Affluent American expatriates were responsible for the first organized Episcopal presence on the European continent. The names of Vanderbilt, Drexel, Roosevelt, Harriman, Biddle and Tigge are linked to the first church in Paris. Architectural designer Edward Francis Searles and financier J.P. Morgan contributed more than half the money needed to buy the land and build St. James Church in Florence.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, beautiful church buildings were designed and constructed in Rome, Paris, Nice, Florence and Geneva by wealthy Americans who wanted to worship in their own language according to the own customs. The jurisdiction for this scattered collection of American churches, today known as the Convocation of American Churches in Europe, was centered on another continent 4,000 miles away, in the presiding bishop’s office in New York.
Today, this church convocation that spans five European countries – France, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and Italy – looks much different than it did even 15 years ago. The convocation has 4,000 communicants, according to the latest available parochial report, in eight parishes and five mission congregations, with worship that serves English, French, German and Spanish-speaking congregations. Eight people are in the ordination process.
‘We are radically different from what we once were,” said Bishop Pierre Whalon. “Everyone thinks we’re eight scattered congregations. We’re a lot more than that. We’re kind of a laboratory for mission. We are learning things that are relevant beyond our local contexts.” Whalon said “tremendous ideas and ambitious goal setting” had emerged from the planning conference Mission 2006, which proposed priorities adopted by last October’s annual convention.
“It was a particularly constructive and forward-looking convention as it concentrated on our mission for the years ahead,” Helena Mbele-Mbong, a lay delegate to convention, told her congregation at Emmanuel Church, Geneva. “The discussions were lively, reflecting great enthusiasm for the improved focus of our mission priorities.”
Opportunities for growth
Evangelism opportunities are plentiful, Whalon said, describing the growth of French-speaking mission congregations, the Paris cathedral’s Asian ministry, Rome’s Latin American congregation that rivals in size the English-speaking congregation and the need for worship in their own culture by a large number of Chinese immigrants in Budapest.
“We need our own mission-planting strategy,” Whalon said, acknowledging that the American church in Europe must tread carefully because it is a guest on that continent. Proselytizing is frowned upon, he said, and cultural resistance makes evangelism difficult. “We do not use phone campaigns, knock on doors, nor do we preach against other churches. On the other hand, when you lift up the word and sacrament, people are attracted.
“And we try to make our churches visitor-friendly. We do evangelism by hospitality,” he said. The congregations are not homogeneous at all, said Nell Toensmann, the volunteer communications officer from 1995 to 2002 when she lived in Munich and Frankfurt. “They incorporate Anglicans and non-Anglicans from many countries. It is not uncommon for any of the congregations to be composed of people from 25 to 45 different countries.
“More and more different languages are being heard in the various congregations – French and Chinese at the American Cathedral in Paris, French in congregations outside of Paris, Spanish and Italian in Rome, Italian in Florence and German at churches in Germany.’
The convocation has taken the lead in publishing bilingual prayer books. The books are published English-Italian, English-French, English-Spanish and, most recently, English-German. They have the services of Morning Prayer, Holy Eucharist, Holy Baptism, Confirmation and burial services.
In 2001, Whalon became the first bishop since 1898 to be elected directly by the convocation. The bishop in Europe serves as a suffragan bishop, acting for the presiding bishop; for all previous episcopal oversight, appointments were made by presiding bishops.
In 1971, Bishop Edmond L. Browning, appointed by Presiding Bishop John Hines, became the convocation’s first resident, full-time bishop. Browning recalled that on his arrival that he found little that the congregations shared in common. “My discovery were seven isolated congregations having very little sense of being in community with one another,” he said in a report. “I think the joy for us was weaving together our lives and building stronger sense of community.”
When Browning left for the United States in 1974, the convocation once again had a nonresident, part-time episcopal oversight for the next 20 years.
Coincidentally, it was Browning, after he was elected presiding bishop, who pushed for a full-time bishop to give leadership to the convocation and used money from his discretionary fund to make that happen. In 1994, Bishop Jeffrey Rowthorn and his wife, Anne, took up residence in Paris and for the next seven years traveled across Europe, supporting missions; building youth work into a “Youth Across Europe” program and “making bread from stones and bricks from straw,” as he once described it.
Growth began in mid-’90s
The Rev. Fletcher Lowe of Richmond, Va., who has served several interim and supply positions in Europe since 1994, and his wife, Mary Fran, credit Rowthorn with fostering growth in the convocation. “The stability that he brought and the vision that he brought and the openness to planting congregations, small as some of them are, really gave the convocation a kind of a new life that it had not had before, and a sense of family,” Fletcher Lowe said.
Attendance at the annual convocation meeting appeared to have doubled between the time the couple went in 1998 and six years later, according to Mary Fran Lowe. “I attribute much of that to Jeffrey Rowthorn and many of the seeds that he sowed in terms of branching out to other communions, but also to the beginning of planting congregations, planting missions.” Living in Paris, Rowthorn provided a sense of stability, Fletcher Lowe said. He developed a vision of reaching out to other communities -- starting three satellite missions from the main congregation in Munich, for example.
“He also had the sense of a broader feeling for non-Roman Catholics in Europe,” he said. “He had this vision that this all could be one large family, if not organic, at least in ways of working together. ... It was a vision that I saw that really captivated me.” In preparing his successor for the challenges he would face, Rowthorn wrote that he had served along the lines of the classic “missionary bishop.” “We always traveled economy class, and I sold the bishop’s car because it seemed better stewardship to devote the travel budget to parish visits than to (in part) car repairs and sizable parking fees,” he wrote.
The Rowthorns lived in a small, one-bedroom apartment in one of the oldest Paris neighborhoods. He said he traveled between cities by cheaper rail passes purchased in the United States. His convocation office, housed in a wing of the cathedral in Paris, was a single room for himself, his administrative assistant and finance officer. For both Rowthorn and his successor, Whalon, that meant that private conversations often took place in a local café across the street of elsewhere.
U.S. trustees hold assets
Despite its growth and developing Episcopal autonomy, the convocation’s finances are mainly in hands of trustees who live in the United States. In 1883, the Board of Foreign Parishes was created by a special act of the legislature of the State of New York, principally to respond to difficulties that Episcopal parishes encountered in holding legal title to land in foreign countries.
The board still functions today, holding title to the American cathedral in Paris, including the associated buildings, and the parish house of the Church of Christ the King in Frankfurt. The board, which consists of 12 trustees, also holds and administers the Nice Fund, about $4.7 million originally created from the sale of a church in Nice, France, as well as an endowment of about $250,000. Income from the fund helps to support the convocation’s missions. (The convention last October approved a total budget of $465,000 for 2006.)
In addition, separate boards of trustees were created years ago for the churches in Rome and Florence. Those boards own the buildings and hold certain financial endowments for those parishes. The convention also acts as a Paris-based official holding corporation for some of the other congregations. The complexity of all of this resulted in a hefty-sized booklet when the convocation distributed its profile and information to bishop candidates five years ago.
In it, the convocation listed the usual desires normally sought in an Episcopal leader – a spiritually centered person with a strong sense of vision and mission who relates well with youth and supports an inclusive ministry. But it cautioned that the bishop shared an office and that staff amounted to a three-fifths time administrative assistant, a half-time canon missioner, a volunteer treasurer and volunteer communications officer.
The successful candidate must be able “to live and work effectively with modest resources, amenities and accommodation,” it forewarned. And lastly, it almost pleaded: “Have a good sense of humor!”