THE Epiphany is a stellar feast. Apart from the deep and far-reaching truths it teaches in and of itself, words that appear at no other time make a welcome annual return: “impious”, “lambent”, and “manifest” among them.
It also gives me the chance to indulge in a spot of ecclesiastical pedantry relating to the length of Christmastide and the desirable alterations to the crèche. Each year, a tale does the rounds about a young curate, holding the fort during his incumbent’s new-year holiday many years ago, who received a telegram on the afternoon of 5 January which read: “Drawing-room elephants. Place both in crib.”
Of the two, one later became a Roman Catholic, and is now dead; while the other is now a Prebendary of St Paul’s. Of the two clergymen, that is; not the elephants.
MY TRUNK was packed back in the autumn for a trip to Sweden, where, on 31 October, two elderly gentlemen sat down at a table during a church service in Lund. They both signed a document, then stood up and faced the congregation. Smiling broadly, they then embraced and kissed each other to tumultuous and approving applause.
You may be surprised to learn that, although the Church of Sweden has permitted same-sex marriage since 2009, this was not a wedding. It would have been a distinct turn-up for the books if it had been, given that one of the men was the President of the World Lutheran Federation, Bishop Munib Younan, and the other was Pope Francis (News, 4 November).
I covered the papal visit for New Directions from Malmö, and the official line was that it was all about the “commemoration” of 500 years since the beginning of the European Reformations. A bit of a poser, that. The Pope could hardly have been asked to celebrate the anniversary, and the Lutheran Churches did not seem ready to kiss his toe. Still, both sides seemed keen to chew the cud; so off I went.
There were two prelates on my flight. One wore all-black clericals, sensible if not elegant black shoes, and sported a tell-tale ring on his right hand. The other also wore a ring, but had paired it with an ill-fitting brown pinstripe suit, pointy tan shoes, a blue V-neck jumper with white trim, and a purple clerical shirt; and had cultivated an impressive moustache. One of them was a Roman Catholic, and the other was not; one of them flew business class, and the other did not.
I WAS fortunate to have been invited to stay at a retreat centre run by Sister Gerd Swensson, not far from Malmö: Christian’s Acre. The buildings were formerly her family’s farm, and it is served from All Saints’, Notting Hill, by Prebendary John Brownsell.
Surrounded by open countryside, it is very much a home from home, where the sharpness of the winter weather is undone by the warmth of the welcome, the crackling log fires, and Sister Gerd’s delicious home-cooked food, much of which comes from the garden.
At breakfast on the first morning of my visit, the other guests included a Nigerian who was due to concelebrate at the papal mass, Fr Michael Akpan. He had been sent to Gothenburg three years earlier, and from there served as national chaplain to the Swedish African community. Given that Sweden covers about 180,000 square miles, that is quite a patch. He explained that there were four mass centres in key cities, between which he travelled almost constantly.
Early on, he had found it difficult to practise his Swedish, as well-meaning locals had assumed that he was a visitor, and insisted on speaking to him in English. I told him of how my godson’s father had had the opposite problem during his Erasmus year at Uppsala: as a six-foot-four oarsman with thick blond hair and piercing blue eyes, he was invariably assumed to be Swedish, and was addressed accordingly.
Fr Akpan had persevered, however, and spoke the language very well indeed. He was enjoying his work; but he missed his family in Nigeria.
Another gentleman was from Chile, now also living in Sweden. His wife had left at the crack of dawn to explore Malmö, while he had opted — on the basis of a few decades’ experience, I suspect — to join her later.
THE main events of the commemoration were divided between Lund and Malmö: a “prayer service” at Lund Cathedral, and then a rally at Malmö Arena. Lund Cathedral is a lovely Romanesque building that dates from the 13th century, after the more ancient church burned down, but it is not overly large; so the accredited journos watched developments on the large screens set up in the press room, deep in the bowels of the Arena.
Most of us were there to cover the commemoration, and it was good to bump into the Church Times’s Gavin Drake. For one lady from the United States, however, it was all a sideshow. As the screens showed the various dignitaries arriving at the King’s House in Lund — culminating with the Pope himself, to the screams of the crowd — she sat resolutely with her back to the screen, talking loudly on her iPhone to someone far away about Hillary Clinton’s emails.
The Scandi way
BACK in the calm of Christian’s Acre, Sister Gerd showed me around. Over the years, she has completely transformed the agricultural outbuildings. The long roof-space above the main building has become a library; it has deep armchairs at one end, and a little oratory at the other. The stables have been turned into a guest house, and one area has become a little self-contained flat.
The light-wood effect that so many of us associate with Scandinavia is everywhere, but at its most effective in the main chapel, which is dominated by a large window of five lights, arranged into the shape of a cross.
“It faces east; so the morning light comes flooding through it,” Sister Gerd explained. “I tell people that that’s the way to see heaven, through the cross. You can’t beat it.”
I’m certainly looking forward to returning soon — partly for the peace and quiet, and partly (if I’m honest) for the meatballs.
Dr Serenhedd James is director of the Cowley Project, and Honorary Research Fellow of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.