A few days ago I was standing in the Hermitage in front of Rembrandt’s masterpiece The Return of the Prodigal. It is a painting I have always wanted to see, ever since reading Henri Nouwen’s remarkable book about it, in a country I have always wanted to visit, having learnt to pray at my mother’s knee for Christians who were suffering for their faith in the then Soviet Union. In St. Petersburg we saw beautiful churches that had once been turned into warehouses or into ‘museums of religion and atheism’ now lovingly restored and reopened for worship. However it is not only churches that have been restored – the multitude of opulent royal palaces built by the Czars of the Romanov dynasty have been lavishly restored at a cost of millions.
As I queued among the awe-struck tourists to enter the vast Summer Palace of Catherine the Great, I couldn’t help reflecting on the sheer excess of it all, built at a time when life for most of the inhabitants of imperial Russia was the poverty of unrelenting serfdom. The fate of the Romanovs in the Russian Revolution is of course a vivid warning of the dangers when governing elites lose touch with the people they are there to serve. But the human heart is the same in every age, and as a newly appointed leader in the church it reminds me that leadership (whether in church or state) is a privilege not a perk, and is about seeking the common good and the flourishing of the many. For being a leader, as Jesus reminds us, is about service not status. ‘For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve…’
The people of St. Petersburg have suffered the tyrannies and upheavals of the 20th century. Learning about how the city was changed by three revolutions, two world wars, the 900 day siege of Leningrad and 70 years of communist rule reminded me just how fortunate my generation has been to grow up in a free, democratic and peaceful Europe, and to see the liberation of so many former-communist countries in Eastern Europe with remarkably little bloodshed. It has also given me a rather different perspective on the current referendum debate in Britain about EU membership. For I had forgotten the founding vision of the European Economic Community, which in the aftermath of two world wars was to build a Europe where nations would live in freedom and peace.
When we visited Tallin, the capital of Estonia, one of the Baltic states that broke away from Soviet rule in 1991, we sensed the self-esteem of a nation that has now enjoyed the longest period of independence in its history, and the pride which it has in its membership of the EU and of the Euro, which it sees (along with membership of NATO) as offering long-term freedom and stability, and security in the face of a resurgent Russia to its east. In Poland, another former communist satellite now enjoying democracy and freedom within the EU we visited the amazing new European Solidarity Centre, an interactive museum which tells the story of the birth of the Solidarity trades union in the Gdansk shipyard in 1980, and how, despite martial law and oppression, their persistence and sacrifice has led not only to freedom and democracy for Poland, but blazed a path for peaceful transition to democracy across Eastern Europe.
Having had such a wonderful experience on my visits around the Baltic, it was a shock to come back to Britain to the tragic news of the brutal murder of a member of parliament, and to a culture in which we seem to delight in denigrating politicians (‘they are all as bad as each other’, ‘they’re in it for what they can get’). Unless we value and respect those who dedicate themselves to public service, we will end up with the politicians we deserve.
It has been sad also to come back to a referendum debate which seems to be about the self-interest of Britain, rather than the common good of the continent. Europe has not forgotten its debt to Britain 75 years ago when so many of my parents and grandparents generations were ready to lay down their lives to bring freedom and peace to the continent. I dare to hope that this week we will not turn our back on working for a European dream which, for all its faults, has brought freedom and stability to so many countries.