150 years after its doors first opened officially, All Saints Clooney Church was packed again this weekend for a Service of Thanksgiving and Rededication, led by the Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, Rt Rev Ken Good, and attended by the Primate of All Ireland, the Most Rev Dr Richard Clarke, Archbishop of Armagh.
Clergy from other Christian churches joined local political representatives, former rectors and curates of the parish for Sunday afternoon’s Service, at which music was provided by the Britannia Band and All Saints Clooney Choir.
The current Rector, Rev David McBeth B.E.M., described it as “a great occasion” and thanked those present for helping to celebrate “150 years of this beautiful church”. He said he wished to extend particular thanks to Bishop Good for the help he had provided in the organisation of the Thanksgiving Service.
Rev McBeth had invited his congregation to join their thanksgiving “for the beautiful history and legacy which comes before us, for the baptisms, communions, marriages, and to remember those to whom we have said farewell through those beautiful doors”. His parishioners responded in their hundreds.
Bishop Good congratulated Rev McBeth, his curate Rev Rhys Jones, the Select Vestry, the parish team at Clooney and the parishioners for the imaginative way in which they had marked All Saints’ 150th year. Bishop Good also expressed gratitude to the Primate, who was making his first visit to the church, for attending the Service and agreeing to preach the sermon.
In his sermon, the Archbishop said he was always astounded at how many churches were built around 150 years ago. He knew of at least three three in Londonderry – including Clooney – and a number of others in the Church of Ireland. It was a dangerous time, a very strange time, he said, to have started to build new churches, because in 1867 the Church of Ireland was heading into very perilous times and by 1869 it had been disestablished and could no longer rely on the state for finance and support.
“So, 1867 was a brave time to have built churches, and this is part of what we should be commemorating and celebrating – not only the faith but the courage of those who built this church and established it.”
The Primate told the congregation that he wanted to take them on a slightly different journey, “not simply a journey of faith and courage but a journey that asks another question: why do we have churches; what are they; and, above all, how do they relate to the Lord Jesus Christ?
“And so, I want to take a different text, a text from Luke’s Gospel. It comes from the familiar story of the centurion servant who took ill. Our Lord is summoned, but before he even gets to the centurion’s house the centurion comes out and says ‘I am not worthy that you should come under my roof’. Then he goes on, ‘Just say the word and thy servant shall be healed.’
“’I am not worthy that you should come under my roof.’ And that should be, in a way, at the very centre of our worship here in All Saints today, as we celebrate the 150 years, as we give thanks and celebrate the witness of so many people. We have to remember above all that we can never command Christ’s presence here. We are not worthy to have him in our Church, however beautiful it may be. His presence with us is always an honour. It is never a right that we have deserved or that we have earned. And so our attitude should always be – at a time of celebration – that it is Christ who honours us by being here among us today.”
Archbishop Clarke pointed out the symbolic importance of church buildings in our communities. “The appearance of any church building,” he said, “from great cathedrals to the smallest country church, is a symbol of God among us, God here on earth among his people.”
“Social psychologists tell us that symbols are very, very important for people and the symbol of a church – the presence of a church – does actually underpin people’s faith. It helps them more to believe to see that symbol of a church, that symbol of God who is with us. It doesn’t create faith but it can strengthen faith.”
Archbishop Clarke referred to the recent vandalism at a Church of Ireland church in Mayo. “We might think of this being mindless vandalism,” he said, “but it is, of course, a symptom of something that is far, far deeper. It’s the reminder to us that for many people on our island, the church – and therefore the church building – is not something to honour, not something to respect, but something to despise and even hate.
“And why might that be?”, the Primate asked. “I think that people don’t find the Church asking questions, they don’t see the Church answering questions, they can too often see the Church from outside as a rather self-satisfied institution, in many ways addicted to the struggle of survival but also for struggle to control others. And so, if the Church – this church like any other church – is to serve God by serving the world as it is called to do, it can only do this when it turns its attention out from itself to the world outside. Paradoxically, the only way that any Christian community can serve its existing members spiritually is when it turns its face outwards, and seeks to care for those around it, and to share itself with coherence and with credibility with those who desperately need to find hope and love and direction and something other than a terrible isolation that afflicts so many people in the world of today.”
Archbishop Clarke said if a church community, even as it celebrated 150 years of its life, was not visibly a place of welcome, of goodness, of acceptance for all, then all that a building may symbolise to those outside it could be hypocrisy.
“We have all come today, from near and far, because this building symbolised something that is so important in our lives – the love of God in Jesus Christ. But we also have to work together to make this symbol of a church – a beautiful church, set here in this city for 150 years – to make that symbol something that accords not only to us but to the wider setting of this neighbourhood, this city and this country, that accords to the love of Christ, the generosity of Christ and the open-heartedness of Christ. So, a church building can never be an end in itself – it was never meant to be the end of anything – if it is to serve Christ and the whole Church it is to be a place from which men and women and children will go out determined to bring Christ into the world outside.”
After the Service, the congregation walked to the nearby All Saints Centre for a tea, prepared by the ladies of the parish, and for speeches. Some of the children present helped Bishop Good to cut a large cake which was baked specially for the occasion. And the parish present the Bishop with another cake to acknowledge his 65th birthday, which he celebrated at the beginning of the month.