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God in a cold climate

27 March 2020

Sarah Woolley speaks to people worshipping at the ends of the earth


Vince’s Cross, Hut Point Peninsula, Ross Island, Antarctica

Vince’s Cross, Hut Point Peninsula, Ross Island, Antarctica

IT WAS 1904 when the shadow of a cross first fell on Antarctic land. “Vince’s Cross” was raised on the cliffs of Ross Island to remember where George T. Vince, a 21- year-old seaman, had slipped to his death in the waters below. His surviving shipmates were sailing aboard Discovery under the command of Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton at a time when humanity, let alone religion, was a stranger to such icy shores.

More than 100 years have passed since Scott’s first attempt to reach the South Pole, but Vince’s Cross is still standing. Today, it watches over a busier island, which houses the McMurdo research station, several coffee shops, and the second southernmost religious building in the world: the Chapel of the Snows. Its doors are open to people of all faiths or anyone wishing to see a stained-glass penguin in the chapel’s window.

CHRIS WAINChris and Sandra Wain at Prospect Point, Antarctica.

This is one of just eight churches standing on a continent that is bigger than the United States and Mexico combined. Most of them sit along the Antarctic peninsula — the most accessible region — including a Russian Orthodox church built from Siberian timber. Head a further 2000km inland, and you will find Our Lady of the Snows carved into the ice at an Argentine research base. This is the place of worship closest to the South Pole, and its luminous blue walls cocoon a frost-covered Christ on the cross, who looks as if he has been dipped in sugar.


THESE holy places certainly defy the old saying of sailors that “Below 40 degrees south there is no law; below 50 degrees south there is no God”; but Christians around the world are connecting spiritually to Antarctica, even when a church is not close to hand.

This was the case for Chris and Sandra Wain, a married couple in their sixties,who live in North Staffordshire. They explored Antarctica this year with Quark Expeditions and a multinational group of fellow travellers, all of them eager to see penguins and icebergs when they ventured from their expedition vessel. Mrs Wain was taken aback whenever she was outdoors.

“It’s been there throughout the ages,” she says, as she recalls the pebble beaches of King George Island. “It’s rather like when you walk in a very old cathedral, and the steps are all dented where people have walked before. There’s a sense of you walking in the footsteps of something that’s been there for thousands of years; and the timelessness of that — and of God’s creation and of God’s hand in that — is just extraordinary.”

CHRIS WAINA cross commemorating three members of the British Antarctic Survey who died in an attempt to cross the sea ice from Petermann to Faraday Station in 1982

There was also a stillness that resonated with her: she uses meditation and Ignatian prayer in her daily worship. “I feel closest to God through those sorts of practice; so I shouldn’t be surprised to feel touched by the silence the Antarctic offered to us,” she says. “The deepest spiritual moments for me were when we were out on the Zodiacs [inflatable boats]. The drivers would switch off the engine deliberately and encourage us to stay calm and just listen. And sometimes there was absolute stillness, except perhaps a ripple of water, or a bird flying over, or a penguin plopping in the water. It was just so still. You sort of take a deep breath in, and you almost don’t want to breathe out because you want to hold the moment for ever.”


THE Wains are part of a trend to Antarctic tourism which has been growing. In the early 1990s, Antarctica received only about 5000 visitors each year. In the 2018-19 season, more than 56,000 tourists headed south.

“Our presence there has to be managed and controlled,” Mrs Wain says. “The fragility of the environment is almost on a knife-edge, and we were very aware of that, every day of the holiday. We had to wear proper clothing and disinfect our feet. People had to have their baggage hoovered before we went out.”

This care for the environment included a 15ft rule when it came to the wildlife. “The penguins didn’t know that; so sometimes they walked closer,” Mr Wain, a keen amateur photographer, says. “You simply had to stand still and let them go their way, which was very moving, because you just have a feeling that this is their country — their place, where they have a right to be.”

For now, the penguins are certainly in charge of a continent that has neither a government nor an indigenous population. Tourism companies, such as Quark Expeditions, are legally bound to environmental standards set out by the Antarctic Treaty signed in 1959. Ideally, it means the 54 parties who’ve signed up will endeavour to keep Antarctica free from nuclear weapons or a military presence.

CHRIS WAINYalour Islands, Antarctica

This spirit of peace came to life for Mr and Mrs Wain when their ship first crossed the Antarctic Circle.

“We were all encouraged to go on deck at seven in the morning,” Mrs Wain says. “Everybody got dressed up. They gave us grog, and, as we crossed the Antarctic Circle, one of the Quark crew, a Chilean girl, sang the ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ from Verdi. Everybody was hugging, and lots of people were cheering and crying. We met some amazing people from all over the world, and that’s part of it. You’re not doing this on your own.”


MOST of us will not cross the Antarctic Circle, but we can get a taste of polar fellowship from the 2013 documentary Antarctica: A year on the ice. It records the day-to-day life of Antarctica’s workers — not just its scientists, but firemen, administrators, and shopkeepers: every member of a community that makes survival (let alone life) possible when the last flight home leaves in February and doesn’t return until November.

The film includes the day when its creator, the filmmaker and photographer Anthony Powell, married his wife, Christine, in the Chapel of the Snows. Mr Powell was working as a telecommunications engineer when he proposed in 2003 with a giant engagement ring sculpted from ice. Antarctica’s first “white wedding” took place in the same year, when they exchanged brass rings made by an on-site plumber.

CHRIS WAINObserving the 15ft rule on Petermann island, Antarctica

“It was a real community event that brought all sorts of talents and great generosity out of the woodwork,” Mr Powell recalls. “Because we could not get anything new brought in, everything was hand-made from materials already there. . . It was a truly unique experience, and felt really down to earth, not something that could be replicated anywhere else, where people will shop for new clothes, organise caterers, hire commercial halls, etc.”

It was the same resourcefulness as made the documentary possible in the first place: Mr Powell built equipment to withstand temperatures below -40ºC. Keeping a small pair of pliers to hand allowed him to press small buttons when he could not risk removing his mittens, and he quickly learned that a warm viewfinder had a tendency to melt ice crystals on eyelashes and leave a photographer with his camera frozen to his face.


ALTHOUGH the Powells are not practising Christians, they were accompanied on the ice by a fellow photographer, Andrea Rip, who worshipped in the Chapel of the Snows. From 2006, Ms Rip spent two summers and one winter working on the continent, including time behind the wheel of a 48-foot long “Terra Bus” that shuttles researchers around the snow.

“I always found it quite inspiring to be at the bottom of the earth singing on Sunday morning in the first timezone, aligned with New Zealand,” Ms Rip says, “like we were getting Sunday started for the rest of the Christian world.”

When Ms Rip wasn’t working, she photographed buckling ice sheets, Antarctic rugby matches, and even Vince’s Cross standing guard over her community. I asked her when she felt closest to God there.

“Looking up at the stars during winter,” she replies. “Seeing nacreous clouds and aurora australis at the edge of light after a long winter, or gazing across to the mountains and standing by the edge of the frozen sea always reminded me of how powerful God must be to design such impressive constellations and geological formations.”

Being thousands of miles away helped Ms Rip to rediscover values that had always been close to home. “The nearly untouched continent encouraged me to want to be responsible to care for the earth, God’s creation, even more,” she says.

ALAMYChapel of the Snows, McMurdo Station, Ross Island, Antarctica

“I grew up in a Protestant church [Christian Reformed], so was taught about our role in redeeming the world — and, in the most simple terms, to leave our space in this world better than we found it. In this spirit, I found it so interesting how invested almost everyone who lived in Antarctica is in keeping our environment the best we can for the future. Even those who are not practising the Christian faith there have a role in supporting this research and awareness . . . ultimately working towards what I saw as the redemption of God’s creation.”


MS RIP’s Antarctic working schedule was more extreme than the voyage that Mr and Mrs Wain took as tourists, but all three of them were marked for ever by a place where collaboration is prized. Antarctica shows how people from around the world can unite in peace to protect the planet.

This was something that Sir David Attenborough raised when he delivered a speech to the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology in 2019, close to where MPs were debating Brexit. Speaking to reporters, Sir David said that Antarctica offered “rather a better example than many politicians. . . I don’t wish to paint scientists as saints — they, too, have their feuds and their quarrels and their arguments — but what is happening in the Antarctic is a very admirable example of how intelligent people can get together and sort out problems.”

Christians visiting the other side of the globe, around the Arctic Circle, have seen what is at stake if we fail to do so.

Steve Coles is chief executive of Spitalfields Crypt Trust, a charity that helps people facing homelessness and drug and alcohol addiction in east London. As a member of the Salvation Army, he usually spends his free time practising in his citadel’s band or choir, but, in 2019, he journeyed deep into the second largest glacier in Iceland.

“It was the most pure thing I’ve ever encountered,” he recalls of walking inside Langjökull, a glacier that stands 1450 metres high. A tour guide walked him through an 800-metre man-made tunnel until they reached a small chapel carved into the bright blue heart of the ice. It was at this point that the guide burst into a song that echoed around the chamber.

“This tour guide singing in a chapel tunnelled into a glacier, under metres and metres of clear blue, ancient ice was one of the most beautiful and moving moments, but also incredibly sad,” Mr Coles, who spent much of the trip learning about global warming, says. “The glacier is shrinking. For me, there was a deep sense that something is dying. . . There was a sense of deep grief, you know; slow, drawn-out death. Those words are quite extreme, but it is deeply, deeply sad, mourning with creation”

iSTOCKInside Svalbard Church, Longyearbyen

Langjökull’s story began 3500 years ago, when woolly mammoths roamed Iceland, but the current pace of climate change means that Langjökull and its chapel are expected to melt away in about 100 years — or even as few as 50, in a worst-case scenario.

It is a fate that has already claimed the Okjokull glacier, in Iceland, declared dead by geologists in 2014. Sitting in its place is a small patch of ice and a plaque that reads: “Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as glacier. In the next 200 years all our main glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”


IT IS a sobering thought that the first polar explorers were pushing individual human survival to its very limits; but, a century later, the coldest places remind us that the life of this planet, and humanity itself, have a question mark hanging over their future.

I ask Mr Coles what gives him hope when it is so easy to be fatalistic. “I get more hopeful hearing from the young people in our church that went along to Extinction Rebellion [protests],” he says. “And as I get older, actually, the thing I am more and more sure about is that hope is absolutely found in God. I’m 42, and increasingly I am sure that out of death comes life . . . and it is spring that tells me that.

“In a sense, I have never doubted it, but I just became absolutely certain that life and love conquer death, and that death doesn’t have the final word.”

His faith is coupled with a lifelong commitment to social action, and he returned from Iceland determined to reduce his family’s impact on the environment. “I still feel quite guilty about having flown to Iceland,” he says.

His own next journey into the cold was much closer to home — to the grounds of Christ Church, Spitalfields, where he spent a night last October, joined by colleagues and supporters of the first sponsored sleep-out for Spitalfields Crypt Trust. It marked the spot where the Trust’s work began 55 years ago, when a homeless man died on the steps of Christ Church. The death prompted churchgoers to open up the Crypt and offer food and shelter to people in need of it. Mr Coles and his companions raised more than £8000.

“To actually experience the way the cold would creep into one’s bones — those kinds of phrases became very real,” he recalls. “It’s very far away from the realities of rough sleeping in many ways, but, nevertheless, enough of a little taste to just have a better sense of it. . .

“Part of the reality is that some of what we do is affected by actual death. Homeless men die, on average, at the age of 43.”

ALAMYInside an ice cave in the Langjokull glacier, Iceland

Visiting strange and beautiful places, such as the inside of a glacier, reminds Mr Coles that we can respond to injustice if we remember that there is enough of the planet for everyone.

“Creation, of course, reveals grace and abundance,” he explains. “I could see a beautiful sunset, and I could invite a friend to come see it, but the reality is that there would not be half a sunset because there were two of us looking at it. . . There is 100 per cent of it for all of us.”


ALTHOUGH the landscapes are markedly different, Mrs Wain sees similarities between her visit to Antarctica and time spent with the Taizé Community, in France.

“It’s a similar thing about not knowing why you find yourself in a place, but something’s pulled you there,” she says. “ I always say to God: ‘I don’t know why we’re all here at this place, at this time. But it’s in your hands.’”

Clergy serving in these climes also speak enthusiastically about the draw of an awe-inspiring landscape, and of the possibility of creating a homely haven within it.

“I travel the entire Canadian Arctic, and have been privileged to view God’s awesome panoramic landscapes,” the Bishop of the Arctic (part of the Anglican Church of Canada), the Rt Revd David W. Parsons, says. “The pristine views and hues, along with the stillness interrupted by my feet crunching on the wind-packed snow, always reminds me of a poem I learned as a child in Labrador by Dilys Bennett Laing. She wrote, ‘I walked on a snowbank that squeaked like leather, Or two wooden spoons that you rub together.’

“It’s amazing walking to church on a cold dark evening, and seeing the little building with lights shining out, and, inside, the furnace roaring and people sitting on benches singing praises to God. Recently, I was blessed to listen to people, one after another, come forward to share stories of their present-day experience with Jesus. It’s quite the life.”

To the east, the Revd Siv Limstrand ministers at Svalbard Church, part of the Church of Norway, in the world’s most northerly town: Longyearbyen. Church visitors are reminded to leave their shoes, and all weapons, at the door. This is polar-bear country. The community here is “extremely diverse”, she reports. There are 52 nations represented in a population of just 2400.

The original, coalmine-base community goes back only to the beginning of the 20th century, and the town has always been subject to “rapid changes”, she says. But “it seems that the shift to science and tourism has led to a new and even faster pace. The people you saw in the streets or cafés yesterday have already left. Your neighbour of last year has changed twice.

“Being church here means offering stability: there are people to turn to when it seems that everybody has left the island, or you feel the rest of the world and what you call home is too far away. The church is always open, no matter what time of day or night, and we welcome everybody to sit and meditate, pray, read, light a candle, have a cup of coffee, a chat, take part in a worship or a cultural event.”

The church is situated on a hill overlooking the town, and, when you enter, you find a large living-room with comfortable chairs and a fireplace, creating a cosy, welcoming atmosphere.

“Visitors, whether Svalbardians or tourists, express their appreciation of the peace and quiet to be experienced here,” she says. “Maybe it is like a safe and unexpected haven when the cold winds feels devastating and threatening. Being church, in the meaning of a holy place, is always trying to give shelter, to the body, mind, and spirit. Being church in the Arctic — even more so?”


Quark Expeditions offers a variety of polar adventures, north and south, including Svalbard www.quarkexpeditions.com.

Tours inside the Icelandic glacier are offered by intotheglacier.is.

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