Martyr to Ecumenism
I once found myself on the top of a mountain in Norway, and thought I was about to die from the cold. My only consolation was that a grateful Church of England might declare me a martyr to the cause of ecumenism. But I didn’t die, so General Synod never had to debate my sanctity.
The reason I was on top of this mountain in Selje, five hours by boat north of Bergen in Norway, which itself is pretty far north, was that, as Vicar General of the Diocese in Europe, I was representing the Church of England at the celebrations for the 1000th anniversary of the Church of Norway.
Now you may well ask why such celebrations were not in a nice cozy Cathedral (a question I asked myself with increasing self-pity over the long hours on the mountainside), but the answer is that the first Christians to land in Norway were monks from Ireland who rowed ashore at this point and, for some reason known only to the Irish, decided to drag their boat over the mountain to the other side. Your next question may well be, why didn’t they just sail round to the other side of the peninsula, but that would be to take all the fun (and Irishness) out of the adventure.
Anyway, over 10,000 Norwegians had trekked to this mountain and climbed to the spot at the top where an altar had been set up for the Centenary Mass. I and another few dozen bishops and priests of the Scandinavian Churches found ourselves being taken up the mountain in a nice warm bus. But our smug feeling of superiority to the hordes on foot was short lived: the bus dumped us in a field on which a huge tent had been erected by the Norwegian Army. It was where the clergy were to vest for the Mass, and it was pitched on a bog. I knew we were in for an unusual time when the soldiers handed huge plastic cylinders to each priest, and said we should put them on first before we donned our cassocks “as there is quite a wind on the mountain”. And all the while my feet were sinking into the half frozen mud – no one had suggested that stout boots would have been appropriate.
After about an hour of this, we heard the helicopter approaching in which the King of Norway arrived, suitably wrapped up against the cold. Then the ecclesiastical procession set off the few hundred yards to the altar, squelching our way up the hill. The Mass was beautiful, with lots of young Norwegians in national dress, and a party of muscular Norwegians who had represented the monks dragging their boat over the mountain. But the sun disappeared and the wind blew, and I lost all feeling in my legs.
I was saved from ecumenical martyrdom by a young man from Bergen diocese who, during a pause ( or maybe the Kiss of Peace) suggested that I follow him and a couple of his friends to a spot behind a large outcropping of rock, where the wind would not reach us. When we got there he produced a fine hip-flask from his national costume – and that was my first taste of Norwegian aquavit, but not my last, for we finished off the flask. Had I died on the mountain, my sanctity might have been tarnished by this unauthorized communion, but luckily the fiery spirit did the trick and I was able to get through the rest of the (very long) service without incident.
Eventually, the King took off in his nice warm helicopter; the clergy plodded back to the soggy tent-sacristy, stripped off our plastic wrappers, which I suppose must have done some good, and climbed aboard the bus. That evening, I entertained my saviour to dinner in my hotel, and we toasted English/Norwegian relations with even more aquavit. And, as you see, I lived to tell the tale.