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.

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