Tim Pike and Michael Dixon have led a remarkable pilgrimage to Chevetogne
The rolling farmland of southern Belgium is an unlikely setting for one of the most important centres of ecumenical encounter in Europe. But that would be to reckon without the Benedictine Abbey of Chevetogne. The Abbey’s founder, Dom Lambert Baudouin OSB, was a man ahead of his time. Not only did he participate in the Malines Conversations but he had a compelling vision, which St John Paul II was later to share and promote, to build bridges between the Orthodox East and the Latin West.
For many decades now the brothers of Dom Lambert’s community at Chevetogne have lived the religious life, welcoming guests from all across Europe, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican and Protestant. And as well as providing a place where ecumenical friendships can be formed and nurtured, the brothers have also studied, learned and lived the monastic spirituality of both East and West.
The monastery is bi-ritual, which means that some brethren celebrate the liturgy according to the Latin rites with which most Christians in this country will be familiar. But other brothers celebrate the offices and the sacraments according to the Byzantine rites of the East. The Abbey has two beautiful monastic Churches for the worthy celebration of these rites and all the brothers are committed to the flourishing of each dispensation.
Chevetogne has been an important place for the two of us in recent years. As Anglican clergy who have studied Russian and lived, at different times, in Russia, we have come to love the worship and spirituality of the Orthodox Church.
The beauty of the Slavonic heritage of Sts Cyril and Methodius, the fathers of Slav literary culture, and the mesmerising music and ritual of the liturgy all make their impact.
Although the liturgical idioms of East and West are different, it is moving to see the extensive areas of commonality between the two rites, not least in the reciting of psalms and canticles in the Offices and in the content of the Eucharistic liturgy. It reminds us that our patterns of worship as Anglicans find their place in a wide, venerable context of Christian liturgical practice from across the world and down the ages.
With this in mind, we were keen to take a small group of young Christians, variously connected with the Parish of St Michael’s, Croydon, on an ecumenical visit to Chevetogne to visit our friends there and to gain an existential experience of the wider, universal Church. We set out for Brussels at the beginning of January and, after a stop off in the Grande Place for emergency moules-frites and beers, we made our way south to the Abbey. Already on the bus we began to meet other Christians en route to Chevetogne. They were keen to be at the Abbey for the celebrations of the Theophany, the Manifestation of God (the equivalent Eastern title for our Feast of the Epiphany).
In planning our visit we had two particular aims in mind. First, we hoped that the experience of religious life would expose our group to a company of Christians who were serious about knowing and doing God’s will and that this, in turn, would encourage them as they considered God’s call in their own lives. Our second thought was that the experience of the Byzantine rites would make a strong impression on our group. We felt that this was important, both as an end in itself, but also as a help in understanding why traditional Catholics in the Church of England do the things they do and believe the things they believe.
We were given a wonderful experience of monastic life. Fr Mikhael Evelson, an Orthodox Priest-Monk, was a kind and informative guide to the Abbey and its wonderful library. Fr Cyrille showed us his incense factory. Fr Thomas helped us navigate the beautiful music and the monastic liturgy. Our fellow guests were companionable company during the silent meals.
Meanwhile, it was moving to be received so fraternally by Abbot Lambert and the brethren. Notwithstanding the Byzantine worship and the monastic way of life, new to some of us, we felt we were in familiar territory. The experience drew us into a deeper apprehension of the meaning of the words of the Creed that we believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. In a community so strongly committed to ecumenical encounter, it was easy to feel a strong sense of belonging together. And the simple business of travelling outside of Great Britain and into an ecclesial environment that cherishes its breadth and antiquity helped us to realise that some of the anguished issues that occupy us in the Church of England must necessarily be set in a context wider than ‘us, here, now’, which so often seems to frame the narrow thought space of contemporary political, civic and ecclesiastical discourse.
As we write these reflections, we are planning to welcome Fr Mikhael Evelson to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham for some days of reflection on our experience. And with Abbot Lambert, we hope for future Chevetogne visits. So ongoing friendships develop and, by God’s grace, we hope to be led deeper into the life and love of the universal Church, delightfully resourced to live out our faith as traditional Catholics.
The Revd Canon Tim Pike is the Vicar of St Michael’s,
Croydon. The Revd Michael Dixon is the Assistant
Curate of St Wilfrid’s, Cantley.