Conference on International Religious Freedom and Peace, Holy Etchmiadzin, Armenia

This Conference brought together religious leaders, scholars and NGO leaders from many different countries to think about the preservation of the world’s spiritual, cultural and historical heritage. This heritage is too often under threat from ethnic and religious intolerance, especially during wars and armed conflict. The conference met in Holy Etchmiadzin, under the patronage of His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The Conference focused especially on the Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) conflict, an area in the Southern Caucasus whose international status is unresolved.   

The Conference reflected on the impact of the destruction of religious heritage, with many sharing personal testimony. The Conference noted that places of worship and items of religious heritage are representative of the deepest identities of people and communities of faith. Precisely for this reason, they are often deliberately targeted in order to inflict maximum collective trauma on a particular community. On the other hand, by caring for the physical integrity of holy sites and places of worship, we uphold the dignity of those who hold them dear, and when we co-operate among nations, governments and faith communities to protect religious heritage, we convey a transformative message of healing and togetherness.

In my sermon to the Conference, I preached on Christ the Light of the world. “In our gathering, we have some role in opening ourselves afresh to the light and enabling that light to shine in the darkness which is so evident in history and in the world today. We are to turn over the stones, expose the darkness and let in the light. To get the historical truth straight – or as straight as we can – and expose all the dreadful jaggedness of human conflict, suspicion, mistrust and even war to the healing, warming, light of Jesus Christ … How easy it would be to be dragged down by the darkness, to despair at man’s inhumanity to man, to lose hope under the weight of human sin, not least considering the last 120 years of European history. But the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not and will not overcome it. Like the sun which rises each day with the dawn, so Christ rises from the tomb and rises in our hearts bringing new life and new hope.“

During the Conference, Baroness Caroline Cox, a member of the UK House of Lords, was presented with the St. Sahak – St. Mesrop Order of the Armenian Apostolic Church by His Holiness Karekin II. The award, described as the Church’s highest order of merit, was presented in recognition of Baronness Cox’s tireless and courageous advocacy on behalf of the Armenian people and Armenian Church.

My friend and colleague, the Reverend Christian Krieger, President of the European Conference of Churches, gave a fine address in which he considered an increase of violence against religious communities, such that religious insecurity has now become a real political issue in most EU countries. He observed that places of worship were built without security in mind. He suggested that violence against religious heritage needs to be properly acknowledged and recognised else it can become a long-lasting resentment or ‘identity wound’. ‘Humiliation is more serious in the long term’, he said, ‘than simple violence’. He referred to an action plan for public space published by the EU: ‘SASCE’ Safer and Stronger Communities in Europe. Its primary aim is to improve the security of religious places. I observe that Churches in our own diocese could benefit from this scheme, in consultation with CEC. 

On the final day of the Conference, members were taken into Yerevan for a short act of remembrance at the Armenian Genocide memorial. A wreath was placed, and each conference member was invited to place roses around the eternal flame that lies at the heart of the memorial.

Later in the day, some us had opportunity to visit the Izmirlian Medical Centre, where we were shown around by the Deputy Medical Director. This is a new hospital, with 130 beds, state of the art equipment and 200 staff. It is entirely owned by the Armenian Apostolic Church, something which I found remarkable. The Director spoke to us powerfully about his own experiences of serving as a doctor on the front line of conflict and of the nature of the terrible injuries suffered by young men whom he tended.

It was a surprise and delight to be shown this plaque at one of the entrance doors to the new hospital. The rehabilitation centre is kitted out with neurological testing equipment, gear for strengthening damaged muscles and hydrotherapy equipment for stimulating damaged nerves.

A number of chaplaincies in our diocese support the Barnabas Fund, and it was very good to see this high-tech facility funded by them, and symbolising friendship between British and Armenian Christians.  

Reflections on Afghanistan

The Revd Andrew McMullon is a Chaplain in the Diocese in Europe.  He completed several tours of duty serving as an RAF Padre in Afghanistan, and has offered this personal perspective. His piece is published here as a guest contribution to my blog:

I’ve been asked many times over the last few weeks what I think about the terrible situation unfolding in Afghanistan and to be perfectly honest I have struggled to put my feelings into words. As an RAF Padre I served in Afghanistan three times, in Kabul in 2002 and in 2012, and in Kandahar in 2006. I also served at the HQ for Afghanistan and Iraq air operations in Qatar in 2009. Furthermore, as Chaplain at RAF Brize Norton I was regularly involved in the flights to bring wounded and killed soldiers back to the UK, seeing first hand the cost and sacrifice involved in these operations. All that adds up to a lot of involvement and concern for Afghanistan, the Armed Forces personnel deployed there and Afghans themselves, for over a decade.

Whatever anyone thinks about the reasons why we were involved in Afghanistan for the last twenty years hardly anyone would have wanted it to end in a defeat like this. Ordinary Afghan families had seen their lives greatly improved, with many freedoms and opportunities now feared lost under renewed Taliban rule. Those ordinary Afghans will now pay an awful price, whether they ‘escaped’ to anxious exile in the West or remain living in fear under Taliban oppression.

Many have asked, ‘Was it worth it?’ Was it worth the time away from home? Was it worth the loss of life? Was it worth the terrible physical injuries borne by the survivors? Was it worth the invisible wounds of Combat Stress and PTSD? Was it worth the price paid by my friends and their families?

These are hard questions – but should be faced, and are always faced after war or conflict.  Rightly so! It would certainly have been better if the campaign, and indeed the retreat, had been run differently – and that is not just said with hindsight. Nevertheless, everyone who made a sacrifice in Afghanistan did so for ordinary Afghan families.  We met so many when out on patrol – and indeed many worked and fought alongside us to help forge a better, more inclusive and tolerant Afghanistan for all its people. Friendships were made. Seeds of hope were sown. As a Christian I remain committed to the conviction that such seeds can flourish and bear fruit – even in the rocky and stony ground they now find themselves in.

I continue to follow the news from Afghanistan. I pray for ordinary Afghans, and their leaders. The pain and suffering of this people in their beautiful land continues – but hope abides and we must continue to do what we can to see it realised.

Licensing Catriona Laing in the Crypt of St Anthony’s Chapel Leuven

I have visited the Flemish university city of Leuven many times, but this was my first visit to St. Anthony’s Chapel. Our Anglican congregation of St. Mary and St. Martha have been meeting in the crypt of this chapel since the outbreak of Covid forced them to move from the university chapel of Justus Lipsius. People come on pilgrimage to St. Anthony’s from all over the world because, since 1936, the crypt has been the final resting place of a man sometimes called ‘the greatest ever Belgian’: Fr Damien.

Fr. Damien (or St. Damien of Molokai) was a Roman Catholic priest who ministered for 11 years in the Kingdom of Hawaii to people with leprosy. The lepers were held by the government in compulsory quarantine on the peninsula of Molokai. Fr. Damien taught the people the catholic faith, cared for the sick, inspired community building projects such as schools and hospitals, and buried the dead. Perhaps inevitably, he contracted leprosy himself. But he continued his work for a further five years until his death in 1889 at the age of 49.

In 2009, I represented the Anglican Church at a service in the Brussels National Basilica to mark the canonisation of Fr. Damien. The cavernous Basilica was packed to capacity: it was easily the largest religious gathering I have attended in Belgium. The sense of love and devotion to the memory of a truly remarkable man was palpable.

Now in 2021, I found myself conducting a service of worship in the crypt housing Fr. Damien’s body. That was both holy and humbling. But I wasn’t in Leuven primarily to pay homage to St. Damien. Rather, this was the occasion of licensing the new Chaplain of St. Martha and St. Mary, The Revd. Dr. Catriona Laing.

Catriona’s ministry has been marked by a commitment to social justice. Before ordination, Catriona worked on humanitarian projects in Iraq, including some high-risk areas. After a curacy in London, she moved with her husband Sam to Washington DC, where she worked with the homeless and those living in shelters. After moving to Brussels, Catriona became involved in the Community Kitchen at Holy Trinity Brussels that provides food to the homeless. Alongside her ministry at the Pro-Cathedral, she also pastors the relatively small community of St. Martha and St. Mary.

Relatively small… but also a notably youthful and gifted community. Our congregation of 15 (the statutory limit) included two ordinands and a professor of biblical studies. And I’m delighted that what was once an entirely student community now has families and older people too.

The New Testament reading set for the evening was 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1. The passage includes one of St. Paul’s most important statements of Christian hope: ‘For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.’ I wondered how far Fr. Damien had been inspired by this verse, or verses like it.

I reminded myself (and the congregation) of the depth and extent of Christian hope, which overflows the limitations of this life into the resurrection of the body, the reconciliation of people with each other and with God, and the life of the world to come.

There is, after all, an irredeemably supernatural dimension to the Christian life. We do not hope merely for this life, and death is not the worst thing that can happen to us. The Christian saints and martyrs, such as Damien, lived with a strong sense of a goal that was eternal and that was linked with notions of judgement and life after death.

For all Christians, this conditions not just our attitude to the future but how we live in the present. We will one day be called to account for how we have lived, whether we loved our neighbours, whether we pursued ‘justice and only justice’. That creates powerful moral imperatives in our present time.

Covid is not without parallels to leprosy (or Hansen’s disease as we now call it) in terms of contagion, isolation and quarantine requirements. However, we are this year blessed with vaccines against Covid. But, whereas 1 in 4 people have been vaccinated in high-income countries, that proportion falls to less than 1 in 500 in low-income countries – staggeringly worse. We must share the know-how – licensing, patents, recipes, materials – and the excess vaccines we are stockpiling. It is a moral issue. It’s a justice issue.

The example of the saints and martyrs is on the one hand a wonderful encouragement to hope, if we follow their example, but perhaps also a warning of judgement, if we do not… And in what felt like a divine co-incidence, the congregation had decided that the collection taken at the service should go to Christian Aid for use in promoting distribution of vaccines to poorer countries.

A Drama in Three Acts – 27th March 2021 Brussels

Act 1: The Confirmation of Rebecca Mathen

Rebecca Mathen has had a fascinating spiritual journey. Her family traces its roots back to the Brahmin who were contemporaries of St. Thomas when he visited India. Rebecca was baptized in St. Andrew’s Singapore and confirmed as a Methodist in Canterbury. She was a member of the youth group at St. Paul’s Tervuren and of the Christian Union at Plymouth University. She is currently a member of St. Alban’s Copenhagen and a Ministry Experience Student on placement at Holy Trinity Brussels. Now, as a candidate for ordination in the Church of England, it was my privilege to confirm Rebecca into the Anglican Communion.

Act 2: Admitting Bess Brooks and Jacob Quick as Readers

Bess grew up in the North East of England. She and her husband Paul have lived in Belgium since 1999 and attend St. Paul’s Tervuren. Bess is particularly interested in questions of women in ministry and what it means to be a woman in Christ in the 21st century.

Jacob moved to Belgium from the United States in 2015 to study philosophy at Leuven, where he joined the chaplaincy of St. Martha and St. Mary. Jacob is now a member of Holy Trinity Brussels. He is researching a Ph.D at Leuven, and as a Reader is looking to explore how Christian mysticism can empower us to live out Christ’s teaching.

Bess and Jacob have several degrees in theology and related subjects between them, and I was thrilled to be admitting these younger and very well qualified Readers to their new ministry.

Note also that Jacob is married to Annie Bolger – who serves as curate at Holy Trinity Brussels.

Act 3: The Installation of Canon Stephen Murray

Stephen had previously been made a Canon of the pan-diocesan Cathedral Chapter. In this ceremony he was installed by the Chancellor of Holy Trinity Pro-Cathedral in the stall of St. Willibrord. The 8th century Northumbrian missionary St. Willibrord is known as the ‘apostle to the Frisians’ and is an important Christian link between England and the Low Countries. Stephen is Area Dean of Belgium and Chaplain of St. John’s Ghent.

Part of the role of Holy Trinity Brussels is to be a Pro-Cathedral. In the Installation service we use these words:

‘Like all churches, the Cathedral is a sign of God’s presence in the world; a meeting place of refreshment in the Holy Spirit for all who choose to use it.

As Cathedral it has these particular duties and opportunities: to be a physical sign of the unity of the people of the Diocese with their Bishop and with one another; to be a place in which the festivals of the Church and important events and anniversaries in the life of the Diocese are celebrated by the Bishop or on his behalf; to be a place of regular prayer for the bishops, clergy and people of the Diocese, and for the communities in which they live.’

The Cathedrals in our diocese don’t have quite the same functions as Cathedrals of ‘churches of the land’, like the Church of England in England or the Catholic Church in Belgium. But they do try to fulfil a wider ministry than other chaplaincies. On Saturday 27th March, despite the severe restrictions of a Belgian lockdown, we were all able to rejoice in the wider role of Holy Trinity Brussels and the growth in faith and ministry of some very special people.

A Licensing in Liège

It is a long time since I have travelled out of Brussels – and a long time since I have written a blog. So I am very pleased to be able to share an account now of the licensing of The Revd. Guy Diakiese Matumona as Chaplain of the Anglican Church Liège.

Liège used to be part of the industrial heartland of Wallonia in Belgium known for its iron and steelmaking. Today it supports modern manufacturing and electronics as well as the delicious Galler chocolate and Belgium’s best-selling Jupiler beer. It is also home to tens of thousands of students.

The picture shows the view across the city and the Meuse river from the top of the ‘Montagne de Beuren’. With 374 steps it can justifiably claim to be an ‘extreme’ staircase – the kind of ascent that would be a cable car if it were in Switzerland or a set of escalators if it were in Hong Kong.

The English Church of Liège meets in an Adventist building. (Adventists make particularly good hosts for us because they don’t use their churches on Sundays). Whereas Liège is a big city, our chaplaincy is only small, and it has been through difficult times in recent years. For a while, it looked like we would not be able to restart paid ministry. But with support from the Belgian State and a pan-diocesan Lent Appeal we have been able to do something which had earlier seemed impossible: select, appoint and install a new full-time priest.

The Reverend Guy Diakiese is a truly cosmopolitan priest – educated in philosophy and theology in Nigeria and Rome, fluent in French, Italian and English, and having served his curacy in The Hague. I ordained Guy as Deacon and as Priest, so it was a great delight to be licensing him now to his first incumbency in our Diocese.

All those of us who have been involved with Guy’s training and development in the Diocese regard him as a treasure. He has much to do to help the chaplaincy recover its confidence. There is then a potentially huge field of mission in the city of Liège.

Here is Guy with the parish representatives: Ruth from Belgium and Rathna from Chennai. The representatives and churchwardens have done a great job in keeping the flame of faith burning in their chaplaincy in difficult circumstances and all the privations of Covid-19. Today, 7th March, was the first time the chaplaincy has gathered for physical worship since Belgium’s second lockdown.

Canon Jack McDonald, second from right, next to James the usher, overseas our relationship with the Belgian State, and I was particularly pleased that he was able to attend Guy’s licensing.

Guy will have good friends and colleagues amongst our Belgian clergy. But Liège is in the East of Belgium and our only chaplaincy in the Wallonia Region, so it is a potentially isolated ministry.

Please do join with me in praying that Guy will find a ready welcome, settle quickly into this multicultural city, and see both spiritual and numerical growth in the Anglican chaplaincy of Liège.

Rededicating the English Church in Ostend

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.

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.