The English Church in Ostend has a long and fascinating history. There is mention of English Protestants in Ostend at the start of the Reformation in the 16th Century. Regular church services led by an Anglican Chaplain began in 1836, just six years after Belgium gained independence from the Dutch. The present building was completed in 1865, just over 150 years ago. The Belgian King Leopold I, the German Emperors Wilhelm I and Wilhelm II, and the English Queen Victoria have all attended this Church.
Notwithstanding these royal worshippers, I am particularly inspired by a former Church member called John Cranmer Cambridge, who at the age of 23 gave his life to save a stranger who was drowning in the North Sea. ‘Great love hath no man, than that he lays down his life…’
That was 100 years ago, when the English Church was flourishing. And the English Church went on to survive two world wars.
But during the second half of the twentieth century, the condition of the building deteriorated and the size of the ‘English colony’ in Ostend declined. In 1983 the ceiling of the church collapsed. Tons of lime fell into the Church. People grew fearful for the Church’s future. So five years ago, the building closed for major renovation. The picture above was taken after the final act of worship attended by the Governor and the Mayor of Ostend. This feels a long time ago, when Excellency Alison Rose was British Ambassador to Belgium, David Fieldsend worked in the Bishop’s Office, and a youthful Meurig Williams was Archdeacon of North West Europe. I am sure that none of those present at that emotional gathering in 2015 would have imagined that the next assembly for worship in the church would look like…
Eight of us gathered physically distanced in Ostend in November 2020 – to rededicate the building after major works. But don’t let the masks obscure the joy of the occasion. We were all thrilled to be back in the building. And for anyone who knew this building before 2015 the transformation is absolutely amazing. This ‘new’ building is light, bright, spacious, flexible and welcoming. And it will grow even more beautiful as furnishings, flags and banners are gradually brought out of storage.
Most impressive for me is the renovation of the 19th century brickwork. This façade used to be covered in unattractive red paint. The restored and re-pristinated brickwork is now gorgeous.
A note on signage: Visitors to Belgium sometimes find the signage confusing: the above signs clearly indicate in sequence: ‘this way, that way, the other way, no way’. In fact the beautifully renovated and wide open door makes clear that a warm welcome awaits those who join fellow pilgrims on the One Way straight ahead.
Some of the furnishings of the ‘old’ building left a lot to be desired. So the Council has taken the opportunity to install a new altar-table with a beautifully carved frontal, which was given to them by the Roman Catholic Church. I was pleased to be able to consecrate this for use.
A new font stands on top of what was in fact a very small altar that used to live in one of the chapels of the Roman Catholic Bishop’s House in Brugge.
I am not able to travel much with the current lockdown, so I was genuinely thrilled to be in Ostend with The Reverend Augustine Nwaekwe. The scale of the work done is vast, and I remember well how far beyond the capacity of the congregation it seemed before 2015. In the event, the project was generously funded at a cost of over one million euros by the Town of Ostend and the Flemish Region, for which we are deeply grateful. The concept is for a building which is both a Church and a Cultural Centre, but with decisions on usage resting with the Church Council. The project was managed by the current Treasurer, Jody Paulus. Jody, the Council, the architect (Felix and Partners) and the main contractor (Artes Woudenberg of Brugge) can all be immensely proud of the result.
Notwithstanding the quality of the building, I stressed in my sermon that the Lord is more interested in the ‘spiritual house’ which is the community that gathers. Augustine was able to tell me that Ostend English Church is blessed with a community marked by unity, love and peace. How truly precious that is!
The prophet Isaiah wrote: ‘My House shall be called a House of Prayer for All Nations’. Ostend English Church used to be, as the name implies, a Church for ‘the English Colony’. It has become in recent years a diverse international community. It is a community where people love each other deeply, where people find comfort in dark times, where there is a ready and open welcome to the wider city. It is more and more becoming a beautiful and spacious ‘spiritual house’ fit to inhabit the beautiful and spacious building which is now its home.