The Bishop of Derry and Raphoe has told his diocesan synod that if there was one word which encapsulated the atmosphere in the run-up to this year’s gathering in Donegal it was ‘unsettled’.
The synod met in An Grianán Hotel in Burt, just three miles from the border and five months ahead of the UK’s scheduled exit from the European Union. “We have the enormous problem of climate change,” Rt Revd Ken Good said in his Presidential Address,“and the cataclysmic events that accompany it. We have the reality of a changing world order, with all the uncertainty that that brings. We have had radical social change in the Republic, perhaps symbolized by the outcome of the abortion referendum. And then there’s Brexit, the lack of clarity around which is an on-going source of uncertainty on both sides of the border in this diocese.”
The one area where, at first glance, the Bishop said, there seemed to have been little change was in Northern Ireland, where the promise of recent years had dissipated and we were experiencing what he called “the political equivalent of locked-in syndrome”.
Bishop Good said Christians were people of hope who felt a responsibility to share that hope in the middle of all of this ‘unsettledness’. “It must be incredibly difficult,” he said, “for non-Christians—as they survey the world around them—to be hopeful.” On the surface, there weren’t many grounds for optimism. “St Augustine said, ‘Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe. Thus, all below is strength and all above is grace.’Faith does not make us blind to what is happening in the world. Far from it. It allows us to see things in sharper focus and in a bigger context.”
Bishop Good addressed three “big ticket matters” about which, he said, most individual church members felt powerless – homelessness in the Republic, political paralysis in Northern Ireland and Brexit.
He said Northern Ireland had had no devolved government for almost 650 days. Important decisions were not being taken. School budgets were being hit (with a significant impact on children). Hospital waiting lists were growing. Faith in politics was eroding rapidly. And people were becoming more and more polarised. The longer the political institutions remained collapsed, the harder he feared it would be to get them up and running again. “The late Nelson Mandela said, ‘It is so easy to break down and destroy. The heroes are those who make peace and build.’ I urge the parties at Stormont to be heroic, to redouble their efforts to have the political institutions restored, and to behave in a manner which restores our faith in the body politic.”
The lack of a devolved administration would be regrettable in normal circumstances, Bishop Good said, but with Brexit looming it had become an embarrassment. “The UK is scheduled to leave the European Union at 11pm on Friday, March 29th– that’s in 156 days’ time – and yet it’s far from clear what will happen afterwards. We don’t know if it will be a hard Brexit or a soft Brexit, perhaps, even, a blind Brexit? Will there be a hard border just 3 miles up the road or will it be a soft border? Will Brexit deliver the kind of prosperity its advocates promised or will it prove to be the economic catastrophe its opponents predicted? Five months to go, and nobody really knows. It would appear we aren’t the only people in the ‘faith’ business.”
The Bishop commended the Irish government for its stewardship of the Irish economy and for achieving results that he said were the envy of the rest of Europe. “But a civilised society is judged by the way in which it treats its most vulnerable—the young, the sick, the elderly, the poor and the homeless; I urge the government not to forget the least fortunate in our society and specifically – where homelessness is concerned—to meaningfully address the provision of affordable social housing and ensure that there is adequate emergency accommodation available for the homeless.”
Bishop Good highlighted one other issue about which he said Church members could make a real and significant difference – loneliness. “I don’t want to trivialise the issue,” he said, “or underestimate its crushing impact, but we can all help address the problem – right away – by making contact with a neighbour; by speaking to someone who lives on their own; by calling someone on the telephone or having a cup of tea with them; by being more thoughtful. Small gestures like these can make a huge difference to people’s lives, giving comfort, encouragement and reassurance to those who need it.”
Loneliness, isolation, feeling of little value – these “all-too-common features of modern Irish life” – were not only serious social conditions, Bishop Good said, they surely had a spiritual dimension as well.
“The awareness of being loved – by God and by others; of growing and developing as a person; of belonging to a caring Christian community; having a meaningful role and an opportunity to serve; being part of a team that is transforming community and radiating Christ – these are all wholesome aspects of living a meaningful life of faith in Christ. Not only do they provide an antidote to a debilitating state of loneliness, they give us a reason for getting up purposefully every morning.”
Elsewhere, in the Synod, the Rector of St Augustine’s, Rev Canon Malcolm Ferry, talked about a “state of crisis” which he said existed in Northern Ireland’s schools. Canon Ferry was proposing adoption of the Report of the Derry Diocesan Board of Education. He said Northern Ireland was the poor relative when school spending was compared with the rest of the UK. Local schools were getting less and less money per child; special needs provision was not delivered; and extra-curricular activities had been halted. “I love the odd metaphor,” Canon Ferry said, “and I especially love metaphors that are used wrongly because here in Synod we could stand and talk till the cows turn blue; this education debate is going to be a hard bubble to crack; we could even say we’re getting into hot water as we skate on thin ice; but the fan really is going to hit the roof if we don’t rediscover and take seriously the education of our next generation.”
The next generation was very much on the mind of the Rector of Derg and Termonamongan, Rev Peter Ferguson, who is the new chair of the dioceses’ youth ministry, Derry and Raphoe Youth (DRY) which, he said, had been going through a transition. Rev Ferguson paid tribute to the countless people who had laid strong foundations in youth ministry in the Diocese, but it was a time to seek renewal, he said, to look up and believe. “In our society, with the breakdown in community and between the generations, the church family as the whole people of God has a counter cultural voice and role to play. In DRY and in our diocese we want to be a catalyst in this approach – a cross-generational approach – where every member of our Diocese has a role to play.”
The concept of ‘church family’ has taken on an even broader definition for more than a dozen parishes which have opted to forge ‘living links’ with parishes in the Kenyan Diocese of Butere. Rev Canon Paul Hoey, who has been pairing local parishes with their partners in Africa, said he had received more expressions of interest than there were places for next spring’s diocesan visit to Butere; a meeting is planned for next month to pursue the idea further.
Raphoe is among the parishes which will be pairing up with new friends in Butere, but in the meantime it will be launching an ambitious campaign to renovate the Cathedral Church of St Eunan in Raphoe. The Dean, Very Revd Arthur Barrett, and the Select Vestry estimate they’ll need €650,000 to complete their ‘Renovation Project 2020’, most of which they hope to raise through a fund-raising campaign.
The Dioceses of Derry and Raphoe have agreed to hold a ‘Hospice Sunday’ in the next couple of months when collections will be taken up in all churches to support the work of the Foyle Hospice and Donegal Hospice.
Finally, tributes were paid to a former member of the Board of Social Responsibility, Mr George Glenn, who died in September. Mrs Elizabeth Fielding acknowledged his tireless work on behalf of the Board, describing him as someone who “even at 80 years of age had his finger on the pulse of the community”.