Walking in the Footsteps of St. Willibrord: Cathedral Chapter Pilgrimage from Trier to Echternach

The idea of a Cathedral Chapter pilgrimage was first suggested a couple of years ago by Philip Mounstephen. We wanted to do something together that would build relationships between physically distant members of the Chapter. We wanted to say something about Christian fellowship across borders in the age of Brexit. And we were looking for something spiritually edifying. A pilgrimage from Trier (in Germany) to Echternach (in Luxembourg) in the steps of St. Willibrord and just two weeks before B-day fitted the bill perfectly!

There were 11 pilgrims, which when you add in our guide – the splendid octogenarian Brother Athanasios – makes 12: an excellent number.

Our base was the impressive Benedictine Abbey of St. Matthias in Trier. This Abbey links us with the very foundations of Western, Roman Christianity. The bones of Eucharius and Valerius, the first bishops of Trier, are interred in the crypt. And it is said that relics of the apostle Matthias, sent to Trier on the authority of Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, are preserved here. From Trier, Constantine ruled over a Christendom without borders that stretched from Scotland to Africa.

Our pilgrimage route took us along paths, tracks and minor roads along the German/Luxembourg border. We walked across fields and through woodlands, never far from the River Sauer, a tributary of the Moselle.

It was Lent, and the cold temperatures and abundance of rain gave our pilgrimage an appropriately penitential feel.

A pilgrimage is a journey with a religious purpose. Our walking was punctuated by visits to churches and a series of addresses by Canon Francis Noordanus on the life and times of Willibrord.

Border lands can be the focus of tension and conflict. Brother Athanasios took us to see this bedraggled concrete bunker almost hidden in the middle of a dark thicket. With considerable emotion, he described how this place marked the far southern edge of Nazi Western defences in the Second World War. From here, high above the Sauer, Nazi soldiers enjoyed commanding views over the villages below. Many people had died. Eventually the Americans had come and over-run this defensive line, and then many more people were killed.

The peaceful valley belies the violence of the mid-20th century.

I was intrigued by this gravestone in a nearby Luxembourgeois churchyard. Schuler is a German name. But the inscription is in French. Mathew Schuler died ‘for his country’ in Russia in 1944. But which country was that? The priest explained to us. Schuler was from a Luxembourg family. Many Luxembourgeois young men were conscripted into the Wehrmacht when Luxembourg was invaded by the Nazis. Schuler lost his life fighting for the Nazis against Russia. But all such young men were allowed by the authorities to have a gravestone which read: ‘he died for his country’. Such are the ambiguities of border lands and the ironies created by occupation.

The local priest explained to us that his gorgeous and compact Church, near Rosport, is one of the most important Marian shrines in Luxembourg and is a centre of popular religion and adoration. The papal flag billows in the stiff breeze.

We eventually arrived, somewhat bedraggled, at our destination: the Basilica of St. Willibrord in Echternach.

The current basilica is built on the actual site of the church which Willibrord built in the early 8th century.

Willibrord was born in Northumbria in 658 and as a young nobleman was educated as an oblate in the abbey of Ripon under abbot Wilfrid. At the age of 20 he went to Ireland, where he was ordained priest in Rathmelsigi in 688. In 690 he came to the European mainland with eleven companions to work as a missionary among the Frisians. He built churches and established a cathedral in Utrecht. He is understood as the first bishop of Utrecht. In 698 he established the Benedictine Abbey of Echternach. After a career which sometimes entailed excellent relations with secular kings, and at other times left him fleeing for his life, Willibrord lived to the age of 81 and was buried, according to his wishes, in Echternach.

We held our final eucharist in this beautiful crypt, close to Willibrord’s shrine. It was an intimate and lovely setting to celebrate our togetherness as a Chapter.


A pilgrimage such as we shared has many spiritual effects. It draws us closer to the Lord and to each other. It puts us back in touch with nature. It takes us away from the cities where we live and work for a while. A slightly rougher few days renews our gratitude for the simple pleasures of life.

We walked between two cities with tremendous religious significance. The Emperor Constantine was crowned in Trier and ushered in a borderless Christendom which endured in one form or another for a thousand years. Echternach is the burial place of Willibrord, the saint who took the gospel from English Northumberland to Frisia. En route we traversed the open border between Luxembourg and Germany, in thankfulness for this freedom and the peace between European countries which it signifies and which we, for the time being and by the grace of God, enjoy.

Our short physical pilgrimage is an analogue of the spiritual pilgrimage in which we all share from the City of this world to the City which is to come. We seek a new country of peace, abundance and blessing. It is a place where people from every nation and tribe and language gather in worship around the throne of the Lamb.

Advertisements

Mor Yakup: Visiting south-east Turkey

The Regional Airport at Mardin is modern, small, and easy to negotiate. A delightful port of entry to this part of Turkey.

Having left the airport, we drove along the Syrian border to Nusaybin. This is an area of Turkey to which the FCO discourages travel. However, it has been peaceful for the last two or three years, though conflict continues in less accessible areas nearby. For many kilometres along the border there stretches a high wall topped by a roll of barbed wire. Every few hundred metres there are military watchtowers. I refrained from photographing them.

Arriving in Nusaybin, one could not fail to be struck by the amount of investment. We passed many beautiful new apartment blocks, built to a standard that seemed to me would have not been out of place on the French Riviera.

Our host, Bishop Saliba (left) took us to the first stop on our tour: the ancient church of Mor Yakup. Daniel (right) is the warden of this monastery and the guest house attached to it. His son, off school for some reason, stands between me and Bishop Saliba.

The picture shows the baptistry of what was once a vast Cathedral. The cathedral and university, which are now either ruins or built over, were the heart of what was once Nisibis, now Nusaybin, one of the great centres of the early Christian Near East.

With Bishop Saliba and the Revd James Buxton, Izmir chaplain

The (4th century) tomb of St. Yakup, with distinctively horned corners, lies underneath the baptistry. It was quite a steep climb down into this crypt. Bishop Saliba led us in prayer, in his native Aramaic language. We were pleased to hear that this ancient church is soon to be restored.

I suppose we would describe this as a Romanesque arch on top of Corinthian capitals. Other parts of this once vast building were destroyed by an earthquake, but the archway with its very fine engraving remains.

Mor Yakup is an ancient monument and is at the centre of an area which the Turkish authorities are keen to restore. Behind the ancient site are some buildings more typical of the modern city, and just behind them the Syrian border fence.

This hostel, just across the road from Mor Yakup, was most impressive. We were visiting in winter, but I could imagine how pleasant it would be to drink tea in the shelter of one of the gazebos or sitting on the grass under the olive trees. The building itself is entirely stone with marble floors and solid wood doors – really built to a specification one would be unlikely to see in a Western European retreat centre – albeit that stone is plentiful, marble cheaper and building labour abundant in this part of Turkey.

The hostel is intended for diaspora members of the Syriac church, many of whom now live in countries such as Germany and Sweden, to enable them to visit their homeland here in ancient Mesopotamia.

Mor Yakup embodies so many of the strange paradoxes and contradictions of this part of Turkey. It is the site of one of the great centres of ancient learning, but is now in ruins. It is part of a city which has been very extensively damaged and flattened in armed conflict, but where beautiful new apartments are being built at a furious pace. It is safe, for the moment, but separated by a border wall from Syria where security remains elusive. As a centre of Christianity, it appears crushed, yet still it lives.

One can only have the most profound respect for the Orthodox Syriac community who have faithfully clung to their identity and faith over the centuries in these most demanding of circumstances.

A Celebratory Weekend at St. Paul’s Athens

St. Paul’s is a small church in the centre of Athens whose reputation and effectiveness ranges far beyond its own congregation. Over the last several years, USPG has channelled over €400,000 of assistance through St. Paul’s to people in Greece experiencing the double whammy of austerity and the refugee crisis. I travelled to Athens both to conduct a joyful baptism and confirmation service and to celebrate the fruitful partnerships which St. Paul’s has fostered.

On the Saturday evening, some 25 of us gathered at the headquarters of Apostoli, the social mission arm of the Greek Orthodox church, to celebrate all that had been achieved and to mark our fellowship and togetherness. Pictured above are: Chaplain Leonard Doolan, Metropolitan Gabriel, British Ambassador Kate Smith, Duncan Dormor CEO of USPG and Deacon Christine Saccali.

In discussion, the British Ambassador explained how important the Orthodox church had been in the development of a proper ‘civil society’ in a country where previously the family had been the main or only source of social support. The networking and fellowship between the Greek Evangelical Church, Salvation Army and international aid organisations with the Orthodox has been important in helping Greece to cope with the traumas of the last decade, and it has been a privilege for the Anglican church to play its own part in fostering these warm relationships.

Sunday was the celebration of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. This was marked by a New Year cake. Pieces of cake are cut for God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, Mary the Mother of God, the Bishop, the Chaplain… and for the whole congregation. One of the pieces conceals a coin, which is supposed to bring the person who discovers it good luck for the coming year. It was in fact discovered by Lynne Doolan, wife of the chaplain…!

For someone coming from snowy Belgium, it was a treat to be able to have the after-church lunch outside in the church garden under the palm trees.

I was thrilled to see that Fr. Leonard and Lynne have restarted Sunday School.

Fr. James has come to us from Bristol Diocese with his wife May and their two children, Rosa and Grace on a one-year self-funded placement between finishing a curacy and starting an incumbency. Their presence is a huge encouragement to St. Paul’s, and gives James a great experience of Greek church life at an early stage of his ordained ministry. I would love more UK clergy to find ways of gaining this kind of experience of a continental church.

Pictured here are our splendid confirmation candidates: Luke, Sarah (who was also baptized), Diannah, Cecilia, Olivia and Nelly.

Brexit: Multiple Choices

A couple of weeks ago, I asked a middle-England cabbie what he thought about Brexit. He responded instantly: “Well, we were only asked one question on a bit of paper, weren’t we?”

The cabbie’s pithy answer impressed on me how one simple question has plunged us into labyrinthine depths of complexity and uncertainty. The tumult in the House of Commons right now is indicative of political leaders who still seem entrenched in that binary mindset from two and a half years ago: deal or no deal; remain/leave; hard Brexit/soft Brexit. It goes with the confrontational politics that the physical layout at Westminster embodies and encourages. But the present circumstances now require the UK to move beyond a simple binary choice towards a decision involving multiple choices.

The first choice was made by the UK in June 2016 and it was to leave the EU. 52% nationwide voted ‘leave’. (I’m keenly aware that not every UK citizen in our diocese got a vote, and of those that did most voted ‘remain’).

But then there’s the second key choice. And on this there’s an impasse in Westminster, and between the UK Government and the rest of the EU:
What future relationship to the EU do you want to see? What kind of Brexit do you want? A first and negative choice has been declared, but that leaves a range of positive choices still to be decided.

There’s a huge amount at stake between ‘a deal’ and ‘no deal’, covering everything from economic prosperity to future security. It seems that very few – whether in Parliament or the country as a whole – really want the UK to leave the EU without a deal. But in his Brexit speech on 5th December, the Archbishop of Canterbury rightly emphasised the risk that the UK could drift towards an accidental ‘no deal’ simply because Parliament cannot settle on the right kind of deal. And I am acutely conscious of the uncertainties faced by UK citizens living and working in the EU for as long as we don’t know whether there will be a deal, or not.

Where does the UK go from here? It seems to me that Parliament now needs to look closely at the range of options that could work for the UK and the EU, at least for an initial transition period. When I look across the Diocese in Europe, I see various kind of relationships between European countries and the EU. Perhaps UK politicians need to look more closely and collectively at something like a variant on the Norway or Switzerland relationship. Taking especial account of the Irish border, is there possibly some way in which the UK might still be able to preserve economic access to its largest group of trading partners via the EU single market and remain in a customs union?

At the moment, standing as it does in the European Economic Area, the UK has access to both. Meanwhile, the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), which the UK helped to set up in 1960, has trade agreements with nearly 30 non-EU countries. The point is that there are several degrees of separation from the EU, and there are several countries in the EU’s ‘outer orbit’. At exactly this time last year, the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, illustrated what the UK’s future options could look like in relation to the EU, based on the UK’s declared ‘red lines’.

It is surely time for the UK Parliament to revisit and consider openly all the options that have been on the table for at least the last 12 months.

The clock is ticking down very fast now to 29th March 2019. Pausing or suspending Article 50 is another among our multiple choices. The Danish Prime Minister, Lars Lokke Rasmussen, urged the UK on Saturday to find a national consensus on Brexit. In the same way, a meeting of the House of Bishops last week wondered whether some innovative national forum driven by citizens and civil society could, alongside Parliament, help us chart a path through the immediate challenges. The UK needs to find a way forward together. The British citizens and business leaders I speak to are increasingly desperate for an end to uncertainty.

Among the multiple choices is another UK referendum, although that would certainly risk renewed divisions among the UK’s nations, people and families. The economist JK Galbraith once said that politics is about choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable. The challenge for the UK’s political classes is to guide the country in choosing the least unpalatable among the multiple available options in the UK’s future relationship with its European neighbours.

In a spirit of national reconciliation, the House of Bishops of the Church of England issued a Statement on Brexit last week. It is very unusual for the Bishops to do something like this, and the Statement has been quite widely reported in the European press.

As the Statement says, in this Advent season ‘we pray for national unity – and for courage, integrity and clarity for our politicians.’ I used a range of BBC interviews over the weekend to get across several points. One of interviews I gave was for BBC Radio Norfolk (interview at 2hr 10 mins). The church itself now has opportunity to play a role locally and nationally in helping heal, repair and renew the body politic of a country that has been deeply scarred by the divisiveness of Brexit. Churches foster community. Churches are one of the few places that bring together all ages and backgrounds, Brexiteers and Remainers. And diocesan bishops have considerable opportunity to convene civic leaders across the divides.

The Christian faith has at its core the command to love our neighbour. As we approach Christmas, I hope our Christian communities can take a lead in living out Jesus’s teaching on behalf of our wider societies.

Meanwhile, I encourage us all to pray the prayer written in the context of the UK’s deepening political crisis by the Archbishop of York:

God of eternal love and power,
Save our Parliamentary Democracy;
Protect our High Court of Parliament and all its members
From partiality and prejudice;
That they may walk the path of kindness, justice and mercy.
Give them wisdom, insight and a concern for the common good.
The weight of their calling is too much to bear in their own strength,
Therefore we pray earnestly, Father,
send them help from your Holy Place, and be their tower of strength.
Lord, graciously hear us.
Amen.

St. Paul’s Tervuren at 30

At Christmastime 1988, the Reverend Stephen Seamer was sent out by Holy Trinity Brussels to plant a church in the suburb of Tervuren, east of Brussels city. The venue was carefully researched, a team of church planters was assembled, the local population was leafleted, the opening carol service was advertised, and the doors were opened. But nobody could have dared to believe that there would be 400 people in the congregation. The church was packed to capacity, there were people crouching in the doorways and even gathering outside in the churchyard. Stephen Seamer described it as a miracle, and it is said that he was reduced to tears. St. Paul’s English-speaking church was born. And seldom has a new church begun in such a dramatic way.

Stephen ministered at St. Paul’s for 10 years and under his leadership St. Paul’s became an independent chaplaincy in 1993. He was followed by Stuart Robinson. Stuart was a charismatic leader who stayed just three years before being made Bishop of Canberra. Stuart was succeeded by Hugh Cox, a lovely, gentle and wise Australian who welcomed me to Brussels 13 years ago. In his turn, Hugh was succeeded by a third Australian, Chris Edwards, whose daughter fell in love with and married the Swedish intern working at Holy Trinity. So the Edwards family was divided between northern and southern hemispheres. And after that, Chris said to me, ‘Robert, make sure St. Paul’s doesn’t appoint any more Australians!’ That advice was taken. And who could be more English than the current incumbent Simon Tyndall, distant descendant of the William Tyndale who produced most of our English King James Bible.

30 years after its foundation, St Paul’s remains a thriving church – perhaps a slightly older community, with longer stayers, more national diversity and a much wider geographical catchment area. And it was a great personal pleasure for me to celebrate the past history and present life of St. Paul’s on its 30th birthday.

The present faith of St. Paul’s is embodied in the 8 candidates I had the honour of confirming: Hannah, Anna, Tanya, Nita, Emma, Emma, Rutger and Benjamin.

One church member who can trace the whole of the 30 years of St. Paul’s history is Patrick Lambert. He goes back to the second Sunday of St. Paul’s existence. Patrick is a retired senior member of staff of the European Commission and a much respected elder statesman of the community. It was a joy for me to licence Patrick as a Reader and to commission him for the work of teaching, preaching and pastoral care.

A 30th birthday is the opportunity to invite back old friends. The Revd. Sarah Williams had a wonderful ministry with children over many years in Tervuren as well as on ICS Chaplains and Families conferences. She left Tervuren to become a vicar in Romney Marsh, in Kent. She is now retired and returned for the celebration with her husband Rocyn.

In the beginning, St. Paul’s met in the Roman Catholic church of St. Paul’s Vossem (hence the name). But it soon moved to the British School of Brussels, where the classrooms provide lots of space for the church’s extensive children’s ministry. After worship, the school cafeteria is quickly transformed from a chapel into a dining room. So we enjoyed a festive meal together.

I am thankful for this thriving, diverse and lively church community, and for its clergy Simon and Nathan. Advent is a season of hope, and there is much to hope for in the present and future of St. Paul’s Tervuren.

Brexit: Prayer for the UK Parliament

After much prayerful consideration, the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, has written a special prayer which he is encouraging everyone to use ahead of a Brexit deal vote in the UK Parliament. The vote in the House of Commons was scheduled for Tuesday, but has now been deferred.

Whatever the timing of the vote, this is a period of uncertainty and we should continue to pray for the work of all members of Parliament.

The Archbishop’s prayer reads:

God of eternal love and power,
Save our Parliamentary Democracy;
Protect our High Court of Parliament and all its members
From partiality and prejudice;
That they may walk the path of kindness, justice and mercy.
Give them wisdom, insight and a concern for the common good.
The weight of their calling is too much to bear in their own strength,
Therefore we pray earnestly, Father,
send them help from your Holy Place, and be their tower of strength.
Lord, graciously hear us.
Amen.

Les Gilets Jaunes

Archdeacon of France, The Ven Meurig Williams, writes here about the current protests by the Gilets Jaunes as a vital part of France’s history and traditions.


The widespread media coverage of the protests mounted by Gilets Jaunes in France, mainly in response to proposed tax rises on fuel, are causing heightened anxiety across France and elsewhere in Europe.

Those of us who have the privilege of living and working in France, and who value its distinctive culture and identity, know that protests such as those by Gilets Jaunes are a vital part of France’s democratic history and traditions. Frustration and anger, as well as delight, have always been voiced publicly, and often in the streets. Public protests are nothing new. The fact that most of them happen regularly, without widespread conflict and injury, is a sign of how mature a society France is. We know that these protests are voicing genuine concerns, not least for the socially disadvantaged. The overwhelming majority of demonstrations by Gilets Jaunes pose no threat to life and liberty. But there is escalating concern at the degree to which some protests are becoming infiltrated by groups whose intentions are aggressive and divisive. More so when school pupils have become involved in the violence and destruction.

The Archbishop of Paris, Mgr. Michel Aupetit, has spoken of French values: how fraternity has an equal place with freedom and equality, appealing for dialogue and the renewal of society. Our Anglican communities in France echo his words. We join our prayers with all our ecumenical partners at this anxious time, when peoples’ safety, and the stability of civil society, is at risk.

In this Advent season, Christians pray that we may be awake and alert, reading the signs of the times with faithfulness and insight, as we joyfully prepare for the birth of the Prince of Peace. We pray for France: its Government, its people, and its future flourishing. As Anglicans, we are ready to do whatever we can, working with all people of goodwill, for the common good of the French nation.

– Meurig Williams