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FEATURE

Dutch churches merger will permit gay marriages


Toby Sterling | August 25, 2003

AMSTERDAM — Three Dutch Protestant churches formally agreed to put aside their ideological differences and merge on Friday, the culmination of a process that began more than 40 years ago.

The Dutch Reformed Church, the Calvinist Reformist Church, and the small Lutheran Church will unite to form the Protestant Church of the Netherlands, together representing around 2.2 million churchgoers - or about 14 percent of the population.

In much of the country, the churches already have been merged in practice for some time.

The synods of the three churches approved the merger by large majorities at three separate meetings at different churches in the city of Utrecht, 50 kilometers (30 miles) southeast of Amsterdam, Dutch national television reported.

Approval required a two-thirds vote of the Dutch Reformed and Calvinist Reformist synods, and three-fourths of the Lutherans.

Some swing voters were persuaded by an 11th-hour amendment to the new church's charter allowing the merger to be dissolved after four years if members were unhappy.

Although the new church won't officially exist until May 1, 2004, a service is planned for Friday evening in Utrecht and will be broadcast on television Sunday morning.

The service is being held on neutral territory - a Roman Catholic church on Utrecht's main square - and will be attended by leaders of the three churches and by Cardinal Adrianus Simonis.

Queen Beatrix also will attend, signifying approval of the royal house which is by tradition Dutch Reformed.

The Reformed Church represents around 15 percent of the 16 million Dutch population, followed by the Calvinist Reformist Church at 7 percent and the Lutherans at less than 1 percent.

The new Protestant Church will permit gay marriages and women pastors, but will not force any local congregation to accept them - which is the current practice in the mostly liberal Netherlands.

However, some conservative congregations are unhappy with the decision, and small ultraconservative minorities of the two larger denominations are likely to break with the new church and file lawsuits over church funds and real estate.

Although religious debate has played an important role in Dutch history, many people abandoned their churches in the last half century, and now nearly 40 percent of the country identifies itself as agnostic or atheist.

Roman Catholicism remains the country's single largest religion, representing around 30 percent. Islam follow the Protestants as third largest, with 5 percent, and is the only religion that is still growing, due to high birth and immigration rates in the country's Turkish and Moroccan communities. Small but significant numbers of Dutch are practicing Jews, Hindus and Buddhists.

Conservative members of the Dutch Reformed Church viewed the merger with "great apprehension," but decided that unifying the church was more important, chairman Arie van der Plas was quoted saying by the Dutch broadcaster NOS.

In a speech Friday before the votes were cast, Van der Plas said "many have longed for this day" ever since 18 Protestant leaders "raised a cry for unity" on Pentecost in 1961. –Sapa-AP

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