‘I am sure there are opportunities at the English Church in Antigua, for when you come back’ one of the Itchen Valley’s church wardens quipped in an email to me. I was just about to leave on a two week secondment to the English Church in Verbier, Switzerland. And It’s true. It is a very agreeable way to spend two weeks – particularly with the recent dump of snow. But why would you want to go to church on holiday? Why would the church want to have a little outpost in this place of ski lifts, expensive restaurants, Russian oligarchs, members of the Royal Family, captains of industry, retired professionals, chalet girls and ski bums?
Well the answer to both these questions is ‘mission’. There is no doubt that you experience a place that you visit on holiday at a much deeper level, if you meet and get to know some of the residents. There is no faster way to meet British residents of a holiday location than attending the English speaking church in that place. You share the Peace and perhaps a glass of something after the service (vin chaud in the case of Verbier), friends are made, opportunities to ski together are found and community is formed. These experiences, outside the normal routine, can be life changing.
From the church’s point of view, the answer to why would you have a church in a holiday location is the same as why would you have a church anywhere in the world? Because there are people there; some people who know God, who need encouragement and support. But also people who are lost. Jesus was sent for the lost, God loves the lost and so does the church.
The English Speaking Church (ESC) was established in Verbier in 1986 http://www.escverbier.org The Swiss Reformed Church kindly allow ESC to use their chapel in Verbier for their services. The Little Church, as it is affectionately known, in Chemin du Temple, serves as a centre for Christian worship and fellowship in the hustle and bustle of this international ski resort. An English language service is held from 14th December until 26th April on every Sunday evening at 6pm. A rotating crew of English clergy and lay readers man the church for two week stints and are given the use of a flat above the main supermarket. The flat is a delight; reminiscent, with its family portraits and amateur landscapes, of a holiday let in Cornwall. The slight difference being the head of a stuffed chamois, fixing its beady eyes on anyone who goes near the drinks cabinet!
In addition to leading Sunday services and delivering sermons in a church designed for preaching, the Chaplain holds an Après Ski session on Tuesday evenings. About 15 parishioners attend. Of course, over Christmas and Easter the job is much more demanding with carol services for up to 300 held by the ESC at the main Catholic Church. This year the Chaplain at Christmas, in addition to numerous services which have become part of the Christmas experience in Verbier, was also asked to bless a couple’s reaffirmation of wedding vows. The Chaplain can also be available to hold the hands of family members in the case of an accident which happens occasionally. The resort finds having an English speaking chaplain on standby to do this, is a precious resource for them.
Regular Sunday services during the year attract about 30-40. So, busy at Christmas and regular attendance of 30/40 on usual Sundays………sounds familiar doesn’t it? This village in the mountains, which in the Summer is surrounded by green fields grazed by cows with bells around their necks, feels a bit like the Itchen Valley, despite the altitude. And the ESC is really quite like a rural church in Hampshire.
Like the Itchen Valley Churches, the core membership consists of people from a professional background, a whole range of ages from 30s to 70s. Many have a preference for traditional services. Accordingly, the services are liturgical. But, in addition, like in the Valley, there are those whose route into church attendance has been through the Alpha Course. As in the Valley, there are people with issues and challenges in their lives: issues of bereavement, loneliness and old age – so quite a lot of pastoral conversations.
One of the delights in Verbier is to have as part of the regular church population, Frits and Sara Janssen who have owned a chalet in Verbier for years and years. Their kind hospitality, so often extended to Valley clergy and parishioners in Easton, was extended to Lucy and I also in Verbier with a party to meet their friends and other members of the English Speaking Church. Some great conversations resulted.
The real difference between Verbier and the Valley is that in Verbier there are a huge number of young people as well working for the season as Chalet girls and boys and ski instructors. Separated from their families (and so from the usual constraints on their lives) life in Verbier can become a sort of perpetual Freshers week. Engaging with the young people while away from home can present evangelistic opportunities, but also the ESC can represent a fall back for those who find themselves lonely and lost, when the partying loses its appeal. This year, for the first time, the Chaplain has two Assistant Chaplains in their 20s who have been building relationships with the seasonnaires: Charles and Natasha Wallendahl, who are in Verbier for the whole season.
Where there are people, there is mission, whether it be on the slopes of Verbier, in the Itchen Valley or (dare I say it) on the beaches of Antigua!
Revd Alex Pease