Halloween, homophobia, the deadlock at Stormont and cows were all up for discussion at the Dioceses of Derry and Raphoe’s annual Diocesan Synod, which returned to An Grianán Hotel in Burt on Wednesday for the second time in two years.
The Rt Rev Ken Good, Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, adopted the theme of ‘hope’ for his Presidential Address, drawing from 1 Peter 3:15: ‘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.’
The absence of any apparent progress in resolving the political impasse in Northern Ireland had given more reason for frustration and discouragement than for hope, the Bishop said.
“Imagine if our elected representatives were to proceed – as Peter urged – with more gentleness, treating each other with greater respect,” the Bishop said, “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.”
Bishop Good urged politicians to be creative – particularly in Northern Ireland –and to treat one another “with more gentleness and greater respect”.
Bishop Good also addressed the “complex and painful” issue of suicide. The absence of hope – “clearly a major factor in suicidal thoughts” – could have a spiritual root, he suggested. “I would argue that walking the Christian path through life is a wonderful means of maintaining hope.”
As Irish society became more secular, the move away from the spiritual values and the Christian framework “must surely be a factor in leading the diminishing sense of meaning and hope”, he said. “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.”
During a debate on the Report of the Board of Mission and Unity, the Rector of Taughboyne, Rev Canon David Crooks, complained about the proliferation at this time of the year of “skeletons and skulls, and spiders and webs” in local shops. “Halloween, which is the eve of All Hallows – All Saints – is turning into this ridiculous nonsense,” Canon Crooks said. “In shops and all over the place, we see all these accoutrements of witchcraft and all that kind of horrible nonsense.” In some places, Canon Crooks said, you could buy ‘Happy Halloween’ cards. It was becoming quite a cult, he suggested. “People say ‘Oh, it’s just for the children’. Well, I think it’s sending the wrong message to children – it’s actually highly dangerous. It can lead children to start looking at the internet and finding there things like tarot cards and séances, it can grow into all of that. It’s highly dangerous stuff and I think that church leaders of authority should speak about it.”
Canon Malcolm Ferry said he agreed wholeheartedly with Canon Crooks. The New York Times on the 18 October this year published the six spookiest travel destinations in the world and Derry was now being highlighted as the place to go, with more than 80,000 people attending the Halloween festival. “It’s not accidental that the shops in the city are decorated – the Council are now promoting it. “This is a problem,” Canon Ferry said, “and maybe the Diocese would need to think that if this is Council’s strategy, we need to have a strategy.”
There was further backing from Rev Ivan Dinsmore, Rector of the Ardstraw Group of Parishes. “It’s really good to hear church leaders speaking up on this subject,” he said, “and coming out against this festival of paganism that is so popular now within our community.” Rev Mark Lennox was also in full agreement. He said he’d been in one shop in Derry which was selling Ouija boards for children. “We as a Church do need to speak out against this and educate our people that these things aren’t just fun but are actually opening doors to the principalities and the powers that we read about in the Book of Romans and other parts of Scripture.
Discussing the Board of Social Responsibility’s Report, which was proposed by Rev Judi McGaffin, Faughanvale Rector, Rev Paul Hoey, told the Synod that the Church needed to more than just speak out against Halloween. He suggested that Synod might request the Board of Social Responsibility to come up with some simple ideas or resources to help a parish like his to address Halloween “because it is an issue, but just condemning it is not enough”.
During the debate on education, the Rector of St Augustine’s Church in Londonderry, Canon Malcolm Ferry, expressed deep frustration with politicians who had failed to strike a deal at Stormont, accusing them of “playing truant”. Canon Ferry – who serves as governor of a local school – said schools were being badly hit by cuts to their budget. “Ministers – Education Minister, Finance Minister – Stormont needs to get back to work. They need to stop playing truant. We have rules and regulations in our schools: if a teacher doesn’t turn up for his work or her work, if children don’t turn up for school there’s a great procedure of contacting the parents, contacting the welfare officer, all those things in order to make sure they come to school. And yet we have no education minister, no finance minister. What have we but a circus at Stormont?
“In the end,” Canon Ferry said, “cutting staff has an impact on the child. Surely we should be sending out a strong message from this Synod that’s saying education is suffering, boys and girls are suffering in our schools?” Canon Ferry told delegates there would be tighter squeezes in the years to come as efforts were made to recoup money. There was loud applause as he finished by suggesting, “We in this city need to say something about the Stormont circus that’s up there and is now impacting the boys and girls in our classrooms.”
Rev David MacDonnell, Rector of the Dunfanaghy Group of Parishes, thanked Rev McGaffin for highlighting the “incredibly high level” of suicide among gay and lesbian people. “Wouldn’t it be marvellous, and remarkable and grace-filled, and – dare I say it – Christ-like if our Diocese of Derry and Raphoe instead of buttressing the architecture of homophobia in our society decided, instead, perhaps against all of the odds as a Diocese, to champion this notion of stamping out homophobia in our midst, in our Church and in our society? I think our words definitely do matter. I think words give hope to people. I would ask that we would just take perhaps a stand against it and just stand up and say that this is something that is unacceptable in our eyes.”
The Synod was told that more than £60,000 had now been raised across the Diocese for the ‘Buy a Cow for Butere’ initiative. Under this, animals will be purchased for clergy in the 49 parishes in the Kenyan Diocese of Butere, with which Derry and Raphoe has strong links. Albert Smallwoods, from Bishops Appeal, said the scheme was being rolled out in partnership with the UK-based ‘Send a Cow’ project, who were providing accommodation for animals, and training for staff, as well as acquiring the cows. Rev Hoey revealed that 13 parishes here had already expressed an interest in developing a living link with parishes in Butere and pairings would be announced in the near future.
Tributes were paid to the former Diocesan Youth Officer, Martin Montgomery, who stepped down from the post last week after six years in the job. Bishop Good and Rev Canon Paul Whittaker were among diocesan clergy who expressed their gratitude for his work with the Diocese. The Church of Ireland’s National Youth Officer, Simon Henry, who had been a youth worker with Martin in the Down and Dromore Diocese, said his former colleague had done fantastic work in the Derry and Raphoe Diocese and had laid very firm foundations for the future. He said Martin had been a great help to him since he took up his own post a year ago and would be badly missed.