Ordinations in Ghent, Michaelmas 2020

Conducting ordinations is one of the greatest privileges of being a bishop, and it is something that in our church order only a bishop can do. But ordaining in 2020 has been a huge challenge. All of our usual June (Petertide) ordinations had to be cancelled, and we rescheduled them for September (Michaelmas). But in September, international travel remained hugely problematic. The most pressing challenge was trying to bring all the candidates and the bishops together in venues that were Covid-19 accessible. We had originally intended four ordinations – Bergen, Berlin, Brussels, Luxembourg. In the event, we ended up with two different venues: Bishop David conducted ordinations in Rome, and I conducted ordinations in Ghent. Flexing the arrangements in this way needed great patience, goodwill and understanding from our administrative staff, host churches and candidates – for which I am immensely grateful.

The Elisabethkerk in Ghent is a huge and impressive building, founded in the 13th century as part of a beguinage to house lay religious women. It became a Roman Catholic parish church in the 19th century and has been the home of St. John’s Anglican Church since 2016.  I believe that Queen Victoria once visited this building for an evening service on one of her visits to Belgium, which would give the building an historic Anglican connection. Our service was very likely the first ordination ever to take place in this historic building. It was certainly the first ordination of women that the building had seen. And I like to think that the beguines from of old would have been delighted to think that women would one day be ordained in their building!

Prior to the ordination I conducted a retreat for our candidates. At the conclusion of our retreat we shared in a Lebanese meal in the gorgeous Flemish parish hall across from the church. Catering is another challenge in these times. We were able to enjoy a precious few hours of fellowship and conversation over good food in a safe but relaxed environment.

The Chaplain, Canon Stephen Murray, and his wife Dr. Pleuntje Murray, went to considerable trouble to set up our evening with all necessary hygiene and physical distancing and individually boxed food. They embodied for us a truly wonderful gift of hospitality.

As always, the ordinations were preceded by the ‘Declaration of Assent’ and the swearing of oaths of allegiance to the Sovereign and of canonical obedience to the Bishop. This was an intimate occasion conducted by the Bishop and witnessed by the Archdeacon of North West Europe. The ceremony reminds us all of the legal framework of rights and responsibilities in which clergy operate. It is also the point at which candidates pledge their loyalty to the historic faith of the Church and their willingness to proclaim the gospel afresh to their generation.

The heart of the ordination service is the Ordination Prayer. Candidates kneel before the Bishop, who prays to God the Father to send down his Holy Spirit on the candidate for the office and work of a deacon or a priest. The Bishop prays that deacons will be faithful in service and constant in advancing the gospel of Jesus Christ in the world. He prays that priests will have grace and power to proclaim the gospel and to minister the sacraments of the new covenant. The ordination texts are some of the most beautiful and rich in the Church’s liturgy and they contain imagery to which all of us who are ordained do well to return to regularly to find fresh inspiration in our ministries.

Of course, it was of especial concern to us that the ordination should be conducted safely, given that the whole of Belgium is now in a ‘red zone’ for Covid-19. I’m guessing that the Elisabethkerk would seat 500 very comfortably, and 1000 at a pinch, so our gathering of 60-70 people had plenty of physical distance between the ‘family bubbles’. The church doors were left open for ventilation – despite the torrential rain outside. Hygiene and hand washing rules were observed scrupulously and the ‘home team’ looked after the whole event impeccably. And at the end, I was pleased that one of the visiting clergy, whose wife is a consultant virologist (one never knows who might be in the congregation!), gave us his seal of approval!

Here are the newly ordained, three deacons and one priest – from left to right:

  • Annie Bolger (to serve as Assistant Curate at the Pro-Cathedral of Brussels)
  • Evelyn Sweerts (serving as Assistant Curate at the Anglican Church Luxembourg)
  • Matt Thijs (to serve as Assistant Curate St James Voorschoten, Netherlands)
  • Dorienke de Vries (to serve as assistant Curate in Arnhem-Nijmegen).

Each of them is very precious to us. They will have to minister the gospel in difficult times. North West Europe is deeply secular. Our church communities cannot meet in the ways they did before Covid-19. Ministry needs to be more imaginative, more tech-savvy, connecting with wider circles of people. At the same time, many in our church communities are anxious, fearful and at risk of becoming isolated. How are we to enable worship in a Covid-19 era that touches peoples’ hearts and allows the Holy Spirit to connect people with God the Father through the Son? How are we to build diverse communities that are united in Christ, all find care and compassion and where ‘no-one is left behind?’.

In our ordination service, the Bishop says to the congregation: “Brothers and sisters, you have heard how great is the charge these ordinands are ready to undertake”. And he asks the congregation: “Will you continually pray for them? Will you uphold and encourage them in their ministry.” I hope that Annie, Evelyn, Matt and Dorienke will always feel supported and encouraged in their ministries, so that in their turn they can be sources of great encouragement to those whom they serve.

Reflections on la rentrée in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic

The beginning of September marks the end of the summer holidays and the beginning of a new term. All of us have memories of returning to school at the start of a new academic year: wondering what our new class will be like; the mixture of excitement and apprehension at seeing old friends and discovering new ones. Seeing small children walking to school this morning in Brussels with packed satchels is for me a real sign of hope. And teachers will be wanting to give their pupils the best welcome and the best start to a new year.

This year, though, returning to school has a different feel. Children are physically distanced from one another and operate in social bubbles. Older children are required to wear masks. In the school at which my son teaches the primary aged children have to wash their hands six times a day – that alone is a major logistical exercise! The social, educational and mental health of our children depends on them returning to school, yet Covid-19 means this can only be done under strict conditions – for the wellbeing of parents, grandparents and teachers – and even the children themselves – although few of them are at serious risk from the virus.

The church in practice aligns itself to the school year, so September marks the ‘rentrée’ for us too. As adults, we know well that the restrictions of the past 6 months are by no means behind us. Covid-19 is a highly infectious and dangerous disease that has spread across the whole world. The church is a social institution that brings together large numbers of people in confined spaces, many of whom are in a vulnerable demographic. So we are continually having to balance our longing for corporate worship and close fellowship with our shared responsibility for controlling the Covid-19 virus.

Today marks the beginning of ‘creation-tide’ in our church calendar. Theologically, I start from the premise that it is we human beings rather than God who are primarily responsible for the pandemic. A recent Grove Booklet[1] by TearFund director Ruth Valerio and others makes this point well. Whether the virus jumped across the species barrier from bats to humans at a live animal market in Wuhan, or whether it escaped from a Wuhan laboratory – it was human behaviour that triggered the release of the virus into the human population. It was willful negligence that frustrated initial attempts to control it. And it was globalised interaction and mass travel that enabled the virus to spread rapidly to every continent. Earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes might fall under the category of ‘natural disasters’, but the pandemic is mainly a disaster of our own making.

So it is equally down to us humans to control it. ‘Controlling the virus’ means observing the detailed hygiene and physical distancing rules that are starting to become second nature for us. But as the crisis continues it becomes clear that more fundamental issues of social justice are at play too. Serious illness and death are more prevalent in certain disadvantaged sectors of our societies: those living in cramped housing, BAME communities, the poor and the obese (and obesity is often linked with poverty). In our developed countries, it is those in blue-collar employment who are suffering the most from the economic consequences of the disease. And people in poorer countries have faced economic disaster under the necessary conditions of lockdown. Far from being ‘the great leveller’, the virus has laid bare deep and nefarious social inequalities between people. Healing the world means addressing social injustice.

At a personal level, the experience of lockdown has challenged and provoked me in some unexpected ways. Firstly, I found myself enjoying the stability of having to stay in one place. I was able to develop a daily pattern of prayer and physical exercise that is so much more difficult if one is continually on the move. Secondly, I found I was re-connecting with the natural environment in a deeper way. I became deeply aware of the birdsong in Spring, I noticed the stars in the night sky, I loved the deep peacefulness that descended on our neighbourhood and rejoiced in the improved air quality. And without air travel my own carbon footprint was vastly reduced. Thirdly, I discovered possibilities for using technology for communication. Suddenly meetings that used to be planned weeks or months ahead could take place almost immediately on Zoom. And linked to this, I’ve discovered a new and more nuanced approach to ‘presence’.

St Paul on a number of occasions talks about how he is present with the churches he has founded in spirit though not in body. The Holy Spirit links us together in a spiritual sense, and through our prayers for one another, even when we can’t be present to each other physically. I believe that tools such as Zoom and Teams have given added meaning to Paul’s insights.

We can now be present to each other across a whole continent – both audibly and visibly – albeit that we can’t reach out and touch each other. So during the spring and summer the Diocese in Europe has been able to stage Zoom-based worship that brought people together who had never previously seen each others’ faces. I have had some of the deepest one to one pastoral conversations of my episcopal ministry because I have been at home, properly centred and focussed, with all the relevant materials to hand, rather than trying to follow a delicate situation on email from a hotel bedroom or via a poor quality phone signal on a train. Like St. Paul, I have wondered: ‘how can I best be present to our diocese spiritually, even though I can’t be present in body?’ And, rather to my surprise, I have discovered that a high level of presence – and sometimes to many people at once – is far more possible than I had realised.

Looking to the term ahead, staff in my office have already spent many hours on the bewildering issues that bedevil international travel in the Covid-19 era. Events that involve lots of people coming together in multiple destinations (notably for ordinations) with shifting quarantine rules are particularly complex to organise. My office is all too aware of the upset that is caused when episcopal plans change, and a visit has to be cancelled. Under the ‘old normal’ this almost never happened. But now, a change in quarantine rules can mean expensive cancellations and disappointment all round.

For many reasons, I am therefore planning to curtail travel – and especially air travel – in the term ahead. I want to set the best example in terms of controlling the virus, aware that travel is one of the most significant ways in which it spreads. And I’m aware of the sheer difficulty of making coherent and consistent travel plans at the moment.

To be specific: two of the countries for which I am lead bishop are France and Switzerland. The level of infections in both these countries, the reciprocal restrictions between them and Belgium, and the level of unpredictability and health risks involved mean, I think, that it will be better not to arrange visits to these two countries until after Christmas. I hope this decision on my part might help chaplaincies with their forward planning arrangements. And I want actively to explore how I can be present to people in ways other than physical presence.

Yet it is ‘la rentrée’. The children are returning to school, people are beginning new jobs in new countries, and some are seeking a place to worship. A sense of excitement is mixed with realism about the virus. And a key challenge at this moment for all clergy and lay leaders is: ‘how do we provide a good level of welcome to new people in these Covid-19 circumstances?’ Without the post-service gathering for coffee, it is vital that welcomers are identified and signposted who can make contact with newcomers. We will need to be diligent in following up names, emails and phone numbers. And Zoom-based events need to be as friendly and inclusive as possible to those who might be lurking on the edges.

Covid-19 has reminded us of our need for our togetherness; it has prompted many to ask deep questions about the ordering of our lives and societies; and in some it has generated a new openness to the life of the spirit. As we begin a new term, I hope our churches and chaplaincies can be places of fellowship and care, places where the hard questions of life are addressed, and communities where people are able to find answers to spiritual questions through encounter with our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

[1] Covid-19 Environment, Justice and the Future, Ruth Valerio et. al. Grove Ethics, Cambridge, 2020

Trekking in the Dolomites in the era of Covid-19

I have enjoyed mountain walking since doing adventurous training in Snowdonia and the Brecon Beacons with the school cadet force in my mid-teens. In recent years, my love of the mountains has only grown stronger. Perhaps that has something to do with living on the edge of a capital city in a flat land that is happy to be part of ‘the low countries’. From a spiritual perspective, mountains are ‘thin places’, where the glory of God is revealed: it was on Mount Sinai that Moses is given the 10 commandments and at Mount Tabor (traditionally) that Jesus was transfigured. And spending time in the mountains has become an important source of spiritual nourishment for me.

But would that be possible in 2020? In the era of Covid-19?

I had booked a trek in the Dolomites just after Christmas, carefully timed to synchronise with my son James’s Scottish teaching summer holidays whilst also avoiding the Lambeth Conference. But in March-April everything was in lockdown: no Lambeth Conference, no flights, no refuges open, no travel allowed. Nothing! Very gradually, things began finding their way to a new normal. A few flights resumed. At the beginning of July, most of the Dolomite refuges re-opened. And by enabling James to stay in Belgium for a fortnight, we met the quarantine restrictions imposed by Austria on visitors coming direct from the UK. At the eleventh hour, our trip was ‘on’.

There was, however, a subsequent question: was it right to travel? We weighed the risks. There had been virtually no cases of Covid-19 in South Tyrol for a few months. On arrival in the mountains we would be staying in small huts, with small numbers of people. Most of the time we would be outside in the mountain air. The virus hates ultra violet light and warm sunshine – precisely the weather conditions we were expecting. The most risky part of the trip would be the flight – and there we could rely on the fact that relatively few others were travelling. Balancing the small physical health risks against the big mental and spiritual health benefits we came to a ‘yes’.

The Tre Cime (three peaks)

The Dolomites are a UNESCO World Heritage site, and one of the most fascinating and beautiful mountain ranges on earth. Our route criss-crossed the mountains from San Candido in the North East to Bolzano in the South West. On our second day we reached the iconic Tre Cime. The extraordinary North Face of these gigantic limestone slabs changes colour depending on the time of day and angle of the light, from grey, to silver to gold.

Alongside the extraordinary scenery, the Mountain Refuges are one of the lovely features of the Dolomites. ‘Ucia des Muntagnoles’ (‘refuge of the marmots’) is one of our favourites, a small and cosy resting place next to a stream in the spectacular Fanes region, run by the wonderfully hospitable Sonya. On the night we stayed, there was a group from France and ourselves. Sonya mentioned that it was the first time this year a group had stayed and the first time the hut had been full. The previous night we had stayed at an equally nice refuge, where we were the only guests. Our host was so pleased to see us that he gave us free beers and as much free grappa and limoncello as we cared to drink. That evening, I noticed him pouring anxiously over his spreadsheets… It has certainly been a quiet year for the hospitality industry, and we were genuinely pleased to be helping some of these small businessfolk.

Yes, it was really quiet and those few people we did meet were mostly local Italian and German speakers. On several days trekking we met more marmots than humans. The absence of people made these adorable creatures more confident than usual, and the mountains frequently rang with their distinctive whistling. We saw many kinds of birds, the alpine flora (edelweiss, gentians, orchids…) was abundant, and on one occasion a chamoix jumped out of the woods in front of us, eyed us for a few moments and then ran off. No bears, however! A plaque at the foot of one mountain route aptly quoted Psalm 104:24 “How many are your works, O Lord! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.”

Climbing and descending thousands of metres whilst carrying a pack is great exercise. It clears the mind and is genuinely ‘re-creational’. The mountains and most of the refuges have the added advantage of being out of mobile phone/Wi-Fi range, so there is no choice but to leave work responsibilities behind. And that is precisely what those who teach resilience advocate. Human beings are remarkably good at dealing with stress – provided that we build in proper periods of down-time. Hence biblical provisions for sabbath rest.

Dealing with Covid-19 has been demanding for those in Christian ministry. We know that the virus is going to be with us for many months to come. Autumn and Winter 2020 may see a resurgence of infections. So I encourage everyone to get a good holiday this summer, whilst the weather is warm and infection rates relatively low. You might not share my enthusiasm for mountains, but do take a break from the computer and the emails!

As we deal with the real physical health risks of coronavirus, it is important too to attend to mental and spiritual wellbeing. My experience has been – to my considerable relief – that taking a holiday is possible with proper care about the destination, and proper observance of hygiene and distancing rules. In retrospect, we probably faced more risk of being butted by the cows nursing their calves, or of falling from a precipice, than we did from Covid-19.

And finally, spending time together as father and son was one of the great joys of the trek. Covid-19 is making it far harder for families to get together. We can’t travel to the USA to visit our daughter in Boston, neither can she travel to Europe to see us. A visit to see our new baby granddaughter in the UK has only been possible with a great deal of planning and a relaxation of travel restrictions between Belgium and Britain. This is a reminder that family time is precious. Amidst all the isolation and loneliness caused by the virus, I hope those reading this blog get some precious family time this summer!

The Anglican Church in St. Petersburg

Once upon a time, in the 19th century, this magnificent marble-columned hall was the home of the Anglican church in St. Petersburg. It retains some beautiful art-work, the case and pipework of a fine organ, and a font. Also, the stained-glass windows are carefully wrapped, lying on the floor and waiting to be re-installed in their frames. Stories are told about how back in the days of imperial Russia, thousands of Anglicans gathered here in these grand surroundings to worship in Russia’s fashionable and westward-facing city.

But the city was one of the principle centres of the Bolshevik revolution. Buildings were ransacked and churches forcibly closed. The foreigners departed from (what shortly became) Leningrad and the Anglican congregation fled to Vyborg (Finland) in 1917, bringing an end to Anglican worship in the city. The building was used and misused in various ways thereafter, and over subsequent decades it grew more and more neglected. The picture above (dated c.1981, taken by Michael Pitts who was Chaplain of Helsinki and Moscow) shows it being used for a Communist party gathering. The text in the banner ‘Решения XXVI съезда КПСС выполним!’ translates as ‘The decrees of the 26th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) will be carried!’

However, rather recently, this splendid reminder of the imperial age attracted the attention of a music company. They imagined how the wonderful space and excellent acoustic offering an ideal location for concerts. Today, renovation work is well underway, sponsored by the city authorities. In the photo above, the Maestro (Fabio Mastrangelio) talks with Area Dean Malcolm Rogers about their plans. I was delighted to receive a standing invitation to visit the concert hall when it is formally opened, and to have the assurance that the Anglican community could use the hall for special events if and when needed. To be sure, with a congregation of 300 or more it could again be a wonderful worship space.

The memory of huge congregations of St. Petersburg Anglicans lingers, but for a long time there was no Anglican community in the city. Winding the clock forward many decades…and a much smaller Anglican community came back into being in the closing years of the 20th century. It gathered in the Swedish Lutheran Church, then in an ecumenical centre, and now in the centrally located and impressive German Lutheran Petrikirke. The community has no permanent clergy, but its current ‘animatrice’ and churchwarden is Dr. Maria Karyakina, mother of two young daughters and Vice-Rector of St. Petersburg Christian University, pictured here.

We (the contemporary Anglican community) use a small chapel on the ground floor of the Lutheran Church. The pastor, Revd. Michael Schwarzkopf (pictured above), speaks German, Russian and excellent English, and takes two Lutheran services a month for our community. He could not be more welcoming and hospitable! Like many of us, he looks forward to the development of the Anglican-German Lutheran agreement (‘The Meissen Agreement’) so that Anglicans and German Lutherans can fully recognise and exchange their ministers.

A key part of restoring Anglican worship has been gaining official recognition. Here Maria proudly displays the recognition certificate. Navigating Russian bureaucracy has required a great deal of persistent work from Maria herself, from local lawyers and from our Registrar.

There was a pastoral purpose in my visit, namely to confirm four adult candidates – (left to right) Illka, who is of Finnish origin, Michael, of Nigerian heritage, Maria herself, and Ruth, who is a very new mum and comes from Tatarstan.

So here is baby James with mother Ruth on the left, and all of the little community: 19 people from 9 different countries. Importantly, next to Area Dean Malcolm you can just see The Revd. Eero Sepponen, a senior Swedish Lutheran priest from Turku who comes to lead worship for the Anglican community – and can do this under the Anglican-Scandinavian Lutheran Porvoo agreement.

While in St. Petersburg, I took the opportunity to visit the Orthodox Seminary and Academy where Malcolm and his wife Alison had studied under Church Mission Society sponsorship in the 1990s. I thought the Seminary was rather grand, but I was assured it was far bigger and grander before the revolution.

It was explained that the Seminary (only for men) has a choir school (mainly for women) attached to it. A good number of Russian male priests are married to female choir directors. But there is more to it than this. Russian Orthodox priests may indeed marry, but they cannot change their circumstances once ordained. So Seminary provides a window of opportunity for courtship and marriage, else the alternative of a celibate monastic life becomes their vocation. I have to say, I could only wonder at the emotional stress, as well as romantic opportunity, this creates for both sexes.

Malcolm and I joined part of the Sunday morning liturgy, which, though the first Sunday in Orthodox Lent, also marked a celebration of the Orthodox Church, and so was a splendid occasion with wondrously spine-tingling music sung by several choirs in different parts of the chapel and some very fine bass/baritone indeed. After the liturgy, we joined the students for lunch. Seeing perhaps 200 young ordinands gather suggests that the Russian Orthodox Church has a strong supply of aspiring priests.

After lunch we had tea and cake with our host, Bishop Silouan, the Rector of the academy. He spoke with us frankly and openly about the challenges of delivering quality, relevant theological education in the face of increasing regulation. Wearing my St. John’s College Durham hat, I found myself longing for the possibility of deeper exchanges between this younger and highly intelligent academic leader and the theological education world in the UK. He raised one particular issue: ‘how can the clergy make best use of social media’? We have much in common!

I often feel I gain more than I give on my visits, and St. Petersburg was no exception. I was humbled by the perseverance of the members of our little Anglican community. I was thankful for the generosity of Lutheran colleagues in providing us with a place to worship and giving us regular ministry. I was touched by the openness and kindness of Bishop Silouan in his hospitality and conversation. The Anglican Community in St. Petersburg is small and fragile. I hope and pray that we can continue to find sustainable ways of pastoring it. Anglicanism in St. Petersburg has a glorious past. The present and future are and will be different. In this vibrant city of 5 million people, I hope that God will guide us into the right kind of Anglican expression of church for today.

Casablanca and Rabat: Celebrating a Growing Church

It is very encouraging to visit a church which is growing in diversity, in size and in outreach – as St. John’s Casablanca is doing. Looking at older photos of St. John’s, it is evident that the congregation was once dominantly European and American. Today, it is a glorious assembly of African, Asian and European/American – with a Middle Eastern chaplain, Canon Medhat Sabry.

Medhat has worked hard to build a chaplaincy council that represents these different backgrounds: the photo above shows some of the council members.

St. John’s had the problem that its building wasn’t big enough for its growing congregation. So it embarked on an ambitious building programme, to extend the church westwards and to construct a new gallery. When I visited, the building works were in full swing.

Here you can see the original 1906 doorway, with the new 2020 doorway on the western extension built next door to it.

In addition to a big church extension, St. John’s has constructed a new community centre. The centre is on two levels, with a large meeting room, a suite of Sunday School rooms, a chaplain’s office, kitchen and toilets. It is built very neatly into the existing British cemetery surrounding the church and within the curtilage wall. And it functions as the worship space whilst the church is being extended. Here you see the architect and main contractor, who are rightly proud of their work. It is all beautifully done and wonderfully functional, and I hope the architect wins an award for his design work.

The gardens around the community centre make a great place for after-church mingling and coffee.

Yes, St John’s has been growing in diversity and in size… but also in outreach. A few years ago, the Council committed to start worship centres in Marakesh and Rabat. Marakesh at three hours distance proved too difficult to sustain, but St Augustine of Hippo, Rabat is thriving.

Courtesy of the Roman Catholic Church, the Rabat Anglican community has the use of the delightful chapel of a peaceful convent. Here, musicians are rehearsing before evening worship. The chapel was decorated with bird of paradise flowers from the convent garden, which also features some lovely fruiting loquat trees.

During my visit to Rabat, I had opportunity to call on the Roman Catholic Cardinal Christobel Lopez (left) and Papal Nuncio Mgt. Valetto (right), and to thank them warmly for their advice and support in our ministry in Morocco.

And finally, how about this for a fund-raiser: these beautiful travel mugs illustrated with a picture of St. John’s!

The Anglican Church in Morocco operates by permission of the King of Morocco, who is committed to defending the three Abrahamic faiths. Of course, Morocco is dominantly Muslim, and so the pastoral ministry requires a proper prudence. It is accepted that our ministry will be directed towards the migrant, the ex-patriot, the refugee and the stranger. It in this demanding context with a transient population that St. John’s demonstrates its own remarkable vitality.

I reflected that it is indeed on the edges of our diocese, in some of the most demanding situations, that we are seeing the most striking examples of Christian hospitality, of deepening faith and numerical growth.

My visit to Morocco lasted the inside of five days. It was time very well spent. I was immensely grateful to Canon Medhat and the people of St. Johns and St. Augustine of Hippo for arranging a full and rewarding programme. I left feeling greatly encouraged by all that God is doing through our work in Morocco.

A visit to our chaplaincies in Greece

We began planning our visit to Corfu and Athens a long time ago. There are many interesting features of chaplaincy life and ecumenical relations in Greece, and it is a long way from Brussels, so we allocated six days including travel. Our visit was wonderfully arranged by the Area Dean of Greece, Fr. Leonard Doolan, and the Chaplain of Corfu, The Revd. Jules Wilson.

On arrival in Athens, Leonard took us to a reception at the new Swedish Church Centre. In the centre of the photo, the local Greek lawyer who has done so much to give our church in Greece a recognised legal structure, and centre left, the Lutheran Pastor Bjorn who is a good friend and colleague to Leonard. The Swedish Centre is on several floors and offers social space for their church and educational space for the teaching of the Swedish language. This Centre provides an inspiration for what we would love to create for our own Anglican Church in Athens.

From Athens, we took an early morning flight to Corfu. You can see here the impressive colonnaded church of St. George, which functioned as the Anglican place of worship during the 19th century British Protectorate. When Corfu joined mainland Greece, this building was given to the Orthodox, and the Anglicans moved to the centrally located former Ionian Parliament building.

The Parliament was bombed in the Second World War, and the damaged building was handed back to the Greek State. But Anglicans retained use of the rear of the building, which includes the present worship space, a flat and social space (above). The chaplain (Jules Wilson) and Council have ambitious plans to turn this space into a café, for which they have been given diocesan Mission Opportunity Funding.

Churchwarden Pauline Argyrou (second right), presented an excellent history of the Anglican Church of Corfu. The Chaplain, Jules, then shared his Strategy and Vision. He recalled what Holy Trinity Corfu had aimed to do 4 years ago, reviewed how far these aims had been fulfilled, and then offered a set of priorities for the next five years, with actions needed to meet them.

I was deeply impressed by the energy of the Council, the strong role that lay people have played in the life of the church over many years, and their great sense of hope and confidence for the future.

The chaplaincy and ICS are involved with satellite congregations and missions around the island of Corfu. In the winter the coast doesn’t look so inviting, but that changes in the summer when Corfu welcomes a thoroughly international constituency of seasonal residents and holidaymakers.

One of Holy Trinity’s ecumenical partners is the Greek Evangelical Church. They run the multi-purpose ‘Lighthouse Community Centre’ beautifully equipped with soft furnishings and indoor games as well as a smart conference room that provides a place for people to meet and relax, or hold concerts or more formal gatherings. The striking lighthouse mural was painted by the wife of a former Holy Trinity Chaplain.

At the other end of the spectrum of church traditions, Holy Trinity also enjoys excellent relationships with the Greek Orthodox Church. I was honoured to have an audience with His Eminence Metropolitan Nektarios of Corfu. The Archbishop seemed genuinely interested to learn more about the Anglican Communion. We talked about our shared concerns for the environment and the vital importance of deep and trusting relationships between churches and their leaders in an increasingly dangerous and fragmented world.

One of the great possibilities of an episcopal visit is the chance to gather church leaders together. Our assembly included: the Roman Catholic Archbishop His Excellency Joannis Spiteris (on my right), the Orthodox Vicar-General Themistocles (on my left), and (facing me) the British Vice-Consul and the Greek Evangelical Pastor Miltiades. We intended this meal as an opportunity to say thank you to those partner churches who have been so kind and helpful to Holy Trinity over the years.

Returning to Athens, our programme included a visit to Hestia Hellas (meaning ‘Greek Home’). This is the small charity that provides counselling and support to sufferers from trauma and PTSD which was the subject of my Lenten Bishop’s Appeal last year. Hestia Hellas has provided important help to Greek people who suffered traumatic losses in the terrible fires in Mati last year. It now focuses mainly on families and children who have suffered trauma through the experience of being refugees or migrants. The psychological impacts of migration are often neglected, and I am very impressed with the team of professional people and volunteers working across cultures and languages in often very difficult circumstances.

There was space in our programme for a day trip to Patras to see the Anglican Church of St. Andrew. This is a sturdy, granite stone building which is home to a now small fellowship of faithful Anglican worshippers. The building needs significant investment. I celebrated Holy Communion for the community and took the opportunity to hear their serious concerns for the future of this building and their church community.

Athens is the home of Greek Orthodoxy, and it was a privilege to be given an audience with His Beatitude Ieronymos, Archbishop of Athens and All Greece. His Beatitude presented me with a silver icon depicting St. Paul at the Areaopagus. In exchange, I presented him with a modern icon of St. Sophronios, who was the Abbot of an Orthodox Monastery in Essex, ‘glorified’ by the Ecumenical Patriarch at the end of last year.

On the penultimate night of our stay in Athens, the British Ambassador organised a dinner in my honour for 25 guests including senior clergy, the Chief Rabbi, the Mother Superior of a Convent and some distinguished writers and academics. I was privileged to be seated between HE Metropolitan Gabriel of the Church of Greece and HE Metropolitan George of the Patriarchate of Alexandria. It was a truly remarkable evening characterised by a rare degree of warmth and friendship.

Our visit concluded with a Confirmation Service at St. Paul’s Athens for Amelie Tyler from New York, Magdaline Imarhiagbe (Greek and of Nigerian heritage) and Chatur, born in Athens and of Sri Lankan descent.

After the service I met with the Council of St. Paul’s and was hugely encouraged by their report on the positive developments in the church over the last couple of years and their sense of confidence in the future. One element of note is the use of Mission Opportunity Funding to enable the church to be open to visitors during the week, to everyone’s delight.

This was a rich and fulfilling visit. I am extraordinarily grateful to Her Excellency Kate Smith for her warm welcome and hospitality to Helen and me. I was humbled by the welcome I received from a great range of Greek church leaders. And I was thrilled to see what a great job our amazing chaplains, Leonard and Jules, are doing in leading their communities in Corfu and Greece. Thanks be to God.

Celebrating the Warmth of Anglo-Brussels Friendship on the Eve of Brexit

This week ending 31st January 2020 has been the final countdown to Brexit. But how best to mark these events? The Mayor of Brussels had the splendid idea of throwing a party to celebrate the longstanding friendship between the citizens of Brussels and the United Kingdom. The invitation was open to anybody, and I was delighted to go along.

The venue was one of the most splendid in the whole of Europe: the Brussels Grand Place. The Mayor had gone to the trouble of arranging a light show in red, white and blue. In the square itself, Belgian marching bands alternated with British folk and dance music.

Belgians have a quirky sense of humour. The Grand Place was decorated with typical British artefacts like red telephone boxes, sentry boxes and a London taxi. And here are two famous London characters who turned up specially for the event: Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes.

Guests were welcomed into the amazing Gothic Hall of the Brussels City Hall, where drinks and sandwiches were served to all comers: members of choirs, business organisations, community groups – hundreds of people representing the 7000 British who live in Brussels.

The Mayor of Brussels, Philippe Close, gave a warm and encouraging speech. He referred to the many ways in which Brussels had been linked with the UK over the centuries. He paid tribute to the 250,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who had been killed in the Ypres region during World War 1. He expressed admiration for the game of rugby which he had played as a youth (you can see he would have been a formidable member of a pack). And he looked forward to continuing cultural, economic and educational links between Brussels and the UK in the future.

At this time, many British people feel sadness, regret and vulnerability. The outreach to our community from the Mayor of Brussels and his staff was remarkable. Actions like this make a difference. They truly help British people in Europe feel we are still welcome and wanted. I was interviewed by TV station RTL in a short piece which you can find here.

The love and warmth towards the UK at this Brussels City event was plain for all to see. It was equally evident in the speech made in the European Parliament on the Withdrawal Agreement by Ursula von der Leyen. She said, with sincerity: ‘We will always love you and we will never be far’.

The EU and its member states regret the UK decision to leave; so do I. But I believe now is the time for the UK to move on from the recent years of division and discord and to seek the best possible partnership with our European friends for the future.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in Malta

Each year the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity and the World Council of Churches chooses a national council of churches who will produce the materials for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This year it was the turn of the island of Malta. Local Christians had been working for two years to produce the materials that would be used all over the world. I was delighted to be invited to Malta to take part in their events.

Christians Together in Malta and Gozo had chosen as the Week’s theme the reading from Acts 27 & 28 which recounts Paul’s shipwreck off Malta, and the subsequent hospitality he received from the islanders.

The main act of worship took place in our Pro-Cathedral of St. Paul, Valletta, and I was honoured to be invited to preside at it. I’m used to these sorts of mid-week events being attended by the faithful few with a serious interest in ecumenism. But our service was packed, with about 400 people of all ages and backgrounds attending. The collection at the service was given away to people affected by the earthquakes in Albania.

St Paul’s is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year, and the Cathedral is engaged in a large-scale building renovation and restoration. The project was initially budgeted at €5m, but has since doubled in cost to €10m. €1m has been raised by the excellent fundraising teams in London and Malta. Several more million is finding its way to St. Paul’s from a European Union heritage grant. As a result of donations received and promised so far, Chancellor Simon Godfrey has recently been able to sign a contract for £3m worth of work for the restoration of the tower and spire. Very soon, the famous Valetta skyline will be exhibiting a spire clad in scaffolding!

During my visit I was pleased to be able to meet with Archbishop Charles Scicluna (who was the preacher at our Unity Service) along with Mgr. Prof Hector Scerri – President of the Maltese RC Ecumenical Commission – pictured above. The Archbishop is exceptionally warm and welcoming, and he kindly put on a reception for the Christian leaders and pastors on the island.

The Unity service featured a set of oars, reminiscent of the Apostle’s boat, representing different elements of the story of St. Paul’s Shipwreck.

I found it intensely moving to be sharing in this worship, hearing Acts 27 and 28 read on the island where (almost certainly) the shipwreck actually took place.

St. Luke records that the islanders treated Paul with ‘unusual kindness’, in the way they looked after him after his terrifying experiences at sea – specifically by kindling a fire to keep him warm. The Archbishop drew to our attention that the Greek word used for ‘kindness’ here is philanthropia – a word used only three times in the New Testament. It refers to the gracious, noble or simply friendly acts of civilised people towards one another.

The point is that the Maltese were not Christians, and yet still showed Paul ‘unusual kindness’. Paul stayed on Malta for some time, sharing the gospel of Jesus and conducting a ministry of healing. As a result many became Christians. So when Paul finally left, they showed a Spirit-inspired level of kindness, bestowing on Paul many honours and filling his boat with provisions.

Kindness is a virtue in which all humanity can share. And we need it as much as we ever did. For those who call themselves Christians, who are animated by the Holy Spirit, it is a virtue we can especially hope to see being developed.

‘They showed us unusual kindness’ (Acts 28:2). I am grateful to our Maltese brothers and sisters for drawing this little phrase to our attention this year. It is a phrase I will remember and endeavour to put into practice myself.

A Visit to St. Andrew’s Moscow

I last visited St. Andrew’s Moscow two years ago, on that occasion in the company of Archbishop Justin. Much has happened in the intervening time: the building restoration project has begun; Malcolm Rogers is now well established in his ministry; and the church has grown significantly both in spiritual togetherness and in numbers. So I was very keen to return.

St. Andrew’s Moscow was used as a music recording studio during the Soviet era. It was restored to use as a Church following the visit of her Majesty the Queen to Moscow in the 1994. In 2016, the Church was granted a ‘free use’ agreement with the federal Ministry of Property and registration of title rights until 2065, the maximum term allowed under Russian law. The British royal family has taken an active interest in the restoration of this church building, which is unique in Russia.

Meeting at the Moscow Mayoralty with Mr. Vitaly Suchkov (Head of Department of National Policy and Inter-regional relations) and colleagues from the historic monuments department.

With the support of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate, the church building has been included in the City of Moscow restoration programme. During my visit, I met with senior staff at the Mayor of Moscow’s office. This gave me opportunity to thank the City for its huge sponsorship of the restoration of the exterior of the church. Our meeting was extraordinarily warm and friendly. At its conclusion, the City agreed to set up a Working Group, bringing together the different parties in the project to help ensure good communication and the mutual understanding of deadlines.

The major structural works on the walls and foundations will run to millions of euros and take several years, but one smaller way in which the diocese has been able to give more immediate help is through the sponsorship of a kitchenette. My Advent Appeal in 2018 was towards providing this facility which will support the wonderful hospitality for which St. Andrew’s is known. I was invited to dedicate the new cooker, sinks and dishwashing equipment which are neatly built into a large meeting room adjacent to the church itself.

The Church of England’s relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church is very important to us. During my time in Moscow I met with Fr. Stephan Igumnov, Secretary for Inter-Christian Relations in the Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations. We discussed a number of areas of common interest including Syria, the Lambeth Conference and the World Council of Churches (on whose Central Committee we are both members). We looked for ways in which the momentum generated by Archbishop Justin’s visit in 2017 could be sustained.

There was space in the visit for some ‘religious sight-seeing’. The British Embassy kindly provided a driver and car to take us an hour and a half out of the City to the Monastery of Sergiev Posad. The complex is part monastery, part theological seminary. To some extent this beautiful and ancient place is the spiritual heart of the whole country. The Orthodox church kindly offered us a an expertly guided tour of the fascinating museum, which displays mainly Orthodox art and the various traditions of iconography in particular.

The main liturgical event of our visit was a Friday evening confirmation service. We had 12 confirmation candidates and 4 (already confirmed) candidates welcomed into the communion of the Church of England. All were adults and mainly younger adults. The candidates wrote accounts of why they wanted to take this big step, some of which were highly impressive. During the service, two candidates gave inspiring testimonies.

The following day (St. Andrew’s Day), the church was cleared to provide a splendid venue for the annual Advent bazaar. The church benefits from heating provided by the Moscow City heating system, so it was beautifully warm and cosy inside as the rain and sleet fell outside. In the background you can just see a military presence: the soldiers were on hand to provide tours of the historic tower (that has military significance owing to its role in the Bolshevik Revolution) and seemed to be enjoying the bazaar as much as everyone else.

It was a huge pleasure and inspiration to be with this flourishing Christian community, which is thriving under the wise pastoral leadership of Malcolm Rogers and his wife Alison. At its main Sunday service, this building is now full, and the question is starting to arise as to whether an additional service is needed. As well as regular worship, the building supports social outreach (particularly amongst those suffering from alcohol and substance abuse), houses a large youthwork charity and provides a wonderful venue for concerts. The congregation is thoroughly international, and its work is evidently respected by the Russian Orthodox Church and the Moscow civic authorities alike. This is demanding ministry in a key location. I am thankful for all the sensitive and effective pastoral care that goes into building a city centre church like St. Andrew’s. It really is a joy to behold.

Remembrance Sunday in Ljubljana

Modern day Slovenia is a small, well-developed nation sandwiched between Italy, Austria and Hungary and straddling alpine and Mediterranean climates. It is the only one of the former Yugoslavian nations to be in both Schengen and the Euro and prefers to think of itself as central European rather than Balkan. The view from the medieval castle at the heart of Ljubljana (above) takes in the red-roofed medieval centre, the communist era blocks behind them and the forests, hills and mountains in the distance. On an autumn Sunday it is a pleasant and peaceful view, with the loudest sound being the city’s church bells.

But during the great wars of the twentieth century, the country that is now Slovenia witnessed terrible violence. In the First World War, more than a million Italians and nearly 700,000 of their opponents from the Austro-Hungarian empire lost their lives or were seriously injured in fighting in and around the Soca valley. Indeed, the small advances in territory and the huge casualties mirrored very much what was happening in Flanders, but with the added terror of extreme cold and avalanches. And in the Second World War the population suffered under fascist occupation, with the horror of mass roundups and killings. So Slovenia seemed a very appropriate place for a European bishop to spend Remembrance Sunday.

Our Anglican congregation meets in this very handsome Evangelical Lutheran church building by kind permission of Bishop Geza Filo.

The congregation has enjoyed something of a rebirth in recent months. The mainstays of the congregation had been growing older. But we have benefited from the arrival of several families connected with the American Embassy. In particular, The Revd. Dr. Taylor Denyer, an ordained priest in the United Methodist Church, is kindly officiating under the ecumenical canons and building up the congregation through her pastoral care and her networks. What was once a predominantly elderly congregation enjoys the presence of young families with children.

In the picture above, Barbara Ryder, who was for several years the Reader who looked after the congregation, together with The Reverend Taylor Denyer, prepare for holy communion. Martin Luther looks on approvingly (I like to think).

Above, Bishop Robert, The Reverend Taylor Denyer, and Bishop Geza Filo: a United Methodist minister welcomes an Anglican Bishop in the premises of a Lutheran Bishop. It was very good to celebrate our unity in Christ on Remembrance Sunday.

After the service we shared some refreshments, including these poppy biscuits baked by one of the children.

In 2019, Remembrance Sunday is as important as it ever was. Conflict is a feature of the human condition. The stories of the countries and nations of modern Europe have been profoundly affected by warfare. If we are going to understand each other as peoples, we have to listen to each others’ stories of conflicts, invasions, occupations, victories and defeats. Moreover, because war is so terrible, those caught up in it whether as soldiers or civilians are usually marked by it in the deepest way. For those of us who have had the good fortune not to be caught up in armed conflict ourselves, it remains a matter of Christian compassion and proper human respect to honour the experiences of veterans and victims, to hear and to value their stories. And to be humbled by them.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

A new ministry begins at St. Bartholomew’s Dinard

Brittany boasts some of France’s most charming coastline, with sandy bays, mussel beds and yachting harbours. It is also known for having some of the biggest tidal ranges found anywhere in the world.

The elegant town of Dinard has for many decades been a favourite resort for anglophones. When Helen and I visited, the main street was festooned with Union Jacks to celebrate ‘the British film festival’. St. Bartholomew’s church was built in the Victorian era thanks to the generosity of the Faber family and is a fine example of neo-Gothic architecture. The local congregation was full of excitement as it prepared to welcome its new clergy.

It was a particular delight for me to be licensing Gary Wilton as the new chaplain of St. Bartholomew’s. Gary and I were colleagues for five years at Holy Trinity Brussels. For the last six years, Gary has been vicar of All Saints Eccleshall, one of the largest churches in the Diocese of Sheffield. St. Bartholomew’s presents a different set of challenges in terms of building community and working with the congregation to establish a fresh sense of vision for the future. I am thrilled that Gary has decided to return to the Diocese in Europe.

Gillian Wilton was one of the first women priests to be ordained in the Church of England. She has particular experience as a hospital and hospice chaplain and formerly ministered at St. Paul’s Tervuren. She was given Permission to Officiate in the Archdeaconry of France and will minister alongside her husband.

Gary and Gillian were licensed on a Friday lunchtime. For a scattered community composed mainly of retired people, this worked well. The service was non-Eucharistic, and I have to say that this made for an act of worship with good length and balance. Where the circumstances are appropriate, non-eucharistic mid-week licensings are something I would like to encourage.

After the service we enjoyed refreshments in the garden, with an opportunity to meet and greet the deputy mayor and ecumenical guests. The palm trees are indicative of the delightfully mild climate.

St. Bartholomew’s is a place of real potential. It has a superb church building – spacious, colourful and well-proportioned. Its finances are strong, and it is well established in the town. I am so pleased that the community has had the desire to find, employ and work with first-rate clergy leadership. I am full of hope for what God may do in the future through the ministry of Gary and Gillian alongside the wonderful lay people of St. Bartholomew’s.

Anglican Communion Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

It was a great privilege for Helen and me to be invited by Archbishop Josiah Fearon, Secretary-General of the Anglican Communion, to join an 11 Day Pilgrimage to the Holy Land for Anglican Bishops and their spouses from across the world. The Pilgrimage was based at St. George’s Cathedral Guest House in Jerusalem (above) and the Convent of the Sisters of Nazareth in Nazareth.

The theme of the Pilgrimage was ‘Equipping the Church: living with differences.’ The intention was that as bishops from very different cultures and traditions walked together in the places Jesus walked, so we would better understand one another and grow together.

Our Pilgrimage was led by Canon John Peterson (above), former Dean of St. George’s College Jerusalem and former Secretary-General of the Anglican Communion, and a guide of extraordinary insight and specialist archaeological knowledge. Our daily reflections were led by The Reverend Philip Jackson, Vicar of Trinity Church, Wall Street, New York.

For 11 days, we walked together in the footsteps of Jesus. We visited Nazareth, where Mary heard she was to be the mother of God’s Son, the cave at Bethlehem where he was born, the places around Galilee where he taught, and the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem that he walked to his death. And by growing closer to the founder of our faith, we grew closer to each other.

We explore a cave resembling the one where Jesus was born.
Bishops and archbishops from Africa, Asia, North and South America, Oceania and Europe at Caesarea Philippi think about the question Jesus posed to Peter here: ‘Who do you say that I am?’
Helen drinks from the water at Jacob’s Well, the place where Jesus entered into conversation with a Samaritan woman. All who joined in this Pilgrimage found our faith strengthened with new insights and perspectives from immersing ourselves in the geography, history and archaeology of the places Jesus ministered.

No serious visit to the Holy Land should fail to engage with the present political reality of Israel and Palestine. Throughout our Pilgrimage, the sad and brutal divisions in the Holy Land thrust themselves upon us: the barbed wire, checkpoints and above all the wall that keeps Palestinians out of Israel proper. In the all-too-quiet town of Bethlehem (above) we heard St. Paul’s reminder to the Ephesians that ‘Christ is himself our peace, who has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.’

On our final day, we were extremely fortunate to be allowed into the Dome of the Rock at the heart of Jerusalem, where we listened to the very serious concerns of Muslim leaders in the city. We were reminded of the huge challenge of building peace in Jerusalem between Muslim, Christian and Jew, and of the impact on the peace of the whole world that relations in this city generate.

Left to right: Bishop Robert (Europe), Bishop Danald Jute (Kuching SE Asia), Bishop Andrew Asbil (Toronto).

Our Holy Land Pilgrimage was an intensive and totally absorbing experience. It was very hot; our days often began shortly after 5a.m. and we worked into the evenings. Only a small number of us had English as our first language, and as most of us in the Diocese in Europe know, listening to and understanding people from very different countries and cultures requires patience and concentration.

In Jerusalem there were 30 of us together. We built strong bonds of fellowship across the things that divide us naturally and theologically. Next year, at the Lambeth Conference, there will be some 600 or more. Our hope is that the 30 of us will provide at least one significant nucleus of shared understanding.

I came away from our Pilgrimage with a completely transformed understanding of the possibilities and purpose of the Anglican Communion. At a time when so many of our challenges are global in scale (climate change, poverty, justice, peace…) I realised afresh that a truly global Communion is a precious gift indeed. Pilgrimages such as the one Helen and I experienced are costly in time, effort and money. But they are necessary if the Anglican Communion is to hold together and achieve anything like its potential.

I look forward to the Lambeth Conference 2020 with greatly renewed hope and expectation.