Ireland is experiencing a time of transition and uncertainty, the Bishop of Derry and Raphoe told parishioners in Dunfanaghy, on Sunday, at the dedication and blessing of the newly restored Holy Trinity Church in north west Donegal. In an address which referred to Friday’s Abortion Referendum in the Republic and the continuing uncertainty over Brexit, Rt Rev Ken Good said major institutions were now more open to question and critique – and to rejection. However, the existence of buildings like Holy Trinity Church enabled people to experience God’s presence, Bishop Good said, and to engage with the complex issues of Ireland today and of the world of today.
Dunfanaghy was bathed in sunshine for Sunday’s ceremony and for the garden party afterwards, at which parishioners mingled with local and visiting clergy – both Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic. The traditional Trinity Sunday Service was led by the Rector of Dunfanaghy, Raymunterdoney and Tullaghobegley, Rev David MacDonnell, who will be leaving the Grouped parishes in August to take up a new appointment at St Canice’s Cathedral in Kilkenny as Dean of Ossory.
Rev MacDonnell was assisted at the Service by Rev Canon John Merrick (Priest at St Columb’s Cathedral, Londonderry), Rev Liz Fitzgerald (Bishop’s Curate at Gweedore, Carrickfin and Templecrone), Fr Martin Doohan (Parish Priest of Dunfanaghy) and Brother Edward Dowley (Ards Friary).
Bishop Good congratulated the parishioners on completing the “imaginative” restoration of their church. “It was a major project of restoration of the fabric of the building – both external and internal,” the Bishop said, “and the sensitive re-ordering of the interior has, I think, been highly effective. It greatly enhances and preserves this church as a place of worship for generations to come.”
Holy Trinity Church was consecrated for worship 144 years ago this month, Bishop Good said, and envisaged as a sanctuary, a place set apart, in which the people of this parish and community would engage with God’s world, could experience God’s presence and could respond to God’s call.”
In the century and a half since then, rectors and parishioners had faced many challenging times, the Bishop said, on a national and international stage. “This building was conceived and planned and built just after the Church of Ireland was disestablished in 1870. That was a time of considerable anxiety for the Church of Ireland community. And so, this church was built facing and dealing with that unknown future.
“Before long, in the early 20th century,” Bishop Good said, “there was the Great War, the Civil War in this country, there was partition, there was a Second World War, there have been economic crises – recently and in former times – and now Brexit is part of our vocabulary. And during all of these challenging times, the rector and people of this parish have met here to engage with God’s world and God’s word, as they worshipped and prayed and reflected, and acknowledged their need of him.
Bishop Good said the Trinity Sunday reading, from Isaiah Chapter 6, had something important to say in all of this. “The words with which chapter six begins are interesting: ‘In the year that King Uzziah died…’ That’s how it begins, and they are very significant words for this reason: Uzziah was a king who reigned for 50 years in Judah. He was intelligent. He was innovative. He was effective. He strengthened the nation in which he lived. He built up the agriculture and the land; we are told that he loved the soil. But the point is that he had just died when this account was being written – the implication being that the period of stability and of predictability in the Kingdom of Judah was now over. The order, the pattern, the feeling of well-being is at risk. His long reign has come to an end and the old certainties are gone. And now the people are adjusting to a life with uncertainties about the future and they have to grapple with unfamiliar realities. And Isaiah is making clear that although the earthly King Uzziah has died, the Lord, Yahweh, is still on the throne and he reigns as securely as ever.
“In the Ireland of today,” Bishop Good suggested, “you could say that King Uzziah has died. In our terms, we face a changing situation. Was not yesterday’s referendum outcome an indication of a significant change, a time of transition and of uncertainty in which major institutions and structures of Uzziah-like proportions are now more open to question and critique and rejection?
“So, like Isaiah felt, we are facing complex and uncertain times – for that reason and for many other reasons too. Violent crime is regularly in the news. There is a housing crisis for too many people – and homelessness. There are issues of national debt and personal household debt. There are high levels of drug and alcohol abuse in some areas. There are disaffected and alienated young people. These are uncertain times in the lives of many. And despite the economic prosperity that some are experiencing, as life becomes increasingly secular, some sort of inner tranquillity and peace is hard to find. There’s pressure on relationships, which are breaking down and bewildering many people; depression and suicide are major social issues; and so, we live in this time of uncertainty. And alongside all of that there is no longer the assumption that traditional Christian churches can provide answers and satisfy hunger – hunger of a spiritual nature.
“It may have been similar when this building was built – different, but similar,” Bishop Good continued, “and this house was built to be and still is now a spiritual place, where generations before us have gathered to engage with the issues of the world, and we do so in our generation now, because we believe in this place we find answers to the ultimate questions: life and death and hope for the future. And in its refurbished and re-ordered beauty we continue to believe and trust that the Lord is here, and he is the reason why we can engage with the complex issues of Ireland today and of the world of today.”
Bishop Good told the congregation that Holy Trinity Church existed so that people could experience God’s presence. The Isaiah Chapter 6 account talked of Isaiah’s remarkable experience of God: “He really felt something,” the Bishop said, “he saw something spiritually. The presence and the power of God became intimately known to him. And it may well have been that it was partly because of his uncertainty and his confusion and his vulnerability and his weakness that the Lord was able to break through to him. Sometimes when we’re very strong and smug and contented in ourselves, it’s harder somehow for the Lord to break through. But Isaiah encountered the Lord in the temple at his moment of need.”
The Bishop told the congregation that they came to this building to worship the Lord but also to respond to his call. One of the first people to be called in the refurbished building was its Rector – who had been called to Kilkenny. “He has led and initiated a major project with you,” Bishop Good said, “and the Lord has called him and he has said ‘Yes’. And even though we will miss him, it is good when somebody answers the Lord’s call. And so I say now, publicly from this pulpit, David, we will miss you and we are grateful and thankful to you, and we are really impressed with the leadership role that has enabled you to do this with your people; but we are also grateful that you are willing to answer the Lord’s call wherever he takes you, and you go with my blessing, and with my thanks and with my gratitude. The rest of you may not be called to Kilkenny but you may be called in some sense of the Lord inviting a response, so be open to that possibility as parishioners; be alert to God’s ‘nudgings’.”
Immediately after the service, parishioners and guests walked the short distance to the Rectory gardens, where a gazebo had been erected and refreshments laid on. A bouncy castle had also been installed to keep children amused.
Rev MacDonnell thanked his congregation for their friendship and support since he had come to Dunfanaghy, and for their generosity towards Holy Trinity’s restoration appeal. He surprised three parish stalwarts – Isobel Stewart, David Moore and John Stewart – by presenting them with gifts in appreciation of their contribution to the parish over many years.