The Diocese of Peterborough has had a link with the Diocese of Seoul in South Korea for a number of years. We remember the diocese in our Cycle of Prayer week by week, and there have been a series of visits and exchanges between the two dioceses down the years. Last year, Canon Tim and Canon Sarah visited Seoul with the Bishop and came back full of enthusiasm for the welcome they received (albeit with one or two reservations about some of the cuisine – the fermented stingray being a particular delicacy!). Earlier this year we welcomed a party from Korea, including the Dean of their Cathedral Joseph Joo, who preached for us at Peterborough Cathedral in exceptional English.
Bishop Donald has been keen to deepen the link – not least between our two Cathedrals – and so this year I was invited to visit. I flew from Heathrow in company with David Walsh, the Vicar of Kettering (SS Peter and Paul), whose parish is linked with another in Korea. Whatever expectations I had were more than fulfilled during an extraordinary week in which we were welcomed with great warmth and generosity, and had an opportunity – in a relatively short space of time – to gain a strong impression about the context and character of their mission, what we share in common and where we differ.
One big difference is one of scale. Seoul is a world city on a huge scale – and growing all the time. While we were able to visit some of the wonderful historic palaces and temples, this is a modern city very much rebuilt and hugely developed since the Korean War, and at the cutting edge of technology and design (we were even met by a seemingly friendly robot at the airport!).
The Anglican Church by contrast is small and is very much a minority religion amidst a city of other faiths and American-style mega churches – not all of which have glowing reputations. The work of the Anglican Church, however, is highly esteemed – and no wonder. We were taken to visit a number of inspiring pieces of work, including a centre for the disabled on neighbouring Ganghwa Island, providing training and employment opportunities in partnership with the civic authorities, and offering spiritual as well as material nourishment to its residents. (The Island is close to the border with North Korea, and we were taken to an ancient fort which overlooks the river, as-well as the border which is defined by barbed wire fences.)
We also met Ruth (the founder) and Hannah (the Chaplain) of the Women’s Mission Centre – a tranquil house with a chapel and accommodation, which offers space for prayer, retreats, leadership training and support for the vulnerable. It had taken many years of patient fundraising with the support of the Mother’s Union and Girl’s Friendly Society to buy the house and equip it, but they are still in desperate need of further resources.
I visited the Anglican Sungkonghoe University which acts as a seminary, training men and women for the priesthood, as well as a wide range of other ‘secular’ courses for over 2,000 students. They are keen to broaden the perspective of their students and make the most of the contacts they have through the worldwide Anglican Communion.
There are many other projects working with the homeless, refugees and women’s groups. One especially moving visit was to the Sharing House and Museum of Sexual Slavery which bears moving witness to the abuse and sexual exploitation of young Korean girls during the Second World War, who were captured and forced to work as ‘comfort women’ for Japanese soldiers. A few of these women are still living at the project, and many have been powerful advocates of human rights, as well as demanding an admission of responsibility, apology and reparations from the Japanese Government – something they have yet to achieve. We were privileged to meet one of these ladies, Ok-Sun Lee (Anna), who asked me to pray with her.
And finally the Cathedral, which is right at the heart of the city next to the British Embassy and opposite the City Hall. A very attractive European-style (Romanesque) building, there is a vibrant worshipping community here – several congregations sing with amazing enthusiasm and participate in a whole range of programmes, study courses and groups that meet at the Cathedral all day on Sundays. I preached twice on the Sunday we were over there, and Dean Joseph translated. While we were there, the Cathedral grounds were also hosting an art project, attracting a wide range of non-churchgoing visitors – something which chimed in with some of our events.
There is eagerness to continue and deepen the links – how we do that is something of a challenge given the distance between us. Certainly we can pray for each other, and there may be particular projects we might wish to support. I am sure there will be further reciprocal visits in the future and of course modern communication makes keeping in contact much easier. It would be good to further explore how we can make real our partnership and fellowship in the faith.