A New Year at St. Mark’s Florence

The Reverend Chris Williams, the new pastor at Florence’s St. Mark’s English Church

A New Year’s Message from Rev. Chris Williams

Before moving to Florence six months ago, I was told that Florentines are not particularly friendly! However, my wife and I have found ourselves regularly on the receiving end of friendliness and helpfulness – even from those in stressful roles such as behind busy shop counters.

Don’t underestimate the value of friendliness. Most of us are grateful to be smiled at, spoken to and generally valued and acknowledged. Friendliness is an unacknowledged superpower which can make an enormous difference to someone else. Listen to these words of Jesus: Love each other in the same way I have loved you.  There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ Friendship can be demonstrated in many ways, from a smile in the street to spending time with someone or even to laying down one’s life for another. Whatever form it takes, it is a word or action that genuinely values the other person.

Florence has proved to be a friendly place for us, but imagine a community where people are friendly to the extent that they are prepared to lay down their lives for each other! Of course, such extreme action is rarely called for, but genuine friendship is always marked by a genuine regard for the other – often over and above a regard for oneself. For Christians the daily challenge is to follow Christ who did indeed lay down his life for us. Dramatically, Jesus said those who live likewise, he calls his friends. What a potentially life-changing thought: to be friends with God!

It’s a new year. Many of us will have made (and, maybe, already broken) resolutions. Can I suggest we all add another: to be even more friendly than we already are. We hear much in the media about violence and hate in our increasingly troubled world. Let’s show that there can be another way.

May I wish you all a happy and friendly New Year.

An Interview with Rev. Williams

After the retirement of Rev. William Lister in December 2020, St. Mark’s English Church on via Maggio has been experiencing a period of transition that has only been exacerbated by COVID and Brexit.  The congregation, made up largely of local British expats and English-speaking tourists, has experienced a series of temporary priests and assistants in the last several years.  However, 2022 has brought a new normalcy thanks to the arrival of Rev. Chris Williams, who is in Florence on a more permanent basis and is looking to revitalize the church that once acted as the heart of the British religious and social community.

Tell us about your journey.  What inspired you to become a priest?

I grew up in southeast London in a very working class background.  I was involved in the Pentecostal church and, although I’ve moved on from there, theologically-speaking, I am very grateful for that part of my journey and  God was very real to me (he still is!).  I grew up in the church because my father was a pastor, and when I was about 21 I was allowed to start preaching to the congregation.  I remember one day, someone came up to me and said, “you said something a year ago and I put it into practice.”  It really hit me that people were listening to the words I was saying on a Sunday, which caused me to consider the responsibility I had and encouraged me to explore further training – a process that led to me considering my calling to the church.

Describe the process of becoming an Anglican priest.

I ended up going to Spurgeon’s, a Baptist college, for three years to study theology.  Then I worked full-time as a lay pastor for an Anglican Church in Maidenhead and stayed there for five years, during which time I decided I wanted to become an Anglican priest.  So, I went through all the processes you go through to become a priest, which is a long journey in the Church of England.  I trained at St. John’s College, Nottingham and completed a post-grad diploma and a Master’s in Theology.  In 2006, I started my three-year curacy in Haslemere and Godalming, Surrey and have spent the last 13 years as the Rector of St. Mary’s in Liss, Hampshire.

Did you have a career before becoming a minister?

After leaving school I worked as a self-employed landscape gardener and photographer followed by a period as an office assistant for a Christian charity before working for 10 years as a Civil Servant in S E London, for the Department for Health and Social Security, dealing with benefits. Apart from an enjoyable three-year stint where I ran the design and desktop publishing department for the West Kent Area, I did not enjoy the role: disaffected staff dealing with disaffected ‘claimants’, was not a happy mix. It was from this job that I moved to start my first theology degree.

Why Florence?

In 2018, my wife and I came here for a sabbatical for five weeks.  We fell in love with the city and the church, and really got to know the people here.  Eighteen months ago, one of the church wardens phoned me and said that there was a vacancy at St. Mark’s.  I’m not sure how serious he was but, long story short, here I am.  It’s very busy, but we’re loving it here!

How long will you be here?

I’ve been here since June, about six months now.  I have funding for five years, but in an ideal world, I’d stay here until I’m 68, which is in eight year’s time, so, another three years on top of that would be good.  But hey, the world changes very fast, and we have no idea what’s around the corner.

You know all about the last permanent minister and the interim period which lasted a year and a half after his departure.  What are your main goals with being here?

I want to recreate a community that’s there on a Sunday morning.  When I first arrived, you could count on one or two hands the people that were here regularly on a Sunday morning.  COVID and Brexit decimated the congregation, really.  My big challenge is to rebuild the parish and create some sense of belonging, as well as a space that people want to come to.  It’s getting there, but it’s a slow process because it’s about relationships and belonging, and that stuff isn’t sorted in a day.

St. Mark’s has lots of tourists, which is great, that’s a big chunk of our ministry.  But we would like, also, to attract people who are in Florence for longer than just a week or two: people who are committed and live locally, and are here for more than a few weeks.

Previously, St. Mark’s was not only a church but a place of community and companionship.  How do you plan to integrate these elements?

I would argue that a church is, by definition, a place of community and companionship. We nurture those attributes best when we have a reason to meet: worship is one aspect, but we try to create plenty of excuses to get together – often involving food! We’ve recently started a monthly bring-and-share lunch after church.  We’re also trying to carry on the cultural program and we’re hosting things like an Italian class, a writer’s club and opera.  We have few children and that’s been a challenge for me, coming from a church that had loads of kids. That said, we had 27 people of all ages come to our recent family Christmas event.

How is St. Mark’s bouncing back from the pandemic? 

I think the biggest problem for this church is the fact that everything went online. A church is almost by definition about relationships with people. While a few people stayed, some people have left, and not returned. Apparently, several have become Catholics because, I believe, their churches opened sooner after the lockdown. We average about 40 on a Sunday morning – sometimes more.

So, would you agree that your mission here is to rebuild the church?

Yeah, I think a fresh start is good. Fresh for me, obviously, and fresh because of what’s happened in the world.  One challenge is to make the church more accessible. When the Queen died, we thought we should have the church open to people who wanted to come in.  On the first two days, we were welcoming 150 people each day.  We realized that just by opening our doors, there are people out there who want to come in.  Since then, that’s been a really big thing for us; to make sure there’s always someone there so that when people come in, we can talk about the history, pray with them, give advice, wisdom (hopefully), chat, love, whatever. People have come down the street who said they’ve lived here forever and didn’t even know there was a church here, which is awful. I mean, that is the opposite of what churches should be. So we’re trying to do all we can to say “we’re here, come along.”

Tell us about your hobbies as a photographer and an artist.

Yes, I like taking photos. When we came here in 2018, I did some sculpture and some line drawing, which I enjoyed.  I wouldn’t call myself an artist, but like to think I am creative.

What will 2023 bring for St. Mark’s?

Lots of challenges, no doubt but, hopefully, a growing, committed and caring community.