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.
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.
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 ex-patriot 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.
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 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!