Saturday, January 21, 2012

Church of England European Chaplaincies - Some Thoughts

Tony Jewiss asked me to write a little something about my experience with the congregation at Limoux for the Chaplaincy Newsletter, and so I did. With his permission, I publish it here. I think it is mostly self-explanatory, but just a little background:

There are (surprise, surprise) Brits scattered more or less everywhere in the world. Some places have well-established Anglican churches, including all the Anglophone countries and the former colonies. But there are parts of the world that never were British nor which learned to use the English language as their national form of communication. In such places (most of Europe and the Middle East, for example) the Church of England has formed chaplaincies. They have various origins and manifestations. Their common characteristic, as I see it, is that they bring together the Anglican British diaspora for worship and characteristic Christian activities in countries where Anglicanism is a rare and exotic flower. Most do not seem to have full time clergy, or buildings, or many of the other trappings of your usual Anglican bodies when in full fig.

So here goes:

One of the joys of the last two years has been coming to know the Church of England congregation which meets in Limoux. I came to know it through Fr. Tony Jewiss, the pastor, who is an old and dear friend. It is a completely unexpected joy. I never thought I would be in Languedoc-Roussillon for any time, and I certainly did not expect to find a church home there, and so many friends.

The congregation at the chapel of St. Augustine in the heart of Limoux is warm and welcoming and faithful and friendly and full of fun. It is small, but the congregation does all the things I would expect an Anglican congregation to be doing – good preaching, music, lay ministries, Bible study, Christian education for children, a variety of liturgies, coffee hour after the service, charitable and ecumenical outreach, pastoral concern for its own members and for the British diaspora in the Languedoc-Roussillon. In fact, I imagine if all the things the congregation does were listed, people would be pleased and a little surprised at how much is done! Where do they get the energy?

What I see in Limoux interests me very much. It is no surprise to anyone that the whole Church faces challenges today, and we Anglicans have our own set. Smaller numbers and not enough money and the anxiety that brings; buildings which are frequently both beautiful and expensive; our dear and very accomplished clergy, who when they work full time cost rather a lot; a large and complex institutional structure. These challenges from within sometimes leave little energy for engagement with the political, social and theological challenges believing Anglicans face from outside the Church.

So it is interesting to me to see in the Limoux congregation, and I can guess in others as well, a different model of doing church than most of us are used to, and which may have something to say to the wider church.

Here are some of the “disadvantages” I see in the Limoux chaplaincy, and perhaps in others: using someone else’s not always ideal buildings; part time clergy who are older, usually retired, and compensated for expenses and little else; the necessity to rely on volunteer lay people rather than paid staff; geographical dispersion and the lack of town or village focus, making communication a challenge; a very wide range of churchmanship in a single congregation; and of course, not very many people and not very much money.

But are these really disadvantages? Rephrase them and they sound something like: freedom from building maintenance worries and expense; experienced, and possibly wise, elders leading the congregation at small cost, and a witness to the value of older people; the development of lay ministries essential to the heart of the Church; developing new ways of being in touch with people and creating community, and with fewer meetings; a widely comprehensive appreciation of theology, liturgy and practice; intimacy and simplicity and energy released from seemingly insoluble problems which can invigorate small congregation ministries.

Perhaps the chaplaincies are in some ways “church lite”. They don’t have to bear all of the burdens of regular parishes, whose life is so vital to the Church. But perhaps it is not such a bad thing for some parts of the Church to tread lightly on the earth when so much of the Church doesn’t.

And perhaps it is good to concentrate on creating worship, faith and community with few resources, and to worry less about buildings, money, numbers and structure. Not the Church model for all, certainly, but a witness of great value, whose form of life can enrich the Body of Christ.