Bishop Andrew urges Drumragh parishioners to follow the example of St Columba

The Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, Rt Rev Andrew Forster, has paid tribute to the generation of worshippers in Omagh who were so confident in their faith and in God that at a time of great uncertainty for the Church of Ireland, they proceeded to build a new church, St Columba’s, in the heart of the town a century and a half ago.

We have forgotten how turbulent those times were, Bishop Andrew said, in his sermon to the current generation of parishioners in Drumragh, as they gathered this evening to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the opening of St Columba’s Church. “150 years ago, this year,” the Bishop said, “the government decided ‘in their wisdom – and it was absolutely in their wisdom’ – that the Church of Ireland would no longer be the established church of the nation and that it would have to stand on its own two feet.”

It was, Bishop Forster said, a shock of seismic proportions. ‘’They didn’t know whether we would still be here in 10 years or 20 years. They thought we might struggle and disappear. And do you know what happened 150 years ago, whenever we were going through that time? The good people of Drumragh said we are confident: we are confident in our church; we are confident in our community; and, more than all of these, we are confident in almighty God, and we will build a church that will serve generations to come. And tonight, we celebrate the faith of that generation all those years ago.”

Bishop Andrew said the two great churches of County Tyrone, St Columba’s in Omagh and St Anne’s in Dungannon – in which both he and the Rector of Drumragh, Rev Graham Hare, had served – were both built during those days. “Two great churches that stand on hills, and now, this church, lit up for the whole town to see, saying to the world that we are here, that Jesus Christ says, ‘I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”

During the service, which was led by Rev Hare, the Bishop dedicated the church’s new internal and external lighting. He reminded the congregation that fifteen hundred years ago, their patronal saint, Columba, was born in Gartan in Donegal. The riches of his birth family meant nothing to Columba when he discovered the riches of faith in Jesus Christ. He built his favourite monastery on the site of St Augustine’s Church on Derry’s walls and from there he planted many other monasteries.

“What was his vision in planting monasteries?”, the Bishop asked. “He saw them, first of all, as places of community in a fractured time. He saw them as places of prayer in a spiritual wilderness. He saw them as places of worship that saw the beauty that God had given around them and the beauty of his love for them. He saw them as places of support for those who were floundering in life. And ultimately, he saw them as places of mission, places of Good News for the Gospel, to share it in the community.

“Now, you are named after him, and your parish can follow his example, because, let me tell you, your parish has followed his example – and will continue to – to be a place of community, where people know they are loved; know they are accepted; to be a place of prayer in the wilderness of this world around us; to be a place of worship.”

Bishop Andrew said people often remarked that churches were just bricks and mortar – and they were right – but for him and other members of his family, their home church of St Philip and St James, in Holywood, was much more than that. “St Columba’s, for you, is much more than bricks and mortar, because you can chart your own spiritual history through this church; you can chart your family’s journey through this church; you can think of the prayers which you have offered God in this place; the worship you have given to Him in this place; and for you it is much, much more than bricks and mortar.

“Let’s be the generation who make sure that the people of this town, of this community, discover this place so that it will be much, much more to them than just bricks and mortar. It will be a place of family, of prayer, of worship, of support, and of mission.

“This is a beautiful church, a church that has stood sentinel over this town through some of the most difficult days any of us have lived through; a church that has stood sentinel over this town in some of the most important moments of your lives; and this is a church that will continue to do that because Jesus Christ says, ‘I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.’

“Tonight, we celebrate this beautiful place, this hallowed place, hallowed in the prayers of its children down through the years, hallowed in the example of its patron saint, hallowed in the worship offered to God here, Sunday by Sunday.”

During the service, Bishop Forster cut a large birthday cake which had been baked specially for the occasion. The Rector, Rev Hare, said COVID restrictions meant that numbers at the service, and at other commemorative services and events earlier in the week, had to be restricted. Like those events, this evening’s service complied with COVID guidelines, as did the celebratory supper afterwards in the nearby parish hall.

Bishop Andrew helps celebrate ‘Black History Month’

The Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, Rt Rev Andrew Forster, was one of a number of church leaders who addressed the ‘Black History Month Summit’ in Londonderry on Saturday. The event – at the City Hotel in the city centre – was also attended by the Bishop of Derry, Dr Donal McKeown, and the chairperson of the Irish Muslim Peace and Integration Council, Shaykh Dr Umar al Qadri.

The conference was organised by the North West Migrants’ Forum to draw attention to the remarkable, and often tragic, history of the African people; highlight some of the key issues facing our Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities; and celebrate the rich and varied culture of people of African descent living in Northern Ireland.

A distinguished cast of speakers addressed delegates, including: the Chairperson of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, Dominque Day; the author and academic, Professor Verene Shepherd, from the University of the West Indies; Patrick Corrigan, from Amnesty International; Dr Livingstone Thompson, Chairperson of the African and Caribbean support organisation; and the North West Migrants Forum’s Director of Programmes, Lilian Seenoi-Barr.

Among the politicians there to lend support were the Mayor of Derry City and Strabane District Council, Alderman Graham Warke, the DUP Junior Minister, Gary Middleton, and councillors from different parties on the Council. Mr Middleton addressed the conference in person while his fellow Junior Minister, Declan Kearney of Sinn Féin, spoke to delegates virtually.

Bishop Andrew told delegates there was a question asked of Jesus in the New Testament – ‘Who is my neighbour?’ – to which Jesus gave the broadest possible answer. “Here we are as neighbours today,” Bishop Andrew said, “and I hope today’s a very significant day not just for us in the North West but across our region, across the island, as we celebrate Black History Month, as we celebrate the contribution that different people from different backgrounds, different races, different cultures [have made] – the richness that they bring to all that we do here in the city and beyond.”

Bishop Andrew told the conference that Senator George Mitchell – the American politician who chaired the peace talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement – said the Irish were very welcoming towards visitors but very suspicious of each other. “I think that was true 20 or so years ago,” the Bishop said, “but maybe our welcome towards visitors who are now ‘us’ – who are now part of ‘us’, are part of our community, who live with us as equals – maybe we’ve become suspicious rather than welcoming. Today is a day that helps us break down some of those divisions and helps us celebrate who we are as people made in the image of God. So, I’m thrilled to be part of today.”

Opportunity to find out more about OLM

The Diocesan Fellowship of Vocation will meet in Glendermott Parish Hall at 7.30pm on Tuesday 2nd November to discuss the introduction of Ordained Local Ministry (OLM) in the diocese, which was referred to by Bishop Andrew in his presidential address to the diocesan synod.

The Diocesan Director of Ordinations, Rev Canon Robert Boyd, says the meeting will give those who may be interested in OLM, or in any other form of full- or part-time ministry, an opportunity to find out more and to discern the call of God upon their lives.


Armagh service ‘one moment on journey towards reconciliation’

Archbishop John McDowell writes in today’s Irish Times about the Service of Reflection and Hope which will be taking place in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, this Thursday.
His article is in full below:
There are two libraries closely associated with the Catholic and Church of Ireland Cathedrals here in Armagh. Both are named after previous archbishops; the Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich Library and the Robinson Library. Anyone researching in those archives for the years surrounding Partition and the formation of Northern Ireland would come away with the impression that the atmosphere at the time was filled with bitterness, hurt, recrimination, and all expressed in harsh, uncompromising words.
In more modern times Archbishops from both traditions, and the leaders of other Churches have been able to adopt a different tone, not because they carry their convictions any less strongly, but because they have become friends. It is relatively easy for people from differing religious or cultural traditions to do things on their own. It takes a bit more time and patience to do anything together, even on a modest scale.
So, in relation to the 2021 centenary year the Church Leaders knew we had to start listening to one another as early as we could. In fact we started the process of planning our little programme of events in 2020, meeting online much more frequently than we could have done if all the meetings had been in person. Like most of the rest of society we moved from being “baby zoomers” to feeling relaxed using the online medium. These meetings became much more than business sessions. They turned into heart to heart conversations. People who were acquainted with one another began to know one another.
It became obvious too from very early in our discussions that we each felt that what we were doing and thinking would be worthwhile sharing more widely. Not because it was revolutionary or grand, but because it was ordinary. A group of people with a similar vocation, each of us, in one way or another spiritually descended from St Patrick, servants of the Gospel and of our Churches, now learning to become servants of one another (we hoped) for the common good.
We issued a statement early in the New Year to say we intended to have a series of events in 2021 and followed this up on St Patrick’s Day with a much more substantial piece in which we laid out our rationale and our aims. We acknowledged our shortcomings and mistakes in the past, especially in often failing to bring the Gospel message of peace and human solidarity to a divided society and a divided island. Through the year we have taken part together in broadcast services contributing personal reflections, and we have just completed a series of podcasts introduced by the journalist Jude Hill, in which each of us is in conversation with an invited guest.
Hoping and praying that in–person worship would be possible again before the year ended, we began planning back in March for A Service of Refection and Hope, to be held in St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh, but hosted by the Irish Churches. It is very important to all of the Church Leaders that this service is understood as our initiative – a moment of prayer, listening and lament in the presence of the undivided God. Although organised by the Church Leaders the service will include voices, words and music from across the island; its different traditions and ages.
Covid restrictions and our vocation of care towards one another will mean that the numbers able to be in the Cathedral will be limited. However as we offer this space for reflection and hope, we would be grateful for the prayers of our fellow believers across these islands and further afield. As we continue to deal with the impact of Covid–19, and as we face significant political challenges to relationships on these islands, across Europe and beyond, our society needs a message of hope. In particular our young people, and those who have been the victims of violence and injustice need to know they are heard and supported.
Of course the service is only one moment on a much longer journey towards reconciliation which will require the prayers and the support of many across these islands. When this moment and this year have passed, the Church Leaders will continue to talk and act and pray together; disagreeing often; challenging each other with honesty and tact; conscious always of the presence of Holy Spirit as we struggle to “pursue the things that make for peace and the building up of one another”.
The Most Revd John McDowell is the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland.

Centenary podcasts from the Church Leaders

The Church Leaders’ Group (Ireland) is releasing a special podcast series this week on the theme ‘Identity and Belonging: Past, Present, Future’.

Presented by journalist and broadcaster Judith Hill, each episode begins with a personal reflection from one of the church leaders on the work the group has done together on centenaries. Each will then be joined in conversation by a guest, or guests, bringing a different perspective to discuss a specific aspect of the identity–based challenges facing our society today. The Church leaders hope that the series will offer a resource for the work of peace and reconciliation. The series has been developed with the support of the Community Relations Council NI.

An overview of the series is provided below. One episode will be released each day from Monday 18 to Friday 22 October. The podcasts can be accessed on or by searching for ‘Church Leaders Group Ireland’ on your favourite podcast provider.

The Podcasts

Episode One: Monday 18 October

The Most Rev Eamon Martin, Archbishop of Armagh & Primate of All Ireland

“I feel a sadness that courageous people [like Linda] who just gently try to inch us forward meet with such misrepresentation, misunderstanding… but I do believe that when people want to do good things, to bring people closer together, to build reconciliation, that the Lord will be with them.”

This episode features Archbishop of Armagh, the Most Rev Eamon Martin, reflecting on the challenge of marking the centenary of the partition of Ireland from the perspective of the Catholic, Nationalist community. Archbishop Eamon is joined by Irish language educator and community activist Linda Ervine MBE who shares about her experience of working to cultivate and appreciation for the Irish language in the Protestant, Unionist community.

Episode Two: Tuesday 19 October

The Rt Rev Dr David Bruce, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland

“That is the difficulty with violence. It toxifies relationships. It closes down conversation. It makes it difficult for genuine personal connection to happen.” 

This episode features the Rt Rev Dr David Bruce, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, reflecting on the impact of violence and our duty of care to those living with the trauma of its aftermath. Dr Bruce is joined by Beryl Quigley, whose husband was murdered in 1984, and by Dr Gilly Carson, who worked in A&E during some of the worst years of violence.

Episode Three: Wednesday 20 October

The Very Rev Dr Ivan Patterson, President of the Irish Council of Churches

“The future is in the hands of [our young people]… we need to engage with our youth and bring them into those spaces where they can engage and cross borders.”

This episode features a conversation between Very Rev Dr Ivan Patterson, President of the Irish Council of Churches, and two youth workers from Youth Link NI, Chris Clague and Aoibhin McNeill. Rev Patterson was a trustee of Youth Link NI in the early years of its work and reflects on the significance of that for him as he learns about the challenges and opportunities for those who continue that work with young people today.

Episode Four: Thursday 21 October

The Rev Dr Sahr Yambasu, President of the Methodist Church in Ireland

“Because we are leaders there are many in our churches who actually trust us and who look to us for leadership. If we do cooperate. If we send a message not just by word in the pulpit but through the way we engage with others and encourage our parishioners and our congregations to engage with others, I think we can have a huge amount of influence.”

This episode features the Rev Dr Sahr Yambasu, President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, in conversation with Bishop Sarah Groves of the Moravian Church. Both Dr Yambasu and Bishop Sarah have come from elsewhere to positions of church leadership on the island of Ireland. They reflect on their experiences and the importance of inter–church relationships in helping to bring people together with respect for diversity.

Episode Five: Friday 22 October

The Most Rev John McDowell, Archbishop of Armagh & Primate of All Ireland

“We in the churches in Ireland for years felt that we had the first word and the last word and now we just have to say that we think we have a word that’s distinctive and we think we can contribute to the common good, the idea that there are certain things that will not benefit me unless you also have them, and that’s how political democracy properly works, around that idea of the common good.”

This episode features Most Rev John McDowell, Archbishop of Armagh, discussing the challenges posed by Brexit for the future of Northern Ireland. Archbishop John is joined by Aodhán Connolly to reflect on the leadership role of the business community in this context.


New church facility opened at Magilligan Prison

The Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, Rt Rev Andrew Forster, was among church leaders who attended the official opening of a new House of Worship in Magilligan Prison by the Justice Minister, Naomi Long.

He was accompanied at the official opening and dedication of the new building by the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, Rev Dr David Bruce; the President of the Methodist Church, Rev Dr Sahr Yambasu; and the Vicar General of the Derry Diocese, Fr Michael Canny.

Unveiling a plaque to officially open the new House of Worship, Ms Long said: Prisons Week is a very important time for everyone associated with prisons in Northern Ireland. While the official opening of this House of Worship had to be put on hold due to the pandemic, it feels apt that it is taking place during Prisons Week.

“The work of prison chaplains at Magilligan, and indeed across all the prisons, takes place without fanfare and without the knowledge of many people outside of prisons. However, they are an essential part of the prison community.”

Director General Ronnie Armour said, “The opening of this new church facility is significant as it provides a focal point for chaplaincy and their important work, and it sends out a clear signal of our commitment to having a prison here in the North West.

“I want to thank everyone for being with us today for this important event, particularly the leaders and representatives of our four main churches. I have no doubt this building will become an important part of the fabric here at Magilligan.”

Caption: Justice Minister Naomi Long is pictured at the official opening of the new House of Worship at Magilligan Prison with (front row, l-r) Gary Milling, Governor of Magilligan Prison, and Ronnie Armour, Director General of the Northern Ireland Prison Service, and (back, l-r) Rev Dr Sahr Yambasu, President of the Methodist Church, Fr Michael Canny, Vicar General of Derry Diocese, Rev Andrew Forster, Church of Ireland Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, and Rev David Bruce, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church.


Dog collars are the order of the day at Castlerock Parish Church

Around 20 new faces – many with their tongues hanging out – put in an appearance at Christ Church, Castlerock on Sunday afternoon for a special Service that was something of a pet project for the local Rector.

Rev Chris MacBruithin had invited the pooches and their owners to come along for the parish’s first Pet Blessing Service. With a few minutes to go, the Rector wasn’t quite sure what kind of response his invitation might elicit – indeed he looked as nervous as a kitten, which wasn’t wise – but he needn’t have worried. The faithful voted with their feet – both on two feet and on four – and justified his confidence in the Service.

In the event, it proved to be a very ecumenical event – with a wide variety of breeds represented, and even quite a few crossbreeds taking part. Thankfully there was no biting or snapping, either by dogs or their owners, and the Service proved a big hit with the whole congregation.

The Service was held outside Christ Church and, while there was plenty of hand sanitiser (or was that paw sanitiser) available, there was no requirement for masks or muzzles to be worn.

Evangelising at home and abroad

The Diocese’s ‘Mahajanga Calling’ appeal has so far raised over £20,000 to help the church in North West Madagascar, where a ‘son of the Diocese’, Rt Rev Hall Speers, is serving as Bishop.

The figure was disclosed by the chairman of the Board of Mission and Unity during the final discussion of this year’s synod. Rev Canon Paul Hoey said he wanted to thank those parishes and individuals who had supported the project. “Al though it hasn’t been easy to raise funds over the past year,” he said, “we have – at the last count, over £20,000 that has gone to Mahajanga.

“I shouldn’t pick anybody out,” Canon Hoey said, “but I will mention Canon David Crooks’ special fundraising effort – if only because I’ve been wanting to tell him to get on his bike for years – but well done, David.”

Canon Crooks, who is a brother-in-law of Bishop Speers, has been an enthusiastic fundraiser on behalf of the Mahajanga Calling appeal. Among his ventures was a sponsored cycle, in three legs, around different parts of the Inishowen and Raphoe rural deaneries.

“If you ever have a day when you’re feeling a low energy count,” Canon Hoey said, “I recommend reading Bishop Hall Speers’ newsletter which is humorously entitled ‘Our Mad Life’ – as in Madagascar but also ‘mad’.

“I want to quote a bit from his most recent newsletter. He’s talking about a visit that he made to some parishes in his diocese very recently. So, he says: ‘After tinkering with the engine of the catechist’s car, we were on our way to inspect the site for the new clergy house and – eventually – church.’ (I just want to point out that it’s our money that’s helping them to build this clergy house and church and amazingly you can build a rectory and a church there for about £6,000).

“The Bishop says, ‘The accounts in this parish show how little the priest and his family have been paid: a miniscule amount in cash and 15kg of rice per annum. Our home help’s family consume 15kg of rice per week.’ (Again, I would point out that the money from our project is helping the diocese there to buy rice fields which inject finance into the life not only of the church, but support clergy and people working in the local community).

“I’ll go on with the bishop’s report. He says: ‘The local church is run by an incredibly energetic lade, Mlle Angeline – she’s one of the evangelists there. With her own hands she helped the men build the temporary mud and thatched roof. There was the most wonderful atmosphere of both reverence and celebration. We even had a choir who danced as they sang. I was conscious that I was the only one wearing shoes. What a privilege it had been to meet many lovely people, share in uplifting worship and travel safely. Thank you to all who made this possible through your generosity.’ Now, he’s speaking to a wider group of people when he gives thanks but he’s certainly speaking to us in the Diocese of Derry [and Raphoe] in his words of appreciation.”

Canon Hoey said the Diocesan Office will continue to accept donations from any parish or individuals who haven’t yet had an opportunity to contribute to the Mahajanga Calling appeal.

On a separate matter relating to the work of the Board of Mission and Unity, Canon Hoey said the Church of Ireland had recently authorised the appointment of a team of people with a remit to support and equip pioneer ministries and new forms of church in every diocese. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that the pandemic has exacerbated the decline that had already set in to many parts of the church,” Canon Hoey said, “particularly among younger families and so on, and that we urgently need to explore new ways of being church. And this is part of what the Centre of Mission is about.

“I’m aware of centres of mission already up and running – or about to be set up – in the Dioceses of Cork, Dublin, Tuam, Meath, Armagh, Connor and Down, so we’re actually part of a minority of dioceses that don’t yet have one.

“The hub of the project that we’re working on at the moment is likely to have a focus in the Waterside area of the city – there’ll be a cooperation between the two Waterside parishes – and the person or the people who will be appointed will have a dual remit. One is to focus on a particular area of the Waterside, and – through service, building community and evangelism – to pioneer a new form of church. And secondly, to equip and to train others right throughout the diocese to be evangelists. We’ve just heard in the report from Mahajanga how hugely significant evangelists are in that part of the world and I think they could be and ought to be here as well.”

Church Army would assist with training and with the setting up of the project, Canon Hoey said, but the Diocese would also have to find around £40,000 per annum. “Some of the dioceses that I’ve already mentioned that have got centres of mission have fewer resources than we do,” he said, “so I don’t see why it shouldn’t be possible for us to take the leap of faith and go ahead with this project, and we’re hoping before too long to put a concrete proposal before Diocesan Council which I hope will be favourably looked at.”


‘We need action not words on mica’ says Canon Judi McGaffin

One of the most sobering contributions to debate at this year’s synod came during discussion of the Board of Social Responsibility’s report, when the Curate-in-Charge in Fahan Upper and Fahan Lower, Rev Canon Judi McGaffin, raised an issue which is causing immense anxiety to thousands of homeowners in the Diocese of Raphoe and beyond – mica.

“The word ‘pandemic’ is usually [used] in relation to diseases that relate to either a country or the world,” Canon McGaffin said. “But in terms of this country, another pandemic is now raging in Donegal and beyond – across Mayo, Sligo, Tipperary, Clare, Limerick – and that’s the issue of mica. It may not be a disease in humans, but it will have the potential to adversely affect thousands of people across these counties and beyond.

“We as humans, as has been said several times this morning, we have all been created by God and have needs. Those needs have been described by various people in hierarchies of need. The most basic of those is physiological, which is either water or food or various other things. And then next come safety needs – and that’s security of property, body – and thirdly the need to belong, and that relates to family and community.

“Many people across Donegal have been and will be affected by mica and the mica pandemic. They’ll be affected personally, financially and emotionally, and there are individuals, there are families, there are people who will be affected when community buildings are found to be affected by this issue too. They’re of all ages, all faiths and none, and [from] right across the socio-economic platform.

“There [are] also issues of fairness and justice for all involved. The problem is huge, and it’s a problem that’s multi-faceted and multi-layered, and whatever we do it will be a marathon and not a sprint.

“You, Bishop, along with other faith leaders, have already made a very powerful statement about the issues and now I would like us to think about how we, as a diocese, are going to put ‘meat on the bones’ of that statement. In Inishowen, we have taken our lead from you, Bishop – and the group who met and made the statement – and [we] have begun by forming an Inishowen faith leaders’ group to begin to think how we as faith leaders can run this marathon with the people who are and will be affected as this pandemic unfolds and people feel the effects on their mental health, their finances and their relationships.

“At our meeting last week, some people were talking about some stories they had already heard. Somebody gave us a story of a lady in the diocese who had lost her husband through Covid over the past year and who’s now about to have the house that they built together demolished. So, a loss not only of her husband but now a loss of security and memories, too.

“It goes across all age groups: another story was told of a six-year-old who asked his mother recently – when he saw a small crack in his bedroom wall – was their house falling down too? And in relation to people in Buncrana, in particular, people who have had horrific damage from floods a few years ago, they are now facing – a lot of them – into mica damage in their houses, too. They are in some cases awaiting engineers’ reports to find out how bad the damage is, and the anxiety of that waiting is awful.

“The not knowing may, however, be a small issue compared to what they’re going to face into: leaving home, storing treasured belongings, ensuring you’re meeting with all the legal requirements, and then finding a place to live as repairs are ongoing. Not an easy place to be, especially in Buncrana where housing stock is so poor.

“It has been said several times this morning that we all have a responsibility to care for God’s creatures and we can and should all make a contribution in caring for our neighbours. In your address this morning, Bishop, you mentioned that we are a people who should not just deliver words but deliver actions, too, so I would like this synod – and perhaps the BSR in particular – to consider how, as a faith community, we can walk with our neighbours over this marathon, and work to reach out practically, prayerfully, pastorally and in a planned and even in a passionate way to our neighbours.”

Bishop Andrew recalled for synod his recent visit to a number of Covid homes in Donegal, where he met three generations of people who had been affected by mica. “[They were] remarkably sobering visits,” he said.

“It is catastrophic – it is literally catastrophic – for the families that are affected by it and I want to thank you for what you’ve shared with the synod, and for bringing it onto our agenda and to our attention; and I’m sure the Board of Social Responsibility and the wider diocese will want to take very seriously the comments which you’ve made today about the actions that we can help with.”


Bishop Andrew’s Presidential Address in full

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.