Monday, 1 February 2016

Walking around the Plot: Reflections on a Church Visit to Luxembourg

Going to someone else's church, especially in a different country, can feel for vicars, I guess, a bit like a gardener being shown around a neighbour's plot. Of the comparatively little that I know about gardening, I owe most of this knowledge to neighbours and friends who have done just that: walked me round, shown me what they have planted where, and when, what the soil is like, where the sun hits at what time of day, what has taken root and become beautiful, and what has taken over and become a nuisance, what can be left to grow quietly in its own way, and what needs regular, watchful nurture, which plants complement and enrich one another and which compete and diminish the other's growth capacity. Gardeners come way from these visits inspired and enriched, warned and advised.

This weekend, I flew to Luxembourg, a place I hadn't visited before, to visit the Anglican Church and in particular to see someone whom I am mentoring, who is training for church ministry. The Anglican Church in Luxembourg is part of the Diocese in Europe, a network of churches spanning an extraordinary geographical area from Iceland to Uzbekistan under the care of a bishop based in Gibraltar, yet part of the Church of England (hence my visit). The service which I attended was in English, using the same words from the same book that I use when I lead services at home in Hertfordshire. The hymns, or at least the hymn tunes, were ones I knew well. The only language used in the service other than English was Latin, a seventeenth-century Mass setting sung beautifully by a trio, the same sort of music sung in the same sort of way that a Church of England church with a choral tradition might enjoy. So much about the Anglican Church in Luxembourg was so familiar to me.

Yet there were differences too, and noticing these differences was a little like walking around your neighbour's garden and wondering what that little flower is called. So here are a few observations. These are, let me stress, not differences of belief but of emphasis and experience, and arise directly out of my own personal experience of the Church of England, limited as each one individual's must be. No doubt others would come away with a very different cluster of reflections!

Firstly, I was struck by the inter-relatedness of the Anglican Church and Christians from other faith backgrounds. The room which functions as the Anglican Church is on long-term loan from the Roman Catholic Church, and, talking to Anglicans, I heard repeatedly of ongoing, live relationships with leaders and others from different churches. This isn't surprising, when you consider that the congregation I visited is the only Anglican church in Luxembourg. For ministers in Luxembourg, collegiality is found ecumenically in a way that is not so distinct in the Church of England, where vicars most often find support from fellow Anglicans rather than other local ministers. There are many clergy and churches in the Church of England who are deeply invested in ongoing, live relationships with other Christians, but maybe in many parts of England the need to work together across ecumenical divides isn't quite as pressing, and ecumenical relationships fade into the background. Maybe part of what we English Anglicans can be reminded of by our brothers and sisters on the continent is that we are part of something much bigger than our own congregations or denominations.

Secondly, I was surprised to discover that church ministers in Luxembourg are considered civil servants, and are funded by the government. This is very different to the Church of England, which receives no government money at all. I had a fascinating conversation about what it means for Christians to be 'in the world but not of the world' when the political and financial affairs of the church are interwoven with those of the state (of course, this is also true politically in England with the C of E as the established church, its own rules intertwined with the law of the land in a way that is not so of other British churches). The upshot is that the Anglican Church in Luxembourg isn't concerned with cash flow in the way that many English Anglican churches do, and this also is reflected in people's financial giving to the church. Christians in Luxembourg are very generous in giving to charity, I was told, but they know that their money is not needed to keep the church afloat. I'd be lying if I didn't say that a large part of me is very envious of the Luxembourgish financial position; but there's something about sacrificial giving to a local church, with its blessings as well as its worries, that maybe the C of E knows more deeply because of its financial independence.

Thirdly, as I entered the Anglican Church, I walked past a large hoarding affirming a Luxembourgish identity which has influences from many national backgrounds but no place for racism. Twentieth-century history here is still keenly felt, with reminders of the Nazi occupation and its terrors never far away. I was reminded of the peaceful demonstration that I attended in Sweden against the rise of far-right nationalistic political parties in 2014, and of the worrying ascendancy of such thinking across Europe.  We in Britain are by no means immune; this last month saw a small, but nonetheless unsettling far-right's public gathering in Luton. That the church had chosen to display this poster was, I felt, very powerful. Maybe in the C of E we need to add our voices more clearly, and more often, to those saying that racism has no place in the church or in our communities.

Visiting the Anglican Church in Luxembourg was a wonderful experience, uplifting and thought-provoking. As I walked away from communion, I mulled over the words of a song that I learnt during my teens, based on the words of Jesus; 'I am yours, you are mine. I am in you, and you are in me.' Yes, this short visit to Luxembourg was a little like walking around a neighbour's garden, but on reflection, as I knelt at the altar and received bread and wine, it felt more like discovering a patch of my own grounds that I hadn't come across before, mine not through ownership but through belonging to a family bigger than those with whom I share my home and my own little plot, this larger family imperfect and sometimes at odds with each other within itself but committed to making a real difference in the world all around it. 'I am yours, you are mine. I am in you, and you are in me.' Maybe there's something about walking around someone else's garden, visiting someone else's church, that refreshes in me the truth that in belonging to Christ, we belong to one another.

The altar, celebrating the presence of the Anglican church in Luxembourg

Stained glass windows, a brand-new drum kit and an oil panting of a saint give you a sense of the breadth of this church! 

The anti-racism poster 

A beautiful statue in the chapel 

One on many sobering reminders of the Nazi occupation, and its devastating effects on Luxembourg.


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