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Clogher Diocesan Synod: Presidential Address

The Rt Revd John McDowell, Bishop of Clogher.
The Rt Revd John McDowell, Bishop of Clogher.

The Clogher Diocesan Synod took place in St Macartin’s Hall, Enniskillen, on Thursday evening (28th September).  The following Presidential Address was given by the Rt Revd John McDowell, Bishop of Clogher.

 

President’s Address by the Bishop of Clogher, the Rt Revd John McDowell

Brothers and sisters in Christ, it is with a strong sense of thankfulness to God that I begin this presidential address as I celebrate just over six years of episcopal ministry and my seventh Diocesan Synod here in the Diocese of Clogher. And I am grateful not only to God but also to so many of you here tonight and to others in this Diocese for the support and encouragement you have given to me personally and for the many aspects of the life of the People of God to which you have contributed.

A little later I will welcome some of our ecumenical guests and ask for the Synod’s permission for them to bring greetings. But I want to take this opportunity to welcome also Mr David Ritchie the Chief Officer of the Representative Church Body and the Secretary General of the Church of Ireland. David began work with the RCB about a year or so ago and over the past twelve months he has been trying to get to all the Diocesan Synods. He has already made a significant impression on how we organise ourselves centrally to best to equip the church for our mission and has made much progress on the culture of openness, flexibility and honesty needed if we are to succeed (whatever “success” looks like in our context). David, you are warmly welcome.

We welcome also Mr Simon Henry of the Church of Ireland Youth Department who is also an honoured guest with us. Simon we wish you well in your support role for youth activities with the Church of Ireland.

In last year’s Synod Address I announced that I would undertake a general Visitation during the year ahead and that I would say something about that exercise to this year’s Synod. I will do that shortly. I also tried last year to take a look at what is often called the “big picture” not just for the Diocese or the Church but for the world so that our worship, our witness and our service have a context or a background to be seen against. I identified the growing inequalities both between and within nations as a very ominous background against which to view contemporary political and social developments. I am no less wary this year of what is going on around us in the wider world and cannot help feeling that a quality of leadership – wise, unhurried, simple and trustworthy – is needed more than ever both in church and state.

One of the principal tasks of a leader is to communicate reality to those who wish to take his or her lead, and the reality that I observe all around me, not just in Church but in every sphere of life, is a mood of impatience with other points of view, of an increasing narrowing of vision and of a drawing back from the sort of commitment that creates sustainable and worthwhile communities. It is hardly an exaggeration to call these developments the triumph of individualism and I sometimes think that the word “individual” should be banned from Christian conversations and replaced by a word like “person” to reflect the complexity and value which each of us has – what we share as much as what we need.

This individualism which is so prevalent in our world and sometimes in our parishes is the enemy of reasoned debate and very far from the spirit of Anglicanism. Over the past ten years or so a new and very revealing way of opening a conversation or a debate has entered into our way of talking. “Speaking as an X.” somebody will say, whatever X might be. Speaking say as a woman or speaking as a progressive or speaking as a traditionalist or speaking as a unionist or as a republican – whatever it might be. But the intention of that way of opening a conversation is not to engage in an equal conversation but to establish some sort of privileged position. “I am X and you are not, so you couldn’t possibly understand.” It is an attempt to set up a wall against questions and it turns conversations into an encounter about power. The winner of the argument won’t be the person who has the strongest reasons but the one who has the morally superior identity and can express the greatest outrage at being questioned.

The key word to look out for is “offended”. Other people’s arguments aren’t weak or illogical – they are offensive. What replaces argument is a series of taboos rather like in the old paganism where only a small number of people, like the Druids or the shamans, were permitted to speak on certain matters or do certain things but nobody else not of that caste could interfere. Propositions become pure or impure, not true or false. Ask any of your children who have been to university recently about the matters which people simply aren’t allowed to debate any more or the beliefs which are denigrated because they are outside a certain limited range of reference.

As you may have guessed by now I believe that the antidote to this strange perversion of the liberal spirit is the smallness and the diversity of the parish. It is what I meant when I said last year that the parish is the place where we create local significance in a globalised world. The parish is the place where you simply cannot turn your back on other people’s personality or ideas or eccentricities. It is the place of God – given difference where we learn to work out those relationships that Paul talks about so clearly when he writes to the churches in Rome and in Corinth. It is the place where we work out our salvation and our transformation; that is we put it into practice in the ordinary circumstances of parish life where it is blessed by God for our good and for the good of the church.

The county Monaghan poet Patrick Kavanagh famously extolled the significance of the parochial over against the Provincial (always looking over its shoulder to see what was happening in the metropolis and making a bad imitation of it ) or the metropolitan with what is now identified as its “anywhere” rather than “somewhere” allegiances. Kavanagh himself was born and brought up as he proudly recorded … in the townland of Mucker, in the parish of Inniskeen”.

His poetry deals with great universal themes through participation in the parochial. A very famous poem of his begins:

We borrowed the loan of Kerr’s Ass
To go to Dundalk with butter
Brought him home the evening before market
An exile that night in Mucker.


That was an odd way to begin a poem in the 1950s when people in Ireland were still arising and going to the Lake Isle of Inisfree or up the airy mountain and down the fairy glen, in search of little men.

And if you will bear with me on this theme just a little while longer here is something further which this local Clogher man wrote about the importance of the parish.


Epic

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no–man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork–armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting ‘Damn your soul’
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast–steel—
‘Here is the march along these iron stones’
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.

It is easy for us to become either preoccupied with what we can do little to influence or to yield to despair in the face of the bigness and complexity of the world’s problems. Well, occasions like this one tonight are an opportunity to remind ourselves that it is not our vocation to solve or even to address every problem in the world, but it is our vocation to build up the Kingdom in our parishes so that God may be sincerely worshipped, his world truly served and that his people may be saved through Christ forever. The parish is the context of our mission and the Diocese is the extended family to support us in that vocation. I am more convinced than ever of this following my Visitation. 

… it is our vocation to build up the Kingdom in our parishes so that God may be sincerely worshipped, his world truly served and that his people may be saved through Christ forever

I gather that some of you thought that there was an ulterior motive to my tramping round the Diocese over the past twelve months. Apparently some of you thought that I was reconnoitring the lie of the land in preparation for closures and amalgamations. Nothing could have been further from my mind. What I did was to send clergy a list of questions about their approach to ministry in and beyond the walls of the church and about their own spiritual sustenance. I then arranged a visit of about two hours (sometimes more sometimes less) which began with a short act of worship. This was followed by a discussion loosely based around what people had written in response to my questions. And, by the way, it isn’t that I am more interested in the clergy than in the laity, but that I am old fashioned enough to believe that the leadership given by clergy is a determining factor in the health and well–being of any parish and that that leadership is itself dependent on Christian leaders keeping themselves in very close communion with the source of spiritual life, Jesus Christ himself.

It is for that reason that I emphasised with each of them that every clergy person or Evangelist should have a period of five or six days each year (which are not holidays) which they should set aside for a retreat or some other form of spiritual renewal according to their own temperament and make up. In any other walk of life it would be called professional development or in–service training and as a Diocese we need to take the organising and provision of it more seriously.

We also talked about the “core” tasks in a parish clergy person or Evangelist’s vocation, which are quite simply those which are laid out in the ordination or commissioning services. Before I go on to speak about ordained ministry I want to say something about ministry in general, because they are very closely related. And this relationship is becoming more and more important in a world which we can no longer assume has any real understanding of the Gospel or of what is entailed in a life of discipleship of Jesus Christ.

I want to use some words which I had written for the commissioning of a Diocesan Reader last week.

Each of us has a personal ministry – things we do because we are the people God has made us and where he has placed us – our care of our families and neighbours, acts of mercy, hospitality, generosity, self–control, our prayers, our worship, the sharing of what God has done for each of us.

These ministries are as various as we are but are all rooted in our obedience to Christ and fed by our worship. Our sustenance and inspiration for these come from the ordinary devotion of our prayers and parish life, our walk with other Christians and our membership of community groups. These personal ministries are the bedrock of our Christian life and any other kind of ministry will be empty without them.

There will also be people who have a recognised ministry. There will be the person who is always asked to read in Church because their voice is strong, the person you can rely on to pray for you, the one who will not allow anyone to go home without being fed, the one who will sit quietly with you when you wait for bad news, the one who will always give money or time, the one whose smile makes people feel valued.

Without these personal and recognised ministries the other Commissioned or Ordained ministries are useless. They are in many ways the smallest part of the picture but getting them right demands a great deal of attention. To spend this time (and also money) on them is not to belittle the other types of ministry, but to try to make sure that what is done in the name of us all is faithful to the calling of Christ and the needs of the church.

Ministry cannot be what it once was thought to be in any of the traditional Churches. It is no longer the pastoral care of a Christian nation. However, that should free us up to make sure that it is the pastoral care of the People of God – that is of the parish.

Although it may not have been obvious to those clergy and Evangelists who addressed the questions I asked of them, we were in fact dealing with two very clear priorities for the future, evangelism and mission. By evangelism I mean how a parish proclaims and embodies the Gospel in what it says and what it does. That can mean many things. In a deeply divided society such as ours in Northern Ireland and to a degree in the Republic of Ireland also it is both proclaiming and embodying the Gospel to set community relations at the heart of our parish presence. If there is one matter which the most varied NT writers agree on it is that if we say we love God who we cannot see but do not love our neighbours who we can see, then we are fooling ourselves.

Christian belief is both a gift and a vocation. And it is a very demanding vocation. That is why, as I said earlier the Church needs to take the time and trouble to ensure that those who are its official representatives (largely but not exclusively clergy and Evangelists) are properly trained and equipped for service. That is also the reason why there is a greater requirement for oversight of clergy – because what they do and say is taken as the voice of the Church and of the Gospel. We need to serve with accountability and that accountability will, I think be a greater demand as the years progress.

Earlier I mentioned the Ordinal which contains the liturgies (often deriving from very ancient sources) which set out the shape of the clerical vocation. The Ordinal makes clear that each and all of the demands of ministry are both pastoral and a proclamation of the Gospel. Visiting the sick, preparing the dying for death, teaching people how to pray, preaching the Word, celebrating the sacraments of the New Covenant – all of these are the work of a shepherd feeding his or her flock and of a herald pointing towards the values of the Kingdom of God. I found on my visitation that the vast majority of clergy and Evangelists found that attending to these tasks made for a fulfilling life.

And as an aside that is something which we need to emphasise much more to our young people. This year we were fortunate to have two ordinands from Clogher made deacon (one, the Revd Lindsey Farrell, to serve here in Clogher and another the Revd Alison Irvine to serve in the Diocese of Meath and Kildare) and we are grateful to God that he still calls people from our parishes to ordained ministry. But we need more of our own people to do so otherwise the Church of Ireland will start to become the Church of a few very populous areas of the island and cease to reflect the character of what has traditionally been the backbone of the Church of Ireland – the rural parish.

Our reticence and our modesty in encouraging people to consider ordained ministry is an amiable fault, but a fault nevertheless. And encouragement to consider the path to ordination is very often best coming from lay people who see someone in their parish who they feel has the makings of a pastor of God’s people but don’t feel they should say so. Well, I would encourage you to do just that so that the ordained ministry may truly reflect the variety and strength of the Church of Ireland.

As many of you will know I worked at a fairly senior level in business before I was ordained and when people asked me how I found the move into Holy Orders I usually said that I left a good job and found a better one. I still believe that as I am convinced that most of my colleagues do also as I have discussed matters with them throughout the year. Sometimes there is nothing more difficult but almost always there is nothing more fulfilling than straightforward parish ministry.

In 1963 an Australian novelist called Morris West wrote a book called The Shoes of the Fisherman. It was a novel dissecting the high politics of the Catholic Church but there is in it these words about parish ministry:

“I’d be a country priest with just enough theology to hear confession…but with heart enough to know what…made others cry into their pillow at night. I’d sit in front of my Church and read my [prayer book] office and talk about the weather and the crops and learn to be gentle with the poor and humble and unhappy ones”. Is that not a vocation worth having?

My Visitation also confirmed in my mind the obvious truth that although God calls us to a particular pattern of ministry he does not call us to a uniform or slavish application of that ministry. He has called each of us to bring our gifts to ministry and to work that ministry out in His company. It will take many forms depending on gifts and context but it will always be active. That does not mean hurried or breathless or unthinking, but always reflecting, devising and acting. Either doing something new or doing something old even better than we did it before; and all done in the service of the good working of the parish. That is not always going to be comfortable( in fact it may seldom be so) but, thinking back to Patrick Kavanagh, nor should it be the beginning of the Trojan Wars.

As we await the results and analysis of the latest Church of Ireland census we need to remember that the other sobering context of our parochial mission is that in the Church of Ireland in general only about 15% of those claiming to be Church of Ireland attend church regularly. In the Diocese of Clogher it is rather more (about 22%) but even this is hardly a figure we can be very pleased about.

And needless to say certain age groups are very poorly represented. It is going to be very difficult to win back people in their thirties and forties who have moved into settled patterns of life and see no need for God. All of the evidence shows that it is much much better to attract people when they are young to the disciplines of prayer and discipleship. As I said in a recent Ad Clerum– we cannot do everything but we can do something. So I am inviting every parish in the coming year to do something which they haven’t done before specifically for young people in their parish. It could be a one off event or it could be a discipleship programme or an Evangelists’ outreach. It clod be a school of prayer or 1,001 other things. I would only ask a few things to be borne in mind:

That you may wish to look at the Clogher Diocesan Youth Council’s Mission statement which highlights the Anglican Communion’s Five Marks of Mission. Indeed’ you may even think it worthwhile to speak to the CDYC’s new chair, the Revd Philip Bryson or to Jonny Phenix to help you think about what you might do. And this is a good opportunity to thank Philip for taking on the task of chairing the Council to which vocation he has brought much dedication, prayer and focus.

But I would also ask Select Vestries to ensure that any such activity or initiative has adequate financial resources, support and encouragement within the parish.

Finally, in relation to this general request, I would ask that the clergy, evangelist or youth worker lets me know what is being done simply for the purpose of information and so that I can remember what you are doing in my own prayers.

And remember in these days when so many in society denigrate the Church and so many church people can become despondent – remember, the supreme wonder of the history of the Christian Church, is that always in the moments when it has seemed most dead, out of its own body there has sprung up new life; so that in age after age it has renewed itself, and in age after age by its renewal has carried not just itself but the whole world forward into new stages of progress, as it will do for us in our day, if only we give ourselves in devotion to its Lord and take our place in its service.

Charities Registration, Methodist Covenant and Ordained Local Ministry

I have mentioned the word accountability a number of times in what I have said about clergy and parishes and it is a matter of growing importance in all areas of personal and collective service. There probably won’t be anyone in this room who hadn’t more forms to fill in or give a greater account of what they do today than they had to 10 years ago. Indeed this Synod has been a means of accounting for ourselves which had taken place for the past one hundred and forty six years. One area where accountability is being particularly emphasised at present is in the area of Charities Registration. You are, I know, all very aware of that.

So first I want to thank the enormous amount of preparatory and advisory work that has been undertaken for the parishes of the Diocese and for the Diocese itself by our Diocesan Accountant, Mrs Ashley Brown. It really has been a gargantuan task of first of all learning herself and of making that expertise available to those who need to know. But I want also to thank all of you in the parishes(and especially Honorary Treasurers) for your commitment to getting this right so that we not only comply with the letter of the law but through good governance become better stewards of our resources and of the Kingdom. It has not been an easy few years in terms of adjusting to new and more formal methods of (particularly financial) accountability but progress is steady.

We have had much help from the regulatory authority, especially from the Charities Commission in Northern Ireland, and we are grateful for that. However, above all we are very thankful to those hundreds of people across our parishes who for years (in some cases decades) have run charities or been responsible for the management of charitable funds and resources with great care and dedication, seeking and receiving no reward; providing honest and decent service and who wish to continue to do so in an atmosphere of mutual understanding and appreciation with the regulatory authorities each understanding the limits of the others resources and bringing the virtues of common sense, proportion and humanity to all that they do. We are most grateful.

On another subject altogether I want to highlight the continuing work of the Church of Ireland/Methodist Covenant as we try to deepen and lift common witness in the Diocese. As the clergy and Evangelists amongst you will know, with the help of the then Lakelands District Superintendent, the Revd Sam McGuffin, we have made arrangements for a degree of interchangeability of Church of Ireland Diocesan Readers and Methodist Fully Accredited Local Preachers. I would ask that the opportunity for this mutuality and building up the unity and common witness is taken by as many parishes as possible in the coming year.

Again, although I do not want to say a great deal about it until the details are more closely worked out, the House of Bishops have agreed, on foot of a motion from this year’s General Synod, to introduce a programme for the section and training of what is currently known as Ordained Local Ministry (OLM) and I will hopefully be in a position to say more in detail about that initiative to the appropriate people as the year progresses.


Schools

One area of Diocesan activity of which we in the Diocese, both North and South can be justly proud is our involvement in schools where we many people serve as school governors or volunteers – not to mention teaching or other forms of employment. This year I would like to mention particularly our involvement in schools in County Monaghan. In the Republic of Ireland many of the schools continue to be under the patronage of Churches. So I am patron of four primary schools (Clontibret, the Billis, Rockcorry and Drumacruttin, still known as National Schools) and one second level school, Monaghan Collegiate. We also contribute very significantly to the governance of the Model National School in Monaghan.

That patronage carries with it responsibility for the ethos of a school and many of our clergy and lay people in county Monaghan are very involved in school Boards of Management and Boards of Governors. Our patronage of schools is both a privilege and a responsibility and is a significant part of the Protestant community’s contribution to education and to social cohesion in a pluralist society in Ireland and I want to thank all of our people who are involved in the governance and management of schools in county Monaghan, and to our principals and teachers. We may be numerically small. It is numerically but we contribute whole heartedly to the well–being of the whole community.

I want to say a particular word of bethinks to Canon Ian Berry who is very conversant with the legislative and administrative background to education in the Republic of Ireland and who acts more or less as my unofficial adviser on these matters. As well was being involved at all levels of governance in number of schools he also helped organise some very high quality training for newly appointed Boards of Management last year and as a Diocese we are in his debt.

Rwanda

It has been on my conscience for some time that as a Diocese we do not have a specific overseas mission project to support and to engage with. I know that every parish supports mission partners and projects as part of their solidarity with the Universal Church especially where it labours under very difficult economic and social conditions. However as a Diocese I would also like to ask us focus on a particular project as indeed has been done in the past with Diocesan projects in Kaduna, in Sri Lanka by the Holy Land Medical Relief Fund and in a hospital in Gaza.

Many people find that mission links work best where there is some local connection between the partners concerned and I have been in contact with the Revd Jerome Munangaju who many of you will know was, for about 10 years, the rector of the parish of Killyleagh. Jerome and his wife Mary have since returned to their native Rwanda. They had intended simply to find some work there for a few years before retiring. However, they became increasingly concerned and aware that there were very many elderly homeless people who would normally have been looked after by their extended families but whose children had been killed during the genocide.

So Jerome and Mary have begun a modest project to provide a care home facility free of charge as a community of social care and spiritual welfare. The fundraising and partnership work is led by Mrs Mavis Gibbons and the Revd Bobbie Moore who will be known to many of you and I am hoping to identify a small Diocesan group who might organise fundraising and support activities for the project here in Clogher.


Diocesan Office

Last year we held our Diocesan Synod in Monaghan and it was a good opportunity to get out and about in that part of the diocese. This year we are back again to what I expect will become our more regular venue in these very impressive halls. As most of you will know the money to undertake the refurbishment of the old halls to make this new building was provided (following a very rigorous selection process) by the Social Investment Fund of the Executive Office and as a diocese we are grateful too them for the confidence they have shown in the Cathedral Parish to make a difference in terms of social cohesion here is Enniskillen.

And we are grateful to the Select Vestry of Enniskillen Cathedral not only for allowing us to host our Synod here tonight but also for providing our new Diocesan Office on reasonable terms. The move from the temporary office in Darling Street back here to Hall’s Lane allowed us to have a fresh look at staff deployment as the Diocesan Secretary moved to part–time hours and Brian Donaldson took up his role in Diocesan Communications. The final pattern of those arrangements has not quite settled yet and we are all too aware of some minor teething problems which we hope will be sorted out this term. However I do want to thank the staff based in the Office (Glenn, Ruth and Ashley) for all they have done to make the return as smooth as possible. Indeed one of the minor advantages of our new office and equipment is that we have been able to print our streamlined version of the Diocesan Report to the Synod in–house this year.

Also a particular word of thanks to the Revd Lorraine Capper for the work that she has done in rescuing, conserving and cataloguing a great deal of Diocesan archive material and other resources which nearly perished in some very wet conditions in the strong room.


Personalia

This might also be an appropriate moment to formally congratulate Ruth on her engagement and we wish her well for the future in that sphere of her life. During the year we have also welcomed some new faces into the Diocese particularly those of the Revd Colin McConaghie as rector of the Carrickmacross Group (so far as I know the only Glenavon supporter ever to have served in the Diocese of Clogher) and the Revd Paul Thompson as rector of Derryvullen North and Castlearchdale. Paul served in parishes in the Dioceses of Down and Dromore and Connor before moving to England to work as a chaplain in the prison service for 16 years. So of his face is familiar to you, you may not want to admit it.

As you will know the Diocese of Clogher is represented on the central governing bodies of the Church, most especially on the Representative Body and the Standing Committee, The Representative Body is the Trustee of the assets (property, money and 20,000 trusts) of the Church of Ireland and transacts an enormous amount of business on our behalf. As with every committee in the Church of Ireland, three is strong dependence on the contribution made by the experienced lay people which each diocese elects. One of our representatives for the past years has been Mr John Keating who has stepped down this year having reached his twenty–first birthday. I would like to thank John for the quiet and dedicated service which he has given to the Representative Body.

Although he too is still with us here tonight Chancellor John Stewart stepped down during the past year as the Secretary to the Glebes Committee and as Diocesan Registrar, both tasks which required much patience and attention to detail. On your behalf I would like to thank John for all that he contributed in those largely unobserved roles in diocesan life and for his help and advice particularly in Registry matters during his years of service.

Perhaps Chancellor Stewart will take some pride in the fact that it has taken two people to replace him and I welcome the Revd John McClenaghan formally as Registrar. I also particularly want to welcome Mr Robert Forde as Secretary to the Diocesan Glebes Committee, possibly the first layman to hold that office but with a professional background which equips him well for the task, not to mention his quietly persuasive winning ways.

I think I should also take this opportunity to more formally thank Brian Harper for agreeing to be Archdeacon in which role he effectively acts as the Bishop’s executive officer and which is a position of seniority and trust which he has so far discharged with great diligence and understanding.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, I finish as a began in sincere thankfulness to God our Father and The Lord Jesus Christ that he has sustained each of us in our vocations and ministry for a further year to meet again for mutual encouragement ; may he bless us as we continue with the work of His Church tonight.