Episcopal churches in Europe live into being ‘God’s church on the move’

By Lynette Wilson
Posted Apr 5, 2023

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preached during the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe’s revival on March 26, 2023, in Paris. Photo: Kate French

[Episcopal News Service—Paris, France] Episcopalians from Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, Georgia and France gathered in Paris late last month for a three-day celebration of the 100th anniversary of the consecration of the Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity – more popularly known as the American Cathedral in Paris – and a revival themed “God’s Hope for a Church on the Move.”

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry began leading the popular series of Episcopal revivals in 2017, bringing his way-of-love message to larger audiences. After a pandemic-forced hiatus, in-person revivals resumed in December 2022. The Paris revival, held on the top floor of a decommissioned parking garage in the city’s Montmartre district, with panoramic views of the city, was the first such revival in Europe. The gatherings are a combination of worship, testimony, prayer, workshops and engagement in mission.

Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell, primate of the Church of England, gave a talk about evangelism during the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe’s revival on March 26, 2023, in Paris. Photo: Kate French

During the revival’s invocation, Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell, primate of the Church of England, described evangelism as “those many different ways people become disciples of Christ.” Evangelism faces particular challenges in a secular world where some three generations of people might be “unchurched,” therefore, unfamiliar with the Gospels. In the North American and European context, “becoming a Christian is like a journey … [and] the actual practice of evangelism is best understood as helping people make that journey,” Cottrell said.

In modern society, he said, two things are needed: First, a servant’s heart. “Before anything else, our churches and our lives are called to be a blessing to the people and the communities we serve.” Secondly, he added, “We need to be sharing with the world a compelling narrative of what it means to be human.”

“Jesus shows me that this is how human beings are meant to be. Jesus shows us our true humanity, that we are meant to be generous, we’re meant to be kind, meant to be forgiving.”

When this way of being is modeled in communities, “even in secular Britain and secular France,” Cottrell said he has found “women and men hungry and thirsty to find out more about God’s way of being as it is revealed in Jesus Christ.”

Patricia “Patty” Solomon, a member of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Geneva, offered her personal testimony during the revival. Musician Lisa Allen-McLaurin is at the keyboard. Photo: Kate French

For Patricia “Patty” Solomon, who emigrated from the Bahamas to Switzerland over 20 years ago, evangelism takes the form of accompaniment and “living by example and bringing the message of God’s love and care” to others, especially those living on the margins, she said.

Solomon, the convocation’s first licensed lay evangelist and catechist, is a member of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Geneva. She offered her testimony during the revival. The night before, during an event at the cathedral, she told ENS that in the European context, “your actions speak louder than your words. No amount of beautiful words or theology is going to work if we’re not putting it into practice.

“If there’s no physical sign of inclusivity, no inclusivity in the liturgy, for example… if we don’t mirror what we’re professing, it’s not authentic. People are searching for authenticity and how it relates to me.”

Even with polls showing secularization growing in the United States, Europe is farther along, with a far lower percentage of Western Europeans, at most 14%, who identify as religious, with France, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland ranking as some of the continent’s least religious nations, according to Pew Research Center data.

At least some of the secular shift in Europe can be traced to historical factors, including disputes between Catholics and Protestants and how the churches responded during the First and Second World Wars, the Rt. Rev. Mark Edington, bishop-in-charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, said in a sit-down interview with ENS before the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe’s March 24-26 celebration.

“The two great wars of the 20th century were fought on this ground, not on our ground. And because of that, and because of the unbelievable destruction and deprivation of those experiences, there is a deeper sense that the church as an institution failed because of its collaboration, in the case of Germany, especially, and so the church plays a very different role now than it once did,” he told ENS.

The Episcopal churches in Europe, though no longer primarily serving American expatriates, still hold services predominantly in English, and parishes operate with vestries and strong lay leadership, reflecting the church in the U.S.

“I think we have a kind of Janus-type role,” Edington said, referencing the Roman god of transitions. “We face Europe as a church that is not native to Europe and offers something that is recognizably Christian and recognizably a church with European history, but also recognizably American.”

It’s true that The Episcopal Church exists in Europe because “American communities gathered and worshipped together and invited other people in,” he said. But now the churches serve a different variety of expat.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry spent time answering questions at the American Cathedral in Paris from young people who also came together from across Europe for a special Youth Across Europe event alongside the centennial and revival weekend. Photo: Kate French

“Anybody who sits in the pew of an Episcopal church in Europe on a Sunday morning is expatriating themselves from something. Everyone has in some way rewritten the story that had been written for them,” he said. “They’ve expatriated themselves from secular society and the places they come from to be part of a worshipping community.

“I have a church full of people who have rewritten their own stories.”

One of the things Curry found astounding, as he encountered hundreds of people over the three-day celebration, was the diversity and how the church has brought them together.

“People from all over Europe, people who have come from various parts of the world, from Haiti, from Africa, from Asia, who emigrated to Europe and found The Episcopal Church,” he told ENS. “That’s the thing, they found it.”

In a revival workshop on using congregational tools to change one’s church, the Rev. Daniel Morrow, priest-in-charge of the Church of the Ascension in Munich, Germany, walked attendees through an organizational life-cycle model to begin to think about transformation.

“Becoming anything is a process, and in order to become something, to get from one place to the other, sometimes you can just start heading that way,” he told ENS following the workshop, but more often, it involves context, stakeholder input and an evaluation of resources.

Rich Geisel, junior warden at Christ Church in Clermont-Ferrand, in France’s Auvergne region, participated in the workshop. “We are a parish in transition, one that has gone through many lives.”

Historically, Christ Church supported Michelin employees and their children who were shuttling back and forth between the U.S. and France, but that’s no longer the case, he said. Clermont-Ferrand is also known for its university and attracts students from across Africa and other parts of the world, increasingly migrants, particularly women, for whom French is not their first language.

“But we haven’t embraced that community yet. And I think we should. I think the youth, the LGBTIA, the people of color, who are coming over to study and are looking for a place to worship, we are a wonderful potential vehicle for them,” Geisel said. “But our church has never thought of itself as being that church for those individuals. … So, I’m going to try to use that model, to shake it up a little bit and see if the congregation is willing to evolve in a direction.

“That’s what it means to be a ‘church on the move’ … and Christ Church has really been a church on the move.”

The Rev. Stephanie Spellers, canon to the presiding bishop for evangelism, reconciliation and creation care, and David Case, chair of the convocation’s Racial Justice and Beloved Community initiative, gave a workshop on Beloved Community during the revival. Photo: Kate French

In a separate workshop, David Case, chair of the convocation’s Racial Justice and Beloved Community initiative, talked about a survey completed by members from across the convocation. The results, he said, reveal people from across the world

“We are people from all over the world, we’re a migrant community,” Case, who is a member of the Church of the Ascension in Munich, told ENS following the workshop. “We’re people who’ve come to the various countries in Europe, sometimes for a short period of time, others ending up spending almost a lifetime in their new countries. So that’s part of who we are.”

As part of the convocation’s commitment to building Beloved Community, which includes a covenant for dismantling racism and advancing justice, the churches are “trying to dig deep and go below the surface, to find out more about what it really means to be a Christian, in our local community, in our local church, and in the circumstance we now find ourselves.”

Case presented alongside the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, canon to the presiding bishop for evangelism, reconciliation and creation care, whose office created the church’s popular Becoming Beloved Community framework, reflecting a long-term commitment to racial healing, reconciliation and justice.

“Race plays out differently in Europe than in the U.S. and the Americas, but we can learn so much from [the convocation] about Beloved Community,” Spellers told ENS. “Episcopal leaders here are actively finding a voice for talking about racial identities and hierarchies. They’re knitting together Christ’s body across so many countries, languages, ethnicities. They’re translating the good news so that truly secular cultures can hear and experience God’s barrier-breaking, all-inclusive love.”

One way all-inclusive love has historically played out in the convocation is at Rome’s St. Paul’s-within-the-Walls, where the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center has served arrivals for half a century.

Last year the convocation began accepting grant applications from Episcopal and Anglican churches and missions across Europe interested in working with refugees and migrants.

Giulia Bonoldi, the refugee center’s managing director, also serves as the convocation’s chief welcoming officer for refugees and migrants and oversees the grant program, which launched last fall.  Already three projects are underway, three are in the planning stages and an additional two are in committee review in the welcome grants program, Bonoldi told ENS.

In Rome, where the refugee center is operated out of St. Paul’s crypt, the number of arrivals is up and poverty is increasing, both for arrivals and Roman citizens. The Ukraine war has worsened the continent’s refugee and migrant crisis and has also led to increases in poverty across Europe.

Her organization focuses on refugees and doesn’t serve Italians, though others do. But, Bonaldi added, “All of the organizations are struggling. I can say in Italy, but it’s not only in Italy.”

Along with the between 200 and 300 people who came together for the Saturday revival, 45-50 young people also came together for a coinciding Youth Across Europe event. The day before the revival, they formed an assembly line and made 400 “dignity kits,” packages containing a laundry sheet, soap, a can of sardines and a notecard with the words “You are loved” written in all the languages spoken across the convocation. At the end of the revival, the youth called on the adults to join them in distributing the kits to people who are homeless and others in need.

“It’s important for us in forming our youth in their lives of faith to recognize that living out their Baptismal Covenant is about seeking to serve Christ in every human being, respecting the dignity of every human being,” the Rev. Nathaniel Katz, a canon serving the American Cathedral, told ENS in an interview.

The reality of human need is as prevalent in the city streets of Europe as it is in the United States, he said. Offering dignity kits, kept small and lightweight so that people will carry them, is seen as a useful alternative to giving out money.

“We’re trying to use this as a ministry to allow people to engage … to provide them with something that becomes an interaction focused on dignity, compassion and love. That’s literally the message that we’re trying to deliver to them in what we’re providing them in word and in substance,” Katz said.

On the afternoon of the revival, Curry preached about the powerful force of love, of loving one’s neighbor. When the Bible repeats itself, he said, “it’s like the old gospel song ‘God is trying to tell you something.’”

In the Gospels, in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, “it is spoken of as the steadfast love of God.

“This word love comes up over and over and over again. ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength’ Jesus said,” Curry continued. “And then he [Jesus] added, ‘and love your neighbor as yourself.’”

In Luke, “Jesus says, ‘Love God and love your neighbor and you will live. Do this and you will find the secret of life. Do this and you will find life the world did not give to you and the world cannot take away. You will find a life of integrity, a life of dignity, a life that is saturated with eternity.’”

-Lynette Wilson is a reporter and managing editor of Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at lwilson@episcopalchurch.org