The Diocese in Europe is the largest diocese geographically in the Church of England by an enormous margin. Its chaplaincies are spread across 40 countries, spanning the length and breadth of the continent, and even spilling over into Africa and Asia. Yet despite dwarfing the small part of the Church of England located in England, the Diocese in Europe is a mystery to many. It faces an uphill battle to make its existence known, let alone understood. For three of the last four years I have lived and (for two years) worked in this strange diocese and hope that in sharing my experience of the unique aspects of mission here I might pull back the curtain a little for others.
When I first moved to Belgium four years ago I felt an immediate and disheartening sense of culture shock. I couldn’t understand any of the labels in supermarkets, or talk to people without betraying my foreignness, and had only a smattering of compatriots with whom to share the ordeal. One Sunday though, I wandered into the local Belgian Church of England church, and as a priest with an English accent boomed out Amazing Grace, I felt at home again. I treasured the stubborn bubble of Englishness I found in this church, and enjoyed many evenings drinking tea (with milk!) and lamenting the latest political news from home with my fellow Brits. Yet in spite of my best efforts, I inevitably slid into being a European, and write this now as a bilingual Belgian resident married to a Dutch woman, having now lived half of my adult life on the continent. What I learnt through that transition and the intervening years of my ministry in the Church in Belgium is that integrating oneself into a culture requires sacrifice. Integrating is hard work, and I can say for sure that closing ranks with people of your own culture offers a much more appealing prospect. Years of frustration go into learning a new language, and even then it’s always easier to speak your mother tongue. Integration requires us to take the more difficult road, to go outside of our comfortable bubbles, and give large amounts of our time and money to adjusting ourselves to our new country.
Perhaps a few decades ago one could have gotten away with ministry in the Diocese in Europe without making such a sacrifice; when congregations were mostly British ex-pats. But now that here in North West Europe the Anglophone proportion of congregations is down to just 30%, and attendance by local residents is exploding, we’ve lost our excuse for taking the easy road. Lacking the linguistic and cultural skills for the country we minister in is now counter to mission in this context. I see the future of the diocese in those churches where the ministers have mastered the local language and passionately resource their worship and work with the cultural and linguistic treasures of their surroundings.
As we become less and less a diocese of ‘Brits abroad’ and more and more European, a vocation also opens up not only to embrace that identity, but to reflect it back to our brothers and sisters in England. Even as the UK pulls away politically from her European neighbours, we have a call to be the European heart of the Church of England. To remind the Church of whom we are a part that no matter the political circumstances, she is still intricately connected to the European continent through hundreds of chaplaincies. As we develop an authentic passion to learn from the cultures we minister to, we have a calling to share those European insights with our coreligionists in Britain. Our diocesan bishop, +Robert, is wonderfully articulate in this regard. I wish next to pick up on a couple of gifts I’ve learnt in the European mission context that I will take back with me to ministry in the UK.
One of the greatest gifts I have found in this diocese is a witness against tribalism both within and without. This must be understood in the context of our being a tiny minority Church on the continent. Despite what I have said about the enormous size of the diocese, in numbers we are small and thinly spread. This context means that there’s not the ‘luxury’ of tribalism here. When there are only a handful of Anglican lay and ordained ministers in a country, there is no room to retreat into the camps of different traditions. As a tiny minority, we are bound closely together by the defining identity of being Anglican and work in step with one another without question. Not only this, but because a given Anglican chaplaincy will be the only Anglican church in its city (or even country!), it must offer within itself a space for Anglicans of all stripes – a microcosm of the breadth of our Church. I’d never known churches could be so liturgically open and flexible until I came to this diocese and experienced everything from a high mass to a charismatic worship service in the same church!
This witness to unity in diversity as a minority Church on the continent also extends to our churches’ ecumenical partnerships. Each Anglican church in Europe is a tiny island scattered far from her sisters, and with minimal resources. In that setting, ecumenism is not an add-on to our mission, it is a necessity of our survival. To take the example of the chaplaincy in Leuven with whom I spent the best part of my time here, we would not have a place to worship without the generosity of a Roman Catholic community. Ecumenical meetings and public events are a regular part of the life of every church I have had contact with in the diocese. It’s also remarkable that at Sunday services in our churches, Anglicans are frequently in the minority, as people who identify with a range of denominations and traditions find a home in our communities. In some sense this means Anglican identity becomes secondary as we look to include all (last Sunday I was at an Anglican chaplaincy in the Netherlands at which the ecumenical congregation were welcomed to the altar with the words: ‘this is not an Anglican table, this is the Lord’s table!’) Yet in a deeper way, it is the generosity and flexibility of the Anglican tradition that allows this sort of hospitality to flourish.
Along with giving rise to this blessed witness to Christian unity, our smallness also has less comfortable dimensions. It means the strange experience (for a British Anglican) of being a little-known minority Church in a country whose culture has been shaped by a different Christian tradition. Compared with Churches that are ‘indigenous’ to the continent, here the Church of England is out of place linguistically, culturally, and historically. This leads, in my experience, to two connected questions arising.
First: what is this strange, exotic branch of Christianity called ‘Anglicanism’? Here in Belgium Anglicanism is, by a quirk of royal history, one of the few officially recognised religious groupings, and so most Belgians will have some vague notion of it from school. However, the fact that the majority of people here would only be able to talk about it as the Church that Henry VIII started means a lot of our conversations require us to be ready to educate others about our tradition. This entails that we ourselves develop a stronger sense of what it is to be Anglican, because that identity sticks out here more than it does in the UK. Happily I have found that the ‘exotic’ oddity of Anglicanism does lend itself to invitational mission. People are often open to coming along to an Anglican service to see what it’s like and where it differs from their native tradition.
This leads on to the second question that comes up: why is the Church of England here? Historically the answer has been ‘to serve British expat communities’, and this is still the answer in large parts of the diocese. However, I would not bet on it being the future direction of travel. I have already mentioned that here in the Archdeaconry of North West Europe, less than 30% of our congregations are now native English speakers. The great transition has come with an explosion in local (especially Dutch) interest in Anglicanism. On a recent visit to the newest C of E chaplaincy in the rural Netherlands, I was blown away seeing it packed with worshippers, almost all of whom (from what I could tell) were Dutch. I cannot say with any certainty what the reasons are for this demographic change. Dutch culture certainly has a streak of Anglophilia, and there are other particular local factors to consider too, but I don’t think these offer a complete explanation. My hypothesis based on anecdotal evidence is that those who drift away from established local traditions (Roman Catholicism in Belgium, and the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands) seem to be able to find a home in the Anglican expression of faith. The Anglican ‘middle way’ seems to be providing a safe and open harbour for those adrift from the Churches of their upbringing.
If this does go some way to explain the growth of Anglicanism in North West Europe, it should give us some confidence when faced with the question ‘what it your Church doing here?’ The generous orthodoxy of Anglican theology, the beauty of the Anglican musical tradition, the seriousness with which it takes the ministry both of word and sacrament, rejoicing in the leadership gifts of women, living in the tension of Catholic and Reformed identities, and thinking rigorously on the three-legged-stool of scripture, tradition, and reason. All of this has proved an attractive expression of Christian faith for those brought up outside it, and especially for those who find themselves spiritually in-between traditions.
The Church of England here does not enjoy even the waning spotlight of being the established Church. Here she is just a late-comer to the continental Christian party, with a thick accent and odd mannerisms. Yet she finds that far from being a spare part on the continent, many have found something in her to admire. In her mission here she has become, in a typically paradoxical Anglican way, a small Church for the whole world. Bringing people into her worship of God from all traditions and corners of the continent and the globe. If anything typifies what I’ve seen of the beauty of this diocese it has been the vision the Eucharist being celebrated at Holy Trinity Anglican Pro-Cathedral in Brussels. Hundreds of people from as many as 60 countries coming together as one church to receive Christ:
I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the LambRevelation 7:9