The United Dioceses of Tuam, Killala and Achonry
Bishop’s Address to the Diocesan Synod – 23rd September 2017
It is a great pleasure to welcome you all to the Annual Meeting of the Tuam, Killala and Achonry Diocesan Synod. I extend a particular welcome to all of you who are here as members of Synod for the first time or as visitors with us.
This month marks a number of significant events. For me, the completion of six years as your Bishop, and in the Diocesan Synod context, two triennia. Hence I should like, at the outset, to extend the thanks of all in our Diocese to those who have served for the past three years as members of the Diocesan Council and its committees. Without your diligence and energy, it would have been impossible to attend to the many demands that come with holding a diocese together. None more so is deserving of our thanks than our Diocesan Secretary for the past 23 years.
Heather Sherlock has given unstinting service; always with gentleness, courtesy and kindness. She has served under three bishops during her time in office and I know that each of us has valued her loyalty and support, experience and knowledge. At the end of this month, Heather steps down as our Diocesan Secretary and we are deeply grateful for all she has done. Heather – it has been a privilege to have worked with you and I know that Council and Committee members past and present, clergy who have come and gone as well as those who remain, parish treasurers and many others across the Diocese have good reason to be associated with our thanks to you and to wish you every blessing. As we bid our farewells, we extend too to your husband James and to your daughters, Amy, Gemma and Pearl our thanks for the support and understanding they have shown over such a long period – they too have played their part.
So, I should like you to receive this token of our thanks as a Diocese – we are truly grateful for all your service as Diocesan Secretary.
In Heather’s place, we have appointed another Heather, Heather Pope. Heather has been a member of the Select Vestry in St Nicholas’ Galway since 2005, she was appointed Rector’s Churchwarden in 2007 and a year later she took on the role of Hon Treasurer. She has overseen the finances in our largest parish ever since. As a parent, she sat for a number of years on the board of St Nicholas’ National School and is currently Deputy Director for caller support and mentor to the current Branch Director of the Samaritans in Galway. Her paid employment has involved roles such as office manager, book-keeping, delivery of computer literacy training, medical secretary, accounts and other administrative roles. She is well versed in taxation skills, payroll procedures, computerised accounts, typing and shorthand and much more. Heather, I have no doubt you have the skills, ability and personality we have been looking for and I welcome you, in this extended role, as our Diocesan Administrator.
Heather also replaces Prof Paul Ryan, who, this month, retires as our Diocesan Treasurer. Paul kindly stepped into the breach after Ben Bradish’s untimely death some four years ago. The Diocesan Council paid tribute to and acknowledged Paul’s work in this capacity at our last meeting, but I should again wish to echo the appreciation of the thoroughness with which he has gone about the task. Paul, we thank you most sincerely. I should also like to thank others like Paul, who have expressed a desire to step aside from Diocesan Committees for the time being – and here I pay special tribute to Julian Ellison who has played a significant role in diocesan affairs and represented us on the RCB. A new job has brought added pressures and something had to give!
Heather Pope will also undertake the task of liaising with the parish Hon Treasurers. This, I believe, is essential as many of our willing volunteer treasurers are somewhat confused by all the new demands being made upon them, not least in terms of Charity Registration. In the recent visitation I undertook across the Diocese, I was particularly concerned that many of our churches are not yet using FWO envelopes or Standing Orders. Both these methods of contributing to church funds ensure that regular giving takes place and where tax is being paid, an extra 39% of what is contributed to the church can be reclaimed from the Revenue Commissioners provided the annual contribution is more than 250euro. Prof Ryan estimates that this reclaimed revenue could be worth as much as 90,000euro across the Diocese each year.
We are fortunate in this Diocese in our Senior Clergy Team. Dean Alistair Grimason is again hosting us here in the Cathedral and I should like to thank him and his team for all the arrangements they have made for our Diocesan Synod. The Dean and the two Archdeacons have been a great support to me personally and I acknowledge this publically. Sadly that team changed last night in Bessbrook, Co Armagh with the institution of Archdeacon Alan Synnott to the Camlough Group of Parishes. Alan has been with us for more than eight years as Rector of the Skreen Group, and for six-and-half as Archdeacon of Killala and Achonry. We will miss his presence among us and not least his laughter and sense of fun.
In wishing Alan and Anne all that is good in their new home and ministry north of the border, we welcome in Alan’s place as Archdeacon, the Reverend Stephen McWhirter. In his two years among us, Archdeacon McWhirter has displayed qualities that equip him well for this extra dimension of ministry. He is an effective parish priest and has been a hard-working and diligent rural dean. Stephen, I look forward to having you as my Archdeacon in the northern end of the Diocese. I know you will work well with the Dean and with Archdeacon Gary. The new Archdeacon will oversee the refurbishment of the Rectory at Skreen, while services there, during the vacancy, along with pastoral responsibilities, will be undertaken by Canon Noel Regan. We welcome him to this temporary role as he takes charge of these important responsibilities, beginning on Sunday week, 1st October.
Back in May, I licenced two new readers for the Diocese – Maebh O’Herlihy and Carol Reynolds. I welcome both to the Ministry Team. From the beginning of this month Maebh has taken on duties in the Ballina and Killala Unions while Carol has taken up regular commitments in Galway and Oughterard. So my thanks to them; to Denzil Auchmuty, to Steve Ellis, to Paddy Delaney and to Karen Duignan, our serving diocesan readers for their contribution – and indeed to all our parish readers whose influence and support means so much in their respective parishes. For Denzil, this has been a particularly difficult year and as we offer him our sympathy and support, as a Diocesan Synod we pay tribute to his late wife Brenda for her service in so many ways to this Diocese and not least as a member of Diocesan Synod and a representative member of General Synod.
I’ve been reflecting with you on people who have made a significant contribution to the life of God’s kingdom in this Diocese. But what contribution might I make? What difference can anything I do possibly make to people’s lives? Have you ever found yourself asking such questions? Of course, any one of us is only able to do so much. But this should not be allowed to become an excuse for doing nothing. In the story of the feeding of the five thousand, we witness in action the God who takes what seems to be a little and turns it into something great: the God who is able to take an apparently wholly inadequate response and use it in a way that defies human understanding.
So let me give you three examples of how you might help.
For some time now the Church of Ireland has been considering a form of Ordained Local Ministry. At last year’s General Synod this was given the all clear and the bishops have been working and planning towards the commencement of training next September. So how will it work? The expectation is that after a two-year period of part-time training, much of which will be delivered locally, though validated centrally, candidates will be ordained as deacons to serve in a parish under the guidance of a rector or archdeacon. The responsibilities will involve all things pastoral and the conducting of services. After the diaconate period, during which further training will take place, deacons will then be ordained as priests, enabling them to preside at the holy communion. In many cases, the OLM will be serving in his/her home parish but not necessarily so. They will not have administrative responsibility for the parish in which they are placed as this will be the responsibility of the overseeing rector or archdeacon who will also chair Select Vestry meetings.
So, within a few years, you can expect to see in some of our multi-church groups or unions, a rector with two or three OLMs serving alongside him or her, with each OLM responsible for the liturgical and pastoral responsibilities of one church congregation. My prediction, for what it’s worth, is that within 10 years there may well be as few as three groups in our Diocese – perhaps based on Galway, Westport and Ballina with one stipendary cleric in each but working alongside a team of Ordained Local Ministers – and I refer you to the map I have had produced for each of you. It is a picture very much in keeping with the NT model of local congregations raising up elders from among their own to lead the ministry in that place. I hasten to add, that these changes will be driven by rising costs and the inability of parishes to pay assessment. The positive is that ministry will still be provided and with fewer full-time stipendary priests required there will, of course, be significant savings. It will also mean that the role of the stipendary priest will take on a large overseeing element – more responsibility perhaps but with the carrot that none will be required to conduct three services in succession on a Sunday morning avoiding that often dangerous Sunday sprint between churches!
So might this be a ministry you are being called to exercise? I know we have four or five who are keen to see this introduced and are willing to offer themselves for selection but there may well be others with the necessary skill-set and time to make their services available in this way. If so, our new DDO the Reverend Jen McWhirter, would like to hear from you. Alternatively you might encourage someone from your congregation to consider the possibility.
Or perhaps, instead, you might have a ministry to offer to refugees. Imagine for a moment what it must be like to find yourself suddenly in the West of Ireland, not speaking the language, not knowing another person and with no knowledge of the culture or the geography. Listen to one woman’s experience: ‘I applied for asylum and was sent to a direct-provision hostel in Kilmacud (Dublin) for three weeks before I was moved on to the Quiet Man Hostel in Cong, Co Mayo. This was a tiny village and there were no other Somalis there, and I began to feel isolated and depressed. As a woman who is a victim of female genital mutilation, the doctor I attended was not very familiar with my problem. This was an issue because I was pregnant. After I gave birth, I was moved to a hostel in Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo, which has to be one of the worst. It was winter and the hostel was cold and the food was bad.’
Sadly, that is one woman’s experience of the West of Ireland.
I know that over the past year some 80 refugees have been accommodated in the community in Co Mayo – in Westport, Castlebar and Claremorris. Some, I believe, have gone to Galway and to Sligo. In Ballaghaderreen some 200 Syrian refugees, men, women and a large percentage of children, are living at what was the former Abbeyfield Hotel – and I visited it a couple of months ago with my Catholic colleague Bishop Brendan Kelly. It is being used as a Reception and Accommodation Centre and those who are there will spend at least six months before the possibility of a new home and employment can be considered. It might interest you to know that the National School in Ballaghadereen is now made up of some 40% of pupils who are foreign nationals – many of them from Pakistan, having come here in the last year from Britain in light of the Brexit Referendum.
So what can we do? – well if you know of people who are from another country living in your community, talk to them, at least smile at them and if possible, befriend them – they are all God’s children. See if they need anything that you might assist them with. I’m delighted that Canon Andrea Wills has connections with the Direct Provision Accommodation Centre in Ballyhaunis where some 200 of the country’s five thousand asylum seekers are housed and I have been encouraging Dr Andrew Ison in whose parish is Ballaghaderreen, to explore how we might assist those who are housed there.
Another area of ministry we have been supporting as a Diocese has been the Magi Water Project at Oltisika, in Kajiado Diocese, Kenya and a Diocesan Team of nine people will be visiting it in November. Over the past couple of years we have sent 30,000 euro via Bishops’ Appeal to this Project which is under the auspices of CMSI. Previously, a similar amount was raised for the Girls’ Secondary School in Kajiado to build a classroom and some sanitary facilities. Many of you have worked tirelessly to support these important projects and I thank you for all your efforts. Recently, that part of Kenya has been suffering severe drought further emphasising the importance of the water project which will provide clean water for 5,000 people. At present they are having to travel 15 miles to the nearest bore hole to draw and transport in plastic containers sufficient water for their basic needs. Hence, I would encourage you to consider organising a small fund-raising effort in your parish, as each Group or Union has been asked to raise a final 1,000euro to help complete this project over the next year.
Of late, three important issues have given cause for concern.
A major concern for those parents in this Diocese with young people boarding at secondary schools has been this year’s Secondary Education Committee grants. The fact that there is no secondary school under protestant management in this Diocese, (and we are unique in this,) puts parents here at a severe disadvantage. Out of necessity, most of those who wish to exercise their right to have their child or children educated in such a school have no choice other than to send their children away to board – the exception being those who live close to Sligo at the north end of the Diocese. Such boarding fees begin at just under 8,000euro per child.
This year, changes were made by the SEC in how their block grants were awarded, with the result that it looked as if many families would receive reduced support or see their grant disappear. Some feared their present choice of school could no longer be afforded with serious implications both for pupils and for schools. Thanks to concerns raised by parents, schools and others that situation was averted. Nonetheless, some grants to pupils already attending secondary school have been reduced or cut altogether.
I have witnessed the distress and anxiety caused. Young people from this Diocese may only represent a small percentage of the overall secondary school enrolment, but because nearly all are required to board, their parents are dis-proportionately affected when such changes occur.
I am conscious of the legal constraints within which the SEC works. It is answerable to the Government as it allocates state grants which come directly from the Department of Education and Skills – none of the money is from church sources. The SEC emphasises that it’s grants are allocated primarily with a focus on financial necessity and on the principal of equality. Thus, it is not for me to tell the SEC, (who will have received details of each individual), how to allocate the funds at its disposal. I do, however, have a responsibility to the parents and young people of this Diocese. Therefore, I have highlighted a couple of issues to the SEC Review Group. The first concerns the financial disadvantage some parents face simply because they live at a non-commutable distance from a school under Protestant management. Secondly, the upset caused by constant changing of band levels that parents are being confronted with.
I am also a member of a school BOG that has submitted various suggestions to ensure that fairness and integrity remain at the heart of these block grant allocations.
Select Vestry responsibilities
The Second issue of concern has been for select vestries. The new Charity Legislation has brought its fair share of anxiety for Hon Treasurers. It has also highlighted that select vestry members are trustees, with the same responsibilities and expectations. This in fact has always been the case but seeing it in print has scared some vestry members that they might be liable should a contentious issue arise. The fact is that all select vestries are already indemnified for up to 100k euro and from 1st January this will rise to 250K. If this is considered too little, then for an extra fee of some 3-400euro, a select vestry can cover itself for a million euro. It is my view that this revised figure is sufficient in the unlikely event of a libel case being taken, but it is my intention to consult with the Diocesan Council on the advice we might give to select vestries concerning this matter.
The issue of Diocesan structures has concerned our Diocesan Synod for many years now. Members will know that a resolution concerning Diocesan Structures is coming before us this afternoon in the names of Archdeacon Hastings and Dean Grimason. It seems to me, that the question this begs is – ‘what are the best structures that will enable us to move from where we are now in 2017 to where we might be in 10-15 years’ time?’ So, let me remind you of the context. This time last year you appointed a small group of people to form a working Group with others from Limerick and Killaloe. This was to respond to a resolution from last year’s General Synod encouraging us to enter into ‘bottom up’ conversations about the future structures of our two dioceses. Through Tidings, we have attempted to keep you informed of these inter-diocesan conversations over the past year and of the General Synod debate this May. These are, of course, just the latest rounds in the ongoing debate over structures that was initially sparked off prior to my appointment six years ago.
The conversations of the Joint Working Group, and you will see the report beginning on page 8 of the Book of Reports, have been most encouraging. Close friendships have now developed between many in our respective dioceses. We agreed to organise joint diocesan events and in March we had a Quiet Day led by Bishop Richard Henderson here in the Cathedral and this was attended by some 50 clergy and readers from the two dioceses. In April we held a joint meeting of the Clergy Bookclub in Gort and in June a Training Conference for readers and clergy in Glenstal. A joint Fun Day was less successful and next month there will be a joint Clergy Conference in Galway. A joint meeting of the two diocesan councils is at the planning stage. These comings together are important and those attending have found them beneficial with the greater numbers adding to the impact. My personal hope is that whatever we decide in terms of structures, these ‘comings together’ will continue.
In terms of structures, the Joint Working Group arrived at five options ranging from staying as we are to a complete amalgamation of the two dioceses. Having debated the merits, or otherwise, of each, they felt that only two of the five options are realistic – that is staying as we are but with the Bishop taking on a parish as well, or, having an amalgamated Diocese with the Diocesan bishop living in Limerick but with an area bishop, (I’m deliberately avoiding the more controversial term ‘suffragan’), living somewhere in TKA and also looking after a parish. These are options b and c in the list of options on pages 8 & 9 in the Book of Reports. The resolution being put before Synod today is Option C. In May, the General Synod indicated that it would accept either Option, B or C; indeed, despite the reservations of some influential members, the General Synod in a straw poll, voted for Option C rather than B by a majority of 2 to 1. Limerick and Killaloe Diocesan Synod, as you will see, has also considered Option C and has indicated its support.
I am grateful to the Archdeacon of Tuam and the Dean for their work in connection with this and I beg you to give them your fullest attention. This is an important decision for our Diocese and I don’t intend to influence how you might vote – except to say, that this is our opportunity after six years of debate to decide what is the best long-term solution for us. If we fail to decide or opt simply for no change, then we are in danger of handing the initiative back to central Church. So matters are now in our hands, we have been asked to come back with a suggested way forward. So we must decide wisely and the proposers will no doubt guide us in this – but the decision is for you, the members; this is what you’ve been elected to Synod to do.
Monument to Movement
Moving to structures of another kind, I should like to congratulate parishioners across the Diocese on the way their church buildings and rectories are kept. By in large we are good at maintaining our properties and our diocesan architect Colin Bell gives us sound advice for which we are most grateful. My visitation highlighted that parishes are responding to his recommendations and I am grateful to the rural deans for making sure that essential work is carried out within a six-month timeframe. But alongside these structures – our buildings, we need to be mindful of two projects in our Diocese that are teaching us important lessons. The monthly service in Claremorris and the Ballina Churches Project are both taking us back to early church times when the emphasis was less on buildings. Sadly, the Church as an institution has become weighed down by its buildings and their maintenance. We spend so much of our income on them. We devote so much of our energy and time to them. This is not to imply that place is not an important element of people’s belonging, but we need to bear in mind that the Church is people, not buildings. For many years the emphasis has been on moving from ‘Maintenance to Mission.’ This has now been refined to a move from ‘Monuments to Movement.’ The church is not here to maintain monuments; physical, structural, institutional, financial. We need to free ourselves up to do the real work of the Church – to invest instead in people. ‘Faith is not about establishment – it is about taking risks for God’. As a Diocese we must learn to distinguish between what we can let go of, and what needs to be maintained, in order to enable us to be more effective ambassadors for Christ. All that said, I am not about to propose the closure of any of our churches!
I am, however, about to suggest that we begin to think seriously about the possibility of appointing someone with pioneering gifts who might co-ordinate new expressions of church across the Diocese that will draw out some of the potential that is undoubtedly on our doorsteps. With a population in the West that has increased by some 26% over the past 20 years and with a growing number of people who now register in the state census as having ‘no religion’ – 10% of the total population in the Republic, there are surely opportunities for new imaginative initiatives alongside what we might term ‘traditional church.’ This is what fires me up, what gives me hope for the Church in the West.
Inter-Diocesan Learning Experience
One of the most encouraging 24 hours I spent in the last year was with six others from the Diocese at an inter-diocesan learning experience. With similar groups from Dublin and from Connor Dioceses we worked in a facilitated environment to look at what we are doing, what we might do and could do in terms of Fresh Expressions of ministry in our respective dioceses. Out of that, we were asked to set ourselves three goals and those agreed by the team from this Diocese were……
First, to make a short film on some of the positive things happening in our Diocese – and let me assure you there is much to celebrate and I hope at next year’s Diocesan Synod that film will be available and perhaps be premiered at Synod.
Secondly, to set up a Centre of Spirituality in the Diocese that will provide a programme of additional events for those who wish to deepen their spiritual experience. The hope is that Quiet Days, Prayer Walks, Guided Retreats and visits to Spiritual Centres would be available in an organised way, acknowledging that there are those both within and without our congregations who are looking for this form of spiritual nurture.
Thirdly, we have committed to encouraging every church congregation across Tuam, Killala and Achonry to start one fresh expression of church in their parish – and that may simply be something as small as a monthly coffee morning or meeting or planned walk or messy church type event for children – anything that would bring people together and involve others who are not presently involved in our normal activities. Multiply this by 30 across the Diocese and we will suddenly be creating all sorts of new opportunities to be church – which doesn’t necessarily mean praying or worshipping together – simply being together in fellowship and relationship – ‘where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’.
So we have a job of work to do, important work for the Kingdom and I ask for your continued support in re-imagining what can be done in the name of Christ in this Diocese. Again, thank you for all your kindness to me, to my wife in what has been a traumatic year for her; and not least for your indulgence in receiving this Presidential Address.