Remembrance Sunday in Ljubljana

Modern day Slovenia is a small, well-developed nation sandwiched between Italy, Austria and Hungary and straddling alpine and Mediterranean climates. It is the only one of the former Yugoslavian nations to be in both Schengen and the Euro and prefers to think of itself as central European rather than Balkan. The view from the medieval castle at the heart of Ljubljana (above) takes in the red-roofed medieval centre, the communist era blocks behind them and the forests, hills and mountains in the distance. On an autumn Sunday it is a pleasant and peaceful view, with the loudest sound being the city’s church bells.

But during the great wars of the twentieth century, the country that is now Slovenia witnessed terrible violence. In the First World War, more than a million Italians and nearly 700,000 of their opponents from the Austro-Hungarian empire lost their lives or were seriously injured in fighting in and around the Soca valley. Indeed, the small advances in territory and the huge casualties mirrored very much what was happening in Flanders, but with the added terror of extreme cold and avalanches. And in the Second World War the population suffered under fascist occupation, with the horror of mass roundups and killings. So Slovenia seemed a very appropriate place for a European bishop to spend Remembrance Sunday.

Our Anglican congregation meets in this very handsome Evangelical Lutheran church building by kind permission of Bishop Geza Filo.

The congregation has enjoyed something of a rebirth in recent months. The mainstays of the congregation had been growing older. But we have benefited from the arrival of several families connected with the American Embassy. In particular, The Revd. Dr. Taylor Denyer, an ordained priest in the United Methodist Church, is kindly officiating under the ecumenical canons and building up the congregation through her pastoral care and her networks. What was once a predominantly elderly congregation enjoys the presence of young families with children.

In the picture above, Barbara Ryder, who was for several years the Reader who looked after the congregation, together with The Reverend Taylor Denyer, prepare for holy communion. Martin Luther looks on approvingly (I like to think).

Above, Bishop Robert, The Reverend Taylor Denyer, and Bishop Geza Filo: a United Methodist minister welcomes an Anglican Bishop in the premises of a Lutheran Bishop. It was very good to celebrate our unity in Christ on Remembrance Sunday.

After the service we shared some refreshments, including these poppy biscuits baked by one of the children.

In 2019, Remembrance Sunday is as important as it ever was. Conflict is a feature of the human condition. The stories of the countries and nations of modern Europe have been profoundly affected by warfare. If we are going to understand each other as peoples, we have to listen to each others’ stories of conflicts, invasions, occupations, victories and defeats. Moreover, because war is so terrible, those caught up in it whether as soldiers or civilians are usually marked by it in the deepest way. For those of us who have had the good fortune not to be caught up in armed conflict ourselves, it remains a matter of Christian compassion and proper human respect to honour the experiences of veterans and victims, to hear and to value their stories. And to be humbled by them.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

A new ministry begins at St. Bartholomew’s Dinard

Brittany boasts some of France’s most charming coastline, with sandy bays, mussel beds and yachting harbours. It is also known for having some of the biggest tidal ranges found anywhere in the world.

The elegant town of Dinard has for many decades been a favourite resort for anglophones. When Helen and I visited, the main street was festooned with Union Jacks to celebrate ‘the British film festival’. St. Bartholomew’s church was built in the Victorian era thanks to the generosity of the Faber family and is a fine example of neo-Gothic architecture. The local congregation was full of excitement as it prepared to welcome its new clergy.

It was a particular delight for me to be licensing Gary Wilton as the new chaplain of St. Bartholomew’s. Gary and I were colleagues for five years at Holy Trinity Brussels. For the last six years, Gary has been vicar of All Saints Eccleshall, one of the largest churches in the Diocese of Sheffield. St. Bartholomew’s presents a different set of challenges in terms of building community and working with the congregation to establish a fresh sense of vision for the future. I am thrilled that Gary has decided to return to the Diocese in Europe.

Gillian Wilton was one of the first women priests to be ordained in the Church of England. She has particular experience as a hospital and hospice chaplain and formerly ministered at St. Paul’s Tervuren. She was given Permission to Officiate in the Archdeaconry of France and will minister alongside her husband.

Gary and Gillian were licensed on a Friday lunchtime. For a scattered community composed mainly of retired people, this worked well. The service was non-Eucharistic, and I have to say that this made for an act of worship with good length and balance. Where the circumstances are appropriate, non-eucharistic mid-week licensings are something I would like to encourage.

After the service we enjoyed refreshments in the garden, with an opportunity to meet and greet the deputy mayor and ecumenical guests. The palm trees are indicative of the delightfully mild climate.

St. Bartholomew’s is a place of real potential. It has a superb church building – spacious, colourful and well-proportioned. Its finances are strong, and it is well established in the town. I am so pleased that the community has had the desire to find, employ and work with first-rate clergy leadership. I am full of hope for what God may do in the future through the ministry of Gary and Gillian alongside the wonderful lay people of St. Bartholomew’s.

Anglican Communion Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

It was a great privilege for Helen and me to be invited by Archbishop Josiah Fearon, Secretary-General of the Anglican Communion, to join an 11 Day Pilgrimage to the Holy Land for Anglican Bishops and their spouses from across the world. The Pilgrimage was based at St. George’s Cathedral Guest House in Jerusalem (above) and the Convent of the Sisters of Nazareth in Nazareth.

The theme of the Pilgrimage was ‘Equipping the Church: living with differences.’ The intention was that as bishops from very different cultures and traditions walked together in the places Jesus walked, so we would better understand one another and grow together.

Our Pilgrimage was led by Canon John Peterson (above), former Dean of St. George’s College Jerusalem and former Secretary-General of the Anglican Communion, and a guide of extraordinary insight and specialist archaeological knowledge. Our daily reflections were led by The Reverend Philip Jackson, Vicar of Trinity Church, Wall Street, New York.

For 11 days, we walked together in the footsteps of Jesus. We visited Nazareth, where Mary heard she was to be the mother of God’s Son, the cave at Bethlehem where he was born, the places around Galilee where he taught, and the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem that he walked to his death. And by growing closer to the founder of our faith, we grew closer to each other.

We explore a cave resembling the one where Jesus was born.
Bishops and archbishops from Africa, Asia, North and South America, Oceania and Europe at Caesarea Philippi think about the question Jesus posed to Peter here: ‘Who do you say that I am?’
Helen drinks from the water at Jacob’s Well, the place where Jesus entered into conversation with a Samaritan woman. All who joined in this Pilgrimage found our faith strengthened with new insights and perspectives from immersing ourselves in the geography, history and archaeology of the places Jesus ministered.

No serious visit to the Holy Land should fail to engage with the present political reality of Israel and Palestine. Throughout our Pilgrimage, the sad and brutal divisions in the Holy Land thrust themselves upon us: the barbed wire, checkpoints and above all the wall that keeps Palestinians out of Israel proper. In the all-too-quiet town of Bethlehem (above) we heard St. Paul’s reminder to the Ephesians that ‘Christ is himself our peace, who has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.’

On our final day, we were extremely fortunate to be allowed into the Dome of the Rock at the heart of Jerusalem, where we listened to the very serious concerns of Muslim leaders in the city. We were reminded of the huge challenge of building peace in Jerusalem between Muslim, Christian and Jew, and of the impact on the peace of the whole world that relations in this city generate.

Left to right: Bishop Robert (Europe), Bishop Danald Jute (Kuching SE Asia), Bishop Andrew Asbil (Toronto).

Our Holy Land Pilgrimage was an intensive and totally absorbing experience. It was very hot; our days often began shortly after 5a.m. and we worked into the evenings. Only a small number of us had English as our first language, and as most of us in the Diocese in Europe know, listening to and understanding people from very different countries and cultures requires patience and concentration.

In Jerusalem there were 30 of us together. We built strong bonds of fellowship across the things that divide us naturally and theologically. Next year, at the Lambeth Conference, there will be some 600 or more. Our hope is that the 30 of us will provide at least one significant nucleus of shared understanding.

I came away from our Pilgrimage with a completely transformed understanding of the possibilities and purpose of the Anglican Communion. At a time when so many of our challenges are global in scale (climate change, poverty, justice, peace…) I realised afresh that a truly global Communion is a precious gift indeed. Pilgrimages such as the one Helen and I experienced are costly in time, effort and money. But they are necessary if the Anglican Communion is to hold together and achieve anything like its potential.

I look forward to the Lambeth Conference 2020 with greatly renewed hope and expectation.

Palm Sunday in Ankara

All our chaplaincies are unique: but St. Nicholas Ankara is more unique than most! To begin with, it is the only building we have that lies entirely within an embassy compound. Though perhaps not the most beautiful building to look at from the outside, it is set in lovely grounds with commanding views over the city of Ankara.

Just 100 metres down the hill stands the impressive Residence of the British Ambassador.

Having a building on someone else’s land only works with the goodwill of the landowner. And we are very fortunate that Ambassador Sir Dominick Chilcott (front centre) and his wife Lady Jane Chilcott (front left) are friendly and supportive. To mark my arrival at St Nicholas, they organised a dinner for members of the Church Council in the splendid public rooms of the Residence. This was greatly enjoyed by all. Good links between our churches and diplomatic communities are very precious to us.

People gathered with excitement for our confirmation service on Sunday morning. Many of the congregation have to travel many hours by bus to get to church, so I was impressed that the group of confirmation candidates assembled to meet me at 9:00a.m. That is quite early on a Sunday morning for most of us. Having said that, the local muezzin had woken me shortly after five…

St. Nicholas Ankara is made up of two groups: the bigger group are Farsi-speaking Iranians. The smaller group are English speaking ex-patriots. Holding both groups together in a single community is a real challenge.

So I was delighted when we were able to appoint The Revd. Mohammad Eghtedarian as chaplain. He is one of the very few Farsi-speaking Oxford trained Anglo-Persian Anglican priests. His appointment was made possible through a partnership with ICS and CMS. Relocating Mohammad, Maryam and their family from Liverpool to Ankara, finding schooling for the children, and getting Turkish residence visas sorted was a long and sometimes stressful project, but we got there.

This is Mohammad’s first incumbency, so we are working together to help him with the big step up from a curacy at Liverpool Cathedral to incumbency in Turkey.

Sometimes when I meet with a Chaplaincy Council, it proves hard to escape concerns about money or buildings or the lack of young people. By contrast, my conversation with the Council at St. Nicholas was almost entirely about their passionate concern for outreach amongst the Iranians. I found it truly remarkable that people who are away from home themselves, have the energy to focus not so much on their own needs but on the needs of the refugees.

The fruit of this concern is shown in the picture above: a wonderful all-age array of Iranian confirmation candidates. In terms of the largest confirmation services I have ever taken, Ankara now holds first and second place. St. Nicholas is playing its own, prominent, role in the growth and nurture of Farsi-speaking Christian faith that we witness across Europe.

Please do pray for St. Nicholas: for Mohammad and Maryam, for wardens and council shortly to be elected at an annual meeting, and for all involved in the community’s governance to exercise, wise and careful oversight of this embassy-based chaplaincy engaging in a remarkable work of outreach in the capital of Turkey.

Celebrating 40 years of St. James Voorschoten

St James was planted 40 years ago from St. John and St. Philip The Hague. It serves the prosperous and delightful towns of Wassenaar and Leiden, as well as Voorschoten itself. Cycleways, parks and daffodil-clad waterways abound. This is the Netherlands at its most attractive and charming. I feel an especial sympathy for this area because I lived in nearby Rijswijk when I was little, whilst my father worked for Royal Dutch Shell.

The main international employers in the area include Shell, the European Patent Office and the European Space Agency. Consequently, a high proportion of the congregation are highly qualified engineers, scientists and lawyers. This is a very able and talented community.

St. James meets in the premises of the British School of the Netherlands. There is much to be said for meeting in a school. The main hall provides a suitable worship space. Classrooms make for excellent Sunday School rooms. And the welcoming atrium provides an ideal venue for after-church coffee.

Good relations between the church and the school mean that on special occasions there is the opportunity to use the school catering facilities: ‘Mike’s Place’. On the Saturday evening, a large number of current and past members gathered for a celebratory dinner. People feel very attached to St. James, and one former youth worker had travelled from California to be with us.

There is a long association between European Christianity and the brewing of beer, and it is good to see this being continued in Voorschoten. Niels (above) runs his own craft brewery, which began in his father-in-law’s garage. He served us ‘Crooked Spider’. This excellent brew takes its name from a spider who fell into a vat of beer, became drunk and clambered out of the vat walking crookedly.

After a good dinner there followed an evening of – surprisingly energetic – line dancing.

St. James prioritises work with children and young people. I was very impressed by this room laid out with age-appropriate craft activities for the children.

Sunday was a celebratory Confirmation service with candidates from Rotterdam and The Hague as well as Voorschoten itself.

This is what some of the young people said:

‘St. James means being connected to God, learning more about my faith and feeling more connected. I find Youth great to talk about my faith and learning more about it. It is a really nice place to be.’ – Chloe

‘St. James means inclusion to me. The Youth is great for learning about God at our level and the church is good as well. It’s an excellent worshipping community to be part of.’ – Tim

People come to St. James from many different traditions. Worship is recognisably Anglican, informal and generously inclusive. Creating a good atmosphere for worship in a school hall isn’t easy, but St. James’ manages to offer something that is beautiful, uplifting and inspiring.

St. James is a youthful community. 80% of its members are 50 years and under. They are busy, professional people and their families. St. James creates an oasis of peace and spiritual life to sustain folk in demanding workday lives. It is a church that is serious about discipleship, committed to children and young people, and mission-orientated. Under the skilful leadership of their chaplain, Ruan Crew, it is a happy and nurturing place.

I thank God for St. James Voorschoten, which is a community that encourages me. I was glad to celebrate with them their 40th anniversary and pray that they will continue to grow and develop ways of reaching out further in mission and service.


People’s March, London

Last Saturday, I participated in the People’s March in London. I took part to show solidarity with those who feel a deep sense of frustration that their voices are not being listened to by those in Government who are leading our country right now. And who, I have to say, seem to have no plan beyond Plan A, the Theresa May deal. That’s very worrying given that Parliament shows very little sign of wanting to follow Plan A. And the People’s March is an excellent example of how we can demonstrate peacefully in support of causes close to our hearts.

The same is true of the petition to Parliament. On Saturday afternoon, it had gathered 4 million signatures. I now see this morning that figure has exceeded 5.8 million. In the space of 3 days… and taken together, the March and the Petition are very much a ‘movement of the people’. The time for mantra-like repetition of ‘Brexit means Brexit’ is long gone; and everyone who cares about the future of the UK is of course asking what Brexit should mean on paper, in process, and in practice.

I voted to Remain in 2016. I would dearly like the UK to stay in the EU. So would the vast majority of people in our European Diocese, given a vote. At the same time, Brexit must entail reconciling and healing majorities and minorities that have expressed themselves and continue to do so. I make no apology in this blog for engaging directly in the political choices that are before the UK’s lawmakers in the House of Commons.

I support a second chance, if we want to make another choice for our country.

What I do mean by that? It is patently obvious that we need a Plan B. In addition to two landslide defeats of Plan A, the Speaker of the House, John Bercow indicated yesterday that a 3rd vote substantially the same as the first two defeated motions would not be admissible in terms of Parliamentary procedure.

I remember debates in the early 2000s when several EU member states including France and Netherlands rejected a new proposed Treaty for a European Constitution. And I remember that the former French President, Giscard d’Estaing, said “there is no plan B”.

He was wrong.

There had to be to respect the democratic wishes of millions of people. And the EU then developed a revised agreement that ended up becoming the Lisbon Treaty.

What does this show? The EU does listen; and I think the EU has listened all the way through the Brexit talks process with the UK.

But we find ourselves in a similar place now in the UK, in the sense of needing a Plan B.

The indicative votes are an important signalling step

That’s why these indicative votes in Parliament yesterday are a very important signalling step on the future direction we could take as a country. As Archbishop Justin has said on social media yesterday, it is easy to criticise our MPs.

Taking seriously the indicative votes at Westminster is critical. Leaving aside views on the Theresa May deal, without an alternative plan the House of Commons has nowhere to lead us to. The outcome will inevitably be exit without a deal on 12 April if there is no other UK plan; yet no fewer than 400 MPs voted against no deal yesterday evening.

But a well-developed and thought through Plan B is going to take time, both to construct a national consensus and negotiate it with the EU27.

As I indicated in a Church Times interview today, I believe that Government should not extend Article 50, but revoke it. I know views differ sharply on this point.

Language is so vitally important in political debate. On Brexit, it has gone way beyond the vocal into the vituperative and visceral. Here’s an example:

Instead of saying “revoking Article 50 is betraying the people who voted for Brexit”, how about saying:

“As a country, we need now to take a pause and a deep breath given the state we’re in. Brexit is fundamentally about our future national direction as a United Kingdom. Decisiveness and durability are far more likely to come from a considered examination of the multiple options we have.”

As Church leaders, we should encourage politicians and people to engage in this prayerfully.

I sense clearly that because the debate has focused so narrowly around one deal or no deal, that has not happened. And politicians are not serving the British people as they should by not telling them what else could be within reach.

If we are not staying in the EU, I am clear that we have to find a way to settle within a European orbit.

– I want to see a durable proposition for the UK that preserves our economic prosperity by access to a single market of 500million consumers. There is already mounting evidence of a Brexodus among UK-based companies moving their operations to the rest of the EU.

– I would want a solution that preserves peace, unity and prosperity on the whole of the island of Ireland.

– I would want to keep customs arrangements as simple as possible for consumers and businesses by remaining in a customs union with the EU.

– And I would want the UK to be able to continue to trade globally outside the EU as well as with our EU neighbours.

We are not Norway. Our economies are different. But the principles of a negotiated agreement between neighbours close to the EU (Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, Liechtenstein) are the same.

A bespoke relationship that the UK could negotiate within, and as a variant of an EEA/EFTA type model, seems to me to offer a landing zone for the future of the UK in relation to the EU. It is this kind of mid-way proposition that deserves serious consideration. Other alternatives are collapsing around us. That’s why I support a pause in the process regarding Article 50.

I note also that some of our politicians are putting their spin on Exodus, for their Brexit ends. As I said on social media this week, I strongly object to Boris Johnson’s misuse of Exodus in the Telegraph article he wrote. Britons are not slaves, the EU is not Pharaoh and Mrs May is not Moses.

And references to ‘Grand Wizards’ in our political discourse are also deeply unwelcome. I am appalled to see British politicians styling themselves in this way. We must keep Ku Klux Klan resonances out of Brexit. This is particularly concerning since it refers specifically to the so-called 4 year “reconstruction era” of KKK in the late 1860s. I see the story has rightly attracted condemnation.

Vickie Sims signing the agreement with the Italian State

I end this blog on a positive, uplifting note.

Whilst the UK’s current relationship with the EU may be drawing to a close, we have entered a new phase in a key European relationship in our Diocese: we signed an agreement with the Italian State giving the Church of England official recognition at a formal ceremony in the august setting of the Palazzo Chigi, or Presidential Palace, in Rome this week.

This is the culmination of many years of effort, including by Vickie Sims as Archdeacon and Paolo Coniglio of the association of the Church of England in Italy. It is also due to the support of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, including Jill Morris, currently HM Ambassador to Rome, and her team.

This latest example of practical co-operation reaffirms our commitment as a Church to stay on the continent of Europe, whatever Brexit may bring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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