After Brexit: European Unity and the Unity of the European Churches

President of the EKD Synod, Irmgard Schwaetzer (left), and the EKD’s presiding bishop, Heinrich Bedford-Strohm (right), with Archbishop Justin Welby (centre).

The idea of holding an ecumenical conference to consider church relations post-Brexit was born soon after the June 2016 referendum. It was planned, with remarkable prophetic insight, for 16 November 2018. This turned out to be a very significant day – the day after Prime Minister May had commended the Withdrawal Agreement to her cabinet and two cabinet ministers had resigned. Some 60 people – academics, bishops and politicians – gathered together at Lambeth Palace to consider how we could and should continue to work together as European churches post-Brexit. Several conference members were from the German Protestant Church (EKD), and the most senior guest was The Rt. Revd. Dr. Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, the EKD’s presiding bishop.

Over the course of a full day, the Conference received a series of academic papers. Ben Ryan invited us to consider the divisions within British society exposed by Brexit, suggesting that these divisions also lay latent in other European countries. Professor Arnulf von Scheliha gave a German social perspective highlighting ‘the war in people’s heads’ between the former German East and West. My former colleague Gary Wilton invited us to consider afresh the founding ideals of the EU set out by Robert Schuman. Piers Ludlow spoke of the persistent but usually unarticulated influence of Christian faith and values on the EU project. Sarah Rowland-Jones from Wales spoke of the need for us to be attentive to those outside the usual circles of Christian ecumenical discourse. Finally, a paper by the Church of England’s Council for Christian Unity staff raised the question as to whether disenchantment with supra national political structures was mirrored by declining enthusiasm for formal processes of ecumenical dialogue.

During the break for lunch, I gave a 5-minute live interview for Christian Premier Radio. You can find the interview in this link – my piece is 20 minutes into the programme. In the interview I urged British politicians to think outside the Westminster bubble, taking into account national interest and to consider especially the interests of those who are most vulnerable, notably EU citizens living in the UK and UK citizens living in mainland Europe. I was particularly keen to refute disastrous suggestions that current Brexit negotiations are some kind of re-run of Britain’s heroic resistance to European powers. To the contrary, European Institutions were created (and are still understood by many continental citizens) as a peace project designed to stop war happening again. Listening to UK debates, this crucial point is so frequently overlooked, or worse, dismissed. You have to visit Yprès, its landscape forever marked out by cemeteries of the Fallen, if you want to understand Brussels. At the same time, building a real Europe of citizens requires political – and church – leaders to close the gap between elites who govern, and the people. In so many ways, they are not currently speaking the same language. Hope is losing out to fear, not least on issues like migration, and that is being sorely tested in the EU context, as it looks towards the next European Parliament elections in less than six months’ time.

At the end of a very full day, a lot of words had been written and spoken. For me, the fact that the Conference had taken place was as important as what was said. At a critical time, friendship between the German Protestant Church and the Church of England was reaffirmed. We worshipped together. We shared communion together. We listened to each other’s anxieties and problems.

In the closing session, Dr. Bedford-Strohm strongly commended the pursuit of full communion between our two churches. Archbishop Justin responded by giving this his full support. At a time when political processes are pulling people apart, we declared together our unity as brothers and sisters in Christ and our longing to make that unity more clearly visible to the world, both for our own sake, and for the sake of a Europe which is at serious risk of division in multiple ways.

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Remembrance in Paris

On the 11th November 1918, representatives of the warring parties met in a railway carriage at Compiègne, 80 miles from Paris, to agree an Armistice that brought to an end the First World War. Since then many European countries, including France, have kept the 11th November as a Day of Remembrance marked with a public holiday. Britain and many Commonwealth countries transferred their remembrance events to the nearest Sunday. This year, 100 years after the ending of the Great War, the 11th November fell on a Sunday. So Remembrance Sunday in Paris this year was a particularly significant occasion with people gathering from all over the world, and as far as Australia and New Zealand.

On the morning of the 11th November 2018, representatives from 70 countries gathered at the Arc de Triomphe, the site of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Eternal Flame. I happened to be in Paris for the weekend – conducting the licensing of Fr. Mark Osborne at St. George’s on the 10th – and I was staying just a few minutes away from the triumphal arch.

It was a very wet and grey Sunday. Security was intense, with some 10,000 police deployed on the streets of Paris. Most of the leaders arrived in four coaches after a reception at the Presidential Palace. President Trump arrived separately as did President Putin. The line-up on the central tribune was impressive: President Macron with Chancellor Merkel on one side of him and the French First Lady on the other, flanked by President Putin and President Trump: the heads of Europe, Russia and the USA united in remembrance – with many other world leaders around them. The morning was beautifully orchestrated in grand French style, with an inspection of the troops, a fly past, musical items and contributions from international young people.

In the afternoon, there was a British and Commonwealth Remembrance Service at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Many of our own diocesan clergy were present. The intercessions were led by the Revd. Dale Hanson and I was honoured to be asked to preach.

The nave of Notre Dame was packed. Ambassadors from many Commonwealth countries attended, along with large numbers of military personnel. The Cathedral was beautifully decorated with national flags. The service was deeply moving and impressive. Several military personnel read testimonies of the experience of war. Children read poems. And the last post was sounded by the actual bugle used when war came to an end on 11th November 1918.

In my sermon I spoke of the importance of ‘remembrance’ to recollect the long and tragic history of human conflict and to honour the experiences of veterans and victims. But I suggested that remembrance can also be a source of inspiration and hope. At the heart of the Christian faith is the remembrance of a death which is transformed into a victory over sin and which opens the possibility of reconciliation between people and between people and God. The impact of Jesus’s death and resurrection is worked out in ‘the kingdom of God’, a project of justice and peace to which we are invited to contribute. In our time, there is an urgent need to remember and learn from the past by sustaining and building international relationships and institutions that make for peace.

For me, the most moving part of the service came at the end. A procession assembled in readiness to follow a lone bagpiper out of the Cathedral. For a few minutes, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Paris, myself and the Roman Catholic Bishop of Berlin stood together in front of the altar. It felt like an important gesture of Christian European solidarity at a time when Europe is once again under serious strain.

‘For all the Saints’ – A Beautiful Confirmation Service at All Saints Milan

The lovely interior of All Saints Milan

It was very special indeed for me to be leading worship at All Saints Milan on their patronal festival: All Saints Sunday. Milan is rich in Christian history. There can be few cities where the sense of historical communion with the saints is so strong. Christians were martyred in this city by the Emperor Nero in the decades immediately following the crucifixion of Jesus. The memory of some of these martyrs lives on in story and legend; others are unknown to later history.

In the fourth century the Roman Governor Ambrose was made Bishop of Milan – almost before he had been baptized and somewhat against his will! Ambrose became a great teacher of the faith opposing the heresy of Arianism, at risk to his own life. Augustine of Hippo, who had previously been rather contemptuous of Christianity, was impressed by Ambrose’s intellectual rigour. Augustine was subsequently converted through hearing a voice telling him to read the letter to the Romans whilst he was walking in a garden in Milan. So Milan has produced two of western Christianity’s most influential saints, as well as countless others less well known.

I came to Milan for the weekend, and specifically to baptize, to confirm and to receive into the Church of England six adult candidates. Each of them has a lively personal faith and felt All Saints Milan to be the place they wanted to make their spiritual home. In a city with such a rich inheritance of faith, it was a joy to be celebrating the present day faith of these committed Christians.

Let me mention, in particular, Behrang Elgameh. Behgrang comes from a Christian family in Shiraz, Iran. He is studying civil engineering in Milan. He also plays the flute extremely well. Behrang is part of the extraordinary and impressive Iranian Christian community living in Western Europe. And Behrang’s sponsors had flown all the way from Pakistan to support him on this special day.

Our worship was led by an excellent choir. I particularly enjoyed a haunting chant that dated back to the 12th century Hildegard of Bingen. It was a very beautiful service, in which the presence of God felt close and real.

During the after-service coffee in the church courtyard, I was pleased to be introduced to a couple (doctor and communications officer) working with Medair in South Sudan. There are few countries more difficult or dangerous in which to work, and I hope All Saints will continue to strengthen and develop its link with this impressive couple.

Maria-Gracia is an Italian teacher by profession. She is one of the growing number of native Italians who have felt drawn to the community of All Saints during the ministry of Vickie Sims. I wonder how much of the future of our chaplaincies in Italy will lie with folk like Maria-Gracia.

So here are the candidates: Denise (baptized and confirmed); Gabriele (received into the Anglican Communion); Nicholas, father of Denise (baptized and confirmed); Maria-Gracia (received into the Anglican Communion); Luca (received into the Anglican Communion); Behrang (confirmed).

During our service, we thought about the career of the Christian, with reference to the verses of the fine hymn: ‘For all the Saints’. We live in a world of short attention spans, a desire for immediate satisfaction and absence of longer-term meaning. It is also a world where Christians are being persecuted, in countries such as Pakistan, Iran and Egypt. The festival of All Saints reminds us of our place in a grand narrative, a story of faithful Christian discipleship which began long before our birth and finishes with us taking our place with people from every tribe and nation before the throne of God. The Christian life is not easy, and in some respects it seems to be getting harder. The image of spiritual battle rings true for us today. So we join in praise to God for those who have gone before us, who have been shining examples in their time and who encourage us to keep going even when it is extremely tough:

For all the saints who from their labours rest,
Who thee, by faith, before the world confessed:
Thy name, O Jesus, be for ever blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Thou wast their rock, their fortress, and their might;
Thou, Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight,
Thou in the darkness drear their one true light.
Alleluia, alleluia!

Brexit Negotiations: A Crucial Fortnight

This is a critical fortnight for the Brexit negotiations. So here are my thoughts on what lies ahead. For a faster read omit the italicised sections in square brackets, which contain more technical information.


We have passed the European Council encounters at Salzburg. At Salzburg, it became manifestly clear that the EU regarded the UK’s Chequers proposal only a starting point. We’re beyond the party conference season, and it now looks like the negotiations are starting to enter their endgame in Brussels. Brexit talks have chugged on for months in the background at official level, while remaining subservient to the high politics at stake. They have now accelerated. The conclusion of at least the principles of a deal, covering both the Withdrawal Treaty and a political declaration on the future trading relationship is now expected within the fortnight.

The signs of top-level movement are increasingly positive. The issue is now less ‘deal or no deal’, but what kind of deal the UK and EU will strike together. Both the Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar and the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, have signalled their expectation that there will be a deal:

“I have a hope, which is close to certainty, that at the end we’ll manage to achieve an exit deal and a declaration about future relationships which will be the best possible.” The EU is offering, said Tusk, “Not just a Canada deal, but a Canada+++ deal… This is a true measure of respect… The EU is serious about getting the best possible deal.” He says that he will seek to ensure that the “losses on both sides will be limited.”

On the future trade relationship, the two sides are converging. Economics are doing the talking. The UK needs to keep its access to wide and deep EU markets; the EU needs the size and proximity of UK consumers. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. As a package, Chequers would leave trade in goods unaffected; what is needed is defined customs arrangements to ensure the kind of frictionless trade both sides want. [Some tough talking likely remains on services. The EU is concerned about compromising the single market ‘four freedoms’; and continuing to give the UK ‘passporting’ financial services access in the EU to the UK, in particular.] And as Tusk has indicated, the ‘Canada +++’ model could offer the UK a deal covering goods, services, as well as security policy co-operation. If that should materialise on equitable terms, that’s surely ‘win-win-win’ for both the UK and the EU as they re-define their relationships.

Can we be similarly optimistic about the Withdrawal Treaty? Again, the signs are encouraging. Simon Coveney, Irish Foreign Minister has indicated yesterday that at least 90% of the text of the Withdrawal Treaty has been settled. [This leaves within that 10% how to keep the Irish border soft. Options are floating around that could see the UK remain part of a customs union with the EU, including Northern Ireland; and for Northern Ireland to continue to follow EU single market regulations. Alternatives are forms of customs and regulatory checks away from the border itself, in advance using technology currently available, and not in the Irish Sea.] The key will be a solution that can accommodate the politics of ‘constitutional integrity’ satisfactorily with the economics of ‘regulatory alignment’ that covers Northern Ireland efficiently.

Here in Brussels, a draft of the EU proposal for this ‘Political Declaration’ will be circulated this week. A discussion has been scheduled at political level among EU Commissioners tomorrow. Within the European Council, an extra session for national leaders the evening before their planned Summit on 18 October has now been pencilled in. The hope is that a final negotiating spurt at heads of government level may help seal the deal. If this hurdle is surmounted, and assuming no further bumps in the road, a further meeting of national leaders on 17/18 November will be called to endorse and agree a final text.

[I am often asked the ‘so what?’ question. The argument runs that, even if there is UK-EU level agreement in Brussels, it will not get through Parliamentary approval at Westminster. Simon Kuper answered this cogently in his Financial Times article last weekend. If Parliament should vote down a deal, it will need to decide on what to do in a no deal situation. As Kuper’s colourful and insightful article says, the risk is that the UK could see a model imposed on it by the EU, like ‘Brino’ – Brexit in Name Only. The logic runs that the EU will be determined to avoid a large, de-regulated economic competitor on its immediate doorstep. And he suggests that, in such a scenario, a ‘Brino’ could satisfy both Brexit and Remain sides in the 2016 Referendum. It would respect the UK vote to leave, leaving the Irish border open, minimising economic damage. He further suggests it would satisfy most MPs, businesses and the EU; and Brexiteers could see it as a staging post towards greater separation from the EU.]

However, there first needs to be an outcome for Parliament to vote on. Until a deal is done, events, or political miscalculations in the end-game at EU level, may yet rock the boat. We must continue to pray earnestly for all those involved in the negotiations. They need calmness, foresight and wisdom. They also need not to be distracted by divisive influences that could stand in the way of a deal.

Latest EU vibes and diaries, at least, suggest a pathway of optimism about a deal by November. I likewise continue to travel hopefully…

Confirmations at Leipzig English Church

It was a great pleasure to re-visit Leipzig English Church. Leipzig is a dynamic, growing city in the former GDR, and the English-speaking church is similarly youthful, international and lively. Worship is led by a group including professional musicians who range expertly across a classical repertoire and modern songs. Last time I attended LEC I was struck by the number of students. This time, I noticed the large number of young families.

My visit began with a meeting with the Church Council. This included a longish (two and a half hour) question and answer session, which I greatly enjoyed. Several Council members had razor sharp intellects and the conversation was robust. One fundamental topic was: ‘why be part of the Church of England?’

On the Sunday morning I confirmed six candidates: Valentin, Natanael, Jean, Hannes, Oliver and James.

One interesting and powerful liturgical innovation was to have the chaplain, Canon Martin Reakes-Williams, say something about each of the candidate’s faith as he gave them a lighted candle at the end of the service.

Actually, there was a seventh confirmation. Klaus Hickel is an ordination candidate. Klaus was confirmed as a Lutheran, but (for reasons that I hope one day we will overcome) the Church of England doesn’t recognise presbyteral Lutheran confirmations, so I confirmed Klaus in a private family ceremony after I had confirmed their son Oliver at the big service. Klaus and his wife Jude are CMS-Australia partners who are growing a German speaking ministry at LEC.

Canon Martin was instrumental in the founding of LEC 23 years ago. It has grown steadily year by year, and now feels to be a mature and flourishing fellowship with a wide range of mid-week activities, children’s and youth work. It is very encouraging to see the fruit of this committed, long-term pastoral and evangelistic ministry.

Two New Readers Licensed in Strasbourg

Last December I came to St. Alban’s Strasbourg to license The Revd. Dr. Mark Barwick as Chaplain. Returning this September, I was again struck by the loveliness of the Dominican chapel in which the community gathers. And this time it was a joy to see the evident flourishing of the highly diverse international community under Mark’s care.

The specific reason for my visit was to license two new Readers, to serve alongside David Cowley (foreground), who has been a Reader at St. Albans for over 20 years.

Catherine Emezie (left) has worked for the Council of Europe for nearly 20 years. She is the founder of an ecumenical Bible Study, which she has built from just a handful of women in the beginning to a major, well-attended event. Ozichi Baron (right) also works for the Council of Europe. She has been involved in music and youth work at the chaplaincy.

Ozichi (left) and Catherine (right) have heroically completed the six modules of Reader training in just over two years, compared with our expected three. They combined their study with significant family and work responsibilities, sometimes studying in the early hours of the morning to do this. They have relied on supportive spouses. They have evidently been a great encouragement to each other. They represent new, younger Reader candidates who embody the future of ministry in our Diocese.

It was a big day for them both. Catherine’s family (above) had travelled from the UK and Germany to celebrate with her.

St. Albans has great potential for growth in this important university city and political centre. Its diversity reflects the multi-cultural nature of Strasbourg’s English speakers. Pray for Mark Barwick (second left), with his team of Readers and Bishop Vanuste (top right) as they lead and nurture this dynamic community.

Two September Synods that walked together in faith

‘Walking together in Faith’ is our diocesan strapline. A synod is literally a walking together. Over the last week I have attended two archdeaconry synods: Italy and Malta archdeaconry and Eastern archdeaconry. Both synods gather people from a wide area for a few days of community building, fellowship, teaching and learning. People leave encouraged and built up in their faith.

The Italy and Malta synod convened in the large former monastery (above), Villa Sacre Cuore, one hour’s drive from Milan.

Visiting Italy I am always struck by the quantity of artwork. They say 60% of the world’s art treasurers are located in Italy – if you can estimate that! Villa Sacre Cuore certainly has more than its fair share of icons, sculptures and mosaics liberally decorating the walls of its many chapels. The picture shows the intricate decoration of the east wall of the chapel we used for our worship.

The theme of our synod was: ‘powered by prayer’. The imaginative Bible studies were given by The Revd. April Almaas, Assistant Chaplain in Trondheim – shown here with Archdeacon Vickie Sims and me. There was further input from Vickie and from Archdeacon Meurig Williams.

The social highlight of the Synod was a lively bar quiz, covering a wide range of subjects. There was some considerable debate over which Israelite king had a sundial…

The clear winners, led by the The Revd. Tony Dickinson (left), chaplain of Genova, are pictured above.

After a 6:00a.m. start, Helen and I left Villa Sacre Cuore for Milan Malpensa airport, bound for the Eastern Synod in Kiev via Warsaw.

Unfortunately, our connecting flight from Warsaw was cancelled. So we had plenty of time to explore Chopin Airport, inside and out, including this delightful children’s size LOT aeroplane. Fortunately, we managed to rebook on a late evening flight, arriving at the Eastern Synod in a hotel on the outskirts of Kiev shortly after midnight.

The Eastern Synod is always a joyful occasion. It brings together clergy and lay reps living very far away from each other, often in highly isolated locations.

The Synod Bible Studies were led by bishop-elect Philip Mounstephen. The Revd. Dr. Christian Hofreiter from Vienna brought his deep theological and philosophical skills to bear in helping us to connect faith with secular society.

At both synods, I was invited to give an update on developments in the diocese. There is, of course, much interest in the financial plan, and I was really encouraged by the level of engagement and intelligent and supportive questioning.

Although he doesn’t leave us for another six months, this was Archdeacon Colin Williams’ last Eastern Synod. His ministry has been hugely appreciated in the East. At the final dinner Colin was presented, by Synod Secretary Miranda Kopetzky and Kiev representative Thamarai Pandian, with a locally made icon after Rublev’s Trinity.

Our small Anglican chaplaincy of Christ Church Kiev meets in the lovely 19th century St. Catherine’s Lutheran church, right in the centre of Kiev opposite the President’s offices.

It was a special weekend for St. Catherine’s with a new Lutheran Pastor instituted on the Saturday evening and celebrations on the Sunday morning to mark the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Anglican Chaplaincy. In some remarks at the end of the service, the German Lutheran Archdeacon spoke of the support that relatively fragile Anglican and Lutheran overseas congregations could be to each other. I completely agreed, and reflected on the particular importance of this Anglican-Lutheran relationship as a sign and symbol of European Christian unity post-Brexit.

Our service drew to a close, and Helen and I took a taxi to Kiev airport, and then back to Chopin Airport for a return flight to Brussels. It was a huge privilege and delight to share in the life of these two Synods and to be part of these precious gathering points in our diocesan walking together in faith.


Post-Brexit Post-Script

As mentioned, we had plenty of time to look around Warsaw Frederic Chopin Airport and, indeed, to reflect on some aspects of its significance. Chopin airport embodies a ‘hard border’ between the European Union and non-EU countries to the East. There is one set of gates for Schengen countries, and a different set of gates (‘N’ gates) for Non-Schengen Countries. Returning from, e.g. Kiev, you have to queue to pass through a serious military passport control and then through an additional baggage screen in order to be admitted to the Schengen area. All the nice food and all the duty free shops with lovely Polish goods seem to be on the Schengen side of the border. By contrast, the non-Schengen area feels comparatively bare. Poland, of course, although having been part of the Russian empire along with other Eastern European countries, is now a part of the EU and has benefited from associated economic prosperity in helping it to recover from the communist era.

Travelling from the East into the freedom of Schengen is a significant journey. I reflected that, once in the Schengen area, I only need my Belgian identity card to travel freely through the many EU countries that are part of this ‘club’, of which Poland is one of the easternmost members. I enormously value this degree of freedom of movement. I know how hard won it has been. And how easily it could be threatened or even dismantled. And then, again, I am struck by the stark reality that it is precisely this kind of freedom of movement that Brexit Britain has resolutely set its face against. Anyone who travels further east knows the big differences that remain between EU and non-EU countries. The EU feels a safe, free and prosperous region of which I am proud to belong. I feel sad that my country of origin seems so far from being able to appreciate this.