CofE bishsop fumes at Brexit as UK struggles to send priests to EU

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A top Bishop has warned that Brexit has made it a major headache for Britain to send priests to the European Union. Moving abroad to work as a Church of England priest in Europe has become “difficult”, “bureaucratic”, “time-consuming” and “quite distressing”, said, the Right Rev Robert Innes. Since post-Brexit arrangements came into force in January 2020, Anglican priests have been forced to work illegally while they wait for their post-Brexit work permits.

There are 280 Church of England congregations in the Diocese in Europe. The network is still formally connected to the English church and scattered across the continent, extending beyond the bloc’s borders, as far south as Morocco and as far east as Mongolia.

From the Costa del Sol to Paris, Oslo, Moscow, Kyiv, and Ankara, the congregations have locals and Anglicans from all over the world, including many Americans, along with British expats.

About 160 priests serve the churches, with many relying on locum priests who travel outside the area to conduct services during key holiday times like Christmas and Easter.

According to Innes, who is advocating for specific exemptions for religious clergy, the paperwork necessary to obtain visas and residency permits is proving to be a major issue.

Innes, a Belgian-based priest, told The Times: “It is a lot of effort to get all [the documents] together in the right format, then you have to apply for a permit. And our experience is that there’s a delay of between four and 12 months for approval [and then] that permit has to be renewed annually.

“But then on top, there is a second visa application for bringing your spouse and children in. That is a particular stressor because the candidate might have completed the visa and work permit application successfully, but [they] haven’t got certainty that their family is going to be able to join them.”

He added that Brexit has clashed with a “wider phenomenon of nationalist sentiment” in Europe, with many countries demanding that Britons be fluent in the country’s language before moving there.

While there are many candidates to fill in the 20 chaplain positions available in France, including Brittany and Nice, Belgium, Ghent, Switzerland, and Kyiv, Ukraine, the related paperwork can be onerous.

A priest working in Europe, who requested anonymity, had to wait almost a year to be able to live and work in their new residence and was forced to work illegally for several months after a temporary visa ran out before the complete authorisation had been issued. Many locals, the priest said, were “Anglophiles,” but they felt betrayed by Britain’s “rejection” of Europe.

In Italy, Rev. Chris Williams, 60, a former rector in Hampshire, has a drastically different experience. He said he holds a “dream” position and obtaining his permits was simple.

Italians are “familiar with priests”, he told The Times. However, he acknowledged Catholic Italians “can’t comprehend the idea of priests having a wife”, making it difficult for his wife to secure her work visa.

He explained: “My wife is still having to jump through hoops and we still have no idea if they are going to accept her visa. She’s having to provide all sorts of documents and information, and we fill them in and then they come back and say: ‘We now want more.’ It’s very frustrating to put it mildly.”

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The Bishop of Europe believes there is a “case to be made for educated religious ministers to be able to move more straightforwardly”, even if they do not meet the normal income thresholds that other professionals must meet.

More than 2,250 British citizens were ordered to leave EU member states between the end of the Brexit transition period and September last year, according to figures from the bloc’s statistical office.

A total of 2,285 British people were expulsed from the first of the year 2021, when British citizens lost their right to free movement within the EU, to September 2022, according to Eurostat.

Following the Brexit vote, support for leaving the EU has plummeted dramatically, the European Social Survey (ESS) has reported, with falls recorded between 2016 and 2022 in the Netherlands (from 23 percent to 13.5 percent), Portugal (15.7 percent to 6.6 percent), Austria (26 percent to 16.1 percent) and France (24.3 percent to 16 percent), with smaller but still statistically significant falls in Hungary (16 percent to 10.2 percent), Spain (9.3 percent to 4.7 percent) Sweden (23.9 percent to 19.3 percent), and Germany (13.6 percent to 11 percent).

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