An uncertain future for Prague’s Anglican congregation

If you are looking for somewhere for Christian worship in Prague, there are several places where you can attend regular Sunday services in English. One thriving English-speaking Christian community is the Anglican congregation, which meets every Sunday at St Clement’s Church in the Old Town. Services are well-attended, but in the twenty years since the fall of communism, the Anglican chaplaincy has not always had a smooth ride, and for the second time in just over a decade its future is uncertain.

St Clement’s Church, photo: Kristýna MakováSt Clement’s Church, photo: Kristýna Maková The Reverend Ricky Yates has been chaplain at St Clement’s since 2008:

“During the communist era, there were occasional services in the British Embassy, looked after by a clergyman who would come by train from Vienna. Since the Velvet Revolution there have been regular services since 1990, when the congregation moved from the British Embassy to share St Clement’s Church, which belongs to the Czech Evangelical Brethren.”

And it’s worth adding that St Clement’s is a beautiful late Gothic church, down by the river, just on the edge of the Old Town of Prague…

“Yes, it’s a wonderful building. Christian worship has taken place on the site for a thousand years. The building itself has Romanesque foundations. So, yes, it’s a beautiful building to worship within, though, of course, in winter somewhat cold!”

St Clement’s Church, photo: Kristýna MakováSt Clement’s Church, photo: Kristýna Maková When we think of the Anglican Church, we might think of England – or Britain – but in fact the Anglican community in Prague is very international, isn’t it?

“Yes, as is, of course, the Anglican Communion across the world. So within our congregation we have a minority of Brits and probably a minority of people who are Anglican as such by original background. But basically, on any Sunday we have into double figure nationalities within the congregation.”

In the late 1990s, Prague’s Anglican congregation suddenly found itself, rather unexpectedly, on the wrong side of Czech law. It became an accidental victim of legislation that aimed to clamp down on religious sects - some of them far from transparent - that were trying to take hold in the Czech Republic. David Holeton, professor of liturgy at Prague’s Charles University, explains:

“The difficulty is because of the church laws. The churches receive money from the state, and a law was passed that required a certain number of members for each church, who were required to be Czech citizens or permanent residents. There was no possible way that the Anglican congregation would ever have the numbers sufficient to meet that quota.”

Ricky Yates, photo: David VaughanRicky Yates, photo: David Vaughan The Anglican Chaplaincy found a rather ingenious solution. Ricky Yates again:

“Our legal status here in the Czech Republic since the years 2000 is as the English-speaking parish of the Old Catholic Church in the Czech Republic.”

What the congregation did was to place itself under the wing (technically speaking under "joint Episcopal oversight") of the one Czech church that traditionally enjoys full communion with the Church of England. Its name, “The Old Catholic Church” makes it sound both very ancient and Roman Catholic, but in fact, as David Holeton explains, the Old Catholic Church is neither:

“The Old Catholic Church is a very, very small church. It is particularly small in this country because it has had a very sad history. Its origins are in the 19th century, and the issues surrounding its creation were reactions among Roman Catholic scholars against the First Vatican Council, the idea of the universal jurisdiction of the Papacy, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and the dogma of papal infallibility. It attracted first of all a lot of German professors in Germany, and consequently it attracted a lot of Germanophones here in Bohemia.”

So we’re talking mainly about the region known as the Sudetenland, the border regions…

“Almost all the parishes were in the old Sudetenland except for one Czech-speaking congregation here in Prague. And the tragedy was that after the Second World War with the expulsion of the Germans, 95% of the Old Catholic Church population was expelled. After that, they had a very dotted history, because the then bishop refused to collaborate with the communists, he was declared insane by the government, removed from his see, not allowed to set foot in the part of the country that contained his own cathedral [the North Bohemian town of Varnsdorf]. It was really only in the waning years of communism and particularly after communism that the church was allowed to be reborn. And now, quite interestingly, the vast majority of the parishes are in Czech-speaking parts of the country that had no German predecessors.”

By aligning itself with the Old Catholic Church, the Anglican parish in Prague has secured its status in the Czech Republic, but now Ricky Yates warns that it is facing a problem familiar to congregations around the word – a lack of money:

St Clement’s Church, photo: Kristýna MakováSt Clement’s Church, photo: Kristýna Maková “The main problem that has arisen is that, whereas in the early years after the fall of communism, you had quite a number of wealthy business people who came here to head up the Czech branch of international companies, some of whom were people of faith and therefore worshiped at the church, those jobs tend now to be held by Czechs, and the congregation these days is made up of people who predominantly do not earn great sums. A lot of people are teachers of English as a foreign language or students. We need to raise about 1.3 million Czech crowns a year, about 1,300 USD a week, to run the church. That often surprises people, but a lot of the costs are paying the chaplain, paying for housing, as well as the rental and other costs incurred in running a church.”

And so, right now, you are facing a financial shortfall…

“Indeed. Although, in 2009 we increased our income, we still have a shortfall of over 300,000 crowns for the year, and unless we start getting in as much as it costs to run, then the reserves are likely to run out by the end of 2010.”

Some people, including David Holeton, see the solution in integrating the Anglican congregation more fully into the Old Catholic Church, with the possibility, at least in the longer term, of the parish being led an English speaking Czech priest from the Old Catholic Church:

David Holeton, photo: David VaughanDavid Holeton, photo: David Vaughan “That’s certainly possible and that certainly would be desirable, because ‘de iure’ St Clement’s is a fully incorporated part of the Old Catholic Church, but the reality is that there are only very few people who can take advantage of that. What’s quite significant though is that the status of St Clement’s within the Old Catholic Church here has become a model for the Anglican-Old Catholic relationships in Europe as a whole.”

But not everyone would welcome such a change. St Clement’s is a broad church and it is not always easy for the Anglican chaplain in Prague, presiding over an international congregation that includes Methodists, high-church Anglicans and just about everything in between. Any shift in the equilibrium could lead to a split in the congregation. Most people I spoke to at St Clement’s were in favour of keeping the status quo. But if the chaplain is to stay for the coming years, as Ricky Yates himself points out, members of the congregation are going to have to dig a fair bit deeper into their pockets:

“Really we have to say to the congregation and in particular to those who come occasionally to worship that if you want the congregation to be here, you’ve got to pay for it and try to educate people what it actually does cost.”

If you want to find out more about Prague’s Anglican Chaplaincy, go to: www.anglican.cz