Easter in Brussels

From Good Friday…

It is the tradition on Good Friday at the Pro-Cathedral of Holy Trinity Brussels to put on a performance of a Bach passion. The idea began as a way of marking the events of Christ’s passion in an appropriately serious and intensive manner, as well as celebrating Anglo-German friendship and building links between the Pro-Cathedral and the Brussels musical community. This year the Pro-Cathedral performed the St. Matthew Passion. The St. Matthew is the greatest product of Lutheran Church Music. And what better way to mark this 500th anniversary year of the German Reformation?

Bach wrote the St. John Passion on his arrival in Leipzig, and it was first performed at Good Friday Vespers in 1724. Three years later the greater St. Matthew Passion was completed and performed on Good Friday 1727, 290 years ago. It was played by two antiphonal choirs and orchestras situated in the north and south transepts of the Thomaskirche, with a children’s choir singing from the back gallery. That must have been a remarkable experience for the burghers of Leipzig!

The Holy Trinity performance aimed to represent faithfully the sound of 18th century Baroque music as Bach’s Thomaskirche congregation would have heard it. The Brussels Conservatory is a centre of Baroque excellence. Our musicians played on modern copies of Baroque instruments, with wooden flutes, oboes da caccia and d’amore, viola da gamba. The performance featured two choirs and a children’s choir plus 10 soloists.

I first heard the St. Matthew Passion performed at London’s Festival Hall, as a young man. I remember being overwhelmed by the intensity of the experience. Being part of the congregation for this performance at Holy Trinity Brussels seemed to me the best way of entering again the experience of Christ’s passion. Bach dwells on certain aspects of the narrative – listening to the performance this year I was drawn especially into the binding of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane – the decisive moment when he loses his freedom, in which Bach has the crowd angrily interject: ‘release him, stop, do not bind him!’. And Peter’s betrayal, with Bach’s anguished aria:

Have mercy,

My God for my tears’ sake;

Look hither,

Heart and eyes weep before thee


There is no ‘resurrection’ in Bach’s Passions, of course. The St. Matthew ends, after some three hours of sublime music, with Jesus resting, life exhausted, in the tomb.


…to Easter Sunday…

Holy Trinity’s main Easter Sunday morning service begins with the lighting of the Easter candle, procession of choir and ministers into the church, and Easter acclamations.

It was a great joy to share in this international celebration of Easter morning, with people of all ages, from all over the world, in a packed church building.

The church was beautifully decorated with white and yellow floral displays. Music was led by a large choir augmented by a brass trio and timpani. “Thine be the glory” sung with trumpets and drum rolls on Easter morning is a truly spine-tingling experience.

In his Easter sermon, Canon Paul Vrolijk referred us to the biblical image of the garden, moving from Eden, to Gethsemane to the garden of the resurrection. He invited the congregation to meet with Jesus, as Mary Magdalene had done in the garden of the resurrection, so that areas of desolation and sadness that represent the ‘Gethsemanes’ in our lives can be opened to healing and transformation. We gathered around the Lord’s Table, praying that Jesus would make himself known to us in the breaking of the bread.

It was an especial joy for Helen and me to celebrate Easter at the Pro-Cathedral with our family – four children and two sons-in-law. All of our children have a living Christian faith and are regular church attenders themselves. We don’t have many opportunities to gather together, so to be family on the greatest day of the Christian year was particularly important for us.

Across our widespread diocese, Easter is celebrated in many different ways with varying formality, liturgical splendour and musical tradition. In each place we bring together communities of people to celebrate a risen Lord, whose resurrection continues to burst into our lives and into our world.

I wish every member of our diocese and its churches a blessed and happy Easter.

Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening

It was a great personal pleasure for me today to meet with clergy and lay ministers, from different parts of the diocese, for our annual Chrism Eucharist. Our service took place in the Pro-Cathedral of the Holy Trinity Brussels, in parallel with a similar service at All Saints, Milan.

At the outset, we had in mind that the Chrism Eucharist last year was scheduled for 22nd March, the day of the terrible Brussels bombings. Thankfully, this year’s event went unmarred by any similar tragedy in Belgium, although the morning had seen a devastating fire at Grande-Synthe migrant camp in Northern France.

The service really has two parts to it. Firstly, we renew our ministerial vows. Secondly, we bless oils to be used in baptism, confirmation and for the sick.

The readings – 1 Samuel 3:1-10 & Luke 7:36-50 – spoke of God’s calling on all our lives and the healing of anointing.

For any of us, without a sense of calling, our ministry will drift. We will start to lose our way. We will lack the perseverance needed to see the journey through. So we gathered today to hear again God’s call to us, to reaffirm our dedication to our vocation and to rekindle our love. As we blessed the oils for use in anointing others, I prayed that we would know the anointing of the Holy Spirit. And that we would be drawn anew into the loving circle of the Holy Trinity. Then we will again be refreshed and strengthened for the work of sharing the love of Jesus with those in our care.

Opportunities in our diocese for ministers to gather together are few and far between. Some had travelled from Germany, the Netherlands, France or Spain to be with us. So to share this time together was truly special. We were grateful to Holy Trinity Brussels for their hospitality. We parted nourished, spiritually and physically, and  – I trust – re-energised for our ministries.

You can listen to a part of the service – the Gospel reading & my sermon – which was recorded, here.

You can also find the text edition of the same sermon here.

To Prague

At a time when populism threatens European togetherness, it is especially important that European Christian leaders celebrate and deepen their ties with each other.

The Old Catholic Church is represented in half a dozen, mainly Germanic, countries in Europe. The Old Catholics have been in full communion with the Anglican church worldwide since the Bonn Agreement of 1931. On April 1st 2017, a group of Anglican bishops joined with our Old Catholic brothers in Prague to consecrate a new bishop for the Old Catholics in the Czech Republic. We worshipped for nearly three hours in Czech and German: a test in humility for us English-speakers!

The ordination and consecration was conducted in a very special place. The Brevnov Monastery is the oldest monastery in the Czech lands, dating from the 10th century. It was recently returned to the Church following its confiscation in the Communist era.

New bishop, Pavel Benedikt Stransky, is in his 30s, so he is likely going to be the leader of Czech Old Catholics for a good long time to come. The Anglican Church in the Czech Republic has a Covenant with the Old Catholics. Under that agreement, St. Clements Prague is both a fully signed up Anglican parish and a fully signed up Old Catholic parish. Chaplains are proposed by the Bishop of the Diocese in Europe but licensed by the Old Catholic bishop. So Bishop Stransky is a particularly important person for our Czech congregation.

Having shared in consecrating their new bishop on the Saturday, it was natural to visit St. Clements, Prague on the Sunday. This was another important occasion, as it was the last confirmation service for chaplain Ricky Yates before he retires from Prague at the end of this month.

Ricky came to St. Clements in 2008. He has been supported in his ministry by his German wife, Sybille. Over his time he has learned an impressive amount of the (difficult) Czech language. Members of the congregation spoke warmly to me of Ricky’s ministry. He has built a strong relationship with the Old Catholic church. He has attracted new families to St. Clements. His pastoral care for individuals has been greatly valued. Under his ministry, the finances of the church have strengthened. He will be enjoying a well-earned retirement in a rural part of the Czech Republic. His departure marks a huge change for St. Clements, and he will be greatly missed.

Sunday’s confirmation candidates represented a gloriously international community. Sebastian, aged 14, has a British father and a Slovak mother. To prepare for his confirmation, he has been working his way through James Jones’s ‘Following Jesus’, and he described to me how his faith has grown through this. Radka is Czech and is married to Charles who is British. The couple started attending St. Clements in 2015 after finding the church on Google. John is British and married to Yelly, who is Dutch. John is a musician and a poet: he kindly gave me a CD of a ‘Rock Mass’ he has recorded with the Karlovy Vary symphony orchestra.

After the confirmation, we had a bring ‘n’ share lunch. Ricky then departed for the Anglican congregation in Brno, two and a half hours away, whilst I met with the Council. I was impressed with a small Council who discharged the business before them with a wonderful mixture of serious attention and appropriate humour. It is so encouraging to see a Council that works well and is blessed with a highly able team of church officers.

So I headed off to the airport and said farewell to the lovely city of Prague. During the interregnum, The Revd. Nathanial Nathanial will be locum priest at St. Clements. Nathanial comes from the Church of North India and is married with baby twins. Do pray for him as he ministers to our international community in Prague over the coming months. And do join with me in thanking God for Ricky’s ministry and in praying for the success of the appointments process which we now begin.


Gibraltar & Brexit

Today the British government officially gives notice of the UK’s desire to withdraw from the European Union: the much-famed triggering of Article 50. The difficulties of negotiating the interests of the whole United Kingdom with the remaining 27 member states will soon become apparent, and there are many questions that need answering. I recently wrote about how lots of people in the congregations of our diocese felt that their lives were in limbo – click here. Many concerns have been thrown up by the Brexit vote, and some of these come into sharpest focus in regard to the future status of Gibraltar.

Gibraltar holds special significance for our diocese. It is the location of our Cathedral church which has an historic importance, not just to the people of Gibraltar, but to the Diocese in Europe and the Church of England more generally. As Anglicans, we are a minority faith in Gibraltar, but we contribute actively to the diversity and tolerance that characterises social life on the Rock.

Gibraltar Cathedral

The House of Lords EU Committee of the UK Parliament recently produced a report, entitled ‘Brexit: Gibraltar’, which can be found here. It sets out well the issues facing Gibraltarians, and I recommend reading it. A debate took place, following its publication, in which Bishop Nick Baines asked whether the Government were stress testing the outcomes of leaving the European Union on Gibraltar. His questions can be found here.

The report points out that in the referendum 95.9% of the votes cast in Gibraltar were remain votes, making it by far the strongest vote for remain of any area eligible to vote. Of course, despite this, Gibraltar must leave the EU along with the UK, though probably with even greater impact.

Access to the EU Single Market has given essential underpinning to Gibraltar’s service-based economy. Currently, 10,473 jobs in Gibraltar are held by frontier workers crossing daily into Gibraltar from neighbouring areas of Spain. Those workers represent 40% of the entire workforce. Loss of access to the Single Market and hardening of the border threatens significantly to harm Gibraltar’s economy – with a corresponding effect on the neighbouring region of Spain.

Gibraltar’s frontier crossing

In terms of tourism, 93% of visitors arrive across the road border. The Government of Gibraltar has called the frontier “a vital artery of Gibraltar’s tourism sector.” Restrictions on border crossings will significantly affect this industry.

Gibraltar is a leading ‘bunker’ port (a port which resupplies ships with fuel). This depends on its status within the EU but outside the EU’s VAT jurisdiction, enabling it to offer low-cost, VAT-free fuel. 30% of Gibraltar’s bunker fuel is currently stored in Algeciras, Spain. Uncertainty over movement of labour and provisions would make Gibraltar less attractive to visiting ships and jeopardise its refuelling business.

The UK and Gibraltarian governments will have to face many difficult issues when Britain leaves the EU. The outcomes will, in the words of Gibraltar’s Chief Minister, rely on the “good will and good faith” between Gibraltar and Spain. Whether Spain feels inclined to show that goodwill once its neighbour is no longer an EU member is an open question. It is in both parties’ interests to cooperate, but that is not necessarily how politics works.

Aerial view of Gibraltar

Everything that applies to the UK post-Brexit applies with a vengeance in Gibraltar. An already strained border with Spain will now also become a hard border between the EU/Schengen zone and Gibraltar. The effect on the thousands who cross both ways daily for work will be enormous. The potential for Spanish political annoyance will be increased. The casual day trip tourism from Spain into Gibraltar will shrink, affecting business. The importing of fresh produce and essential supplies will be affected – there is virtually no agriculture on the rock. When winds prevent the landing of planes in Gibraltar, as they frequently do, the normal diversion to Malaga may be much more complicated logistically.

I am not suggesting that Gibraltar will come under effective siege as a result of leaving the EU. But it is the belief of many Gibraltarians that their way of life will be significantly changed for the worse. The essentials of life, such as importing fresh produce, may become areas of harsh negotiation. Beyond the politics and economics, the EU is important to many in Gibraltar because it is viewed as a means for people to learn to live together, valuing diversity and creating a peaceful and tolerant society. There are important questions of identity here for people who see themselves as Gibraltarian, British and European.

Gibraltarians are some of the most vulnerable to the effects of Brexit and they are having to leave the EU almost entirely against their will. There is, therefore, an especial moral responsibility on the UK Government for their financial and social wellbeing over the next several years.

On the Road Again… A Visit to Holy Trinity Utrecht

There has been an English chaplaincy in Utrecht in one form or another since at least the 17th century. The present church building was consecrated in 1913. It is cosy, traditional in style and frequently packed.

Utrecht is, at least as far as the railway is concerned, at the centre of the Netherlands. Holy Trinity Utrecht is likewise at the centre of Anglican ministry to a big area that includes Zwolle, Arnhem and Groningen. The congregation of All Saints Amersfoort was planted from Utrecht 18 months ago. It is now a big church in its own right. What’s more, Holy Trinity Utrecht has now attracted more families to replace those lost to the new church plant. So it is, again, full to capacity!

The spirituality of Holy Trinity Utrecht is unique in our diocese. The building is owned by ICS. The regular worship style tends towards traditional, catholic. The congregation is largely or mainly Dutch by nationality.

Under The Reverend David Phillips, the church has succeeded to a large degree in integrating regular Anglicans with a large number of the Catholic Apostolic Community. The notice sheet testifies to a church brimming with life: an active student ministry, film nights, various Bible study groups, a range of mission commitments. Chatting to people over coffee, the congregation was evidently thrilled at the way the church was growing spiritually and numerically.

I spent a weekend with the people of Utrecht and its plant in Amersfoort. This included a long and fruitful meeting with its joint church council. A good number of the council members are not from an Anglican background, so I took the opportunity to explain the nature of Anglican governance, and the role of the council, churchwardens and chaplain. The church had arranged this meeting over supper in a business suite at a hotel, so our discussion was focused and productive.

All Saints Amersfoort currently meets in a large and attractive modern Roman Catholic building. Unfortunately, this building has been sold to a developer. So the community is searching for a new home. They are looking to lease or buy the right kind of space. The Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands is (sadly) closing churches at a rapid rate. But the task for All Saints is to find a suitable building, with ancillary rooms, which is not being marketed for commercial development.

I presided at a Confirmation service in All Saints on Saturday afternoon. Worship was led by a big choir with trumpet. I reflected that there are few churches where one would get a big congregation for a confirmation service on a Saturday.

Confirmation candidates Caroline, Dorienke, William and Johannes in the building currently used by All Saints Amersfoort

On Sunday I presided at the 09:00 and 10:30 services at Holy Trinity Utrecht. The 09:00 service was eastward facing, with a traditional BCP-based liturgy, and in Dutch. One young woman in the congregation remarked that it was odd for an English bishop to speak Dutch with a French accent. As a resident of Belgium, I took this is a compliment. The 10:30 choral communion was a modern liturgy, westward facing – and in English.

After church, it was just about warm enough to have coffee in the garden. The spring flowers were at their best.

David Phillips (Utrecht) and Grant Crowe (Amersfoort) are a talented pair of priests. They have significant responsibility for leading and guiding their lively, all-age congregations. In the case of Amersfoort, there are some important challenges ahead. I felt privileged to have shared their congregational life for a weekend. The churches certainly gave Helen and I a generous, friendly and hospitable welcome.

Visiting Voorschoten

St. James, Voorschoten was founded nearly 40 years ago, as a plant from St. John and St. Philip, the Hague. It is led by Ruan Crew, their much-loved chaplain. Ruan is married to Lisette, and they have three teenage/pre-teen children, Emily, Hannah and Tim.

St. James serves the communities in and around the prosperous and delightful towns of Wassenaar and Leiden as well as Voorschoten itself. Cycleways, parks and daffodil-clad waterways abound. The main international employers in the area are Royal Dutch Shell, the European Patent Office and the European Space Agency. Consequently, a good proportion of the congregation are highly qualified engineers and scientists.

We travelled 90 minutes by Thalys from Brussels to the Netherlands’ ultra-modern Schiphol transport hub and from there by car to Voorschoten. I met first with the six younger candidates for confirmation: Manon, Robyn, Jennifer, Ann, Daniel and Elliana. They had been following a youth alpha course led by St. James’s youth pastor, Adam. To complement this, I was happy to share with them some more specifically churchy material, such as the nature of Anglicanism and the place of sacraments in our worshipping life.

I then met with the four adult candidates: Fredrik, Liesbeth, Iris and Sarah. Fredrik and Liesbeth are ‘old’ members of St James, now worshipping at the 4,000 strong St. George’s Singapore, who had returned to their home church to be confirmed. Sarah is a student at York University. Iris is a local Dutch lady, who had come to a living faith at the Holy Spirit day of an alpha course that she dropped in on in an Anglican Church in New Zealand. In addition to her confirmation, she is celebrating her marriage at St. James in three weeks’ time, so it’s a very special time for her.

Lisette prepared an excellent supper for the church council in the evening. Over forkfuls of chicken, I had a particularly stimulating discussion with a physicist about reasons for the existence of God, the anthropic principle and the problem of suffering. It is not everywhere one gets this level of intellectual engagement with faith! We talked later in the evening about the challenges facing the congregation. How better to connect with the 10,000 English speakers in the area? How to meet administrative demands in a congregation where everyone is so busy with their work and families, and there are few retired folk? And specifically: how to find a new churchwarden in time for the annual meeting in just two weeks’ time!

The confirmation service the next morning was a joy. St. James meets in the main hall of ‘The British School in the Netherlands’.

In this kind of environment, ‘set-up’ is a weekly necessity, so for an hour before the service teams of people work hard putting out chairs, setting and testing P.A. equipment and arranging all the furniture at the front. This is at the same time as the music group is having a final rehearsal. So there’s plenty going on. Creating an appropriate atmosphere in this kind of setting can be a challenge, and St. James do a particularly good job in getting this right.

Our service order was an especially fine example of the genre, enhanced by colour photos and brief biopics of all the candidates. 170 people attended. With two candidates for baptism and 10 for confirmation there was plenty to celebrate. There was a bumper collection for the diocesan ordination candidates fund. And at the end of the service, each candidate was given a rather fine in-house candle and a Bible. The service was followed by a bring ‘n’ share lunch in the lovely school atrium.

This was my second confirmation service at St. James Voorschoten. It is a highly talented community, with a strong degree of care and fellowship amongst its members. Its financial model is strong. It has real potential for further growth. It certainly has all the elements of a healthy and spiritually dynamic community.

The newly confirmed: Daniel, Robyn, Jennifer, Sarah, Elliana, Iris, Manon, Liesbeth, Fredrik, Ann

‘Unity in Diversity’? Maybe not when it comes to religion.

I am dismayed by a recent EU Court of Justice ruling that could have far reaching consequences for freedom of religious expression. The story goes like this.

National courts in France and Belgium recently used a special procedure to suspend consideration of two cases. The cases involved Muslim women dismissed from their employment for refusing to remove their headscarves at work. The national courts used the special procedure so they could get the cases referred to the EU Court of Justice in Luxembourg for an interpretative ruling. The EU Court was being asked to determine whether the women’s dismissals constituted discrimination within the meaning of the EU Employment Equality Directive 2000.

The Court determined that an entity’s internal rule prohibiting the visible wearing of a political, philosophical or religious symbol does not constitute direct discrimination.[1] It added that national courts should consider the evidence of the specific cases. National courts should decide whether the entity’s rule might lead to indirect discrimination by putting persons of a particular religion or belief at a specific disadvantage. The national court should judge on that basis. But the EU Court’s ruling seems to remove the right of appeal to Europe if someone feels they have been subject to discrimination on grounds of wearing religious symbols or dress.

European Court of Justice, Luxembourg

I am disappointed and concerned by this ruling from the Court in Luxembourg. Far from upholding the EU’s famous slogan of ‘unity in diversity’, it seems to be allowing private employers to be intolerant of diversity. It is particularly surprising in view of a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg made against British Airways. You may remember when BA sought to prevent a Christian stewardess from wearing a cross visible over her uniform. Back then, the Strasbourg judges stated that BA’s refusal to allow Mrs Eweida to visibly wear her cross:

amounted to an interference with her right to manifest her religion…this is a fundamental right because a democratic society needs to tolerate and sustain pluralism and diversity; but also because of the value to an individual who has made religion a central tenet of his or her life to be able to communicate that belief to others.[2]’ 

Previous Strasbourg court rulings have only permitted the banning of religious symbols or clothing on grounds of health and safety or in the public services of constitutionally secular states.

Mrs Eweida appealed against BA to Strasbourg

Dealing with difference within civil society is currently a critical issue across Europe. As Anglicans, we have a long history of tolerating difference. The suppression of freedom of expression, by trying to make difference invisible, will only stoke the fires of extremism. Recently, my Attaché attended a seminar that explored research into how young Belgians are lured into joining jihadist movements. Perceived discrimination in finding a job, including the experience of employers who won’t take anyone wearing a headscarf, was one significant factor. A leading member of the British Conservative group in the European Parliament (Sajjad Karim MEP) put it this way:

Today’s ruling in effect means Muslim women and people from other religious groups have to choose between their fundamental right to religious expression and access to the labour market. This is unacceptable and will only isolate people with religious convictions who wish to express their belief.

Britain has had a long and exemplary history of pioneering the principle of ‘reasonable accommodation’ in matters of religious dress. For instance, Sikhs have been allowed to wear turbans as part of their army uniforms. Britain has even allowed turbans instead of crash helmets on a motor bike. But sadly, in the Eweida case, the British Government tried to argue that loss of employment did not constitute a denial of rights, because the plaintiff could always seek other employment. They said:

The fact that these applicants were free to resign and seek employment elsewhere, or to practise their religion outside work, was sufficient to guarantee their Article 9 rights under domestic law.’

The judges in Strasbourg rightly saw through that and ruled in Eweida’s favour. It is a shame that the EU judges in Luxembourg have not seen fit to come to the same conclusion for these two Muslim women. There remains the possibility for the national courts to rule in their favour on the basis of indirect discrimination. But an important principle has been conceded. Freedom of religious expression is a precious right, and it is sad to see it eroded.

[1] Judgment on ECJ cases C-157/15 & C-188/15 – 14.03.2017

[2] ECtHR judgment on application no. 4820/10 (Eweida v. the UK) 15.01.2013