear that the “coldness” (or would perhaps an adjective such as “solemn” or “formal” fit better?) of Czech Catholic church services is not, well, limited to Czech Catholic churches. From what I have seen, much the same can be said of Austrian services. Central Europeans are in general rather formal people. Even then, in the end it seems to be down to the local priest. I’ve heard of a leather-clad, Harley-Davidson riding Catholic priest in Moravia who is rather popular with younger audiences.

    I also wonder to what extent the Czechs’ (especially Bohemians) legendary atheism is a product of communism. Reading from pre-communist authors, it would appear that, at least as far back as the 19th century, religion was not seen as important to Bohemian society as it was in other parts of Europe and the World. It is also perhaps worth noting that after the Hussite wars and subsequent religious persecutions, e.g., of the Anabaptists in South Moravia, the Catholic church would have faced a bit of an uphill struggle against public resentment.

    • Ricky

      Hello David – nice to have you commenting here for the first time. I have to say that ‘Jewish atheist’ is an interesting combination 🙂

      I concur entirely with the rest of what you say in your first paragraph. A Czech friend, who has attended numerous RC services in Austria, (and speaks fluent German), made exactly the same point to me. It is not just the Czech Republic. Unfortunately, he left that comment on Facebook & not here 🙁 It does depend on the individual priest & there are exceptions, as in your example.

      Likewise, the treatment of Jan Hus, who is regarded as a Czech national hero, and the re-imposition of unreformed Roman Catholicism after the Battle of Bílá hora, with the subsequent expulsion of many Protestant groups as you describe, does leave the Czech Roman Catholic Church with many difficulties. To be fair, Pope John Paul II did issue an apology for ‘the cruel death inflicted upon Jan Hus’ and for the ‘consequent wound of conflict and division which was thus imposed on the minds and hearts of the Bohemian people’, during his visit to Prague in 1999. And last year, at an Ecumenical Service marking the 600th anniversary of the martyrdom of Jan Hus, Cardinal Vlk, the now retired, but still active, former RC Archbishop of Prague, brought a personal message from Papa František/ Pope Francis, which was received with warm applause because of its conciliatory tone.

  • Jonathan

    Hi. My knowledge of this subject is chiefly confined to informal conversations with individuals, but I found this article in the Guardian archives which provides a bit of an insight into the lack of church-going and general religiosity among the Czechs, suggesting that we actually have to go back (at least) to 19th-century Czech nationalism to understand the reasons and that Communism gets a bit too much “credit” for the above.

    For example:

    Indifference towards church religion was, in the second half of the 20th century, further deepened by the anti-religious propaganda and persecution of the communist regime but we should not interpret the Czech non-religiosity simply as a legacy of the communist past. The Czech population had rather ambiguous attitudes towards the church even before the onset of the communism, which explains why none of the other Central European post-communist countries displays a similarly low support for traditional religion as the Czech Republic’s population.

    Nor does it explain, of course, why Moravians display more enthusiasm than the Bohemians.

    As regards the “solemnity” of Catholic church-going (as David puts it), I don’t even think it’s limited to Central Europe. My (admittedly limited) experience of worship in Spain was exactly the same, with the priest a strict, stern, distant, figure, at least during the mass. I’m not sure it’s bad as such, maybe it’s what people want. Maybe Catholics would be put off by the “friendlier” approach of other churches, it’s hard to say.

    • Ricky

      Hi Jonathan – Thank you for your comment & your link to the Guardian article. I concur with the suggestion that we also have to back into Czech history, in particular, the re-imposition of unreformed Roman Catholicism after the Battle of Bílá hora. The Roman Catholic Church was and still is seen by some as a religion imposed from outside. See the last paragraph of my reply to David where I say as much.

      And the lack of welcome, unapproachability of the priest etc, however you describe it, is more widespread than Central Europe. A Czech friend who spent several years living & working in Italy, tried to be part of RC Church life and had similar experiences to those I describe.