Address by the Bishop of Tuam, Killala and Achonry, the Rt Rev Patrick Rooke, to his Diocesan Synod on Saturday 22nd September 2018.
It is again a pleasure to welcome you all to the Annual Meeting of the Tuam, Killala and Achonry Diocesan Synod and my thanks to the Dean and to the Diocesan Administrator for making all the arrangements. A particular word of welcome to our newest member, the Rector of Galway and Kilcummin, the Reverend Lynda Peilow who was instituted just eight days ago. We hope you will be among us for many years and we again wish you, your family and your parishioners every happiness together during this new chapter. Lynda replaces Archdeacon Gary Hastings who had served for the whole of his ordained ministry in this Diocese, some 25 years in all. We, and particularly the parishioners of Galway and Kilcummin, will undoubtedly miss him and the particular expertise he brought – our loss is certainly Holy Trinity, Killiney’s, gain.
Welcome also to my special guest Mrs Ethne Harkness. I worked closely with Ethne on the Commission for Episcopal Ministry and Structures and it is as the former Chair of that Commission that I have asked her to address us this afternoon. The Bishop of Limerick and Killaloe and I are also hoping that, subject to the passing of the two motions on structures this afternoon, Ethne will compose the wording of the Bill or respective Bills that will go forward to the General Synod next May. Hence it will be good for Ethne to hear the debate and, I have no doubt, she will make some helpful observations before then in her short address.
As always too, I welcome those who have travelled to Tuam to staff the stands around the Cathedral and I ask that, when we return after lunch, you do them the courtesy of taking time to see what they have to offer in terms of literature and helpful information.
The Choices we make
The longer I live, the more I realise all that we are and all that we do boils down to the choices we make or are made for us by others. Some 43 years ago I chose, under God, to offer myself for ordained ministry. This involved turning my back on what had been my chosen profession and choosing instead another pathway. Hence 40 years ago I was ordained, was chosen and chose to serve in a curacy in North Belfast, where I later married my boss’s daughter and, as they say, the rest is history.
Forty years is a long time – 1978 was the year of the three popes and a year later Pope John Paul 2 visited Ireland. We’ve recently had another Papal Visit and as was said time and time again, Pope Francis was coming to a very different Ireland. Think of the changes that have taken place; the big issue at the time of the last Papal Visit was the Troubles in Northern Ireland, this time the focus was clearly on the Catholic Church itself. All these years on we have the Belfast Agreement and 20 years of relative peace. Here in the Republic, 21st century Ireland is a modern, confident, liberal, largely secular, EU state. The Church too has changed dramatically; as has its role in Irish society. Ecumenically we have moved forward beyond anyone’s expectations and I could quote many instances of ecumenical co-operation and goodwill that simply wouldn’t have been possible 40 years ago. In our own Church, we’ve had the debates and subsequent changes on the remarriage of divorced persons in church and female clergy – deacons, priests and bishops. Our liturgy is quite different as, sadly, are the numbers actually attending church services. Somehow all attempts to modernise and make worship more relevant has not halted this fall-off in attendance.
Behind all this of course, choices have been made, whether individually or corporately. My initial choice to head to Northern Ireland led on to thirty-three years with a variety of ministry in Counties Antrim and Armagh before, seven years ago, I was chosen by the House of Bishops as the person to fill the vacant See here. Those seven years have been fulfilling and enriching and in that time I have had to make a series of choices that have affected your lives and my own.
Choices in civic life
On Friday 25th May, the people of Ireland were asked to make a choice. Would we choose to delete Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution, known as the Eighth Amendment? This gave equal rights to the mother and her unborn child; only permitting an abortion when the life of a pregnant woman was at risk. Effectively, the vote was whether we should choose to give the Oireachtas the powers to decide on what legislation is necessary. Church of Ireland members entered fully into the debate and, as you know, the referendum was passed by a 2to1 majority.
For a long time, our church leaders had argued that this should not be a matter for the Constitution but for the legislators to decide. The dilemma, however, was that the Government insisted on linking a ‘Yes’ vote with its proposal to allow for unrestricted supervised abortion, albeit after medical consultation, in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. This is certainly less restrictive than we would have hoped and expected; indeed time will tell whether or not the safeguards the Government has promised to put in place will be effective. Many of us have our concerns and will be watching and praying that our elected leaders will choose wisely and responsibly.
Later in the year, we will again be asked to participate in the public life of the Nation with further important choices to be made. A Presidential Election will be held on 26th October and with all Irish citizens, we will play our part in choosing a Head of State for the next seven years. President Michael D Higgins has said he will be a candidate and without wishing to canvass for him, I pay tribute to the way he has conducted himself during his term in office. We are proud that a native of this Diocese, a Galwegian, has held the highest office in the land; indeed our terms of office have coincided, and his recent visit to the vandalised Holy Trinity Church in Errislannan demonstrated how he has reached out to all sections of the community and been there for the people of Ireland at those moments of need.
As well as a new President, we will be asked to make choices in two further referenda; on removing the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution – Article 40.6.1, and on removing Article 41.2 on the rights and role of women with its rather restrictive emphasis on a woman’s role in the home. In a diocese where we depend on women to fulfil all kinds of tasks, we acknowledge their importance as home builders but rejoice that that importance stretches way beyond the home in 21st century Ireland.
The burning issue at present is of course Brexit and its fall-out for those of us in the Republic of Ireland. The voting population of the United Kingdom has made its choice to leave the European Union and, as a result there are serious consequences for the people of Ireland. Important choices lie ahead for the British Government, our own Government and the leaders of all 27 remaining EU member states. The question of the border with Northern Ireland is crucial and any attempt to return to a ‘hard-border’ will be vigorously opposed. So too would the introduction of other trade tariffs and controls. The British market is vital to businesses across Ireland and not least here in the West and we can only urge our politicians to seek for a deal that ensures easy and accessible trade with our closest neighbours.
The Refugee crisis played its part in influencing the vote for Brexit. Here in Ireland, the Government’s Irish Refugee Protection Programme continues with the resettlement and relocation of refugees. The Government’s undertaking was to resettle 4,000 refugees from Syria and its neighbouring countries. At the beginning of this month only 1,842 of these, 820 refugees and 1022 asylum seekers have arrived with a further 230 expected this month or next, which, will still be only just over 50% of the number agreed. Currently the organisers of the IRPP along with the Irish Red Cross are seeking further offers of accommodation from the public.
While the targets for this have not yet been met, which is disappointing; I want to welcome some of the Department of Justice and Equality’s new provisions for refugees and asylum seekers – first the consultation process on draft proposals to improve standards in the living conditions for the 5,000 or more asylum seekers currently in direct provision accommodation. Secondly, the new system under which Asylum seekers can gain work permits in Ireland, while their application is being processed. These are now provided free of charge and are much less restrictive on the types of work asylum seekers may undertake. Thirdly, I welcome the fact that asylum seekers who find employment have access to social welfare payments subject to satisfying the qualifying conditions. These less restrictive measures are an important step forward and are impacting significantly those who have turned to Ireland for refuge and whose lives are currently ‘on hold’ in temporary direct provision accommodation.
The churches too are playing a part in supporting refugees and asylum seekers and I strongly commend the 4th edition, hot off the press, of the Church of Ireland Refugee Working Groups’ booklet ‘Supporting Asylum Seekers and Refugees’. This has all the latest information on the churches’ response in Ireland to the refugee crisis.
The Government continues to face important choices in relation to the refugee crisis and, of course, these must be balanced against other factors, not least the homeless crisis, with hundreds of Irish citizens having no permanent roof over their heads; a situation that a mature 21st century Ireland cannot ignore. So let us implore our politicians to choose carefully and wisely in all the choices before them – they need our prayers.
Choices in Church life – human sexuality
In Church life too, there are stark choices before us. The debate on human sexuality continues to place great strains on, not only the Church of Ireland, but all churches. The debate might be said to depend on how we interpret the scriptures. Do we take a conservative, ‘literalist’ perspective or is our interpretation more liberal, claiming that the love of God surpasses all else? Sadly, the divide has led to factions and splits across the Anglican Communion with gay and lesbian people caught between the two perspectives. On the one hand we see the emergence in Ireland of the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), which claims to hold to traditional Biblical teaching, while on the other Affirming Catholicism speaks for those who can feel threatened, marginalised and demonised. Despite the referendum result of 2015, paving the way for civil marriages of gay and lesbian couples in the Republic of Ireland, the Church of Ireland continues to hold to the traditional view of Christian marriage as being between a man and a woman. This, however, should not prevent us welcoming and reaching out in Christian love and respect to all.
Regardless of which side of the argument we might choose, let me remind you, we are all children of God, loved by him and it is our Christian duty to exercise tolerance, respect and love. In their recent statement, the House of Bishops recognised that there is no appetite to continue this debate at present. I was party to that statement but it must not be read to infer that this issue will somehow go away. It won’t. Many here will have family members who themselves are gay or lesbian and we cannot indefinitely sit on the fence. There won’t be agreement across the Church of Ireland but sooner or later an accommodation must be found that will enable us to disagree agreeably.
Choices in our Diocese – episcopal ministry and structures
In our Diocese we have an important choice to make at this meeting of the Diocesan Synod. For more than seven years, we have been debating episcopal ministry and structures in this Diocese and across the wider Church of Ireland. Strong views have been expressed. Fears, rational and otherwise have been articulated. Some have retreated into trench warfare mode, invoking history, tradition, reason and all things under the sun!
I believe the people of Tuam, Killala and Achonry have behaved and acted impeccably throughout. We have made our case, defended our small numbers, expressed our fears about size and distance and isolation and presence. When asked to look at the situation ourselves, with no threat of an imposed solution from on high, we, along with Limerick and Killaloe Dioceses have come to what I believe is a sensible and reasonable solution. Not everyone will be happy with it and some of you may yet express your concerns – and of course, we all have our concerns for none of us likes change. As your Bishop, however, I believe this is the right path for us to travel. There is part of me that regrets the necessity for both motions that will be put to us later but nonetheless, as a realist, I support them.
Tuam, Killala and Achonry as part of a larger Tuam, Limerick and Killaloe – TLK instead of TKA, will be stronger, healthier and credible. The Bishop may not be as accessible but will have a more fulfilling role with sufficient episcopal duties to perform….and many miles to travel! A helicopter has been suggested but let me say that the present Diocese of Limerick takes in Kenmare which is a two-and-a-half hour drive from Limerick. Thanks to the recently opened motorway between Gort and Tuam, Limerick to places like Ballina and Skreen takes no more than two-and-a-half hours.
Almost 150 years ago, the Church of Ireland was faced with a similar situation – William Gladstone, the British Prime Minister of the time, wanted to disestablish the Church of Ireland. Our small numbers could no longer justify our position as the Established Church. For many, this seemed to spell disaster. How would we survive? The task ahead was daunting with the setting up of the General Synod as the main legislative body, the drawing up of a constitution and the formation of the Representative Church Body. But where there is a will there is a way and the Church of Ireland has never looked back. Next year we will mark the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Disestablishment process.
My prayer is that as the people of this Diocese look back to this period for Tuam, Killala and Achonry, they will see that important choices were made that have ensured not only the survival of Tuam but the flourishing of our Diocesan and parochial life in the West. I want at this point to pay tribute to my fellow bishop, Bishop Kenneth Kearon and the people of Limerick and Killaloe for their co-operation and goodwill as we have journeyed together – and also to Bishop Ferran Glenfield of Kilmore, Elphin and Ardagh for meeting with the parishioners of the Ballisodare Group and for his willingness to bring the second motion we will vote on today to the members of his own Diocesan Synod next month.
Choosing to serve
The right to choose is at the heart of the Gospel. Choices have consequences. Jesus chose twelve Apostles to carry on the work he began. He chose, they were chosen. They went on to make choices of their own – and so it is for each generation and each of us as individuals. We are free, within limits, to choose – to make our own choices. Some, however, do not have that luxury and are so restricted by their circumstances that the choices they are free to make are severely limited.
Last November a group of us travelled to our link Diocese in Kenya. By our standards, the people of Kajiado have nothing. Not by choice but by circumstance and could easily choose to be miserable – but what struck us so forcibly was the sheer delight that they demonstrate in being alive and are appreciative of each new day. Similarly, we too can choose whether to reflect love, laughter and generosity in our lives.
Thankfully, in this Diocese, there are many who demonstrate these virtues. We have a small team of loyal and dedicated clergy and I thank each and every one of you for your particular ministry and the gifts you put at the disposal of the Church in the West. Thank you too to our team of Diocesan Readers and Parish Readers and the names of Dr Eamon Smith, from Castlebar Parish, as a Diocesan Reader and Mr Bill Fennell(Galway), Mr Arthur Sweeney(Killala) and Mr Ted Sherwood(Roundstone) as parish readers have been added to our team since last we met.
Lay involvement is not, however, limited to readership, and a number of you who are here today as Members of Synod form the backbone of your respective parishes, choosing to make available, freely, the particular gifts of leadership, goodwill, encouragement, administrative skills and practical assistance, so essential to the smooth running of any parish.
I’d like to pick up on the phrase – ‘practical assistance’ for we desperately need our Marthas as well as our Marys in parochial life. We are reasonably good in this Diocese at thanking our clergy, readers, synod and vestry members and the like. But there is a host of others who choose to serve and offer their abilities in their own unique way. I think of our tea makers and food providers, those who clean our churches and who arrange the flowers, some are treasurers keeping a keen eye on the books, even if they’ve never actually received more than elementary training for this role. I also want to highlight those who care for our church grounds and undertake a number of other practical and yet essential tasks in and around our churches. Such is the stuff of parochial life.
One or two of our churches are almost singlehandedly being maintained by just one person. This may be bad management in terms of collaborative engagement but truth to tell there simply isn’t anyone else to do it. This support is absolutely essential and those congregations who don’t have ‘a gaffer’ are paying out a lot of money or depending on Government schemes for the job to be done, seldom to the same standard. So, I think of individuals, men and women, in different locations around the Diocese who are prepared to undertake those all-important practical tasks and without whom, their church and congregation would be all the poorer. So thank you to all the unsung servants of the parishes in this Diocese.
Chosen to serve – OLM
One of the highlights this past year has, undoubtedly, been the offering and subsequent selection of a number of people from our Diocese for training to the new Ordained Local Ministry. They are Mrs Karen Duignan of Rathbarron, Ms Maebh O’Herlihy from Achill, Mr Clive Moore from Ballina, Mrs Caroline Morrow of Killanley Parish and Mrs Carole Reynolds from Roundstone. Each has been chosen for this ministry which will be rooted in a particular community so that ‘local’ will almost always mean a parish or group of parishes. As such, its essential character is that it is a parochial rather than a diocesan ministry intended to meet a need in a particular place where the bishop is convinced that the presence of an OLM will assist the local flourishing of the Church of Ireland witness in that place in terms of building up a worshipping and a serving community internally, and in terms of mission, service, ecumenical engagement and inter-Faith understanding externally.
As the Ordinal – unaltered – will be used for the ordination of a deacon/priest within OLM, the ministry must be both pastoral and liturgical. It must not be allowed to be seen as solely a sacramental ministry, useful as that might be in a diocese like this. Once ordained, an OLM will always be supervised by a senior cleric, but will be the ‘go to’ person in the parish for which they are licensed. Thus, as I said at last year’s Diocesan Synod, I can see Tuam, Killala and Achonry having no more than four, possibly five full-time stipendary clergy, with each overseeing further training, parish administration and personal guidance of a team that includes a number of ordained local clergy. The good news for cash pressed parishes and parishioners is that costs will be substantially reduced. Thus we will see an early church model of local congregations raising up one of their own to an ordained leadership role. Personally, and despite the obvious adjustments that will need to be made by clergy and laity, I look forward to this new development in our Diocese and across the wider Church of Ireland.
In conclusion, let us go forward in faith. In a few moments we will look at a video of some aspects of life in our Diocese. It will remind us that there is much to be positive about. The Dean and the Archdeacon have put it together and I should like, before I finish, to thank them for the support and encouragement they have given to me, in so many ways, over the past 12 months. I am fortunate; we are fortunate to have them playing significant roles as part of our clergy team. I couple with them Mrs Heather Pope, who has so quickly and efficiently taken to her duties as Diocesan Administrator. We are most grateful. My final ‘thank you’ is to my wife Alison for her constant support and not least, I acknowledge publically her leadership of the past six years as Mothers’ Union Diocesan President.
So, may we have a profitable Synod together, and in all the choices that come our way, having taken time to reflect, to seek advice and to listen to the voice of God, may we, like Solomon of old, choose wisely.