Father Simon: Profile in Faith, Courage and Giving Back to the Community
Father Simon Stephens sat with us in his 19th Century Parsonage at St Andrew’s Anglican Church and shared with us his personal history, his views on working and ministering in Moscow, and his work with a unique Foundation that he established 38 years ago when he was a young parish priest in Coventry in the West Midlands of England.
By Linda Lippner
Photos courtesy of St.Andrew’s Anglican Church
Father Simon arrived in Moscow seven years ago and jumped into a multifaceted job worthy of this man of unlimited energy. Upon retirement from a Chaplain’s commission with the Royal Navy, Father Simon went to the Spanish Island of Menorca. There he was priest to an Anglican Community within the Diocese of Europe when, one day, his bishop called. “He called me on a hot August day and asked me if I would consider an appointment to Moscow,” he explained. “I couldn’t sleep that night it was such a shock.” But arrive he did, in Moscow, on Nov. 30, 1999, St. Andrew’s Day, and took over as Chaplain and Area Dean, and as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Representative to the Russian Orthodox Church. From St. Andrew’s, a stone’s throw from the Moscow Mayor’s office, he ministers to a multi-national and multi-denominational congregation of at least 150 Sunday morning communicants. (For information, visit www.standrewsmoscow.org)
We spoke about the English Gothic and Victorian buildings at 8 Voznesensky Per., a land plot purchased by Moscow’s British community in the 1820s. Today’s church building dates to 1882 and has a complicated past (see Passport’s March issue and the website for more information); also wear and tear are starting to affect the structures. “If I can use a phrase from my Navy days, the ship is in dire need of repair in order to sail on,” he said. St. Andrew’s has waited 10 years for the Russian government to fully honor commitments it made when Queen Elizabeth II visited Moscow in 1994. The government promised to return the church to Anglican use. (St. Andrew’s is part of the Church of England of which the British Queen is considered to be the head.) But as often happens in Russia, the red tape has been endless. “Our major international fund raising program to restore St. Andrew’s Church to its former glory has been needlessly delayed by government bureaucracy,” Father Simon said.
When Father Simon is not in Moscow, he travels extensively in the largest Anglican deanery in the world assigned to one priest! He is responsible for an area stretching from the western borders of Poland to the eastern reaches of Russia, the CIS and the Chinese border. But Father Simon is used to traveling the roads of the world, or perhaps more appropriately, “the sea lanes of the world”. Father Simon saw action in the Falklands and 1st Gulf War while serving on ships at sea for 10 of his 17-year career in the Royal Navy. These included the Queen’s Flagship, HMS Ark Royal, where he met Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Recalling the meeting, Father Simon said: “She met me and said, ‘I see Chaplain that you are working a 36 hour day just like I do!” Indeed, Father Simon found that being a Chaplain (which has no rank in the British Navy) was a great calling that has served him well in his time in Moscow. In counseling sailors, officers, victims of war and accident, and attending to the affected families in their grief, he was able to develop many of the skills that have come in handy at his Moscow posting. His multinational ministry includes ambassadors as well as homeless street people who come to the door of the Parsonage at all hours of the day and night.
But working with grieving families due to death and tragedy started earlier for Father Simon. His first assignment after being ordained to the Deaconate in 1967 and the Priesthood in 1968, was as hospital chaplain at an inner city hospital in Coventry. There he worked in a children’s cancer ward where none of his seminary training seemed relevant in working with families with dying children. The catalyst for what became a world-wide ministry to bereaved parents, came from his pastoral ministry to two families whose sons were dying at the same time in his hospital. “I felt impotent in the face of such grief,” he said, “and I realized that only bereaved parents could help one another.”
In 1969, the British registrar of births, marriages and deaths, recorded the deaths the previous year of over 17,000 children. On Christmas Eve that year, the BBC thus invited Father Simon to discuss the impact of the loss of a child on a family, together with a group of recently bereaved parents. Almost immediately, over 4,000 letters arrived at his home and more were coming all the time. “I understood I had struck a nerve and I thought that there must be a better way to help families deal with the loss of a child,” he said. “Families were not coping and they were telling me that their religious and spiritual advisors were not coping either!” Father Simon had an idea and that idea became The Compassionate Friends Foundation (TCF) which since its establishment in 1969 has spread worldwide to include chapters in 38 countries.
In the US, Newsweek interviewed Father Simon and soon after he was invited to appear with Barbara Walters on Good Morning America. That publicity brought in 17,000 letters, and today there are over 700 TCF chapters in the US. When the US organization holds its 30th National Conference in Oklahoma City this July 20-22, Father Simon, its founder, will be a keynote speaker. (For information, visit www.compassionatefriends.org) TCF aids those coping with grief through the compassionate counseling of others who have suffered in the same manner. “It’s important to remember that the loss of a child in a family can happen when the child is of any age, and many families have suffered grievously when a young man or woman has died from AIDS or other illness, suicide, accident or war,” Father Simon said.
Among the mentors who have influenced his life, Father Simon singles out Mother Teresa in whose Calcutta hospice he once worked. “Mother always said that she liked working best with those ‘who have broken hearts and wear a crown of thorns transformed into gol", he said. Father Simon, author of the best-seller Death Comes Home was mentored also by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and Dame Cicily Saunders. The latter re-introduced the Hospice program in the UK after 400 years of dormancy.
While saying goodbye to Father Simon at the Parsonage door, I asked him what he liked most and least about Moscow, also what advice he might give to a newcomer. “I dislike the traffic and cars with dark windows,” he said. On the plus side he enjoys the city’s “buzz” and its cultural opportunities. But most of all, he said, “I like Russia’s deep snow when the pale winter sunshine is reflected on the golden domes of the Kremlin’s Cathedrals.” As for that word of advice, he added, “you need a sense of humor!”
St.Andrew's Anglican Church
8 Voronezhsky Pereulok