DIOCESES OF DERRY AND RAPHOE DIOCESAN SYNOD, 24th OCTOBER, 2018 at AN GRIANÁN HOTEL, BURT
PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS by The Right Rev Ken Good, Bishop of Derry and Raphoe
You are all very welcome to this year’s Derry and Raphoe Diocesan Synod, here in the wonderfully hospitable An Grianán Hotel, beneath the rather splendid Grianán of Aileach. If you haven’t been to the historic ring fort, at the top of the hill, I strongly recommend a visit.
In recent weeks, as I’ve reflected on my presidential address, I’ve thought about the mood – globally and nationally – in the run-up to this synod. ‘Unsettled’ is a word which encapsulates much of the background atmosphere. We have the enormous problem of climate change 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.
Interestingly, the one area where, at first glance, there seems to have been little change is in Northern Ireland, where the promise of recent years has dissipated and we find ourselves experiencing the political equivalent of locked-in syndrome.
These unsettled feelings are all prevalent as we approach the 100thanniversary of the Armistice on 11thNovember 1918, at the conclusion the war which, it was hoped, would bring to an end all wars. Even though that aspiration was to prove sadly unfounded, it is appropriate that throughout this diocese we will be remembering, with solemnity and with awe, the enormous loss of life and immense and tragic sacrifice borne by so many in the First World War.
In the middle of all of this ‘unsettledness’, there’s us – members of the Christian Church, people of hope – who feel a responsibility to share that hope with those around us.
It must be incredibly difficult for non-Christians—as they survey the world around them—to be hopeful. On the surface, there aren’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.
The Christian faith is filled with hope and promise. It is liberating and fulfilling. It is rich and generous in its own way. “Peace I leave you,” Christ said. “My peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” (John, 14:27) In the midst of all of the unsettledness around us, our faith excites us. It challenges us. It is a dynamic faith, a hopeful faith, calling us to be people of action. We are urged to love one another. To forgive our enemies. To do unto others as we would have done unto ourselves.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND’S ECONOMIC STRENGTH
The Irish economy has been recording strong growth this year and that’s expected to continue in 2019. GDP growth of 5.6 per cent was predicted for the Republic in 2018, compared to 2.1 per cent for both the euro zone and the EU (and only 1% for Northern Ireland).
On the surface, things appear to be going swimmingly. And yet…. In this prosperous, thriving, confident new republic, campaigners were warning of an impending “avalanche of homelessness”. Property prices in Dublin have been increasing by 8 or 9 per cent this year and look like rising for a few more years. Some people are getting very, very rich and yet there are victims, too: last August, a homeless mother and her six young children were forced to spend a night sleeping on plastic chairs in a Dublin garda station because there was no emergency accommodation available – and this at a time when there are more than three and a half thousand council houses lying empty across the State. The number of homeless people in emergency accommodation in the state hovers close to 10,000. Is that what we want in the modern Republic of Ireland?
I commend the government in Dublin for its stewardship of the Irish economy and for achieving results that are 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.
NORTHERN IRELAND’S POLITICAL IMPASSE
Across the border, where economic growth was forecast to be only 1% this year, Northern Ireland was lamenting not earning a place in the Guinness Book of Records for—as the BBC put it—"political ineptitude”. The region has had no devolved government now for 646 days. Important decisions are not being taken. School budgets are being hit (with a significant impact on children). Hospital waiting lists are growing. Faith in politics is eroding rapidly. People are becoming more and more polarised. Is that what we want?
The longer our political institutions remain collapsed, the harder I fear it will 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 but with Brexit looming it has become an embarrassment. It seems people all across Europe are having their say on the issue, with one glaring exception: the people who are probably most directly affected by it – us. That is unacceptable.
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.
These three huge issues—homelessness in the Republic, political paralysis in Northern Ireland and Brexit—are ‘big ticket’ matters about which most individual church members feel powerless. The Church’s influence is brought to bear more by public comment from its leaders, by prayer and through church members working in the political arena or the public sector.
There are other high-profile issues, such as the over-use of fossil fuels and harmful plastics, where we can make a difference, by managing our daily lives more responsibly, as stewards of God’s creation.
But I want to highlight one additional issue—a social issue—which affects many, many people in our communities, maybe even in our families, and about which we can make a real and significant difference.
It’s been called ‘a silent epidemic’ in Ireland, north and south. There is medical evidence that it’s:
- as bad for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
- more damaging to us than obesity.
- that it increases the risk of dementia, heart disease and depression.
- can increase our risk of an earlier death (by 29%).
So, what is this silent epidemic?
The answer is loneliness.
The Rotary Club in the UK undertook a State of the Nation survey in which 63% of those interviewed admitted to feeling lonely. And who were the people most likely to experience loneliness? Not the elderly. It was those in the 16-29 year age-range.
The Rotary Club report, and others, have identified some key contributing factors among all age groups:
- 92% of people were weighed down by the stresses and strains of modern living.
- 43% had hoped for more out of life.
- 42% thought it was harder than ever to manage their finances.
- 26% didn’t know their neighbours’ names.
Another UK report, ‘Loneliness Connects Us’, pinpointed the major causes of loneliness among 14 to 25-year-olds:
- a fear of failure and of disappointing those who have invested their hopes in a young person, especially if the path of education or career ‘success’ was not sustained.
- social media and the pressure to communicate themselves in a particular way (i.e. as leading an interesting and enviable life). One 21-year-old said social media pressurised people to post fake happiness.
- Other factors included: major life changes (such as family break-up or moving away from home), poverty and feeling different from peers.
Dr Keith Swanick, chairperson of the Republic of Ireland’s Loneliness Taskforce warned that loneliness was now “the most unrecognised health crisis of this generation”.He added, though, that “we can all beat loneliness, one conversation at a time.”
I watched a feature on loneliness on the evening news recently, and was moved to hear a woman (in her mid-70s, I’d guess) speaking about her personal sense of isolation, of being disconnected from neighbours and community, of not feeling valued or appreciated by anyone. My heart went out to her. My instinctive response was to ask out loud, “But do you belong to a church? Please go to one and see what a difference it can make!”
Loneliness, isolation, feeling of little value – these all-too-common features of modern Irish life – are not only serious social conditions, they surely have 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.
I don’t want to trivialise the issue of loneliness 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. As the doctor said, it’s about “beating loneliness, one conversation at a time”.
In this Year of Encouragement, despite the unsettled-ness of the bigger picture, I stand before you as a bishop who feels encouraged about his diocese. Yes, of course, in church life there are inevitable challenges, concerns, problems and worries. But there are far more encouragements. There is also the reassurance that the Church is the Lord’s; that he is sovereign; and that ultimately he is in control, not us. If I may, I’d like to pinpoint some of the things that give me joy and hope and encouragement.
This 10th year of our diocesan vision, Transforming Community Radiating Christ, has given me particular cause to be thankful, so I will frame my comments about encouragement under its three sub-headings: we seek growth; we serve in teams; we encourage leaders.
WE SEEK GROWTH
Over the past couple of weeks, I have been receiving very positive and appreciative comments about the Transformed event in the Millennium Forum on 6th October. In the decade since Transforming Community Radiating Christ was launched, there has been much for which we can be thankful to God. Those who gathered that Saturday afternoon, from all across the diocese, saw the renewed sense of purpose evident in many parishes, the rekindled heart for outreach, the increased level of teamwork and the fascinating range of community-based initiatives. The powerful impact of the ‘Cows for Butere’ project was impressed upon us by the moving testimony of Bishop Tim Wambunya. There was an encouraging feel-good factor about the day and I certainly felt grateful and was uplifted by those significant developments. The Transformed event showcased much of what has been positive and influential and growth-focused in many parishes in recent years.
- PARISH FINANCES
Over the last couple of years, parishes were recommended to provide an opportunity for all of us to review our financial giving. A diocesan resource, Abundant Living, Cheerful Giving, was made available in a manner which, I hope, was encouraging rather than prescriptive. I am convinced that there has already been a growth in generosity and that more will become evident.
One parish’s income has increased by 25% in the past year, and this is indeed encouraging. And there are other good news stories of growth in giving. In times of financial pressure, I want to commend parishioners and Select Vestries for keeping up with their financial obligations and commitments. It can be difficult to keep up-to-date with assessment payments and other expenses, so that makes it all the more impressive that the arrears figures in the diocese are significantly better now than this time last year.
- PARISH PROJECTS
I have been tremendously impressed with the major parish projects we have seen completed this year. For a bishop, the invitation to dedicate or re-hallow to the glory of God a significant and costly redevelopment project is an enormous encouragement. So, the impressive repair and restoration works undertaken in the parishes of Dunfanaghy, Cappagh, Tamlaghtfinlagan, Christ Church, Garvagh, Faughanvale and Donegal are a source of great joy and cause for celebration.
- COMMUNICATING WELL
Yes, we in this diocese have encouraging stories of growth to share. I am also encouraged by the effective manner in which the positive message has been shared. Our diocesan magazine n:vision, our website, our Facebook page and Twitter account are themselves stories of growth and development. I thank Rev Katie McAteer, our magazine editor, Canon Paul Hoey and the Communications Team, and Paul McFadden our Communications Officer, for the quality work they produce time after time. Our communication outlets are growing in effectiveness.
WE SERVE IN TEAMS
- THE CLERGY TEAM
One aspect of my work which I really enjoy – and which encourages me greatly – is relating to the clergy. We are fortunate to have a fantastic team of ordained leadership in this diocese. With their rich variety of ages, gifts, strengths, spirituality, churchmanship, and personality—not to mention sense of humour—they have in common a heart to serve the Lord and to minister faithfully to his people.
I worked out recently that, compared to when I arrived here in Derry and Raphoe in 2002, only 8 of our 48 parish groups have the same rector as they had 16 years ago – six in Derry diocese and two in Raphoe. In the remaining 40 parishes, there have been 70 changes of incumbency in that time – 46 in Derry and 24 in Raphoe. I regard this ‘kinetic’ kind of energy as a healthy feature of our team-work in a diocese of our size.
The task of chairing Boards of Nomination and of instituting new incumbents to parishes is an immense responsibility and a major privilege for any bishop. I am encouraged by the calibre and commitment of the clergy who have responded to God’s call to serve here in the north west. We work as a team and when we all get together, there is a healthy interaction, mutual support and good-natured banter.
- PARISH TEAMS
A key element of Transforming Community Radiating Christ has been the involvement of parish teams in planning and implementing outreach initiatives. As I travel the length and breadth of the diocese, I am encouraged to see the high level of commitment shown by parish teams in the presentation of so many of the events and activities. Great team-work.
- DIOCESAN ADMINISTRATION AND FINANCES
We also have a strong team overseeing the work of diocesan administration, where efficient administrative support and sound financial management are critical. I am hugely encouraged on both fronts.
The Book of Reports provides detailed evidence of the sterling work spearheaded by our Diocesan Accountant/Administrator, Mr Gavin Harkin, by the Honorary Secretaries, the Finance and General Purposes Committee, the Glebes and Property Committee, the Diocesan Council and other committees and boards. There is a lot of team-work represented in this book of reports. A great deal of painstaking effort has been expended ensuring that budgets are managed responsibly and that parishes are provided with efficient administrative support. Gavin’s experience as a qualified accountant has been instrumental in keeping our budgeting and financial management on track. I know he would be the first to admit that he appreciates the support of a dedicated and experienced team of committee members working with him.
When I worked as a rector, I was convinced that the parish was where the real work of ministry was done, where the really important things happened and where growth and progress could be made. That’s where I was happily focused, beavering away in the parish.
I still believe as strongly as ever that the parish is the focal point of ministry and mission. It’s in the local setting that lives are changed, where people are pastored, where outreach is made tangible and where communities can be transformed.
But it has become clear to me that one of the things a bishop can and must do is seek to influence the culture and atmosphere of a diocese so that energy can radiate out from the centre—like ripples—helping to strengthen and motivate the parishes throughout the diocese.
A bishop has a role in team-building, in relationship-building, in vision-setting, in fostering a sense of shared purpose and promoting a constructive culture. I believe we are fortunate that Derry and Raphoe has long been a happy diocese and has been known for its positive and friendly atmosphere. I am very encouraged by what is, from where I am looking, a healthy culture with positive values and relationships, and a strong sense of team.
WE ENCOURAGE LEADERS
- PASTOR PASTORUM
Having been a rector for seventeen years, I do have some appreciation of the pressures of parish ministry – as well as its joys and encouragements. Leading a church these days is a demanding and onerous task. An important feature of leadership is the encouragement of staff, rather than their demoralisation.
Research shows – and common sense would suggest – that employees whose managers recognise and acknowledge their strengths are more fully engaged in their work than those whose managers focus instead on their weaknesses. One of the tasks I set myself during this year of encouragement was to visit every single one of my clergy and inform them of ten specific strengths or gifts which I have appreciated in their life and ministry. Each visit was followed up with a personal letter, reminding them of the ten strengths I had identified. I trust that these visits have been of some value in this Year of Encouragement.
- TEN CURATES
A bishop is entrusted with a key role in discerning vocation to ordained ministry so, having had the opportunity so far, as bishop, to ordain 26 candidates here in Derry and Raphoe has been an awesome privilege.
I am encouraged that we currently have four curates-assistant and six bishop’s curates in Derry and Raphoe. This is a very significant development at a time when some dioceses are finding it more difficult to find parishes in which to train curates. Accompanied by the archdeacons, I enjoy meeting our curates at the See House to support them in their vocation and ministry.
These positive developments which I have been outlining are significant and I am thankful to the Lord for every one of them. Of course, there are challenges that must be faced up to as well. Some parishes are facing a less secure future than others, as congregations generally become older and fewer young people engage with church life. At the ‘Transformed’ event, I quoted the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, who warned that ‘every local church is only one generation from extinction’– meaning that if the next generation isn’t won for Christ and drawn to faith and active church membership, then there will be no church there very soon.
But, while fully conscious of these unsettling and yet motivating thoughts, and while alert to any other challenges we may face, I urge that we remain more focused instead on the majesty and power of God. That we grow in confidence in the good news of Jesus Christ to forgive, to change lives, to renew churches, to transform communities. That we rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to convict, to inspire, to guide, and to empower. Confidence in the gospel is and increasingly will be a key distinguishing mark between churches which grow and churches which don’t.
As we face the business of this Diocesan Synod, I thank you for the confidence you share with me in the word of God, in the power of God, in the grace of God and in the future which God has planned, both here and now and for all eternity. To God be the glory, today and every day! Amen.