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27 Jun 2020

Letter from Izmir

 

The Revd James Buxton writes:

The Book of Revelation tells us that there was a very early Christian community in Smyrna. It is one of the seven churches of Asia, indeed it was then and remains now a large and wealthy provincial capital. At over four million souls it is the biblical city with by far the largest present-day population. It’s easy to see why the city has thrived over at least 30 centuries. Izmir is situated at the head of the Gulf of Smyrna, a wonderful natural harbour. The city is dominated by Mount Pagus, a magnificent vantage point and site of Izmir’s citadel, the Kadifekale (‘velvet castle’). Crucially it is well watered and surrounded by marvellous agricultural land. These factors have made it a lively port city and centre of regional power since the days of yore.

It was the trading opportunities that brought the specifically Anglican element to the city’s story, when the Levant Company sent out its first chaplain (Thomas Curtys) in 1636, to see to the pastoral care of the company’s employees. These were mainly single young men, subject to the many temptations provided by any large port city. Not an easy job for the chaplain, I suspect. By the middle of the nineteenth century a wealthy and settled expatriate community had evolved, with families from France, Spain, Italy the Netherlands, Germany and Britain living in the city and making the most of opportunities for trade and industry, each community supported by its own churches. By this time, the chaplain’s role had become much more like that of an English parish priest. Our current church (consecrated in 1900) was constructed by railway workers who lived and worked in the northern part of the city near the port, and were mainly engaged in building a new railway line through the agriculturally rich areas extending south to the city of Aydin.

The last few decades have seen the need, once again, for a different style of ministry. Hardly anybody expects us to provide a sense of ‘Little England’ these days. We are now an international English-speaking congregation with members from many different parts of the word, including English teachers, refugees and migrants, as well as Christian locals who wish to worship in English. We are a mix of Anglicans and members of other Christian denominations. By contrast with former days, none of us is involved in trade or the railways, though our churchwarden Alan Prior is an extreme railway enthusiast!

The city has experienced long periods of peace and prosperity interspersed by violent traumas. Earthquakes, plagues, wars, fires, and the dreadful events a few years after the end of the First World War, when the city burnt to the ground and many tens of thousands of its Christian residents expired in the fire, or in the sea, or had to flee for their lives. St John’s Church was just at the edge of the fire zone, and the fact that it survived makes it a sign of continuity in a city that is mostly characterised by modern buildings. These days Christians number just a few thousand. I guess as Anglicans, we are the smallest recognized minority, with about 50 souls. Given the small scale of our community, we are very grateful for the friendly relationship we have with the city authorities. The Mayor of Greater Izmir has recently been to visit us and assured us of his help in fixing our roof. Late last year I had an audience with the Governor of the city who promised his personal help should we face any difficulties. As the leader of the city’s smallest religious minority, I find these acts of kindness and support very encouraging.