A Memorable Weekend in Trier

Trier is famously Germany’s oldest city. It is well known for its Basilica (below), built as Emperor Constantine’s throne room and now a magnificent Lutheran church and world heritage site. Next door to the Basilica stands the Roman Catholic cathedral that goes back in its origins to before Constantine and exhibits in its architecture a melange of styles testifying to the multiple extensions and rebuilding it has seen over its long history.

Trier Basilica
The Trier Basilica

I was staying slightly outside Trier in a place with significant history too: the Benedictine monastery of St. Eucharius and St. Matthias. The monastery is on the southern edge of the city, outside the original city walls and on the site of the city’s former burial ground – one of the oldest cemeteries north of the alps. The story of this monastery goes back some 1750 years to the very beginnings of Trier’s Christian history. For in St. Matthias’s crypt lie the sarcophagi of two of Trier’s first bishops: Eucharius and Valerius.

St Eucharius and St Matthias
The monastery of St. Eucharius and St. Matthias

But my purpose in being in Trier wasn’t so much historical as ecumenical. In the 1960s St. Matthias was at the forefront of European Anglican-Roman Catholic relationships. This monastery forged a relationship with the Anglican Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield. Bishop Stein (now buried in Trier’s Cathedral) gave permission for full inter-communion between members of these two communities. In a wave of ecumenical enthusiasm, an extensive ‘Anglican centre’ was built – though this closed due to shortage of money to maintain it.

To express their continuing close relationships, and bearing in mind that this year is the special 500th anniversary of Luther’s Reformation, the Anglican Community of the Resurrection and the Roman Catholic Monastery of St. Matthias decided to bring together three Anglican bishops and three German Roman Catholic bishops for a weekend of prayer, fellowship and discussion.

The monks were wonderfully hospitable. It was a personal delight for me to spend a weekend in the spiritually refreshing Benedictine rhythm of prayer. I was greatly privileged to be invited to preside at one of the community eucharists. I enjoyed getting to know the monks – some of whom had livelihoods beyond the monastery – I discovered one was a judge and another a town planner.

St Matthias monastery
Supper at St. Matthias monastery

The main purpose of the weekend was dialogue between the English bishops and our German Roman Catholic counterparts. It is probably true to say that Anglican-German ecumenical attention is mainly invested in German Protestant Churches. This was my first serious encounter with German Roman-Catholic bishops – and equally, I think, their first serious encounter with Anglican equivalents.

As Anglicans, we had opportunity to rehearse the last 50 years of very significant ecumenical progress. There was, I think, some genuine surprise and delight from the German side at the extent of ecumenical agreements that have been reached between our two communions. Our conversations covered many topics, but particularly the question of the ordination of women. This is, of course, a major sticking point, as a papal pronouncement has declared the priesthood of women firmly off the Catholic agenda. We wondered whether John Henry Newman’s honoured place within Catholicism, and his writing on the development of doctrine might be invoked? Could Catholics and Anglicans together discover in scripture a place for the ministry of women that might go beyond and behind serious difference in our current practice? Unsurprisingly, we didn’t make any theological breakthroughs. But our differences were discussed respectfully and honestly. And the presence amongst us of an ordained Anglican woman (and former Roman Catholic nun) from Mirfield gave those discussions added meaning.

Our meeting concluded with a joint statement giving thanks for the deep sense of fellowship we had enjoyed and expressing the heartfelt desire that the ecumenical progress made between our two communions might be better known and shared. I was thankful for the very kind hospitality of the monastery and for the longstanding good relationships between Trier and Mirfield that had made this warm encounter between bishops possible.

English Anglican Bishops
English Anglican bishops John Inge, Stephen Platten and Robert Innes
German Roman Caholic bishops Reihhard Hauke, Thomas Löhr and Wilfried Theising
With Abbot Ignatius and members of the monastery of St. Matthias; and Fr. George Guiver and members of the Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield

 

Advertisements

Progress With Brexit Negotiations

berlaymont

Contrary to the impression given in many sections of the press, I am very happy to report that there is steady positive progress behind the scenes in the Brexit negotiations in Brussels. This is particularly the case in relation to preserving the rights of UK and EU citizens currently living or working in a country different from their own who were the main subject of concern at the diocesan Brexit roundtable meeting that I hosted in Brussels back in January with then Brexit Minister Lord Bridges joining us by video link. When the 4th round of negotiations in technical working groups finished at the end of September 60 individual items in relation to citizens’ rights that will need to go into the mutually binding UK-EU Withdrawal Treaty were listed. Of these 65% had already been the subject of agreement in principle, 17% were awaiting clarification of the position of the two sides or have been referred up for consideration at a higher level and for the final 18% disagreement still remains to be resolved. Looking at the issues raised in January the current state of play is as follows:-

  • Mutual recognition of national insurance contributions for healthcare, pension and benefit entitlement. This would continue for those who have already at some time before a mutually agreed cut-off date (no later than 29th March 2019) lived or worked in another country. But those moving to live or work abroad after the cut-off date would not necessarily benefit from these provisions. The actual cut-off date is in the 18% of items not yet agreed.
  • Actual receipt of healthcare, pensions and benefits in another country. Only protected for those already resident or working in another country before the cut-off date. The possibility of continued British membership of the EU Health Insurance Card (EHIC) system for incidental holiday or business travel, especially for those who have not previously lived or worked in another country is still under negotiation.
  • Moving between EU countries after the cut-off date and taking protected rights with you is not yet agreed. At the moment rights are only agreed to be protected in the country in which you are resident or working at the cut-off date. The UK wishes the rights to be extended to cover moving to another EU country, whereas the EU is currently not accepting that position.
  • Annual Uprating of Pensions. The UK offered unilaterally at the outset to continue to uprate annually pensions paid to UK citizens’ resident on the Continent by the cut-off date. The EU side has now agreed that the same should apply to EU citizens receiving pensions from their home countries in the UK before the cut-off date.

european-union-headquarters-brussels-samyn-and-partners-architecture_dezeen_2364_col_20-852x672

  • Rights of family members The protected rights of citizens living in another country by the cut-off date are also to apply to dependant family members, irrespective of their nationality and even if they are temporarily resident abroad (eg students abroad). These rights should continue after the cut-off date even if the family members concerned cease to be dependants (eg students becoming workers). Children born after the cut-off date to citizens with protected rights would also be covered by them. Certain non-dependant family members may also be eligible but only if they are resident in the country concerned at the cut-off date. The right of new family members (eg spouses) to join citizens with protected rights in a country of which they are not a citizen is currently under dispute. The EU would like them to be admitted on the same basis as family members already with the citizen before the cut-off date whereas the UK wants to be able to restrict their access on the same basis as current UK immigration laws for non-EU citizens.
  • Voting Rights. The UK would like the current right of citizens living in another country to vote in local elections there to continue. The EU currently wants to leave it at the discretion of individual EU Member States as to whether to continue to grant resident UK citizens this right. Rights of citizens living in another country to continue to vote in elections in their home country have not been covered by these discussions.
  • Definition of ‘Living in another Country’. The protected rights under discussion would only immediately apply on a permanent basis to citizens who have completed 5 years continuous residence by the cut-off date. Those with a shorter period of residence before the cut-off date would enjoy these rights on a temporary residence basis until five years residence has been completed. Absence of up to six months in any one year or 12 months for an important reason (eg childbirth) would not count as a break in continuous residence. Also those reaching the age of retirement or having to retire on the grounds of incapacity before reaching five years continuous residence would qualify for permanent residence status from that point. However, even after permanent residence status has been granted an absence from the country concerned of more than 2 years could result in a loss of status. Currently the UK is offering to give qualifying EU citizens the right of return in perpetuity if they have an extended absence, but only if the EU will grant qualifying UK citizens to right to take their protected rights with them from one EU country to another.
  • Enforcement of Protected Rights At present the mechanism for citizens to have disputes with national authorities as to whether they qualify for these protected rights settled has yet to be agreed. The EU wishes for there to be continuing access to the European Court of Justice for EU citizens resident in the UK. From the UK side there is an offer for the Withdrawal Treaty to be written into UK law and for the British Courts to be encouraged or mandated to take into account the case law of the ECJ in decisions on citizens’ rights under the Withdrawal Treaty.

union jack and EU flag

However, I must give a strong health warning that EU Treaty negotiations work on the principle that nothing is finally agreed until everything is agreed. Phase one of the negotiations also includes the border situation in Ireland post-Brexit and the so-called ‘divorce bill’ to settle outstanding financial liabilities, where progress is not as good as it is on citizens’ rights. It is only when progress on all three topics is considered to be satisfactory by EU leaders (their first opportunity to make this decision would be at the Summit scheduled for 19/20 October) that discussion can open on other issues, principally the possibility of an implementation or transition period after Brexit when the UK’s economic relationship with the EU would remain substantially unchanged, and the negotiation of a new permanent economic relationship to kick in after the transition period.

Special Note regarding Gibraltar: At present Gibraltarians count as UK citizens for the purposes of EU law (even though Gibraltar is not part of the UK). It is HMG’s intention that this citizenship definition should carry over into the Withdrawal Treaty, although final confirmation of the status of UK citizens post-Brexit will only be possible once the negotiation is complete.

A Grand New Beginning at St. Andrew’s Moscow

Moscow 2

My first official visit in the new academic year was to Moscow. I last visited the Russian capital in the mid-1980s as a guest of the Soviet ‘Intourist’. So I was eagerly looking forward to returning to see how it had changed since the Soviet era. This time I was going not as a tourist, but as Bishop to license Malcolm Rogers as Chaplain of the Anglican community of St. Andrews.Moscow 1

Of course all licencing services are important occasions, but dare I say it there was particularly excitement surrounding Malcolm’s arrival. Few cities compare with the awe-inspiring grandeur and scale of Moscow. And few have such international significance.

Anglican clergy who love Russia and speak Russian, and have the deep pastoral experience needed to build Christian community in Moscow are to be particularly treasured. At an early stage of ministry, Malcolm and Alison spent two years at the Orthodox theological seminary in St. Petersburg. Malcolm then served long incumbencies in London and Bury St. Edmunds. Family circumstances seemed right to allow a move and a new challenge. So in the summer of 2017 Malcolm, Alison and their youngest son Andrew left the UK and began a new adventure in Russia.

Moscow 3

St Andrews church is a remarkable building. Built in the late 19th century, it is an example of English Victorian church architecture that is unique in Russia. It has an impressive tower, that was used as a machine gun post by the Bolsheviks in the revolution. (I was shown some of the bullet holes that remain in the tower wall.) A primary school was built adjoining the church. After the revolution, the church was seized by the authorities and used as a state recording studio. It was returned to us as a place of worship in the 1990s following a visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth to Moscow. And the recent and much awaited granting of a long lease on the building only came after the Russian Patriarch’s visit to Her Majesty last year.

St. Andrews now offers a fine worship space with superb acoustics – I particularly appreciated not having to wear a microphone. Beyond the body of the church are no fewer than 26 meeting rooms. This allows St. Andrews to host a range of groups and activities: a playgroup, outreach amongst orphans and troubled young people, alcoholics anonymous, and creative arts. As one member of the congregation remarked to me: ‘our buildings are really more of a cathedral than an ordinary parish church’. Featuring on walking tours of the city, the church attracts a continuous stream of visitors, and when illuminated at night – courtesy of the city council – it looks stunning. The arrival of a priest and pastor to carry forward the work and mission of the Anglican community in such a significant building close to the heart of magnificent Moscow felt like a truly spine-tingling event.

Oh, and I must add, that St. Andrews boasts an eco-friendly garden. The brainchild of the International Protestant Church that meets on Sunday afternoons in the building, a considerable area of waste ground and rubble was cleared to make way for an attractive garden complete with two large greenhouses for growing summer vegetables. Not at all what you expect to find in central Moscow!

Moscow 4
Pat Szymczak proudly showing the Bishop the St. Andrews Garden
Moscow 5
A model of an early Muscovy Company trading vessel on display at the Old English Yard Museum near the Kremlin

One fascinating aspect of St. Andrews is its intimate link with ‘The Russia Company’. Formerly known as the ‘Muscovy Company’ it was the first of the great British trading companies founded by Tudor and Elizabethan merchant adventurers. (Today it is perhaps less well known than its ‘younger’ successors like the East India Company.) In the 16th century Richard Chancellor, arguably the first British ‘ambassador’ to Russia, journeyed to Moscow via the Arctic Ocean, White Sea and modern day Archangel – an incredibly dangerous voyage. He traded British woollen products for Russian furs. In succeeding decades, the Muscovy company gained exclusive trading rights with Russia and its merchants became the principal diplomatic contacts with Britain. Over the centuries, the trading rights were lost and the Company declined in importance. But there is still a fine ‘court’, now a museum, and in the 20th century the Russian company converted itself into a charity which supports the Anglican church in Russia. We were delighted to have representatives of the Russia Company involved in Malcolm’s appointment and present at the licensing.

Malcolm is supported by a Church Council with diverse passions and interests, from work with children, to care of the buildings, to researching the history of English burials in the Moscow non-Orthodox cemetery. I enjoyed a good lunch with the Council – pictured below at a local French-speaking Algerian restaurant.

Moscow 6

The British Ambassador to Russia, HE Laurie Bristow was kind enough to host a reception to welcome Malcolm to his new role. The Ambassador’s residence is located on the bank of the Moskva river with superb views across the river to the Kremlin. We had the great privilege of dining in the room in which Stalin and Churchill had met to discuss the post-war ‘settlement’ of Europe. In such a wonderfully historic environment, the Ambassador took the opportunity to remind us all of the long-term significance of the institutions in which we serve and our important but time-limited role in carrying the life of our institutions forward.

Building on the successful visit of the Russian Patriarch to HM The Queen and Lambeth Palace earlier this year, we were delighted to hear from Metropolitan Hilarion that The Patriarch would be happy to receive a visit from Archbishop Justin in November. This will be a major diplomatic event for the Anglican Communion. At a time of strained international political relations, it enables our church leaders to take some small steps to building understanding and contributing, in our own way, to world peace.

In addition to his pastoral duties, Malcolm has an important diplomatic role as Archbishop’s representative (apokrisarios) to the Russian Patriarch. Appropriately, Malcolm’s licensing was attended by four ambassadors – Britain, New Zealand, Namibia and South Africa. His arrival certainly opens a new chapter in the life of St. Andrews Moscow. It starts to place our work in Moscow in a key place in international Anglican concerns. Do pray for Malcolm, Alison and their family as Malcolm moves into this very significant position, as he finds his place in St. Andrews, and as he starts to engage with a very significant archiepiscopal visit soon after the start of his ministry.

Moscow 7
Pictured here, on the British Ambassador’s balcony overlooking the Kremlin are: The Papal Nuncio, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware (spiritual leader of British/Russian Orthodoxy), HE Laurie Bristow, Metropolitan Hilarion (head of the Department of External Affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church), Canon Malcolm Rogers, The Bishop in Europe, The Archbishop of the Russian Lutheran Church, the Archdeacon and Pastor Mike Zdorow of the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy.

 

Celebrating 10 Years of St. Thomas’s Church, Kefalas, Crete

A Bishop in Europe is someone who travels on business to places that most people visit on holiday. That is true at least for the area around Chania in Crete, which has proved in recent decades a popular place for English-speakers to retire. Helen and I were invited to Kefalas to celebrate the 10th anniversary of St. Thomas’s Anglican Church.

The story of St. Thomas’s began with Tony and Suzanne Lane deciding to settle permanently in Crete in 2001. The first services of worship began in their home with 6 people gathered around the dining room table. The numbers attending grew, and the congregation moved out, at least in the summer time, to the patio adjoining Suzanne and Tony’s swimming pool. But numbers continued to grow, and the patio became too small. So Tony bought a plot of land adjoining the house which contained old olive trees and a former threshing floor. On this land, he had a small chapel built, modelled on Greek mountain chapels and constructed from local stone. To avoid legal complexities he funded it himself, and it was built as a private chapel. The church was appropriately dedicated to St. Thomas, the patron saint of architects and builders.

Next to the stone chapel, Tony built a ‘tabernacle’, which today forms the area where Sunday worship takes place. Tony was formerly a boat-builder, and he welded the impressive steelwork which provides the frame for the canopy draped over the ancient threshing floor on which the congregation is seated. It is remarkably beautiful. The worship space fits snugly into the rocky landscape. It is surrounded by olive trees and cactus plants, and facing west you look out onto the impressive White Mountains.

In preparation for our visit I read some of the correspondence documenting the fascinating history of the infant church. Did it want to be Anglican? Not everyone agreed. And what form of regular worship should it adopt? Of course, people had different views. The Reverend Mike Peters, a longstanding friend of Tony, was invited to come as chaplain, and he helped the young church establish an identity.

So, in July 2007, 10 years ago, the chapel was blessed by Mike Peters. A little later it was formally consecrated by Bishop Geoffrey Rowell. There is a letter written on 10th August 2010 from Bishop Geoffrey to the Orthodox Archbishop Irenaeus, which proudly recalls:

“Your Beatitude,

You have, I know, heard from Canon Malcolm Bradshaw in Athens, about the progress of the Anglican Church of St. Thomas Kefalas and about the ordination of Fr. Tony Lane to the priesthood. It was a great joy to me on an earlier visit to consecrate the chapel of St. Thomas. I am most grateful for your continuing interest in the life of this new Anglican congregation and for the support you have given to it. It means so much to us to have that support as a real sign of ecumenical friendship.

Yours sincerely in Christ,

+ Geoffrey Gibraltar.”

Our thanksgiving service was conducted in this ‘church without walls’. It looks such a peaceful setting. But appearances can be deceptive. The olive trees around the church are home to (what sounded like) a small army of chirping cicadas. Our opening hymn, ‘Let all the world in every corner sing’, took on new meaning through being accompanied by a great company of insects. I was grateful that a sound system had been installed so my sermon had some chance of being heard.

Very sadly, the most recent chaplain, Canon Philip Lambert, has had to return to the UK at short notice owing to the serious illness of his wife, Fran. This inevitably cast a shadow of sadness over St. Thomas’s 10th anniversary celebrations. Philip and Fran were very much in our prayers over the weekend.

Over coffee there was opportunity to meet Tony, one of the original 6 church members. Tony had served in the military for 35 years. He ran a Cheshire Home in Cheltenham and then taught accountancy in Cornwall before retiring to Crete. He was particularly attracted to climbing the mountains. Sadly, due to a back injury four years ago, he’s no longer able to do this. St Thomas’s enables Tony to find English-speaking fellowship.

After morning worship, we shared in a celebratory lunch at a local tavern. No birthday is complete without a cake. Tony and Suzanne Lane enjoyed blowing out the candles on the cake at an outdoor supper party. In the background is Fr. Leonard Doolan, the new senior chaplain in Athens who has pastoral responsibility for the ministry in Crete.  We wish Fr. Leonard much wisdom and grace as he, together with Archdeacon Colin Williams, helps St. Thomas Kefalas into the next phase of its life and ministry.

Χάρη και ειρήνη

Meditating on the Magnificat

The following is a guest post containing a recent sermon by Annie Bolger, one of our 2016/7 Church of England Ministerial Experience interns. She was placed at St. Martha and Mary’s church, Leuven. Annie grew considerably during her time with us and recently gave her final sermon as an intern, reflecting on what that time has meant to her and her sense of vocation. In the sermon below, on the Magnificat, you can read something of her story. I am delighted that Annie will be continuing with an exploration of vocation to ordained ministry in the coming year.


When I was invited to preach, Jack [chaplain in Leuven] suggested that I use any passage that expresses some lessons learned from my year as an intern at St. Martha and St. Mary’s. As I reflected back on an experience which has been formational on many levels, I chose to illustrate the year through the prayer that we just read, the song of Mary, the Magnificat.

I want to talk about this prayer, and about prayer itself, and about how my sense of prayer & place & voice has been cultivated as I have been among you in this internship.

Much can be said about this beloved prayer, the Magnificat. In structure, it reflects the composition of Jewish psalms. The first stanza displays a characteristic feature of Hebrew poetry—synonymous parallelism: “my soul” mirrors “my spirit”; “proclaiming the greatness” mirrors “finding gladness”; and “the Lord” mirrors “God my Saviour.” The prayer is expressed with symmetry and grace.

The prayer also demonstrates contrasting parallelism: the proud are contrasted by those who fear God, the mighty by the humble, and the rich by the hungry.

There is scholarly debate regarding whether the historical Mary actually prayed this prayer, primarily because the words echo several ancient Jewish psalms, including the Song of Hannah, recorded in 1 Samuel 2:1–10. I find myself bristling at this debate, not because I cannot perceive how this prayer may be a simple reiteration of a more ancient Psalm. This is certainly plausible. I bristle because the Gospel writer portrays Mary as the author of this prayer and in so doing, makes her the theological interpreter of her contemporary events. The Mary who prays the Magnificat is the Mary who recognizes and occupies a place in redemption history. This Mary understands two things — place and voice — and these are the themes that have emerged from my year as an intern.

One element of this internship has been the structure of praying the Daily Office. For those of you who are unfamiliar, the Daily Office in the Anglican tradition consists of Morning and Evening Prayer and Compline before bedtime. The Magnificat is prayed every day during Evening Prayer. At the beginning of the internship, I had a dutiful approach to praying the office. I saw it as a sort of checklist item: “I prayed today.”

My checklist item, “I prayed today,” implies that prayer happened because I did it. As the year progressed, and I started to learn more from my experiences, from my supervisors, from my spiritual director, I began to see prayer as a process that was taking place with or without me. Prayer is constant: all of creation is crying out to God, all of the saints and angels are praying continually, the Holy Spirit is ceaselessly interceding for us. Eventually, I began to hear the hollowness of my checklist item — “I prayed today” — and my concept shifted to “Prayer is happening, and I took my place and I lent my voice.” Place and voice. The dual themes of my internship.

Mary speaks of place on the Magnificat when she says “He has looked with favour on his lowly servant… the Almighty has done great things for me.” During one of my first internship meetings with Jack, he made the observation that life has crushed me in various ways, and he said, “Now you’re in a place where that is no longer the case. This year may be about stepping out and moving forward from that past.” I stepped into my role as intern timidly. I wasn’t quite sure what was mine to do. It took me some month or two before I felt comfortable serving at the altar, before I introduced myself as an intern to guests or visitors. But Mary, whose life was rendered perplexing in unwelcome ways by her calling, immediately has the spiritual acumen to see that God has lifted up the lowly and has filled the hungry with good things. She understands that God is doing that: like prayer, which is happening, God is lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry, and she sees that she has been invited to take a place in that great work, to stand with the lowly and the hungry and the crushed and be part of the great things that God is doing. I learned from her prayer that taking my place, naming my vocation, is likewise a mature and gracious way to take part in what God is doing.

Mary speaks of voice when she says “my soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.” Two particular opportunities were given to me as intern: 1) leading our home group and 2) participating in our prayer ministry. In home-group this year, by increasing collaboration, we learned quite a bit about one another and how to build a trusting community. The crowning triumph of the year together was to take turns each week voicing our personal journeys of faith.

Similarly, this semester, Jane [an ordinand in Leuven] and I have offered prayer ministry after the Lord’s Supper for those who desired personal prayer. In this context, it was not unusual to hear someone say the words, “I have never said this to anyone before…”. In this year together, some of us have used our voices as never before, myself included.

The dual themes of place and voice culminated in our dynamic worship last week, in which I felt privileged to take my place, literally and metaphorically, near the cross and give voice to the stories of women who have been the victims of violence — to give voice to my own story of being silenced.

So on a final note, I want to offer sincere thanks to each of you for welcoming me to take the place of an intern here and to exercise my voice. In this community of warmth and welcome and kindness, I have been able to flourish. It has been a sincere honour to journey alongside you all at M&Ms. I ask you to continue to journey with me as I look forward to the year ahead: I will remain here at M&Ms. I have been encouraged to continue my discernment process, which may include some short visits to other parishes to round out my experience in the Church of England, and will also include some big interviews for which I will need time to prepare and for which I ask your support and your prayer.

Someone from the congregation approached me after dynamic worship last week to hand me a note which said, “Silent no more, never again.” And isn’t that what Mary says, when she declares that from this day all generations would call her blessed? She is saying that she has filled a place in redemption history and she can no longer be silenced. I can think of no better way to conclude this CEMES internship than by voicing Mary’s psalm once more. Will you pray with me?

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour;
he has looked with favour on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed;
the Almighty has done great things for me
and holy is his name.
He has mercy on those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm
and has scattered the proud in their conceit,
Casting down the mighty from their thrones
and lifting up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
to remember his promise of mercy,
The promise made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his children for ever.

Amen.

 

 

General Synod – July 2017

The Summer Session of General Synod takes place at the beautiful York University campus, with activities and meetings on either side of the central lake. It is a lovely environment.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a great deal of time to enjoy the lake…as members are mostly meeting together inside the rather hot and airless exhibition centre.

I hadn’t intended to write a blog on the Synod experience. But, reading accounts in the press which seem to introduce a fish-eye lens level of distortion, I felt impelled to give my own perspective.

The wider scene was introduced on the opening Friday afternoon when, after prayers and a report from the Business Committee, we were invited to debate a motion from the Archbishops entitled ‘After the General Election, a still small voice of calm.’ At one level, this motion seemed a rather predictable call from the Church’s leaders to pray for the UK’s politicians. But the context makes this more than usually important. The Archbishops referred to ‘a critical time in the nation’s history’ with people facing ‘unprecedented questions about the future’. The Brexit vote, and (in a very different way) the Grenfell Tower fire have laid bare sharp divisions in society. Government is weak, confidence in in public institutions is low, people are fearful. The nation is, frankly, not in a good place. And so the established church has a particular and important role in healing, unifying and praying….if it can rise to the task.

One of the things that would most effectively undermine the church’s mission would be a serious split over issues of human sexuality. Over the course of the long weekend, the Synod was bowled two difficult questions that would (again) test the church’s unity. Neither motion came from the bishops: one was a private member’s motion on ‘conversion therapy’, the other was a motion from Blackburn Diocese on ‘Welcoming Transgender People’. Both motions could be viewed as totemic of the relative influence of different groups or proxies for other issues. And, of course, both could be spun.

I have to say I found myself rather uncomfortable debating ‘conversion therapy’. The ethics of therapy offered to gay/lesbian people (and all the more transgender people) is something which challenges even those who are experts in their field. Only a very few members of synod have this kind of expertise. And I was nervous discussing a subject in the adversarial style of a full synod which bears upon issues affecting individuals and families so deeply and personally.

In the event, I think we managed to discuss the issue with openness and compassion. Two amendments had been proposed, both of which in my view significantly improved the original motion. One was defeated, the other was accepted. The final motion endorsed a Memorandum of Understanding signed up to by all the relevant professional bodies, including the Royal College of Psychiatrists. It can be found here. This MoU, describes ‘efforts that try to change or alter sexual orientation through psychological therapies as unethical and potentially harmful’. The motion was passed overwhelmingly.

The second issue in the sexuality area was a motion ‘recognising the need for transgender people to be welcomed and affirmed in their parish church’ and calling on the House of Bishops to ‘consider whether some nationally commended liturgical materials might be prepared to mark a person’s gender transition’. During this debate we heard several stories of people who had transitioned between gender identities, and of the mental anguish that gender variance can cause to an individual and their family/community. There was considerable debate as to how to best to respond. I felt the Bishop of Worcester expressed well the mind of the Synod when he said: ‘Our response needs to be loving and open and welcoming and the passing of this motion would be a very important factor in that.’ The motion was duly passed by a big majority.

I hope that gay, lesbian and transgender people feel reassured and encouraged by these votes. Neither vote changes the church’s doctrine – and those fearful that orthodox teaching is slipping should be reassured that the membership of the current House of Bishops makes the prospect of doctrinal change remote. But they do signify steps towards the ‘radical new Christian inclusion, founded in scripture, tradition, reason and theology’ that the archbishops have promised.

There were many good things during the Synod. A debate on ‘presence and engagement’ reminded us of the national church’s commitment to areas of the country where other faiths are in the majority. Workshops on ‘Renewal and Reform’ highlighted 5 different areas in which the national church is supporting evangelism: the workshop I attended on digital evangelism was outstanding. The annual reports of the Church Commissioners and the Archbishops Council – both of whom are doing excellent work – were welcomed and received. But the most effective debate for me – and the one on which I had opportunity to speak – concerned a motion on ‘the cost of applying for [UK] citizenship’.

This motion was initiated by the central Birmingham Deanery, was approved by Birmingham Diocesan Synod, and was duly debated by the General Synod. Synod was told that the cost of applying for citizenship application in the UK is 1,282 GBP for an adult and 973 GBP for a child. These fees are on top of the costs of applying for indefinite leave to remain. They include not just the administrative costs but a substantial element of ‘profit’ made by the Home Office. The costs are prohibitive and act as a bizarre discouragement to social integration.

In my speech, I drew attention to the vastly lower costs charged by other European countries – less than 200 Euros in Belgium. I described the stress of making these kinds of applications, even for people who have financial means and education. And I said I thought that the ratcheting up of costs by the Home Office in the last few years was simply disgraceful.

The motion was carried with 310 votes in favour, no votes against and no abstentions. This, for me, was the synodical system acting at its best: a local deanery spotting an area of deep injustice, giving it national profile and enabling it to be raised within government. Sir Tony Bawdry MP, former Second Church Estates Commissioner, helpfully offered to give a transcript of the debate to the relevant Parliamentary Select Committee.

On my way home, at the end of the Synod, and re-entering the public life of Britain, I bought a copy of the Times. One article spoke of the ‘collapse of business confidence’. Another article predicted significant falls in living standards as the country is now living above its means. Picking up a copy of the London Evening Standard, the front page carried a warning from the Royal College of Radiologists about the supply of cancer treating radioactive materials once Britain leaves the relevant EU authorising body. These are hugely challenging times for the United Kingdom. The Church of England in England has a particular vocation to bring the message and love of Christ to the nation, to challenge unjust structures and to help rebuild a sense of national destiny. I hope and pray that our internal disagreements about sexuality don’t hinder this task. The Synod brings together so much talent, lay and ordained. At its best, the General Synod models an open and respectful process of debate, raises the profile of the church and further its mission. I felt that at the York Synod we were indeed sensitive to the Spirit’s leading and Christian mission was carried forward.

Séjour en Suisse

It was one of the hottest weekends of the year so far. Temperatures in Switzerland had been in the mid-thirties. So, whilst regretting my lack of tropical clerical dress, I packed my lightest travel pack and headed off the on the rebranded ‘Swiss’ airline to Zurich.

I was met at the airport by the chaplain, Paul Brice, and we were soon whisked by efficient Zurichois train and tram to the chaplaincy apartment. The extensive cold drinks on arrival were very welcome, as was the fan that kept up a refreshing breeze in my bedroom overnight. For breakfast the following morning, Hananiah, who teaches herbal medicine, had prepared a trade mark muesli which was, I think, the most delicious breakfast cereal I have ever tasted. To a yoghurt base, had been added a variety of fruits, cereals and seeds, plus some fresh raspberries grown on the apartment garden. I could not have been better set up for the day-long Archdeaconry Synod to come.

Swiss Archdeaconry Synod chaired by Archdeacon Adèle Kelham.

The character of each of our synods varies greatly from one archdeaconry to another. The Swiss synod is, as you would expect, the most efficient. Representatives rise early – in some cases very early – to travel across Switzerland in time for 09:30 coffee and a 10:00 start. Agendas are well constructed and under Adèle Kelham’s firm but appropriately humorous chairing, the business was discharged expeditiously.

I was kindly given an hour to present, plus half an hour for questions. I chose to speak first about the diocesan strategy and how I saw it evolving. In such a dispersed diocese as ours, central planning has its limits. We can’t work out the strategy into a detailed multi-level implementation plan, in the way one might in the corporate world. Instead, we offer a strategic vision in which each level of the diocese is invited to reflect on how an overall framework can inspire and guide their work.  I discerned refugee ministry and safeguarding as two emerging priorities for the diocese. I then shared some of the many ways in which the five elements of the strategy are being worked out centrally.

I moved next to three ‘topical issues’: human sexuality, Brexit and religiously-inspired violence. It was the first of these which sparked the greatest interest and reaction, so we returned to it at the end of the meeting. This gave opportunity for an open discussion, with some representatives expressing the pain and anguish that the church’s present position caused them. Many of us remarked, however, how much easier it was to discuss these sensitive issues after we had shared in a Eucharist and a meal together. Context, setting and process are indeed important. The meeting closed – on time, of course. We said our farewells and I travelled with other representatives south to Lausanne and then to Nyon.

The evening was spent sharing pizza with a lively group of confirmation candidates at the home of Carolyne Cooke, chaplain to La Côte. It was a pleasure to see the strong rapport that youth leader Caleb had with the youngsters. But it had been a long day, and by 10:30 I was glad to collapse into bed at the home of Trevor and Dorothy Davies.

Over breakfast the following morning, I had opportunity to renew my acquaintance with Trevor. Trevor had been HR Director at the World Council of Churches for 11 years, a role in which he had met and entertained a plethora of senior Christian leaders from across the world. Moreover, he told me how, after he left Holy Trinity Geneva, his home had been the base of the emerging ‘Crossroads’ church, which is now a significant presence in many European cities. I learnt that my former colleague Carlton Deal, now pastor of ‘The Well’ in Brussels and inspirateur of the pan-European ‘Serve the City’ movement, had been youth pastor at Crossroads Geneva. It is a small world.

Dorothy and Trevor Davies.

The Sunday morning began with the re-licensing of Carolyn and her colleague Julia for a further five years of ministry. This was an unambiguous delight, as their ministry is so hugely appreciated by the people of Divonne and Gingins – the two centres in which La Côte chaplaincy meets.

The service of baptism and confirmation was a united service for the two congregations. I was struck, as I often am, by the diversity of the candidates: a fine group of teenagers growing up in a relatively privileged but not unchallenging expatriate lifestyle; two young mothers (one of American and one of African origin); and a pair of Iranian refugees, who had arrived in Switzerland after traumatic journeys from a homeland where their lives, as Christian converts, had been under real threat.

Our candidates.

The after-service vin d’honneur enabled me to renew acquaintance with two old friends. John Philips used to be in Brussels, where he held a senior position in Public Relations and Communication with the External Action Service. After a period in West Africa, he is now in Geneva working with the International Red Cross/Red Crescent. Mike French went to the same school as me. He used to be chaplain at Holy Trinity Geneva. He now has responsibility for South America and Muslim relations for the World Lutheran Federation’s humanitarian and development arm ‘World Service’. Geneva is a remarkable hotspot for able and talented people working in fascinating international roles.

The Reverend Mike French & John Philips.

The morning’s events were followed by a most delightful lunch with clergy and churchwardens under a magnificent oak tree in the gorgeous garden of Julia and Philippe Chambeyron. It had been a very full weekend after a long working week, but a delicious al fresco lunch in good company overlooking the Jura Mountains felt like more than ample compensation!

The Reverends Carolyn Cooke & Julia Chambeyron; lunch under the old oak tree.