The new Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, Rt Rev Andrew Forster, was ordained by the Archbishop of Armagh at a Service of Consecration in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh on Sunday afternoon, in front of leaders of the other main churches in Ireland. He succeeds Rt Rev Ken Good who retired from episcopal ministry in May.
The stormy December weather did not deter scores of people from the Diocese of Derry and Raphoe, or from the parish where Bishop Forster had been Rector, from travelling to Armagh for the ordination, and the church was filled for the occasion.
The congregation heard the preacher, Revd Canon Maurice Elliott – who has known the new bishop since their first day at Theological College – describe Rt Rev Forster as a larger than life personality with an infectious sense of humour. “He will bring an immense range of gifts and abilities to this new role,” Canon Elliott said. “He is a man of deep conviction, yet he tempers this with an instinctive capacity to care.”
Canon Elliott said from the moment, just over 30 years ago, that he and Bishop Forster arrived “literally together” into Braemor Park, to begin theological training, they had struck up what had become a lifelong friendship. It was a singular honour, he said, to have been invited by the Archbishop to preach on this momentous occasion of Bishop Forster’s consecration.
Their long friendship did not prevent the preacher from sharing one story – at the Bishop-elect’s expense – from the rugby pitch at Trinity College during their first year of training together in 1989. “In the rather vain pursuit of fitness,” he said, “the Bishop-elect and I decided we would attend Monday evening rugby training and we were perhaps only five minutes into a warm-up when the coach told us to get into pairs. So, the two of us joined forces. The instruction then followed that we were each to piggyback our partner the width of the pitch and back which I, having opted to be number one, duly did. Then, as the coach shouted for a swift role reversal, I can honestly say I’ve never seen anyone move so fast in the direction of the changing room as he shouted back over his shoulder in my general direction, ‘Come on, we’re going.’ And to be fair, we never went back.
“So,” Canon Elliott said, “maybe on that occasion, Andrew didn’t quite demonstrate himself willing to carry a heavy burden but, in so many other ways, the Bishop-elect has proved himself more than able to bear significant responsibility: first through the years of his curacy at Willowfield; then as a chaplain at Queen’s; as Incumbent of Drumcliffe; and most recently as a much, much loved Rector of Drumglass.”
The preacher said he had never heard anyone express anything other than deep appreciation of every facet of the Bishop-elect’s ministry. “As a teacher, as a pastor, as an evangelist, as a leader, as an Archdeacon, through his involvement in the structures of the General Synod and the Representative Body, Andrew has shown himself to be diligent, capable, faithful, popular and loving. And in all of this he has been wonderfully supported by Heather, by Hannah, Patrick, Megan, by his wider family, and, not least, also by his late parents Victor and Joan. And Andrew, we all recognise how deeply proud they would have been to have witnessed this moment.”
So, Canon Elliott asked, how could this man be ready to carry the additional burden of episcopal oversight? The answer, the preacher suggested, was to be found in the words of St Paul, which were heard in the second reading, from 2 Corinthians, Chapter 4. “Andrew, all of us truly celebrate all that you have to offer. But the word of the Lord this afternoon reminds us soberly that none of what we may be called to, and certainly nothing of what we may accomplish, is ever of ourselves. You and we all know that it is not ultimately within our power to achieve this ministry or to be fruitful within it. From beginning to end it is solely, utterly and absolutely of the grace and mercy of the Lord. As the Archbishop will shortly remind you, none of us can bear the weight of this ministry with our own strength. And as you yourself will acknowledge in making your solemn vows, it is only by the help of God that you can even begin to countenance what you are about to undertake.”
Canon Elliott told Rt Rev Forster that, as a Bishop, there would be many, many demands made of him, and that there would a wide variety of differing aspects to his new role. “It will be about continuing to manage and engage with your own family; it will require administration; there will be conflicts; you will be expected to offer strategic leadership; you are to be pastor of the pastors; you will have civic duties; chairing church committees, much travelling, and so forth. I know from listening to you in our own conversations that part of your own heart is also to be like the lead evangelist in the diocese and if that is going to happen then most assuredly you need to keep the main thing as the main thing: you must stay true to your own convictions in this regard. That is to proclaim the word of the gospel. As you seek to do that our confidence is that the Lord will indeed bless you and enable you to flourish.”
Canon Elliott said as Director of the Theological Institute for the last 12 years he had had the great privilege of working in support of all our bishops and that he had observed that those who served in episcopal ministry sometimes got very little thanks. “The expectations are invariably high,” he said, “yet often there’s a distinct lack of either appreciation or encouragement.” He could only hope that such a culture may begin to change but wasn’t sure that that would happen quickly so the new Bishop needed to be ready to bear hardship.
“Bishop-elect Andrew James Forster,” the preacher said, addressing his friend directly, “on this day our deepest prayer for you is that you will stay close to the Lord who was willing to suffer on your behalf. We ask that you may remain focused on the message of the Cross and the empty tomb and that as you are able to do that you will prove yourself not only faithful but resilient and strong. Thirty years ago, you didn’t feel minded to run across a rugby pitch with me on your back but, as you learn increasingly to lean on the Lord’s word for strength and on the Lord’s spirit for stamina, our confidence is that you will run well the marathon of episcopal ministry and that in due course you will finish that race. You cannot do it in your own strength, so even now choose again to undertake it only in the name, and for the sake of, the one who laid down his life for you, and who alone is able to sustain you.”
The Archbishop of Armagh, Most Revd Dr Richard Clarke, was assisted during the Consecration by the Bishop of Meath and Kildare, Most Revd Patricia Storey and the Bishop of Tuam, Killala and Achonry, Right Revd Patrick Rooke. The three were joined for the laying on of hands by the other Church of Ireland serving and retired bishops present, including Lord Eames – a former Bishop of Derry and Raphoe. Next, the newly ordained bishop was vested with his episcopal habit, before being presented to the congregation by the Archbishop, with the words, “Brothers and sisters in Christ, I present to you Andrew, Bishop in the Church of God.” Bishop Forster was then acclaimed with warm and loud applause.
Among the many dignitaries from other Churches at the Consecration were the President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, Rev Sam McGuffin; the President of the Irish Council of Churches, Rev Brian Anderson , the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, Archbishop Eamon Martin; and the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Dr William Henry. North West Church leaders present included the Bishop of Derry, Dr Donal McKeown; the Bishop of Raphoe, Most Rev Alan McGuckian; and the Methodist Superintendent, Rev Richard Johnston.
After the Service, members of the congregation made their way to the Royal School, Armagh – just over half a mile away – for a reception and refreshments. There, for the first time, the new Bishop spoke publicly. He thanked his family, “old friends” and those who had travelled a long distance for making the effort to come to the Consecration Service on such a dismal day. He also thanked the Dean of Armagh, Very Revd Gregory Dunstan for organising the Service and for planning everything “to perfection”, and the choir and the music group for providing music during a “memorable” service.
Bishop Forster paid tribute to three people whose example had moulded the ministry that he sought to live out. The first was his first Rector in Willowfield, Canon Norman Jardine. The others were Bishop Ken Clarke and Archbishop Richard Clarke. “If I can be any way like them,” Bishop Forster said, “I think I will serve you all well in Derry and Raphoe.”
The Bishop also thanked his family for their support. It was a wrench to leave Dungannon, he said, a parish where they had been immensely happy, but the family had been right behind him.
“I’m very excited about the next chapter of our lives together,” he said. “I’m very excited about coming to Derry and Raphoe to be the bishop. It’s a part of this island that I love already – I’ve enjoyed it for many years – and I look forward to being in the community and being part of the community in the Diocese. It’s so lovely to see a cross-section from the Diocese there today and visitors from the diocese, some of the other church leaders and so on, who made a point of being there.
“It is the most wonderful thing in the world to be a follower of Jesus Christ,” Bishop Forster said, “and that’s what we are and that’s what we’ll do together. As followers of Jesus Christ together we can win more for Him, and as followers of Jesus Christ together we can bring His light and love and grace into a world that needs it, and that’s what we’ll do together in Derry and Raphoe.”
(Additional photographs by Mr Peter Cheney, Church of Ireland Press Officer)