The General Synod of the Church of Ireland, 2020, meets today by Zoom. Synod, normally held in May, was postponed because of Covid 19 restrictions and so this ‘virtual’ meeting was necessary in order to fulfill the legal requirements before year’s end.
The Synod began with the traditional General Synod Service. the preacher this year was Very Revd Pat Storey, Bishop of Meath and Kildare. A summary of bishop Storey’s sermon is below:
Synod Service Sermon by Bishop Pat Storey
‘A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.’ Isaiah 11v2
The Bishop of Meath and Kildare, the Most Revd Pat Storey, reflects on where we can find hope after a year of change and challenge.
“Judah, the royal line of David, is described in this passage as ‘a tree cut down to its stump’,” she
reflects on the words of the prophet Isaiah in chapter 11 verse 1. “Does that ring a bell? Has this year
meant to you the stripping back of all the distractions in our lives, in order to show what lies
underneath? As our crutches are taken from us, we reveal what we have spiritually constructed over
the years. When Judah is cut down to the stump, in time, new branches grow. Yet, in order for that
new growth to happen, certain qualities need to be fostered in us.”
Bishop Storey outlines, from Isaiah chapter 11, three sets of qualities are needed to enable new
growth in our lives: wisdom and understanding; counsel and might; and knowledge and the fear of the
Lord – with that fear defined “as a proper and an appropriate respect for, and awe of, his mastery,
which leads us to love Him more.”
She concludes: “Many of us are exhausted at this stage with restrictions and with Zoom calls. How do
we lift hands and strengthen knees? We delight in the fear of the Lord. We are in awe of Him. It
always was the only way. In 2020, and in this unprecedented General Synod, it still is.”
Bishop Storey’s sermon is in full below:
How could we ever have been equipped for such a time as this? No-one could have predicted that the
year of 2020 would render our daily lives unrecognisable from all previous years. It has affected our
personal lives, our working lives, and our spiritual lives. None of us is the same. Perhaps we have
resented the changes that have been imposed upon us, and upon our personal freedom, but most
would agree that the restrictions have produced good as well as bad. Our lives have been impacted
positively in some areas even though we would never have chosen the methodology. Nobody misses
commuting. Families have spent a lot more time together. Birdsong has become deafening. Many of
us are out and about in creation a lot more than we ever were – trying to take care of our bodies, but to
a far greater degree, trying to look after our mental health. Most of us would never want to repeat
2020, but it hasn’t been all bad. There has been very significant spiritual and personal growth. We
have learnt that we have more strength and resilience than we ever thought possible. It is amazing
what the human spirit can bear. And at this fresh opportunity in the church calendar of Advent, where
is our hope?
Isaiah chapter 11 points out some of the characteristics that we need, and have access to, as people of
faith. Judah, the royal line of David, is described in this passage as ‘a tree cut down to its stump’.
Does that ring a bell? Has this year meant to you the stripping back of all the distractions in our lives,
in order to show what lies underneath? As our crutches are taken from us, we reveal what we have
spiritually constructed over the years. When Judah is cut down to the stump, in time, new branches
grow. Yet, in order for that new growth to happen, certain qualities need to be fostered in us.
According to Isaiah chapter 11, we firstly require ‘the spirit of wisdom and understanding’. You could
say that wisdom is the reservoir, and understanding is the outflow. We build wisdom over the years
and in all kinds of circumstances, so that when things get tight, understanding naturally flows out of
us. As we lead people through extraordinary circumstances, we need to have already built a reservoir
of wisdom, so that when push comes to shove we demonstrate depth of understanding. Never was this
needed more than now. We may not all be in the same boat, but we are all in the same storm. We need
to grasp what it is like to walk in others’ shoes through this pandemic as people struggle with loss,
anxiety, and fear. Our reservoir of wisdom and understanding can make a difference.
Secondly, we require ‘the spirit of counsel and might’. Whilst it is thought that in this passage of
Scripture the first pairing of qualities: ‘wisdom and understanding’ refer to the ability to exercise good
government, this pairing: ‘counsel and might’ are what is needed for war. You won’t win a war
without either of these. As the Scriptures remind us frequently, we are in a spiritual battle and if we
take that seriously, we need to cultivate the necessary weapons for war: counsel (what is the right
course of action?), and might (the strength to see it through).
Thirdly, the last two qualities we will need as the stump becomes a tree again and new branches grow,
are ‘knowledge and the fear of the Lord’. Where the previous characteristics have referred to good
governance and to equipping for battle, the final two are more about spiritual leadership. Knowledge
is a challenge during a pandemic – there are so many experts on social media who absolutely know
the way ahead. Almost as soon as that expert has tweeted, another expert says the opposite. Our
governments, north and south, have been trying to negotiate the impossible task of saving lives, and
saving livelihoods. Who would want to be making those decisions?
This year has demanded from us the humility to learn. None of us has been here before, and we
certainly don’t know what is ahead. We are having to build afresh a new library of spiritual
knowledge to help the people of faith navigate through the fog. We need knowledge, and we need
The overarching quality that we need, having sought all the others, is the fear of the Lord. More than
that, this passage in Isaiah says that we should actually delight in the fear of the Lord. Because the one
thing now that we are sure that we know, is that we don’t know! So what is our anchor? Where is our
steady ship in the storm? The fear of the Lord. In this context, fear means a proper and an appropriate
respect for, and awe of, his mastery, which leads us to love Him more.
The gospel reading for today [Luke 10.21-24] reminds us that spiritual wisdom is hidden from the
wise, whilst revealed to infants. That is why humility, the demeanour of the infant, is so important this
year of all years. As we delight in the fear of the Lord, he will take us safely to shore. A shoot shall
come out of the stump of Jesse.
Finally, our epistle reading [Hebrews 12.1-12] encourages us: ‘therefore, lift your drooping hands and
strengthen your weak knees’. Many of us are exhausted at this stage with restrictions and with Zoom
calls. How do we lift hands and strengthen knees? We delight in the fear of the Lord. We are in awe
of Him. It always was the only way. In 2020, and in this unprecedented General Synod, it still is.