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

Bitterly.

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.

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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.