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Primate addresses 2023 Armagh Synod

Archbishop John McDowell spoke on a range of current issues in the life of our Church and wider society when addressing the Diocese of Armagh’s annual Synod, yesterday (Tuesday, 17th October).  In the course of his remarks, he encouraged parishes to take part in the diocese’s Flourish initiative to care for Creation, and called for greater kindness as we continue to emerge from the Covid–19 pandemic.

Archbishop McDowell also compared the current political impasse to the state of Lough Neagh, with a widespread failure to take responsibility which risked undermining the optimism of our young people and Northern Ireland’s wider potential.

The Presidential Address is in full below:

Brothers and sisters in Christ,

It is as always a pleasure to welcome you to the Diocesan Synod which meets at the beginning of what I know will be a very busy year for you and for the parishes you come from. This is of course the first year of a triennium and I want at the outset of this Presidential Address to thank you and, indeed to thank God, for your willingness to serve in this way.

This is my fourth such Address since my election as your Archbishop in March 2020, all of which have been written and delivered against the background of the Covid–19 pandemic and it’s consequences. For although that strange time of closed churches and lockdowns may seem almost like a dream (or a nightmare) to us as we gather today, the virus itself remains active and potent and the consequences of past decisions by governments and by voluntary organisations like the Church are still playing out.

Plans for a mental health awareness programme across the Church of Ireland began well before the Covid–19 pandemic, but the change of circumstances made these plans even more timely. Living through lockdown and the difficulties that the pandemic brought, made us all think about keeping our minds well, and looking for the well–being of other people around us.  I am delighted that the Church of Ireland will be hosting the MindMatters Conference on Friday of this week in Dublin, with guest speakers including the Archbishop of Canterbury.  A total of 74 projects from across the Church have received funding to promote good mental health.  MindMatters was launched on World Mental Health Day 2020 with the support of Benefact Trust and, following a research phase, rolled out a grant funding stream which has helped many people around the Church of Ireland to take new initiatives to support good mental health, in their churches and also in their wider communities.  We look forward to seeing how this can be developed and made more available across the island in the years to come.

It gives me immense pleasure and no little joy to continue to work my way around the diocese and to visit as many parishes as possible, usually for Confirmations or other special occasions and to see many activities spring back to life. There are so many good things going on and it is heartwarming to see them.


One of those good things is the deepening and I hope too the widening of the Flourish initiative which is being managed very ably by the Revd David McComb and the Diocesan Youth Officer, Mr David Brown. The participation of David Brown is quite intentional, as a way of both showing young people that their concerns about the future of the planet are being taken seriously by the Church and that we are actively seeking their help and involvement.

I like to think that Flourish is a local manifestation of a global phenomenon – the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. It is most certainly in tune with the Environmental Call which was issued by the Lambeth Conference last summer.

At the Creation Care Conference that the Church of Ireland organised in Dromantine in 2022 a young ordinand and environmental activist from the Church of England posed two questions:

“How will the Church once again become a holy people in the world?”


“How will the Church show young people that we love them?”

And of course an emphasis on creation care provides at least part of the answer to both questions. It is not the whole answer, but it is a significant element of it – the love and care of God’s good creation – so that humankind may continue to flourish. We are not accountable for the decisions and activities of governments and huge global corporations–those decision makers will themselves have to stand someday before the searching eyes of the Lord of all creation and account for the choices they have made.

But we will be accountable for the little patches of the earth that He has given into our hands as stewards, mostly churchyards and, glebe land. And that is particularly important in a largely rural Diocese such as Armagh – countryside and small towns – which have traditionally formed the backbone of the Church of Ireland.

We have many farmers and others who work the land in our pews and in our parishes, and it is usually with their involvement and expertise that we can make the little differences that add up to a tangible commitment to the future. I know all too well that farmers, and especially small farmers, can be squeezed between the millstones of the big supermarkets and huge agri–food businesses. But I continue to hope that every parish in the Diocese will, in some way, participate in the Flourish initiative – young and old.

As we are reminded particularly in this Harvest season, ‘you reap whatever you sow’ (Galatians 6:7), so may we be faithful stewards of what God has entrusted to us so that those who come after us have a good Harvest. May we be a  holy people, fulfilling a holy vocation, in the service of a holy God, living in reverence for the Creator and his creation and in harmony with one another. 


Although so many of our parishes have been slowly regaining pre–Covid momentum, if not quite the same level of activity, it would be remiss of me not to point out a couple of areas of concern in the life of the Diocese.

The first is to do with our participation in the governance of the Church at both Diocesan and Church of Ireland wide levels. You will notice in the Report of the Diocesan Council and as the results of our triennial elections to various bodies are published, that the word “vacant” appears rather frequently.

Of course it may be that we are trying to staff Diocesan and Central Church structures which were designed for the Church of the nineteenth century when far greater numbers of people were at least nominally connected to our parishes than there are today. But it remains a worry that, for instance, we will be unable to fill our quota of General Synod places. As I said earlier the rural diocese tradition has been the backbone of the Church of Ireland and if we do not play our part and bring our distinctive contribution to the central councils of the Diocese and the Church of Ireland, then we lose that influence. We have much to give but also much to learn from one another.

The Church of Ireland is a very varied and complex organism and it needs the particular gifts and outlooks and traditions of all its parts to maintain the kind of equilibrium and catholicity which has been our character in Ireland up to now.

The second slightly worrying aspect of Church life which I would like to highlight also concerns our character, but in a different sense. As I said at a preview Diocesan Synod, with the rest of the world we have passed through an almost overwhelming cataclysmic event in the form of the pandemic. Chou en Lai, then the Chinese Foreign Minister was asked in 1961 how he thought the French Revolution of 1789 had affected the history of the world. His answer has become famous. He said simply: “It’s too soon to say”.

So, perhaps I am jumping the gun, but the question I ask myself is, at the other side of Covid, are we a kinder church, a kinder people? Are we kinder to one another and to those around us. Kindness is no small thing. “…let your kindness be known unto all people, for the Lord is at hand”.

That is a question I want to leave with you. What sort of family does your parish most resemble? A family which draws its vigour and its distinctive life from the differences that exist in its members and which are cherished and used. A family which is relaxed and at ease with itself and which is marked by mutual care. Or does it sometimes resemble a family where it’s members are walking on eggshells, inconsiderate to one another, hurtful.

After all the Church of Ireland is a place characterised by decisions being made through discussion and consultation and witnessing to the life of Christ as it is lived out through his family, the Church. “Let your kindness be known unto all people, for the Lord is at hand”.

Pastoral Visiting Guidelines

Pastoral visiting in whatever form was of course one of the victims of Covid. Somewhat counter intuitively the wrong thing to do then was to visit sick people. That phase has largely passed except occasionally in hospitals and care homes where large scale infectious outbreaks can still occur. Pastoral visiting is also part of traditional way in which clergy and parishioners connect, and get to know one another. Visiting is not quite as straightforward as it once was. Partly because fewer and fewer people are at home during the day but also because other considerations for both the visited and the visitor are much more in people’s minds these days.

It is for that reason, and at the request of the statutory authorities who have responsibility for the protection of vulnerable people that the Safeguarding Board of the Church of Ireland has prepared Pastoral Visiting Guidelines which will be issued to clergy and pastoral visitors in the weeks ahead.

Last year in this address I noted that “pastorally speaking we have a huge task ahead in our parishes as we seek to rebuild confidence and of finding ways….of bringing our distinctive contribution to the life of the communities where we live.” It is only if we look outwards that we will grow in faith, hope, love and numbers. I hope the Pastoral Visiting Guidelines will will be helpful in encouraging regular and responsible visiting for the building up of the household of faith.

Pioneer Ministry

One of the Church–wide initiatives which has been designed specifically to help us look outwards is the Pioneer Ministry programme which aims to encourage, Dioceses to think about how we can best reach those in our parishes and neighbourhoods who have little or no link with the Church or the Gospel. In other words probably the majority of our neighbours. The aim is to make this sort of evangelisation part of the everyday fabric of the mission and ministry of the Church of Ireland and not merely an occasional project. The structures and the finances which have been put in place to energise Pioneer Ministry will identify both pioneer ministers (often lay people) and pioneer projects and provide training and other resources. Not every project or pioneer will succeed, but I have no doubt that it is our urgent vocation to set out on this journey in faith and love and with the hope that the Lord of the Church who wishes to share his resurrection life with the whole world will help us bring it to maturity.

I mention this now for two reasons. Partly because the work which has been carefully researched, planned and piloted is will begin to get into a more active stride in the coming year throughout the Church. Here in Armagh I have asked Archdeacon Elizabeth Cairns to work along with me and with others who we will identify to create a Pioneering Hub in the Diocese and through prayer and hard thinking work out how best to “pioneer” in Armagh.

But I mention it also in the context of an apology and explanation. Over the past eighteen months as Pioneer Ministry has been maturing within the central structures of the Church I had thought that the place where it would fit best within the governance structures of the Diocese was in the Board and Mission and Outreach. However, for a number of reasons (largely to do with my slow thought processes) I hadn’t worked out exactly how I should ask the Diocesan Synod to put that into effect. That is why I haven’t called a meeting of the Board, so apologies to its members and to the Synod for my dilatoriness. Hopefully the work will begin soon in earnest even if only through some ad hoc arrangements until I am able to bring more thorough proposals to next years Diocesan Synod.


Appalling as the events are I do not want to say very much at this Synod on the state of affairs in Israel/Gaza or Ukraine. I would of course ask for your prayers and your practical support from your substance for the alleviation of suffering. There is particular sort of heartache that we suffer when we witness the sort of barbarities which have taken place in the place which we call The Holy Land and which was the place which a Higher Providence had prepared as the home of the Incarnate Word. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem and Palestine.  The Church of Ireland Bishops’ Appeal for World Aid and Development is releasing €10,000 (equivalent to £8,650) in emergency funds to the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem.  

The Diocese includes 7,000 Anglicans worshipping within 28 congregations in Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.  It is responsible for more than 30 institutions, including hospitals, schools, clinics, rehabilitation centres, guesthouses, and retirement homes.  The Diocese runs Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza which provides medical care and support to all people, regardless of their faith or ethnicity.  In recent weeks Bishops’ Appeal has also released £10,000 in Emergency Aid from its reserves (currently equivalent to €11,500), to help with the disaster relief in response to the catastrophic flooding in Libya. The floods, which were triggered by a Mediterranean storm, were focused on the city of Derna where almost 4,000 people are known to have died and over 9,000 are missing after torrents of rain and debris swept away entire districts.  The need is great and so I would encourage you not just to pray for these situations but also to offer financial support which Bishops’ Appeal channels to agencies already working on the ground in these areas of conflict and natural disaster.

Lough Neagh

Alongside international situations I do however also want to say something about more local public affairs, and I will do so by using the current tragedy of the state of Lough Neagh as a sort of parable. Jesus often introduced his parables by saying “The Kingdom of God is like…” and then he would tell the story of a mustard seed or a king going to war, or a man building his house on sand and another who built his on a rock.

Well I think there is a good deal of truth in a modern parable beginning “And the public realm in Northern Ireland is like Lough Neagh where everyone knew there was something fatally wrong but thought  it was largely someone else’s responsibility to deal with it”. Is that not what it feels like; people always waiting for somebody else? Or it’s always someone else’s fault.

We have been living in a place where we have been insulated from the consequences of our political choices. And when I say our political choices I don’t mean merely the choices made by politicians. I mean my choices and your choices. The myriad of little choices we make every day and which come together to shape the society in which we live. It’s triumphs and it’s failures. A society that cannot balance its budget nor has any mechanism to deal with that financial problem in the longer term. It is the rudimentary role of a modern government to take care of its citizens who are sick or old, to educate the young, to make its people feel that they are living in a place worth living in, to create an environment which allows for a growth in prosperity, and to provide hope.

Many of us in this hall grew up against the dark background of the Troubles and somehow, by and large, we managed. Now we are faced with a dark foreground – static and hopeless. There was a time when many of us thought that the Troubles would never end, but they did. Now we are left wondering if peace will ever really begin as crises crowd around us. Having no agreed way to deal with the Legacy of  past, except that which has been offered in the spirit of  “take or leave it”, and rejected as such, we find ourselves with no agreed way even to approach the future.

Yet one in four children in Northern Ireland is growing up in poverty. And the real tragedy is that it doesn’t have to be that way. Surely, by working together we are capable of giving all of our children a better future than that?

Sunday by Sunday I meet young people who are outward looking, talented, raring to go and with a far more highly developed social conscience than most people of my generation. They are full of life, optimism and hope, ready to give what they can to their community. Then I turn on the news on the radio on Monday morning and the optimism disappears like air escaping from a balloon! May God have mercy on us all.


One event of unalloyed joy and celebration which took place earlier in the year was the Coronation of King Charles and Queen Camilla, and it was an equally unalloyed honour to be invited not only to be there but to play a small part in a most moving service. Northern Ireland was well represented at the service– by the Leaders of our political parties, the Church Leaders, the County Lord Lieutenants, by Lord Eames representing the members of the Order of Merit and Mary Peters invited to take part as a Lady Companion of the Order of the Garter, by the members of the Methody Chamber Choir not to mention wee Nigel, one of the full time Vergers in Westminster Abbey and originally from the Lisburn Road in Belfast. Nevertheless I felt both a real pride and pressing responsibility as I handed the orb to the King and received it back from him…the symbol of Christ’s universal rule. A day to remember.

So too was the Diocesan Service held in the Cathedral to celebrate the King’s coronation and of course their Majesties decision to make Armagh their first official visit within the UK after the Coronation. It was a memorable and moving service of blessing and saw Armagh en fete and at its best. The sun shone, the guests smiled; happiness all round.

Thanks to the Dean and all who made the occasion a great success.


One of the big differences between being a Diocesan bishop and being Archbishop of Armagh is the very wide range of island–wide and Communion– wide responsibilities which come with the Primacy. My early years during Covid meant that travel was very limited but as things have opened up I have found myself having to travel much more both around Ireland and beyond. Of necessity that places a heavy burden of additional responsibility on the shoulders of the two Archdeacons (Peter Thompson and Elizabeth Cairns) who are effectively the Archbishop’s executive officers in the diocese and both relatively new to the role. So I want to place on record my thanks to Archdeacon  Thompson and Archdeacon Cairns  for their cheerful willingness and sensitivity in carrying out their tasks.


As I conclude I want to notice the deaths of two very long serving clergy in this Diocese, each distinctive in his own way – Canon Harry Moore, the very epitome of the country parson, a stock breeder as well as a minister of word and sacrament who served in a number of parishes in this Diocese, and Canon John McKegney who was always sure to spark a debate with his shrewd and sometimes mischievous comments. We thank God for their lives of cheerful service and remember their families in prayer.

I want also to welcome those clergy who have taken up incumbencies in the Diocese since our last meeting in 2022 – the Revd Colin Darling in Ballymore and Clare and the Revd John Ewart in Killyman. Gentlemen, you are very welcome among us and we look forward to many years of labouring together in the vineyard.

At last year’s Diocesan Synod I announced that Sir Paul Girvan would be standing down as Diocesan Chancellor after many years of service and it  gives me great pleasure that the Revd Terence Dunlop has agreed to act as my Assessor for the remainder of this Synod, which I think I’m right in saying will be Terence’s first public appearance as the recently appointed Chancellor of the Diocese of Armagh. As you can tell from his title Terence is learned in both the law and in theology and I look forward to working with him in the years ahead.

At anytime in the Church of Ireland has about eighty vacant parishes throughout the island. As you know we in Armagh have our share of vacancies, which of course we hope to fill– although it takes somewhat longer now than it used to. In the meantime clergy and Diocesan Reader cover has to be organised, as well as sickness cover, and I want particularly to thank Jennifer for the remarkable work she does in this regard. The level of ministry which Jennifer is able to arrange is nothing short of a miracle. It may not be possible to provide sacramental cover quite so comprehensively in the future, especially at times of peak demand such as Christmas and Easter, and we remain enormously in Jennifer’s debt for her conscientious contribution to the work of the Diocese.

The organisation of this Synod falls largely into the lap of Jane and Jennifer, and we are blessed indeed to have two Diocesan officers who know the Diocese so well and have the good of all of its parishes and structures at heart. So, thank you to Jane and Jennifer, and of course to Pamela for making sure that I turn up to where I should be week by week.

+John Armagh
October 2023


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