ONE of the region’s leading Christian ministers, known as ‘Father Bill’ in Bahrain, will be officially installed as Dean of St Christopher’s Cathedral on Saturday at a ceremony in Manama.
Although he takes up his new role for the first time following the departure of The Very Reverend Chris Butt, the American has close connections to the kingdom as part of a 44-year-long passion for the Middle East, where he got engaged to his beloved wife, Edie.
“Because I’ve been visiting Bahrain for more than 30 years there aren’t actually ‘first’ impressions at this point,” he told GulfWeekly. “However, I can say that as I settle in I’m finding Bahrain is more relaxed than other places we’ve lived.
“We feel very welcomed by those we have met, and especially by the people of St Christopher’s. I’m sure living here will be very fulfilling.
“I’m somewhat surprised to find that there is no need to speak Arabic since all of the Bahrainis I’ve met speak English well. Nothing is far away, so getting to and from places is easy.
“We like living in the old part of Manama and the ability to walk to many places. I’m particularly encouraged with the historic openness among Bahrainis to embracing the expatriates in their midst, and the acceptance of non-Islamic religious traditions.
“St Christopher’s is a welcoming community. All are welcome regardless of nationality, ethnicity, or your church background. I speak English and American and can spell both! Learning of cultures and making friends from all over the world has been a lifelong joy. I look forward to making many friends here.”
Father Bill spent time looking after the St Christopher’s community two years ago when Dean Chris was on sabbatical and was also made an honorary Canon of the Cathedral.
So how did a young man born in 1952 in Omaha, Nebraska fall in love with the Middle East?
It all started when he went to Egypt in the autumn of 1972 for a ’study abroad’ term and simply enjoyed it thoroughly.
“It was all so different, invigorating and challenging,” he said. “I had an immediate respect for Islam, while at the same time finding that the contrast of living as a Christian in an Islamic culture where religious identity is part of everything – as opposed to the secular culture of the United States – affirmed my desire to make my own Christian convictions real in my daily life, not just when I was ‘in’ church.
“It happened that the university offered me the position of running the study abroad programme for the ’73-’74 academic year. Experiencing the 1973 war between Egypt and Syria and Israel really challenged my inherited biases about ‘the Middle East’ crisis. After that one job followed another. It’s been a wonderful life.”
It’s also been a life with a mission to enlighten the many Christians who only know Islam from tragic headlines and inappropriate stereotypes.
His highly-acclaimed book Islam: A Christian Understanding (originally titled Islam: A religion, A Culture, A Society) is considered a ‘must read’ particularly for newly-arrived servicemen based with the US Navy in Juffair and expat businessmen settling into the region.
“After studying Islam while I was in Egypt, I have continually read and engaged with Muslims to try and understand Islam as Muslims understand being a Muslim,” he explained. “Of course, in that process I became more aware of the cultural filters we all engage in comprehending something new and strange.
“For years I have found myself explaining the difference between Christianity and Islam to people in my parishes and at conferences. I am particularly motivated to encourage interfaith understanding because of all of this.”
Father Bill certainly does not lack experience, having held positions in Saudi Arabia with an oil giant during particularly challenging times and helping to establish the first Christian church in Qatar … political hotspots by any measure.
“Every country has its own particularities,” he said. “Bahrain will be my sixth country of residence. Learning the things that make life here different from other places is all part of the adventure – here and everywhere else. Each country has its own challenges.
“It happens that the years we lived in Saudi Arabia were difficult for everyone, including the Saudi citizens, because of the eruption of terrorism in the country. Expats and Saudis alike suffered.
“My role as a morale officer for ARAMCO meant that I was in touch with many who were affected; victims, survivors, relatives, and the way the abrupt impositions of security changed the way we all lived.
“We all did our best to maintain ‘life as normal’ as much as we could. We have many happy memories of our time there and the friends we made.
“I can say that I enjoyed the special challenge of really planting a church in Qatar. Because there had been no history of recognised Christianity for centuries, unlike Bahrain and Kuwait and Oman, working with the government to establish infrastructure and understanding was very rewarding. Creating legal foundations for the Church to function was a mutual adventure for us and for the Qatari government.”
He will also continue to be Archdeacon in the Gulf where he has a glowing reputation as a ‘techie’ and a much-valued colleague and friend of The Right Rev Michael Lewis, Bishop of the Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf, who will be flying into Bahrain to lead the formal celebration of his installation at St Christopher’s Cathedral.
“It will be a juggling of priorities, urgencies and important matters all of the time,” said Father Bill. “It won’t be easy to do both as well as if I had one or the other responsibility alone. However, the people of St Christopher’s and the bishop are all working with me to be helpful in every way. It helps that I’m something of a workaholic.”
The Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf comprises a huge geographical area, including Cyprus, the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq and Yemen and the bishop is keen for his man to continue ‘discharging his wider responsibilities and bringing to bear his wisdom and unrivalled experience in the region from this new location’.
The new dean’s full title is The Very Reverend and Venerable Dr Bill Schwartz, OBE – he was made an honorary Officer of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 2006 to recognise his work in the region – but he’s not one for airs and graces.
“The OBE was awarded in recognition of ‘services to the community’. When I received the call I was very surprised indeed, especially as I am not British,” he said. “At the time and until today I am deeply honoured that Her Majesty extended this honour to me.
“I don’t use the full title, which would only be used at very official occasions,” he explained. “Within the Bahrain context people call me either ‘Father Bill’ or ‘Dean’ because here I’m the dean of the cathedral, the local church. Outside of Bahrain where my function for the diocese is the archdeacon role, people call me archdeacon.
“Over the years I’ve held different kinds of administrative roles and have attended meetings our diocese has held here. In my responsibility as archdeacon over the past 10 years I’ve also had a particular role in significant liturgical celebrations in the life of the church here. For example, I have participated in various ordinations and installations of Canons – an honorary position extended by the bishop to clergy who have distinguished themselves in a particular way – in the cathedral.”
Father Bill is married to Edie and they have four children and two granddaughters.
“Edie and I were engaged in Aswan Egypt in the spring of 1976,” he said. “In the summer she went to the States to prepare for the wedding and I went to Ethiopia to work on a development project – a previous commitment - in culturally-appropriate housing in a rural area and low-tech windmill energy. I got to the wedding on time and a week later we were back in Egypt!”
In the following summer they moved to Cyprus to join a ministry bringing Christian Arab young people together to learn from each other’s’ experiences in their different countries. This led to increasing involvement in literature distribution and extended even more to introducing information technology (IT) to church people in the region.
“Helping and encouraging Arab church leaders to embrace technology in the service of the church was a real challenge in those days. I remember trying to explain how email will become the communication tool of the future – to serious disinterest because of the cost of the modems and the training needed to learn how to ‘do’ emails. But that is all history now!”
As part of this ministry he became the IT person for the bishop’s office in Nicosia, Cyprus. In 1989 the bishop at the time asked him to come and work at the office as his administrator – whence he became Diocesan Secretary-Treasurer for the next 10 years.
“Early on in that process the bishop also strongly encouraged me to consider training for ordination,” Father Bill explained. “After ordination four years later I carried on in my administrative role, which has always featured strongly in my work for and with the Church ever since.”
He did his theological studies for ordination in Cyprus and Wales, with some emphasis on the Orthodox tradition of Christianity. He was ordained deacon in Larnaca Cyprus and ordained priest at All Hallows by the Tower in London.
During the 1990s Edie also studied theology and became involved in different kinds of leadership in the parish wherever they lived and has been a licensed Lay Reader in the diocese ever since. Here for the ceremony and to help Father Bill settle in, she will continue to visit Bahrain from time to time, but Edie will be primarily living in the US for family reasons.
Taking up pastoral and parish responsibilities since 1999 was something of a natural development at the time, added Father Bill. “Coming to St Christopher’s carries on all of that background seamlessly.”
He will be serving in Bahrain for three years before he retires and resettles in the States to be closer to his family at that point.
The special service takes place at 6pm at St Christopher’s Cathedral on Saturday, which involves a public declaration of obedience to the bishop as the chief pastor and the bishop licensing him as his partner in ministry in this parish.
The members of the parish will also promise to work with him. All of this happens in the context of the Eucharist – a communion service.
“And yes, and everyone is welcome,” he said. “There will be a reception afterwards, so it’s good for us to know who is coming to ensure there is enough food!”
Stanley Louis Szecowka
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