Presidential Address by Rt Rev Ken Good, Wednesday 25th October 2017, An Grianán Hotel, Burt, Co Donegal.
In this triennial year, I welcome you all – as the fresh, energetic and eager intake of a newly-elected Diocesan Synod.
I want, at the outset, to acknowledge the presence of our guests and to assure them of our happiness that they can be with us today:
- Revd Peter Murray, District Superintendent of the Methodist Mission and Past-President of the Methodist Conference in Ireland;
- Revd Mark Russell, Moderator of Derry and Donegal Presbytery;
- and Bishop Donal McKeown, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Derry.
I invited the new Bishop of Raphoe, Bishop Alan McGuckian, but he is unable to join us because of a prior commitment. He has sent his apologies and we, in turn, send to him our greetings and wish him every blessing in his ministry. May I also extend my best wishes to his predecessor, Bishop Philip Boyce, and my sincere hope that he enjoys his well-earned retirement.
We also welcome visitors representing The Churches’ Ministry of Healing, The Church of Ireland Priorities Fund, CMSI, Tearfund Ireland, the Mission to Seafarers’ and The Bookwell.
I am delighted that Simon Henry, The Church of Ireland’s National Youth Officer, is also with us and I hope he will be granted your permission later to contribute to the debate on the Youth Report.
This presidential address is barely two minutes old and already I have used the word ‘hope’ twice. This is a broad theme which will be woven throughout much of the remainder of what I wish to say.
In the Holy Communion Service with which this Synod began, the reading from 1st Peter Chapter 3 addressed the question of hope, and specifically our readiness – as Christians – to be able to give a reason for the hope we have within us. And, as if that weren’t challenging enough, this is something we are urged to do with ‘gentleness and respect’.
(‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.’ 1 Peter 3:15)
POLITICAL PROCESS IN NORTHERN IRELAND
Hope is a precious commodity which appears to be in shorter supply, nowadays. This does not make our task any easier, and yet we remember that we are, after all, called to be bearers of the ‘Good News.’ We are called to be ambassadors of hope.
On the political front, in Northern Ireland, only last week, one Belfast newspaper reported that senior political figures still held out hope that a deal could be brokered to save Stormont. You would’ve been hard-pressed to find many people on the streets who shared their optimism. How many, I wonder, share our optimism and our faith in God’s future, in his hope-filled Kingdom’s future?
The absence of any apparent progress in resolving the political impasse in Northern Ireland gives more reason for frustration and discouragement than for the kind of hope so many people have longed to see realised.
I would acknowledge that – individually – the MLAs in Northern Ireland are well-intentioned people who entered politics for positive reasons, with a genuine desire to work for the common good and to see progress. But, sadly, when they try to work collectively or corporately as political parties, their ambitions are too often thwarted. In the process, the hopes of many who vote are disappointed and their optimism dissipates.
Imagine if our elected representatives were to proceed – as Peter urged – with more gentleness, treating each other with greater respect; consider how transformative that could be; imagine what it could do for the morale of the long-suffering electorate; imagine what it could do for hope in Northern Ireland.
So, we continue to pray for politicians; we urge them to be creative, particularly in Northern Ireland, to be courageous and to persevere until there is a breakthrough. We urge them to give people more reason for hope, and to treat one another with more gentleness and greater respect.
HOPE FOR THE WORLD?
Globally, one question which has been debated with a good deal of energy recently concerns whether the world is becoming a better or worse place in which to live. Are there grounds for being more hopeful about the future, or ought we, instead, to be more fearful?
Declinists point to the apparently ‘intractable’ violence in the Middle East and elsewhere; the ongoing plight of many thousands of refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean; the spread of the zika virus and other diseases, and the increasing resistance to antibiotics; the North Korean missile crisis; the random terror attacks in Nice, Belgium, Florida, Pakistan, London and elsewhere; the threat of catastrophic climate change; Brexit; etcetera, etcetera. Hope, they maintain, is in short supply.
On the other side of the debate are the New Optimists. They focus on the positive – the fact that the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has now fallen below 10% for the first time; the fact that global carbon emissions from fossil fuels have failed to rise for the third year running; the fact that the death penalty has been ruled illegal in more than half of all countries; and the fact that the giant panda has been removed from the endangered species list. They contend that 2016 was the best year in the history of humanity because of falling global inequality, with child mortality roughly half what it had been as recently as 1990, and 300,000 more people gaining access to electricity each day. They feel certain not only that things have been getting better but that they will continue to improve.
Central to the optimists’ argument is the fact that in ten of the most important basic indicators of human flourishing – food, sanitation, life expectancy, poverty, violence, the state of the environment, literacy, freedom, equality and the conditions of childhood – progress has been made. National governments, as well as wealthy philanthropists such as Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet, are playing a significant role in improving the health and living conditions of millions of people worldwide.
The Declinists acknowledge such progress but insist that more people are more uneasy than ever before about what lies ahead, about the unpredictability that overhangs the world. Life and systems are too fragile, they say, too complex, too volatile and too unpredictable. There is a haunting possibility that catastrophe could befall us at any moment.
Remarkably, in a UK survey conducted by YouGov at the end of last year, 71% of respondents sided with the Declinists. They thought the world was getting worse. Only 5% felt it was getting better. That same year, in an international survey of more than 21,000 people from 36 countries across the world, 60 percent maintained that the world had got worse in the previous year, rather than getting better or even staying the same.
So, even though more people around the world live in better external conditions than ever before, many people’s internal hopefulness has diminished. And, of course, the starkest indicator of this diminished hope must be the increased incidence of death by suicide.
Suicide is a difficult, complex and painful issue, as some of you here know only too well. There are people in this room who have lost loved ones to suicide. It’s an issue we might prefer not to explore at a Synod, but it is an issue which we must not shy away from. Suicide is an unavoidable pastoral reality for most clergy and a grave crisis for our society. It is an issue which churches – and many other organisations – need to address with urgency, yes, but with compassion and sensitivity, too. And it is a topic that is very closely related to the question of hope.
The number of people impacted by a suicide is distressingly large, when you factor in the immediate household, the wider family circle, friends and work colleagues, and the community around the deceased. Statistics from both jurisdictions in Ireland make for sobering reading:
In Northern Ireland
- 318 people died by suicide (in 2015)
- In 2014 there were 16.5 suicides per 100,000 people in the population – that is the highest rate in any part of the UK.
- 77% were male.
- Since the Good Friday Agreement (1998) more people have taken their own lives in Northern Ireland than were killed during the Troubles.
In the Republic of Ireland:
- 451 people died by suicide (in 2015)
- There were 9.5 suicides per 100,000 in the population
- Ireland has the 4th highest rate of youth suicide in Europe.
A few weeks ago, I was invited to Letterkenny to the official opening of Pieta House. It is an impressive charity whose vision is ‘to create a world where suicide, self-harm and stigma have been replaced by hope, self-care and acceptance’. Pieta’s ‘Darkness into Light’ fund-raising walks now happen at 150 venues across Ireland, including here in this diocese, and worldwide, and now involve more than 130,000 participants undertaking a 5km walk at dawn.
Pieta and many other organisations – such as the Samaritans and Foyle Search and Rescue in this diocese – are doing vital work in striving to prevent the tragic loss of life by suicide. Excellent work is also being done by counsellors, educators and researchers. Extra funding is, quite rightly, being allocated by governments and donated by the public to tackle the causes of suicide.
Despite all this, suicide remains a huge social problem. Thankfully the need to improve mental health is increasingly recognized as a major challenge for our modern society, as is the need to be more open about it.
Recently, the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke revealingly about his own personal struggles with depression. Mental ill health is no respecter of class or race or creed. It can affect any of us.
I suspect that the range of underlying causes of suicide may sometimes be more complex than just a mental health issue alone. I want to talk about the spiritual dimension to it as well. The absence of hope, which is clearly a major factor in suicidal thoughts, can undoubtedly have a spiritual root. And yet the spiritual element of life is not always taken into account nowadays in an increasingly secular approach to health care. Interestingly, in research into the risk factors for suicide in the US military, one indicator which has been identified is the lack or loss of spiritual faith.
I read one statistic recently which really stopped me in my tracks. The number of ‘deaths by suicide’ recorded in the Republic of Ireland in 1950 – just before I was born – was 76. Doubtless there was a degree of under-reporting then, because of prevailing social attitudes. Nevertheless, I am left wondering – 76, compared to the 451 recorded in 2015? What has changed in the intervening years to result in an increase of almost 500%?
The standard of living in the country in almost every respect has risen so considerably over the last six decades, so how can so many people’s sense of wellbeing – mental or spiritual – have diminished so dramatically as to result in a five-fold increase in the number of suicides?
As Irish society becomes more secular, and as religious belief and practice become less meaningful in everyday life, the move away from the spiritual values and the Christian framework which had previously provided structure and support, must surely be a factor in leading the diminishing sense of meaning and hope. Public health systems and therapeutic approaches which are dominated by scientific, materialistic values to the exclusion of a spiritual understanding of the human person can have difficulty responding well to people’s spiritual needs. I would point out – with gentleness and with respect – that the hope one can find in Christ provides meaning and purpose which can improve someone’s quality of life and depth of hope immeasurably.
One consequence of the move away from a Christian perspective has been the replacement of a biblical moral framework with an expressive individualism, in which each person assumes the freedom to live autonomously and to shape his or her own moral framework. ‘Autonomy’ (from the Greek words ‘self’ and ‘law’ - or law unto oneself) offers a tantalising independence in which I can be whoever I want to be, and can decide for myself what is right and wrong for me. It offers a freedom from external control or influence, including the restraint or boundaries of traditional Christian values. Over time, however, the promised freedoms can lead to disappointment and regret, resulting in broken relationships, hurt or damaged lives and diminished hope.
So, with that same gentleness and respect, I would argue that walking the Christian path through life is a wonderful means of maintaining hope: accepting and experiencing the redeeming and transforming love of Christ; receiving his forgiveness when we fail along the way, as we all do; living in ways that honour and obey the One ‘whom to serve is perfect freedom’; these aspects of discipleship are a ‘medicine of the gospel’ (from the Collect of St Luke’s Day) which can strengthen not only our spiritual wellbeing but our mental health, too.
Incidentally, I noticed a small example of the impact of secularisation on the Samaritans’ UK website. I should point out that Samaritans is an organisation for which I have the utmost respect and admiration. It was set up by a Church of England Vicar, Rev Chad Varah, to meet the day-to-day pastoral needs that he encountered in his ministry in London. The name the Rev Varah gave to his growing team of befrienders came from the biblical parable of the compassionate Good Samaritan. So, it is an ironic sign of our times that in today’s secular society in the UK, on the home page of the organisation’s website, it is now felt necessary to state quite prominently: ‘We are not a religious organisation.’
We live in interesting times. It was five hundred years ago next week that Dr Martin Luther, with his 95 Theses, initiated the Reformation. In this quincentenary year, we are reminded that at the heart of his reforming movement was his own personal, spiritual journey from the disappointment of his human efforts to please God to the liberating discovery of imputed righteousness through Christ.
Luther’s spiritual progress was essentially a journey that led him to the discovery of spiritual hope. In his determination to be a disciplined and devout monk, Luther had been tormented by spiritual despondency, fearing that his efforts to please God were never good enough to gain divine favour and acceptance. It was in his grappling with Paul’s Letter to the Romans, that the eyes of his faith were opened as he discovered that what was required was not greater human struggle and effort on his part but a simple trust in the grace and promises of God and in the merits of Christ.
His reforming message of justification by faith alone through grace alone was about hope and liberation, about freedom and peace. We will be marking this 500th anniversary on 7 November in St Columb’s Cathedral – the first Cathedral to be built in Europe after the Reformation.
CATHOLIC AND REFORMED
The Church of Ireland, in its theology and worship, is both catholic and reformed. Our apostolic and catholic roots are based on the Scriptures, the catholic creeds, the dominical sacraments and the apostolic ministry. Our reformed legacy requires of us a ‘constant witness against all those innovations in doctrine and worship, whereby the Primitive faith hath been from time to time defaced or overlaid.’ (Preamble and Declaration to the Constitution of the Church of Ireland). The spiritual hope in Christ which sustains us is expressed in these foundational emphases: apostolic, catholic and reformed – and I hold to each of them.
In the 2016 Census in the Republic of Ireland, 481,388 people stated that they had no religion, a 74% increase in this category compared to five years previously. It is noteworthy that in the section on religion, ‘no religion’ was the second largest category, making up 10% of the population. With an average age of 34 years, this group was also younger on average than the population as a whole. Bishop Donal McKeown has remarked that, in years to come, it won’t so much be religious difference that counts or matters in Ireland, but religious indifference. There is already empirical evidence to back up his assertion.
Given the demographic changes, it is all the more important that here in the north west of Ireland, the Churches work positively with one another as much as possible, and ensure that there is a healthy working relationship among Christians of different traditions. As society becomes increasingly secular and questions the value of the Christian faith in any of its expressions, it is all the more important that we are able express our unity by working together amicably – that by our example we are able to give a reason for the hope within us, and that we do so with ‘gentleness and respect’.
I want publicly to thank those clergy and people from churches and denominations right across our dioceses, districts and presbyteries for the degree of co-operation and unity we share in Christ. The fellowship we enjoy is a sign of hope to those in our churches and, we trust, to those outside them.
The Walks of Witness I have shared with Bishop Donal this year have been a particular joy to me as an expression of friendship and bridge-building. I am grateful to Bishop Donal for his participation – as well as his stamina – on the many miles we have travelled together.
It has been another joy as well as a sign of hope for me – and I’m sure for all of us in the diocese – to share in the ordination of seven people this year, two deacons and five priests or presbyters. I loved seeing in each of them a sense of excitement, anticipation, hope, confidence and expectation about how God would equip them and use their ministry to share his grace, his love, his power in people’s lives. What a privilege it is to be called, ordained and sent out in Christ’s name to be a servant and a shepherd of his people. These are ambassadors of hope. They are good news people. And their ordination is a good news story of hope.
ABUNDANT LIVING CHEERFUL GIVING
On Sunday last, 22nd October, a major diocesan stewardship initiative, Abundant Living Cheerful Giving, came to a climax in churches throughout the diocese. Planning for this venture included combined gatherings of around 700 members of Select Vestries in January. The Select Vestries were encouraged to do some budget planning and an analysis of giving based on their vision and goals for the parish. Three sermons were preached this month about God’s abundant and grace-filled provision and our cheerful response to his generosity. Last Sunday, in services across the diocese, the opportunity was given for parishioners to review the level of their financial response.
In over 50% of parishes, this will have been the first opportunity people have had in more than a decade to reconsider their giving in such a structured way. As yet, of course, we have no idea what the impact of the stewardship review will be. However, I am hopeful that, as we trust in the power and the prompting of the Holy Spirit, important and courageous decisions will have been made to give cheerfully and generously. For the many parishes who have already embraced this review wholeheartedly, it will prove to have been a moment of fresh hope. It is an opportunity too important to miss, for every parish in the diocese.
MOTHERS’ UNION 130
While on the subject of generosity, the Mothers’ Union is an agency which is at the coal face, so to speak, in delivering Christian hope.
The 130th anniversary of the Mothers’ Union in Ireland has provided an opportunity to appreciate and celebrate the organisation’s significant contribution to family life. It is a movement which strengthens families, provides fellowship and personal encouragement to its members, and which mobilises people in social outreach. Child Contact Centres, parenting training, ‘trauma teddies’ and toiletry packs for hospitals are among the practical and incredibly valuable ways in which they share and deliver hope.
The Diocesan Festival Service – at which Lady Eames spoke, the Britannia Band played and a MU choir sang – was a particularly inspirational and hope-filled gathering. So, too, was the Mothers’ Union ‘Big Sing’ in the National Concert Hall in Dublin. An attractive 48-page booklet, Faith in Action, has just been launched by our Diocesan MU to record inspiring faith stories of how the Lord has used the Mothers’ Union to give members and others hope, strength and support through major life-challenges and opportunities.
Our link with the Kenyan Diocese of Butere, through which we are enabling the clergy and their families to be given a cow, is a project that involves hope. It is another tremendously practical gesture, one that has the potential to make an immense difference in rectories throughout that diocese. The ‘added value’ which flows from the income these animals generate is that the clergy won’t have to be so preoccupied with eking out a living to keep their families fed and nourished and instead will have more time and energy to focus on their ministry. I thank all the parishes in Derry and Raphoe which have contributed in raising the impressive sum of £60,000 for the project. This money is bringing hope and practical care to many households and communities.
So, as I come towards a conclusion, I want to pose a question. As you consider the Kingdom of God, are you feeling more like a declinist or an optimist; are you feeling more gloomy or more hopeful? As you face the future, do you tend more towards spiritual declinism or spiritual hope?
We must always remember that the Christian life is one of hope. The biblical message is always one of hope. As Christ’s followers, we have been given a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. (1 Peter 1:3). In our earthly ministry, we are not promised a life that will be easy or smooth or trouble-free, but we are promised an inner hope that will sustain, embolden and equip us to face each and every day, including the day of our last breath, with hope for the future in Christ.
Having marked the 40th anniversary of my ordination as deacon in June this year, I am so thankful to God for the hope he has granted me in the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ and for the continuing conviction that the local church can and must be a place of real hope in every community. I am encouraged and thankful for the privilege of having been involved in so many positive and heartening events, services and activities during the year since we last met as a Diocesan Synod.
I suggest that it would be a helpful and edifying thing at this gathering of Diocesan Synod for speakers who come to the podium to share a hopeful and encouraging account of life in their own parish or community. Let us build one another up in hope.
Martin Luther in his later years declared: ‘What I began as a Doctor, I must truly confess to the end of my life. I cannot keep silent or cease to teach.’ Let each of us, in our different callings, persevere in the ministry God has given us. Let us persevere in being faithful, in being ambitious for the Kingdom and in being hopeful. Let us not keep silent about the hope that is within us, but truly confess it to the end of our life.
‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.’ Romans 15:13