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.

Palm Sunday in Ankara

All our chaplaincies are unique: but St. Nicholas Ankara is more unique than most! To begin with, it is the only building we have that lies entirely within an embassy compound. Though perhaps not the most beautiful building to look at from the outside, it is set in lovely grounds with commanding views over the city of Ankara.

Just 100 metres down the hill stands the impressive Residence of the British Ambassador.

Having a building on someone else’s land only works with the goodwill of the landowner. And we are very fortunate that Ambassador Sir Dominick Chilcott (front centre) and his wife Lady Jane Chilcott (front left) are friendly and supportive. To mark my arrival at St Nicholas, they organised a dinner for members of the Church Council in the splendid public rooms of the Residence. This was greatly enjoyed by all. Good links between our churches and diplomatic communities are very precious to us.

People gathered with excitement for our confirmation service on Sunday morning. Many of the congregation have to travel many hours by bus to get to church, so I was impressed that the group of confirmation candidates assembled to meet me at 9:00a.m. That is quite early on a Sunday morning for most of us. Having said that, the local muezzin had woken me shortly after five…

St. Nicholas Ankara is made up of two groups: the bigger group are Farsi-speaking Iranians. The smaller group are English speaking ex-patriots. Holding both groups together in a single community is a real challenge.

So I was delighted when we were able to appoint The Revd. Mohammad Eghtedarian as chaplain. He is one of the very few Farsi-speaking Oxford trained Anglo-Persian Anglican priests. His appointment was made possible through a partnership with ICS and CMS. Relocating Mohammad, Maryam and their family from Liverpool to Ankara, finding schooling for the children, and getting Turkish residence visas sorted was a long and sometimes stressful project, but we got there.

This is Mohammad’s first incumbency, so we are working together to help him with the big step up from a curacy at Liverpool Cathedral to incumbency in Turkey.

Sometimes when I meet with a Chaplaincy Council, it proves hard to escape concerns about money or buildings or the lack of young people. By contrast, my conversation with the Council at St. Nicholas was almost entirely about their passionate concern for outreach amongst the Iranians. I found it truly remarkable that people who are away from home themselves, have the energy to focus not so much on their own needs but on the needs of the refugees.

The fruit of this concern is shown in the picture above: a wonderful all-age array of Iranian confirmation candidates. In terms of the largest confirmation services I have ever taken, Ankara now holds first and second place. St. Nicholas is playing its own, prominent, role in the growth and nurture of Farsi-speaking Christian faith that we witness across Europe.

Please do pray for St. Nicholas: for Mohammad and Maryam, for wardens and council shortly to be elected at an annual meeting, and for all involved in the community’s governance to exercise, wise and careful oversight of this embassy-based chaplaincy engaging in a remarkable work of outreach in the capital of Turkey.

Celebrating 40 years of St. James Voorschoten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what some of the young people said:

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

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

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

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

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


People’s March, London

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was wrong.

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

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

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

The indicative votes are an important signalling step

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vickie Sims signing the agreement with the Italian State

I end this blog on a positive, uplifting note.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mor Yakup: Visiting south-east Turkey

The Regional Airport at Mardin is modern, small, and easy to negotiate. A delightful port of entry to this part of Turkey.

Having left the airport, we drove along the Syrian border to Nusaybin. This is an area of Turkey to which the FCO discourages travel. However, it has been peaceful for the last two or three years, though conflict continues in less accessible areas nearby. For many kilometres along the border there stretches a high wall topped by a roll of barbed wire. Every few hundred metres there are military watchtowers. I refrained from photographing them.

Arriving in Nusaybin, one could not fail to be struck by the amount of investment. We passed many beautiful new apartment blocks, built to a standard that seemed to me would have not been out of place on the French Riviera.

Our host, Bishop Saliba (left) took us to the first stop on our tour: the ancient church of Mor Yakup. Daniel (right) is the warden of this monastery and the guest house attached to it. His son, off school for some reason, stands between me and Bishop Saliba.

The picture shows the baptistry of what was once a vast Cathedral. The cathedral and university, which are now either ruins or built over, were the heart of what was once Nisibis, now Nusaybin, one of the great centres of the early Christian Near East.

With Bishop Saliba and the Revd James Buxton, Izmir chaplain

The (4th century) tomb of St. Yakup, with distinctively horned corners, lies underneath the baptistry. It was quite a steep climb down into this crypt. Bishop Saliba led us in prayer, in his native Aramaic language. We were pleased to hear that this ancient church is soon to be restored.

I suppose we would describe this as a Romanesque arch on top of Corinthian capitals. Other parts of this once vast building were destroyed by an earthquake, but the archway with its very fine engraving remains.

Mor Yakup is an ancient monument and is at the centre of an area which the Turkish authorities are keen to restore. Behind the ancient site are some buildings more typical of the modern city, and just behind them the Syrian border fence.

This hostel, just across the road from Mor Yakup, was most impressive. We were visiting in winter, but I could imagine how pleasant it would be to drink tea in the shelter of one of the gazebos or sitting on the grass under the olive trees. The building itself is entirely stone with marble floors and solid wood doors – really built to a specification one would be unlikely to see in a Western European retreat centre – albeit that stone is plentiful, marble cheaper and building labour abundant in this part of Turkey.

The hostel is intended for diaspora members of the Syriac church, many of whom now live in countries such as Germany and Sweden, to enable them to visit their homeland here in ancient Mesopotamia.

Mor Yakup embodies so many of the strange paradoxes and contradictions of this part of Turkey. It is the site of one of the great centres of ancient learning, but is now in ruins. It is part of a city which has been very extensively damaged and flattened in armed conflict, but where beautiful new apartments are being built at a furious pace. It is safe, for the moment, but separated by a border wall from Syria where security remains elusive. As a centre of Christianity, it appears crushed, yet still it lives.

One can only have the most profound respect for the Orthodox Syriac community who have faithfully clung to their identity and faith over the centuries in these most demanding of circumstances.

A Celebratory Weekend at St. Paul’s Athens

St. Paul’s is a small church in the centre of Athens whose reputation and effectiveness ranges far beyond its own congregation. Over the last several years, USPG has channelled over €400,000 of assistance through St. Paul’s to people in Greece experiencing the double whammy of austerity and the refugee crisis. I travelled to Athens both to conduct a joyful baptism and confirmation service and to celebrate the fruitful partnerships which St. Paul’s has fostered.

On the Saturday evening, some 25 of us gathered at the headquarters of Apostoli, the social mission arm of the Greek Orthodox church, to celebrate all that had been achieved and to mark our fellowship and togetherness. Pictured above are: Chaplain Leonard Doolan, Metropolitan Gabriel, British Ambassador Kate Smith, Duncan Dormor CEO of USPG and Deacon Christine Saccali.

In discussion, the British Ambassador explained how important the Orthodox church had been in the development of a proper ‘civil society’ in a country where previously the family had been the main or only source of social support. The networking and fellowship between the Greek Evangelical Church, Salvation Army and international aid organisations with the Orthodox has been important in helping Greece to cope with the traumas of the last decade, and it has been a privilege for the Anglican church to play its own part in fostering these warm relationships.

Sunday was the celebration of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. This was marked by a New Year cake. Pieces of cake are cut for God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, Mary the Mother of God, the Bishop, the Chaplain… and for the whole congregation. One of the pieces conceals a coin, which is supposed to bring the person who discovers it good luck for the coming year. It was in fact discovered by Lynne Doolan, wife of the chaplain…!

For someone coming from snowy Belgium, it was a treat to be able to have the after-church lunch outside in the church garden under the palm trees.

I was thrilled to see that Fr. Leonard and Lynne have restarted Sunday School.

Fr. James has come to us from Bristol Diocese with his wife May and their two children, Rosa and Grace on a one-year self-funded placement between finishing a curacy and starting an incumbency. Their presence is a huge encouragement to St. Paul’s, and gives James a great experience of Greek church life at an early stage of his ordained ministry. I would love more UK clergy to find ways of gaining this kind of experience of a continental church.

Pictured here are our splendid confirmation candidates: Luke, Sarah (who was also baptized), Diannah, Cecilia, Olivia and Nelly.

Brexit: Multiple Choices

A couple of weeks ago, I asked a middle-England cabbie what he thought about Brexit. He responded instantly: “Well, we were only asked one question on a bit of paper, weren’t we?”

The cabbie’s pithy answer impressed on me how one simple question has plunged us into labyrinthine depths of complexity and uncertainty. The tumult in the House of Commons right now is indicative of political leaders who still seem entrenched in that binary mindset from two and a half years ago: deal or no deal; remain/leave; hard Brexit/soft Brexit. It goes with the confrontational politics that the physical layout at Westminster embodies and encourages. But the present circumstances now require the UK to move beyond a simple binary choice towards a decision involving multiple choices.

The first choice was made by the UK in June 2016 and it was to leave the EU. 52% nationwide voted ‘leave’. (I’m keenly aware that not every UK citizen in our diocese got a vote, and of those that did most voted ‘remain’).

But then there’s the second key choice. And on this there’s an impasse in Westminster, and between the UK Government and the rest of the EU:
What future relationship to the EU do you want to see? What kind of Brexit do you want? A first and negative choice has been declared, but that leaves a range of positive choices still to be decided.

There’s a huge amount at stake between ‘a deal’ and ‘no deal’, covering everything from economic prosperity to future security. It seems that very few – whether in Parliament or the country as a whole – really want the UK to leave the EU without a deal. But in his Brexit speech on 5th December, the Archbishop of Canterbury rightly emphasised the risk that the UK could drift towards an accidental ‘no deal’ simply because Parliament cannot settle on the right kind of deal. And I am acutely conscious of the uncertainties faced by UK citizens living and working in the EU for as long as we don’t know whether there will be a deal, or not.

Where does the UK go from here? It seems to me that Parliament now needs to look closely at the range of options that could work for the UK and the EU, at least for an initial transition period. When I look across the Diocese in Europe, I see various kind of relationships between European countries and the EU. Perhaps UK politicians need to look more closely and collectively at something like a variant on the Norway or Switzerland relationship. Taking especial account of the Irish border, is there possibly some way in which the UK might still be able to preserve economic access to its largest group of trading partners via the EU single market and remain in a customs union?

At the moment, standing as it does in the European Economic Area, the UK has access to both. Meanwhile, the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), which the UK helped to set up in 1960, has trade agreements with nearly 30 non-EU countries. The point is that there are several degrees of separation from the EU, and there are several countries in the EU’s ‘outer orbit’. At exactly this time last year, the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, illustrated what the UK’s future options could look like in relation to the EU, based on the UK’s declared ‘red lines’.

It is surely time for the UK Parliament to revisit and consider openly all the options that have been on the table for at least the last 12 months.

The clock is ticking down very fast now to 29th March 2019. Pausing or suspending Article 50 is another among our multiple choices. The Danish Prime Minister, Lars Lokke Rasmussen, urged the UK on Saturday to find a national consensus on Brexit. In the same way, a meeting of the House of Bishops last week wondered whether some innovative national forum driven by citizens and civil society could, alongside Parliament, help us chart a path through the immediate challenges. The UK needs to find a way forward together. The British citizens and business leaders I speak to are increasingly desperate for an end to uncertainty.

Among the multiple choices is another UK referendum, although that would certainly risk renewed divisions among the UK’s nations, people and families. The economist JK Galbraith once said that politics is about choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable. The challenge for the UK’s political classes is to guide the country in choosing the least unpalatable among the multiple available options in the UK’s future relationship with its European neighbours.

In a spirit of national reconciliation, the House of Bishops of the Church of England issued a Statement on Brexit last week. It is very unusual for the Bishops to do something like this, and the Statement has been quite widely reported in the European press.

As the Statement says, in this Advent season ‘we pray for national unity – and for courage, integrity and clarity for our politicians.’ I used a range of BBC interviews over the weekend to get across several points. One of interviews I gave was for BBC Radio Norfolk (interview at 2hr 10 mins). The church itself now has opportunity to play a role locally and nationally in helping heal, repair and renew the body politic of a country that has been deeply scarred by the divisiveness of Brexit. Churches foster community. Churches are one of the few places that bring together all ages and backgrounds, Brexiteers and Remainers. And diocesan bishops have considerable opportunity to convene civic leaders across the divides.

The Christian faith has at its core the command to love our neighbour. As we approach Christmas, I hope our Christian communities can take a lead in living out Jesus’s teaching on behalf of our wider societies.

Meanwhile, I encourage us all to pray the prayer written in the context of the UK’s deepening political crisis by the Archbishop of York:

God of eternal love and power,
Save our Parliamentary Democracy;
Protect our High Court of Parliament and all its members
From partiality and prejudice;
That they may walk the path of kindness, justice and mercy.
Give them wisdom, insight and a concern for the common good.
The weight of their calling is too much to bear in their own strength,
Therefore we pray earnestly, Father,
send them help from your Holy Place, and be their tower of strength.
Lord, graciously hear us.

St. Paul’s Tervuren at 30

At Christmastime 1988, the Reverend Stephen Seamer was sent out by Holy Trinity Brussels to plant a church in the suburb of Tervuren, east of Brussels city. The venue was carefully researched, a team of church planters was assembled, the local population was leafleted, the opening carol service was advertised, and the doors were opened. But nobody could have dared to believe that there would be 400 people in the congregation. The church was packed to capacity, there were people crouching in the doorways and even gathering outside in the churchyard. Stephen Seamer described it as a miracle, and it is said that he was reduced to tears. St. Paul’s English-speaking church was born. And seldom has a new church begun in such a dramatic way.

Stephen ministered at St. Paul’s for 10 years and under his leadership St. Paul’s became an independent chaplaincy in 1993. He was followed by Stuart Robinson. Stuart was a charismatic leader who stayed just three years before being made Bishop of Canberra. Stuart was succeeded by Hugh Cox, a lovely, gentle and wise Australian who welcomed me to Brussels 13 years ago. In his turn, Hugh was succeeded by a third Australian, Chris Edwards, whose daughter fell in love with and married the Swedish intern working at Holy Trinity. So the Edwards family was divided between northern and southern hemispheres. And after that, Chris said to me, ‘Robert, make sure St. Paul’s doesn’t appoint any more Australians!’ That advice was taken. And who could be more English than the current incumbent Simon Tyndall, distant descendant of the William Tyndale who produced most of our English King James Bible.

30 years after its foundation, St Paul’s remains a thriving church – perhaps a slightly older community, with longer stayers, more national diversity and a much wider geographical catchment area. And it was a great personal pleasure for me to celebrate the past history and present life of St. Paul’s on its 30th birthday.

The present faith of St. Paul’s is embodied in the 8 candidates I had the honour of confirming: Hannah, Anna, Tanya, Nita, Emma, Emma, Rutger and Benjamin.

One church member who can trace the whole of the 30 years of St. Paul’s history is Patrick Lambert. He goes back to the second Sunday of St. Paul’s existence. Patrick is a retired senior member of staff of the European Commission and a much respected elder statesman of the community. It was a joy for me to licence Patrick as a Reader and to commission him for the work of teaching, preaching and pastoral care.

A 30th birthday is the opportunity to invite back old friends. The Revd. Sarah Williams had a wonderful ministry with children over many years in Tervuren as well as on ICS Chaplains and Families conferences. She left Tervuren to become a vicar in Romney Marsh, in Kent. She is now retired and returned for the celebration with her husband Rocyn.

In the beginning, St. Paul’s met in the Roman Catholic church of St. Paul’s Vossem (hence the name). But it soon moved to the British School of Brussels, where the classrooms provide lots of space for the church’s extensive children’s ministry. After worship, the school cafeteria is quickly transformed from a chapel into a dining room. So we enjoyed a festive meal together.

I am thankful for this thriving, diverse and lively church community, and for its clergy Simon and Nathan. Advent is a season of hope, and there is much to hope for in the present and future of St. Paul’s Tervuren.

Brexit: Prayer for the UK Parliament

After much prayerful consideration, the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, has written a special prayer which he is encouraging everyone to use ahead of a Brexit deal vote in the UK Parliament. The vote in the House of Commons was scheduled for Tuesday, but has now been deferred.

Whatever the timing of the vote, this is a period of uncertainty and we should continue to pray for the work of all members of Parliament.

The Archbishop’s prayer reads:

God of eternal love and power,
Save our Parliamentary Democracy;
Protect our High Court of Parliament and all its members
From partiality and prejudice;
That they may walk the path of kindness, justice and mercy.
Give them wisdom, insight and a concern for the common good.
The weight of their calling is too much to bear in their own strength,
Therefore we pray earnestly, Father,
send them help from your Holy Place, and be their tower of strength.
Lord, graciously hear us.