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Not out in the midday sun, but in church

by
05 June 2015

David Bryant finds the Church of England flourishing in Spain, with the help of Roman Catholic hospitality

Ecumenical welcome: the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Navajas, Castellón, Spain

Ecumenical welcome: the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Navajas, Castellón, Spain

ST JOSEPH, ornate and gilded, presides over the gathering worshippers. The Queen of Heaven smiles down benignly from a windowsill, wrapped in a billowing swathe of lace. Two dwarf palm trees in pots stand incongruously in front of the sedilia, flanked by a vase of pink oleander. A tabernacle graces the high altar; and a confessional, door firmly closed, huddles in a dark corner.

Something is odd. There is not a biretta in sight; no soutanes or dangling rosaries, and only the merest hint of long-dispersed incense. And where are the richly caparisoned priests, the acolytes, and the thurifer? Instead, pinstripe suits and golfing blazers fill the pews, and a row of sandalled feet and legs in shorts occupy the back row. A sidesman, with a distinctive Home Counties greeting, hands me Hymns Ancient and Modern. A clergyman in a Sarum cassock adjusts his glasses, and flips the pages of the lectern Bible.

This is the Church of the Immaculate Conception on the Spanish Costa, whose priest, in a generous act of interdenominational hospitality, has lent his church for the weekly Anglican eucharist. Suddenly church unity does not seem such a distant goal.

 

THERE must be 80-plus worshippers here, and I take my hat off to them; for tracking down the church was a marathon. Hotel Reception looks at me perplexed.

"English service?" she shakes her head. "But this is Spain, where we have Catholic masses."

The tourist office produces a leaflet concluding with an enigmatic note in brackets. ("Church of England eucharist 12 p.m."). No location is given. The challenge to find it is on. We wend our way through narrow streets, heavy with the scent of half-cured leather handbags, and frying chips "para levar", to take away. Tapas bars disgorge tables, chairs, and customers on to seething pavements. A fellow in plum-coloured cords and an M&S sports jacket comes to our aid.

"The Anglican service? It's a bit tucked away I'm afraid. Follow me. I'm reading the epistle."

We round a corner, pass a shop selling mantillas and flamenco dresses, and there it is, gleaming white.

 

JUST recently, there has been a flurry of doom-laden predictions concerning the future of the Church of England. It is haemorrhaging. Give it 20 years, and it will cease to exist. Couple that to the strident atheistic outpourings of the day, and the gloom sets in. Here in southern Spain, a thousand miles from the great cathedral of Canterbury, Anglicanism shows no sign of an imminent demise.

Google "Anglican churches in Spain" and you come up with a staggering 26. These are situated not only in the tourist Costas, but in the cities of Madrid, Seville, Malaga, Valencia, and Barcelona. It does not look like sickness unto death.

 

WE KICK off with "Stand up, stand up for Jesus", accompanied by a somewhat strident electronic organ, and the rafters ring. There is no woolly liberalism in the sermon; no humourless Evangelicalism. We are given an orthodox address, with just a hint of remonstration aimed at those who consider Christianity an easy option. Faith demands regular study of the scriptures, and a selfless following of Christ. We pray for King Philip of Spain; for the local Roman Catholic priest and his congregation; and for the Anglican hierarchy.

During the Peace, I have a sudden conviction that the Church of England is indestructible, God-filled, and redoubtable. All these worshippers have turned their backs on sunbeds, lazy lie-ins, precious days of holiday, and litres of San Miguel beer to worship God. The Holy One is their Sunday priority, and I find it immensely reassuring.

We sing the last triumphant verse of "Praise, my soul, the King of heaven", and the sanctuary party proceeds to the west end. For an incredible moment, I think we are about to break into the Regina Coeli - but no: it is the notices. The Mothers' Union has a speaker coming from the British Consulate in Madrid: don't miss it. The Anglican charity shop desperately needs hot-water bottles, a commodity as rare as water in the Gobi desert.

I shake hands with the priest and thank him. Behind me, our Lady still smiles mysteriously. Out in the blazing sunshine, a bevy of little Spanish girls dance by in frilly skirts and dazzlingly white embroidered tops, black hair tumbling.

Who says the Church of England is moribund? Here in this distant outpost, a three-hour flight from Birmingham International, it is alive and kicking.

 

The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest living in Yorkshire.

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