Edith Cavell: Inspiration in Brussels

Last week I was invited to dedicate the new Edith Cavell chapel at Holy Trinity Brussels. The chapel lies at the centre of the newly renovated Church House building.

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Church House was built in the 1920s as a vicarage. At the time it must have been a most impressive residence on four floors complete with central dumb waiter to help the cooks deliver meals to the clergy family. However, by the end of the twentieth century it had become sadly dilapidated. So in the early twenty-first century, Holy Trinity began a long and costly project to redevelop and restore the building. Under the guidance of architect Richard Craddock, one floor at a time has been renovated. The dedication of the Edith Cavell chapel marks the practical completion of the last main phase of work.

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Edith Cavell came to Belgium to work as a nurse. Encouraged by the Belgian surgeon Dr. Depage she founded Belgium’s first modern school of nursing. She brought to her work nursing skills learned in tough conditions in London hospitals, management ability and a strong sense of duty. Her entire life and work was underpinned by a remarkably strong and resilient faith. During World War 1 she nursed soldiers on both sides of the conflict. She got caught up in the resistance movement, was tried for espionage and shot. The chaplain of Holy Trinity Brussels, The Revd. Gahan, gave her Holy Communion in her prison cell before she was executed. Her memorable words to him: “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.”

Edith Cavell lived a remarkably selfless life. In her betrayal, the psychological torture of solitary confinement, unfair trial, extraordinary concern and care she had for those close to her even in the night before she died, and in her execution there is something remarkably Christ like. The Anglican church doesn’t make saints, but we have done well to record her in our lectionary of holy men and women.

Even today, Edith Cavell has a powerful effect on those who become acquainted with her story. In Brussels, the ‘Edith Cavell Commemoration Group’ was formed to organise events marking the centenary of her death in 2015. Historian Hugh Boudin (picture below, far right) presented Holy Trinity with a copy of his scholarly biography. Deborah Delheusy, in the centre, used to be deputy head of nursing at the prestigious Brussels hospital that today bears Edith Cavell’s name. The picture in the background is an original portrait of Edith, generously given to the Pro-Cathedral for the chapel. It is signed by the lawyer who defender her at her trial.

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I am delighted that Holy Trinity Brussels has a small chapel dedicated to Edith Cavell at the heart of what is now its administration and conference centre. As a British nurse who voluntarily and bravely came to Belgium at the outbreak of the great war, as a woman who was proud of her own country but equally committed to caring for the injured from all European countries, and as an intensely serious Christian, she is an inspirational figure. She is a wonderful lady to have at the centre of the Pro-Cathedral’s ministry of international hospitality and outreach.

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Malta & the EU

maltese-presidency The New Year began for me with a visit to Malta. I was there as part of a delegation of church leaders from Brussels who had been invited to meet with the Maltese Government. The European Council of Ministers has a rotating presidency. Each member state takes the chair for 6 months. At the beginning of 2017 it is Malta’s turn. Churches have a statutory role in dialogue with the authorities of the EU under Article 17 of the Lisbon Treaty, so representative leaders of the Christian Churches were invited to Valletta to talk over the Maltese plans and priorities for their presidency. We had a grand sense of arrival going up the steps to the Prime Minister’s office prior to being saluted by pairs of splendidly dressed soldiers.

The Conference of European Churches (CEC) represents some 170 Protestant and Orthodox Churches. I was invited to lead the CEC delegation in partnership with Brother Olivier Poquillon, the new General Secretary of our sister Roman Catholic organisation COMECE. We were hosted by the Archbishop of Malta, and met with the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister.

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The meeting lasted one hour. It opened with Prime Minister Muscat publicly welcoming the delegation and setting out the priorities of the Maltese Presidency. Olivier and I responded, setting out the reasons why the churches were meeting him and expressing our support for the work of the Presidency. The extensive press corps were then asked to leave and the meeting continued in closed session.

The priorities of the Maltese Presidency cover six areas: migration, strengthening the single market, security, social inclusion, Europe’s neighbourhood, Maritime governance. The top priority is migration. This accords well with the priority of other EU member states and the EU as a whole.

From the churches’ side, we wanted to propose a balanced approach to migration based on the dignity of the human being as made in the image of God. We reminded the presidency that migration brings benefits to receiving nations as well as costs. We re-iterated a plea for safe and legal pathways for migrants. We pleaded for the importance of uniting families when decisions about asylum are being made. And we hoped that, in the reform of the Dublin process, the EU overall could show solidarity with countries such as Greece and Italy in the handling and relocation of refugees. We encouraged the presidency to foster a strategic and sustainable approach to migration as well as addressing short-term tactical problems. Doris Peschke of the Church’s Commission for Migrants in Europe gave expert views.

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Our discussions were conducted in the knowledge that the Maltese Presidency takes place in very challenging times for the EU. Unfolding events (particularly elections in The Netherlands and France and election campaigning in Germany) will inevitably influence the dynamics of the Presidency.

This kind of beginning of term discussion between the Presidency and the churches is something to be treasured. Could we imagine a UK government convening a meeting with the churches to discuss the agenda set out in the Queen’s speech? I hope that, despite Brexit, the Anglican Church will continue to be able to take its place at the table in these kinds of discussions as a member of the CEC.