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From the four corners they came — Church of England priests who were born abroad

11 May 2018

More than three million people in the UK were born abroad, and C of E priests are among them. Pat Ashworth asked five of them about their impressions


The Ven. Jennifer McKenzie

The Ven. Jennifer McKenzie

NOW in her third year as Archdeacon of Wigan and West Lancashire, the Ven. Jennifer McKenzie has gained the perspective of distance on the Episcopal Church in the United States and the contexts in which she used to serve there.

Raised as member of a large congregation in Florida, she is a lifelong Episcopalian, who has ministered in what is referred to in Washington circles as a “DC cave-dwellers’” church. One of four planted by the cathedral, and named after the British patron saints, it was a neighbourhood church appreciated by the great and the good who wanted to “go to church quietly”, she says. Naming several of the politically influential figures who attended services there, she values the opportunity that it presented for speaking truth to power.

When she came to her archdeaconry in Liverpool diocese, she had no idea how many Measures and laws governed the Church of England. “You could take one Measure, and that would comprise the same amount of material, roughly, as the entire constitution and canons of the Episcopal Church,” she says. “Not being an Established Church, it tends, for good or ill — more often for ill — to be much more congregational in its behaviour.”

Of the parish system, and the entitlement of all to the services and sacraments of the Church, she says: “There’s a beauty about it that I would hate to lose, but it’s eating itself alive — and has been for probably three or four generations.”

She would love to hybridise the US Episcopal Church and the Church of England. She reflects on the downside of the funding system here: “Essentially, divorcing people from any real sense of responsibility for stewardship”; and the upside: “You don’t have the careerism based on trying to get the highest average income you can so that you can get a sweet pension at the end.”

She has seen churches here “of all stripes and churchmanships”; and involvement with Ghana and Virginia (linked with Liverpool diocese), in a project relating to the slave trade, has given her a new perspective. “It strikes me just how colonial the Episcopal Church still is. Even though there is this progressive and broad theology, and even though it was founded on pioneering, what is not so Anglican about us is our mindset about what it means to be Anglican.

“We attach so much to the trappings and classes of church, and to the liturgy, that we don’t realise that the Church of England looks nothing like what we think Anglicanism is. Americans come over here, and where do they go? Cathedrals. And that’s what they think the Church of England is: boys’ choirs, high altars, chasubles, and gilding.

“I would love to bring a group of American clergy and ministry leaders over here for a month, and send them out and say, ‘Embed yourself in this church for two weeks, and come back and tell us what you’ve learned.’ I think their heads would explode.”

Her biggest challenge is “still trying to retain my fresh eyes — the gift they saw in me for this job — and not going too native: acclimatising, but not assimilating”. Her greatest milestone is having a phone conversation with someone who was Wigan-born and bred “and understanding every word. My answer, when I’m out and about and they say, ‘Ah, you’re not from round here,’ is ‘You’re right. I’m not from Wigan. I’m from Skelmersdale.’ And they laugh.”


JOSEPH AUGUSTO DOS SANTOS FERNANDESThe Revd Joseph Augusto dos Santos Fernandes

THE Revd Joseph Fernandes, Assistant Curate of Horton and Wraysbury, had a great-uncle who was an Anglican. That was a family scandal, he says, in a country where the majority self-identify as Roman Catholics as part of their genetic and cultural make-up, even if many are not practising. “People often ask, ‘When did you become a Christian?’ I was born one. You just are,” he says.

From Portugal, he has been in the UK since 1995. A Carmelite postulant and then a Dominican novice, he left the religious life at 18 to study history, and moved to England to study for a doctorate. He met his wife instead. Working in Oxford, he encountered Anglican worship at Keble College, where the chaplain asked him whether he had thought about becoming a priest. Fast-tracked, he was still surprised at the hoops that he had to jump through: “Back in Portugal, you go and see the Bishop, and off you go.”

Arriving at Cuddesdon, he was amused to find himself regarded as an exotic ordinand. “And then I somehow became the exotic curate — all because of the different cultural background,” he says. “It means I can get away with a whole lot more. People say, ‘It’s probably how they do things in Portugal: we’ll let him off. . .”

He acknowledges that the way he presides and operates as a priest is influenced by his Roman Catholic upbringing. But, he reflects, “My point of entry into the Church of England was Keble, which was quite High Church, but also St Aldate’s, in Oxford, which was Low. So it gave me a sort of hybrid way of being in charge, and I can ally to the different traditions.”

He feels particularly at home with the Traveller community. “Like me, it’s ‘Where’s home?’ and not being English,” he says. “What I love about them is that they are so raw and objective — they go straight to the point, and there is such joy. I took to them straight away. That’s influenced a lot of my curacy and has been a highlight. It provided me with a group of people where I could really be myself. They get me, and I get them.”

He has been here for half his life, but, although thoroughly welcomed and Anglicised, still feels like an outsider. “I’m allowed a lot of things, but I have to be careful in the way I operate,” he says. “If you ask me where my heart is, that’s tricky. I’m between places, really.”

Brexit has made both him and his wife anxious. He is entitled to British citizenship, but does he want it? And, in church, divided opinion is difficult to navigate. “It’s tricky; it makes me uncomfortable inside. Religion is political: it can’t be apolitical. How do we disagree well?”

He has been appointed to his first incumbency, at St Hilda’s, Ashford, in Middlesex, which he describes as a church eager for change. “They’re excited, and so am I,” he says. “My present parishioners say, ‘They don’t know what’s going to hit them.’”

FRANKLIN LEEThe Revd Franklin LeeCANON Franklin Lee’s first encounter with Anglicanism was not a happy one. Born in Hong Kong and moving back there from Singapore at the age of nine, he found himself in an Anglican primary school where the language was traditional written Chinese, and he could read only English. The school harked back to colonial England, and a clergyman visited to tell the children to be good Christians. The young Franklin decided that all Christians were probably hypocrites.

He had a better experience with the Lutherans, whose strong Christian witness and support broadened his faith and upheld him through his parents’ divorce. When he came to Boston, Lincolnshire, at the age of 17, he looked for a Lutheran church, but found St Botolph’s, Boston, known as Boston Stump. He did not relate the Church of England to Anglicanism, and expressed his relief to a churchwarden that it was so much nicer than the Anglican Church.

He was confirmed at the Vicar’s suggestion, and went to York to read history. An MA on the Reformation in Lincolnshire fuelled his interest in theology, and he went on to York St John, and two modules at Wilson Carlile College, Sheffield. His eyes were opened to the world of Fresh Expressions.

After ordination, he went back to Lincolnshire. In Spalding, his arrival as a curate in a traditional farming and landowning area was unusual enough to attract local media attention. Spalding and Boston were challenged by the arrival of thousands of Central and East European workers, a divisive subject in town and countryside. As a curate able to do a great deal of visiting in a single parish, he had to absorb it all.

He remembers the first wedding that he celebrated, and the unconscious irony of talk of “those migrants” when he was one himself. He has heard “good words said with good intention, but quite hurting”: the breezy assurance from a senior cleric, for example, that he would “always be able to go somewhere because dioceses have to keep up their ethnic numbers, and as a Chinese person you would get the job”.

Now Minor Canon, Succentor, and School Chaplain of St George’s, Windsor, he is the first Chinese priest ever to serve at Windsor Castle. “Being nearer to London, it’s easier to integrate, and people don’t have any difficulty accepting me as a priest. It’s a fascinating experience. I’m teaching children who travel the world, but know nothing about Slough or Maidenhead.

“When we read the Gospel story of the tax collector, they have no problem identifying the outcast, but it can be black and white when we come to who deserves help in our society and who doesn’t. Ministry both in Spalding and here has challenged the way I understand theology: where is God in the public square?”

Born British, but with no family here, he feels that his heart is still in Hong Kong. “I’ve been here nearly 20 years now; so I feel integrated in society. But it’s still mixed feelings.”


RYAN COOKThe Revd Ryan Cook

THE Revd Ryan Cook, Assistant Curate of St Margaret’s, Toxteth, was born in Chirac, British Columbia, and first ordained in an independent Evangelical church. He spent ten years with them before doing a Master’s degree at Regent College, Vancouver, in Canada.

Anglican Studies was part of the course. Working in an Anglican church, he found himself on the conservative side after the Anglican Church of Canada split. He went through an ordination and discernment programme, but, a month before he was due to be ordained in Canada, in 2013, he got a job as chaplain to students in Liverpool, and “ended up going into another season of training — I guess because there was still a lot of confusion between the branch of Anglicanism I was part of before I came, and the Church of England”. Three years of part-time study later, he was ordained, and went to Toxteth.

He loves Liverpool; it has been good for his family, he says, “and it’s a gift to be here.” He finds an affinity with his own background, and likes the “straight-shooting, ‘Say it the way you see it’ attitude — it helps me get on. They don’t hold back, which I thoroughly enjoy.”

The diverse community of Toxteth is a far cry from the demographic of city-centre Vancouver. “There’s still an appreciation here, by people who don’t go to church, of the traditional structures of the Church,” he reflects. “The funerals we do are massively attended, and there seems to be some cultural memory there of what the church is supposed to do.

“St Margaret’s is a church that almost died; it’s being rebirthed, and has about 50 people. Yet there are hundreds in the area who still cling to the idea that this is their church, even if they don’t attend.”

The parish system makes him “comfortable and uncomfortable”, he says. “It’s one of the great things about the Church of England: that it takes responsibility for the geography of the country. It feels like a real gift to have that, but some of the responsibilities that come with it can feel like a hindrance to getting on with things in a post-Christendom world.

“In Canada, we don’t have the remnants of Christendom. There’s an understanding that we should probably try to reach our neighbourhoods, but it’s much more of a ministry focused on individuals and individual spiritualities. And there’s a natural disposition of pioneering. If people didn’t give, the church didn’t last. There was nothing to undergird the financial sustainability; so ministers had to be pioneering to make things work.”

He admits to finding the C of E’s bureaucratic structures difficult to navigate: “And I’m a foreigner that speaks English of a sort, and comes from a Commonwealth country with a very similar legal system; so there’s a very similar social imaginary.”

He feels more of a foreigner now than ever. “The longer you live in a place, you become accustomed to certain ways of being that become more natural, and you also experience the boundaries of your identity being articulated more deeply because you are bumping up against them in different ways. I have realised how Canadian I am in interactions and engagements here in Britain.”

DIOCESE OF CHELMSFORDThe Ven. Dr John PerumbalathTHE Archdeacon of Barking, the Ven. Dr John Perumbalath, who is soon to be the Area Bishop of Bradwell, grew up in the ancient Syrian Christian community in Kerala, India. Belonging to a community that goes so far back is both a privilege and a responsibility, he believes.

He trained for ministry at Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, and was a parish priest in the diocese of Calcutta in the Church of North India. “It was very much Western,” he remembers. “I was in one of the churches with a purely English-speaking and mostly Anglo-Indian congregation. It was a kind of transition for me, coming from Kerala.”

He had intended to return to India after completing his doctorate in England, but was persuaded to stay, and went first as an associate priest to Beckenham. “I would say that I found the church language and life back in India more hopeful and joyful, and less individualistic and more communal. In the West, the understanding of faith is more individualistic: you don’t talk about faith; it’s your personal thing.

“There are common things we share as human beings, regardless of our cultural differences, and this connection is the basis for our ministry in a new context,” he says. But he remembers occasions when a white man would have been preferred: a funeral, for instance, “where a family had fixed it up with me without knowing who I was, and, later, asked my colleague to take it. It was part and parcel of life, but not an everyday thing.”

Interviewed for a senior post, he was asked whether he had been born a Christian. He enquired whether the same question had been asked of the other candidates, and was told, no, because they had been “born and brought up here”.

“So the assumption is that if you are born and brought up here, and are white, you must be nominally and culturally Christian; but otherwise you must have become one recently,” he says. “They seemed not to recognise that someone could be Christian for centuries, and be not white.”

He chairs the Committee for Minority-Ethnic Anglican Concerns, and thinks that attitudes are improving: there is “a kind of increased awareness and probably an intention to set things right.”

He considers that another challenge here is to reflect theologically in a contextual way, as they do in India and elsewhere. “Sometimes, we can go with an assumption that we have a received theology which is applicable everywhere. Sometimes, we are not even seeing the cultural, social, and political changes in our different societies: we just keep on with some sermon that might have been applicable in the 15th century.”

He tells clergy that they don’t have to be too formal and professional. He likes the less formal approach in which he was formed, and finds it important to be flexible and approachable. Yet he does not feel foreign. And what he finds refreshing at synodical level is the openness to discussion which allows private members’ motions that may not be sanctioned by the hierarchy, despite “those long legal debates where you think it is never going to end”.

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