Two New Readers Licensed in Strasbourg

Last December I came to St. Alban’s Strasbourg to license The Revd. Dr. Mark Barwick as Chaplain. Returning this September, I was again struck by the loveliness of the Dominican chapel in which the community gathers. And this time it was a joy to see the evident flourishing of the highly diverse international community under Mark’s care.

The specific reason for my visit was to license two new Readers, to serve alongside David Cowley (foreground), who has been a Reader at St. Albans for over 20 years.

Catherine Emezie (left) has worked for the Council of Europe for nearly 20 years. She is the founder of an ecumenical Bible Study, which she has built from just a handful of women in the beginning to a major, well-attended event. Ozichi Baron (right) also works for the Council of Europe. She has been involved in music and youth work at the chaplaincy.

Ozichi (left) and Catherine (right) have heroically completed the six modules of Reader training in just over two years, compared with our expected three. They combined their study with significant family and work responsibilities, sometimes studying in the early hours of the morning to do this. They have relied on supportive spouses. They have evidently been a great encouragement to each other. They represent new, younger Reader candidates who embody the future of ministry in our Diocese.

It was a big day for them both. Catherine’s family (above) had travelled from the UK and Germany to celebrate with her.

St. Albans has great potential for growth in this important university city and political centre. Its diversity reflects the multi-cultural nature of Strasbourg’s English speakers. Pray for Mark Barwick (second left), with his team of Readers and Bishop Vanuste (top right) as they lead and nurture this dynamic community.

Two September Synods that walked together in faith

‘Walking together in Faith’ is our diocesan strapline. A synod is literally a walking together. Over the last week I have attended two archdeaconry synods: Italy and Malta archdeaconry and Eastern archdeaconry. Both synods gather people from a wide area for a few days of community building, fellowship, teaching and learning. People leave encouraged and built up in their faith.

The Italy and Malta synod convened in the large former monastery (above), Villa Sacre Cuore, one hour’s drive from Milan.

Visiting Italy I am always struck by the quantity of artwork. They say 60% of the world’s art treasurers are located in Italy – if you can estimate that! Villa Sacre Cuore certainly has more than its fair share of icons, sculptures and mosaics liberally decorating the walls of its many chapels. The picture shows the intricate decoration of the east wall of the chapel we used for our worship.

The theme of our synod was: ‘powered by prayer’. The imaginative Bible studies were given by The Revd. April Almaas, Assistant Chaplain in Trondheim – shown here with Archdeacon Vickie Sims and me. There was further input from Vickie and from Archdeacon Meurig Williams.

The social highlight of the Synod was a lively bar quiz, covering a wide range of subjects. There was some considerable debate over which Israelite king had a sundial…

The clear winners, led by the The Revd. Tony Dickinson (left), chaplain of Genova, are pictured above.

After a 6:00a.m. start, Helen and I left Villa Sacre Cuore for Milan Malpensa airport, bound for the Eastern Synod in Kiev via Warsaw.

Unfortunately, our connecting flight from Warsaw was cancelled. So we had plenty of time to explore Chopin Airport, inside and out, including this delightful children’s size LOT aeroplane. Fortunately, we managed to rebook on a late evening flight, arriving at the Eastern Synod in a hotel on the outskirts of Kiev shortly after midnight.

The Eastern Synod is always a joyful occasion. It brings together clergy and lay reps living very far away from each other, often in highly isolated locations.

The Synod Bible Studies were led by bishop-elect Philip Mounstephen. The Revd. Dr. Christian Hofreiter from Vienna brought his deep theological and philosophical skills to bear in helping us to connect faith with secular society.

At both synods, I was invited to give an update on developments in the diocese. There is, of course, much interest in the financial plan, and I was really encouraged by the level of engagement and intelligent and supportive questioning.

Although he doesn’t leave us for another six months, this was Archdeacon Colin Williams’ last Eastern Synod. His ministry has been hugely appreciated in the East. At the final dinner Colin was presented, by Synod Secretary Miranda Kopetzky and Kiev representative Thamarai Pandian, with a locally made icon after Rublev’s Trinity.

Our small Anglican chaplaincy of Christ Church Kiev meets in the lovely 19th century St. Catherine’s Lutheran church, right in the centre of Kiev opposite the President’s offices.

It was a special weekend for St. Catherine’s with a new Lutheran Pastor instituted on the Saturday evening and celebrations on the Sunday morning to mark the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Anglican Chaplaincy. In some remarks at the end of the service, the German Lutheran Archdeacon spoke of the support that relatively fragile Anglican and Lutheran overseas congregations could be to each other. I completely agreed, and reflected on the particular importance of this Anglican-Lutheran relationship as a sign and symbol of European Christian unity post-Brexit.

Our service drew to a close, and Helen and I took a taxi to Kiev airport, and then back to Chopin Airport for a return flight to Brussels. It was a huge privilege and delight to share in the life of these two Synods and to be part of these precious gathering points in our diocesan walking together in faith.

Post-Brexit Post-Script

As mentioned, we had plenty of time to look around Warsaw Frederic Chopin Airport and, indeed, to reflect on some aspects of its significance. Chopin airport embodies a ‘hard border’ between the European Union and non-EU countries to the East. There is one set of gates for Schengen countries, and a different set of gates (‘N’ gates) for Non-Schengen Countries. Returning from, e.g. Kiev, you have to queue to pass through a serious military passport control and then through an additional baggage screen in order to be admitted to the Schengen area. All the nice food and all the duty free shops with lovely Polish goods seem to be on the Schengen side of the border. By contrast, the non-Schengen area feels comparatively bare. Poland, of course, although having been part of the Russian empire along with other Eastern European countries, is now a part of the EU and has benefited from associated economic prosperity in helping it to recover from the communist era.

Travelling from the East into the freedom of Schengen is a significant journey. I reflected that, once in the Schengen area, I only need my Belgian identity card to travel freely through the many EU countries that are part of this ‘club’, of which Poland is one of the easternmost members. I enormously value this degree of freedom of movement. I know how hard won it has been. And how easily it could be threatened or even dismantled. And then, again, I am struck by the stark reality that it is precisely this kind of freedom of movement that Brexit Britain has resolutely set its face against. Anyone who travels further east knows the big differences that remain between EU and non-EU countries. The EU feels a safe, free and prosperous region of which I am proud to belong. I feel sad that my country of origin seems so far from being able to appreciate this.

St. Luke’s Fontainebleau

The appointment of a new chaplain at St. Luke’s Fontainebleau brings a long interregnum to an end. The evening before the licensing, those most closely involved in the new appointment (parish reps, archdeacon and bishop) gathered together with the new priest and her husband for a celebratory meal. Appointments in our Diocese take a long time. We had interviewed Elisabeth at the beginning of the year, and we were all thrilled finally to have got to the point of marking her formal beginning at St. Luke’s.

Elisabeth Dean is Australian by background but has lived in France long enough to be a French citizen. She brings the best part of three decades of ministerial experience to her new role. She has been an incumbent in semi-rural and inner-city areas. She has valuable experience with the Australian safeguarding authority. And last month she moved with her husband Nöel to the beautiful and historic town of Fontainebleau.

It was a delight to meet Nöel, who is a loyal and supportive spouse. He brings his own experience as a senior paramedic… hopefully that won’t be needed at St. Luke’s.

St. Luke’s has been well served by several different locums who have stayed for longer or shorter periods. But the arrival of a new chaplain will give a sense of stability, more consistent pastoral care and the possibility of establishing new vision. So Elisabeth’s arrival was truly an occasion of great joy. A new chapter opens in the history of St. Luke’s. And from a diocesan point of view, I must say there is particular delight in appointing a woman to an incumbency position.

Fontainebleau has historic links with Napoleon. Today it is famous as the home of the leading business school, INSEAD. There are many professional people and young families at St. Luke’s, and we appreciated the contribution of young people to our worship.

We welcomed ecumenical guests, as well as supporters from Elisabeth’s former chaplaincy (St. Andrew’s Pau, in the South West of France) and from St. George’s Paris.

Please join me in praying that Elisabeth will have great wisdom and insight as she begins her ministry at St. Luke’s, and that the Lord will go before her helping her to form good and strong relationships. May the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace – be the hallmarks of her ministry and of the community of St. Luke’s into the future.

Brexit: The View from the Bishop’s Office

The Brexit end-game is upon us. It’s time for cool heads and steady nerves. Over the summer the pace and atmosphere of the Brexit negotiations here in Brussels have changed remarkably in a positive direction. For quite some time the greatest negotiations appeared to be those of the British Government negotiating with itself. But since the fateful cabinet awayday at Chequers, our continental partners at last have a clear and realistic voice speaking for Britain, and bluster and grandstanding have been largely confined to the backbenches. At the same time the tone of communications from the chief EU negotiator, Michel Barnier, appears to have become less rigid. For some time he has been adamant (taking his cue from the guidelines given to him by the leaders of the 27 Member States who will remain after Brexit) that Britain’s only option was to adopt off-the-shelf one of the trade relationship deals currently applying to neighbouring non-EU countries or major economic players elsewhere in the world. He was warning that Mrs May’s ‘red lines’ meant several of these were off the table. ‘No cherry picking’ was the constant refrain and ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it.’ But now there is talk of an ‘ambitious partnership’ which ‘has no precedent’. Although speaking to German car manufacturers last week he warned that delays for checks as car components criss-cross across the Channel could not be ruled out at present.

Yet, at the very moment when the likelihood of an amicable deal being concluded is at its greatest, with both sides seeming to have the will to go the extra mile, the media on both sides of the Channel is awash with information about a broad range of unpleasant consequences in the event of a ‘no deal scenario’. This is very unsettling for all those of us who felt reassured by the agreed text of the vast majority of the Withdrawal Treaty – which gives rights for British citizens currently living on the continent broadly equivalent to those that currently apply to everyone through EU freedom of movement rules. But, of course, these rights and safeguards only come into force if there is a completely agreed Withdrawal Treaty before Brexit takes place.

Of the reasons why (beyond purely the limited time left) both sides in the Brexit negotiations have chosen this time to reveal their contingency plans for a no deal situation, one can only speculate. It could be to signal that they have the option to walk away from the negotiating table and therefore have a stronger hand to drive a hard bargain. But it could equally well be that they wish to prepare people to accept more willingly the eventual deal, which will inevitably involve some compromise of initial negotiating positions, in a sense of relief that the awful alternative of no deal has been avoided. The clock is ticking, sufficient time needs to be allowed once a Treaty text is agreed for ratification by the British Parliament and the European Parliament. The summit meeting of Prime Ministers and Presidents fixed for 18th October in Brussels has up to now been seen as the deadline for agreement, although there is talk beginning of a possible extra summit meeting in November devoted to Brexit alone.

Even before the cabinet charm offensive of visiting national leaders of the 27 continuing EU member states began, there were signs of a willingness by at least some of them to perhaps be more flexible towards the UK position, now that it at last had one! They have to balance up the need on the one hand not to set an attractive precedent for other member states to be tempted to follow, particularly with the rise of Eurosceptic populism in a few of them, and on the other hand a wish to avoid, if at all possible, the negative consequences for their own countries of the EU block’s second largest economy crashing out of the Union in an unregulated way.

The EU Prime Ministers and Presidents have their next meeting in two weeks’ time (Sept 20th) in the current presidency state Austria. Although this is billed as an ‘informal’ meeting there will certainly be discussion of Brexit at some stage with a report back on the negotiations from Michel Barnier. Options for reaching a deal with the UK will be spelt out and leaders will need to let him know how much room for manoeuvre they are willing to give him in order to conclude the negotiations.

Please pray for both sides in the negotiations, at the level of officials (under the radar) as they are seeking to find a constructive way forward. But the final decision rests in the hands of the national leaders. May they act with wisdom and proper concern for the well being of all their citizens.

Trekking the Tour du Mont Blanc

I love holidays! You could say that writing about a holiday on a blog is a dangerous mix of business and pleasure. But ministry is about the whole of life, and periods of rest and recreation are an essential part of living well. God’s creative work concludes with Sabbath. And human beings are made not just to work but to share in God’s own enjoyment of the natural world.

For me, a holiday has to involve a complete break from office, emails and computer screens. That is in line with ‘resilience’ theory too. This summer, I decided to go for something more strenuous than usual: the Tour du Mont Blanc trek. I have done quite a bit of walking. At school I did adventurous training in snowy mountains with the cadet force. In our 20s, Helen and I did a shortish trek in the Annapurna Mountains. But I now get dangerously close to the age of 60: the Mont Blanc tour is a serious trek and this certainly felt like a bracing challenge.

The Tour du Mont Blanc circles the Mont Blanc massif. It normally takes 10 days and covers a distance of about 180km with a total of 10km of ascent/descent – somewhat higher than Everest. Also, you are supposed to train for these things. Belgium is famously flat. And the only noticeable ascent and descent in my daily routine is one flight of stairs to bed.

But for a Bishop in Europe the Trek has huge appeal. The Alps could be considered the central geographical feature of Western Europe. In walking around this massif you feel at the heart of the continent. And the Trek winds at high level through three of our archdeaconries: France, Italy and Switzerland. It negotiates the stunning high passes and cols that separate (or link) these three countries.

Many people do the Tour in pairs. My son James and I decided we would do it together. With James living in Glasgow and me in Brussels we don’t see as much of each other as we used to, and we get on famously. This was something we knew we would both enjoy. And it was a father-son bonding experience. But the walking is strenuous. And the summer heatwave meant it was hot even at altitude. So we didn’t actually talk to each other much when we were walking as walking itself needed all our effort.

That, I reflected, is one of the significant things about a mountain trek. It is continuously demanding and totally absorbing. Much of the time it was physically uncomfortable. After Day 2 our feet were liberally covered in blisters and we had used up all our first aid plasters. Arriving at the top of a col or a summit gives a sense of euphoric pleasure. Suffering and release from suffering. It is not surprising that Buddhist spirituality seems prevalent and explicit in some of the mountain lodges. A good number of solo trekkers were engaged in pushing boundaries, aiming to discover who they are or what they could achieve under pressure.

There were, though, great opportunities for sociability. The mountain refuges were hospitable and offered surprisingly excellent food and drink. We met and chatted with people from all over the world: Europeans, Chinese, Americans.

So what does one learn from this kind of experience and what are the virtues it fosters?

Endurance. Not everyone completes the trek: trekkers have knee problems, medical illness, and personal fallouts. On the second night, I lay in bed wondering if we would manage it – the walking was a lot tougher than I had envisaged. And James had already developed a knee problem.

Patience with your fellow traveller and especially in the heat. I couldn’t manage the ascents as quickly as James; but he hobbled on the descents with his poorly knee. And one night, a large man in our dormitory snored so loudly that the thresholds shook.

Simplicity. Trekking forces you into a simple rhythm which doesn’t involve much more than walking, eating and sleeping. And happiness is a shower at the end of the day. Coming back down into Chamonix (with so many cars and so much stuff in the shops) was genuinely a shock.

Courage. In modest amounts. A thunderstorm threatened when we were at the top of our highest point (Mont Fortin); the descent was steep and could have been treacherous had we not managed to get down before a heavy hailstorm arrived.

Humility. So many people seem so fit! And some people race the whole of the route in 48 hours.

Gratitude. On the one hand, trekking sharpens one’s awareness of the smallest pleasures and comforts – a well-fitting plaster, a change of clothes, a cold drink. On the other hand, you are surrounded by the most incredible, majestic, breathtaking scenery – inhabited by armies of butterflies, gorgeous alpine flowers and colonies of marmots. Trekking brings you back to the simple realities of life as well as putting you back in touch with the natural world.    

And finally… I learnt during the Trek that there are type 1 pleasures and type 2 pleasures. The type 1 pleasure is enjoyable at the time you experience it – a good meal for example. But a type 2 pleasure may not be at all enjoyable at the time. However, it is an experience which – when you look back on it – fills your heart with pleasure and strengthens you for the road ahead. Trekking is a fine example of a type 2 pleasure. I hope the memory of my Tour du Mont Blanc will strengthen and inspire me for the coming term and academic year.