September 8th and the commemoration of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary marked the fifth anniversary of my consecration as Bishop of Tuam, Killala and Achonry. So with five years of episcopal ministry under my belt, this is my sixth Presidential Address to our Diocesan Synod.
From a diocesan perspective, there have been four significant issues over the past year….
vacancies in two of our nine cures,
the appointment and commissioning of Church Army Evangelist Emma Rodrigues and the launch of the Ballina Churches Together Project,
the undertaking of a new Mission Project in Kajiado Diocese in Kenya through Bishops’ Appeal and CMSIreland and
the on-going question of episcopal structures and diocesan boundaries and what it might, or might not mean for our united dioceses.
So, if I may, I will focus on these four areas of our diocesan life.
Last Autumn we lost the services of the Reverend Adam Pullen, Rector of the Ballisodare Group and of Canon Neal O’Raw Incumbent of the Killala Union. To lose two of our nine incumbents in quick succession put much strain on our limited resources and not least on the Archdeacon and Rural Dean of Killala and Achonry, and on our NSM and retired clergy and readers. All have pitched in and the fact that the Reverend Jen McWhirter was available and willing to cover most of the duty in the Killala Union eased the burden considerably.
What we have discovered is that parishes in the West of Ireland, and I suggest in rural Ireland as a whole, are not easily filled. Dublin and its suburbs along with the numerically stronger parishes in Northern Ireland have less difficulty in securing applicants. Thus I am relieved and grateful for the imminent arrival of the Rev Dr Andrew Ison from the Driffield Group of Parishes in East Yorkshire as the new incumbent of Ballisodare, Collooney and Ballymote and for the Reverend Jen McWhirter’s acceptance, having indicated her willingness to resign her position as part-time co-ordinator of Continuing Ministerial Education at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute in Dublin, of the post of Priest-in-Charge of the Killala Union. The respective parishioners have welcomed these appointments and I look forward to the Institution in the Ballisodare Group on Thursday 6th October in St Paul’s Collooney and the Service of Introduction on Sunday 27th November in Killala Cathedral.
I believe we must learn from these two vacancies the importance of not only providing for but cherishing our clergy. We must do all we can to encourage and affirm them in their ministry. That, indeed, is at the heart of my role as bishop, and I make no apology in urging all who sit in the pews of our churches Sunday by Sunday, to play your part in whatever way you can. Ministry can be a lonely and stressful role. This is not to say clergy are faultless – far from it. Even bishops aren’t perfect! The TKA clergy, wonderful and all as they are, are no exception to this rule. Nonetheless, as your Father in God, I remind you that your clergy need your on-going support, indeed, as those who come among you to serve, they have every right to expect it. Dr Ison and Mrs McWhirter will look for it among the people in their new charges. Let me repeat, there is no queue to fill any of our parishes!
Conscious of this fact, the Diocesan Council recently decided to ask each select vestry to cover the cost of either their rector’s landline or mobile and to supply, at least, one fill of oil for their rectory each year. Such incentives can mean much and send out an important message. Other dioceses have recognised this and already provide this kind of additional help. So I encourage those of you who sit on select vestries to bear this in mind and to play your part in impressing on your colleagues the importance of ensuring that all that is possible is done to provide for the comfort and well-being of those who serve us in the ordained ministry.
I was pleased to be able to offer encouragement and recognition to two of our clergy during the year by way of preferment to our joint cathedral chapters. The Reverend Stan Evans and the Reverend Andrea Wills have made significant contributions to the life and witness of this Diocese. The Reverend Stan, now Provost, has been a hard working Priest-in-Charge in the Omey Group and an enthusiastic and splendid Editor of Tidings. The Reverend Andrea, now Canon, is a woman of tremendous sympathy and pastoral concern and her contribution, in so many ways, has been much appreciated throughout the diocese, not least in her locality around Foxford. This has been given freely and generously both as a member of the laity and in more recent years as an ordained person.
Clergy of Tuam, Killala and Achonry, thank you for your ministry among us. ‘Thank you’ for your fellowship in the Gospel and your support to me as bishop. Your task is not an easy one. Thank you too to our small band of diocesan readers and I’m delighted that Maebh O’Herlihy and Carol Reynolds have recently started courses that, at the very least, will result in them being commissioned as Diocesan Readers. ‘Thank you’, also to all who conduct worship in their role as parish readers. Where would we be without our readers, a ministry established fifty years ago this year?
Ballina Churches Together
Another addition to our ministry team has been the recent arrival of Mrs Emma Rodrigues. Emma hails from Co Cork, but has worked overseas, most recently with her husband in Brazil. She comes to us as Community Outreach Worker, or Church Army Evangelist in Ballina under the Ballina Churches Together Project. Church Army, along with our united dioceses, is providing Emma’s salary and this represents quite a commitment from both. I am delighted too that our colleagues in the Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and Methodist churches are also providing financial support and are involved in this project of social outreach in Ballina.
Emma is here with us today and will give a report to Synod later in our proceedings. I have the privilege of line-managing her work and am already impressed with the inroads she is making. She is meeting and ministering to people that very few clergy or lay people would ever reach. For instance, she has got to know a group of Muslim women who cannot quite understand why she is so friendly! No one else, they have said to her, has spoken to them in all the time they’ve lived here. What an indictment that is on we who pride ourselves as living in the land of ‘Cead mile failte’.
There is, I believe, a real need for this kind of pioneer ministry in our Church. The outreach to those on the margins is at the heart of the Gospel message and we need to be imaginative and creative in our reaching out. We also need to be fearless. Christ himself, in his urgency to care for the lost and the weak and the forgotten always, always put the needs of others before his own safety – indeed he paid for it with his life.
So, allow me to leave Ballina and its social issues to one side for a few moments, as I ask you to reflect on the current refugee crises. Hundreds of thousands are fleeing for their lives and the world is confronted by a mammoth humanitarian catastrophe. Life for millions of people has been made intolerable by the wickedness of others. Through no fault of their own, they have had to flee their homeland and many thousands have, as a result, made for Europe, embarking on the way on the hazardous journey across the Mediterranean to Turkey or Greece. Hundreds, as we know, have perished in its waters. But for those who make it safely across, there are many more obstacles as EU countries have been pitifully slow to commit to accepting more than a minimal number of migrants as refugees. Germany, with Angela Merkel’s ‘open door policy’ is one of the exceptions; I applaud her, yet she has been lambasted for her generosity. The horrendous outrages carried out in recent months in France, Belgium and Germany have, arguably, made her laudable policy look naive and dangerous. If this is what you think, then I ask you to ponder ‘what would our Lord have done in similar circumstances?’ I believe there is enough evidence in the Gospels to indicate that he too, despite the fears, the risks, the dangers would be out there with the marginalised doing all he could to bring relief and comfort with no thought for himself.
Here in the Republic, the Government has been slow off the mark and although there is an undertaking to accept 4,000 migrants under the resettlement and relocation programmes, only a small number, so far, have arrived. That said, we are informed that groups of 40 at a time will be arriving. We welcome this, however small, for like the starfish on the seashore in the familiar story it will make a difference for each one. But it is important that we continue to exert pressure that all possible haste is exercised. There has been an encouraging response to the appeal, through the Irish Red Cross, for accommodation and services from members of the public but these will quickly disappear if a steady stream of refugees does not emerge quickly.
In our own Diocese, I welcome the initiative led by the Provost, to collect clothing and blankets to send out to the camps where literally millions are housed in temporary shelters – I deliberately call them that because they are no more than a cover from the sun, rain and wind. Please support this initiative, as we need to fill 1800 banana boxes to secure a full load. I am pleased to say that Mrs Samara Levy, who has come over from London to speak to us, will elaborate on this topic later.
I also want to applaud the efforts of Canon Wills in reaching out to a number of families being housed in the Direct Provision Centre in Ballyhaunis. Direct Provision is a System for dealing with asylum seekers and how the State meets its obligation. Currently there are some 5,000 people housed in the 43 accommodation centres in the Republic and the average length of stay is 4 years. Last year 1450 people applied for asylum in the twenty-six counties. Sadly, receiving refugee status is not necessarily a passport out of direct provision as housing and jobs are not always easy for such people to secure. I welcome the new Government’s proposals to build more houses and to give incentives to young couples and others to purchase their own home, thus freeing up the availability of social and other housing to let. Although seen as a priority this will inevitably take time to implement, hence I strongly urge that a system of compulsory purchase orders for boarded up new properties should be part of this effort. The site of ‘ghost estates’, and there are many in our united dioceses, is an outrage when so many are homeless.
The BCT Project is then but the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is needed. Nonetheless it is good to be contributing, as a diocese, in this way. The churches cannot afford to ignore the realities of life, as they are for many people in modern Ireland. We are not the Church of the comfortable, middle class. We are the Church of God, following in the footsteps of Jesus, our Lord who taught us to love our neighbour as ourselves. Yes it is a risky, dangerous business, but that is the challenge for you and for me if we are to be ‘Church’ – the people of God at work in the world. My prayer is that Emma’s presence among us will serve as a constant reminder of the broader picture.
Traditionally the Church in Ireland has also attempted to see beyond these shores. Sadly, the refugee crisis is not the only disaster situation confronting us at this time. As Chairman of the Bishops’ Appeal Committee, I am only too aware of the need in so many places throughout the world. Bishops’ Appeal works in partnership with other agencies in responding to major disasters but also in three main areas of need – education, health and rural development. Hence we are required to adjust the lens still further to life as it is for those in so many places around the world less fortunate than ourselves.
In this Diocese we have been working closely with Bishops’ Appeal and their partners in CMSI through the MABWENI Project and now, the MAJI Project – Maji being the Swahili word for ‘water’. This project is also focused on our link Diocese of Kajiado in Kenya. When I was there last summer with the McWhirter family, we visited Oltiasika in the foothills of Kilimanjaro and saw for ourselves the three enormous water tanks. These were built some years ago by CMSI but are now redundant because the gathering area made from large sheets of corrugated iron has come to the end of its life. Hence the need to replace it with a long-lasting concrete area where water will fall that will then drain into the tanks during the rainy season. This gathering area is the target for our fund-raising efforts in 2016 and we have committed to 20K euro by the end of the year and I believe we are more than halfway there – but we need each individual parish to have an autumn fund-raising effort if we are to reach our target and enable work to begin. I’m delighted that one of the Archdeacons from Kajiado will be with us for a day next month and I’m hoping his visit will inspire our efforts – and he will be speaking at the Harvest Thanksgiving in Kilalla Cathedral on Sunday week, 2nd October at 8pm. Next year’s target will be to complete the project by raising funds to provide concrete caps for each of these tanks to prevent animals falling into them and contaminating the water upon which the local community of 5,000 people depends – the alternative being a 15mile walk to the nearest borehole.
Projects such as this are, of course, about more than providing funds – they are a means of meeting others whose lifestyle and ways are so different from our own. I’ve mentioned the forthcoming visit of Archdeacon Naphtali, but next year I’ve been invited to bring a representative group from our Diocese to visit Kajiado as part of their Diocesan Celebration – the Bishop has been in office for seven years and they are giving thanks for his ministry among them and planning for the next seven years. (I’m not sure that celebrating bishops’ ministry will catch on here in Ireland!) I invite any of you who might think of coming along on that trip to get in touch – there will be a cost involved but it will change lives and alter perspectives.
So, my thanks to our Mission Group for their leadership and I hope we will hear something from them to encourage us further in the course of this Synod.
When compared to the social issues in our country, the humanitarian crises across the Middleeast and the sheer poverty that is a daily reality across the continent of Africa and elsewhere, diocesan boundaries seem almost irrelevant. Does it really matter? Truth to tell, not a lot! Yet we tend to get excited about such matters, while un-phased by the plight of the suffering in our world.
Diocesan boundaries do, of course, have their part to play and tend to shape a diocese in other ways besides what we see on a map. This Diocese is already large in geography but small in numbers. Nine cures with some 1800 people is barely enough to constitute a diocese and would compare to a rural deanery in some of the more populous dioceses. All things are relative, however, and one must remember that there are more people, clergy and parishes in Oxford Diocese than in the whole of the Church of Ireland!
I want to applaud the way our Diocese has responded to the debate over the past five years on this issue. I believe we can hold our heads up high and claim to have been open to the arguments for a realignment of diocesan boundaries and ready to embrace whatever changes the whole church deems necessary for the common good. Here in this Synod we have rehearsed those arguments, although I’m aware many in the Diocese have yet to grasp what they are.
This time last year we were expecting a General Synod resolution to end the debate one-way or the other. That didn’t happen and it has been returned to the dioceses affected to enter into local conversations. You will know that Limerick and Killaloe issued an invitation for a small group from this Diocese and theirs to meet to begin that conversation. The first meeting took place in Ballinasloe ten days ago and we will receive a report of it shortly when there will be an opportunity to ask questions and respond to a resolution.
For now, I simply want to say that I don’t believe any amalgamation represents a threat. Rather, if it can be worked, and I believe it can, a new diocese offers new possibilities and a strengthening of our influence both locally and nationally. Some, I know, will see it as retrenchment and a diminution of episcopal oversight; it need be neither of these if enacted in the right spirit. Change of course is never popular but often, especially when the writing is on the wall, it is better to act from a position of strength than waiting too long and being forced into a union that one has no power to affect. At the end of the day though, the decision is not mine but for the people of this Diocese through its Diocesan Synod to decide.
In conclusion I wish to extend my thanks to our Diocesan Secretary, Mrs Heather Sherlock. Year on year she keeps us right and her experience is priceless. Nothing is ever too much trouble and those of you who have sought Heather’s assistance will know that it is always offered with generosity and goodwill. Thanks also to our Senior Management Team, to our Diocesan Council and Committees, and today to the Dean and his team of helpers here. Thanks to those who have travelled to tell us something about their ministry or society – and please do them the courtesy of visiting their stall.
Finally, ‘thank you’ to the staff of the Representative Church Body. Sometimes they are seen as those who sit on our money in Dublin! But that, quite simply, is not true. We are so fortunate to have the back up and expertise that they offer. I am delighted that the new Chief Officer and Secretary, Mr David Ritchie is with us today to experience the Tuam, Killala and Achonry Diocesan Synod for himself. Your presence and interest is very much appreciated and I look forward to inviting you to address us a little later in our proceedings.
So, ‘thank you’ one and all for being here and enabling us to conduct our business as the Diocesan Synod.