Bishop Andrew has paid tribute to the Rev David and Rev Heather Houlton who retire today after six and a half years ministry in the Parish of Conwal Union with Gartan. Rev David has served as Rector throughout that period, while Rev Heather has served as Chaplain of Letterkenny University Hospital and Associate Minister of Conwal Union and Gartan.

The couple’s last service [on Sunday 9th June 2024] was an important one for the local Church of Ireland community, the Annual Diocesan St Columba Celebration which usually takes place outdoors at Gartan Abbey – not far from where Columba is reputed to have been born – but which was forced indoors instead this year, to Gartan Parish Church in Churchhill, because of driving rain.

Bishop Andrew said it was an auspicious day – the actual Feast Day of St Columba – but that there was a sadness to the day, as well, as they bade a very fond farewell to Rev Heather and to Rev David from the parishes and from the diocese. “I want to thank Heather and David personally for their ministry in Conwal and Gartan over the last six and a half years. You very quickly endeared yourselves to your parishioners and your ministry has been marked by real love of your people and a love in sharing the goodness of God with them.

“Heather, I want to thank you, in particular,” the Bishop said, “for your ministry in the hospital in Letterkenny as a chaplain. I know from around the diocese that that has been deeply appreciated by so many. Thank you for all you have done.”

And turning to her husband, Bishop Andrew said, “I suppose a Yorkshire man has to go back to Yorkshire, doesn’t he, to retire? We’d much prefer you to stay in Donegal, but we do wish you every blessing for the future. We’ve great thankfulness for all that you’ve done and, you know, you’ll always have a welcome in the homes of Donegal; you know that.”

In his sermon, Bishop Andrew held St Columba up as a model for the modern church to follow and as an inspiration for God’s people nowadays. The saint was born “up the road” in the year 521, the Bishop said, and he was born into a noble family, an aristocratic, princely family. He could’ve held onto that chieftain lifestyle; he could’ve stayed a favourite son of a favourite prince, and lived with all the benefits and prestige that that would have brought him. “But not so for Columba, because Columba was a follower. He was a wholehearted follower of Jesus Christ.

“For him, being a follower would lead him on pilgrimage, pilgrimage to do the work of God in different places. And for us, if we follow the example of Columba, we’re to be followers, followers whose pilgrimage might keep us in our own locality but yet it is still a pilgrimage that should lead us deeper into the love of God, as his children. The problem is, at times, that we end up following the wrong things, whereas Columba, this prince, decides ‘I will be a follower of Jesus Christ’ and following Christ for Columba becomes this absolute passion in his life. And what he did as a result of that, I think, is a wonderful model for the church today.”

Bishop Andrew said the monastery that Columba founded in Derry became much more than the walls of a building in which the worship of God happened. It became a place of education, of rudimentary healthcare, a place of commerce and trade, and a place where people learned skills. And Columba replicated that in Ireland and Scotland. “He was this passionate follower of Jesus Christ and his passion for being a follower meant that he couldn’t keep it to himself,” Bishop Andrew said. “He has this amazing model of planting churches and out of the planting of a church bless[ing] the wider community.

“And I think it’s a beautiful picture for us if we’re to be truly Columban followers that we see the church not simply as the monastery where we worship God and [which we] then disappear from, but that the family of God and we as individual followers of Jesus Christ are people who share that in every aspect of our lives.

“Following him means whether it’s in education, or in our workplace or wherever we are, that we are followers of Jesus, carrying his love and his grace with us. Unfortunately, in society today, we’ve got too reticent, too nervous to do that, whereas you and I believe it’s the most wonderful thing in the world to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

“Columba knew it was the most wonderful thing in the world. That’s why he planted monasteries all over the place, and I think it’s a wonderful picture for us, in a secularising world. He started off in a pagan world, sharing the light of Christ; we live in a secularising world and we can follow his example in sharing the light of Christ in every aspect of life. That’s what it means to be a follower. It’s not simply locked up in the walls of a monastery or the walls of a church.”

Bishop Andrew paid tribute, too, to the Britannia Band, who provided music as usual for today’s service. And afterwards, also as usual, the congregation enjoyed fellowship and refreshments thanks to the generosity of the Gartan parishioners.

(Photos provided by Ven. David Huss, Archdeacon of Raphoe)