Cover Story


March 20 - 26, 2019
Gulf Weekly MOVING ON

Gulf Weekly Stan Szecowka
By Stan Szecowka

THEY may not have been a choir of angels but the voices were full of emotion, good vibrations and expressions of gratitude at a farewell concert staged for one of the kingdom’s most loved and respected expat couples who will be shortly leaving the island.

Music-loving friends joined together to enjoy the Manama Singers and the St Christopher’s Community Big Band serenade the Dean of St Christopher’s Cathedral, The Very Rev’d Chris Butt, and his wife, Tricia, on Thursday evening.

It was the first time that the two groups had performed together and the Musical Majesty Show at St Christopher’s Cathedral’s Alun Morris Hall proved yet another fitting way to celebrate the couple’s decade-long stay in Bahrain.

The warmth felt in the community will continue to echo around the kingdom until they finally step on the flight back to the UK and tonight Chris and Tricia will attend a drinks reception in their honour at the British Embassy, as guests of ambassador Simon Martin and his wife, Sophie.

The farewells have included a beach party with parishioners and there will be a dinner at the BAPCO Club during the first week of April.

The sincere sentiments expressed already show what influence this mildly-mannered couple has made in the community. It has also given the two of them time to reflect on the place they have called home and championed whenever they could.

“I feel sad to be leaving, though we ourselves made the decision,” Chris, 66, said. “It is better to hand on to someone-else when you are still enjoying life and finding ministry challenging and fulfilling, rather than the community thinking ‘when is this fellow going to pack his bags and move on?’

“There is so much to appreciate here: the gracious welcome given by King Hamad and the Bahraini people to different faith communities has been a wonderful experience; the amazing mix of different peoples that make up Bahrain, that is reflected in different dress and food, is very special.”

“I will also miss the little things like not having to throw away a pair of good shoes when there’s the possibility of getting them repaired as good as new!” added Chris.

The man’s got a lot of sole! And, his mission has been to bring people together, locally and globally.

“In many ways, achievements in a priest’s work are largely hidden as it is about seeing change in individual lives,” he explained. “It is about walking with people through times of crisis and sorrow, as well as celebrating with them on occasions of great joy.                                     

“I can look back with a sense of satisfaction that the culture of the church has changed. We are a much more ‘international community’ than when we arrived, with people from every continent not only attending, but involved in the life and structures of the community.

“It has been lovely to see the church develop into a genuinely ‘all-age’ community – Tricia has given a lot of creative energy in leading our children’s work over the first eight years and has built up a strong team of leaders. And, it has been very satisfying to see some activities started nearly 10 years ago integrated into the life of the cathedral: monthly Living Room Dialogues, the annual St Christopher’s Day Dinner and regular concerts on a Thursday evening which have given many performers the opportunity to play in a wonderful building.

“As well as my ministry in Bahrain, for the past five years I have had the privilege of chairing a panel for those exploring either ordained or licensed lay ministry in the Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf. This has been a hugely rewarding experience.

“One of those selected, Jon Lavelle, served here as a curate – currently a rector in Buffalo – but now a third of the clergy serving in the diocese have been locally selected and trained.

“In my time, we have had three people licensed by the bishop as readers to preach and help lead services and, currently in the cathedral, three are following a theology training course. We meet weekly for two hours so it is a big commitment on their part.”

He has also played host to church groups and international visitors to allow them to spread the positive message of Bahrain’s multi-cultural magnificence back home, rather than let fester the often negative Middle East stereotypical conversation that clouds the truth in much of the West.

As reported in GulfWeekly, a group of delegates from a UK-based Christian educational charity, visited last November. The eight-day trip was organised by Chris, who said at the time: “People have a view of Islamic countries that is coloured by Islamic extremism.

“It is important that there is an opportunity to experience the wonderful openness of Bahrain and the friendliness of Bahraini people. There is a wonderful tradition of hospitality among the Arab people in the Middle East. We are privileged to live here and can learn so much from the experiences that we have received from our hosts in Bahrain and we can reflect that hospitality to all who visit us here.”

In recent weeks the Butts have welcomed Brit Tom Pote, 28, and his Italian wife, Maria Vittoria, 31.

Tom, who is training for ministry at Westcott House Theological College in Cambridge, said: “Before coming to Bahrain I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Arab world. Sadly, our vision of the region is coloured by the reporting of negative events and we rarely hear of the many exciting things happening here.

“Bahrain is such a culturally rich country due to its own history and to its current multi-national community. Moreover, I have been amazed by the hospitality offered to Christians of different denominations here in Bahrain.

“There is clearly something very special going on to allow these relationships to flourish and for Christians to thrive here – testament to the openness and character of the Bahraini community. From my time here I realise that we don’t have a very good understanding of the Arab world back in the UK. I really do think that you have to see life here with your own eyes to understand it properly.”

Civil engineer Maria echoed his sentiments, adding: “I didn’t know what to expect but I’ve particularly been surprised by the people and their warm hospitality, their incredible openness towards helping their neighbour, and their desire for peace and tolerance.”

The next stop for the Butts will be Birmingham, England’s second city, settling down after a lifetime of travel.

Chris was installed as Dean in October 2009. After studying geography at university, he taught for two years including one year in Kenya. He has been in parish ministry in a variety of places and contexts. “I am British, but my father was in the Royal Navy so in my childhood we moved between the naval ports in the south – Portsmouth and Plymouth especially, with a spell in the Royal Naval College in Greenwich and a period when we lived on a boat!” said Chris.

“Since ordination and marriage – they occurred within six months of each other – Tricia and I have lived in Cambridge, Hong Kong, The Lake District, namely Bowness-on-Windermere, and the Medway towns in Kent with a brief spell in Sydney, Australia on an exchange.”

The couple were blessed with three children. Their eldest Alex, 32, is involved as director of an ‘amazing charity’ in Luton in England – Youthscape – delivering very creative youth work in a converted flour mill in the heart of the town, not just locally, but providing a model of good practice nationally. She is married to Dan, who is also an Anglican priest in Hitchin. 

Their middle daughter, Hannah, 30, lives in Hong Kong, her birthplace, where she works in the insurance industry. She’ll be getting married to her fiancé Tom, who manages Lloyds Insurance, in the summer. Their youngest Philippa, 28, is doing an MBA in the Australian city of Sydney, after setting up a mental health centre in its western suburbs. 

Chris and Tricia are also grandparents and The Whisperer, GulfWeekly’s illustrious gossip columnist, reported how the child has already helped out with a cathedral service!

“The Whisperer was right,” said Chris, “her name is Isla and she arrived in Bahrain on her first birthday just before Christmas along with the rest of our family, so we were able to celebrate her birthday and enjoy the experience of Christmas as a family, not always easy for priests, especially expatriate ones.”

Any regrets? Of course, they have a few. “Perhaps my biggest regret is not seeing our building project completed,” Chris said. “It will, in due time, provide excellent facilities for our work with children and young people at the cathedral, rather than leaders having to find space around our kitchen table or in our living room.

“We have raised approaching BD95,000, the Cathedral Council is committed to seeing the project through, but we have been frustrated by bureaucratic delay.”

It’s not all been plain sailing for the Butts in recent years, however, with cancer rearing its ugly head for Tricia. Now fully recovered and with her husband’s support, the move back to Blighty and Birmingham, could perhaps be described as ‘divine intervention’.

Tricia, full name Patricia, 65, was born in South East Queensland, Australia, in a small country town near Brisbane.

She met Chris in a church in Cambridge, St Barnabas’, where he became a curate.  “He was leading a team of young people from the church, who befriended language students from the many language schools, some of rather dubious character!” she explained.

“At that time, language schools had no organised social programmes, and students from Europe, Asia and Africa were very isolated and lonely.

“We took the students punting, for picnics and walks, and had an evening of barn dancing once a week, where Chris and I developed our skills of calling barn dances!

“I had left Australia in 1978 and travelled through Asia, Europe and North America in an almost continuous year of travel, and, penniless, had found a job at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge as an occupational therapist (OT). A year later, in the middle of snow in January, we were married in St Barnabas.

“It’s hard to work even part-time when you’re a vicar’s wife, juggling family, church and work, as  I’ve always understood our ministry as a ‘team ministry’, even though I am a lay person. I enjoyed being a volunteer classroom assistant in Windermere, as our family has a lifelong interest in education – four of my siblings are teachers – and I became a governor at the school next door to the Rectory in Wigmore, when we moved south after our time in the Lake District.”

She also had a long-held desire to study theology, ‘to go deeper’ into her faith and took a step forward on the path to knowledge.

“I began studying part-time in 1999, first as a distance learner with Westminster College in Oxford, gained a Bachelor Degree in Theology, and then studying a Master’s in Contemporary Art Theory at Goldsmith’s College, London, for which I had to do a postgraduate diploma for admission,” she said.

“My theology studies were useful when we were self-organising the training of readers (lay ministers) here in Bahrain, although all of those studying then were doing or had done some theological study of one kind or another.

“I’m particularly interested in understanding the culture of today, and exploring different theological responses to it. This means understanding what the arts are saying about human identity – ‘life, the universe and all that’ – particularly contemporary art, music, film and literature.

“I was prompted to consider studying for a PhD by a visiting theologian. Having thyroid cancer removed at American Mission Hospital in 2014 – with no subsequent problems – crystallised for me the thought that I should really follow my dream, or I would regret it.

“Finding a supervisor in the area I wanted to study – a theological response to contemporary material culture – was really a series of ‘coincidences’ which I read as divine intervention. I did not think I would ever be admitted, so when I managed to jump through all the hoops, those who knew me said I couldn’t escape now – I had to do it!

“It’s taken all my determination to keep going. I’m halfway through, as I’m still a part-time, distance learner, and I’ve narrowed my subject area to the ‘theology of homemaking’. It will be good, once we’re settled in Birmingham, to be able to go regularly to the library, catch up with colleagues, and see my supervisor face-to-face more often, rather than on Skype, and just once a year.”

Birmingham will be a ‘wholly new adventure’ they both admit.

The Butts will bow out on Easter Day – Thursday, April 21, with their final services. In the Christian calendar you cannot find a more special or meaningful occasion than that – ‘life overcoming death, hope transforming hopelessness, joy in the midst of sorrow’, as the departing dean explained.

It’s Bahrain’s loss and Birmingham’s gain.

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