Thursday, 29 September 2011

A Message from Ken Howcroft in Rome

Ponte Sant'Angelo Methodist Church
Ken Howcroft left the Connexional Team at the end of July and here is his first report from Rome, dated 28 September 2011.

So – here we are in Rome! One minute, I am Assistant Secretary of the Conference and Ecumenical Officer, then three weeks frantic “re-stationing” of our possessions and packing, then a trip to the annual Synod (the equivalent of our Conference or the General Synod of the Church of England) of the Waldensian-Methodist Church in Italy, then a weekend back in London cleaning and finishing the packing – and we arrived here at the start of September. Since then we have unpacked and begun to find our feet. We have now found a home for just about everything. There was a time when I thought that the boxes moved from one part of the apartment to another overnight when we were asleep but we gradually sorted them all out. The books are on the shelves, but not necessarily in the right order yet. That makes finding things a slow process, but it also means that I keep coming across things that I was not looking for but which suddenly look interesting……

I am here to be the minister for (I still think “for” is more in line with our theology of stationing and ministry than “of”!) the Ponte Sant’Angelo Methodist Church in Rome. It is an English-language Methodist Church just across the river Tiber from the Vatican, and therefore claiming to be the Pope’s nearest (geographically?) Protestant neighbour. We have a fascinating and vibrant congregation from all over the world, including sizeable groups from West Africa and the Philippines. How to provide a home and support for groups of people from Methodist and other Churches around the world and help them to retain their own roots but also integrate into the Italian Church is a live issue here as much as it is in London and other parts of the British Connexion!

Methodist missions began in Italy 150 years ago at the time of the Risorgimento and the Unification of Italy. The PSA Church building was originally owned by the Friars of St. Celsus, but was bought by the Italian Free Church and dedicated as a protestant place of worship by Alessandro Gavazzi, Garibaldi’s protestant chaplain, on 18th March 1877. At that time the building housed not only the worship sanctuary, but also a theological college, junior and infant schools and a library. Some of those particular activities have since ceased but the commitment to study and learning remains. I hope to contribute things both in the local church and ecumenically whilst I am here.

Technically, I have been given permission to serve abroad by the British Conference, which has seconded me to serve the Methodist Church in Italy (the Opere per le Chiese Evangeliche Metodiste in Italia [OPCEMI]) which is part of a united Waldensian-Methodist Church. The Italian Church has appointed me to serve in the district and circuit that includes Rome, and to have pastoral charge here at PSA.

Ponte Sant'Angelo Methodist Church, close up of door.
The Methodist Churches in Britain and in Italy, with encouragement from other Methodists in Europe and other parts of the world, have also asked me, as the other part of my role here, to build on the excellent work of my predecessors, most notably and recently Trevor Hoggard, and offer myself as a resource to help Methodists from round the world in their relating to the Vatican as well as fulfilling other ecumenical roles. To this end I have been in contact with Prof. Robert Gribben who is responsible for ecumenical matters under the aegis of the World Methodist Council; the International Anglican Centre in Rome; and the Roman Catholic English College. I have also had conversations with the Ambassador of the Australian Government to the Holy See, including sharing concerns about the situation of the Methodist Church in Fiji.

The ecumenical landscape is different here. Methodists and, to a greater extent (because their history is longer) Waldensians have a sense of being minorities excluded and at times persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church. The PSA church is built at one end of the bridge that leads to and from the Castel Sant’Angelo, the fortress that protected the Vatican City.  The Church is built in part of what in earlier centuries was a public square in which executions took place. Later in October a plaque is to be put on the side of the Church in memory of some Reformers who were executed here. The local congregation is a little anxious about this damaging relationships with Roman Catholics. It will be interesting to see if, as has happened to some extent in some parts of the world, we can start to move things to a point where the descendants of all sides in ancient disputes can begin to acknowledge and respect each other’s martyrs.

There are things to learn here, too. One of the ecumenical challenges in the British situation is how to develop structures that enable there to be visible communion that enrich and do not destroy the identity of the partners concerned. I have been intrigued to discover that the Methodist Church in Italy seems to have travelled a long way down this road. The Methodists and Waldensians constitute a united church, and have been for many years. But they seem to keep their separate identities to a great extent. In terms of oversight, and particularly of governance, there is a committee that deals with OPCEMI affairs. But it reports to the annual Synod of the united church in which Waldensians and Methodists together make decisions. So the Methodists have been able to share governance and oversight in those structures without losing a sense of identity.  I need to learn more about the polity but so far as I can tell (and I may be proved wrong when I get to know things better) this has come about pragmatically (how very Methodist!) and I shall be interested to discover what explicit theological reflection there has been about it. But they may be on to something of wider application!
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