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28 Mar 2019

From Flanders fields to young people in Europe today

The Diocese in Europe has been a supporter of the Church of England’s Ministry Experience Scheme (CEMES) since its inception five years ago.  The Scheme offers young people (aged 18-30) who are seriously reflecting on a possible vocation to full time ministry in the Church of England the opportunity to spend nearly a year working in a chaplaincy in the diocese, along with a tailored programme which offers educational and pastoral support. Because of the scattered nature of our diocese it is necessary and important to provide some opportunities throughout the year when the CEMES interns can meet together to share their experiences and to explore particular themes together. One such occasion has recently taken place, as the group of this year’s six interns, met together in Belgium for two days, 17-19 March.

The first full day – 18 March – was spent visiting the town of Ypres and the memorials and cemeteries from the First World War which dominate the life of this small town in Flanders. The interns who formed the core of the group are of course very similar in age to those who are now buried in ‘Flanders Fields’.

We are grateful to the Friends of St George’s Ypres for suggesting we ask Professor Mark Connelly of the University of Kent at Canterbury to lead us during our visit to Ypres. Undoubtedly our visit to Ypres was ‘made’ for us through his presence as our immensely learned, yet also engaging and accessible, guide. Professor Connelly’s presentation was thorough and illuminating – he explored with us in detail the Menin Gate, walked us to and through two cemeteries, one of which in particular (the Ramparts Cemetery) spoke to us of human dignity and beauty in the midst of such tragedy, pointed out to us key locations in the town, and in situ told the story of both the reconstruction of St Martin’s Cathedral and of the building of St George’s Church Ypres, where we ended our day.

Coincidentally just after we arrived at St George’s the church bells began to be rung – in a long peal which was apparently due to last more than two hours. They felt an intriguing backcloth to the service of Evening Prayer that we said together in the church, which included a reading of Wilfred Owen’s poem, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’.  Owen’s poem includes the line, speaking about the ‘doomed youth’, ‘No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells’ so there was something very moving about our own praying in that context, accompanied by the church bells being rung out. It felt as though in some small way that the youth of the 21st century were helping by their prayers to mitigate the bitter experience of their forbears a hundred years ago. Owen spoke elsewhere of ‘the pity of war’ and I think we experienced some deep sense of such pity in our memorable day in Ypres.

The following day we gathered in Holy Trinity Belgium to ‘unpack’ our experiences and look at them in the light of the contemporary context. We were privileged that Bishop Robert took the time to meet and speak with the group. He pointed out the line that could be drawn from what happened in Flanders Fields a century ago to the current realities of life in Europe. The impetus for the beginning of the development of what is now the European Union began with the establishment of the  European Coal and Steel Community in the years after the Second World War which was formed partly to prevent future wars between the leading countries of continental Europe. For all its many flaws the key achievement of the European Union was that it had enabled peace in western Europe for more than 70 years – a period of peace that had never been experienced on the continent previously. It is an important message to hear today.

As the interns reflected on their feelings about the visit to Ypres we began to use the language of pilgrimage – and this will be the motif that the group will draw on the next time they meet together in June, when they will corporately address the Diocesan Synod in Cologne exploring how their internship year has been a ‘pilgrimage’ for them.

During their time in Brussels, the interns made a video journal to share some of their experiences over the past few months. It is well worth watching here 

Applications for the internship programme for 2019-2020 are now well underway – with a deadline of May 8th. For more details and the application form visit here

(contributed by Dr Clare Amos)