A few weeks ago I wrote a post titled, “The church with the word ‘International’ in its name.” And that church, of course, is the one I now serve as pastor – the International Protestant Church of Zurich.
At the close of that post, I mentioned that I would soon get around to writing about the other word in my church’s name – namely, “Protestant.”
Turns out, that other word is a bit more difficult to deconstruct. So, here’s the first in what will likely be a series of installments, as I get to know this fascinating culture better.
Soon after my arrival in the country, I registered at the Gemeindehaus in Meilen – or the village offices where I now live. I registered myself, the dog, and a few weeks later the car. When I leave, I will have to return and let them know that I’m going and taking the dog and car with me (maybe not the car). The Swiss like to know where everyone is at all times – nationals as well as auslanders (foreigners) like me.
One of the questions I was asked that day at the Gemeindehaus was this: “Catholic or Protestant?” Of course I proudly said, “Protestant,” prepared then and there to die for my faith.
Somewhat disappointingly, I was not chained and thrown into prison for publically professing my faith; however, a few weeks later the tax bill arrived.
Around two percent of my income, I learned, would be going to support the Evangelical Reformed Church of the Canton of Zurich (Switzerland has 26 cantons or semi-autonomous states). If I had said “Catholic” that day at the Gemeindehaus, a similar amount would have gone to support the Catholic Church in the Canton of Zurich. And since the Canton of Zurich – thank Ulrich Zwingli for this – is overwhelmingly Protestant, the Reformed churches around here are impeccably maintained and the clergy are very well compensated (or so they tell me).
Now, before my new Swiss readers write to correct me on this point, I should point out that this tax is entirely voluntary. On that day at the Gemeindehaus I could have said, “Neither.” And if I had, I would have had to pay no taxes (to the church).
So, why do the Swiss support their churches so well when so few of them attend on a weekly basis? That’s a good question, and I haven’t been here long to know how best to answer.
But here’s a guess: Swiss religiosity is actually deeper and more substantial than the typical American Christian might imagine. In a national referendum a few years ago, the Swiss voted to keep the church tax. Given the choice, they opted to keep the state church at the center of village life.
As I say, I haven’t got this all figured out yet, and likely won’t have it figured out for some time to come, but it’s interesting – and it’s far more complicated than I imagined.