Ann and I returned yesterday from a very enjoyable two week trip to Barbados. I was invited some months ago to speak at the Congress for the Anglican Province of the West Indies and a separate pre-Congress day conference and we were able to combine the visit with a week’s holiday before the Congress began.  There were lots of offers from various colleagues to come with me and help with the trip in some way (which were much appreciated).

The Archbishop of Canterbury

Barbados is a beautiful and fascinating island with a rich and complex history.  It was a rich privilege to spend time there not only as on holiday but to gain the life of the Anglican church both there and across the West Indies. Our visit coincided with the visit of the Archbishop Justin and Mrs Caroline Welby and we were able to attend the special service to welcome him in Christ Church Oistins on 9th August.  It was very, very clear how much the Archbishop of Canterbury’s presence and ministry is appreciated.  The Archbishop preached on the joy of getting know members of the family we didn’t know we had – which was part of the joy of the whole visit.  He was very well received.

A day conference on Mission

The whole of Saturday 10th was given over to a pre-Congress day conference on Mission, Evangelism and Technology organised by the Revd. Michael Clarke who chairs the Mission and Evangelism group in the Diocese of Barbados.  I first met Michael two years ago when speaking at Church Planting conferences in Toronto.  He has been working hard to encourage the development of fresh expressions of church in Barbados and is developing Mission Shaped Ministry there to train pioneers across the West Indies (1).

Around a hundred lay people and clergy attended the day.  Two thirds were from Barbados with another third from the Bahamas, Belise, Antigua and Trinidad and Tobago.  My talk was on the Church of England’s engagement with evangelism and fresh expressions of church over the last couple of decades.  It was very striking that the questions and level of engagement was very similar to an English diocese five or six years ago (before the ideas around fresh expressions were well known).  There was a great deal of interest and excitement and a desire to see new things grow.

Sunday Worship

On Sunday morning the Congress delegates were all hosted by different parishes in Barbados.  Ann and I were warmly welcomed by St. Augustine’s in a rural community the centre of the island together with Mrs Deborah Domingo from Belize.  The parish even put up a special sign to make us feel at home.

The main Sunday services in Barbados happen very early in the morning so we began at 8.00 am for a full parish Eucharist with a robed choir, incense, a full team of servers, a baptism and a large group of visitors from the Barbados association for the blind marking the recent death of one of their much loved members.  It was very good for me to be able to preside at the Eucharist (the first time I’ve done so outside England) and to preach and for us to meet the PCC briefly afterwards.  It was good to begin to get to know the parish priest, the Revd. Suzanne Ellis, who also headed up the Barbados delegation to the Congress.  The churches in Barbados look and feel very much like parish churches in England as buildings except that the windows are normally open and there are fans rather than radiators!

The Congress itself began on Sunday evening with a full celebratory sung Eucharist in St. Peter’s, Speightstown, another of the older churches on the island.  The Church was packed.  The service was full of joy: much singing with contemporary as well as traditional hymnody.  There has only been one previous Congress for the Province of the West Indies in the year 2000 so this is not a gathering which happens very often. There were between 10 and 20 or so clergy and lay delegates from each of the eight dioceses together with the bishop.  Young people were well represented. Archbishop John Holder preached on mission and the importance of making disciples and the challenges facing Caribbean families (the main theme of the Congress).

The Prime Minister’s address

From Monday to Friday the Congress met on the Cave Hill Campus of the University of the West Indies: an impressive site and home to 4,000 or so students during the University terms.  The Prime Minister of Barbados, Freundel Stuart, gave the opening address (and for me one of the highlights of the week).  He spoke for 40 minutes without notes, cogently, concisely and with great erudition.  His opening words quoted Archbishop Rowan Williams at the service in Westminster Abbey in March 2007 to mark the bicentennial of the ending of the slave trade.

We who are the heirs of the slave-owning and slave-trading nations of the past have to face the fact that our historic prosperity was built in large part on this atrocity; those who are the heirs of the communities ravaged by the slave trade know very well that much of their present suffering and struggling is the result of centuries of abuse (2)

Prime Minister Stuart spoke clearly as an heir of a community ravaged by the slave trade for two hundred years (before it was abolished) and a further hundred years of its immediate aftermath.  Families in Barbados have been completely free of the effects of slavery for just 75 years.  The effects on families of this deep scarring remain widespread and serious.  I was listening as the heir of one of the slave trading nations of the past, conscious that a few days previously we had visited the Museum of Barbados which vividly tells the story of that terrible trade and its cost.

The Prime Minister was clear that the role of the Church in this situation was not so much come up with legislative solutions and proposals to the many problems facing Carribbean families but to speak clearly and with relevance about the message of the Christian gospel to those experiencing deep frustration, insecurity, powerlessness and hopelessness.  “People need to know”, he said, “that Christ lives and faith works”.  He closed his address by quoting the English poet Arthur Clough, “Say not the struggle naught availath” and urged the Anglican Church in the West Indies to be characterised by hope (3).

Vision and Strategy for the future

Alongside a deep engagement with the challenges facing families which ran through the week, the Province was also wrestling with the questions of vision and strategy for the future.  The Bishop of Jamaica, the Rt. Revd. Howard Gregory gave two addresses and set out in the second some of the problems the Dioceses of the Province are facing including declining and ageing congregations, diminishing influence, especially with the young, clergy retirements outstripping vocations to the ordained ministry, a shift in the relationship between church and society and consequent financial challenges.  This is not a time for business as usual, he argued, but for radical change and strategic leadership.

This was reasonably familiar territory both from the Church in Great Britain and the major narrative stories I heard at the Synod of Bishops in Rome last October about the difficulty of the transmission of faith throughout the world (although there are clearly major differences between the eight dioceses in the Province).

My own contribution to the Congress in a session with the Bishops and then in a plenary was again to describe the need for the Church worldwide to engage creatively and intentionally with evangelism.  The Church of England has been wrestling with questions of secularisation for longer than the Church in the Province of the West Indies.  I spoke in detail about our journey of engagement with teaching and learning the faith in catechesis and our engagement with the creation of fresh expressions of church within and alongside parish churches.  Although the ideas about fresh expressions were very new, there was significant interest and engagement both in the session itself and subsequently.  The Church of England remains an important model for the Anglican Church in this Province for all kinds of reasons and, I hope, the way in which the Church of England has embraced change in mission might continue to be a helpful model.

The Churches role in promoting health

There were several other addresses through the week on the challenges facing Caribbean families and the Church’s response. The Congress looked at the impact of crime and violence, caring for the elderly, and the economic crisis.  There was worship, bible study, workshop sessions to process the material and reporting back to the plenary gathering.

Among the many other addresses, the highlight was the final plenary on promoting healthy lifestyle in Caribbean families by a passionate Professor of Medicine, Trevor Hassell.  He made a simple and direct appeal to the churches in the Province to be agents and promoters of good health with the emphasis on promoting good diet, an active lifestyle, campaigning against exposure to tobacco and for moderate consumption of alcohol. I realised part way through his presentation that what Professor Hassell was saying was every bit as relevant to churches in the Diocese of Sheffield which have a similar potential to be promote public health (and in an area which needs good models).  Sometimes we have to travel a long way to learn the simplest things.

And finally….

The Provincial Congress finished just yesterday.  We weren’t able to stay for the final few days of processing the information and reaching conclusions.  I look forward very much to hearing what came from the Congress in terms of ways forward.

However it was enriching, enjoyable and a great privilege to be part of the process of the Congress and to share in such a way in the life of another Province.  Particular thanks to Archbishop John Holder and to Michael Clarke and Suzanne Ellis.  I learned, as ever, at least as much as I was able to share both in substance and perspective.  My prayers will be better informed now not only for this Province but for the rest of the Anglican Communion.  There is a rich and connected family throughout the world still to be discovered.  We have much to teach each other.  Thanks be to God for the richness of the life of the Church of Jesus Christ.

(1)  For more on MSM, which is a one year part time course for teams of pioneers see:

(2) For the full text of Rowan Williams’ sermon see Rowan Williams sermon on abolition of slave trade
(3) The full text is here: Say not the struggle naught availath