Harvest Festival in Palma, Mallorca

At this time of the year, churches everywhere are celebrating Harvest Festival. I came to our chaplaincy of St. James and St. Philip Palma, Mallorca to join in their harvest celebrations. The church was beautifully decorated for the festival.

In my sermon I preached on the gospel text: ‘Therefore I tell you do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink…for is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothing.’ I noted just how much there has been to worry about over the last 18 months – physically, psychologically and economically. I suggested that Harvest Festival reminds us of God’s fatherly care for us. I said that the proper response to this care is an attitude of gratitude and thanksgiving. I took, by way of example, the Pilgrim Fathers celebrating their first ‘Thanksgiving’ almost exactly 400 years ago, in October 1621, having survived their first winter in the New World. For us, although life has been hard, and although we are not yet out of the woods – with the island of Mallorca facing a difficult winter ahead – there is still much to celebrate and much for which we should give thanks. 

One of the things I particularly like about the building of St. James and St. Philip is this triptych which decorates the inside north wall. To left and right are the chaplaincy’s patron saints, and in the centre is a Madonna with a halo representing all the ethnic groups of humanity.

Looking out on the congregation it seemed to me that the vision of a chaplaincy that would be a place of international and intergenerational welcome was on the way to being fulfilled. This group of worshippers was keen to be photographed together with the bishop.

Churchwardens are key lay leaders in any chaplaincy. They are ‘officers of the bishop’, and we have just published a Guide to what it means to hold this important office in the Diocese in Europe. As bishop, I am very grateful to Nita de Petersen and Shirley Roberts (above) for their care for the Chaplaincy during its recent vacancy and for all they are doing to help the new chaplain and his family settle in.

I was delighted to meet for the first time The Reverend Bill Boyce and his wife Eleanor. They are newly arrived from Belfast in Northern Ireland. Bill is licensed as Assistant Chaplain and has responsibility for the congregation in Puerto Pollença in the north of the island.

And it was a particular pleasure to become acquainted with the new Chaplain of Palma de Mallorca: The Very Revd. Dr. Ishanesu Gusha, formerly Dean of Harare Cathedral. The picture shows Ishanesu, his wife Caroline and two of their three young sons.

Caroline is a trained chef. She not only prepared a delicious meal but also gave me a huge fruit cake that she had baked to say ‘thank you for coming’. Getting this wonderful cake home safely, in the hold of my Ryanair return flight, was a risky process, but I’m glad to say it survived the flight fully intact.

It was a long and complicated process for the chaplaincy to bring this delightful young family to Palma from Zimbabwe. Their arrival promises much in terms of strengthening the intergenerational and international nature of the community.

Collation of The Revd. Marcus Ronchetti as a Canon of the Cathedral Chapter

The historic seaside resort of Calpe lies roughly centrally along the coast of the Chaplaincy of Costa Blanca, and is home to the Senior Chaplain, The Revd. Marcus Ronchetti. The city’s dominant geographical feature is the great limestone rock of Calpe. Marcus had the idea of inviting the bishop to begin his visit by scaling the rock.

This is quite a challenging walk. The path is in two parts. A broad track goes as far as a tunnel. The path inside the tunnel is well polished and slippery. Beyond the tunnel, it is a case of climbing and scrambling to the summit.

This was the first time I had needed my mountain boots for a chaplaincy visit. Marcus told me that he had long had a fear of heights, but had rather recently managed to conquer it. If he had any such fear, it certainly was not in evidence on our walk, which gave new meaning to the diocesan motto “walking together in faith”.

At the summit, I was invited to bless the Chaplaincy which extends South as far as you can see (towards Alicante airport) and north as far as you can see (towards Valencia airport). I recalled how many significant biblical encounters with God took place on mountain tops. And I was glad to pronounce the Aaronic blessing over the people of the chaplaincy. 2021 happens to be the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Chaplaincy of Costa Blanca, and there was surely no better way to mark the occasion!

The view over the coastline on the way down was spectacular.

All of this made for an excellent ‘warm up act’ to the business of licensing and collating Marcus as a Canon of the Cathedral Chapter of the Diocese in Europe. This was done, safely back at ground level, in a different kind of attire, in a Eucharistic service in the beautiful Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady of Mercy, which is the Chaplaincy’s Calpe worship centre.

Marcus has been a priest for 40 years. He has given 10 years of ministry to this Chaplaincy. He loves his work, and the joy he finds in it is reflected by the huge appreciation that his people express for his ministry.

Costa Blanca is a large chaplaincy with multiple worship centres, and Marcus leads a big team of PtO clergy as well as talented and committed lay leaders.

Beyond the Chaplaincy itself, Marcus has a particular area of ministry as a presenter and DJ with the Pure Gold radio station, broadcasting to the Costas (and the world) on 94.1 FM. This is a great work of outreach bringing the gospel in an accessible way to many who do not attend church. It is a ministry that has been particularly important during times of lockdown. 

Costa Blanca is dedicated to the Holy Spirit, which makes it a Pentecostal Parish. In my sermon, I invited the congregation to reflect on the work of the Holy Spirit in animating our prayers, in guiding us through life, and in generating the fruit of a beautiful character. My hope and prayer for this Chaplaincy is that ‘Costa Blanca at 50’ will be a community where people are growing in Christian character as they open themselves to the purifying and nurturing activity of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul writes: ‘when one member is honoured, all rejoice together’. This ceremony of collation was indeed a real opportunity for rejoicing, after a long and anxious period of living with Covid-19. It was a great joy to be together, to worship together, and in the evening to party together. 

Michaelmas at St. Peter and St. Sigfrid Stockholm

St. Peter and St. Sigfrid is situated close to the waterfront in the embassy district of Stockholm. It adjoins an old military cemetery, which means the church building is surrounded by lots of green space.

Of particular note are the two bee hives that have been installed at the bottom of the burial ground. I was told they generate an astonishing 100kg of honey per year. On the day we visited it was sunny and warm, and the bees were active: indeed one of the churchwardens was stung as we observed the busy bees! One of the benefits of installing the hives has been that a large area of ground round and about has been declared a pesticide-free zone, which just shows how a positive environmental impact can ripple out from one project.

The interior of the church is equally beautiful, with fine pews and attractive stained glass windows. Chaplain Nick Howe is initiating a project to see if the iconography in the church could better reflect what is now a diverse international community.

During my visit there was opportunity for a hybrid meeting with the church council. Covid regulations in Sweden are now quite relaxed by European standards and will relax further very soon. But about half the congregation still join services and indeed meetings by Zoom. We were able to have a good and helpful exchange – albeit that lunch for virtual attendees is never as satisfying as when physical and in person!

On one Sunday afternoon a month the building is used by a community of Luganda-speaking Bugandans. They are Anglican by background, and are ‘on the way’ to finding their place with us.

Jesus words in St. Luke’s gospel embody the ethos of St. Peter and St. Sigfrid. Longer standing members told me how they have seen the diversity of the community increase in recent decades.

The Reverend Nick Howe’s ministry is hugely appreciated by the community – as many people told me. Sustaining fellowship and witness during the covid epidemic has been hard, and council members paid tribute to Nick’s ability to create a spiritual home and to use technology skillfully to enable regular worship.

The flying angel weathervane is a distinctive feature of the church building. In the sunshine the golden angel sparkled. 

In my sermon, for Michael and All Angels, I wondered if this flying angel had a name. Michael would be an appropriate name, given that Michael is the patron saint of soldiers and the church is surrounded by military graves. 

Traditionally, Michael is the angel who accompanies Christians in death and who fights for the Christian community against darkness and evil.

Michael appears in Revelation Chapter 12 fighting against the dragon, who is the devil. The Book of Revelation is a key part of the New Testament, though it is often misunderstood. Revelation speaks of a triumph that is ultimately won in a costly way by Jesus, the lamb who was slain, and by those who are faithful and true witnesses to Jesus, even unto death. The angels and archangels accompany the saints, protecting them and fighting with them.   

It occurred to me that the – recently relaunched! – Swedish pop group ‘Abba’ were feeling their way to some of these insights in their song ‘I believe in angels’: “….and when I know the time is right for me I’ll cross the stream. I have a dream…” The book of Revelation provides a much more full blooded version of the vision and hope that Abba seemed to be pointing towards, with its vivid depiction of the triumph of God and a final victory over the powers of darkness.

As we celebrate Michaelmas, may God send his holy angels to accompany us on our earthly pilgrimage and finally bring us safely to his heavenly kingdom.

Consecration of Barend Theodoor Wallet as Archbishop of Utrecht

The archbishop-designate prepares for his consecration

Barend (Bernd) Theodoor Wallet was born in Middleburg, Zeeland. He lived, studied and worked for eight years in Yorkshire. He was ordained deacon by Archbishop Sentamu in York and ordained priest by Archbishop Joris Vercammen in Utrecht, which makes for a truly ecumenical pedigree. Bernd’s consecration had been delayed for many months because of the pandemic. He was chosen for the role as long ago as February 2020. Saturday September 18th 2021 gave long-awaited opportunity for a truly international gathering to celebrate Bernd’s new ministry.

Robing for the Consecration with Old Catholic Bishop Matthias Ring

I was honoured and delighted to be invited to be one of the three principal consecrators of the new Archbishop. New bishops are required to be consecrated by (at least) three existing bishops. Alongside the Principal Consecrator, Bishop Dirk Schoon of Haarlem, and Bishop Matthias Ring of Germany, I was invited to participate as representative of the Church of England with whom the Old Catholics are in full communion.  

The Old Catholic Church is present in seven broadly Germanophone European countries. Each country has its own bishop. The bishop of Utrecht does not have metropolitical jurisdiction over the other bishops in the way that the Archbishop of Canterbury does in the Church of England. But he is the ‘first amongst equals’, he is the titular archbishop, and he is a key partner in ecumenical relationships with the Diocese in Europe. 

The Lebuinus Cathedral, Deventer in the Netherlands

The consecration took place in the lovely Dutch city of Deventer, in the Protestant Cathedral named after Lebuinus – an English missionary, who  first built a wooden church in Deventer in the 8th century. The present building is of much later construction, and it is magnificent. In fact, the Old Catholics chose this building for the ceremony because it is one of the largest church buildings in the Netherlands and could therefore accommodate a big congregation, even with physical distancing.  

Bishops from all of the European Anglican jurisdictions were present as were Old Catholic bishops from Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and a bishop from the Independent Filipino Church. It was a long time since we had seen each other and it was a joy to be together. Of particular note was the presence amongst the consecrating bishops of Bishop Thomas of the Swedish Lutheran Church Diocese of Visby. The Old Catholic Church has a high doctrine of episcopacy and of properly catholic apostolic succession, and this was the first time a Lutheran has been invited to participate in a consecration of a new Old Catholic bishop.

Inside the Lebuinus Church preparing for the Consecration

The consecration was a grand occasion, lasting two and a half hours. Two Dutch television stations had come along, so the action took place under powerful stage lights. I can testify that it was hot under the lights! The service was both being live streamed and woven into a TV documentary on the Old Catholic Church, so there were technicians and cameramen everywhere. Those bishops robing in the sacristy had to manoeuvre around a huge microphone on a long boom plus a TV camera, positioned to enable the journalists to capture snippets of conversation between bishops as they struggled with putting on their robes!

Special mention needs to be made of this wonderful crozier, which is the historic staff of the Old Catholic bishops of Deventer. It was manufactured in Antwerp in the 16th century. Since 1982 it has been held in safe keeping in the Museum of Utrecht. Made of gold, silver and copper, it is evidently hugely valuable, and it was made available for our ceremony under strict conditions. I watched a suitably burly member of the Museum staff arrive with it in an unmarked steel box. He put on his gloves, unlocked the box, and assembled it with great care before – temporarily – entrusting it back to its owners, the Old Catholic Church, to add a sense of history and dignity to the consecration ceremony.  

The whole ceremony was beautifully and elegantly conducted. There was much traditional Old Catholic plainsong, to which the new Archbishop had added items by William Byrd, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Arvo Pärt. There was, what I thought to be, an encouragingly large and youthful congregation. And afterwards (as the picture shows) a delighted Bishop Dirk Schoon signed the documentation making it all legal.

I do believe that the consecration of Bernd Wallet has the capacity to open a new era of hope in Anglican Old Catholic relations. Bernd has a gentle and humble style coupled with personal warmth. His extensive experience of the Church of England from the inside makes him a natural and easy dialogue partner. I am very much looking forward to working with him.

In continental Europe smaller churches need each other. The Old Catholics offer historical rootedness in the countries where they are present. Anglicans offer a sense of connection with the worldwide church. Old Catholics normally worship in the local language; whereas chaplaincies in our Diocese normally worship in English. There are differences between us – in liturgy and ethics, and most significantly the fact that Anglicanism is a product of the Reformation, whereas the Old Catholic Church sees itself as historically and traditionally ‘catholic’. I hope these differences can be sources of mutual enrichment and dialogue so that we can journey together in faith. I hope that episcopal friendships and ecclesial friendships will both grow in the years ahead.

Bernd has chosen as the motto on his new episcopal coat of arms ‘In Christo Gaudium’. What an excellent note to strike at the outset of an episcopal ministry! I hope that Bernd will be able to bring joy to those with whom he ministers, and that he will retain a joyful spirit in the difficult work that will inevitably lie ahead. I pray for the flourishing of Bernd, his wife Elly and their four children and that God will give the whole family much about which to rejoice.

Conference on International Religious Freedom and Peace, Holy Etchmiadzin, Armenia

This Conference brought together religious leaders, scholars and NGO leaders from many different countries to think about the preservation of the world’s spiritual, cultural and historical heritage. This heritage is too often under threat from ethnic and religious intolerance, especially during wars and armed conflict. The conference met in Holy Etchmiadzin, under the patronage of His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The Conference focused especially on the Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) conflict, an area in the Southern Caucasus whose international status is unresolved.   

The Conference reflected on the impact of the destruction of religious heritage, with many sharing personal testimony. The Conference noted that places of worship and items of religious heritage are representative of the deepest identities of people and communities of faith. Precisely for this reason, they are often deliberately targeted in order to inflict maximum collective trauma on a particular community. On the other hand, by caring for the physical integrity of holy sites and places of worship, we uphold the dignity of those who hold them dear, and when we co-operate among nations, governments and faith communities to protect religious heritage, we convey a transformative message of healing and togetherness.

In my sermon to the Conference, I preached on Christ the Light of the world. “In our gathering, we have some role in opening ourselves afresh to the light and enabling that light to shine in the darkness which is so evident in history and in the world today. We are to turn over the stones, expose the darkness and let in the light. To get the historical truth straight – or as straight as we can – and expose all the dreadful jaggedness of human conflict, suspicion, mistrust and even war to the healing, warming, light of Jesus Christ … How easy it would be to be dragged down by the darkness, to despair at man’s inhumanity to man, to lose hope under the weight of human sin, not least considering the last 120 years of European history. But the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not and will not overcome it. Like the sun which rises each day with the dawn, so Christ rises from the tomb and rises in our hearts bringing new life and new hope.“

During the Conference, Baroness Caroline Cox, a member of the UK House of Lords, was presented with the St. Sahak – St. Mesrop Order of the Armenian Apostolic Church by His Holiness Karekin II. The award, described as the Church’s highest order of merit, was presented in recognition of Baronness Cox’s tireless and courageous advocacy on behalf of the Armenian people and Armenian Church.

My friend and colleague, the Reverend Christian Krieger, President of the European Conference of Churches, gave a fine address in which he considered an increase of violence against religious communities, such that religious insecurity has now become a real political issue in most EU countries. He observed that places of worship were built without security in mind. He suggested that violence against religious heritage needs to be properly acknowledged and recognised else it can become a long-lasting resentment or ‘identity wound’. ‘Humiliation is more serious in the long term’, he said, ‘than simple violence’. He referred to an action plan for public space published by the EU: ‘SASCE’ Safer and Stronger Communities in Europe. Its primary aim is to improve the security of religious places. I observe that Churches in our own diocese could benefit from this scheme, in consultation with CEC. 

On the final day of the Conference, members were taken into Yerevan for a short act of remembrance at the Armenian Genocide memorial. A wreath was placed, and each conference member was invited to place roses around the eternal flame that lies at the heart of the memorial.

Later in the day, some us had opportunity to visit the Izmirlian Medical Centre, where we were shown around by the Deputy Medical Director. This is a new hospital, with 130 beds, state of the art equipment and 200 staff. It is entirely owned by the Armenian Apostolic Church, something which I found remarkable. The Director spoke to us powerfully about his own experiences of serving as a doctor on the front line of conflict and of the nature of the terrible injuries suffered by young men whom he tended.

It was a surprise and delight to be shown this plaque at one of the entrance doors to the new hospital. The rehabilitation centre is kitted out with neurological testing equipment, gear for strengthening damaged muscles and hydrotherapy equipment for stimulating damaged nerves.

A number of chaplaincies in our diocese support the Barnabas Fund, and it was very good to see this high-tech facility funded by them, and symbolising friendship between British and Armenian Christians.  

Reflections on Afghanistan

The Revd Andrew McMullon is a Chaplain in the Diocese in Europe.  He completed several tours of duty serving as an RAF Padre in Afghanistan, and has offered this personal perspective. His piece is published here as a guest contribution to my blog:

I’ve been asked many times over the last few weeks what I think about the terrible situation unfolding in Afghanistan and to be perfectly honest I have struggled to put my feelings into words. As an RAF Padre I served in Afghanistan three times, in Kabul in 2002 and in 2012, and in Kandahar in 2006. I also served at the HQ for Afghanistan and Iraq air operations in Qatar in 2009. Furthermore, as Chaplain at RAF Brize Norton I was regularly involved in the flights to bring wounded and killed soldiers back to the UK, seeing first hand the cost and sacrifice involved in these operations. All that adds up to a lot of involvement and concern for Afghanistan, the Armed Forces personnel deployed there and Afghans themselves, for over a decade.

Whatever anyone thinks about the reasons why we were involved in Afghanistan for the last twenty years hardly anyone would have wanted it to end in a defeat like this. Ordinary Afghan families had seen their lives greatly improved, with many freedoms and opportunities now feared lost under renewed Taliban rule. Those ordinary Afghans will now pay an awful price, whether they ‘escaped’ to anxious exile in the West or remain living in fear under Taliban oppression.

Many have asked, ‘Was it worth it?’ Was it worth the time away from home? Was it worth the loss of life? Was it worth the terrible physical injuries borne by the survivors? Was it worth the invisible wounds of Combat Stress and PTSD? Was it worth the price paid by my friends and their families?

These are hard questions – but should be faced, and are always faced after war or conflict.  Rightly so! It would certainly have been better if the campaign, and indeed the retreat, had been run differently – and that is not just said with hindsight. Nevertheless, everyone who made a sacrifice in Afghanistan did so for ordinary Afghan families.  We met so many when out on patrol – and indeed many worked and fought alongside us to help forge a better, more inclusive and tolerant Afghanistan for all its people. Friendships were made. Seeds of hope were sown. As a Christian I remain committed to the conviction that such seeds can flourish and bear fruit – even in the rocky and stony ground they now find themselves in.

I continue to follow the news from Afghanistan. I pray for ordinary Afghans, and their leaders. The pain and suffering of this people in their beautiful land continues – but hope abides and we must continue to do what we can to see it realised.

Licensing Catriona Laing in the Crypt of St Anthony’s Chapel Leuven

I have visited the Flemish university city of Leuven many times, but this was my first visit to St. Anthony’s Chapel. Our Anglican congregation of St. Mary and St. Martha have been meeting in the crypt of this chapel since the outbreak of Covid forced them to move from the university chapel of Justus Lipsius. People come on pilgrimage to St. Anthony’s from all over the world because, since 1936, the crypt has been the final resting place of a man sometimes called ‘the greatest ever Belgian’: Fr Damien.

Fr. Damien (or St. Damien of Molokai) was a Roman Catholic priest who ministered for 11 years in the Kingdom of Hawaii to people with leprosy. The lepers were held by the government in compulsory quarantine on the peninsula of Molokai. Fr. Damien taught the people the catholic faith, cared for the sick, inspired community building projects such as schools and hospitals, and buried the dead. Perhaps inevitably, he contracted leprosy himself. But he continued his work for a further five years until his death in 1889 at the age of 49.

In 2009, I represented the Anglican Church at a service in the Brussels National Basilica to mark the canonisation of Fr. Damien. The cavernous Basilica was packed to capacity: it was easily the largest religious gathering I have attended in Belgium. The sense of love and devotion to the memory of a truly remarkable man was palpable.

Now in 2021, I found myself conducting a service of worship in the crypt housing Fr. Damien’s body. That was both holy and humbling. But I wasn’t in Leuven primarily to pay homage to St. Damien. Rather, this was the occasion of licensing the new Chaplain of St. Martha and St. Mary, The Revd. Dr. Catriona Laing.

Catriona’s ministry has been marked by a commitment to social justice. Before ordination, Catriona worked on humanitarian projects in Iraq, including some high-risk areas. After a curacy in London, she moved with her husband Sam to Washington DC, where she worked with the homeless and those living in shelters. After moving to Brussels, Catriona became involved in the Community Kitchen at Holy Trinity Brussels that provides food to the homeless. Alongside her ministry at the Pro-Cathedral, she also pastors the relatively small community of St. Martha and St. Mary.

Relatively small… but also a notably youthful and gifted community. Our congregation of 15 (the statutory limit) included two ordinands and a professor of biblical studies. And I’m delighted that what was once an entirely student community now has families and older people too.

The New Testament reading set for the evening was 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1. The passage includes one of St. Paul’s most important statements of Christian hope: ‘For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.’ I wondered how far Fr. Damien had been inspired by this verse, or verses like it.

I reminded myself (and the congregation) of the depth and extent of Christian hope, which overflows the limitations of this life into the resurrection of the body, the reconciliation of people with each other and with God, and the life of the world to come.

There is, after all, an irredeemably supernatural dimension to the Christian life. We do not hope merely for this life, and death is not the worst thing that can happen to us. The Christian saints and martyrs, such as Damien, lived with a strong sense of a goal that was eternal and that was linked with notions of judgement and life after death.

For all Christians, this conditions not just our attitude to the future but how we live in the present. We will one day be called to account for how we have lived, whether we loved our neighbours, whether we pursued ‘justice and only justice’. That creates powerful moral imperatives in our present time.

Covid is not without parallels to leprosy (or Hansen’s disease as we now call it) in terms of contagion, isolation and quarantine requirements. However, we are this year blessed with vaccines against Covid. But, whereas 1 in 4 people have been vaccinated in high-income countries, that proportion falls to less than 1 in 500 in low-income countries – staggeringly worse. We must share the know-how – licensing, patents, recipes, materials – and the excess vaccines we are stockpiling. It is a moral issue. It’s a justice issue.

The example of the saints and martyrs is on the one hand a wonderful encouragement to hope, if we follow their example, but perhaps also a warning of judgement, if we do not… And in what felt like a divine co-incidence, the congregation had decided that the collection taken at the service should go to Christian Aid for use in promoting distribution of vaccines to poorer countries.

A Drama in Three Acts – 27th March 2021 Brussels

Act 1: The Confirmation of Rebecca Mathen

Rebecca Mathen has had a fascinating spiritual journey. Her family traces its roots back to the Brahmin who were contemporaries of St. Thomas when he visited India. Rebecca was baptized in St. Andrew’s Singapore and confirmed as a Methodist in Canterbury. She was a member of the youth group at St. Paul’s Tervuren and of the Christian Union at Plymouth University. She is currently a member of St. Alban’s Copenhagen and a Ministry Experience Student on placement at Holy Trinity Brussels. Now, as a candidate for ordination in the Church of England, it was my privilege to confirm Rebecca into the Anglican Communion.

Act 2: Admitting Bess Brooks and Jacob Quick as Readers

Bess grew up in the North East of England. She and her husband Paul have lived in Belgium since 1999 and attend St. Paul’s Tervuren. Bess is particularly interested in questions of women in ministry and what it means to be a woman in Christ in the 21st century.

Jacob moved to Belgium from the United States in 2015 to study philosophy at Leuven, where he joined the chaplaincy of St. Martha and St. Mary. Jacob is now a member of Holy Trinity Brussels. He is researching a Ph.D at Leuven, and as a Reader is looking to explore how Christian mysticism can empower us to live out Christ’s teaching.

Bess and Jacob have several degrees in theology and related subjects between them, and I was thrilled to be admitting these younger and very well qualified Readers to their new ministry.

Note also that Jacob is married to Annie Bolger – who serves as curate at Holy Trinity Brussels.

Act 3: The Installation of Canon Stephen Murray

Stephen had previously been made a Canon of the pan-diocesan Cathedral Chapter. In this ceremony he was installed by the Chancellor of Holy Trinity Pro-Cathedral in the stall of St. Willibrord. The 8th century Northumbrian missionary St. Willibrord is known as the ‘apostle to the Frisians’ and is an important Christian link between England and the Low Countries. Stephen is Area Dean of Belgium and Chaplain of St. John’s Ghent.

Part of the role of Holy Trinity Brussels is to be a Pro-Cathedral. In the Installation service we use these words:

‘Like all churches, the Cathedral is a sign of God’s presence in the world; a meeting place of refreshment in the Holy Spirit for all who choose to use it.

As Cathedral it has these particular duties and opportunities: to be a physical sign of the unity of the people of the Diocese with their Bishop and with one another; to be a place in which the festivals of the Church and important events and anniversaries in the life of the Diocese are celebrated by the Bishop or on his behalf; to be a place of regular prayer for the bishops, clergy and people of the Diocese, and for the communities in which they live.’

The Cathedrals in our diocese don’t have quite the same functions as Cathedrals of ‘churches of the land’, like the Church of England in England or the Catholic Church in Belgium. But they do try to fulfil a wider ministry than other chaplaincies. On Saturday 27th March, despite the severe restrictions of a Belgian lockdown, we were all able to rejoice in the wider role of Holy Trinity Brussels and the growth in faith and ministry of some very special people.

A Licensing in Liège

It is a long time since I have travelled out of Brussels – and a long time since I have written a blog. So I am very pleased to be able to share an account now of the licensing of The Revd. Guy Diakiese Matumona as Chaplain of the Anglican Church Liège.

Liège used to be part of the industrial heartland of Wallonia in Belgium known for its iron and steelmaking. Today it supports modern manufacturing and electronics as well as the delicious Galler chocolate and Belgium’s best-selling Jupiler beer. It is also home to tens of thousands of students.

The picture shows the view across the city and the Meuse river from the top of the ‘Montagne de Beuren’. With 374 steps it can justifiably claim to be an ‘extreme’ staircase – the kind of ascent that would be a cable car if it were in Switzerland or a set of escalators if it were in Hong Kong.

The English Church of Liège meets in an Adventist building. (Adventists make particularly good hosts for us because they don’t use their churches on Sundays). Whereas Liège is a big city, our chaplaincy is only small, and it has been through difficult times in recent years. For a while, it looked like we would not be able to restart paid ministry. But with support from the Belgian State and a pan-diocesan Lent Appeal we have been able to do something which had earlier seemed impossible: select, appoint and install a new full-time priest.

The Reverend Guy Diakiese is a truly cosmopolitan priest – educated in philosophy and theology in Nigeria and Rome, fluent in French, Italian and English, and having served his curacy in The Hague. I ordained Guy as Deacon and as Priest, so it was a great delight to be licensing him now to his first incumbency in our Diocese.

All those of us who have been involved with Guy’s training and development in the Diocese regard him as a treasure. He has much to do to help the chaplaincy recover its confidence. There is then a potentially huge field of mission in the city of Liège.

Here is Guy with the parish representatives: Ruth from Belgium and Rathna from Chennai. The representatives and churchwardens have done a great job in keeping the flame of faith burning in their chaplaincy in difficult circumstances and all the privations of Covid-19. Today, 7th March, was the first time the chaplaincy has gathered for physical worship since Belgium’s second lockdown.

Canon Jack McDonald, second from right, next to James the usher, overseas our relationship with the Belgian State, and I was particularly pleased that he was able to attend Guy’s licensing.

Guy will have good friends and colleagues amongst our Belgian clergy. But Liège is in the East of Belgium and our only chaplaincy in the Wallonia Region, so it is a potentially isolated ministry.

Please do join with me in praying that Guy will find a ready welcome, settle quickly into this multicultural city, and see both spiritual and numerical growth in the Anglican chaplaincy of Liège.

Rededicating the English Church in Ostend

The English Church in Ostend has a long and fascinating history. There is mention of English Protestants in Ostend at the start of the Reformation in the 16th Century. Regular church services led by an Anglican Chaplain began in 1836, just six years after Belgium gained independence from the Dutch. The present building was completed in 1865, just over 150 years ago. The Belgian King Leopold I, the German Emperors Wilhelm I and Wilhelm II, and the English Queen Victoria have all attended this Church.

Notwithstanding these royal worshippers, I am particularly inspired by a former Church member called John Cranmer Cambridge, who at the age of 23 gave his life to save a stranger who was drowning in the North Sea. ‘Great love hath no man, than that he lays down his life…’

That was 100 years ago, when the English Church was flourishing. And the English Church went on to survive two world wars.

But during the second half of the twentieth century, the condition of the building deteriorated and the size of the ‘English colony’ in Ostend declined. In 1983 the ceiling of the church collapsed. Tons of lime fell into the Church. People grew fearful for the Church’s future. So five years ago, the building closed for major renovation. The picture above was taken after the final act of worship attended by the Governor and the Mayor of Ostend. This feels a long time ago, when Excellency Alison Rose was British Ambassador to Belgium, David Fieldsend worked in the Bishop’s Office, and a youthful Meurig Williams was Archdeacon of North West Europe. I am sure that none of those present at that emotional gathering in 2015 would have imagined that the next assembly for worship in the church would look like…

Eight of us gathered physically distanced in Ostend in November 2020 – to rededicate the building after major works. But don’t let the masks obscure the joy of the occasion. We were all thrilled to be back in the building. And for anyone who knew this building before 2015 the transformation is absolutely amazing. This ‘new’ building is light, bright, spacious, flexible and welcoming. And it will grow even more beautiful as furnishings, flags and banners are gradually brought out of storage.

Most impressive for me is the renovation of the 19th century brickwork. This façade used to be covered in unattractive red paint. The restored and re-pristinated brickwork is now gorgeous.

A note on signage: Visitors to Belgium sometimes find the signage confusing: the above signs clearly indicate in sequence: ‘this way, that way, the other way, no way’. In fact the beautifully renovated and wide open door makes clear that a warm welcome awaits those who join fellow pilgrims on the One Way straight ahead.

Some of the furnishings of the ‘old’ building left a lot to be desired. So the Council has taken the opportunity to install a new altar-table with a beautifully carved frontal, which was given to them by the Roman Catholic Church. I was pleased to be able to consecrate this for use.

A new font stands on top of what was in fact a very small altar that used to live in one of the chapels of the Roman Catholic Bishop’s House in Brugge.

I am not able to travel much with the current lockdown, so I was genuinely thrilled to be in Ostend with The Reverend Augustine Nwaekwe. The scale of the work done is vast, and I remember well how far beyond the capacity of the congregation it seemed before 2015. In the event, the project was generously funded at a cost of over one million euros by the Town of Ostend and the Flemish Region, for which we are deeply grateful. The concept is for a building which is both a Church and a Cultural Centre, but with decisions on usage resting with the Church Council. The project was managed by the current Treasurer, Jody Paulus. Jody, the Council, the architect (Felix and Partners) and the main contractor (Artes Woudenberg of Brugge) can all be immensely proud of the result.

Notwithstanding the quality of the building, I stressed in my sermon that the Lord is more interested in the ‘spiritual house’ which is the community that gathers. Augustine was able to tell me that Ostend English Church is blessed with a community marked by unity, love and peace. How truly precious that is!

The prophet Isaiah wrote: ‘My House shall be called a House of Prayer for All Nations’. Ostend English Church used to be, as the name implies, a Church for ‘the English Colony’. It has become in recent years a diverse international community. It is a community where people love each other deeply, where people find comfort in dark times, where there is a ready and open welcome to the wider city. It is more and more becoming a beautiful and spacious ‘spiritual house’ fit to inhabit the beautiful and spacious building which is now its home.

Ordinations in Ghent, Michaelmas 2020

Conducting ordinations is one of the greatest privileges of being a bishop, and it is something that in our church order only a bishop can do. But ordaining in 2020 has been a huge challenge. All of our usual June (Petertide) ordinations had to be cancelled, and we rescheduled them for September (Michaelmas). But in September, international travel remained hugely problematic. The most pressing challenge was trying to bring all the candidates and the bishops together in venues that were Covid-19 accessible. We had originally intended four ordinations – Bergen, Berlin, Brussels, Luxembourg. In the event, we ended up with two different venues: Bishop David conducted ordinations in Rome, and I conducted ordinations in Ghent. Flexing the arrangements in this way needed great patience, goodwill and understanding from our administrative staff, host churches and candidates – for which I am immensely grateful.

The Elisabethkerk in Ghent is a huge and impressive building, founded in the 13th century as part of a beguinage to house lay religious women. It became a Roman Catholic parish church in the 19th century and has been the home of St. John’s Anglican Church since 2016.  I believe that Queen Victoria once visited this building for an evening service on one of her visits to Belgium, which would give the building an historic Anglican connection. Our service was very likely the first ordination ever to take place in this historic building. It was certainly the first ordination of women that the building had seen. And I like to think that the beguines from of old would have been delighted to think that women would one day be ordained in their building!

Prior to the ordination I conducted a retreat for our candidates. At the conclusion of our retreat we shared in a Lebanese meal in the gorgeous Flemish parish hall across from the church. Catering is another challenge in these times. We were able to enjoy a precious few hours of fellowship and conversation over good food in a safe but relaxed environment.

The Chaplain, Canon Stephen Murray, and his wife Dr. Pleuntje Murray, went to considerable trouble to set up our evening with all necessary hygiene and physical distancing and individually boxed food. They embodied for us a truly wonderful gift of hospitality.

As always, the ordinations were preceded by the ‘Declaration of Assent’ and the swearing of oaths of allegiance to the Sovereign and of canonical obedience to the Bishop. This was an intimate occasion conducted by the Bishop and witnessed by the Archdeacon of North West Europe. The ceremony reminds us all of the legal framework of rights and responsibilities in which clergy operate. It is also the point at which candidates pledge their loyalty to the historic faith of the Church and their willingness to proclaim the gospel afresh to their generation.

The heart of the ordination service is the Ordination Prayer. Candidates kneel before the Bishop, who prays to God the Father to send down his Holy Spirit on the candidate for the office and work of a deacon or a priest. The Bishop prays that deacons will be faithful in service and constant in advancing the gospel of Jesus Christ in the world. He prays that priests will have grace and power to proclaim the gospel and to minister the sacraments of the new covenant. The ordination texts are some of the most beautiful and rich in the Church’s liturgy and they contain imagery to which all of us who are ordained do well to return to regularly to find fresh inspiration in our ministries.

Of course, it was of especial concern to us that the ordination should be conducted safely, given that the whole of Belgium is now in a ‘red zone’ for Covid-19. I’m guessing that the Elisabethkerk would seat 500 very comfortably, and 1000 at a pinch, so our gathering of 60-70 people had plenty of physical distance between the ‘family bubbles’. The church doors were left open for ventilation – despite the torrential rain outside. Hygiene and hand washing rules were observed scrupulously and the ‘home team’ looked after the whole event impeccably. And at the end, I was pleased that one of the visiting clergy, whose wife is a consultant virologist (one never knows who might be in the congregation!), gave us his seal of approval!

Here are the newly ordained, three deacons and one priest – from left to right:

  • Annie Bolger (to serve as Assistant Curate at the Pro-Cathedral of Brussels)
  • Evelyn Sweerts (serving as Assistant Curate at the Anglican Church Luxembourg)
  • Matt Thijs (to serve as Assistant Curate St James Voorschoten, Netherlands)
  • Dorienke de Vries (to serve as assistant Curate in Arnhem-Nijmegen).

Each of them is very precious to us. They will have to minister the gospel in difficult times. North West Europe is deeply secular. Our church communities cannot meet in the ways they did before Covid-19. Ministry needs to be more imaginative, more tech-savvy, connecting with wider circles of people. At the same time, many in our church communities are anxious, fearful and at risk of becoming isolated. How are we to enable worship in a Covid-19 era that touches peoples’ hearts and allows the Holy Spirit to connect people with God the Father through the Son? How are we to build diverse communities that are united in Christ, all find care and compassion and where ‘no-one is left behind?’.

In our ordination service, the Bishop says to the congregation: “Brothers and sisters, you have heard how great is the charge these ordinands are ready to undertake”. And he asks the congregation: “Will you continually pray for them? Will you uphold and encourage them in their ministry.” I hope that Annie, Evelyn, Matt and Dorienke will always feel supported and encouraged in their ministries, so that in their turn they can be sources of great encouragement to those whom they serve.

Reflections on la rentrée in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic

The beginning of September marks the end of the summer holidays and the beginning of a new term. All of us have memories of returning to school at the start of a new academic year: wondering what our new class will be like; the mixture of excitement and apprehension at seeing old friends and discovering new ones. Seeing small children walking to school this morning in Brussels with packed satchels is for me a real sign of hope. And teachers will be wanting to give their pupils the best welcome and the best start to a new year.

This year, though, returning to school has a different feel. Children are physically distanced from one another and operate in social bubbles. Older children are required to wear masks. In the school at which my son teaches the primary aged children have to wash their hands six times a day – that alone is a major logistical exercise! The social, educational and mental health of our children depends on them returning to school, yet Covid-19 means this can only be done under strict conditions – for the wellbeing of parents, grandparents and teachers – and even the children themselves – although few of them are at serious risk from the virus.

The church in practice aligns itself to the school year, so September marks the ‘rentrée’ for us too. As adults, we know well that the restrictions of the past 6 months are by no means behind us. Covid-19 is a highly infectious and dangerous disease that has spread across the whole world. The church is a social institution that brings together large numbers of people in confined spaces, many of whom are in a vulnerable demographic. So we are continually having to balance our longing for corporate worship and close fellowship with our shared responsibility for controlling the Covid-19 virus.

Today marks the beginning of ‘creation-tide’ in our church calendar. Theologically, I start from the premise that it is we human beings rather than God who are primarily responsible for the pandemic. A recent Grove Booklet[1] by TearFund director Ruth Valerio and others makes this point well. Whether the virus jumped across the species barrier from bats to humans at a live animal market in Wuhan, or whether it escaped from a Wuhan laboratory – it was human behaviour that triggered the release of the virus into the human population. It was willful negligence that frustrated initial attempts to control it. And it was globalised interaction and mass travel that enabled the virus to spread rapidly to every continent. Earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes might fall under the category of ‘natural disasters’, but the pandemic is mainly a disaster of our own making.

So it is equally down to us humans to control it. ‘Controlling the virus’ means observing the detailed hygiene and physical distancing rules that are starting to become second nature for us. But as the crisis continues it becomes clear that more fundamental issues of social justice are at play too. Serious illness and death are more prevalent in certain disadvantaged sectors of our societies: those living in cramped housing, BAME communities, the poor and the obese (and obesity is often linked with poverty). In our developed countries, it is those in blue-collar employment who are suffering the most from the economic consequences of the disease. And people in poorer countries have faced economic disaster under the necessary conditions of lockdown. Far from being ‘the great leveller’, the virus has laid bare deep and nefarious social inequalities between people. Healing the world means addressing social injustice.

At a personal level, the experience of lockdown has challenged and provoked me in some unexpected ways. Firstly, I found myself enjoying the stability of having to stay in one place. I was able to develop a daily pattern of prayer and physical exercise that is so much more difficult if one is continually on the move. Secondly, I found I was re-connecting with the natural environment in a deeper way. I became deeply aware of the birdsong in Spring, I noticed the stars in the night sky, I loved the deep peacefulness that descended on our neighbourhood and rejoiced in the improved air quality. And without air travel my own carbon footprint was vastly reduced. Thirdly, I discovered possibilities for using technology for communication. Suddenly meetings that used to be planned weeks or months ahead could take place almost immediately on Zoom. And linked to this, I’ve discovered a new and more nuanced approach to ‘presence’.

St Paul on a number of occasions talks about how he is present with the churches he has founded in spirit though not in body. The Holy Spirit links us together in a spiritual sense, and through our prayers for one another, even when we can’t be present to each other physically. I believe that tools such as Zoom and Teams have given added meaning to Paul’s insights.

We can now be present to each other across a whole continent – both audibly and visibly – albeit that we can’t reach out and touch each other. So during the spring and summer the Diocese in Europe has been able to stage Zoom-based worship that brought people together who had never previously seen each others’ faces. I have had some of the deepest one to one pastoral conversations of my episcopal ministry because I have been at home, properly centred and focussed, with all the relevant materials to hand, rather than trying to follow a delicate situation on email from a hotel bedroom or via a poor quality phone signal on a train. Like St. Paul, I have wondered: ‘how can I best be present to our diocese spiritually, even though I can’t be present in body?’ And, rather to my surprise, I have discovered that a high level of presence – and sometimes to many people at once – is far more possible than I had realised.

Looking to the term ahead, staff in my office have already spent many hours on the bewildering issues that bedevil international travel in the Covid-19 era. Events that involve lots of people coming together in multiple destinations (notably for ordinations) with shifting quarantine rules are particularly complex to organise. My office is all too aware of the upset that is caused when episcopal plans change, and a visit has to be cancelled. Under the ‘old normal’ this almost never happened. But now, a change in quarantine rules can mean expensive cancellations and disappointment all round.

For many reasons, I am therefore planning to curtail travel – and especially air travel – in the term ahead. I want to set the best example in terms of controlling the virus, aware that travel is one of the most significant ways in which it spreads. And I’m aware of the sheer difficulty of making coherent and consistent travel plans at the moment.

To be specific: two of the countries for which I am lead bishop are France and Switzerland. The level of infections in both these countries, the reciprocal restrictions between them and Belgium, and the level of unpredictability and health risks involved mean, I think, that it will be better not to arrange visits to these two countries until after Christmas. I hope this decision on my part might help chaplaincies with their forward planning arrangements. And I want actively to explore how I can be present to people in ways other than physical presence.

Yet it is ‘la rentrée’. The children are returning to school, people are beginning new jobs in new countries, and some are seeking a place to worship. A sense of excitement is mixed with realism about the virus. And a key challenge at this moment for all clergy and lay leaders is: ‘how do we provide a good level of welcome to new people in these Covid-19 circumstances?’ Without the post-service gathering for coffee, it is vital that welcomers are identified and signposted who can make contact with newcomers. We will need to be diligent in following up names, emails and phone numbers. And Zoom-based events need to be as friendly and inclusive as possible to those who might be lurking on the edges.

Covid-19 has reminded us of our need for our togetherness; it has prompted many to ask deep questions about the ordering of our lives and societies; and in some it has generated a new openness to the life of the spirit. As we begin a new term, I hope our churches and chaplaincies can be places of fellowship and care, places where the hard questions of life are addressed, and communities where people are able to find answers to spiritual questions through encounter with our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

[1] Covid-19 Environment, Justice and the Future, Ruth Valerio et. al. Grove Ethics, Cambridge, 2020