Members and clergy from Londonderry’s four main Christian denominations have taken part in a special service to mark the Feast Day of Saint Columba. It’s believed this afternoon’s service in St Augustine’s Church – ‘the Wee Church on the Walls – [on Sunday 9th June 2024] was the first united inter-denominational service in honour of the city’s founder and patron saint.

Incessant rain meant that the original plan, to hold it in the grounds of St Augustine’s and on the city walls, was revised and the service was moved indoors. The venue was an appropriate one since archaeologists believe St Augustine’s is the site on which Columba founded his first church, Dubh Regles.

The Rector, Rev Nigel Cairns, welcomed “the great and the good” – his fellow clergy – and what he called “the most important people”, the members of the congregation, to what he called a “significant inter-denominational day of being together – a day for our city and for our Christian witness in it”.

The Archdeacon of Derry, Ven. Robert Miller, said the psalmist reminded us that it was a good and pleasant thing when brothers and sisters dwelt together in unity. “It is good to be together and to share ecumenically in what we believe to be the first of this kind of service in the city – certainly that we’re aware of. I bring greetings from the Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, who is in Gartan as we’re gathering here so, again, not only are we joining together here but we’re joining our praises and prayers in other places where Columba is remembered.

“Of course,” the Archdeacon said, “it’s important for us to remember not just the person and the stories that we have and that we pass on about Saint Columba, but to remember his charism, that of bringing the Word of life and the Word of hope and of love to this community and indeed to many other communities as well.”

The Rev Peter Morris from Carlisle Road Methodist Church and the Rev Nigel Cairns shared excerpts from the Amra Cholm Cille (or Dallan’s Eulogy), translated by P.L. Henry. These reflected Columba’s devotion to the Gospels and his role as a peacemaker among warring tribes in Ireland and Scotland.

The minister of First Derry Presbyterian Church, Rev Colin Jones, read a Scripture reading from the Gospel of St Mark, and this was followed by an inter-denominational address by the Bishop of Derry, Most Rev Dr Donal McKeown.

Bishop McKeown said if you asked most young people here what the big event of this weekend was, they were unlikely to choose today’s inter-denominational service, nor even St Columba’s Day. They were more likely to suggest Taylor Swift’s first UK concert. Over the 20 months from March last year until Christmas this year, the Bishop said, Swift will have performed 152 shows on five continents grossing over $1billion. “Against that,” he said, “all our celebrations this weekend, in all our different traditions, pale into insignificance. And yet we’re celebrating Saint Columba just over one-thousand-five-hundred years after his birth. So, I ask myself whether the songs of Ms Swift will be remembered long after the end of her career, or 1,500 years after the end of her career?”

Dr McKeown wondered why Saint Columba was being remembered after such a long time. “Maybe because we see in him a figure who struggled with many of the realities that afflict people in every generation. He knew like we do what can happen when family and community loyalties clash and people get hurt. He knew what it meant to be sorry for past events but not trapped in them.”

The Bishop said there were a number of things we could learn from Columba who, he said, didn’t skirt round the reality of hatred or exclusion in his own day. In a culture where so many slogans want us to be angry about everything, Columba would want us to do better than to be anger-mongers. The Gospel that Columba loved, Dr McKeown suggested, challenged us to become great people, focused not on ‘me’ and ‘my little world’ but the welfare of our community, our society and our world.

Columba was a monk who lived in community, the Bishop said. The life of a monastery can’t have been easy, but renewal in the church – in all our churches – so often involves groups coming together and supporting one another in reaching out to the margins. Columba reminded us of the importance of community-building, especially in an age of lonely individualism. “Without the example of Columba and so many prophetic leaders, there’d be little renewal for any of us,” Bishop Donal said.

Closing prayers were offered by the Dean of Derry, Very Rev Raymond Stewart, who asked God to take away all hatred and prejudice and anything else that may hinder us from Godly union and concourse. “We remember with thanksgiving those who in times past left these shores to bring the message of God’s love to people in other parts of the world. But today, with more and more people coming to our shores from other parts of the world, we pray that their understanding of God’s love will bring a fresh vision to our lives.

“O Lord, we thank you for the saints of our own nations; for those who in earlier years pioneered the Gospel in our land; for those who kept the lamp of faith burning in times of spiritual darkness; for those who bravely suffered martyrdom for the truth they loved; for those who went as messengers of Christ to distant lands to share the Good News with others; for those who fought the battle for social righteousness and cared for the poor and oppressed. Keep us ever mindful, O God, of the example of these your saints, and make us more worthy to follow in their steps, through Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.”