They sing All Things Bright and Beautiful and enjoy tea and coffee with the vicar in the church hall after the service. Welcome to France, where the Church of England is enjoying an unlikely boom — in Roman Catholic churches.
Far from the falling congregations and controversies that have marked recent Anglican history in Britain, French chaplaincies say that they are attracting an increasing number of worshippers. Tomorrow, for instance, hundreds of people will attend services in the Dordogne and other regions that have become home to British expatriates.
Almost all will be held in churches lent by the local Catholic clergy, who are often happy to see otherwise underused buildings resonate to the sound of hymns and prayers, albeit in English.
In St Joseph’s Church in Biarritz, southwest France, for example, Catholics will attend Mass at 9.30am. As they leave an hour and a quarter later, the Rev Peter Dawson and his flock will begin a Church of England service.
Mr Dawson, 64, was ordained in Britain and moved to France four years ago for what he intended to be a “gap decade”. But in the face of a growing demand for Church of England services, he was called out of retirement to take over the Biarritz parish. “I always try to have tea and coffee with the worshippers in the church hall after the service,” he said.
In the Dordogne an informal arrangement for Anglicans to borrow Catholic churches was given an official stamp of approval by the Roman Catholic diocese of Périguex-Sarlat last year. It signed an agreement for eight churches to be used by the Church of England regularly.
Father Jean-Marie Bouron, general secretary of the diocese, said there was just one condition — that a notice is put on the church door when Anglican services are held. “We understand that many English people here want Anglican services, marriages and christenings. But local people might be surprised if they walked in without knowing.”
He said that local Catholics had accepted the arrival of Church of England vicars — many of whom are married with children — “with no reluctance at all”.
His comments were backed by the Rev Gill Strachan, a Church of England curate in southwest France, who said that relations with local Catholics were mostly “excellent”. However, she added that one Catholic priest had taken a stand against having a woman conducting services in his church, forcing her to step aside in that parish.
Elsewhere, the presence of Church of England worshippers — and their donations — was welcome. “Some Roman Catholic churches here are used once a month on a Saturday evening,” Ms Strachan said. “We use them six times a month.”
Dr Paul Vrolijk, the chaplain of Aquitaine in southwest France, said that the Church of England was holding more services and attracting bigger congregations than ever before.
The rise comes despite evidence that the increase in the British community as a whole has reached a plateau as expatriates move back to Britain. “We are definitely in the growth mode,” said Dr Vrolijk, adding that the chaplaincy welcomed “English speakers or any nationality and any denomination.”
The Venerable Kenneth Letts, the Archdeacon of France, said that congregations had increased by a third over the past 12 years in Nice on the French Riviera, where he is based.