Celebrating 40 years of St. James Voorschoten

St James was planted 40 years ago from St. John and St. Philip The Hague. It serves the prosperous and delightful towns of Wassenaar and Leiden, as well as Voorschoten itself. Cycleways, parks and daffodil-clad waterways abound. This is the Netherlands at its most attractive and charming. I feel an especial sympathy for this area because I lived in nearby Rijswijk when I was little, whilst my father worked for Royal Dutch Shell.

The main international employers in the area include Shell, the European Patent Office and the European Space Agency. Consequently, a high proportion of the congregation are highly qualified engineers, scientists and lawyers. This is a very able and talented community.

St. James meets in the premises of the British School of the Netherlands. There is much to be said for meeting in a school. The main hall provides a suitable worship space. Classrooms make for excellent Sunday School rooms. And the welcoming atrium provides an ideal venue for after-church coffee.

Good relations between the church and the school mean that on special occasions there is the opportunity to use the school catering facilities: ‘Mike’s Place’. On the Saturday evening, a large number of current and past members gathered for a celebratory dinner. People feel very attached to St. James, and one former youth worker had travelled from California to be with us.

There is a long association between European Christianity and the brewing of beer, and it is good to see this being continued in Voorschoten. Niels (above) runs his own craft brewery, which began in his father-in-law’s garage. He served us ‘Crooked Spider’. This excellent brew takes its name from a spider who fell into a vat of beer, became drunk and clambered out of the vat walking crookedly.

After a good dinner there followed an evening of – surprisingly energetic – line dancing.

St. James prioritises work with children and young people. I was very impressed by this room laid out with age-appropriate craft activities for the children.

Sunday was a celebratory Confirmation service with candidates from Rotterdam and The Hague as well as Voorschoten itself.

This is what some of the young people said:

‘St. James means being connected to God, learning more about my faith and feeling more connected. I find Youth great to talk about my faith and learning more about it. It is a really nice place to be.’ – Chloe

‘St. James means inclusion to me. The Youth is great for learning about God at our level and the church is good as well. It’s an excellent worshipping community to be part of.’ – Tim

People come to St. James from many different traditions. Worship is recognisably Anglican, informal and generously inclusive. Creating a good atmosphere for worship in a school hall isn’t easy, but St. James’ manages to offer something that is beautiful, uplifting and inspiring.

St. James is a youthful community. 80% of its members are 50 years and under. They are busy, professional people and their families. St. James creates an oasis of peace and spiritual life to sustain folk in demanding workday lives. It is a church that is serious about discipleship, committed to children and young people, and mission-orientated. Under the skilful leadership of their chaplain, Ruan Crew, it is a happy and nurturing place.

I thank God for St. James Voorschoten, which is a community that encourages me. I was glad to celebrate with them their 40th anniversary and pray that they will continue to grow and develop ways of reaching out further in mission and service.


People’s March, London

Last Saturday, I participated in the People’s March in London. I took part to show solidarity with those who feel a deep sense of frustration that their voices are not being listened to by those in Government who are leading our country right now. And who, I have to say, seem to have no plan beyond Plan A, the Theresa May deal. That’s very worrying given that Parliament shows very little sign of wanting to follow Plan A. And the People’s March is an excellent example of how we can demonstrate peacefully in support of causes close to our hearts.

The same is true of the petition to Parliament. On Saturday afternoon, it had gathered 4 million signatures. I now see this morning that figure has exceeded 5.8 million. In the space of 3 days… and taken together, the March and the Petition are very much a ‘movement of the people’. The time for mantra-like repetition of ‘Brexit means Brexit’ is long gone; and everyone who cares about the future of the UK is of course asking what Brexit should mean on paper, in process, and in practice.

I voted to Remain in 2016. I would dearly like the UK to stay in the EU. So would the vast majority of people in our European Diocese, given a vote. At the same time, Brexit must entail reconciling and healing majorities and minorities that have expressed themselves and continue to do so. I make no apology in this blog for engaging directly in the political choices that are before the UK’s lawmakers in the House of Commons.

I support a second chance, if we want to make another choice for our country.

What I do mean by that? It is patently obvious that we need a Plan B. In addition to two landslide defeats of Plan A, the Speaker of the House, John Bercow indicated yesterday that a 3rd vote substantially the same as the first two defeated motions would not be admissible in terms of Parliamentary procedure.

I remember debates in the early 2000s when several EU member states including France and Netherlands rejected a new proposed Treaty for a European Constitution. And I remember that the former French President, Giscard d’Estaing, said “there is no plan B”.

He was wrong.

There had to be to respect the democratic wishes of millions of people. And the EU then developed a revised agreement that ended up becoming the Lisbon Treaty.

What does this show? The EU does listen; and I think the EU has listened all the way through the Brexit talks process with the UK.

But we find ourselves in a similar place now in the UK, in the sense of needing a Plan B.

The indicative votes are an important signalling step

That’s why these indicative votes in Parliament yesterday are a very important signalling step on the future direction we could take as a country. As Archbishop Justin has said on social media yesterday, it is easy to criticise our MPs.

Taking seriously the indicative votes at Westminster is critical. Leaving aside views on the Theresa May deal, without an alternative plan the House of Commons has nowhere to lead us to. The outcome will inevitably be exit without a deal on 12 April if there is no other UK plan; yet no fewer than 400 MPs voted against no deal yesterday evening.

But a well-developed and thought through Plan B is going to take time, both to construct a national consensus and negotiate it with the EU27.

As I indicated in a Church Times interview today, I believe that Government should not extend Article 50, but revoke it. I know views differ sharply on this point.

Language is so vitally important in political debate. On Brexit, it has gone way beyond the vocal into the vituperative and visceral. Here’s an example:

Instead of saying “revoking Article 50 is betraying the people who voted for Brexit”, how about saying:

“As a country, we need now to take a pause and a deep breath given the state we’re in. Brexit is fundamentally about our future national direction as a United Kingdom. Decisiveness and durability are far more likely to come from a considered examination of the multiple options we have.”

As Church leaders, we should encourage politicians and people to engage in this prayerfully.

I sense clearly that because the debate has focused so narrowly around one deal or no deal, that has not happened. And politicians are not serving the British people as they should by not telling them what else could be within reach.

If we are not staying in the EU, I am clear that we have to find a way to settle within a European orbit.

– I want to see a durable proposition for the UK that preserves our economic prosperity by access to a single market of 500million consumers. There is already mounting evidence of a Brexodus among UK-based companies moving their operations to the rest of the EU.

– I would want a solution that preserves peace, unity and prosperity on the whole of the island of Ireland.

– I would want to keep customs arrangements as simple as possible for consumers and businesses by remaining in a customs union with the EU.

– And I would want the UK to be able to continue to trade globally outside the EU as well as with our EU neighbours.

We are not Norway. Our economies are different. But the principles of a negotiated agreement between neighbours close to the EU (Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, Liechtenstein) are the same.

A bespoke relationship that the UK could negotiate within, and as a variant of an EEA/EFTA type model, seems to me to offer a landing zone for the future of the UK in relation to the EU. It is this kind of mid-way proposition that deserves serious consideration. Other alternatives are collapsing around us. That’s why I support a pause in the process regarding Article 50.

I note also that some of our politicians are putting their spin on Exodus, for their Brexit ends. As I said on social media this week, I strongly object to Boris Johnson’s misuse of Exodus in the Telegraph article he wrote. Britons are not slaves, the EU is not Pharaoh and Mrs May is not Moses.

And references to ‘Grand Wizards’ in our political discourse are also deeply unwelcome. I am appalled to see British politicians styling themselves in this way. We must keep Ku Klux Klan resonances out of Brexit. This is particularly concerning since it refers specifically to the so-called 4 year “reconstruction era” of KKK in the late 1860s. I see the story has rightly attracted condemnation.

Vickie Sims signing the agreement with the Italian State

I end this blog on a positive, uplifting note.

Whilst the UK’s current relationship with the EU may be drawing to a close, we have entered a new phase in a key European relationship in our Diocese: we signed an agreement with the Italian State giving the Church of England official recognition at a formal ceremony in the august setting of the Palazzo Chigi, or Presidential Palace, in Rome this week.

This is the culmination of many years of effort, including by Vickie Sims as Archdeacon and Paolo Coniglio of the association of the Church of England in Italy. It is also due to the support of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, including Jill Morris, currently HM Ambassador to Rome, and her team.

This latest example of practical co-operation reaffirms our commitment as a Church to stay on the continent of Europe, whatever Brexit may bring.

Walking in the Footsteps of St. Willibrord: Cathedral Chapter Pilgrimage from Trier to Echternach

The idea of a Cathedral Chapter pilgrimage was first suggested a couple of years ago by Philip Mounstephen. We wanted to do something together that would build relationships between physically distant members of the Chapter. We wanted to say something about Christian fellowship across borders in the age of Brexit. And we were looking for something spiritually edifying. A pilgrimage from Trier (in Germany) to Echternach (in Luxembourg) in the steps of St. Willibrord and just two weeks before B-day fitted the bill perfectly!

There were 11 pilgrims, which when you add in our guide – the splendid octogenarian Brother Athanasios – makes 12: an excellent number.

Our base was the impressive Benedictine Abbey of St. Matthias in Trier. This Abbey links us with the very foundations of Western, Roman Christianity. The bones of Eucharius and Valerius, the first bishops of Trier, are interred in the crypt. And it is said that relics of the apostle Matthias, sent to Trier on the authority of Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, are preserved here. From Trier, Constantine ruled over a Christendom without borders that stretched from Scotland to Africa.

Our pilgrimage route took us along paths, tracks and minor roads along the German/Luxembourg border. We walked across fields and through woodlands, never far from the River Sauer, a tributary of the Moselle.

It was Lent, and the cold temperatures and abundance of rain gave our pilgrimage an appropriately penitential feel.

A pilgrimage is a journey with a religious purpose. Our walking was punctuated by visits to churches and a series of addresses by Canon Francis Noordanus on the life and times of Willibrord.

Border lands can be the focus of tension and conflict. Brother Athanasios took us to see this bedraggled concrete bunker almost hidden in the middle of a dark thicket. With considerable emotion, he described how this place marked the far southern edge of Nazi Western defences in the Second World War. From here, high above the Sauer, Nazi soldiers enjoyed commanding views over the villages below. Many people had died. Eventually the Americans had come and over-run this defensive line, and then many more people were killed.

The peaceful valley belies the violence of the mid-20th century.

I was intrigued by this gravestone in a nearby Luxembourgeois churchyard. Schuler is a German name. But the inscription is in French. Mathew Schuler died ‘for his country’ in Russia in 1944. But which country was that? The priest explained to us. Schuler was from a Luxembourg family. Many Luxembourgeois young men were conscripted into the Wehrmacht when Luxembourg was invaded by the Nazis. Schuler lost his life fighting for the Nazis against Russia. But all such young men were allowed by the authorities to have a gravestone which read: ‘he died for his country’. Such are the ambiguities of border lands and the ironies created by occupation.

The local priest explained to us that his gorgeous and compact Church, near Rosport, is one of the most important Marian shrines in Luxembourg and is a centre of popular religion and adoration. The papal flag billows in the stiff breeze.

We eventually arrived, somewhat bedraggled, at our destination: the Basilica of St. Willibrord in Echternach.

The current basilica is built on the actual site of the church which Willibrord built in the early 8th century.

Willibrord was born in Northumbria in 658 and as a young nobleman was educated as an oblate in the abbey of Ripon under abbot Wilfrid. At the age of 20 he went to Ireland, where he was ordained priest in Rathmelsigi in 688. In 690 he came to the European mainland with eleven companions to work as a missionary among the Frisians. He built churches and established a cathedral in Utrecht. He is understood as the first bishop of Utrecht. In 698 he established the Benedictine Abbey of Echternach. After a career which sometimes entailed excellent relations with secular kings, and at other times left him fleeing for his life, Willibrord lived to the age of 81 and was buried, according to his wishes, in Echternach.

We held our final eucharist in this beautiful crypt, close to Willibrord’s shrine. It was an intimate and lovely setting to celebrate our togetherness as a Chapter.

A pilgrimage such as we shared has many spiritual effects. It draws us closer to the Lord and to each other. It puts us back in touch with nature. It takes us away from the cities where we live and work for a while. A slightly rougher few days renews our gratitude for the simple pleasures of life.

We walked between two cities with tremendous religious significance. The Emperor Constantine was crowned in Trier and ushered in a borderless Christendom which endured in one form or another for a thousand years. Echternach is the burial place of Willibrord, the saint who took the gospel from English Northumberland to Frisia. En route we traversed the open border between Luxembourg and Germany, in thankfulness for this freedom and the peace between European countries which it signifies and which we, for the time being and by the grace of God, enjoy.

Our short physical pilgrimage is an analogue of the spiritual pilgrimage in which we all share from the City of this world to the City which is to come. We seek a new country of peace, abundance and blessing. It is a place where people from every nation and tribe and language gather in worship around the throne of the Lamb.