L’élection présidentielle française

In the French system of electing a president, there is not one but two rounds of voting to decide a winner. We now stand in between those two rounds. I once heard it said that this system was designed to allow the electorate to first vote with their heart, then with their head. On 7th May, we will see who is the choice of the head: Emmanuel Macron or Marine Le Pen.

So what is going on in the minds of the French people right now? These are some of the core issues being hammered out in France….

First, like Britain, France is a secular democracy. Unlike Britain, France has enshrined this secular identity at the heart of its constitutional life since the mid-19th Century. Laïcité is often used to denote the absence of religious involvement in public life, but France is facing a serious political and cultural crisis over the place of religion – and in particular religious minorities. As in Britain, the historic, majority Church is in steep decline. However, in France the rhythm of the Christian year, its feasts and fasts, and its personalities, still colour the national and local social fabric. And yet, very few of the majority of French people who claim a Catholic identity actually go to Mass on Sunday. The importance of Sunday is as a day of difference, which feeds a healthy work-life balance, and this is hard-wired into the DNA of French life.

Like Britain, France is multi-cultural and ethnically diverse; it is also deeply divided, economically and socially. France likes to think of itself as an instinctively egalitarian society and these divisions accentuate a deep-rooted disorientation at the core of France’s sense of itself. There may still be widespread pride in France’s history, language and traditions, and the conviction that these things should be robustly defended from ‘alien’ influences. Nonetheless, for most French people, the ideals of La République are simply not working for them.

French citizens cast their votes on 23rd April

Second, a recent survey revealed that the French are more concerned about unemployment (currently at 10%) than immigration. But 45% of those questioned claimed they ‘no longer felt at home in France’ – which amplifies the perception that immigration has a bearing on unemployment. Although the French prize national unity highly, regional loyalties are often stronger. The more remote and economically disadvantaged departéments feel a greater dislocation from Paris. Immigrants, and those whose ethnic heritage is from former French colonies in Africa, are marked-out for being resistant to integration into French life (not unlike some British residents in rural France!) This seems compounded by the fact that many minorities are housed by the State in social housing on the outskirts of towns and cities. They were described by the French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls (in January 2015), as ‘places of territorial, social and ethnic apartheid.’ This reflection of how many French people see their country could equally apply to several British regions that voted for Brexit last year.

The perceived impact of immigration on the divisions in French society is opening an ever-widening gap between France’s long-championed secular stance and those for whom Laïcité has become a blunt weapon. There is a tendency within France’s egalitarian psyche to adopt a ‘one size fits all’ mentality. This can appear as a lack of patience towards minorities in a multi-cultural society. The menacing image of two muscular police officers instructing a diminutive Muslim woman to remove her ‘burkini’ on the beach at Cannes last summer has become iconic. It illustrates how overt demonstrations of religious identity are causing discomfort in French public life, particularly where Islam is concerned.

‘France is facing a serious political and cultural crisis over the place of religion’

The French education minister, Najat Valland-Belkacem, recently announced an overhaul in the way France’s secular perspective is taught in schools, by emphasising its core purpose is to protect the population from one dominant dogma. However, this sits uneasily with President Hollande’s declaration (after the murder of Father Jaques Hammel) that ‘an attack on the Catholic Church is an attack on France.’ Indeed, after the murder of Gendarme Xavier Jugelé, the officials of the Paris prefecture where he served, turned out in force for a televised memorial Mass from Notre Dame. It only strengthens the suspicion among the Muslim minority that Laïcité has its sights trained on them.

French politics has experienced great upheaval. Both the traditional parties, the Socialists and Republicans, who have shared power for decades, have failed to get a candidate through to the second round. The choice is now between the far right populist, anti-immigrant, anti-EU Marine Le Pen and the relatively untried, centrist Macron.

Le Pen’s rhetoric will likely count against her amongst many Christians, even though she is trying to play the cultural Christian card. Macron must address the sincere grievances of many discontented French people if he wants to win. Many may not want to vote for either candidate. What they choose to do on polling day may be crucial.

Heavenly Father, Lord of the Nations, we give you thanks for the great history and culture of France. We pray for the people of France, and the French republic, at this critical time in their national life. We pray for an election characterised by truthfulness, peacefulness and wisdom. We pray that the secular principles of France may be worked out in a way that supports freedom of religion and expression for all. And we pray for a President who will serve the common good for all who live in France and who will contribute strongly to an international order of peace and freedom. Amen. 

Easter Visit to Serbia

After Easter, Helen and I travelled to Serbia where we had kindly been invited to stay with the British Ambassador Denis Keefe and his wife Kate. It had originally been intended as a holiday, though the official engagements inevitably increased and it seemed better in the end to adopt the principle that ‘a change is as good as a rest’!

On our first morning, we met up with Fr. Robin Fox, our chaplain in Belgrade, who had worked hard to organise a programme for us. He took us first to the home of Princess Ljubica. Now a national monument, the house is remarkable in showing how Serbia’s political history and leanings were mirrored in the choices of interior furnishings made by a noble lady. The picture below shows a room,  furnished in Ottoman style, that was used by Prince Charles to meet a delegation of religious leaders on his visit to Serbia last year.

We then walked next door to the residence of Patriarch Irinej. The Patriarch received us with great warmth and the traditional Serbian coffee and rakija (plum brandy). He told us how much he had enjoyed his recent visit to Lambeth Palace. We exchanged Easter greetings. I thanked His Holiness for the hospitality he offers to our chaplaincy and expressed the hope of continuing deepening relationships between our churches.

After sharing decorated Easter eggs with a member of the Patriarch’s staff, we walked on to the Cathedral of St. Sava. The Temple is still under construction and represents a wonderful symbol of hope for the future for Belgrade. It is magnificently decorated. We were given a guided tour of the crypt, which is decorated with extraordinary icons and finished with gold. I was particularly moved by an icon remembering the faithful of Serbia who had perished in Croatia during the Nazi period (below right).

Our main purpose in going to Serbia had been to visit some of the monasteries in the South of the country. Dating from the 12th and 13th centuries, these are of world importance and embody the ‘soul’ of Serbian spirituality and identity.

We had expected to see beautiful buildings, and we did. But we had not expected to meet vibrant communities of mainly younger and highly educated nuns and monks.

The mother abbess at Gradac monastery (below) told us of her love of English literature, particularly T.S. Eliot. She explained how she is trying to formulate a way of life which is both faithful to orthodox tradition and of contemporary relevance. She told us of the struggles the sisters encounter in balancing a devotion to prayer with offering hospitality to groups of visitors. And she wondered what forms of community life were proving successful in Western Europe.

Zica monastery was built by Stefan, the first king of Serbia and by tradition the coronation church of the Serbian kings.  Having fallen into disuse under the Ottoman empire, it was restored and re-occupied by a community of nuns in the 20th century. The picture below shows their lovely refectory, painted in the traditional (and formerly very costly) Azure blue.

Studenica is one of the most famous monasteries. It is also one of the most inaccessible, high up at the end of a long hair-pinned road. On the afternoon we visited it was snowing. The monastery is famous for its remarkable 13th century wall paintings, like the Madonna and child below. Photos are not normally allowed, but they made an exception for us!

Robin – chaplain and honorary chauffeur – then drove our hire car three hours north home along the Serbian roads through torrential rain and snow with exceptional skill and determination.

On our final day, we were taken to a refugee camp on the Croatian border. The camp is right on the border, with the camp fence forming a national boundary. Having travelled from as far away as Afghanistan, the refugees had been hoping to cross into Croatia and then Germany – but their path is now blocked.

The camp is supported by the EU and by NGOs such as the Catholic Relief Service, the Serbian Orthodox ‘Philanthropy’ and Christian Aid. Conditions in the camp were much better than I had seen in camps in Greece. I enjoyed meeting the teachers at the little school-room: they do well to teach English and Serbian to pupils who are more at home with Farsi and Arabic!

Even in camp conditions, these young girls found plenty to smile and laugh about.

Our visit concluded with a splendid lunch laid on by the local Orthodox community.

And in the final ‘team photo’ below, you can see the British Ambassador (holding an icon), his wife (far right), with representatives from Philanthropy, Christian Aid and our two churches.

It was a truly memorable visit. Serbia is a country that has known so much suffering over many centuries. Yet it has kept Christianity alive in families and monasteries. Relations between Anglicans and the Serbian Orthodox Church were disturbed by the events of the 1990s. I am personally committed to healing and reconciliation. I was delighted that despite the different traditions of east and west, and our very different national histories, our visit enabled us to celebrate unity, togetherness and friendship in Jesus Christ.

Easter in Brussels

From Good Friday…

It is the tradition on Good Friday at the Pro-Cathedral of Holy Trinity Brussels to put on a performance of a Bach passion. The idea began as a way of marking the events of Christ’s passion in an appropriately serious and intensive manner, as well as celebrating Anglo-German friendship and building links between the Pro-Cathedral and the Brussels musical community. This year the Pro-Cathedral performed the St. Matthew Passion. The St. Matthew is the greatest product of Lutheran Church Music. And what better way to mark this 500th anniversary year of the German Reformation?

Bach wrote the St. John Passion on his arrival in Leipzig, and it was first performed at Good Friday Vespers in 1724. Three years later the greater St. Matthew Passion was completed and performed on Good Friday 1727, 290 years ago. It was played by two antiphonal choirs and orchestras situated in the north and south transepts of the Thomaskirche, with a children’s choir singing from the back gallery. That must have been a remarkable experience for the burghers of Leipzig!

The Holy Trinity performance aimed to represent faithfully the sound of 18th century Baroque music as Bach’s Thomaskirche congregation would have heard it. The Brussels Conservatory is a centre of Baroque excellence. Our musicians played on modern copies of Baroque instruments, with wooden flutes, oboes da caccia and d’amore, viola da gamba. The performance featured two choirs and a children’s choir plus 10 soloists.

I first heard the St. Matthew Passion performed at London’s Festival Hall, as a young man. I remember being overwhelmed by the intensity of the experience. Being part of the congregation for this performance at Holy Trinity Brussels seemed to me the best way of entering again the experience of Christ’s passion. Bach dwells on certain aspects of the narrative – listening to the performance this year I was drawn especially into the binding of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane – the decisive moment when he loses his freedom, in which Bach has the crowd angrily interject: ‘release him, stop, do not bind him!’. And Peter’s betrayal, with Bach’s anguished aria:

Have mercy,

My God for my tears’ sake;

Look hither,

Heart and eyes weep before thee


There is no ‘resurrection’ in Bach’s Passions, of course. The St. Matthew ends, after some three hours of sublime music, with Jesus resting, life exhausted, in the tomb.


…to Easter Sunday…

Holy Trinity’s main Easter Sunday morning service begins with the lighting of the Easter candle, procession of choir and ministers into the church, and Easter acclamations.

It was a great joy to share in this international celebration of Easter morning, with people of all ages, from all over the world, in a packed church building.

The church was beautifully decorated with white and yellow floral displays. Music was led by a large choir augmented by a brass trio and timpani. “Thine be the glory” sung with trumpets and drum rolls on Easter morning is a truly spine-tingling experience.

In his Easter sermon, Canon Paul Vrolijk referred us to the biblical image of the garden, moving from Eden, to Gethsemane to the garden of the resurrection. He invited the congregation to meet with Jesus, as Mary Magdalene had done in the garden of the resurrection, so that areas of desolation and sadness that represent the ‘Gethsemanes’ in our lives can be opened to healing and transformation. We gathered around the Lord’s Table, praying that Jesus would make himself known to us in the breaking of the bread.

It was an especial joy for Helen and me to celebrate Easter at the Pro-Cathedral with our family – four children and two sons-in-law. All of our children have a living Christian faith and are regular church attenders themselves. We don’t have many opportunities to gather together, so to be family on the greatest day of the Christian year was particularly important for us.

Across our widespread diocese, Easter is celebrated in many different ways with varying formality, liturgical splendour and musical tradition. In each place we bring together communities of people to celebrate a risen Lord, whose resurrection continues to burst into our lives and into our world.

I wish every member of our diocese and its churches a blessed and happy Easter.

Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening

It was a great personal pleasure for me today to meet with clergy and lay ministers, from different parts of the diocese, for our annual Chrism Eucharist. Our service took place in the Pro-Cathedral of the Holy Trinity Brussels, in parallel with a similar service at All Saints, Milan.

At the outset, we had in mind that the Chrism Eucharist last year was scheduled for 22nd March, the day of the terrible Brussels bombings. Thankfully, this year’s event went unmarred by any similar tragedy in Belgium, although the morning had seen a devastating fire at Grande-Synthe migrant camp in Northern France.

The service really has two parts to it. Firstly, we renew our ministerial vows. Secondly, we bless oils to be used in baptism, confirmation and for the sick.

The readings – 1 Samuel 3:1-10 & Luke 7:36-50 – spoke of God’s calling on all our lives and the healing of anointing.

For any of us, without a sense of calling, our ministry will drift. We will start to lose our way. We will lack the perseverance needed to see the journey through. So we gathered today to hear again God’s call to us, to reaffirm our dedication to our vocation and to rekindle our love. As we blessed the oils for use in anointing others, I prayed that we would know the anointing of the Holy Spirit. And that we would be drawn anew into the loving circle of the Holy Trinity. Then we will again be refreshed and strengthened for the work of sharing the love of Jesus with those in our care.

Opportunities in our diocese for ministers to gather together are few and far between. Some had travelled from Germany, the Netherlands, France or Spain to be with us. So to share this time together was truly special. We were grateful to Holy Trinity Brussels for their hospitality. We parted nourished, spiritually and physically, and  – I trust – re-energised for our ministries.

You can listen to a part of the service – the Gospel reading & my sermon – which was recorded, here.

You can also find the text edition of the same sermon here.

To Prague

At a time when populism threatens European togetherness, it is especially important that European Christian leaders celebrate and deepen their ties with each other.

The Old Catholic Church is represented in half a dozen, mainly Germanic, countries in Europe. The Old Catholics have been in full communion with the Anglican church worldwide since the Bonn Agreement of 1931. On April 1st 2017, a group of Anglican bishops joined with our Old Catholic brothers in Prague to consecrate a new bishop for the Old Catholics in the Czech Republic. We worshipped for nearly three hours in Czech and German: a test in humility for us English-speakers!

The ordination and consecration was conducted in a very special place. The Brevnov Monastery is the oldest monastery in the Czech lands, dating from the 10th century. It was recently returned to the Church following its confiscation in the Communist era.

New bishop, Pavel Benedikt Stransky, is in his 30s, so he is likely going to be the leader of Czech Old Catholics for a good long time to come. The Anglican Church in the Czech Republic has a Covenant with the Old Catholics. Under that agreement, St. Clements Prague is both a fully signed up Anglican parish and a fully signed up Old Catholic parish. Chaplains are proposed by the Bishop of the Diocese in Europe but licensed by the Old Catholic bishop. So Bishop Stransky is a particularly important person for our Czech congregation.

Having shared in consecrating their new bishop on the Saturday, it was natural to visit St. Clements, Prague on the Sunday. This was another important occasion, as it was the last confirmation service for chaplain Ricky Yates before he retires from Prague at the end of this month.

Ricky came to St. Clements in 2008. He has been supported in his ministry by his German wife, Sybille. Over his time he has learned an impressive amount of the (difficult) Czech language. Members of the congregation spoke warmly to me of Ricky’s ministry. He has built a strong relationship with the Old Catholic church. He has attracted new families to St. Clements. His pastoral care for individuals has been greatly valued. Under his ministry, the finances of the church have strengthened. He will be enjoying a well-earned retirement in a rural part of the Czech Republic. His departure marks a huge change for St. Clements, and he will be greatly missed.

Sunday’s confirmation candidates represented a gloriously international community. Sebastian, aged 14, has a British father and a Slovak mother. To prepare for his confirmation, he has been working his way through James Jones’s ‘Following Jesus’, and he described to me how his faith has grown through this. Radka is Czech and is married to Charles who is British. The couple started attending St. Clements in 2015 after finding the church on Google. John is British and married to Yelly, who is Dutch. John is a musician and a poet: he kindly gave me a CD of a ‘Rock Mass’ he has recorded with the Karlovy Vary symphony orchestra.

After the confirmation, we had a bring ‘n’ share lunch. Ricky then departed for the Anglican congregation in Brno, two and a half hours away, whilst I met with the Council. I was impressed with a small Council who discharged the business before them with a wonderful mixture of serious attention and appropriate humour. It is so encouraging to see a Council that works well and is blessed with a highly able team of church officers.

So I headed off to the airport and said farewell to the lovely city of Prague. During the interregnum, The Revd. Nathanial Nathanial will be locum priest at St. Clements. Nathanial comes from the Church of North India and is married with baby twins. Do pray for him as he ministers to our international community in Prague over the coming months. And do join with me in thanking God for Ricky’s ministry and in praying for the success of the appointments process which we now begin.


Gibraltar & Brexit

Today the British government officially gives notice of the UK’s desire to withdraw from the European Union: the much-famed triggering of Article 50. The difficulties of negotiating the interests of the whole United Kingdom with the remaining 27 member states will soon become apparent, and there are many questions that need answering. I recently wrote about how lots of people in the congregations of our diocese felt that their lives were in limbo – click here. Many concerns have been thrown up by the Brexit vote, and some of these come into sharpest focus in regard to the future status of Gibraltar.

Gibraltar holds special significance for our diocese. It is the location of our Cathedral church which has an historic importance, not just to the people of Gibraltar, but to the Diocese in Europe and the Church of England more generally. As Anglicans, we are a minority faith in Gibraltar, but we contribute actively to the diversity and tolerance that characterises social life on the Rock.

Gibraltar Cathedral

The House of Lords EU Committee of the UK Parliament recently produced a report, entitled ‘Brexit: Gibraltar’, which can be found here. It sets out well the issues facing Gibraltarians, and I recommend reading it. A debate took place, following its publication, in which Bishop Nick Baines asked whether the Government were stress testing the outcomes of leaving the European Union on Gibraltar. His questions can be found here.

The report points out that in the referendum 95.9% of the votes cast in Gibraltar were remain votes, making it by far the strongest vote for remain of any area eligible to vote. Of course, despite this, Gibraltar must leave the EU along with the UK, though probably with even greater impact.

Access to the EU Single Market has given essential underpinning to Gibraltar’s service-based economy. Currently, 10,473 jobs in Gibraltar are held by frontier workers crossing daily into Gibraltar from neighbouring areas of Spain. Those workers represent 40% of the entire workforce. Loss of access to the Single Market and hardening of the border threatens significantly to harm Gibraltar’s economy – with a corresponding effect on the neighbouring region of Spain.

Gibraltar’s frontier crossing

In terms of tourism, 93% of visitors arrive across the road border. The Government of Gibraltar has called the frontier “a vital artery of Gibraltar’s tourism sector.” Restrictions on border crossings will significantly affect this industry.

Gibraltar is a leading ‘bunker’ port (a port which resupplies ships with fuel). This depends on its status within the EU but outside the EU’s VAT jurisdiction, enabling it to offer low-cost, VAT-free fuel. 30% of Gibraltar’s bunker fuel is currently stored in Algeciras, Spain. Uncertainty over movement of labour and provisions would make Gibraltar less attractive to visiting ships and jeopardise its refuelling business.

The UK and Gibraltarian governments will have to face many difficult issues when Britain leaves the EU. The outcomes will, in the words of Gibraltar’s Chief Minister, rely on the “good will and good faith” between Gibraltar and Spain. Whether Spain feels inclined to show that goodwill once its neighbour is no longer an EU member is an open question. It is in both parties’ interests to cooperate, but that is not necessarily how politics works.

Aerial view of Gibraltar

Everything that applies to the UK post-Brexit applies with a vengeance in Gibraltar. An already strained border with Spain will now also become a hard border between the EU/Schengen zone and Gibraltar. The effect on the thousands who cross both ways daily for work will be enormous. The potential for Spanish political annoyance will be increased. The casual day trip tourism from Spain into Gibraltar will shrink, affecting business. The importing of fresh produce and essential supplies will be affected – there is virtually no agriculture on the rock. When winds prevent the landing of planes in Gibraltar, as they frequently do, the normal diversion to Malaga may be much more complicated logistically.

I am not suggesting that Gibraltar will come under effective siege as a result of leaving the EU. But it is the belief of many Gibraltarians that their way of life will be significantly changed for the worse. The essentials of life, such as importing fresh produce, may become areas of harsh negotiation. Beyond the politics and economics, the EU is important to many in Gibraltar because it is viewed as a means for people to learn to live together, valuing diversity and creating a peaceful and tolerant society. There are important questions of identity here for people who see themselves as Gibraltarian, British and European.

Gibraltarians are some of the most vulnerable to the effects of Brexit and they are having to leave the EU almost entirely against their will. There is, therefore, an especial moral responsibility on the UK Government for their financial and social wellbeing over the next several years.

On the Road Again… A Visit to Holy Trinity Utrecht

There has been an English chaplaincy in Utrecht in one form or another since at least the 17th century. The present church building was consecrated in 1913. It is cosy, traditional in style and frequently packed.

Utrecht is, at least as far as the railway is concerned, at the centre of the Netherlands. Holy Trinity Utrecht is likewise at the centre of Anglican ministry to a big area that includes Zwolle, Arnhem and Groningen. The congregation of All Saints Amersfoort was planted from Utrecht 18 months ago. It is now a big church in its own right. What’s more, Holy Trinity Utrecht has now attracted more families to replace those lost to the new church plant. So it is, again, full to capacity!

The spirituality of Holy Trinity Utrecht is unique in our diocese. The building is owned by ICS. The regular worship style tends towards traditional, catholic. The congregation is largely or mainly Dutch by nationality.

Under The Reverend David Phillips, the church has succeeded to a large degree in integrating regular Anglicans with a large number of the Catholic Apostolic Community. The notice sheet testifies to a church brimming with life: an active student ministry, film nights, various Bible study groups, a range of mission commitments. Chatting to people over coffee, the congregation was evidently thrilled at the way the church was growing spiritually and numerically.

I spent a weekend with the people of Utrecht and its plant in Amersfoort. This included a long and fruitful meeting with its joint church council. A good number of the council members are not from an Anglican background, so I took the opportunity to explain the nature of Anglican governance, and the role of the council, churchwardens and chaplain. The church had arranged this meeting over supper in a business suite at a hotel, so our discussion was focused and productive.

All Saints Amersfoort currently meets in a large and attractive modern Roman Catholic building. Unfortunately, this building has been sold to a developer. So the community is searching for a new home. They are looking to lease or buy the right kind of space. The Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands is (sadly) closing churches at a rapid rate. But the task for All Saints is to find a suitable building, with ancillary rooms, which is not being marketed for commercial development.

I presided at a Confirmation service in All Saints on Saturday afternoon. Worship was led by a big choir with trumpet. I reflected that there are few churches where one would get a big congregation for a confirmation service on a Saturday.

Confirmation candidates Caroline, Dorienke, William and Johannes in the building currently used by All Saints Amersfoort

On Sunday I presided at the 09:00 and 10:30 services at Holy Trinity Utrecht. The 09:00 service was eastward facing, with a traditional BCP-based liturgy, and in Dutch. One young woman in the congregation remarked that it was odd for an English bishop to speak Dutch with a French accent. As a resident of Belgium, I took this is a compliment. The 10:30 choral communion was a modern liturgy, westward facing – and in English.

After church, it was just about warm enough to have coffee in the garden. The spring flowers were at their best.

David Phillips (Utrecht) and Grant Crowe (Amersfoort) are a talented pair of priests. They have significant responsibility for leading and guiding their lively, all-age congregations. In the case of Amersfoort, there are some important challenges ahead. I felt privileged to have shared their congregational life for a weekend. The churches certainly gave Helen and I a generous, friendly and hospitable welcome.