The history of a Church in a country where most of the people are Muslim

The church was established by Congregational (American Board) missionaries, the first of whom - William and Abigail Goodell - arrived in what was then called 'Constantinople' on June 9, 1831. Over the next three years they were joined by several other missionary families, and these formed the nucleus of the Church. The congregational contingent was strengthened by the arrival in 1842 of Scottish missionaries working among the Sephardim Jews of Constantinople and, joining the Church, that provided a strong base of support for its continuing work for many years. In 1857 the incumbent Dutch ambassador to the Sublime Porte, Count Julius van Zuyland van Nyevelt, invited the small congregation to use the chapel on the embassy grounds. The invitation has been renewed by successive Dutch diplomats to this day. This relationship between the Dutch government and the Church may well account for the community's stability throughout the years.

The English-speaking expatriate contingent in Istanbul swelled when Scottish and other British engineers and technicians came to do work for the Ottoman government. Many of these became regular members to swell the congregation. The cholera epidemic of 1965 hit the Church as hard as it hit all the people, and it spurred the community to organise itself more deliberately. A covenant and creed were written and signed by seventeen members in the Spring of 1866, and the long debate over a name was settled the following Fall; it would be known as 'The Evangelical Union Church of Pera'.

Through this period the Church was unable to fully support a pastor; it depended for worship leadership on American and Scottish missionaries. The first formal call of a pastor was issued to a licentiate of the Free Church of Scotland. Rev. Alexander van Millingen, in 1868. But the financial collapse of the Ottoman government in 1875-1876, the simultaneous departure of Rev. van Milligen, and the evaporation of its endowment (invested in Turkish stock) plunged the Church into crises. Generously, the Free Church of Scotland stepped in to underwrite the salary of a resident part-time pastor from 1879 to 1885. The Scots pastor of the period tried to unite the congregation with the Free Church, but the members felt that was inappropriate. It was to remain an autonomous community of Christian believers.

In 1888 the Church's finances had recovered and investment was made in two buildings next to the Swedish embassy that eventually came to be known as the 'Unyon Han'. The shops and apartments were rented out and occasionally (as now) the pastor was housed there. The income from these buildings continues to underwrite the pastor's salary and supply facilities for the Church's program. In 1892 a full-time pastor was called, Rev. F.W. Anderson, a Scots Presbyterian, and since that time the Church has endeavoured to maintain a full-time pastoral ministry.

The years for the First World War were difficult, but the long-term ministry of Rev. Robert Frew (a Canadian) saw the congregation through, and toward the end of the War the pastor became the honorary chaplain to the Nederlands legation, an act which gave him legal standing and tax exemption. The reordering of Turkey as a Republic in 1923 under the legendary Mustafa Kemal Ataturk did not seriously affect the workings of the congregation. In fact members seem to have shared the optimism of the new nation. As the third decade of the twentieth century dawned the congregation, which had evolved a distinctively British flavour during the tenure of Scots pastors, now had an influx of more Americans and other nationalities. But it was not under after the Second World War that the pattern of calling American clergy was established. 1933 was celebrated as the centenary of the congregation.
The years of the Second World War, during which Turkey was a natural power, saw the Church struggling to maintain its ministry. It was not until the arrival of Rev. Walter Wiley in January of 1947 that the pastoral situation stabilised. By 1956 the Church declared itself to be fully self-supporting, not needing any subsidy from either the American Board nor even from its own endowment. In 1966 the name was changed: the Evangelical Union Church of Pera became simply 'The Union Church of Istanbul'.

In 1962, with a change in the law governing property ownership by foreigners, the Church set up a Foundation to administer its endowment - the Unyon Han. The evolving relationship between the Church the 'Walter Wiley Foundation' went through a phase during which the Foundation was seen as a body distinct from the Church. That relationship, however, continues to evolve as plans are being developed for extensive remodelling and a more rational and deliberate use of the Union Han buildings for Church program.

Over the years the Union Church has seen and been variously affected by the shifting fortunes of this history-drenched city. Now the membership is about seventy strong with a third again as many people who attend on a more casual basis. The membership profile is young. The Church has a well-run Sunday School program and a variety of adult Bible study groups which meet here and there throughout the city and its suburbs. It also tries to support the educational program with lecture series and special events. The 'Pera Bell Ringers' is a music group which made occasional contributions both the Church's worship experience and to Istanbul's wider cultural life, and a voice choir now enriches its worship. On a given Sunday morning (when there are two services, because the 'Dutch Chapel' is small) worshipers will be found to represent traditions from the most ancient to the very youngest. For all its diversity, the congregation continues to evidence a remarkable unity and warmth of fellowship.

The Union Church of Istanbul is perhaps the oldest congregation of its type anywhere in the world. Please visit http://www.unionchurchofistanbul.org for more information.

Date: August 20th, 2002
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