Celebrating 180 years of St. Thomas à Becket Hamburg

The prosperous north German city of Hamburg has a couple of very distinctive features. One is the Alster Lake. At 1.6 sq. km. this is Germany’s largest city-lake, a delightful centre for recreation, watersports and occasional festivals. The other is a striking skyline dominated by five church spires, three of which are shown here. They testify to the historic strength of Lutheranism in this part of Germany.

Our visit was the on the weekend before Advent. The city was just gearing up for its pre-Christmas celebrations and Christmas markets. The picture shows the impressive Rathaus (City Hall) in the background.

England has a longstanding trading relationship with Hamburg, and 400 years ago the Company of Merchant Adventurers was granted special permission by the Lutheran authorities to hold religious services according to the rites of the Church of England. The community thus forms one of the oldest Anglican churches in mainland Europe. The present church building was constructed 180 years ago, and consecrated ‘Thomas à Becket’ after the patron saint of the Merchant Adventurers. During November 2018 special events were held to celebrate its history.

Our weekend began with a concert given by the Chinese countertenor and church member – Meili Li – accompanied on the harpsichord by Nicola Procaccini. Meili sang a programme of Baroque music by Purcell, Handel and Monteverdi. In the excellent acoustic of the church, the effect was enchanting. A great deal of effort had been put into publicity, sponsorship and ticket sales. I was told that the result was a very welcome boost to church funds of the order of 10,000 euros. This just shows what can be achieved with a well-planned event.

The following day, an exhibition was launched that used a short film and 8 long banners to tell the story of the church. The film was very nicely balanced between charting the heroic founding efforts of British Consul Henry Canning (cousin of the British foreign secretary George Canning), and the equally heroic efforts of a church caretaker by the name of Mabel Wulff who stayed in the premises throughout the Allied bombing campaign of the Second World War, even when the building was partially destroyed. I was deeply impressed at how a history that could have been all about ‘great men’ had been constructed to emphasise the contribution of a redoubtable and devoted woman. The picture shows Nicholas Teller, the British honorary consul and Canning’s modern-day successor, telling part of the story.

The roots of the Anglican Church in Hamburg lie in British trade. But, especially in the last few years, the character of the congregation has changed markedly. It is very definitely ‘not just for the English’. For a start, the chaplain (Canon Leslie Nathaniel) is from India, and the two assistant priests are German.

Looking out across a full church it was evident that many of the congregation are from the Global South.

And they are all ages! St. Thomas à Becket has a Sunday School, a youth group (the Becket Mix), a young adults group (some members pictured above) and a young families group.

It was a delight to be plunged into the history, culture and fellowship of the Anglican Church in Hamburg for a weekend. It is a privilege for me to have a small part in supporting the growth of faith of our diverse and exciting congregations. Church life is sometimes challenging for St. Thomas à Becket, and they are very conscious of not sharing in the church tax system that supports most of the German churches. But this weekend was a wonderful celebration and a great encouragement.

After Brexit: European Unity and the Unity of the European Churches

President of the EKD Synod, Irmgard Schwaetzer (left), and the EKD’s presiding bishop, Heinrich Bedford-Strohm (right), with Archbishop Justin Welby (centre).

The idea of holding an ecumenical conference to consider church relations post-Brexit was born soon after the June 2016 referendum. It was planned, with remarkable prophetic insight, for 16 November 2018. This turned out to be a very significant day – the day after Prime Minister May had commended the Withdrawal Agreement to her cabinet and two cabinet ministers had resigned. Some 60 people – academics, bishops and politicians – gathered together at Lambeth Palace to consider how we could and should continue to work together as European churches post-Brexit. Several conference members were from the German Protestant Church (EKD), and the most senior guest was The Rt. Revd. Dr. Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, the EKD’s presiding bishop.

Over the course of a full day, the Conference received a series of academic papers. Ben Ryan invited us to consider the divisions within British society exposed by Brexit, suggesting that these divisions also lay latent in other European countries. Professor Arnulf von Scheliha gave a German social perspective highlighting ‘the war in people’s heads’ between the former German East and West. My former colleague Gary Wilton invited us to consider afresh the founding ideals of the EU set out by Robert Schuman. Piers Ludlow spoke of the persistent but usually unarticulated influence of Christian faith and values on the EU project. Sarah Rowland-Jones from Wales spoke of the need for us to be attentive to those outside the usual circles of Christian ecumenical discourse. Finally, a paper by the Church of England’s Council for Christian Unity staff raised the question as to whether disenchantment with supra national political structures was mirrored by declining enthusiasm for formal processes of ecumenical dialogue.

During the break for lunch, I gave a 5-minute live interview for Christian Premier Radio. You can find the interview in this link – my piece is 20 minutes into the programme. In the interview I urged British politicians to think outside the Westminster bubble, taking into account national interest and to consider especially the interests of those who are most vulnerable, notably EU citizens living in the UK and UK citizens living in mainland Europe. I was particularly keen to refute disastrous suggestions that current Brexit negotiations are some kind of re-run of Britain’s heroic resistance to European powers. To the contrary, European Institutions were created (and are still understood by many continental citizens) as a peace project designed to stop war happening again. Listening to UK debates, this crucial point is so frequently overlooked, or worse, dismissed. You have to visit Yprès, its landscape forever marked out by cemeteries of the Fallen, if you want to understand Brussels. At the same time, building a real Europe of citizens requires political – and church – leaders to close the gap between elites who govern, and the people. In so many ways, they are not currently speaking the same language. Hope is losing out to fear, not least on issues like migration, and that is being sorely tested in the EU context, as it looks towards the next European Parliament elections in less than six months’ time.

At the end of a very full day, a lot of words had been written and spoken. For me, the fact that the Conference had taken place was as important as what was said. At a critical time, friendship between the German Protestant Church and the Church of England was reaffirmed. We worshipped together. We shared communion together. We listened to each other’s anxieties and problems.

In the closing session, Dr. Bedford-Strohm strongly commended the pursuit of full communion between our two churches. Archbishop Justin responded by giving this his full support. At a time when political processes are pulling people apart, we declared together our unity as brothers and sisters in Christ and our longing to make that unity more clearly visible to the world, both for our own sake, and for the sake of a Europe which is at serious risk of division in multiple ways.

Remembrance in Paris

On the 11th November 1918, representatives of the warring parties met in a railway carriage at Compiègne, 80 miles from Paris, to agree an Armistice that brought to an end the First World War. Since then many European countries, including France, have kept the 11th November as a Day of Remembrance marked with a public holiday. Britain and many Commonwealth countries transferred their remembrance events to the nearest Sunday. This year, 100 years after the ending of the Great War, the 11th November fell on a Sunday. So Remembrance Sunday in Paris this year was a particularly significant occasion with people gathering from all over the world, and as far as Australia and New Zealand.

On the morning of the 11th November 2018, representatives from 70 countries gathered at the Arc de Triomphe, the site of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Eternal Flame. I happened to be in Paris for the weekend – conducting the licensing of Fr. Mark Osborne at St. George’s on the 10th – and I was staying just a few minutes away from the triumphal arch.

It was a very wet and grey Sunday. Security was intense, with some 10,000 police deployed on the streets of Paris. Most of the leaders arrived in four coaches after a reception at the Presidential Palace. President Trump arrived separately as did President Putin. The line-up on the central tribune was impressive: President Macron with Chancellor Merkel on one side of him and the French First Lady on the other, flanked by President Putin and President Trump: the heads of Europe, Russia and the USA united in remembrance – with many other world leaders around them. The morning was beautifully orchestrated in grand French style, with an inspection of the troops, a fly past, musical items and contributions from international young people.

In the afternoon, there was a British and Commonwealth Remembrance Service at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Many of our own diocesan clergy were present. The intercessions were led by the Revd. Dale Hanson and I was honoured to be asked to preach.

The nave of Notre Dame was packed. Ambassadors from many Commonwealth countries attended, along with large numbers of military personnel. The Cathedral was beautifully decorated with national flags. The service was deeply moving and impressive. Several military personnel read testimonies of the experience of war. Children read poems. And the last post was sounded by the actual bugle used when war came to an end on 11th November 1918.

In my sermon I spoke of the importance of ‘remembrance’ to recollect the long and tragic history of human conflict and to honour the experiences of veterans and victims. But I suggested that remembrance can also be a source of inspiration and hope. At the heart of the Christian faith is the remembrance of a death which is transformed into a victory over sin and which opens the possibility of reconciliation between people and between people and God. The impact of Jesus’s death and resurrection is worked out in ‘the kingdom of God’, a project of justice and peace to which we are invited to contribute. In our time, there is an urgent need to remember and learn from the past by sustaining and building international relationships and institutions that make for peace.

For me, the most moving part of the service came at the end. A procession assembled in readiness to follow a lone bagpiper out of the Cathedral. For a few minutes, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Paris, myself and the Roman Catholic Bishop of Berlin stood together in front of the altar. It felt like an important gesture of Christian European solidarity at a time when Europe is once again under serious strain.

‘For all the Saints’ – A Beautiful Confirmation Service at All Saints Milan

The lovely interior of All Saints Milan

It was very special indeed for me to be leading worship at All Saints Milan on their patronal festival: All Saints Sunday. Milan is rich in Christian history. There can be few cities where the sense of historical communion with the saints is so strong. Christians were martyred in this city by the Emperor Nero in the decades immediately following the crucifixion of Jesus. The memory of some of these martyrs lives on in story and legend; others are unknown to later history.

In the fourth century the Roman Governor Ambrose was made Bishop of Milan – almost before he had been baptized and somewhat against his will! Ambrose became a great teacher of the faith opposing the heresy of Arianism, at risk to his own life. Augustine of Hippo, who had previously been rather contemptuous of Christianity, was impressed by Ambrose’s intellectual rigour. Augustine was subsequently converted through hearing a voice telling him to read the letter to the Romans whilst he was walking in a garden in Milan. So Milan has produced two of western Christianity’s most influential saints, as well as countless others less well known.

I came to Milan for the weekend, and specifically to baptize, to confirm and to receive into the Church of England six adult candidates. Each of them has a lively personal faith and felt All Saints Milan to be the place they wanted to make their spiritual home. In a city with such a rich inheritance of faith, it was a joy to be celebrating the present day faith of these committed Christians.

Let me mention, in particular, Behrang Elgameh. Behgrang comes from a Christian family in Shiraz, Iran. He is studying civil engineering in Milan. He also plays the flute extremely well. Behrang is part of the extraordinary and impressive Iranian Christian community living in Western Europe. And Behrang’s sponsors had flown all the way from Pakistan to support him on this special day.

Our worship was led by an excellent choir. I particularly enjoyed a haunting chant that dated back to the 12th century Hildegard of Bingen. It was a very beautiful service, in which the presence of God felt close and real.

During the after-service coffee in the church courtyard, I was pleased to be introduced to a couple (doctor and communications officer) working with Medair in South Sudan. There are few countries more difficult or dangerous in which to work, and I hope All Saints will continue to strengthen and develop its link with this impressive couple.

Maria-Gracia is an Italian teacher by profession. She is one of the growing number of native Italians who have felt drawn to the community of All Saints during the ministry of Vickie Sims. I wonder how much of the future of our chaplaincies in Italy will lie with folk like Maria-Gracia.

So here are the candidates: Denise (baptized and confirmed); Gabriele (received into the Anglican Communion); Nicholas, father of Denise (baptized and confirmed); Maria-Gracia (received into the Anglican Communion); Luca (received into the Anglican Communion); Behrang (confirmed).

During our service, we thought about the career of the Christian, with reference to the verses of the fine hymn: ‘For all the Saints’. We live in a world of short attention spans, a desire for immediate satisfaction and absence of longer-term meaning. It is also a world where Christians are being persecuted, in countries such as Pakistan, Iran and Egypt. The festival of All Saints reminds us of our place in a grand narrative, a story of faithful Christian discipleship which began long before our birth and finishes with us taking our place with people from every tribe and nation before the throne of God. The Christian life is not easy, and in some respects it seems to be getting harder. The image of spiritual battle rings true for us today. So we join in praise to God for those who have gone before us, who have been shining examples in their time and who encourage us to keep going even when it is extremely tough:

For all the saints who from their labours rest,
Who thee, by faith, before the world confessed:
Thy name, O Jesus, be for ever blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Thou wast their rock, their fortress, and their might;
Thou, Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight,
Thou in the darkness drear their one true light.
Alleluia, alleluia!