Brother Matthew, a Yorkshireman, becomes prior of the Taizé community in Burgundy

Brother Matthew blessed as the new leader of the Taizé community. Image credit: Taizé/Tamino Petelinsek

By Sorcha Connell

The Taizé community of 80 brothers, based in rural France, has chosen a new leader:  an Anglican and from Yorkshire.

Andrew Thorpe, now known as Brother Matthew, joined the community at the age of 21 and has stayed there for 37 years. He took over the leadership in a short and simple ceremony in France this week.

He is only the third leader of Taizé, which was founded by a Swiss Protestant, then led by a Catholic, Brother Alois.

The ecumenical community of Taizé, known for its simple prayer style, meditative chants and focus on youth, annually attracts tens of thousands of young pilgrims from Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox backgrounds.

Brother Matthew was born into a practising Anglican family who have since moved to Australia. While at Sheffield University he met friends who introduced him to Taizé and was entranced by the idea of community. He was drawn by the idea of reconciliation and emphasis on the unity of the church, beyond denominations.

The community was founded by Roger Schutz (Brother Roger) in 1944 as a response to the horrors of the Second World War and is based in rural Burgundy in east central France. Taizé is now considered one of the most important sites of Christian pilgrimage in the past 50 years.

It has more than 80 brothers of differing denominations hailing from 25 countries who live a “parable of community” with lifelong monastic vows committed to reconciliation.

Pope John Paul II visited in 1986 and called Taizé “that little springtime”. Rowan Williams and John Sentamu, previous archbishops of Canterbury and York, have brought huge groups of young people over the years.

Recently the Taizé community was invited to organise an ecumenical prayer vigil called “Together”, just before the synod assembly in Rome. In a world’s first, Archbishop Justin Welby, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and 20 church leaders joined Pope Francis in a sign of Christian unity.

Brother Alois, a Roman Catholic from Germany, was designated to succeed from the charismatic founder. He was thrust into the international spotlight in 2005, when Brother Roger, 90, was murdered by a mentally ill woman during evening prayer. Roger was described in one obituary as “childlike and cunning, mystical and realist, mild and authoritarian, a pioneer in the ecumenical field”.

After 18 years of leadership, Brother Alois has passed his role to Brother Matthew and will move to Cuba for two years. The mild-mannered and softly spoken Alois has navigated the community through some difficult times, including revelations in 2019 of historical sex abuse by some of the brothers.

At a press conference held the morning before the ceremony, Alois said he regretted spending much of his tenure travelling internationally, missing out on the common life he initially vowed to be part of.

Despite being an ecumenically focused community, the decision for the leader of Taizé to go from Swiss Protestant to Catholic then Anglican is arbitrary, Matthew said. The Taizé brothers do not practise their denominational background individually but come together for their daily prayers designed to be welcoming to all.

Matthew said that despite his Anglicanism having been “surpassed” after many years in the Taizé style of prayer, “when I go back to England and I take part in the services, there’s something very special that remains, the heart still sings, because that’s where my roots are”.

“In the Anglican church there is this very broad welcome that’s offered, but like many other churches the question is how to live united today. Not in order to be stronger, or to impose our opinions, but so the Gospel is credible.”

Brother Matthew commissioned by church leaders including the bishops of Huddersfield and Reading (Image credit: Taizé/Tamino Petelinsek)

Matthew is from Pudsey near Leeds, and so Smitha Prasadam, the Bishop of Huddersfield, was asked as his “‘home bishop” to represent the Anglican Communion and the Archbishop of York at the ceremony in France. The Bishop of Reading, Olivia Graham, also attended, representing the Archbishop of Canterbury.

In keeping with Taizé’s core ethos of ecumenism, they joined Orthodox, Catholic and French Protestant representatives to each say a prayer for the investiture of Matthew and the future of the community.

Bishop Prasadam has been visiting Taizé for many years and plans to accompany large groups from the north of England to the community next year.

“Established churches take their freedoms for granted,” she said. “The Church of England is no exception. We’re always doing number-crunching, we’re always saying we need more plans and visions and strategies and committees and so on. But here’s an Anglican quest for holiness … What’s happening here is an embodiment of that holiness. I see great potential for Taizé to bring us back to what ought to be the key parts of Anglicanism.”

Philippe Lamberts, a member of the European Parliament, who has held summer workshops at the community for many years, said politicians could learn from Taizé’s approach to changing leaders as coming from a place of consultation and discernment for the good of the whole rather than through resignation and disgrace.

Taizé, he said, was “a community really rooted in the issues of society, without ever desiring to become a sort of political hub”.

This issue of politics has been raised by Brother Matthew. The community has been affected by the decline of church attendance since the pandemic and has struggled to return to its previously impressive number of young Christians flocking in their thousands each week to Taizé.

He feels the impressions he received as a young man still resonate today. When he joined the Student Christian Movement at university, he found it was impressive for messages on social justice, but lacked a unifying core. This ultimately led to him joining the Taizé community in 1986. He sees the same drive today in the younger generations who visit Taizé. They, too, have a thirst for political activism and mistrust in church structures yet are still searching for spiritual connection and peer friendship


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