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.