If the Rev David and Rev Heather Houlton learned anything immediately after the former’s Institution as Rector of the United Parishes of Conwal and Gartan on Friday evening, it was that their new surroundings, in the north west corner of Ireland, would be very different from their former home in Yorkshire, in the north of England.
The fact was spelled out to the couple in no uncertain terms not once but twice at a celebration in the parish hall after the service. Donegal people are every bit as proud as the people of Yorkshire, and their county’s distinctiveness is worn as a badge of honour, almost; a tourism slogan used to promote the county to visitors in recent years boasted, “Donegal: it’s different up here”.
Having relocated last week, Rev David Houlton and his wife were introduced to their new parishioners at a Service in Conwal Parish Church in Letterkenny, which was led by the Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, Rt Rev Ken Good.
Bishop Good welcomed all those who had come to support the new arrivals. Among the congregation were parishioners from Rev Houlton’s former parish, in Yorkshire, clergy from the Roman Catholic and Presbyterian Churches in Donegal, and representatives of civic society in Letterkenny, including the town’s Mayor, Jimmy Kavanagh.
The Preacher at the Service was the Rector of Tullyaughnish, Kilmacrennan, Killygarvan and Glenalla, Rev Canon Henry Gilmore, who shared a piece of information with the congregation – one which was especially pertinent given the prevalence of winter flu in the community: one of the greatest fears facing any rector was the loss of his or her voice. “I want to let you into a secret,” Canon Gilmore said. “Strange though it might seem, not everyone who knows the rector sees this situation as a case of total unmitigated disaster.”
It was the type of experience, he said, which brought home to any rector the importance of the human voice. “I am going to talk about ‘the voice of a rector’ tonight,” Canon Gilmore said, “but it’s not something that I’ve thought up. It is actually a rule or a canon in the Church of Ireland – it’s the eighth of the canons which has this title: ‘Speaking in a distinct and audible voice’. And I think it’s more than simply in church or conducting a service. I think that the whole work of a rector can be taken to involve a distinct and audible voice.”
Canon Gilmore decided to focus on the two words ‘distinct’ and ‘audible’, beginning with the second. A rector had to be audible, he said. That didn’t just mean speaking – it meant that they were communicating. That, the Preacher said, was one of the main functions of a rector’s work. Whether it was in church, or visiting the sick or bereaved, chairing a meeting or taking part in a meeting, whether it was in the community or giving a radio interview or writing an article to the press, communication was part of a rector’s duty. A rector had to be audible among his own people and among those who surrounded him.
Moving to the second theme, Canon Gilmore said: “The rector has a distinct voice. It’s distinct because it is – in his own humble way – his commission to teach the Christian faith.”
The Preacher drew the congregation’s attention to the second reading (Matt. 28, 16-20), in which Jesus addressed the doubts of some of the eleven disciples. Jesus told them that all authority in heaven and on earth had been given to him, and told the disciples to go and make disciples of all nations. “That’s where the distinctiveness of the rector’s voice comes from,” Canon Gilmore said, “that in some small way and in some very inadequate way he is carrying on the work of Christ. It doesn’t mean he’s infallible, in fact he alone knows how fallible he is. But it does mean that he will have a distinctive voice in the sense that the voice is that of God and of Christ.”
Canon Gilmore urged the parishioners of Conwal and Gartan to support their new Rector with prayers and with constructive feedback. He told them that rectors and other Christian leaders were not called to “regurgitate” what was popular.
“The Rector will be selling you short if in his own way he doesn’t give you the whole of the Gospel. Now he may have a particular interest, but he will do his best – in the circumstances in which God has placed him – to make the Gospel alive and make it relevant to your situation.”
After the Service, the new Rector and his wife, their fellow clergy and the congregation repaired to the parish hall for refreshments and speeches. It was during these that new Rector was reminded just how different things are in Donegal. He was asked whether he could waltz or jive – neither of which he could do. “You’ve got two months to learn,” he was informed, “because the Parish Dance is on the 16th of March.”