Before the Archdeacon’s visit to the Pas de Calais in March 2017, the members asked Meurig Williams to answer some questions. You can read his answers here:
*This is a brand new role for you, having previously been Archdeacon of North-West Europe, what do you most look forward to as Archdeacon of France?
I have actually been an archdeacon since 2004, when I was appointed Archdeacon of Bangor in the Church in Wales. This is the province of the Anglican Communion in which I was ordained, and in which I served until I moved to become Chaplain and Commissary to the former Bishop in Europe, Dr Geoffrey Rowell, in 2011. Bishop Geoffrey asked me to become Archdeacon of North-West Europe soon afterwards, and I enjoyed having pastoral care and oversight of our Anglican congregations in Belgium, Luxembourg and The Netherlands.
France is different. For one thing, the geographical scale is much greater. We currently have around 90 congregations in France, in rural and urban settings. That involves a lot of travel, which I enjoy hugely. I sense that one of my immediate priorities is to be a focus for support and reassurance, not least because many people are feeling insecure after the Brexit vote. Having taken the temperature initially, I am in no doubt that France would value an Archdeacon who is a visible confidence-booster. This is why I am making it a priority to visit chaplaincies at weekends and spend time working-through challenges and opportunities with our clergy and congregations. The Bishop has also asked me to explore how the Area Deans can share in this ministry of support and encouragement, and we shall be looking at appointing an additional Area Dean in the not too distant future.
* What is your favourite hymn and/or reading?
I will never forget my father, a Baptist minister, reading Isaiah 6:1-8 (the prophet’s vision in the Temple) at my ordination as a priest in Bangor Cathedral in 1993. I can still hear him carefully enunciating (in Welsh) the words ‘Holy, holy, holy.’ It is one of several Old Testament passages that remind me – as they should remind us all – that, when we take the time to be still and receptive in worship, the world can look very different. This is vital when so much of church life can make us frustrated, tired and even gloomy.
As for my favourite hymn, I have so many! My mother-tongue is Welsh and there is a rich tradition of Welsh-language hymns which has shaped me since an early age. In English, I always find Charles Wesley’s hymns abounding in the language and thought of the early Church Fathers (those saints and scholars who were active in the first five centuries of the Christian Era, when the creeds were being defined). Twice, I have chosen his ‘Christ whose glory fills the skies’ at my inauguration as Archdeacon: first in Bangor in 2004; then in Paris in 2017.
* What do you think are the greatest challenges that lie ahead for smaller Anglican communities in France ?
Each community is different, of course, and there will always be challenges and opportunities that are unique to each situation. Generally, I think any church that is defined by language, needs to ask itself to what degree it is integrated with its local context – as well as keeping a sharp eye on the wider world. This is not just a French/English issue. It’s an issue throughout the Diocese and beyond. We may be communities of Anglicans worshipping usually in English but we must not exclude those who come from different backgrounds. I think these are questions that need to be faced by all church communities, especially when they serve those who are ‘away from home.’ Creating a safe space for me is good, if it is equally a safe space for people are not like me. Thankfully, many of our congregations in France are international in nature, with people in a wide diversity of circumstances, and that helps to keep a healthy sense of awareness and sensitivity towards others on the agenda.
* Recently in Paris you spoke about the contribution faith communities can make to work towards cohesion & diversity in France. How do you suggest we avoid “sinking into a comfortable cultural myopia” in practical everyday terms?
I have begun to touch on this in the previous question and answer. One of the consequences of being aware of, and valuing, difference is the way we worship. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has spoken of a ‘mixed economy’ church – and I think that is important in the Diocese in Europe. The wide geographical spread of our congregations means that, if the worship in your local chaplaincy is not nourishing you, it is very difficult to travel elsewhere. If all that is on offer is tired and wordy worship, with no colour, silence and symbolism, with one type of music, for example, how do we reach out to those people who are certainly around, but stay away because they want a more contemplative style of worship?
In a similar way, how can we provide food and meals in our churches? Lunch after the Sunday service is a great way to help worshippers feel they belong; but if it is always food that I like, will it attract those from other cultures who have different expectations?
It also helps to expand the catering repertoire if, from time to time, you invite the local mayor to lunch, or the local Catholic priest or a reporter from the local newspaper, for example. This is how our presence in a particular community can be taken seriously.
One other way is to get involved, as a whole congregation, in a local initiative – whether it is improving the local environment, supporting people with particular needs, or affirming those minorities who feel isolated and ignored. Most congregations are a rich ‘talent pool’ and we have much to offer our local areas – not least the perspective of being a minority ourselves!
Above all, I would encourage people to take every opportunity to speak – and improve – their French. This will overcome any number of barriers: real or imagined.
* With Brexit, US elections and the rise of far right parties in Europe, it’s hard to not always lose hope and feel powerless, how do you suggest we make the most of the situation?
As a nation, France is at an interesting crossroads. There are deep social and economic divisions, and immigration is being identified as an aggravating factor, especially by the Front National. That makes for a toxic fusion of misunderstanding and antagonism. Similar things are going on in the UK, too, which may partly explain the result of the EU referendum. At the same time, France is facing difficult questions about the place of religion in public life when, for a long time, the principle of läicité has drawn a sharp distinction between church involvement in state matters. This, clearly, needs to change – and the Roman Catholic Church, in particular, is well placed to take a lead on this. However, Anglicans are in a good position to join them, not as the majority church (as in England), but as a minority that brings a unique perspective to bear. We may find ourselves better equipped to be a force for good, especially when so many people are shouting slogans of division and hatred from the rooftops.
I am also struck by an expression the former Chief Rabbi of Britain, Jonathan Sacks, has used to describe growing anti-Semitism in Europe: “a mutating virus.” Hatred and the scapegoating of minorities happens in all kinds of subtle and unchecked ways, and our congregations should be alert to this. As I have already mentioned, our churches need to be places of safety and flourishing for all.
* How do you prepare yourself for Lent and will you be giving up something ?
The great Anglican poet, George Herbert called Lent ‘a feast.’ In one of his poems he says, in effect, here is a table spread with prayer, fasting, silence and simplicity. I think that’s a good way to look at Lent. I prepare for it by trying to live more simply, making do with less, and allowing myself to be less dependent on things that can so often distract me from what is really most important – what the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, called ‘the truth by which you live and die.’
I would dearly love to give up IT for Lent – my tablet and mobile ‘phone. But, without them, I simply could not do my job!