Faith Runs Deep Among France′s English Expats | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 26.12.2004
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Faith Runs Deep Among France's English Expats

Dwindling church attendance? Not for some parts of the Church of England which is even opening new parishes. The only thing is they're in France where church-going is thriving among the British expatriate population.


A home away from home

A group of sixty elderly Britons intone the Lord's Prayer. The vicar prepares the wine and a few slices of very English-looking square, white bread for Holy Communion.

You have to pinch yourself to remember that you're in a Roman Catholic church in the heart of France because for anyone used to Church of England Sunday services, it's all very familiar. Right down to the prayer for the Royal Family, the sermon with jokes in and of course, the hymns.

On three Sundays a month there are three services in English running concurrently in the newly set up parish in picturesque Poitou-Charentes region, in France's cognac country. A series of bi-lingual carol concerts are also planned where over 400 people are expected to attend.

Three of the faithful are currently training for the priesthood, one more than at the local Catholic seminary. The chaplain says that in just five years, the congregation has grown from just 20 people to well over 300.

Ties that bind

Frau schaut auf eine Kirche

The vicar of the Poitou-Charantes Chaplaincy, Reverend Michael Hepper, remembers how helpful the local Catholic community was in helping establish things.

"When I first came, one of the first things I did was to go and see the Catholic bishops because I knew we would need to borrow buildings... we don't have any buildings of our own of course," Hepper said.

"They were extremely welcoming. Wherever we've had a need for a building, we've been very generously loaned a building."

It's obvious that the Church isn't simply a place of worship for the region's sizeable Anglican population, but also a place for the British expatriate community to revive language and cultural links and meet their fellow countrymen and women.

"Well, it ties us together. We look for the Church when we're in France. We're very much part of it," said one British man. Another woman said it was a natural place to be drawn to for expatriates. "Whether it's because we are all here and we are bonded together by the fact that we have left our country and we are all together and we link naturally."

English-language service essential

Betende Frau in der Kirche

A third underlined the importance of a English-language service. "I knew friends who told me about it and the thought of having somewhere where we could worship in our own language was extremely important to us. It's giving us communion in the form I'm accustomed to and for me that's important."

The latter according to Caroline Gordon-Walker, curate at the Chaplaincy of Poitou-Charentes, is of crucial significance. "There are two things that are really difficult to do in a foreign language," Gordon-Walker said. "One is to calculate numbers. The other is to pray."

France suspicious

But the English language, while solace to some, sounds very foreign to others. While the French churches have been kind to the Church of England, France's secular authorities have taken a little convincing.

In particular, the police spy network the 'Renseignements Généraux' which called in Reverend Hepper for a long chat. France after is notoriously sensitive to anything that is seen as challenging its secular credentials and thus suspicious about anything that might conceivably be classed as a sect.

To be fair to the French authorities, there is an intensity about the new, English-speaking Christians of Poitou-Charentes. Many will tell you they've been called by God to this part of the world. All the leading lights of the Church of England here, from the chaplain down, are enthusiastic about the new, evangelical movement Alpha, which has even raised eyebrows in England.

Church in times of need

But Deacon Brian Davis has another explanation of why faith runs deep amongst France's Anglican retirees in particular. The church ministers to those whose experiment with living abroad has taken a sombre turn, when, for example, one partner dies.

"People come out to live a dream and they don't really think far enough ahead and plan far enough ahead. And so that's a very pivotal moment I think when one of the partners dies," said David.

"Even when they have talked through together how each might respond to those circumstances because, with house price inflation in the UK, the reality is that for many people, even if they wanted to go back, they wouldn't be able to do that," he added. "I think it's at those points of need that we can be there for people."

As the flock has wandered, the church has followed. It seems, far from home, many Anglicans need their church more than ever.

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