Dutch university scraps Christian prayer

01-12-2022

Western Europe

Lennart Nijenhuis, CNE.news

Photo ANP, Koen van Weel

The Free University in the Dutch capital of Amsterdam, one of the leading universities in the country, is scrapping the Christian invocation at academic ceremonies. The opening and closing words at these gatherings will be changed to a text with a "more inclusive character".

"Our help is in the name of the Lord, the Creator of heaven and earth." That confession always sounded at the beginning of academic ceremonies at the originally Christian university. At the end, the president pronounced a hymn of praise: "Let the Name of the Lord be praised, now and forever". From 1 January, that will change, VU reported on its website on Tuesday.

The wording at the start of academic ceremonies will then become: "I open this public session... with reference to the originally Christian tradition of VU University Amsterdam, in which the practice of science is linked to amazement and philosophical values." The closure will from next year refer "to our mission to practise values-driven science with responsibility for people and planet". Thus, after more than 140 years, the Christian character at academic ceremonies at the VU will disappear, Dutch Christian daily Reformatorisch Dagblad writes.

Resistance

The invocation, or votum, increasingly evoked resistance at the Free University in recent years. Professor of evolutionary ecology Jacintha Ellers, for instance, did not want to chair PhD ceremonies because she would have been obliged to say the Biblical text. And that, she says, is "unfeasible for an atheistic evolutionary biologist". Maartje Raijmakers, professor of pedagogical and educational sciences, also refused to deliver her oration if it involved quoting Bible texts. "My atheistic lifestyle is not optional for me," she said in the Dutch daily Trouw. "It is an important part of my identity, just as a religious belief is for others."

A petition by a group of PhD students to encourage discussion was signed over 300 times earlier this year. The Board of Deans, which was considering an adjustment, now also feels that the traditional formula no longer reflects the diversity at VU today.

Recognition

According to rector prof. Jeroen Geurts, there is no longer mutual recognition regarding Christian identity or formulations at academic ceremonies. According to him, the new wording "expresses VU's core values in widely accessible words. Like the terms used, it says that science is not separate from philosophical values and is supported by intellectual modesty and a responsibility for an interest that transcends us."

In the private part of the PhD ceremony, the custom remains to read a short reflective text, which may include a Bible text.

VU was founded in 1880 by Reformed foreman Abraham Kuyper. In 2016, the university adjusted its foundation by removing from the statutes that it seeks to be guided by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The invocation has a place in the church liturgy in several traditions, as in the Dutch Reformed tradition at the start of the worship gathering as an invocation of God’s help. In Holland, it is not much used outside the liturgy; the VU might have been unique in this sense.

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