World Council of Churches celebrates 70 years

Photo: Courtesy of Albin Hillert/WCC

120 Christian leaders, lay and ordained, gathered recently in Geneva to celebrate the 70th birthday of the World Council of Churches (WCC). The WCC was founded in 1948 at a time when Europe had been bitterly divided by war, and the whole world was deeply conscious of the need for reconciliation on all fronts. Initially a mostly pan-Protestant body, though the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate and some Orthodox churches were founding members, it welcomed the wider Orthodox community into its number in the 1960s. It is now a fellowship of 346 churches present in 110 countries committed to unity, justice and peace. The Geneva meeting of its governing body (the Central Committee) was the high point of its 70th anniversary celebrations.

As the new Church of England representative on the Central Committee, taking over from the Bishop of Chester, this was my first full meeting. I was fortunate to be tutored by seasoned expert Canon Leslie Nathaniel. Nonetheless, my over-riding impression was of the immense difficulty of navigating such a diverse and strong-minded group of individuals through a full agenda of complex and sensitive topics. But we got there. With the help of skilled moderation and careful preparation from the staff, we generated official statements on issues ranging from the peace process on the Korean Peninsula, to violence in Columbia, to the situation in Gaza and Jerusalem. And we ended with a sense of joy and deepened fellowship at a service led by our very special guest, Pope Francis.

One of the major subjects addressed during the meeting was the question of the venue for the 2021 WCC Assembly. This is a huge event, bringing thousands of people together from all corners of the earth. Two proposals had been tabled: Cape Town and Karlsruhe. A very professional film presentation plus a passionate speech from Professor Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, chairman of the German EKD, led to an overwhelming vote in favour of Karlsruhe. As Bishop in Europe I was thrilled by this decision. It will provide a marvellous opportunity for European Churches, including the Church of England, to support the German church in staging an assembly at another time in our history when European unity is under threat from rising nationalism.

Each day began with inspiring worship with music from the ‘world church’: Singapore, Zimbabwe, Tonga, Taiwan, etc. There were some deeply memorable events during the week-long meeting. We heard the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, preach in the Reformed Cathedral of St. Peter’s Geneva. We were addressed by Revd Myong Chol Kang, Chairman of the Korean Christian Federation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) sharing a platform with the Revd Hong Jung Lee, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches in Korea (South Korea). And we heard from the Director of the nuclear disarmament pressure group ‘ICAN’ – closely related to WCC – who proudly showed us their 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.

Does any of this make a real difference and how seriously should the Church of England engage with it? These are serious questions. I regret that WCC does not represent more of the charismatic, evangelical and Pentecostal churches, especially since these are the fastest growing traditions today. There was a time when such groups might have been right to suspect the WCC of being ‘liberal’. Today, it could well be described as ‘radical’ with its keen commitment to justice for the poor, racial equality and opposition to gender-based violence. But with a 25% Orthodox membership and a ‘consensus’ rather than majority voting system, there was not the slightest chance that anything looking doctrinally ‘revisionist’ was going to make it through the various committees.

The Public Issues Committee, of which I was a member, produced no less than 8 statements on world affairs. They were carefully – and exhaustingly – drafted, revised and agreed. Whilst from the safety of the UK some of this might have looked like vain posturing, I can testify that to those coming from the affected countries and regions, these Statements really matter. A Filipino Bishop I sat next to on the daily 07:45 coach from the hotel to our meeting room, was simply thrilled with our Statement decrying the culture of violence and ‘impunity’ in the Philippines. It would, he told me, bring great encouragement to Filipino Christians to know that their fellow believers in the ‘West’ understood, cared and stood with them in their suffering.

It was a full week of careful and attentive listening to those from different cultural backgrounds and sometimes very different theological perspectives. For example, I had not previously realised that the word ‘Renewal’, much beloved of the Church of England, is regarded with horror by the Orthodox when applied to the Church. The week really did build relationships across the world between Christian leaders who would otherwise not encounter each other. And I would dare to believe, and as the President of South Korea encouraged us to believe from his experience of Christian dialogue on the Korean peninsula, WCC is of some real value in the grand cause of world peace.

In his closing sermon to us Pope Francis said: ‘The Lord bids us set out ever anew on the path of communion that leads to peace. Our lack of unity is in fact openly contrary to the will of Christ, but it is also a scandal to the world and harms the most holy of causes: the preaching of the Gospel to every creature. The Lord asks for unity; our world, torn by all too many divisions that affect the most vulnerable, begs for unity.’ As one of the principal organisations fostering Christian unity in the world, I came away feeling that the WCC surely does merit our prayers and support.

Meissen Commission in Brussels – A sobering but enlightening experience

The Meissen Commission (a joint Anglican-German Protestant ecumenical group) departed from its normal practice of alternating meetings in England and Germany to pay a visit to Brussels earlier this week. The delegation was jointly led by the Anglican Bishop of Huddersfield, Rt Revd Jonathan Gibbs, and the German Protestant Bishop of Hannover, Rt Revd Ralf Meister. Delegates had particularly asked to learn more about Brexit and the future of Europe from EU experts. The visit was hosted in the EU Representation Office of the German Protestant Church. I had been invited to attend, but sent my Attaché instead due to a dates clash with the Governing Council of the World Council of Churches in Geneva of which I am a member.

The visit started with a Sunday evening visit to the German Protestant parish in Brussels to see the church building and discuss their situation with the Pastor and Church Council representatives. On Monday there was a full day of presentations. This included extended Q&As and debate from officials representing both jurisdictions in Ireland, the European Council Brexit Task Force, the European Commission Strategy Centre and a leading Brussels think tank. In the evening the delegation met with the EU representatives of ecumenical bodies and the Roman Catholic Church. Finally, on Tuesday morning there was an exchange with a representative of the European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee and the official responsible for the European Commission dialogue process with churches and other religions and philosophical associations.

Delegates greatly appreciated the chance to meet so many people with inside knowledge of the EU structures and decision-making processes. They found the reality-check with the actual state of play in both Brexit negotiations and planning for the future of the EU post-Brexit sobering but challenging towards a renewed commitment to promote reconciliation and mutual understanding between the peoples and nations of Europe.

An agreed communiqué was issued at the close of the visit by Bishop Jonathan Gibbs:

“Representatives of the Evangelical Church in Germany and the Church of England met in Brussels from 17th to 19th June 2018 to consider issues relating to our shared future in Europe, particularly in the light of Brexit. We are most grateful for the excellent and informative high level contributions that we received from members of the European Commission, Council and Parliament, as well as from ecumenical colleagues in Brussels.

Their presentations and the discussions in which we took part highlighted for us the seriousness of the situation we are all facing, and our experience led us to reflect deeply on our responsibility for shaping our common future. We commit ourselves to working in Christian hope for the welfare and reconciliation of all peoples, whatever may happen regarding Brexit in the months ahead.”

What a Difference a Word Makes – Freedom of Religion vs Freedom from Religion

The Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg has made it very clear that international human rights law only stipulates that there should be Freedom of Religion not Freedom from Religion. This was summed up in the judicial opinion given in support of a specific ruling. A mother of the only non-Christian pupil in an Italian school class could not demand that the school authorities take down the cross on the wall of his classroom as an infringement of his right to freedom from religion.

‘The Convention has given this Court the remit to enforce freedom of religion and of conscience, but has not empowered it to bully States into secularism or to coerce countries into schemes of religious neutrality’.[1]

But despite this, repeated references to a so-called ‘right to freedom from religion’ are voiced at international gatherings by those with a secularising agenda. Last week when the UN Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief visited Brussels I was invited, along with other faith-based organisations and NGOs, to send a representative to a roundtable meeting at the European External Action Service for an ‘exchange of views’. I sent my Attaché along as my travel schedule meant I had to be away from Brussels that day. He discovered that along with 12 individual representatives of churches, religions and faith-based NGOs there were 2 representatives of the European Humanist Federation. These two insisted very stridently that Freedom from Religion should be included in the Rapporteur’s mandate. It was explained to them that their right to hold to their views was not compromised by the expression ‘freedom of religion and belief.’ In the international human rights documents belief does not have to be theistic. But they were not placated by this. Only theistic belief counts as a religion was their response. People should have the right to be free from it. It should be limited to the private sphere.

This week my Attaché attended a briefing for MEPs at the European Parliament. It concerned the latest case-law of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and the EU European Court of Justice in Luxembourg on religious freedom issues. So-called ‘neutrality policies’, used by firms to prohibit their employees from wearing dress or symbols identifying their faith, came particularly under the spotlight. In fact, it was said, although giving a surface appearance of even-handedness, neutrality policies were actually inherently discriminatory. This was because only religious employees were negatively affected by them. The judges’ view was that it could only be justified in exceptional circumstances when there was a clear need for it and the means promoted for implementing the policy were proportionate to that need. The default position should be that the wearing of specific religious dress or symbols should be accommodated, not outlawed. My Attaché took along six students from Cranmer Hall Theological College (UK), who were on a study visit to Belgium, to the briefing. They found this exchange fascinating.

It was a pleasure to welcome 6 ordinands to Belgium and offer an opportunity to engage with this important issue.

The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights is very explicit about Freedom of Religion. It is not just a private matter. It affirms the right for adherents to practice their religion individually and collectively, in public and in private.

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right includes freedom to change religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.’ (Article 10 EU Charter of Fundamental Rights)

Trying to confine religion within the four walls of a church as an entirely private matter was the Stalinist approach to religion. It has no place in a society that claims to be free and democratic.

[1] Lautsi v Italy, Grand Chamber Judgment, European Court of Human Rights

World Refugee Day

Some thoughts from me for World Refugee Day in light of the recent treatment of the Aquarius rescue ship & a poem from the Revd Carolyn Cooke, from La Côte chaplaincy in the Diocese in Europe, written for today:

Migration is the biggest challenge facing the EU – bigger than Brexit. And it will be for years to come. The attitude of European authorities towards migrants has been increasingly geared towards proper management and security. In this they have been more successful than people generally realise. The number of irregular migrants arriving in Europe has fallen dramatically in 2018 compared with the period 2015-2017. This reduction has been achieved by a variety of measures such as strengthening the border force, Frontex, and co-operation with frontline states, including Italy.

Italy does carry an unfair burden for welcoming refugees. However, arrivals in Italy via the central Mediterranean migration route fell from 181,436 in 2016, to 119,369 in 2017 to just 12,105 in the first five months of 2018. In that light, the refusal of the Italian authorities to allow the MSF and SOS Mediterranean sponsored ship Aquarius to land is hugely upsetting. Those on board are human beings created in God’s image. Both as a matter of faith and of human rights they ought to have been treated as precious human beings not as problematic cargo.

The Diocese in Europe is deeply committed to the welfare of migrants and refugees. We are involved in the care of refugees in Italy and Greece. We are part of a humanitarian corridor bringing vulnerable migrants legally into Belgium. We are partnering with the Diocese of Canterbury and USPG to sponsor a refugee projects officer in Calais. Our motivation is natural human compassion, the love of Christ, and a divine mandate to care for the stranger and the refugee.

Lord God, we lift to you our government leaders, officials of the European institutions and the United Nations. Please provide insight and wisdom to ensure an effective response to the refugee crisis and to solve the underlying causes of conflict.

We give thanks for all in the Diocese in Europe who are working with refugees. Give us understanding, compassion and generosity of spirit.

Help us all to be open to the gifts which refugees share with us and to be inspired by their courage and their faith.

We pray in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.



This model was made by a young man who had travelled across the sea and eventually to Calais, and each figure is an actual person on the voyage he was on.


A poem for World Refugee Day


A Word of thanks… to you in exile

A Word of thanks… to you who have risked so much

A Word of thanks… to you who have left behind loved ones and now offer love and care to the likes of us, strangers who, God-willing, become friends

A Word of thanks… for the deep wisdom of your heritage and experience

A Word of thanks… for the creativity and vibrancy of your cultures, which we glimpse and savour

A Word of thanks… for your stamina to learn… new languages, new humour, new food, new systems, new rules spoken and unspoken, new views, new manners, new just about everything

A Word of thanks… for not giving up in the face of prejudice and misunderstanding

A Word of thanks… for not giving up on the troubling wait for papers that spell permission to stay, permission to breathe easy, permission to put down roots with equal rights as those around you

A Word of thanks… for eliciting some good in us, sometimes, and being gracious and humble enough to accept our help

A Word of thanks… for your forgiveness and kindness towards us as we make mistakes and say hurtful things in our attempts to understand

A Word of thanks… for your honesty, for the vulnerable truth of your humanity, your dignity even as you deal with dreams of trauma while still dreaming of lighter days ahead

A Word of thanks… for your sense of humour

A Word of thanks… hunger for life

A Word of thanks… for your resilience

A Word of thanks… for your faith which inspires and challenges our faith

A Word of thanks… to you in exile opening our eyes to so much truth and beauty

So many words of thanks… still so much more to say…


World Refugee Day 20.06.18

Carolyn Cooke

Visiting St. Paul’s Pro-Cathedral Malta

I visited Malta last year when I was leading a church delegation to meet Prime Minister Muscat and his colleagues as Malta took up the EU Council Presidency. But I had not been to St. Paul’s Pro-Cathedral since I was installed there nearly four years ago. So this was a visit to which I was eagerly looking forward. And on this occasion, I was accompanied by Canon Paul Vrolijk from Brussels, with the intention of building relations between our two Pro-Cathedrals in Brussels and Malta.

A Valletta icon

Our diocese operates between two poles. One pole is networked, mobile, transitional. But our three cathedrals represent the other pole: rooted, stable, incarnational. St. Paul’s is an impressive Grade 1 listed building, its spire the tallest in Malta and a vital part of the Valletta skyline. It is a most tangible reminder of the rootedness of our diocese in the continent we serve.

The Cathedral’s yellow sandstone is gorgeous. But: oh my goodness – that roof doesn’t look in good condition at all! Indeed, the regular falling of sand or worse makes Fr. Simon Godfrey’s (the Pro-Cathedral’s Chancellor) path to his front door a hazardous walk.

The need for urgent work on the building means St. Paul’s is therefore engaged in a 3 million euro restoration project. This is a huge endeavour under the joint chairmanship of Sir Martin Laing and Mr. Martin Scicluna and involving some 40 people in various committees. They have done exceptionally well to secure a major EU funding bid with a second even larger bid in the offing.

The undercroft has already been transformed. It houses a professionally run café and a small shop, with a large screen video running to explain the life and work of the Pro-Cathedral. There are further exciting plans to develop the Pro-Cathedral as a major tourist attraction.

Rather unusually for our diocese, the Anglican Church in Malta is the proud owner of one or two items of treasure, including a gorgeous silver crozier. I was pleased to leave it in Malta in safekeeping rather than entrust it to the various airline baggage handlers that a mobile bishop has to use.

(L to R) Canon Paul Vrolijk, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, Bishop Robert Innes, Canon Simon Godfrey

Whilst in Valletta, we called upon Archbishop Charles Scicluna. It was a real delight to see Archbishop Charles again. In addition to looking after the Catholic church in Malta, he also leads on investigating child abuse cases within the Church. This coming week, that aspect of his work takes him to Chile. Archbishop Charles could hardly be more welcoming to Anglicans in Malta and is also one of the angels of light in some dark aspects of church life. I encourage members of the Diocese in Europe to pray for him in his work.

Canon Paul Vrolijk and I were superbly hosted and entertained by Fr. Simon Godfrey during our stay in Malta. In an earlier life, Simon was a naval officer. He was, he told us, one of the last graduates of Dartmouth to be trained in how to board a ship armed with a sword. Here he brandishes a marvellous ceremonial sword – a sign of the church militant perhaps?

St. Paul’s Pro-Cathedral is engaged in much the biggest building project in our diocese. Simon has assembled a team of impressive seniority and skill to help the Pro-Cathedral. Many of them are Roman Catholics. Animating a venture on this scale requires particular skills and charisma. May God bless Simon and his colleagues in Malta richly as they seek to sustain and develop the heritage of St. Paul’s for the benefit of this and future generations.

Official Visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury to Serbia

Patriarch Irinej, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, visited Lambeth Palace in October 2016. In June 2018, Archbishop Justin Welby visited Serbia by way of a return visit, and I was pleased to be part of his entourage. The visit was intended to enable the Archbishop to meet with the Patriarch, to meet other religious leaders in Serbia and to attend one day of the Conference of European Churches meeting in Novi Sad.

We were given an official reception by the Orthodox Church at the airport on arrival. In the picture, along with our Orthodox hosts and myself, are: Bishop Jonathan Goodall (Archbishop’s representative with Orthodox Churches); Ambassador Denis Keefe, Archbishop Justin, The Revd. Robin Fox (Apokrisarios and Anglican Chaplain in Belgrade) and The Revd. Dr. Will Adam (Archbishop’s international ecumenical secretary).

After a private meeting with the Ambassador, we headed into Belgrade for a short tour of the majestic Temple and Crypt of St Sava’s Cathedral. Still under construction, the Temple is the nation’s religious centre and a huge source of Serbian pride.

The dome of the Cathedral is 40 metres in diameter and weighs 4,000 tonnes. 16 cranes were needed to raise it into position.

The Crypt of St. Sava’s is a place of remembrance of the saints and martyrs of Serbian history. Panels close to the entrance depict martyrs killed in the Second World War by Croatian Nazis. The horrors of 20th century conflicts are never far away in Serbia.

After a formal meeting with the Patriarch, we were hosted to dinner with traditional Serbian fare. We were entertained with a hauntingly beautiful folk song that was a kind of Serbian equivalent to ‘No, John, No, John, No’, but with the maiden in question resisting the advances of a Muslim suitor who required only that she renounce her Orthodox faith in order to be his bride.

On the Sunday, we drove north to Novi Sad to attend the Conference of European Churches’ Assembly. The Archbishop presided at the Anglican stream of worship. He gave a speech to the whole assembly in the afternoon (above). The whole assembly was then taken in coaches to the Danube river. In its attack on Serbia in 1999, NATO destroyed all the Danube bridges in Novi Sad. Hence CEC took as the symbol of its conference a cross atop a bridge. We gathered along the River in remembrance and to plant some trees as symbols of peace.

Guli Dehqani, the Anglican Bishop of Loughborough, is an Iranian refugee. She was elected Vice-President of CEC at this Assembly. She hopes to make migration one of her priority areas. I’m thrilled to have a woman bishop of Iranian background working on ecumenical matters in Europe.

Monday was devoted to ecumenical and inter-faith meetings.

Archbishop Stanislav Hocevar told us about the position of Roman Catholics in Serbia (a minority presence of course) and his desire to work for Christian Unity.

We were pleased to be taken to this beautiful medieval mosque, and to hear the perspective of Muslims living in Serbia.

The Orthodox Patriarchate contains, we were told, 365 rooms – one for each day of the year! Amongst the various paintings, our party was particular taken with this one. It shows an Albanian Muslim woman peacefully and respectfully riding past the Orthodox monastery of Pec, in what is today the region of Kosovo. The loss of Kosovo is felt deeply by the Patriarchate and was the question to which conversation often returned. The Archbishop frequently spoke of his hopes and prayers for justice for all in Kosovo, Orthodox and Muslim.

This was the first time an Archbishop of Canterbury had visited Serbia for 34 years. I had a sense of significant deepening and strengthening of relationships between the Serbian Orthodox and Anglican communities, with some practical ideas of how these relationships could be further carried forward.

The CEC conference was centred upon ‘building bridges’. I pray that any Anglican involvement and influence in this part of central Europe will aid in building bridges between people, sustaining peace and promoting justice for everyone.

Mothers Praying across Europe

Lamentations 2:19

Arise, cry out in the night, as the watches of the night begin; pour out your heart like water in the presence of the Lord. Lift up your hands to him for the lives of your children, who faint from hunger at every street corner.

I recently came across a ministry for praying mothers called Moms in Prayer International. Thousands of mothers across Europe meet in small groups to pray specifically for their children and school for one hour each week during term time.

Praying mothers growing in faith and discipleship can positively impact schools, families and society.

The mothers are taught through online resources, through trained ‘contact persons’ and the offer of simple Skype training. The vision is that every school would be prayed for. Not only our children need prayer, so do the teachers and staff, many are stressed and very glad to know they, too, are regularly supported in prayer.

Mothers often meet in their homes on the same day and time each week, those in salaried work may meet to pray with another mum over one lunchtime a week, others meet one hour before their weekly bible study group. Key is making it happen.

Moms in Prayer is interdenominational and so the exciting thing is that this means that many mothers across Europe are connecting from different churches to pray for their children.

This is the story from one of our Archdeaconry reps in the diocese:

The Swiss branch of Moms in Prayer International celebrates 25 years this year; they have over 1400 groups in Switzerland.

One of the big concerns in the Church of England at the moment is our failure to pass on our Christian faith to our children, and the haemorrhaging of young people from our churches. So I was particularly pleased to hear about this fellowship of praying mothers in Switzerland and would love to see groups established in other archdeaconries too.