Pentecostal Watersplash at St. Peter’s Chantilly

The 19th May 2018 was the day of the royal wedding: the fairy tale setting of Windsor Castle, a stunning white dress and train, and an electrifying sermon from Bishop Michael Curry.

I spent the weekend in a comparably beautiful place in France, at St. Peter’s Church just down the road from the picturesque Chateau at Chantilly. And at St. Peter’s Chantilly, the day before Pentecost will mainly be remembered for the joyous full immersion baptisms of four young people.

We gathered outside the church on a beautifully sunny afternoon with Chaplain Sarah Tillett and the four candidates: Jemima, Anna, Laurence and Pablo.

The large paddling pool had taken two hours to fill with water. A good congregation of supporters gathered, and the singing attracted passers-by to take a look.

The water was cold, but Laurence survived the experience with much joy and laughter.

As did Pablo. I presided over affairs from the safety of the pool side, not having brought the right gear for getting into the water.

Chaplain Sarah, by contrast, had just the right green waders from her days as a trout fisherwoman. Here she accompanies Anna in the water.

It really was total immersion. Jemima is submerged from head to toe.

Some of our congregation were surprised that the Anglican church does total immersion baptisms. I explained that, at the Reformation, the Anglican Reformers attempted to recover the practices and theology of the early church. If you visit a really ancient church, you see the font is big enough for a proper immersion baptism. Baptism symbolises dying and rising with Christ. Proper full immersion is a powerful and dramatic symbol of our identification with Christ.

After the baptisms it was time to get dry and warm… and to share in a delicious barbecue.

The next day was Pentecost Sunday. We gathered again for confirmation. Here is the whole group:

Jemima, Anna, Laurence and Pablo, together with Alice, Benjamin, Gabrielle, Liam, Philip, Natasha, Rochelle, Samuel, Tatiana, William and our one adult candidate Régis.

This service was the culmination of many months’ nurturing of a large group of candidates by the St. Peter’s youth group ‘The Way’, including a trip to ‘Soul Survivor’. Holding, developing and encouraging young people in Christian faith through their teens is a vital ministry. The beliefs we adopt in our teens mostly stay with us for life. So congratulations to the St. Peter’s team for their excellent work and for the fruit it will surely bear in these young people’s lives.

St. George’s and St. Paul’s Lisbon

The 12th May was a special Saturday in Lisbon: it was of course the final of the Eurovision Song Contest and the first time the contest had ever been staged in Portugal.

Immediately on our arrival, Helen was swept off by Ginnelle Sawyer (wife of Frank Sawyer, the Chaplain of the Greater Lisbon Chaplaincy) and her daughter Maggie for a tuktuk sightseeing ride around the city.

My own visit to the Portuguese capital began in the British Cemetery attached to St. George’s Church – equally romantic in its own way! The cemetery dates back to the early 18th century. Non-Roman Catholics traditionally had the right to be buried here, although nowadays practising Roman Catholics are also admitted and, indeed, there are ‘residents’ from other nations too. The most famous grave is that of the novelist Henry Fielding. But there are many other fascinating monuments: for example, an obelisk commemorating Boers who fled the British in South Africa and settled in Portugal having arrived via Mozambique. It is also the final resting place of the English hymn writer Philip Doddridge. Much European history could be studied with reference to the graves here, and I was delighted to learn that a cultural project is shortly going to be underway to provide more research information and easier access to the cemetery.

St. George’s Church is one of the diocese’s largest buildings. We sang evening prayer together. Here a large group share in a dramatic reading of 1 Corinthians 12 – illustrating Paul’s image of the body of Christ by everyone reading in his/her own native language. The effect was deeply moving – and something many of our chaplaincies could try for themselves.

St. Paul’s Estoril is also a large though contrasting building – modern, light and airy. We gathered on the Sunday morning for baptism and confirmation.

Michael Allaway missed out on baptism as a baby because his father had been seriously injured in a traffic accident. He was nearly baptized at the age of 11, except that a bomb fell on his home town of Reading killing many people, so the baptism never took place. Irrespective he went on to have a highly productive life, including inventing a special bed used to help hospital patients avoid pressure sores. At the age of 84 he is still working …and he has finally been baptized!

Our four confirmation candidates – Ginnelle, Michael, Wojolomi and Jeremy gather with chaplain Frank Sawyer, newly inducted worship leader Pamela Patten and colleagues after the service.

I particularly liked this typically Portuguese blue tiling that adorns an inner courtyard at St. Paul’s.

Whilst world attention was focused on the Eurovision contest and its songs celebrating romantic love, we had gathered to celebrate a different kind of love. This is the love which is made known in acts of loving kindness, in the love of people different from ourselves, in the overcoming of barriers of language and nationality. It is a love which endures and will finally triumph when people from every tribe and nation and race will gather around the throne of the Lamb; when the lion will lie down in peace with the lamb and when God finally wipes away every tear from our eyes.

Ascension Day in Bruges

Ascension is a major public holiday in Belgium. In Bruges, it coincides with the annual ‘Procession of the Holy Blood’, which is the most important day in the city’s civic and religious calendar, attracting between 60,000 and 100,000 visitors. This year, I was delighted to be invited to assist with the celebrations as the guest of the Bishop of Bruges, Lode Aerts.

The day began well. Fr. Augustine Nwaekwe met me at the railway station. As we walked together into town, a small car pulled in ahead of us. A lady jumped out, and with great excitement announced that she was from New Mexico and that she had seen auras of blessing hovering over us both. Was she a prophetess? Well we returned her blessing, and continued on to the residence of Bishop Lode.
Bishop Lode is young, contemporary and humble. He was also extraordinarily welcoming and hospitable. As you can see, he even shared his pastoral staff with me – after all, he said, we are both shepherds.

The day began with a beautiful solemn mass in Saint Saviour’s Cathedral. It is a large medieval building, and it was packed.

The following lunch was the warmest Flemish hospitality, with excellent food and convivial conversation. Yes, you could truthfully describe this as ‘The Feast of the Ascension’.

After the coffee and petit fours, Bishop Lode invited guests to sign the visitors book. He noted that one of the previous signatories was Cardinal Mercier (a Belgian hero of mine) and another even better known was Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II).

The processions began in the afternoon. Special guests were given seats in a centrally placed ‘tribune’, so we had a grandstand view. Along with numerous brass bands, the main feature is a long series of tableaux that depict the story of scripture from the Garden of Eden to the Garden of the Resurrection.

They start with the Garden of Eden. The tree of life is in the centre, and to its left there is a dangerous looking snake…

The scene from Pharaoh’s court was one of my favourites – lots of attention having been paid to the cuneiform.

Later in the sequence, here is John the Baptist being arrested. He was followed by Salome and a troupe of dancing girls, who screamed when a servant ran amongst them with a very realistic head on a platter!

The events of Palm Sunday, the trial, arrest and crucifixion were portrayed vividly before us.

Until we came to the yellow and gold of resurrection and ascension. It was indeed a rich mixture of action, colour, drama and discourse worked out on the city streets by local people who take upon themselves the biblical characters year after year.

After the tableaux, the bishops and priests were invited to join the procession. I think we walked for about 90 minutes in our robes, visiting parts of the city I had never seen before and amidst smiling crowds of all ages.

I was told that around 200 horses take part. Following such a large number of animals around the streets was a vivid reminder that – whilst modern forms of transport cause air pollution – the hygiene issues caused by horse drawn transport were surely far from insignificant too.

But what about the ‘Holy Blood’?

I haven’t yet said much about the holy blood. At the centre of the procession is the phial of holy blood said to have been collected by Joseph of Arimathea and eventually transported to Bruges where it is stored in St. Saviour’s Cathedral. But a theological problem troubled me. If the Ascension teaches us that Jesus’s physical body has left this earth and is now exalted with God the Father in heaven, why are we venerating blood that he supposedly left behind? I was too shy to raise this myself, but Fr. Augustine kindly relayed my puzzle to one of our Catholic hosts. We needn’t worry he told us. The blood is a myth. It didn’t really come from New Testament times. But it does serve to promote veneration of our Lord Jesus, which is surely a good thing.

I couldn’t deny that. We live in a culture where very many people do not know the stories of the Bible. But this annual procession had led upwards of 60,000 people to stand for hours on crowded pavements to watch a powerful enactment of the story of holy scripture.

I returned to Brussels after a most memorable day, feeling there could be few better ways to celebrate the Ascension of Jesus, and God’s desire that people should come to know more deeply the salvation he has wrought for us through biblical history and most especially in the life, death and rising again of the Lord.