Ben O’Neill recounts his experiences as pastoral assistant at Christ Church, Vienna
Mozart, Beethoven, Vivaldi, Mahler, Strauss, Haydn, Freud, Klimt, Metternich—the list of famous names associated with the city of Vienna goes on. It is hard to think of a European city with such a rich cultural heritage. The stones almost speak, as you take a stroll through the Austrian capital’s central district, from the Hofburg, the imperial palace of the Habsburgs, via the Stephansdom, to the world-famous Vienna Opera House, currently celebrating its 150th anniversary. If you take a short tram ride from there into the 3rd District, not far from Belvedere Palace, you find Christ Church, the Anglican presence in the city of Vienna, where I have had the privilege of serving an internship for ten months from August 2018 to June 2019. In part inspired by a good friend, Will Lyon Tupman, and his reflections on his time in Croydon in the last edition of New Directions, I have agreed to offer the following reflections.
Christ Church was, according to a plaque at the church’s west end, consecrated on 8 July 1877 ‘for the use of the British Ambassador and of British subjects residing at, or visiting Vienna.’ The church has changed over the past 142 years and is now home to a very diverse, international congregation, with more than 30 nationalities represented in the congregation: certainly not just British expats! A wooden screen on the south wall records the names of those who donated towards the building of the church, including Queen Victoria (100 guineas) and the then Bishop of London. Other notable features of the church include the stained-glass east window, which was donated in 1948 by British troops who had been stationed in Austria during the Second World War, depicting Christ the King flanked by Saints George, Martin and Stephen, intended as a reminder to all who enter of the Christian mission to fight against sin, to engage in acts of charity, and to spread the Good News. The crypt contains the Chapel of the Holy Spirit, consecrated in April 1964.
My year as intern—or pastoral assistant for those more familiar with that terminology—was in the context of an Erasmus year abroad from studies of Modern Languages at Peterhouse, University of Cambridge. This meant that I also spent several hours a week at the University of Vienna studying Medieval German, completing research on thirteenth century Franciscan preachers as well as more reformed theologians, among other topics. Being able to devote a year to discerning my vocation and gaining much wide-ranging and valuable ministry experience, at the same time as enhancing linguistic and cultural skills as part of my degree, has been an excellent combination. Although being able to speak the language of the country is not essential for placements in the Diocese in Europe, it opened many doors, for example, engagement in local ecumenical services and events. I also led several ‘Kid’s Church’ (Sunday School) sessions throughout the year, for which German language abilities are essential, as many of the children are within the local Austrian education system, and often speak better German than English!
Christ Church has three masses on a Sunday, at 8am, 10am, and seasonally also at 6pm. Despite the relatively small size of the building, the congregation often numbers in excess of 130. The more contemporary Mass at 6pm is replaced by Choral Evensong on the first Sunday of the month. There is also a mid-week Low Mass on a Wednesday morning. Evening Prayer was extended to being offered four evenings a week during my internship. Although the church is probably best described as middle of the road Anglo-Catholic in style, we seek to provide a home for all who cross the threshold of what is the only Anglican church in Austria, and it has been a genuine blessing and privilege to have the opportunity to work alongside priests and members of the congregation of different traditions. It is worth adding the caveat that, despite its newfound presence in this magazine, it is not affiliated to the Society; despite currently having no female clergy on the staff, it has benefited from the ministry of female priests in past decades. Whereas in the UK we have the liberty to choose a church, and thus often run the danger of becoming insular, Vienna has shown me an excellent and encouraging example of how those of different churchmanship can work together as partners in the gospel, something to which we must all be committed.
My duties have involved leading the Daily Offices, being present and serving at the altar for public worship, coordinating the recruitment and training of new altar servers, offering a weekly Bible study, and preaching on a regular basis, as well as providing some administrative and publicity support. I have also been able to preach a couple of times at our neighbouring parish, St Margaret’s in Budapest, as well as leading an Act of Remembrance at Cunovo, outside Bratislava, Slovakia. We have also recently started an outreach lunchtime talk, once a month, at the United Nations headquarters on the edge of the city, which has been a very exciting project to be involved with at its outset.
One of the benefits of any internship/pastoral assistantship such as this is to be shadowing an experienced member of the clergy. The Chaplain of Vienna, Fr Patrick Curran, has been in Vienna since 2000, having previously served at St Michael and All Angels, Heavitree, the University of Bradford, and the Anglican church in Bonn/Cologne. The scheme also includes a series of educational mentoring, with a series of theological essays and reflections to write, as well as pastoral mentoring, both of which seek to aim through some of the Church of England criteria of selection. A particular highlight has been the opportunity to work regularly with clergy in preparing sermons, particularly the Revd Dr Robert Kinney (Honorary Assistant Curate) who leads preaching workshops on an international basis, and I have seen my skills in this area improve greatly as a result.
My own experience has been that the Diocese in Europe is not widely known in the United Kingdom. It is when one attends gatherings such as Archdeaconry Synod in Kiev and Diocesan Synod in Cologne that one begins to realize what a dynamic, forward-thinking diocese it is—and one with a key role to play in areas of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, where conflict and persecution are still a reality. A unique selling point of the Diocese in Europe internship scheme is the trip to the Holy Land: along with my colleagues from across the diocese, and led by DDO Fr William Gulliford, I was blessed to spend eight days in the land of Christ’s birth and ministry. An induction session was also planned in Lyon, as well as a pilgrimage to Brussels and Ypres to consider themes of war and remembrance.
All in all, my year at Christ Church, Vienna was the best year I could have wished for. It has been an invaluable year to me and my ongoing discernment, and a year of immense growth which has greatly affirmed my sense of calling to the sacred priesthood. I can wholeheartedly recommend an internship—and indeed, one in the Diocese in Europe—to anybody who is at a similar stage in discerning their vocation. I am grateful to the chaplain, Fr Curran, for his guidance and encouragement. I have forged friendships and memories that I will cherish for many years to come.
Those who are interested in finding out more about Christ Church, Vienna can visit christchurchvienna.org, or find the church on either Facebook, ‘A Church Near You,’ or Twitter @CCVienna.
Ben O’Neill was intern of Christ Church, Vienna in
the Diocese in Europe 2018–19