The annual St Columba Service of Thanksgiving, in Gartan, drew its largest attendance for a number of years on Sunday afternoon – the day after the saint’s Feast Day which falls on June the 9th.
The Service was the first organised by the Rev David Houlton, who was instituted as Rector of the United Parishes of Conwal with Gartan in January this year. He was assisted by his wife, Rev Heather Houlton, the Dean of Raphoe, the Very Rev Arthur Barrett, Rev Canon Brian Smeaton and Rev Katie McAteer. The Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, Rt Rev Ken Good, presided.
The Service is held on the site of Saint Columba’s Abbey, overlooking Gartan lakes, near the spot where the saint was reputedly born almost fifteen hundred years ago.
In his sermon, Rev Houlton said he was raised in a church dedicated to St Columba’s, in Drypool in East Yorkshire. “Standing here, where Saint Columba lived, if you look at the hills, and you can see the lakes of Donegal, it’s not hard to be struck, is it, in awe at the beauty of planet earth – the planet God’s given us to live in and care for?”
On a good day, the Rector said, it was like a foretaste of heaven, but this world wasn’t heaven. It could seem like heaven but, at other times in our lives, it could seem like ‘the other place’. “We, too, if we’re honest, are far from perfect,” he said. “Sometimes we can seem like angels and other times we can be rather more like the other lot. Famously, that is what Saint Columba found out in his own life. Although he was from a good family – well educated, a spiritual Christian and a good leader (he founded abbeys, including in Derry) – Columba, it is said, instigated a battle over the ownership of a book that led to hundreds of people being killed.”
Columba mourned this, Rev Houlton said. “It seems to be the reason – that battle – why he [Columba] stepped outside his native Ireland and took the gospel to the pagan Picts in Scotland and from there, of course, his monks took the gospel of Jesus Christ south and east to the pagan tribes of England and the continent.”
“Thousands, no, millions of people who were living in darkness outside the Kingdom of God were brought to spiritual life – coming to know God in their hearts and lives – through the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit because of his ministry and the monks and missionaries he inspired to take the gospel to other parts of Europe. We’re going to meet a lot of people in heaven who are there because of God’s grace through the Good News of Jesus Christ brought to them by Columba and the Irish monks who went out as a result of his ministry. God can bring great good out of bad and much life out of death.”
Rev Houlton said in our time there was again a dire need for us to be willing to do what Columba and his monks did. The Gospel of Jesus was being denied and ignored, obscured by the cares, desires and deceitfulness of this world – by false gospels of materialism, self-indulgence and short-lived pleasures. More and more people were again living in darkness, outside the Kingdom of God, not knowing the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
“So, may we – all of us here today – like Columba, learn ourselves to grow closer to God, to live more courageously and to become more effective at proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ. And may we see a new generation of people becoming his disciples – baptised in water and the spirit, learning to obey everything Christ has taught us and having eternal life with us.”
Bishop Good welcomed the “newish” Rector and his wife, Rev Heather Houlton, to Conwal and Gartan, and thanked them for organising the annual Service. He also paid tribute to the people of the parish and wider community who worked hard to prepare for the Service, and to provide refreshments for the congregation. “A lot of work goes into it,” the Bishop said, “and it’s looking tidy and neat. Thanks to all of you for the great work that you did.” Bishop Good singled out for mention local Church of Ireland stalwart, Fanny Russell, in whose home he and the other clergy robed for the Service.
Members of the Britannia Concert Band from Londonderry—which won a Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service recently—provided music for the Service. “I’m thinking of taking back the award,” the Bishop joked, “because as I walked past I said to Jim [the band’s leader, Jim Goodman] I was enjoying the Cavalleria Rusticana intermezzo, which they played as we arrived, and he said, ‘Yes, we thought it would be better than Send in the Clowns.’”
Bishop Good talked about the significance of Gartan to him personally. “It will be 16 years tomorrow since I was consecrated Bishop of Derry and Raphoe,” he revealed, “and before I was I came to Gartan on the Feast Day of St Columba – the 9th of June – on a private retreat on my own. I did so again yesterday, and I was here, walking around this lake and praying – thanking God that he brought me to this place and this diocese and to these people. I am thankful to God for this place, for the sense of awe here – the sense of his presence – and for the many blessings we’ve had over those 16 years.”