Bishop Andrew offers General Synod grounds for hope during the pandemic

The Bishop of Derry and Raphoe has told the General Synod of the Church of Ireland that those seeking grounds for hope during the Coronavirus pandemic should look at the response of the Representative Body, clergy and parishioners to the challenges of COVID-19. Rt Rev Andrew Forster was seconding the Report of the Representative Church Body, which had been proposed by Canon Graham Richards and presented by Henry Saville.

Bishop Forster said there was no hiding the fact that things had been difficult since March, when “COVID” happened and Ireland went into lockdown, eventually forcing the postponement of General Synod 2020. “We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t become discouraged at times,” Bishop Andrew said, “after all, where are we to find grounds for hope in this pandemic?

“Well, towards the beginning of lockdown, the Irish Times published a letter entitled ‘Something to look forward to’. The letter read:

“’Sir, – My grandson rang to see how I was getting on with being cocooned. To cheer me up, he said, ‘Think of the lovely butterfly you will be when the cocooning time is over.’ What a picture of colour and freedom and joy. It is something that is worth waiting for. – Yours, etc. Monica Gray, Cabinteely, Dublin 18.’

“Many of you might struggle to see ‘a picture of colour and freedom and joy’, as we travel through our new reality of a world battling to contain COVID,” Bishop Andrew said, “And yet…..

“Think of how the RCB adjusted to its new circumstances this year – committee meetings moving online; people working from home; staff working with bishops to prepare the ‘In-Church Worship’ protocols; developing guidance in relation to managing property during COVID; guidance in relation to parish finances; and offering loans to cathedrals that had suffered a significant loss of tourist income. The provision of information and financial support was consistent with what we expect from the RCB, as it lives its mission, as noted in the Book of Reports: “to inform, to support and to manage resources for the advancement of the mission and ministry of the Church of Ireland.”

“The RCB may be doing things differently, but its mission remains the same. And we’re enormously grateful to its committees and staff for helping us through these difficult times.

“Think of the way our clergy and parishioners responded to the pandemic with large numbers attending church online; parishes offering drive-in services; and clergy reaching out to maintain community and fellowship. Some things may be changing, but some things never change. We have been innovating to serve, and yet we hold onto that which is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21)

“We keep reminding ourselves in Derry and Raphoe that we are people of faith, not of fear. There are grounds for hope. The RCB and its staff are evidence of that. Our clergy, our select vestries and our parishioners are evidence of that. The gospel that we preach is being preached in new ways – hopefully to new listeners – but the message remains the same: the message of hope in the person and promises of Jesus.

“Isaiah reminds us: ’So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed for I am your God.’” (Isaiah 41:10)

 

Bishop Andrew’s speech in full

I don’t know how many of you saw this but last week, Oxford Languages – the publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary – estimated that use of the word ‘pandemic’ increased by more than 57,000 percent this year.

Such has been the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on our lives that the publishers abandoned their usual quest for a ‘Word of the Year’ for 2020 and opted instead for a series of what they called “words of an unprecedented year”.

You could probably guess most of them: Covid-19, coronavirus, lockdown, circuit-breaker, support bubble, keyworker.

Well, ‘unprecedented’ is certainly what 2020 has been – or, at least, unprecedented in living memory. The coronavirus has left its mark on our language and its mark on our lives. But words don’t convey the full horror. Numbers tell us far more than words.

In 1972 – the worst year of the Troubles – almost 500 people lost their lives to violence (an almost unimaginable death toll) – but already this year, there have been twice as many deaths – around 1,000 – from coronavirus in Northern Ireland, and another 2,000 in the Republic of Ireland.

Think about that: three thousand lives lost on this small island. 2020 has certainly been unprecedented. And 2019 seems like such a distant memory.

2019 was a good year. The RCB built on the strong foundations that had been laid for supporting parishes and dioceses. It busied itself making new resources available on the ‘Parish Resources’ section of the Church of Ireland website to deliver training and develop expertise. There was a particular focus on the development of safeguarding policy, further development of data protection policy, and the RCB Library offered online presentations, lectures and exhibitions of interest beyond our church.

2019 was also a year of significant change for our Church. It was to be the last year in which Archbishop Richard Clarke would chair the RB. And with your permission, chair, I’d like to acknowledge with deep gratitude his leadership, guidance and friendship during my years of ministry.

There were staff changes, too, with the retirement of Trevor Stacey after many years of faithful service as Head of Property & Trusts; and there were appointments in safeguarding, property and legal – all aimed at extending the services offered by the RCB.

Things were going swimmingly as we moved into 2020. We were looking forward to the General Synod in Croke Park until suddenly, in March this year, COVID happened.

There’s no hiding the fact that things have been difficult ever since. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t become discouraged at times, after all, where are we to find grounds for hope in this pandemic?

Well, towards the beginning of lockdown, the Irish Times published a letter entitled ‘Something to look forward to’. The letter read:

“Sir, – My grandson rang to see how I was getting on with being cocooned. To cheer me up, he said, ‘Think of the lovely butterfly you will be when the cocooning time is over.’ What a picture of colour and freedom and joy. It is something that is worth waiting for. – Yours, etc. Monica Gray, Cabinteely, Dublin 18.”

Many of you might struggle to see ‘a picture of colour and freedom and joy’, as we travel through our new reality of a world battling to contain COVID.

And yet…..

Think of how the RCB adjusted to its new circumstances this year: committee meetings moving online; people working from home; staff working with bishops to prepare the ‘In-Church Worship’ protocols; developing guidelines in relation to managing property during COVID; guidance in relation to parish finances; and offering loans to cathedrals that had suffered significant loss of tourist income. The provision of information and financial support was consistent with what we expect from the RCB, as it lives its mission, as noted in the Book of Reports: “to inform, to support and to manage resources for the advancement of the mission and ministry of the Church of Ireland.”

The RCB may be doing things differently, but its mission remains the same. And we’re enormously grateful to its committees and staff for helping us through these difficult times.

Think of the way our clergy and parishioners responded to the pandemic with large numbers attending church online; parishes offering drive-in services; and clergy reaching out to maintain community and fellowship. Some things may be changing, but some things never change. We have been innovating to serve, and yet hold onto that which is good (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

We keep reminding ourselves in Derry and Raphoe that we are people of faith, not of fear. There are grounds for hope. The RCB and its staff are evidence of that. Our clergy, our select vestries and our parishioners are evidence of that. The gospel that we preach is being preached in new ways – hopefully to new listeners – but the message remains the same: the message of hope in the person and promises of Jesus.

Isaiah reminds us: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed for I am your God.” (Isaiah 41:10)

Archbishop, it is my pleasure to second the report of the Representative Church Body.