Presidential Address, Diocesan Synod 2021
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dreamed.1
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”2
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we are filled with joy.3
Restore our fortunes, Lord,
like streams in the Negev.4
Those who sow with tears
will reap with songs of joy.5
Those who go out weeping,
carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with them.6
(Psalm 126 – A Song of Ascents, NIV)
“When asked what the greatest challenge of being a prime minister was, the late Earl of Stockton, Harold Macmillan, is reputed to have said: ‘Events, dear boy, events.’ Macmillan had lived through the Spanish Flu pandemic; two world wars; he was wounded three times in the Great War; he survived the Great Depression, not to mention the vagaries of normal political life; so, he was well qualified to give advice on how ‘events’ have the power to change everything.
When the first reports filtered through of a new virus affecting the Chinese province of Wuhan, it all seemed terribly far away and not particularly relevant to our everyday lives. And yet, within a matter of weeks, events would take over. Overnight, virtually everything seemed to change. The Covid-19 pandemic broke across the world, carrying death, incapacitation, fear, vulnerability, isolation and uncertainty to every part of the world. Unfortunately, as we all know, it still has the potential to surprise us. On this island alone, in the space of a year and a half, it has claimed twice as many lives as the Troubles did, and worldwide the death toll is almost 5 million, according to Johns Hopkins University of Medicine.
So, the impact has been and remains brutal. But the coronavirus has also carried in its wake incredible selflessness and sacrifice, amazing ingenuity, kindness and neighbourliness, tremendous resourcefulness, and a growing awareness of our ability to adapt and change.
A few short years ago, for example, none of us would have imagined a diocesan synod taking place via Zoom. Two years ago, ‘zoom’ still meant to move very quickly. But here we are; events have made us adept at using new technologies.
Now, I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I’m not. I am genuinely, genuinely thankful that we can meet like this, but I would far rather that we could meet ‘in person’ for our diocesan synod. And I pray that next year we will be gathering in person, meeting up face-to-face again, to conduct the important work of synod.
It’s no exaggeration to say that all our lives have been dominated by Covid since March 2020. It has certainly overshadowed my first two years almost as Bishop. I was only able to enjoy a very short window of normality before events took their course and everything changed.
In that almost year and a half since, I have looked on with admiration and a true sense of pride at the way our diocese has responded to a challenge unprecedented in our lifetimes. I want to place on the record my deep and heartfelt appreciation to those of you, right across the diocese, who made sure that both the worship of God and the ministry of the church were able to continue in the most harrowing of circumstances.
In next to no time, many of our clergy familiarised themselves with previously alien platforms like Facebook Live and YouTube, using them to provide online services. Parishioners supported food banks. Parishes provided meals for the elderly housebound. Church members supported the lonely through regular phone calls, collecting medicines and delivering shopping. Sunday schools moved online and ‘home packs’ were provided for children. People showed their Blitz spirit. They rallied round.
The enforced and, indeed, unwelcome changes that the pandemic demanded of us nevertheless showed us that we are far more capable, far more adaptable and far more creative than we ever could have believed.
So, yes, we can see some of the positives that have come about as the result of enforced adaptation. But it would be not just insensitive but plain wrong not to acknowledge the enormous loss and heartache, and the great challenges, that Covid has brought to individuals, to families and to the church. Like many in our parishes, I have known only too well the pain of loss during this time.
The phrase ‘new normal’ is perhaps overused, nowadays, but whatever the new normal looks like, it’s clear that things have changed – considerably. Events again!
For us as a church, there is the task of rebuilding again, after months of disruption to services and organisations. There’s also the challenge of reconnecting with those who have been slow to re-engage with their parishes. What, we wonder, will a renewed church look like on the other side of the pandemic?
It will obviously look and feel different in different places but, as the people of God, we must be open to the leading and prompting of His Spirit. We are still travelling through difficult days, but we must always have confidence in the One who says, ‘I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.’ The creativity and adaptability that brought us through the last eighteen months or so will be in even greater demand as we move into the future.
So, the task – of rebuilding, reconnecting and renewing – is the responsibility of every one of us, not just a few. Each one of us is called to serve God and to build up His church. It is important, in fact it is essential, that each of us prayerfully considers and then responds to God’s call in this demanding time in the life of the church.
When I was ordained, almost 30 years ago, one of the buzz phrases in church life was ‘every member ministry.’ It encapsulated a vision of service whose day has now definitely come. ‘Every member ministry’ is now an imperative.
Over the last number of years, the Church of Ireland has sought to encourage new models of ministry. I believe that pioneer ministry, for example, is an exciting way of expressing how the church should be engaging in mission and evangelism. Church planting – reaching into communities that are disconnected from established patterns of ministry and initiating new expressions of church – not only helps us to reach the lost but can reinvigorate our existing parish ministry. Our parish structure, with churches throughout Derry and Raphoe, leaves us very well placed to pioneer and to reach out. Yes, we may have to change our mindset, but the pandemic has proved us capable of doing that. We can do things differently; we can be creative and adaptable.
The Ordained Local Ministry (OLM) is now well established across our church with more than 40 people ordained to OLM over the last three years across most of our dioceses. I hope that over the next few years, we will see Ordained Local Ministry in Derry and Raphoe, too.
So, what is it? First of all, it is ‘ordained’. OLMs are deacons and priests and presbyters just like everyone else who is invested with ministerial authority; their role may be different, but they are fully ordained ministers in the Church of Ireland. Secondly, it is local, serving a specific parish, local group of parishes or rural deanery. This local ministry is pastoral and liturgical. Thirdly, it’s self-supporting ministry, just like the non-stipendiary ministry. And fourthly it is supervised ministry, in which OLMs work as part of a larger team under the supervision of a rector, rural dean or Archdeacon.
Ordained Local Ministry can help us meet some of the challenges of providing effective pastoral ministry right across our diocese and, in fact, I believe it can enhance our mission and ministry. Our Diocesan Director of Ordinands, Canon Robert Boyd, has been meeting with our clergy team and sharing with them the exciting new possibilities that OLM brings. If you would like to hear more about it, please do contact Robert.
One of the most important things we do – if not the most important thing we do – is pass the faith on to a new generation. Our ministry with children and young people has been severely curtailed over the last eighteen months or so. In the Diocese of Derry and Raphoe, we invest in Children’s and Youth ministry because we realise their huge significance.
Our diocesan Children’s ministry officer, Kirsty McCartney, has done trojan work in preparing home resources so that Sunday School and Children’s Ministry could continue throughout the pandemic. So, I wish to place on record our gratitude to Kirsty for her commitment and creativity.
And I know that members of synod will also join me in welcoming our new Diocesan Youth Officer, Claire Hinchliff, who joins us after a long ‘vacancy’ in that position. We assure Claire of our prayers and support as she settles into her exciting and challenging role, and we look forward to hearing from her later on in our Synod.
I’m grateful, too, for the work of the Derry and Raphoe Youth Board, under the leadership of Rev Peter Ferguson and Rev Nigel Cairns. Our youth ministry is in safe hands and the diocese will continue to build on its long record of prioritising ministry with children and young people.
On a cold and icy morning last December, I, along with a number of other church leaders, met at Gartan, in County Donegal, to mark the birth of St Columba. In fact, as I recall, it was so cold that the cameras of a local film crew actually froze!
We would have loved, over the last year, to have celebrated the anniversary of Columba’s birth with much more of a fanfare but events have dictated otherwise. I hope and pray, though, that something of Columba’s spiritual DNA is still evident in those who follow in his footsteps.
I must confess, I find his example inspiring. Columba faced challenges even greater than ours: he ministered in a divided society; he found redemption after failure; he didn’t allow setbacks to knock him off course. Sounds pretty familiar doesn’t it? And he did it all without Zoom!
In December, we will mark the end of the 1500th year celebrations with a service of thanksgiving in the beautifully renovated cathedral in Raphoe at which the Archbishop of Armagh will be our preacher. The cathedral is named after St Eunan who was a relative of Columba’s, and who eventually succeeded him as abbot of the monastery on Iona. So, there can be few more fitting venues for our final diocesan celebration. I hope that as the year of commemoration draws to a close, we will be encouraged and inspired by the dynamic example set by Columba.
In Archbishop McDowell’s address to the General Synod, he spoke very forcefully about our responsibility to creation. For years, dire warnings of a climate crisis that threatened creation sounded like some sort of far-off scare story. Not anymore. Reality is beginning to bite as we witness extreme weather patterns and environmental degradation.
Later this month, global leaders will gather in Glasgow for the COP26 conference aimed at reducing harmful emissions. Clearly, politicians – especially world leaders – have a crucial part to play, but the message is clear: we all have a role to play; churches have a contribution to make; each one of us has a responsibility; each one of us can make a difference.
The story of creation is the very first story in the very first book of the Bible. Part of our discipleship, part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, is that we are called to care for creation. The younger generation ‘get’ this. They have so much to teach us. If you want to know some of the things you can do to help make a contribution to saving the planet, ask your children or grandchildren. They’ll quickly tell you.
In the very near future, I intend to make care for the environment a key part of who we are as the Diocese of Derry and Raphoe. This will require not just words but action on our part, across all our parishes. It will be challenging, no doubt, but I’m convinced the time is right. In fact, the time has never been more right.
I want to conclude, if I may, with some personal remarks. At a time of great loss, I wish to pay tribute to those diocesan and parish stalwarts who have died since the last synod. They served God fervently and faithfully over many, many decades. They were the backbone of their parishes, and the cogs that kept the diocesan machinery functioning, regardless of what life threw at them. We are all in their debt.
I count it an incredible privilege to serve as your Bishop. I was consecrated on 8th December 2019, and since coming to you, I have been overwhelmed by your kindness, prayers and support. I have loved getting to know you. The familiarisation process has been impacted somewhat by Covid, but in the years that lie ahead I look forward to our relationships growing, developing and deepening, as we seek to build God’s kingdom together.
I have been greatly impressed by the fidelity and commitment shown by select vestries and parish teams, as they strove to keep the light of Christ burning in their parishes while the world was in turmoil.
The pandemic has clearly had an effect on parish incomes, and the financial outlook is likely to remain challenging for the foreseeable future.
Thankfully, in these straitened times, I have a strong team of people alongside me, overseeing the work of diocesan administration. I’m indebted to our Diocesan Accountant/Administrator, Gavin Harkin, to the Honorary Secretaries, the Finance and General Purposes Committee, the Glebes and Property Committee, the Diocesan Council and other committees and boards for their unstinting support and advice. I want to thank Paul McFadden, our diocesan communications officer, for always flying the flag for Derry and Raphoe. I’m grateful, too, deeply grateful to Sarah MacBruithin – my secretary – and to Sarah’s predecessor, Brigid Barret, without whose help I would have been rudderless since I came here.
I want to pay particular thanks and pay particular tribute to our clergy team, which I hope is more of a clergy ‘family’. Your faithfulness to God and your love for your parishioners has been a huge blessing to me and, I know, to so many of the people you serve. I want to thank you so much for all that you do, and for your prayer support of my ministry.
I would like to acknowledge Canon Katie McAteer and Canon Judi McGaffin, who – through their respective appointments to the Cathedral Chapters of St Columb and St Eunan – have made history in our diocese. I suspect that chapter life in both cathedrals will never be the same again!
My thanks to the Archdeacons, Robert and David, is not borne out of duty or an accepted norm, but out of deep gratitude for their wisdom, prayers, advice, support, friendship and their great good humour. Thank you for your guidance and fellowship. I feel greatly in your debt for all that you do and for the men of God that you are.
It is the great privilege of my ministry to be your Bishop. I need your prayers, and I thank you for them. God has plans for us. He gives us hope and a future, and we trust Him.
Many of you will know that I often wear this cross made of Donegal bog oak – made by Rev Robert Wray – around my neck. But the words of Columba are also near and dear to my heart:
Be a bright flame before me, O God,
A guiding star above me.
Be a smooth path below me,
a kindly shepherd behind me
today, tonight and forever.
Alone with none but you, my God,
I journey on my way;
what need I fear when you are near,
O Lord of night and day?
More secure am I within your hand
than if a multitude did round me stand.