The newest member of the Cathedral Chapter of St Columb, Rev Canon Colin Welsh, was installed formally on Thursday evening at a Service led by the Dean of Derry, Very Rev Raymond Stewart, and attended by two bishops – the Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, Rt Rev Andrew Forster, and the retired Bishop of Kilmore, Elphin and Ardagh, Rt Rev Ken Clarke.
The Service of Installation took place a full six months after Canon Welsh’s appointment because of the disruption caused by the pandemic. COVID restrictions were in place throughout the Service. The new canon and his wife, Anne, were welcomed to the cathedral by Dean Stewart. The Service was attended by family and friends of the Welshes; parishioners from Castledawson, where Canon Welsh is Rector; and well-wishers from elsewhere in the Maghera and Kilrea Rural Deanery, of which he is Rural Dean.
Bishop Clarke, who preached the sermon, congratulated the new canon and said he was glad to see that since the appointment Canon Welsh had remained trim and thin. “It can never be said of you what I’ve heard someone say: ‘The bigger the canon the bigger the bore.’ Those who knew the new canon knew that he had never been boring in his life, Bishop Clarke said.
“Do take this appointment as an encouragement and as recognition of how much you’re respected,” the preacher said, “not just in Castledawson but in the diocese and in the wider Church.”
Bishop Clarke said he could speak about Canon Welsh and his wife for a long time: about their lives, their character, their faith, their achievements. He could sing the new canon’s praises. “But you know and many of us know that whilst it is great to be made a canon, there are much greater priorities for the Church of God across the world in the year 2021 and in every generation,” Bishop Clarke said, “and that’s really the primary theme of our Old Testament reading this evening.”
The extract from the Book of Haggai [1: 1-8 and 2: 6-9] had “a powerful message to the Church today about priorities,” the preacher said. “Right at the heart of the message of Haggai is simply this: put first things first. And let’s be honest, sometimes we don’t always do that.
“It was written to people like us,” the bishop said, “who probably without exception said but we want to put God first, God must be first. The people in Haggai’s day – the people of God – did believe that. And I think many of us would verbally say the same; we say that in our forms of worship. But the reality was [that] what they said and how they lived didn’t match up: there wasn’t a consistency between what they said they believed, and how they behaved. They had drifted into a way of life where God’s priorities were no longer their priorities. They gave lip service to God but in fact they lived with other priorities.
“And God sent the prophet Haggai to help the people rediscover God’s priorities for them: to live lives in line with what God’s primary desires are. And I just wonder in parts of the Church today do we need to hear that same message?”
Bishop Clarke said he did not want to upset anyone but that he had no hesitation in saying that the Church of God, in every generation, was not primarily about titles, and trifles and position, and power, and status, and style. “The Church of God under God – and this is one of the things I find so exciting about the Church of God – we are called by God to be a new community, a different kind of people who make a difference in whichever part of the world we live – people who live Christ-shaped lives, Kingdom-shaped lives, and our lives have the aroma of Christ about us, so that people sense there’s something different about those people in Derry Cathedral; there’s something different about those people in Castledawson. ‘What is it?’ And they start asking questions. And they see a group of people in the Church of Jesus Christ who are like no other; they’re marked by acts of kindness; they have different values; and all of those things come from having the right priorities, which is what this message from Haggai is all about.
“If we – those of us who are ordained – if we are in ordained ministry, stuffed with selfish ambition, obsessed with being in the limelight, or pursuing a path of self-promotion, we need to hear what God says in His word. We need to hear the message of Haggai. We need to hear what Paul wrote to the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians, Chapter 13, Verse 5: ‘Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realise that Christ Jesus is in you?’”
Four times, the preacher said, in this very short Book of Haggai, the prophet said to the people, “Consider how you fared”. In other versions it said, “Give careful thought to your ways.” When was the last time we honestly before God gave careful thought to our ways, Bishop Clarke wondered, for our own personal lives and for the Church that we were part of? “How serious are we about capturing or re-capturing what God’s exciting priorities are for His Church in the year 2021?”
Through His prophet, God was calling His people back to put first things first. “Is this part of God’s message to the Church today? God wants us to recapture His vision, make His priorities our priorities.” In Canon Welsh and his wife Anne, we saw two people who were seeking to live out God’s call on their lives and be people who made a difference, Bishop Clarke said.
The preacher recalled the example of a former Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, William Alexander, who was ordained priest for the curacy of Templemore in 1847 – 174 years ago this week – and who sought to love God and love his neighbour. It was shortly after the Great Famine, and a terrible epidemic – a form of typhus – was affecting the slums of Derry particularly badly. The young curate’s duty took him day and night into houses “reeking with disease and infection”, ministering to parishioners’ bodily and spiritual needs. “In those days, doctors were few; there were no district nurses; little help from hospitals; no proper attention to sickness in the miserable and overcrowded workhouses. But this man visited these people.”
What was he doing, Bishop Clarke asked? “He was living out God’s priorities: loving his neighbour, caring for the sick, showing in his living the compassion of Christ; and I humbly suggest, that is one of the great needs in Ireland today, that you and I do the same. The Church has taken a knocking in recent years. Things will begin to change as we prioritise living out loving God and loving our neighbour, as we obey not only the great commandment but the great commission; and we go, and we share the Gospel, and we make disciples, and we baptise, and we teach. This is what changes lives, families, friendships, communities.”
One of the good things about having canons in the Church, the bishop suggested, was that it was a reminder of the Church’s wider role. “We’re not just parochial. A canon is a member of a Chapter with other clergy from other parishes, all part of the deanery family, the Cathedral family. And it’s an important reminder that the Church of Christ isn’t just local, it’s regional and it’s global.
“Colin, as you begin this new chapter in your life, serving the Chapter of this great Cathedral, know that God is with you, and He will never let you go. And His presence with you will give you and the Dean and the rest of the Chapter such strength and encouragement and inspiration.
Dean Stewart was assisted in Thursday’s Service by the Archdeacon of Derry, Ven. Robert Miller, and by the Diocesan Registrar, Rev Canon David Crooks. Music was provided by organist, Dr Derek Collins, and the Cathedral Choir.