Archive of the Month
Flicking Through the Pages: The Church of Ireland Gazette in the 1990s
By Archbishop John McDowell
Historians are sometimes criticised for their habit of dividing the past into handy centuries. These are considered to be arbitrary walls making for neat generalisations, but they don’t respect the messiness of the past, its continuities and long gestations.
However, to read through the Gazettes of the 1990s is to be transported to a different aeon, never mind a different century, yet also into that messiness which is the natural state of being of the Church of Ireland.
It was a time when, particularly in the Republic of Ireland, the Parish Centre replaced the Parish Hall. This reflected both the more ready availability of grant subsidy and (probably) a more outward facing mentality by Protestants in the South – a sense that it was time to identify wholeheartedly with the whole community, varied as they may be. You won’t find reports of the opening of Parish Centres in small parishes in the border counties.
But sitting alongside such developments is an article (7 December 1990) explaining and extolling the many benefits to body, soul and ethos flowing from Contact – the Church of Ireland introduction service. The demise of this body is reported just a few years on in the decade (2 August 1996), by which time the lovelorn members of the Church had decided to cast their nets in a wider sea and trust their ethos to look after itself.
It was an aeon also when it was possible for a respected columnist (Cromlyn, 6 January 1995) to call an unnamed correspondent “a pea headed little moron” – a freedom of expression which is probably now lost to the western world.
It was also the aeon of the Celtic Tiger, Drumcree, the Downing Street Declaration, the first and second ceasefires, the Good Friday Agreement and the Omagh bombing.
Throughout the decade the Gazette featured a host of middle page spreads on the work of the Decade of Evangelism, often written by clergy persons from the Church of England, and which can hardly be read now without a strong sense of unreality.
Why do initiatives deriving from “the centre”, wherever the centre may be, seem to flounder and splutter into oblivion in the Church of Ireland?
It was an aeon, too, of some very dominant personalities, usually for the good. Robin Eames as Archbishop of Armagh with his resilience and steady diplomacy in Church and in society. Bishop Samuel Poyntz, especially in his Connor phase, ubiquitous and immensely cheerful, smiling and strident as he accompanied the Church of Ireland Men’s Society here, there and everywhere. Not forgetting the unswervingly honest sermons and articles of Bishop Brian Hannon of Clogher, who never compromised on the Christian standards by which we should judge ourselves in every sphere and every circumstance of life.
Perhaps most striking of all are the authoritative statements on ethical issues by Archbishop Donald Caird surrounding divorce, remarriage and abortion which were carried frequently. The report of his contribution to the debate on euthanasia carried in the edition of 11 August 1995 being a typical example of his clear, compassionate reasoning.
The growing importance of the Church’s ecumenical engagement surfaces from time to time, not surprisingly around what was then still called The Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity (dismissed in an unsigned opinion piece on 18 January 1991 as having “no spiritual substance”). But it took other forms too. For instance, a withering editorial of 24 January 1992 commented on the tepid and almost dismissive response of the Vatican to the Report of ARCIC I, which had been published a full ten years previously. The same issue carried a prophetic article by the Bishop of Birmingham, Hugh Montefiore, entitled “The End of a Road” which asked the question:
whether or not the Church was becoming a movement again (as it had been in the New Testament) – rather than an institution
Near the beginning of the decade (14 December 1990), Canon Hector Love commented on the falling numbers of those willing to embark on a vocation which meant “a life of study, service and mediation”. His was a voice from the age and sentiments of a Francis Kilvert or a Gilbert White of Sherborne and contrasting strongly with that of Bishop Gilbert Wilson, who appears to have written most of the Church of Ireland’s theological responses on a myriad of issues.
Laypeople are much less prominent as authorised oracles of the church, but it was refreshing to see David BleaklEy, in his role as General Secretary of the Irish Council of Churches, speaking forcefully at a TUC–organised anti–war rally in Belfast, as reported on 18 January 1991. It was the occasion of the first war in Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait (Stormin’ Norman’s war) and a witness to the largely submerged pacifist voice within the Church of Ireland.
Bleakley was also a rather uncelebrated son of the Church in Belfast: shipyard worker, Trade Union activist via Ruskin College, Oxford (where he attended the last lectures of CS Lewis and got to know him well). He was also an ecumenist, the first non–unionist included in a Unionist cabinet in Northern Ireland and the Minister for Community Relations in the short–lived power sharing Executive established following the Sunningdale Agreement. His voice mattered.
Despite the introduction of a range of voices (Durrow, Touchline, Gazebo, Crannog) and some from outside Ireland (e.g, David Winter of residentiary Canon of Christchurch, Oxford), there remained a strong tendency towards ‘whattaboutery’ in dealing with political issues in both jurisdictions, though probably more pronounced in Northern Ireland.
In an editorial of 4 August 1995 headlined “The need to face reality”, and referring to a number of issues ranging from the Anglo–Irish Agreement of 1995 through the Downing Street Declaration of 1993 to the decisions around the governance and ethos of the Adelaide Hospital in Dublin, the writer is still deploring “The evolution of de Valera’s essentially sectarian conception of the State…”.
Although there are some notable examples of saying making rather unpopular comments about politics in Northern Ireland (e.g. Cromlyn’s article of 14 February 1992 on getting to the truth of what actually happened on Bloody Sunday as a “moral imperative”), there are many references throughout the period to the traditional attitude of northern nationalists and the Catholic Church to the State of Northern Ireland – and virtually no attempt at fresh thinking.
Perhaps one of the most disheartening aspects of reading (or at least scanning) ten years’ worth of Gazettes is the poverty of strictly theological analysis of political issues. More often than not, both North and South, political issues are addressed in what might be called ‘ethnic’ terms of group solidarity or, at best, ethos. The political initiatives that have matured into the rather “thin” peace that we enjoy in Northern Ireland are more often than not reflected on with suspicion, hostility or cynicism. There is a certain amount of recognition that something “different” will be needed (for instance, in an op–ed by “David” on 29 April 1994 headed “Peace is Impossible”), but little evidence that the message was being followed through at the most basic level of the parish.
Before returning to these and other lofty issues, it is worth noting that the Gazette was also the place where the strange miscellany which rattles around in the biscuit tin which we call the Church of Ireland makes its noise.
On 7 July 1997, Durrow wrote a beautifully–elegiac piece about a Test Match at Headingly. In the same issue the editorial speculated rather prophetically on the future of the United Nations in an age no longer enamoured with multilateralism. But over the course of the decade, the enthusiasm and high hopes around Europe, prophetically–expressed in an article published on 11 January 1991 in relation to narrowing the north–south gap in Ireland, begin to cool towards the apathy of familiarity.
A Point of View article in 1994 deplores the indifference throughout EU countries to the European Parliamentary elections of that year, even in a country like Greece, where voting is more or less compulsory. The writer goes on to encourage a much greater democratic role for the European Parliament with the increased powers recently bestowed by the Maastricht Treaty – one of those constructive criticisms which sadly went unheeded.
In reaction to the fact that the election of the Archbishop of Dublin in June 1996 had been ratified seriatim by the House of Bishops by telephone rather than at a meeting, the Revd RB McCarthy, then the rector of the Castlecomer Group of parishes, posed the question:
would it be constitutional for the General Synod to function simply by computer/telephone link up of the individual members in their home?
To which the answer then was an implied “no”; it is, as we know now, for the time being at least: “yes”.
Also noticed on a number of occasions throughout the decade were the many formal and informal visits by President Mary Robinson to Northern Ireland. This was surely a conscious and gracious strategy of softening the hearts of all but the most determinedly wary (see the hesitation by Cromlyn, 4 February 1993): that it is possible for a President of Ireland to visit Northern Ireland in a spirit of genuine curiosity and respect and not to lay imperative claim to the Fourth Green Field. In another imaginative piece (although again sitting beside a cautionary Cromlyn point of view) on 28 July 1995 was speculation about the emergence of a “fifth Province” of tolerance and empathy. In point of fact, at least electorally–speaking, it was to be 2019 before the centre re–formed in Northern Ireland.
On 4 October 1996, in some “Random Thoughts” from Gazebo he refers, in admiration and with much quaint phraseology, to the “Church of Ireland E–mail Forum” and the prominent part played in its foundation and development by Canon Brian Mayne. This is a timely reminder that Brian’s versatility stretched far beyond his primary area of profound scholarship in Liturgy.
Perhaps, rather surprisingly, in this decade when the extent and horror of child abuse within Christian communities became widely known, the first reference to it I came across in the Gazette during this period was in the edition of 6 September 1996 and referred to the discovery of the bodies of two young girls in Belgium.
But now to return to what might be described as the headline events and people of the 1990s, with one word: Drumcree.
There are over 800 references to this event/standoff/siege in the pages of the Gazette during the period between July 1995 and the end of the decade. The first one of these which I can find is a letter from the then Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, John Patterson, on 28 July 1995. In it, he praises a moderate intervention by the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Jim Molyneaux, in which Mr Molyneaux’s long membership of Killead Parish Church and its choir are mentioned.
However when the crisis deepened in 1996, the letters from North and South and the comments by regular contributors make it clear that this issue had become one of major tension within the Church. So much so that the Archbishop of Armagh wrote a long, detailed article for the edition of 26 July of that year. In it, he attempted to address some misconceptions which were widespread at the time, particularly the impression that nothing had been done since the debacle in 1995 to address the problem.
On the contrary, Eames explained, he and others had been active throughout the intervening period trying to mediate and moderate. In the same issue, Cromlyn cautions against a hasty rush to judgement until the full picture became clearer.
As it happens, I was ordained on St Columba’s Day (9 June) that year for the curacy of Antrim. It was a mixed but predominantly Protestant provincial town, and those years of 1996–7 were very difficult ones for the Church of Ireland. Nonetheless, the intra–church tension had passed its peak in terms of the Gazette coverage by the autumn of 1996, when Drumcree is mentioned in some form or another in every Diocesan Synod report included in the paper. It was, of course, to find a more positive afterlife in the Hard Gospel project which took a fairly unsparing look at sectarianism within the Church.
However, in terms of events of truly world significance which fall within our period, undoubtedly the Good Friday Agreement stands out, although not all that prominently in the pages of the Gazette. On the day the Agreement was signed, 10 April 1998, a number of references and a statement by the Primate himself appeared, noting that he had had no prior knowledge of a leaked Northern Ireland Office memo about the campaign being planned to secure a “Yes vote” in the anticipated Referendum on the Agreement. In the leaked document, Eames had been identified as an “opinion former” and clearly someone who the NIO thought worthy of cultivating.
In this incident, as in so many others during his more or less presidential dominance of the Church of Ireland, the Primate steered a course between urging greater openness and Christian compassion on the one hand and providing a shepherd’s care and reassurance to a fragile if resilient community on the other. His General Synod speeches and other major interventions during this period were reported exhaustively in the Gazette and are without exception weighty, considered and conciliatory. There is nothing florid or even particularly eloquent in the conventional sense about them. But they were what was needed, not only for the hour, but for the long haul, a prodigy of steadfast and sometimes painful endeavour. “Freedom and Vision”, as his 1995 General Synod Address is headed (as reported in the edition of 26 May) is a good example of the care and balance which he preserved.
Perhaps sensing that participating too wholeheartedly in the debate could be unhelpful, (with the exception of the Letters Page) the Gazette writers by and large kept their own counsel during the period of Referendum campaigns. Eames’ own judgement which was “in favour, with reservations” might just about shade it as the majority view amongst its Northern readers.
Unfortunately those reservations, much more frequently ventilated through the pages of the Gazette in the remaining years of the 1990s, were allowed to grow during the painfully slow progress towards the de–commissioning of weapons, the legacy of which dilatoriness continues to this day.
However, the Gazettes of that decade (as, I suspect, of most others) leave no doubt that the Church of Ireland is not on firm ground accusing others of dragging their heels. As the pace of change quickened around it, making the 1990s look like “the cool sequestered vale of life” noted in Gray’s Elegy, the Church took its time over almost everything, whether or not it had the time to take.
There were contributions in the 1990s which were ahead of their time. An editorial of 11 October 1996, for example, pointed towards the illiberal tendency in certain forms of political correctness stands out, as does Eoin de Bhaldraithe’s commentary of 23 August of the same year on Drumcree.
Yet the “even tenor of our ways” is perhaps more accurately reflected in the article of 15 November 1996, summarising the work of the Commission on Episcopal Ministry and Dioceses, which, inter alia, recommended that the number of Bishops be reduced to ten and, that six parishes from the Diocese of Glendalough transfer to the Diocese of Meath and Kildare. The whole Bill, including these proposals, was voted down at the Synod of May 1997. I am pleased to be able to tell you the good news that we’re now nearly 50% of the way there, and it’s only 2021.
The Feast of Epiphany 2021
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