Bishop Patrick Rooke’s Speech to the Diocesan Synod of Tuam, Killala and Achonry in St Mary’s Cathedral, Tuam on Saturday 21st September 2019
I should like to welcome you to this meeting of the Tuam, Killala and Achonry Diocesan Synod, the second of this triennium. Thank you for your time – you have given up a Saturday to be present and no doubt can think of numerous things you could have been doing. For me personally, the timing of today’s Synod meant the sacrificing of a ticket to join my son at tomorrow’s meeting between Ireland and Scotland in Yokohama at the Rugby World Cup…..such dedication!
As has become our custom in recent years, we meet here in our Diocesan Cathedral and Synod Hall. I should like to thank the Dean, his Select Vestry and all the members of his team here and some ladies from Galway for their hospitality and hard work in making it possible for us to gather in this place.
My thanks too to our Diocesan Administrator, Mrs Heather Pope, for her work, not just in the preparations for our Synod meeting but for all she has done throughout the year in assisting the smooth running of our Diocese. As well as covering the duties of Diocesan Secretary, Heather oversees our Diocesan Accounts, no easy task and one that consumes much of her time. In this connection, I pay tribute to Heather’s sensitivity in dealing with individual issues with parish treasurers, as they too seek to do their best for their respective parishes.
I also want to mention our Diocesan Architect, Mr Colin Bell. Colin has served our Dioceses for the past seven years and his thoroughness and attention to detail is well-known by churchwardens, glebewardens and clergy across the Dioceses. In such a job, it is difficult to please all of the people all of the time but Colin has always been pleasant and courteous in his manner. In paying tribute to him, I regret to inform Synod members that due to an appointment with Sligo County Council, Colin has tendered his resignation as our Diocesan Architect. We will indeed miss him.
I am conscious that our meeting this year is being held against the backdrop of the 150th Anniversary of the Irish Church Act which brought about the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland on 1st January 1871. No event in the history of our country has played a more crucial role in shaping the Church of Ireland as it is today. In the recent issue of our Diocesan Magazine, I dared to contrast the positive outcome for the Church of Ireland, after a few turbulent years, with that of our present concerns with the outworking of Brexit and all it might imply for the people of Ireland; not least for those of us in the West. Let us hope and pray that as we look back on this period of our history, we will be able to say, as we can now of Disestablishment, ‘it all turned out for the better in the end’ In the short-term, however, there is much fear as to how a hard Brexit, in particular, will affect us and not least the farming community and the poorer among us. A No-deal Brexit will undoubtedly have serious economic, social and political implications and we trust that political reality and sensitivity will prevail. So let us pray, and pray fervently, for the leaders and institutions of government across the European Union at this time.
Fear too abounds with regard to the arrival of refugees and asylum seekers in communities – indeed this was an important element in the UK 2016 Referendum. We’ve seen this manifest itself in the past couple of weeks in Oughterard. As I said in my statement earlier this week – ‘Many fears are overcome when local people have the opportunity to meet with those who may come to live alongside them….. and to hear their stories. I myself have visited the Direct Provision Centre in another part of this Diocese, at Ballaghaderreen, and found the people living there to be delightful and appreciative of local welcome and support. I would encourage the State to provide opportunities for meeting and listening. For a new influx of people to be properly catered for, Government should be planning, in parallel, to provide extra services and facilities above and beyond those that already exist. Such an undertaking would also, I believe, go a long way towards allaying the local community’s concerns.’
It has been a momentous year in terms of the future of our united Dioceses. At the General Synod in May, a Bill, the contents of which were sanctioned by this Synod last September, was passed unanimously. This allows for the uniting of our three dioceses with the eight under the umbrella of Limerick and Killaloe, upon the next episcopal vacancy in either united dioceses. But this is subject to the ratification of this Synod today and, because the departure of the Ballisodare Group to Elphin Diocese was part of the Bill, it is subject also to ratification by Kilmore, Elphin and Ardagh Diocesan Synod next month. There will be opportunity to speak to the motion later, but in saying that, I hope we won’t get into rehearsing the arguments for and against such an amalgamation all over again. Since all eight of my previous Diocesan Synods with you have been overshadowed by these issues I feel, that having reached our conclusion, now is the time to move on with confidence and real hope for the future as part of a stronger and diverse diocesan unit. You will have noted too that the second motion on this topic concerns changes to our Diocesan Regulations which will enable a smooth transition when that time of amalgamation comes.
Recently, the Church Commissioners in London, the equivalent to our Representative Church Body in Dublin were able to make an extra £155 million available for church renewal and reform across the Church of England. A Working Group was subsequently set up to plan how this money might be spent and they came up with three priorities: recruiting and training more clergy; supporting mission in the poorest communities; and growth programmes in dioceses. Sadly, I’m not about to announce a similar offer from the Representative Church Body for dioceses across Ireland but I would like to focus on these three priorities which, although different in focus, are as relevant here as they are across the water in England – Clergy, Mission and Growth.
We have a small but committed team of clergy in this Diocese. I pay tribute to the Dean and Archdeacon who provide me with particular assistance in overseeing vacant parishes and other diocesan issues. Just a few days before last year’s Diocesan Synod, Provost Lynda Peilow joined our Diocesan Team as Rector in Galway and Oughterard; and on Advent Sunday the Reverend Peter Norman was installed as Priest in Charge of Rathbarron and Tubbercurry. Canon Noel Regan who had been assisting in a temporary capacity in the Skreen Group was installed as their Priest in Charge in January. With the departure of the Very Reverend Stan Evans to the sunnier climbs of Lanzarote in March, I am pleased that the Reverend Elaine Dunne is now helping out in the Omey Union in a temporary capacity. All these clergy are making a considerable contribution to the life and witness of our Diocese. I welcome them and know that their respective ministries, along with those who have been with us longer, is appreciated. Special thanks to Canon Andrew Ison, who has recently taken on the task of editing and co-ordinating our Diocesan Magazine, Tidings – and no small task that is!
Provost Stan Evans took our magazine forward in leaps and bounds and his ministry in Clifden almost coincided with that of Canon Derick Swann’s in the Achonry Group. Both gave five years of dedicated service in their respective charges. Canon Derick had to step down due to failing health and he is currently, courageously and stoically, with the wonderful support of Irene and their family, coping as best they can under very trying circumstances….. and I would ask that you continue to remember them in your prayers.
So, we have had our fair share of comings and goings over the past year and at the end of this month, after ten years in post, Canon Val Rogers will retire from his incumbency in the Aughaval Group. Val has been a faithful pastor to his parishioners and, although he intends, in retirement, to live on in the Diocese, we will miss him as an important member of the stipendary clergy. Throughout his time in Westport he has been ably and enthusiastically supported by Josie and we extend to both, our very best wishes for a long and happy retirement.
Candidates from Tuam, Killala and Achonry for Ordination are a rarity; the last being Andrea Wills in 2009…..and what a contribution she, like her NSM colleague, Canon Doris Clements, has made over the years. But a bit like the buses, one waits a long time for their arrival; last Sunday three people from this Dioceses were ordained here in St Mary’s Cathedral – the Reverend Karen Duignan, the Reverend Maebh O’Herlihy and the Reverend Carole Reynolds. Each will serve in the ordained local ministry in Kilglass and Easkey, in Dugort and in Roundstone respectively. They are three of six candidates for this ministry from our Diocese and we look forward to further ordinations next year and in 2021. Six additional clergy, and there may be others in due course, will add significantly to our clergy team and I look forward to working with these new colleagues.
Ordained Local Ministry is new to the Church of Ireland; our three deacons along with eleven others being ordained at this time are the first cohort and it is going to take us all some time to adapt to the expectations and practicalities of what is essentially a support ministry where local people are raised up by their own community to provide a distinctive ordained ministry in that locality. Clear boundaries will emerge in due course, but meantime, great sensitivity will be required from us all. Essentially, their ministry should be seen as missional and additional to traditional stipendary ministry but the reality is that their involvement will both enable further financial savings across the Diocese as well as bringing important support to our stipendary clergy and to parishioners alike. So, a ministry of maintenance and mission – and let us allow both to flourish side by side.
On pages 19 and 20 of our Diocesan Report, you will see the Ministry Strategy agreed by the Diocesan Council. While nothing is written in stone at this stage, this allows us to plan ahead. You will note that it is based on fewer cures than we have at present but it assumes too that there will be more clergy across the Diocese leading worship and providing pastoral care and leadership in the parishes. My hope is that no clergy person, or our indispensable Diocesan Readers – to whom we say a big thank you, will be required to conduct more than two services on a Sunday morning. Over the coming years, this strategy will, however, add to the responsibilities and change the role to some extent of our stipendary clergy as they take on the responsibilities of overseeing those who will serve under them in a non-stipendary ‘local’ capacity.
So, exciting and interesting times in terms of the clergy serving our Church in this Diocese. It is so encouraging to see lay people coming forward to offer for ordination, and I should add that one candidate from our dioceses is also undertaking the Foundation Course at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and this may lead on to Ordination for him also. The other side of the coin is that rising costs, shortage of stipendary clergy, and falling numbers across the Dioceses is making it increasingly difficult to fill all parishes. As it is, some 90% of what you pay in assessment goes towards clergy stipends and expenses. So that ordained ministry in these changing times in the rural, sparsely populated, West of Ireland has to change.
These steps are being taken, thanks to central Church-wide efforts, to our own local tutors and to the Diocesan Director of Ordinands, Canon Jen McWhirter. Looking ahead, we should have as wide a presence as possible of trained ordained clergy, and in some cases lay people, to undertake the ministry of the Church of Ireland in its broadest sense. Indeed, I would encourage each and every one of you, whatever your circumstances, to consider your own calling to every-member ministry. We each have a part to play and we don’t need a clerical collar round our neck to do so.
And so I move to consider mission. The Church Commissioners singled out supporting mission in the poorest communities and, for any diocese, that means both within and without the diocese concerned.
So first let me highlight mission within the poorest communities in our own diocese. One such place is Ballina, a large town in our Diocese but somewhere that has missed out in recent years in ways Castlebar and Westport haven’t. Some of our smaller towns too are also somewhat neglected and run-down. Social deprivation in the West is an issue, many places have lost their shop, their post office, their garage, their pub or hotel. Step on the Big Blue Bus we have provided as part of the Ballina Churches Together Project and you’ll hear all about the real lives some people in our Diocese are living. And let me tell you, they are very far removed from where you and I are at. Rural isolation too, is manifesting itself in all kinds of ways. The city of Galway with its growing student community and industries provides the contrast and we are fortunate to have it as part of our Diocese. But there too are the same social problems we see in most 21st century cities – homelessness, drug related issues, alcohol abuse, poverty. Those of us who serve on the Council for the West are constantly reminded that we are the poor neighbour. Our climate is against us, the economic tide is against us, the flow of people to the East coast is against us.
Both the Church in Wales and the Scottish Churches have recently produced reports on their rural communities. In both, many of the same issues emerge that we are familiar with – and the challenge for the church is similar. Are we willing to roll up our sleeves and get involved? That’s what we are doing to some extent in Ballina thanks to the Financial support you and Church Army are giving to the Ballina Churches Together Project. It may only be a drop in the ocean but it can mean everything to those who are touched by it and I commend the work being undertaken by Emma Rodrigues, now a fully-fledged Commissioned Church Army Evangelist, her colleague Marian Edwards and their team of volunteers.
Another initiative is our Centre of Spirituality based on Achill Island which aims to reach out to all who in the secular age of the 21st century are looking for some kind of spiritual base on which to build their lives. Like the Ballina Project, this is not likely to result in increased numbers attending the local Church of Ireland Church but it is about taking the Gospel out to people and meeting their need, particularly people who will seldom, if ever, darken the door of a church.
But mission also goes well beyond the local, even beyond national boundaries. The needs of all God’s world are our concern and while we cannot be involved in every single situation we can as individuals, as parishes and as a diocese play our part – and not least among the poorest communities.
The Bishop of Kajiado, Bishop Gaddiel Lenini is with us today and he will address us later. Thanks, largely to overseas support in recent years, new churches and schools have been built across his Diocese. In Kajiado itself, a new Cathedral and Diocesan Centre now form the heart of what is a thriving and growing Diocese. We in Tuam, Killala and Achonry have been proud to play a small part in supporting the Bishop, clergy and people of Kajiado and you will know of our efforts to assist with the Oloosuyian Girls’ Secondary School and the Water Tanks Project in Oltiasika. Here, members of Synod, is the story of the Christian Church captured in two dioceses – both attempting to serve God, both reaching out in mission to the poorest communities, both dependent upon the other – if not for much needed funds, then for the hope that new life brings. I believe our partnership has assisted the Church here at a time when all too easily we might have lost hope.
When you think of church growth – what do you think of? I suspect most of us immediately think of numbers attending church.
There is a danger that as church people, we become obsessed with numbers in pews – but the church is about much more. It’s about touching lives in the hope of changing lives. Church to be fully church is both gathered and sent.
Church growth means, on the one hand supporting our local church by enabling it to do all it does better but, on the other, it means going out into our local community looking for opportunities of making connections.
Realistically, with many of our young people heading off to boarding school at thirteen never to return as full-time residents in the West, never mind the draws of the secular world on the rest of us, it is unlikely that our Sunday congregations will grow. But that is far from implying that the Church’s influence cannot grow. Alongside our regular worship, we need to be looking for new ways of connecting with our local communities. This may mean organising an event in the local housing estate, or an outreach to young people, or a regular coffee morning for the lonely or a men’s group for isolated farmers.
Two years ago the Alternative Pathways Group in our Diocese set each parish the challenge of starting one new initiative that might draw local people to an activity organised by the Church. That would result in 25 new groups across our united Dioceses, I have written recently to all our clergy and Parish Honorary Secretaries asking for details of what they, with their respective select vestries, might do.
You see, either we are passionate about growth or else we simply accept decline and allow it to put us out of business.
Here’s what one Welsh Rector wrote in The Church in Wales Report – Rural Issues…..’Whether the church building is open and active or not, the local Church – the body of Christ – can still play an important role in helping to alleviate isolation and loneliness. Either through their own initiatives or by working alongside other agencies, the Christian community can offer a variety of support mechanisms to the wider community. Although traditional Sunday worship and the occasional offices will remain valuable contributions to rural life, there are other more secular events church buildings could be used for’.
So we really do need to start thinking strategically.
Bridging the gap between the sacred and the secular is not just the task of our clergy, but the mission of our Church if it is to grow and multiply.
Clergy, Mission and Growth – priorities for our Church.
With the courage and integrity of our forebears who 150 years ago met the challenge of Disestablishment and their worst fears for the future of the Church of Ireland, may we go forward with heads held high, hearts open to the needs of others and with the faith that can achieve so much more than we might think possible.
Thank you for listening and now to the work of our Diocesan Synod.