Thursday, 31 January 2008

Pray without Ceasing

Canon Patrick Comerford at the Greenhills Ecumenical Conference with the Rev Ruth Patterson, Gillian Kingston and Ambassador Francis Campbell

This year we marked the 100th Week of prayer for Christian Unity in the Church of Ireland Theological College when we used the Lima Liturgy at our College Community Eucharist. The visiting preacher that evening was the chair of the Dublin Council of Churches, the Revd Father Godfrey O’Donnell of the Romanian Orthodox Church, and our ecumenical guests included the Secretary of the Dublin Council of Churches, Major Margaret Fozzard of the Salvation Army, the Revd Alan Martin of the Presbyterian Church and two volunteers from the Taizé Community.

During the week, RTÉ Radio broadcast a Service of the Word from the college chapel with staff and students form the college, and at the end of the week it was a real pleasure to take part in the television service broadcast on RTÉ television studios with staff and students from the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin, the Milltown Institute and the Redemptorist House of Studies at Marianella.

Canon Albert Ogle of the ISE Trust preached at that service, and I was asked to pronounce the blessing at the end.

We were blessed that the week coincided with the visit of Hubert Che, a third year student at Ming Hua Theological College in Hong Kong. Hubert has been staying at CITC on an exchange programme arranged through the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission (DUFEM), which I chair. Hubert returns to Hong Kong at the end of January, and he has been an enthusiastic participant in chapel life at both CITC and Trinity College Dublin. He has been as warmly received by students and staff as the Revd Cindy Kwok was last year.

Hubert was present at both broadcast services, and also attended the Greenhills Ecumenical Conference in Greenhills College, Drogheda, Co Louth. The Revd Ruth Patterson chaired the conference; the main speaker was the British Ambassador to the Vatican, Mr Francis Campbell, and I was part of a panel of speakers that included Ambassador Campbell, Ruth Patterson, and the chair of the Irish Council of Churches, Gillian Kingston.

The theme of this week’s Prayer for Christian Unity was ‘Pray without Ceasing,’ and two students set up a 24/7 prayer room in the college, focusing on the Lord’s Prayer as the common prayer we can all share as we pray without ceasing.

Miriam Gormally interviewed me for the Religious News Network, asking me about Christian Unity and whether ecumenism has become a dead theme. A podcast of this interview is available by following these links:

File Download (6:38 min / 3 MB)


Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College.

Monday, 28 January 2008

The Light of the World: art as spirituality

Patrick Comerford

Earlier this month, I was in London with my elder son, Jamie. We attended Choral Evensong in Westminster Abbey and visited Saint Paul’s Cathedral, to climb the dome and to see William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World (right).

Copies of this painting hang in vestries, rectories and homes throughout the Anglican Communion. It is the first image of Christ I remember being presented with as a small child by my grandmother. Despite the popularity of the painting, few know what the artist was trying to say or the spiritual depths he searched as he worked on this painting. Yet it remains one of the great artistic expressions of Anglican spirituality.

Hunt was a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – young artists and poets who reacted vigorously against “the frivolous art of the day,” including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his sister Christina Rossetti. Their paintings of religious or romantic subjects were clear and sharply focused. They believed that art is essentially spiritual in character and that mediaeval culture had a spiritual and creative integrity lost in later eras. But their work often caused offence. When Christ in the House of His Parents by John Everett Millais was exhibited in 1850, it was condemned as blasphemous. Charles Dickens claimed it made the Holy Family look like alcoholics and slum-dwellers with contorted, absurd poses.

William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) received his middle name through a clerical error at his baptism in Saint Mary’s, Ewell, near Epsom. He was raised in Cheapside in an evangelical family, where he spent much time reading the Bible. He left school at 12, but persuaded his parents to send him to the Royal Academy Schools to train as a painter.

Hunt began painting The Light of the World in 1851. When it was displayed in 1853 it was harshly criticised, but John Ruskin defended Hunt and curiosity about the painting reached such a pitch that it went on a national tour.

Hunt later recalled: “I painted the picture with what I thought, unworthy though I was, to be by Divine command, and not simply as a good subject.” To achieve realism, Hunt did much of this painting at night by the light of a lamp in Ewell, where he was baptised.

The work is full of symbolic meaning, with the contrast between light and dark, and between luxuriant, abundant plants and the thorns and weeds. The painting shows Christ, the Light of the World (John 8: 12), knocking on an overgrown and long-unopened door. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice, and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3: 20). Saint John was writing of the Church in Laodicea, which was out of fellowship with Christ and the Church. One person can be open that door and let Christ in. But Hunt also wanted to convey the evangelical message that Christ comes to a sinful world and stands at the door of my heart.

Christ’s head bears two crowns: the earthly crown of shame and his heavenly crown of glory. The thorny crown is beginning to bud and blossom. These are not thorns from a hawthorn hedge, or briars from an overgrown garden. These are thorns from branches thrown by soldiers in Palestine on a barrack-room brazier, with spikes three to four inches long, twisted into a rough-and-ready crown set firmly on Christ’s head, each sharp spike drawing blood.

Christ’s loving eyes look directly at you wherever you stand, but the sadness of his face is painful. His listening aspect shows that even at the eleventh hour he knocks hoping for an answer. His hands are nail-pierced, his half-open right hand is raised in blessing, but his feet are turned away, as if he is about to go, for he has been knocking and left waiting.

For Christ’s royal mantle, Hunt draped his mother’s best tablecloth around his model, but the symbolism was lost on many. Christ who knocks at the door invites us to his table and to the heavenly banquet. The mantle might be a cope, linking this scene with the eschatological promise in the Eucharist. This cope or mantle is secured by the Urim and Thummim, clasped by the Cross in a symbol of Judaism and Christianity being brought together. The robe is seamless, symbolising the unity of the body of Christ.

Christ’s lantern lights up his features, the doorway, and the way ahead. “Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalm 119: 105). To those living in darkness, Christ is waiting to enter their lives. The cords of the lamp, twisted around Christ’s wrist, symbolise the intense unity between Christ and the Church.

The shut door has no latch, no handle, no keyhole – it can only be opened from inside. The iron-work is rusted, for it is long since the door has been opened. The door to our hearts has to be opened from within, through repentance and faith. The door is overgrown with dead weeds and trailing ivy that would not be there if the door had been kept open. All the plants have been overtaken by brambles, because this a place to which the gardener has not come.

Above flies a bat, blind and unable to see in the darkness, long associated with ruin and neglect. Below, the fruit has fallen to the ground and some are rotten. Yet the light from the lamp shows this fruit has come from a good tree.

The painting was moved to Keble College, Oxford, and became so popular that Hunt was asked to paint a larger copy. This second version was sold on condition that it toured the world to preach the Gospel and that the purchaser provided cheap colour reproductions. After travelling the world, the second version was presented to Saint Paul's Cathedral in 1904. It remains “a painted text, a sermon on canvas.”

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College. This essay first appeared in the Community Review (Church of Ireland Theological College) in January 2008, and draws on lecture notes used on the course “Sprituality for Today.”

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

A scientific and literary circle in a cathedral city

Patrick Comerford

IT is 250 years since Dr Erasmus Darwin and his young wife moved into their new home in Beacon Street, backing onto the Cathedral Close in Lichfield in the English Midlands. Polly and Erasmus were married on 30 December 1757, and at the end of 1757 or early in 1758 they moved into their new home, where they had a dramatic view across the Vicars’ Close towards the west front of Lichfield Cathedral.

In the generations that followed, there were many marriages between the Darwin and Wedgwood families, so that the descendants of Erasmus Darwin and his friend Josiah Wedgwood included Charles Darwin (1809-1882), at least ten Fellows of the Royal Society and several politicians, artists and poets, including the composer Vaughan Williams and the former Labour cabinet minister Tony Benn.

Two and half centuries after Erasmus and Polly moved into Darwin House, his memory is overshadowed by his grandson, Charles Darwin. But Erasmus Darwin is worth remembering for his literary and scientific work. And, despite the initially negative reaction from Church leaders to his theories of those of his grandson, he also had interesting connections with church life – and interesting friends among Irish literary figures of the day.

Origins of a theory

Next year marks the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin in 1809. But the “theory of evolution” did not originate with him. The basic principle was already laid out by the ancient Greeks and it was advocated by, among many others, Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) who was an eminent scientist himself.

Erasmus Darwin’s coach displayed a coat-of-arms with the motto E Conchis Omnia (Everything from Shells). His neighbour, Canon Thomas Seward (1708-1790), accused Erasmus of “renouncing his creator” and told him to renounce his “foolish motto” or risk the defection of a number of his patients. Eventually, he felt forced to paint over the motto on his carriage.

Erasmus Darwin’s ideas may have inspired the early ideas that helped Charles Darwin articulate his explanation for evolution of living species, with his theories of natural selection and the survival of the fittest in The Origin of Species (1859). This simple scientific explanation has been the focus of more than its share of religious outcry in many parts of the world. But the ideas can be traced back to his grandfather.

Erasmus was one of the leading intellectuals of 18th century England, a man with a remarkable array of interests and pursuits. He was a medical practitioner, a natural philosopher, a physiologist, an inventor, a poet, a botanist, and a naturalist. As a naturalist, he formulated one of the first formal theories on evolution in his most important scientific work, Zoönomia, or, The Laws of Organic Life (1794-1796), which includes a treatise on “generation.”

Erasmus wrestled with the question of how one species could evolve into another, and debated how competition and sexual selection could cause changes in species. He arrived at his conclusions through an “integrative” approach: he used his observations of domesticated animals, the behaviour of wildlife, and he integrated his vast knowledge of many different fields, such as palaeontology, biogeography, systematics, embryology, and comparative anatomy.

Erasmus also presented his evolutionary ideas in verse, in particular in the posthumously published poem The Temple of Nature (1802), in which he put forward his ideas in poetic style:

Organic life beneath the shoreless waves
Was born and nurs’d in ocean’s pearly caves;
First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
These, as successive generations bloom,
New powers acquire and larger limbs assume;
Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,
And breathing realms of fin and feet and wing.

Inspiring inventor

Darwin formed the Lichfield Botanical Society to translate the works of the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus from Latin into English, and coined many of the English names of plants we use today. He experimented with the use of air and gases to alleviate infections and cancers in patients, he conducted research into the formation of clouds, and his experiments in galvanism were an important source of inspiration for Mary Shelley when she wrote Frankenstein.

Darwin was the inventor of several devices, although he did not patent any of them, believing this would damage his reputation as a doctor. His inventions included a horizontal windmill, which he designed for Josiah Wedgwood, a carriage that would not tip over, a speaking machine, a canal lift for barges, a minute artificial bird, a copying machine, a variety of weather monitoring machines, and an artesian well.

Erasmus was also a leading figure in the intellectual community that contributed to the emergence of the industrial era. He was one of the founder members of the Lunar Society, a gathering of industrialists and philosophers who met in Birmingham and occasionally in Darwin House, Lichfield. Members of the Lunar Society included Matthew Boulton, John Whitehurst the pioneer of geology, Josiah Wedgwood the potter, Richard Lovell Edgeworth the Irish inventor, James Watt the inventor of the steam engine, James Keir the pioneer of the chemical industry, Thomas Day the author, and Joseph Priestly the experimental chemist.

The Lunar Society was an intellectual driving force behind the Industrial Revolution in England. Many of its members also opposed slavery, and Erasmus Darwin attacked the slave trade in The Botanic Garden (1789 - 1791), The Loves of Plants (1789) and The Economy of Vegetation (1791). Darwin had a life-long friendship with Benjamin Franklin, sharing his support for the American and French revolutions. When King George III invited Darwin to be his Royal Physician, Darwin declined.

Although his poetry was admired by Coleridge, Wordsworth and Walpole, Erasmus Darwin is largely forgotten today as a poet. Visiting the botanical garden behind Darwin House, looking onto Vicar’s Close and the east end of the cathedral, it is easy to understand the inspiration for The Botanic Garden, his most famous work of poetry, and why his poetry often made reference to his interests in science, including botany and steam engines.

Darwin died suddenly on 18 April 1802, and is buried in All Saints’ Church, Breadsall, near Derby. In the debates about evolution and theology, his family connections with Church life are often ignored. His brother, the Revd John Darwin (1730-1805), was Rector of Elston, while Polly Darwin’s father was a cathedral canon in Lichfield.

‘The Swan of Lichfield’

Darwin spent the best part of 25 years in Lichfield. Life in the cathedral close in Lichfield during those years was one of intellectual ferment and creativity. Among the most celebrated residents of the close was the poet Anna Seward (1747-1809), who was known as “the Swan of Lichfield,” and was the daughter of Canon Thomas Seward, who had publicly reprimanded Erasmus Darwin for the motto on his coach.

Lichfield was also the home of the essayist Joseph Addison, whose father was Dean of Lichfield, and the birthplace of the lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) – known as “Doctor Johnston” because of the honorary degree he received from Trinity College Dublin. It was the home too of the Shakespearean actor David Garrick (1717-1779), and the cathedral city was regularly visited by Johnson’s travelling companion and biographer, the diarist James Boswell (1740-1795).

Boswell wrote glowingly of Lichfield in his biography of Johnson: “I felt all my old Toryism glowing in this old capital of Staffordshire. I could have offered incense to the genius of the place.” Anna Seward proudly boasted that 18th century Lichfield was “a little Athens.”

Anna Seward lived in the Bishop’s Palace, built at the end of the 17th century for the Bishops of Lichfield, and her reputation as a poet earned her the sobriquet of the “Swan of Lichfield.” She was a friend and correspondent of the Ladies of Llangollen, Lady Eleanor Butler from Kilkenny Castle and Sarah Ponsonby from Woodstock, who shocked their families in Co Kilkenny when they fled Ireland in 1778 and set up home in Wales. In one of her letters to Eleanor and Sarah in Plas Newydd, Anna described the view from the Cathedral Close across Stowe Pool to Stowe House, which was the home for some years of the Edgeworth family.

Irish inventor and writer

Other contemporaries of Erasmus Darwin and Anna Seward in the literary and intellectual life in the cathedral city included Thomas Day (1748-1789), author of The History of Sandford and Merton, Honora Sneyd, who first described the three spires of Lichfield Cathedral as the “Ladies of the Valley,” and Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744-1817).

Edgeworth came to Lichfield after his days at Trinity College Dublin and at Oxford without receiving a degree from either institution, and like Erasmus Darwin he dabbled in scientific inventions and was a member of the Lunar Society. To Anna Seward, he was “gracefully spirited and his conversation excellent.” He formed a close friendship with Thomas Day, and the two visited Rousseau in France with Edgeworth’s son Dick.

In July 1773, the widowed Richard Edgeworth married Honora Sneyd, Anna Seward’s cousin and adopted sister, in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral. Honora and Richard lived for a short time in Edgeworthstown, Co Longford, but they returned to England and when she died of consumption in 1780 Richard married Honora’s sister Elizabeth.

Richard returned once again to Edgeworthstown and his estates in Co Longford in 1782 with his young daughter, Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849), who acted as his chief assistant and secretary in the management of her father’s estates in Co Longford. Back in Ireland he continued in the scientific and literary pursuits he had shared with Erasmus Darwin in Lichfield, inventing a turnip cutter, an umbrella for covering haystacks and an early version of semaphore, and writing books on education, as well as looking after his 22 children from four marriages.

Maria Edgeworth has often been described as the “Irish Jane Austen” or the “female Walter Scott” – although she actually influenced both writers. Her first publication was Letters for Literary Ladies (1795), a plea for the reform of women’s education. Her first novel, Castle Rackrent (1800), was an immediate success. In 1825, Sir Walter Scott visited her at Edgeworthstown and they toured the Goldsmith country.

Maria Edgeworth may have been too young to remember her days in Lichfield, and the cultural and intellectual life that revolved around her father, her step-mother, Anna Seward, and the Darwin family. But when Lichfield celebrates the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin next year and the tercentenary of Samuel Johnson, who was born there in 1709, it may be worth remembering the Irish friends and the great intellects that lived in the cathedral city two and a half centuries ago, for they brought together the arts and the sciences, wisdom and vision, poetry and invention, intellectual pursuit and theological questioning.

On Thursday 14 February 2008, Choral Evensong at 6 p.m. in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, is sung by Lichfield Cathedral Girls’ Choir, with Preces and responses (Brown), Evening Service in C minor (Dyson), and Let all the world (Lang). For Christ Church Cathedral Dublin, see: For details of Lichfield Cathedral Girls’ Choir, see:

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College. This essay was first published in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory) in January 2008. The photograph shows the view of the Vicars’ Close and Lichfield Cathedral from Erasmus Darwin House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford).

© Patrick Comerford, 2008

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Adding Jesus to my Friends on Facebook

By Patrick Comerford

A sermon preached in Saint Columba's College, Rathfarnham, on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany:

Isaiah 49: 1-7; I Corinthians 1: 1-9; John 1: 29-42

May I speak to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

I don’t know how many of you are on Bebo, MySpace or Facebook, or if any of you blog. I went on Bebo briefly but was told very quickly by the school-going members of the family that I was just too embarrassing.

On the other hand, I have found Facebook a great way of keeping in touch socially with family members, especially my extended family, with friends, and with colleagues in the Church of Ireland Theological College, both staff and students. And I have found blogging a good way of sharing ideas and material with other people who share my interests even if we have never met.

Whenever anyone of us sets up our own page on Bebo, MySpace or Facebook, or whenever anyone creates a profile as we start to blog, we want anyone who comes across our profiles to know immediately who we are and what they should think of us. We are very careful about the profile photograph we chose: it must be one that shows me as I want others to see me. The biographical details must be true and the ones that I know are most important: my family, my interests, my friends, my joys and pleasures, the things that interest me most, and my hope for the future. And we get some pleasure out of being introduced to other people by friends and as friends.

Our Gospel passage this morning is what it must have been like trying to set up the equivalent of a Facebook page for Jesus 2,000 years ago.

Until we come to this passage, all of Saint John’s Gospel has been by way of introduction: like an introductory page where you are invited to log in so you can join in the telling of the story.

In our passage this morning, though, we see the real live Jesus for the first time in the flesh. It’s like moving from the log-in page to actually seeing the picture of your friend on his own Bebo or Facebook page.

In this morning’s Gospel reading, though, Jesus walks onto the scene in Saint John’s Gospel for the first time. And John the Baptist identifies immediately for everyone who has logged in … he calls out to everyone: “Behold, the Lamb of God.” And then he tells us exactly what his background is: he tells us the Spirit of God is on this Jesus, and that Jesus is the Son of God.

Now, if John wanted to be boring, he could have said something like, “Hey have a look over there, here comes my distant country cousin. Do you know, his mother and my mother, Mary and Elizabeth, were cousins of some sort? I didn’t see much of him when were growing up. I was in Jerusalem, but they headed off to Egypt for some time and then moved to the backwoods of Nazareth.”

And indeed, John tells us: “I myself did not know him.”

But no, that’s the way your parents might like to introduce you. But if you wanted to introduce yourself to people who are going to matter, you’d cut out that detail and get straight to the point.

John immediately gives us a Trinitarian introduction to Jesus: he is the anointed one, he is Christ, he is the Son of God, and he cannot be seen separately without considering his relationship with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit.

Then John tells us the two most important things about Jesus:

• He is the Son of God;

• He is the Lamb of God.

First there we have the picture of Jesus, then we have his name and a concise but precise profile.

What would you think of Jesus if you came across his Bebo or Facebook page, stopped to look at his picture, and then read on his profile that he is the Son of God? And that he is the Lamb of God?

In those days, in that part of the world, people would have been shocked.

How could God have a Son? What does John mean by the Lamb of God?

For people in those days to describe someone as “the Son of …” means that they are just like that. “The Sons of Thunder” are real loudmouths, two stormy brothers in the Gospels. They are thunder incarnate.

The title Son of God is used 23 times throughout Saint John’s Gospel. It owes as much to the Hellenistic or classical Greek way of thinking as it does to Jewish ways of thinking at the time. It means not just that Jesus is like God, but that there is a perfect relationship, a perfect union of operating, between God the Father and Jesus Christ. It means that Christ is, in fact, God born in the flesh, God incarnate.

Today I don’t think any of us would be comfortable with being described as “the Lamb of God.” But in those days, there were two immediate associations for people when the words Lamb and God were linked together.

First of all, people would have thought of the Paschal Lamb, the Lamb of the Passover. The Passover is the great Jewish festival when Jews remember not only that they were freed from slavery in Egypt in the past, but that God’s saving work then is made alive now and that we can all be saved by God from anything and everything that threatens to enslave or entrap us, that threatens to take away the freedom that allows us to have a free and open relationship with God. [Exodus 12]

And secondly, they would have thought of the image of the Servant Lamb, spoken about by the Prophet Isaiah. [Isaiah 53: 7.]

So, in describing Jesus as the Lamb of God, John the Baptist is building up our expectations about Jesus. He is going to deliver us from slavery and bring us to freedom, And the Jesus who later in Saint John’s Gospel dies on the cross at the time the Passover lamb is being sacrificed is going to be a servant, serving to work out God’s plans, and serving us so that we can be fully part of God’s plans for us.

Well after that sort of introduction, would you want to leave the Bebo or Facebook page for Jesus? Certainly not, as far as the disciples and friends of John the Baptist were concerned!

And so, after the picture and profile of Jesus, we see people coming onto his page and wanting to be his friend. The first of these are Andrew and his brother Simon Peter. Andrew wants to be on Jesus’ list of friends, but he doesn’t want to go there without his best friends too, including his brother Simon Peter.

And then when they introduce themselves to Jesus, we hear the first words Jesus speaks in Saint John’s Gospel: “What are you looking for?”

If we introduce ourselves to him and make friends with him, he will ask us what we are looking for.

What are you looking for? Your immediate concerns and ambitions may be about moving on in your education, maybe even your future career. But apart from career, what about the real you? What about the real me? Leave ambition aside for a moment … what are my real needs? My real needs can only be met in the real love of God. And only Christ can assure me of that at any stage in my life.

And as with every Facebook page, these friends, these brothers, Andrew and Simon Peter, decide to add one another to their list of friends and to introduce themselves to their new friend Jesus. He is going to become their best friend, their one true friend.

Now, Andrew and Simon Peter were not the sort of friends you would expect to have been first in the list to sign up as friends of Jesus. Andrew’s name is unusual and unique in Jewish society at the time. It’s not Jewish at all; it’s Greek, as is Simon’s nickname, Peter.

They are figures on the margins of society and on the margins of polite Jewish society. The possibility of a mixed background, and the time they spent as followers of John the Baptist don’t exactly make them the sort of people you’d expect to add to names of those who become followers of Jesus.

But isn’t that what it’s like for Christians in Ireland today?

During the weekend, the Church of Ireland had a major conference on immigration and difference in Ireland today, “A Pilgrim People” … a very appropriate conference for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. We heard of the way immigration is changing the mixture of people in Irish society today, even in the Church of Ireland.

If people have strange names, or strange backgrounds, are we still be willing to listen to what they have to say about Jesus?

Would we still be willing to listen to them as they invite us to become friends with them and through their introductions to be closer friends with Jesus?

Our Gospel reading this morning opened with an introduction and ended with an invitation. You too can be on the list of friends on Jesus’ own page. You too can invite others to be his friends. And it really doesn’t matter who invites you or who you invite. He has space enough for all of us on his page; he’s happy and willing to welcome each and every one of us. But there is a warning: signing up will change your life, and will change the lives of your friends too.

And now, may all we think, say and do, be to the glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College. This sermon was preached at Morning Prayer and Holy Communion in Saint Columba's College, Rathfarnham, Co Dublin, on Sunday 20 January 2008.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

Embracing Difference and interfaith dialogue

At the launch of Embracing Difference and Guidelines for Interfaith Events and Dialogue (from left): The Very Revd Gordon Wynne, Dean of Leighlin; the Revd Canon Patrick Comerford, author of Embracing Difference; Archbishop Alan Harper of Armagh; and Bishop Michael Jackson of Clogher

The Revd Canon Patrick Comerford, Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological, speaking at the launch of Embracing Difference, his new book on the Church of Ireland in a Plural Society, and the Church of Ireland’s new Guidelines for Interfaith Events and Dialogue, in Swords, Co Dublin, on Saturday 19 January 2008, said:

Archbishop, Bishops, Minister,

Just over 20 years ago, the Minister’s father, the late Brian Lenihan, did me the honour of launching my short biography of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I am very pleased Conor Lenihan is here today to launch Embracing Difference and the Guidelines for Interfaith Events & Dialogue

The latest statistics analysing the 2006 census returns have produced unusual and curious details about the number of Greek Muslims, Chinese travellers, teenage widows and Maltese divorcees living in Ireland.

They help us to realise that Ireland has become a diverse and multicultural society. We never were a plain, boring, mono-cultural society. We have always been an island that has been diverse and plural because of the people who come to our shores: Celts, Parthalons, Vikings, the Anglo-Normans, both English and French, the Gallowglass and settler Scots, the French from the Middle Ages to the Huguenot refugees.

But the census statistics are always on the low side when it comes to telling us who is living among us. Too many people are too afraid and too scared to register themselves at census times, worried that once noted they may face discrimination or forced deportation.

When the state discriminates unfairly, those who are racist can feel they have sanction and permission to discriminate without recrimination. If the state says Romanians and Bulgarians coming to work here are second-class citizens of the European Union, then it is selling us all short on the dream of a better Europe. What a disaster ahead of referendum that should bring us closer to the dream of a Europe where all can share in our freedom and prosperity.

I dream of a Europe without borders, without discrimination, a Europe that cherishes freedom and enjoys diversity. Everyone of us here must make sure that dreams like this never have a chance of deteriorating and decaying into nightmares.

In Embracing Difference, I point out that out of all proportion to their numbers, our new immigrants suffer unfairly. A disproportionate number of them are in prison. A disproportionate number of them are the victims of crime, violence and road traffic accidents. A disproportionate number of them suffer accidents in the workplace. A disproportionate number of their children are in hospital.

If the system was fair, the statistics I quote in this book would not have such an appalling consistency.

And the unseen suffering of many of our new immigrants is told in the stories of the mushroom pickers forced to work long hours in appalling conditions, their children left at home without parents, and their economies deprived of skills, their societies deprived of the best and brightest.

But apart from the duty on church members to comfort those who are in fear and to welcome the stranger, it is important in the Church of Ireland that we do not see those who have arrived among us in recent years as problems, either in themselves or in the reaction of some sectors of society and government.

They enrich our society, and they enrich our Church life too. Today, 2 per cent of the Church of Ireland population in the Republic of Ireland is from an African country, compared with 0.8 per cent of the population as a whole. The members of the Church of Ireland throughout this state include 1,404 born in Nigeria, 1,156 who are Germans, 578 from Lithuania and 537 South Africans. As Garrett Casey showed in his recent analysis in the Church of Ireland Gazette of those statistics, we have 77 members of the Church of Ireland who are French nationals: a tradition dating back through the Huguenots to the Anglo-Norman French continues in the Church of Ireland.

If Ireland is not monochrome or mono-cultural, then neither is the Church of Ireland.

What beautiful opportunities we face. What wonderful challenges we must meet.

Already we have one Nigerian priest working in the Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough. But perhaps we might consider whether we should have a priest for the Germans, the Lithuanians, or even the Chinese among us. These are challenges for the dioceses and for the mission societies.

The challenge for the parishes is how can we welcome these people among us, and how can we make sure that we fully benefit from these blessings that God is offering us in every parish throughout our land.

This book offers the opportunity for parishes to explore those opportunities. The Bible studies and suggestions for action are designed with the ordinary parish and parishioner in mind.

And if the Church of Ireland gets it right in our answer to this challenge and opportunity, if we can develop and ensure right practice, then we will have not only the right, but the duty, to challenge the state about those areas where it remains slow and difficult to deal with.

Today I want to thank the Minister for Integration for launching this material, Dean Gordon Wynne and the Social Justice and Theology Panel for commissioning Embracing Difference, Lachlan Cameron for his foreword, Fiona Forrest-Bills, Lucy Connolly and Susan Hood for their editorial and design work, and Church of Ireland Publishing for seeing these projects through.

But the best thanks I would like to hear would be in a few years time from the parishes that will have used this material and find it works for them, enriches them, and from the immigrants who find the Church of Ireland more welcoming. It’s up to all of you here to do that.

Speaking at the launch of Embracing Difference and the Guidelines for Inter Faith Events and Dialogue at the Hard Gospel Conference, “A Pilgrim People,” the Bishop of Clogher, the Right Revd Dr Michael Jackson, chairperson of the Church in Society Committee, said:

The Conference Gathering of which we are all part has the timely title: A Pilgrim People. Movement and change are part of the life we live, some of us through choice, others because such movement is imposed on us. Pilgrimage, however we understand it, is part and parcel of what contemporary Ireland and its people are doing together. The journey is taking us all where we have not been before.

Ireland today is a crucible of movement and we who are members of the Church of Ireland are very glad to be part of such movement. No church can exist without the society of which it is part. No society should neglect the religious signals which come through to it from its members, whatever their faith. Church and society are intertwined in ways which are challenging, combative and creative for all concerned.

Our conference gathering also falls within the Octave of Christian Unity. What we say must be proofed against the quest and yearning of Jesus Christ that Christian people be one in Him. In two particular ways the Church of Ireland has now sought to make its contribution as an institution to the society of which it is part both in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland. We offer two modest but heartfelt pieces of encouragement to what is already happening throughout Ireland in an exciting and accelerated way – embracing difference and Inter Faith encounter. The movement is two-way. In offering what we have, we receive from those with whom we share. And so the journeying of A Pilgrim People continues and we are taken into new areas where the light of understanding shines and where previously we saw little more than darkness, confusion, fear, misunderstanding, misrepresentation.

The booklet Embracing Difference recognizes and develops the fact that the Church of Ireland takes its place within a plural society in Ireland today. It recognizes that while Christianity at its most general recognizes the need to love our neighbour, it has not always been so ready to recognize the need to love the stranger. It points towards one another all who are strangers, not with any prior assumptions or sense of superiority, but with a sense of hospitality and generosity along with an openness to encounter. The contents and the spirit of the booklet have been tried and tested in the Diocese of Dublin and its author, Canon Patrick Comerford, has generously made it available to church and society at large through the Social Justice and Theology Group (Republic of Ireland) of the Church in Society Committee, chaired by Dean Gordon Wynne of Leighlin. To all concerned we are extremely grateful.

The booklet: Guidelines for Inter Faith Events and Dialogue is, I understand, the first of its kind in the Provinces of the Anglican Communion. The Lambeth Conferences of 1988 and 1998 called for greater work to be done locally and internationally to facilitate the dialogue of life and the dialogue of ideas across World Faiths. This booklet partners Embracing Difference because, until relatively recently, Ireland was not accustomed to religious and cultural diversities in the way in which we have learned to be by the presence of people of many nationalities and World Faiths in Ireland in various capacities, some as refugees, some as asylum seekers, some as economic migrants, some as international students.

It is of the utmost importance that we challenge fear and ignorance, first and foremost in ourselves, if everyone concerned is to be true to his or her own faith. The first requirement in meeting people of other faiths is that we live our own faith confidently and compassionately. The second requirement is that we learn about what those people of faiths other than our own understand by their own faith. Such mutuality brings tensions but it brings also enrichment. Such openness brings questioning and the reality of difference but also scope for peaceful co-existence in a religious world which all too often seeks certainty and exclusivity. This booklet also bears the stamp of Canon Comerford and is offered by what was then the Committee for Christian Unity and the bishops of the Church of Ireland for use and adaptation in local and parochial situations. Both publications are Biblical, practical, exploratory and stretching.

In launching them for use by all who are interested, whatever your Faith or denomination, I thank the Hard Gospel Committee under whose guidance and facilitation this weekend is taking us together into the hard areas of meeting others who are different from us and from whom we ourselves are different. In underlining the positive invitation to engage practically in these areas, I thank Dean Patrick Rooke, chairperson of the Hard Gospel Committee.

Ireland’s political landscape has changed. Ireland’s social composition has changed. Ireland’s churches need to be part of this change and to nurture and sustain its growth and development. May I encourage all of you to play your part in this also, wherever you live. Your contribution will make a difference.

Embracing Difference is published by Church of Publishing on behalf of the Church in Society Committee, Social Justice and Theology Group. The Guidelines for Interfaith Events & Dialogue is published by Church of Ireland Publishing and was prepared by the Committee for Christian Unity and the Bishops of the Church of Ireland.

Friday, 18 January 2008

Suffering and Spirituality

Patrick Comerford finds a common thread running through some recently-published books on spirituality

The recent BBC television series, The Monastery and the Monastery Revisited, have been so successful that they are still being broadcast around the world – ABC in Australia ran the programmes at the end of 2007, two years after the first programme was made at Worth Abbey in England, and the a new genre was been generated with other BBC programmes such as The Convent and The Retreat, as well as the Discovery Channel’s The Monastery in the US.

The original broadcast of The Monastery in 2005 attracted three million viewers. The Abbot of Worth, Christopher Jamison, wrote a book, Finding Sanctuary – Monastic steps for everday life (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, ISBN 0297851322, £10 Stg), describing what people were looking for and how the monastic tradition can help them in their search. That book too became an instant success and is now available in different editions throughout the world.

Now a book by Mark Barrett, one of the Benedictine monks at Worth Abbey who took part in the original series, has been published in a new edition as Crossing: reclaiming the landscape of our lives (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, ISBN-13: 978-0-232-52696-7, £10.95 Stg).

In this enchanting book, Mark Barrett demonstrates the continuing relevance and power of monastic life. It is an enchanting book that emphasises the value and importance of silence, and that describes how the offices of the monastic day can provide each of us with markers to draw a map for our own individual spiritual journeys.

In a frank acknowledgement that there are times when he does not want God in his life at all, Mark Barrett prays that he may “want to want to pray.” But in his book, he beautifully presents the Benedictine daily office, with its regular cycle of birth and death. In the dark before early morning, the monks rise for the pre-dawn office of Vigils, and their day ends with the singing of the canticle Nunc Dimittis at the Night Office or Compline. It is a daily cycle of prayer that has had a lasting influence on Anglican prayer life and spirituality.

He also offers a way for those who do not live in monasteries to “access something of what is a daily experience among us supposed religious specialists.”

He hopes that the reader will find that monks – “so often the shadowy medieval figures of media-gothic” – are in reality fellow-seekers, apprentices training among the tools of a spiritual workshop. He points out that monastery life and monastic practices “are not a panacea for the ills of modern society, and it would be naïve to suggest that they can be. The point is rather that Christian monastic practices came into being at least in part as a response to the tidal currents of our hearts, set swirling by our busy lives, whichever century we live them in.”

The book could have been written about life in any of the five Anglican Benedictine communities in England – at Alton Abbey, Hampshire, Burford Priory outside Oxford, Edgware Abbey in North London, Elmore Abbey near Newbury, and Malling Abbey – and The Monastery could have been located in most of them. Many groups within the Church of Ireland have benefited from the hospitality and the facilities offered by the Benedictine communities at Rostrevor and Glenstal, and while this book serves not only as an interesting introduction to that tradition, but also reminds us of what we are missing because the monastic and Benedictine tradition was never fully restored to the Church of Ireland.

Professor Frances Young was the first Methodist minister to preach at the opening service of the Church of England General Synod. As a theologian she is well-known in Anglican theological circles, as one of the contributors to The Myth of God Incarnate (1977), her work on the creeds, including The Making of the Creeds (1991), but more particularly for her work on the Biblical interpretation of the Early Fathers of the Church in the first four or five centuries.

Now retired as the Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology at the University of Birmingham, Dr Young continues as an Honorary Fellow of Sarum College in Salisbury Cathedral Close. There her latest book, Brokenness and Blessing (Darton, Longman and Todd, ISBN 978-0-232-52656-1, £10.95 Stg), began as a series of lectures in 2004, and there the book was launched recently.

Dr Young has combined that academic career with ministry in the Methodist Church and bringing up a family. Her eldest son, Arthur, was born with profound learning disabilities, and is now 39. He is still cared for at home by Dr Young and her husband, and her journey with him has been an important catalyst for her theological exploration, including her work with the L’Arche Communities and Jean Vanier. Brokenness and Blessing is the fruit of all these influences. Here she explores the ways in which the earliest theologians and preachers read the Bible, and she seeks to recover a sense of the importance of the spiritual meaning of the text, as much as the literal or historic meaning.

Drawing on the wisdom of the Early Fathers of the Church, particularly the Desert Fathers, and exploring their relationship with Scripture, she attempts to bridge a gap between the work of biblical scholars and what is practised and believed by the ordinary churchgoer today.

Dr Young’s years of work as a scholar in the field of Biblical Studies, and as a preacher, as well as her personal experiences of caring for a son with profound learning disabilities and her journey with him. “The wilderness is not a comfortable place to be, but it is a place where one is more likely to meet God and discover one’s own limitations.”

What emerges in Brokenness and Blessing is a spirituality that offers both a realistic view of the human condition as well as “the wonderful gift of grace which brings hope of transformation.”

The founder of L’Arche, Jean Vanier, is the author of many books, including Community and Growth, Becoming Human, Befriending the Stranger, and Made for Happiness, all published by Darton, Longman and Todd. Now DLT have reissued one of his classics, Man and Woman God Made Them (ISBN-13: 978-0-232-526981, £9.95 Stg) in a new and fully revised edition.

This book was first written 25 years ago, drawing on his experience of living and working with people of disability, listening to the cry for love from the person who is disabled and who often faces the danger that in the process of finding their place in society will also experience rejection, loneliness and isolation if not properly accompanied and assisted.

DLT has also published a new collection of articles by the late Henri Nouwen previously unpublished in book form, in which he explores selflessness, vocation, and how downward mobility is a key to the spiritual path. In the short reflections published as The Selfless Way of Christ: Downward mobility and the spiritual life (Darton, Longman and Todd, ISBN-13: 978-0-232-52707-0, £8.95 Stg), Nouwen explores the theme of downward mobility as the way of Christ, and the things that tempt us away from it, including the lure of success, of power, of being needed and important.<

These essays were first serialised in the Radical American Christian magazine Sojourners, edited by Jim Wallis. Nouwen wrote the articles while he was a professor at Yale Divinity School, where he enjoyed academic success and found fame as a spiritual writer. But he was struggling to find his true vocation, and in these essays he seeks to explain for himself and his readers how choosing the downwardly mobile path can, conversely, be the means of growth and new life in Christ. Eventually, Nouwen left his career as a successful academic theologian to share his life with people of mental disability as pastor of L’Arche Daybreak Community in Toronto. This small book is tastefully illustrated with drawings by Vincent Van Gogh.

Suffering and the writings of the Early Fathers have also been key sources for the Bishop of Portsmouth, Dr Kenneth Stevenson, as he drew on his own recent, transfiguring life experiences, including a bout with leukaemia, in writing his new book, Rooted in Detachment: Living the Transfiguration (Darton, Longman and Todd, ISBN-13: 978-0-232-52692-9, £10.95 Stg). His experience of being diagnosed with leukaemia and his subsequent treatment had a profound effect on his faith and work, and he recently returned to public ministry after a bone marrow transplant.

In this book, Bishop Stevenson draws on diverse sources, including Eastern Orthodox iconography, the Early Fathers of the Church, Bishop Jeremy Taylor and modern Biblical scholarship, as well as his own disciplined practice of lectio divina, for his beautiful, charming learned and spiritual reflections on the Transfiguration narratives, exploring this enigmatic episode in the Gospels and finding in it a rich and subtle guide to the life of faith.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College. This review of books first appeared in the January edition of the Church Review (Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough)

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Reading the Scriptures in Public Worship

Patrick Comerford

Part 1: Proclaiming the Word … effectively

“Until I arrive, devote attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhorting, to teaching” – 1 Timothy 4: 13.

The reading of Scripture is central to the Church of Ireland’s worship and spirituality. Through the Scriptures we encounter God’s mighty acts and are called to respond to his saving acts.

In the Book of Common Prayer (2004), in both the Daily Offices (Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer) and the Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), the Church of Ireland includes the reading of Scripture as part of the ministry of Proclaiming and Receiving the Word. Yet, many rectors, and many people in the pews, continue to think of the Sermon only as the proclamation of the Word.

Do you believe that when you are reading Scripture in public worship you are proclaiming the Word of God? Those reading the Scriptures must understand the significance and privilege of their task.

But sometimes, as I watch people reading Scripture during the offices or the liturgy, as I listen to the ways in which they read, or as I watch their body language, I ask myself whether they really believe they are presenting the Word of God to those present, that it really is the Word of God, and that they are not just ciphers who have been asked to read but are engaged in ministry.

We celebrate God’s presence among us in Anglican liturgy through both Word and Sacrament. But how prominent and obvious is the Word of God in our services? I mean when it’s being read, as opposed to when it is being explored in the sermon.

How many times when you are planning worship and liturgy do you think about the impact of reading Scripture on those who are listening in the congregation?

If you are part of a parish planning team, do you just fit people in for the readings because they’re available or because it’s their turn? Or do you think carefully about the impact of the way and the style in which they read?

How much training are they given?

How much feedback do they get?

As a Church that expects to find God’s presence among us in both Word and Sacrament, we have improved the opportunities to present the Word of God roundly, fully and wholly in our parishes and churches every Sunday. Formerly, the Book of Common Prayer only provided for two readings – an Epistle and a Gospel reading – at Holy Communion.

But the Book of Common Prayer (2004) and the Revised Common Lectionary provide for Scripture readings from four sections of the Bible – normally an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, an Epistle reading, and a Gospel reading (this is sometimes disrupted or adjusted when we use a reading from either the Acts of the Apostles of the Revelation of Saint John).

However, I often hear clergy saying they only use two readings during Holy Communion … that using three readings makes things too long. Imagine saying I’ll only give people Holy Communion through the distribution of the bread … that giving them the cup too makes it too long and that people will be drumming at their watches, worrying about the Sunday roast!

How many Scripture passages are read?

How influential is Scripture in shaping the tenor of the worship service?

Are the Scripture passages read engagingly and with interest?

How many different functions does Scripture fill in these services? Or are the readings just one other part of the service to be got through?

Do the reader or the readers present Scripture in such a way that it is clearly from God's Word?

Integrating Scripture into the flow of the worship conversation with God is important. Since Scripture is God's voice, its reading out loud in any service should serve to advance our dialogue with God. There are several questions we need to ask about our use and selection of readings for each service.

Does the set of readings in the lectionary readings challenge both the preacher and the congregation to find new significance in the Word proclaimed? Or do we frequently change the readings to fit the sermon, so that we are just comforted by our own thoughts rather than facing up afresh and anew to the challenge of the Word of God as presented in the lectionary passages?

Any service of worship should have integrity throughout it. Each element should be planned carefully, including the reading of Scripture. Do we allow the readings to do that for us, or when we are planning services do we pick a theme and hope that in some Procrustean way we can fit the readings into our own plans.

In the Church of Ireland, and throughout much of the Anglican Communion, the Revised Common Lectionary determines the Scripture readings for the day. These are usually an Old Testament passage, a Psalm, an Epistle reading, and a Gospel reading, providing us with rich variety regularly, and challenge us to find new themes and new ways of focussing on God’s challenges to us.

Methods of Scripture reading

And so, Scripture reading in worship must be effective and meaningful. The Word of God is too precious for it to be read in any way that obscures his voice.

When planning worship, we can consider using a variety of methods of reading the Word of God in church:

Too often, it is left to the priest or the person leading a service, to read the lessons. It is a good tradition that at the Eucharist or the Holy Communion, the Gospel is read by a deacon or by the person is going to preach, especially if the sermon is the passage on which the sermon is based.

But members of the laity can and should read Scripture in church too. Each one of us – lay or ordained – has the privilege of reading God's Word to God’s people. And when more than one passage is being read, it’s a good idea to have more than one reader.

Choose from as wide a diversity of readers as possible. Have male and female readers. Make sure there is a variety of ages. In most parishes in the Church of Ireland today you will need to ensure we draw from different ethnic groups, and a variety of socio-economic groups. This is not just about political correctness: it reflects the theological truth that though we are many we are one body, and it also adds a richness to the worship.

Songs too can proclaim the Scriptures. Both congregational songs and those sung by choirs or soloists can be effective means of setting God’s voice before his people. We are used to singing the Scriptures as Canticles, we are less used to singing the Psalms. The Companion to Church Hymnal (ed Edward Darling and Donald Davison, Dublin: Columba Press, 2004) is a good resource for finding your way through the adaptation of Scripture in our hymns.

Dramatic or multi-speaker readings work well in many situations. How many parishes are less afraid to try dramatic readings of Scripture and more likely to complain that this involves too much work and too much forward-planning and preparation? But there are so many passages of Scripture that include multiple voices within a story and that require multiple voices in reading to convey this. Other passages have different emphases within them that can best be represented by multiple readers. Narratives become more real when they are presented in dramatic fashion by a readers’ group.

At times, a dramatic reading can take the place of the sermon. Telling a Bible passage as a story and miming a story are good ways to use Scripture in a dramatic way. Staged scripture or drama scenes make good lead-ins to the sermon. Special attention to Scripture reading, especially when drama is involved, brings the reading alive for people.

There are times and occasions that may call for efforts that make God's voice more striking by setting it next to other passages or readings. Perhaps some of the complaints of lament in the Psalms can be juxtaposed with some of the promises of God. The words of warning from the prophets can be set alongside promises of hope. In some churches in America after the tragedy on 11 September 2001, they read the verses of Psalm 46 interspersed with dramatic headlines from the news.

Have you ever worked on Scripture-themed services that focus intensively on one chapter or passage of Scripture? In these services, the Scripture passage determines both the content and the structure of worship. Over the course of the worship service, the entire passage is read.

Reading Scripture and singing songs

Song and Scripture reading should not be two separate elements in worship. In many ways they join together and reinforce each other. Historically the book of Psalms has been considered both the prayer book and the song book of the ancient church.

But congregations can also join in a responsorial form of song as part of the Scripture reading, repeating a refrain that is woven through an extended passage. However, the underlying music should never draw attention to itself; instead, it should serve to provide a seamless quality to the reading of the word and the response.

Choirs can also take part in presenting Scripture. The words of anthems are often taken directly from Scripture or based on Scripture. These anthems can replace the reading of the passage, introduce the Scripture reading, or reflect on it following the reading of the Word. Choirs and praise teams or soloists can lead the congregation in singing responsorial Scripture.

And have you ever thought of how percussion can help people pay closer attention during Scripture readings. Think of the effect of drums punctuating a reading of Isaiah 60, which was the Old Testament Epiphany reading this year.

Some practical suggestions

In the interest of making Scripture reading in worship more interesting, more noteworthy, and more formative, here are some suggestions for the times you are involved in planning worship:

Consider using all the prescribed lectionary readings, rather than trying to cut back on them. Let God’s voice come through multiple times in multiple ways in a service. A larger number of brief passages can be more effective than one long passage.

How do you introduce the readings?

Since this is such an important part of worship, the attention of a congregation should be carefully invited and encouraged. Identify the book, chapter, and verses. You might point the congregation to the page in the pew Bibles if your parish provides them.

Introduce the readings simply and directly. Too much clutter in the introduction tells me more about you than about the reading. Avoid lengthy introductions that tell us that we may now be seated and that our first reading “at this morning’s service” … simplicity and clarity open the space for receiving God’s word.

Pay attention to the titles of books or epistles or Gospels that provides a reading. How often have I heard it described as “First Corinthians” as if it was the first XV in a rugby club or the first XI in a hockey team – it’s the first Letter or the first Epistle to the Corinthians; or “First Kings” or “First Samuel” instead of “the first book of …” First Samuel and Second Samuel sound like two boys in an English public school.

I have heard people describe the Acts of the Apostles and the Book of Revelation as an Epistle. And the perennial blunder is telling us that a reading has been taken from some book. If it has been taken, who is going to give it back?

The introductory statement helps those present to understand the type of passage being read and to know what to listen for. Give people time to find the passage and to prepare to hear it by having a few moments of silence after you introduce the reading, rather than racing in immediately to read it.

After the reading, allow a few moments of silence so that people can own the passage for themselves. Then encourage the congregation to respond to the Scripture readings. How often do people read a lesson, and then walk away from the lectern in a hurry, without either giving people a chance to internalise what they have heard, to own it, and then to respond to it?

Whatever we do to highlight the importance of our reception of God’s Word will aid our worship. A thoughtful response to the reading of Scripture reinforces in the mind of the congregation that this is no ordinary book. A response helps them to receive this as nothing less than God's voice speaking to us.

A time-honoured practice in the Church of Ireland is to use a response such as one of these:

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!

This is the Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ!

Encourage the use of more than one reader. The Word of God belongs to the entire congregation and different voices from different ages show the ministry we all share as believers and demonstrate the oneness of the body of Christ in receiving and sharing his Word.

Provide both encouragement and training for readers. All Scripture reading, because it is public, must be done in such a way that will enhance its meaning and make it easy for others to hear, follow, and engage with. Those who are readers must possess some gifts to be able to do this well, but we should also consider providing them with both encouragement and coaching. Reading publicly is an art to be developed, especially when it is for a large group. For some, instructions and guidelines may be sufficient. For others, times for rehearsal and practice may be necessary. At a bare minimum all readers must be sure they are familiar with the content and spirit of what they are reading. I’ll come back to this later.

Historically, as Anglicans we stand for the reading of the Gospel during the Eucharist or Holy Communion. I was chided once in one parish – not by the rector but by someone in the pews – for asking the congregation to stand for the Gospel reading at Morning Prayer one Sunday. But you might consider asking a congregation to stand not just for the Gospel but for other readings too, at least on an occasional basis for special seasons such as Advent or Lent. If they stand, it will be impossible for them to overlook the seriousness of what is being read.

The importance of reading aloud

Many parishes give far more time to planning the music, the sermon, and the other parts of services than they do to the public reading of Scripture. Yet, we continue to talk about how important the Bible is. Jesus announced his ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth by reading aloud from Isaiah. He knew Scripture well enough to quote it constantly in his teaching and conversations with Jewish leaders. Later, Paul and Silas sang Psalms in prison.

Yet, for all our lip-service to the Bible, many of our services only serve show our confusion about how much reading it aloud really matters.

Have you ever found yourself switching off when the Bible readings are being read in church? I am realistic enough to imagine that these days very few people in the average congregation in our average parish regularly read the Bible. If their mind wanders during the readings on a Sunday morning, an opportunity has been lost that can never be recovered to introduce many to a particular passage. But if they sit up and listen, they may be listening to a portion of Scripture for the first time ever.

Good reading encourages biblical literacy as spiritual growth and development. In good cases of this, the sermon is often only a secondary proclamation, with the reading of the Word of God as direct proclamation.

Unfortunately, few us are taught how to or encouraged to read Scripture in worship. It is a task, and it can be handed around. We all know that it is not unusual for a lay person to be asked, just before the service, to read Scripture. No matter how good a singer may be, none of us would dream of handing an anthem to her ten minutes before a service as she walked up the church path, and say: “Ah, sure you’ll manage it fine.”

Yet there is a presumption that all can read and that it takes no skill to stand up and read the Bible. How many people are asked at 10:50, or 10:55, or even later, to read at Morning Prayer or Holy Communion at 11 a.m. without giving them the time to prepare, to consult a commentary, to think about where to use pauses and eye contact? In any case, how many people know the difference between reading and acting, how to modulate their voice, how to readers with a confidence and an authority that engages worshipers?

Sometimes because of a lack of training, sometimes because of a false humility, and sometimes because of a wrong understanding that the Holy Spirit will work through the passage in any case, many people then read in a flat, plain, well-paced, articulate style, happy as long as they pronounce all the names correctly. But any lack of interpretation is actually a misinterpretation. If you read without interpretation, you send the message that Scripture is meaningless and boring. If you have no training, then your constant attempts at eye contact send the message ‘this person thinks she needs to look up a lot while reading.

People need practical tips on how to interpret and read Scripture in worship and clergy need to know how to choose, train, and encourage readers so they can engage those who are listening, the worshipers.

Some questions for discussion:

In Part 2, we shall discuss some of those practical tips. But, before we break, let me throw out some questions to ponder:

How many minutes or what percent of the service does your parish normally spend on reading Scripture?

What message does this portion convey to your church about the Bible's role in our lives?

Is the Bible ceremonially carried in and ritually elevated during worship? This is not just for cathedrals … the Torah scrolls are ritually taken from the ark and processed through the congregation to the bema in every synagogue on a Saturday, and the Bible is processed through the congregation in every Greek Orthodox Church before the readings every Sunday.

Do you use the lectern for Bible reading?

Have you tried reading the Gospel from the main body of the church, proclaiming the word of God from among his people? This is common practice for the Gospel reading in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, every Sunday morning, or look at where the lectern is placed in the chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological College.

Do people bring Bibles to church or do you provide pew Bibles?

Do you stand when Scripture is read?

Have you considered reading it out loud together?

Would you like to change anything about how your parish chooses, trains, and gives feedback to those who read the lectionary readings aloud during worship?

What are the best (or worst) ways to recruit and train people to read the Bible aloud during worship?

Part 2:

Why is Bible reading important for the Church?

From the earliest times of the church, the reading of Scripture has been an essential part of Christian worship. Throughout time, members of congregations have been called to the task of reading Scriptures in public worship.

Reading the Scriptures well is an important task. The sermon may miss the mark, our prayers may be weak, and some of our hymns may have impoverished understandings of our faith. But if Scripture readings are read well, then those present will have had the opportunity to hear the Word of God through Scripture.

You need not be a Shakespearian actor or a public speaker in order to read the lessons. But preparation and instruction can help people become better readers.

Do not overlook children as readers. Many children are gifted readers and if their gifts are nurtured some of them will become effective lifetime readers or feel called to other leadership.

Choosing lesson readers

Most clergy choose the lesson readers whimsically or badly. Active parishioners are often asked by the rector at the last minute to read, sometimes with a little "arm-twisting". Some clergy even ask people to read as they arrive on Sunday morning. If we continue to do this in our parishes, we end up with readers who feel imposed upon and readers who cannot prepare enough to be effective. Ultimately both the readers and the congregation suffer.

You would take a lot of trouble when it comes to picking an organist, a choir-leader, and even members of the choir. You might even spend a lot of time in selecting bell ringers. Similarly, it is good to identify a group of people with gifts for reading and set up a schedule. Give the readers preparation time and instruction. When they are supported, many change from seeing reading as an obligation and start seeing it as a vocation, a blessing and a ministry.

Well-chosen and well-trained reader can significantly improve the worship life of the community.

Practical preparation for reading

Preparation is essential to good reading. Too often readers have been chosen at the last minute or have not prepared well to read Scripture. This leads to a reader fumbling through readings and leaves a congregation either bored or confused. It also leads to a lack confidence in readers who are left not feeling competent. If they do not have time to prepare to read the lesson in advance, parishioners should decline to read.

Reading the Word of God to God’s people is an important ministry. It takes preparation. Preparation will bear fruit in good readings and more confident readers. And early in the week is the latest time to begin thinking and praying about the text. Ask God to help you in your reading and to help you understand more fully what is being read.

Four good words to bear in mind in preparing to tread are: Read, Pray, Practice, Research.

Read: Early in the week – Monday at the latest – the readers for next Sunday should have the readings. In any case, you should have started work on your sermon by then. Read the text silently and out loud many times before public reading. By this time, you will have virtually memorised most of the passages. Practicing it out loud is essential. Know the pronunciation of all the names and places in a passage. A good Bible dictionary can help with this.

Pray: Before and after reading the Scriptures, the reader should pray. She should ask God to help her in her reading and to help her understand more fully what is being read.

Practice: Read the Scripture passage out loud to yourself. Practice reading the lesson out loud long before you are reading it in church or preaching from it. If a particular passage is difficult to read, then practice reading it out loud enough times until you are confident. Phrasing and inflection can only be prepared by speaking it out-loud. How often have you read a lesson silently many times, and then as you out read it out loud from for the first time at the lectern realised that there were too many “Ds” and “THs” running together in consecutive words – a disaster for anyone with any Irish accent.

There are common mispronunciations: Chaldeans as Djaldeans rather than Khaldeans, Arameans as Armenians or even Arminians. If I am not familiar with these people and who they are, someone in the congregation will wonder when it comes to the sermon whether I know what I am talking about.

If you are preaching on the lesson immediately after reading it, think back to times in past you have a read a lesson out loud for the first time just before preaching and noticed an important part of the text that you had neglected or misread as you were reading it silently but t that should have been reflected in your sermon and was not. If you noticed it, then many in the congregation will notice it too.

Research: If the Scripture has words or passages you do not know how to pronounce or you do not know their meaning, look them up in a Bible dictionary or commentary. Every church should have such books readily available. Knowing how to say words is of obvious importance, but understanding what the words mean will also give added clarity to our reading.

Make yourself familiar with the point of the passage, and know where it fits into the context of the larger book or portion of scripture from which it is taken. Consult commentaries if necessary, or ask the person who is to going to be preaching.

Some hints for effective reading

Whether new or experienced, the public reading of Scripture is an important task in the life of the church. Learning how to read better will enrich worship life and will give the reader an opportunity to learn more about our faith.

There is a major huge difference between reciting a passage and reading a passage. In recitation, the words are often repeated in a rushed, monotone or sing-song manner, and there are often awkward phrasings and pauses. The one who is reciting tries to get through the text perfectly (i.e. without leaving part of it out).

Reading, on the other hand, is a totally different undertaking. The material may very well be memorised, but you hear the meaning of the words, and the good reader communicates what is behind the words.

Most rectors – indeed, most clergy – in the Church of Ireland appear to think anyone who knows how to read should be able to read scripture out loud in front of a congregation without practice or instruction. But it is impossible to read the Word of God without interpretation.

Take the sentence: “His name is Patrick.” The emphasis I put on the words communicates something differently each time:

His name is Patrick.”

“His name is Patrick.”

“His name is Patrick.”

“His name is Patrick.”

“His name is Patrick?

When we read scripture with no inflection or with the wrong inflection, we will communicate things that we do not mean and which the text does not say!

1. Read slowly.

Reading too fast is the biggest mistake made by beginners. Read slowly but not so slow that the reading drags on. Ask someone to judge your speed in reading. Take your time. Do not rush the words. Give everyone time to see the images. Give them time to hear the words. Let it soak in. Do not rush through God’s Word.

Reading scripture slowly and making generous pauses allows the Word to sink in and allows people time to ponder the text as it was read, and to own it. When you come to saying “This is the Word of the Lord” at the end, they should be able to sincerely acclaim: “Thanks be to God.”

2. Read clearly.

Good diction and enunciation is important, especially for those who have difficulty hearing. Often people complain about the volume of reading, but in reality it is the lack of clarity in the voice of the speaker. Anybody can stand in front of a group of people and pronounce words on a page. But not everybody has the discipline to look at the words on the page, create the image in their own mind and relate that image to people.

Speak as naturally as you can. Use your own natural accent. You need not change your voice dramatically to portray a character that is foreign to you. What is important is that you interpret what you read in your natural voice in a way that's going to be clear, interesting, accurate and relevant.

3. Use the microphone and the lectern properly

Practice using the microphone before the service begins, preferably before people starting arriving at the church. Have someone test your volume. Be loud enough, but so loud that you blast the congregation. It is better to be a bit too loud than too quiet. Remember that some people have hearing difficulties.

If the lectern can be adjusted, move it up or down to a comfortable position. Do not leave the Bible on a lectern that is too low, and then read down into the pages of the book. People can’t hear you clearly distinctly if you are speaking down into a book. I am short-sighted, and if the Bible is too far away I stumble and lose my place.

If the lectern cannot be adjusted, then hold the Bible up at least chest high. Hold it high with one hand, and then you can use the other hand to help you keep your place in the text.

4. Be expressive.

Be expressive with the tone and mood of the text. Let the text guide you for the tone. If you have prepared then you will have some sense of the tone of the text. Monotone speaking makes boring reading. Worship should be lively and that begins with lively readings. But the overly expressive need a note of caution. Readers who are too exuberant can take the focus off the readings and put it on the theatrics of the reader. Remember, the person in the pew should be focussed on the reading, not on the reader.

Unless you are reading from the law or an Epistle, there will be some kind of action taking place in the passage. Imagine a window in the door at the back of the Church, and all of the action is happening outside that window, or let them exist about six inches above the heads of the people in the back pew.

Maintain appropriate eye contact with the congregation. There are particular times we want to look at the members of the congregation: during the introduction, during shifts between scenes, and when we read important lines. If there is a line that says, "These things were written to you that you might know that Jesus is the Christ," I want to look right into the eyes of the congregation.

When you look at the people in the pews, it is when you want to associate them with good people during the reading. If you have a chance to associate the congregation with those to whom Paul is writing in a positive vein, why not do that?

On the other hand, there is a place to address God during a where you can fix your gaze. The usual place in a church is where the ceiling meets the wall. If you go higher than that, then the people in the pews will be looking up your nostrils. I want to look at a place on the wall where they can still see my facial response and respond in an appropriate way.

On the other hand, if the reading recounts an evil influence or a crowd that you do not want to associate with the congregation, then I do not look at someone in the pews … that person may feel I am identifying him with the evil character.

5. Pay attention to personal decorum.

Since the focus should be on the Scripture, a reader’s clothing should not be excessively flamboyant … nor too casual. If people are shocked, distracted, or disturbed by what I am wearing, then this will be a distraction from the reading of Scripture. Readers should be humble enough to dress appropriately for reading.

6. Remember … mistakes happen.

Since we are not God, we are not perfect. If a mistake is made (and we all do at some point), stop and reread the verse. It is not necessary to say "Sorry" or "Excuse Me.” Simply continue reading with confidence, knowing that God expects faithful worship, not perfect worship. Faithfulness will include mistakes at times. If you accept that it is OK to make mistakes, this will lessen your nervousness.

How do you close the reading?

On the last verse in a reading, slow down a little. Take your pace down a little and put a cap on the reading. That communicates that we are near the end of the reading and getting ready to stop. Watch how news anchors end stories. They gradually slow down, coasting to a stop so the ending does not feel abrupt.

If someone else is preaching immediately after your reading, try closing the Bible at the same time as you look up at the congregation. Closing the Bible puts a visual cap on the reading, so people know that now the reading is done. Do not rush away from the lectern once you have closed the Bible.

If you have read properly, then when you proclaim: “This is the word of the Lord,” the congregation should find itself naturally giving a hearty “Thanks be to God.” Then walk confidently stride back to your seat, not hurriedly as if you are glad that is over and done with. If you are seated in the chancel, be sure to turn around and face the congregation before sitting down.

A note on resources for readers

For those who take the public reading of scripture seriously as a ministry, a number of resources are available. A Bible dictionary is a useful and interesting book for any Christian and is especially valuable for readers. Get a version that includes the pronunciations of Biblical words. Bible commentaries include background scholarship on the books of the Bible, and help you understand the Bible better. A good one-volume Bible commentary is affordable.

Why not have a parish library? You could suggest that your parish could have a library, including a full multi-volume modern commentary. Full-volume commentaries go into much greater depth than one-volume commentaries. They are expensive, but they are a resource worth investing in.

Have your own copy of the Revised Common Lectionary. The lectionary provides the Scripture readings for each Sunday of the year. The Church of Ireland Directory includes some variations in our adaptation of the lectionary, and also provides the daily readings.

A note on different versions of Scripture for reading in church

Your parish probably has a tradition, practice or policy about which version of Scripture to use. Certainly, all parishes should be using a current language version of the Bible.

The following versions of the Bible have been approved for use by the House of Bishops of the Church of Ireland: the Authorised Version (or King James Version, 1611), Revised Version, American Standard Revised Version, Revised Standard Version, New Revised Standard Version, New English Bible, Revised English Bible, Jerusalem Bible, New Jerusalem Bible, New International Version, New International Version (inclusive language edition), and the Today’s English Version.

However, I would caution against using the King James Version or other older versions unless there is a very good reason for doing so. The KJV and other older versions contain language that is no longer in common use, and so they are no longer useful nor desirable for use in public worship, no matter how much you cherish them culturally. A central insight of the Reformation – and of Vatican II – is that the Bible should be accessible in the language of the people.

In a similar vein, I would recommend not using paraphrases such as The Living Bible, The Way, or The Message at normal Sunday services. They paraphrase what the scriptures say instead of translating what they say. These versions are useful for young or new Christians who are learning to read the Bible. But generally speaking they are not appropriate for using in worship and liturgy. Although they present the message of the Bible in an easier form to read, they lose some of the richness of the message. A translation should be used rather than a paraphrase.

Good choices include the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the New Jerusalem (NJ), and the New International Version (NIV). The NRSV usually provides the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary.

Never leave readers holding a scrappy piece of paper. Paper print-outs are fine for rehearsals, but in a service or during the liturgy the lessons should be read from the lectionary or a bound Bible.

And, if a reader does not know the difference between different translations or their emphasis, he should ask the person who is preaching which version the preacher has used in preparing the sermon.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College. These ideas were first presented to the students on the NSM course in January 2008.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Time to restore the Parthenon Sculptures to ‘the birthplace of European Civilisation’

The damage to the Parthenon Marbles and the way they are displayed should make us all support Greek demands that they are returned to Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2008)

By Patrick Comerford

Just after the turn of the New Year, I was in London with my elder son, and we stayed in Bloomsbury, three or four minutes walk to the British Museum. It was his first time to stay overnight in London, and we did all the usual tourist things a father and son should do together on their first time in London together – see Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, Horse Guards, Downing Street, Buckingham Palace, the Changing of the Guard, the Tower of London and the Crown Jewels and the Globe Theatre. We walked across and the Millennium Bridge, strolled past the West End theatres and wandered through Chinatown.

We attended Choral Evensong in Westminster Abbey, visited the Crypt in Saint Martin-in-the-Field, and climbed to the Golden Gallery at the very top of the dome of Saint Paul’s Cathedral.

But his priority on this visit was to see the Parthenon Marbles, and the British Museum was the first place to visit two mornings in a row. Having climbed the Acropolis and visited the Parthenon together during a recent trip back to Athens, Jamie now wanted to see the Parthenon Sculptures.

I had been to the Duveen Galleries only a few months earlier, but this was Jamie’s first visit. And it was awe-inspiring for the two of us to find ourselves in the presence of one of the greatest works of our civilisation, to stand so close to them and to photograph them. And yet it was obvious to both of us how sad it was that we could not see these sculptures in Athens, in their original setting, and that as we were looked at them they were facing into a rectangular enclosed area rather than running along the outside of the building of which they are an original and integral part.

‘Birthplace of civilisation’

The Acropolis in Athens is one of the most-visited sites in the world and last year was formally proclaimed the pre-eminent monument on the European Cultural Heritage list of monuments. President Karolos Papoulias of Greece, the Mayor of Athens, Nikitas Kaklamanis, and the French Culture Minister, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, attended a ceremony in Athens last year at which the Acropolis and the surrounding archaeological sites were described as “the birthplace of the European civilisation.”

According to George Voulgarakis, who was then the Greek Culture Minister, the Acropolis preserves our collective memory and “represents the civilisation shared by all people.” He called for the return of the Parthenon Marbles from the British Museum, and said now is the time to correct an “historical error” and to restore the harmony of one of the greatest monuments of humanity.

Over the last few years, the Greek government has spent tens of millions of euros on the new Acropolis Museum in Athens, all in the hope of reuniting the sculptures and the Parthenon. A former Greek Culture Minister, Evangelos Venizelos, has promised that when the sculptures are returned, Greece will ensure that the Duveen Galleries in the British Museum will always host Greek antiquities on loan for exhibitions, including rare and newly-discovered works that have never been seen outside Greece. But Britain continues to ignore all Greek requests and proposals.

Symbol of civilisation

The Parthenon is the most important symbol of Greek culture and the most important symbol of European civilisation and democracy. The biggest building on the Acropolis of Athens, it was commissioned by Pericles and was designed and built by the architects Iktinos and Kallikrates and the sculptor Pheidias between 447 and 436 BC. It celebrates the victory of the Athenian Democracy that encouraged the creation and development of all the arts as well as of politics, philosophy, theatre and science as we know them today. As a celebration of the achievements of a free, democratic people, of our culture and our civilisation, it is an important symbol for the whole world. Referring to the Parthenon Sculptures, the late Melina Mercouri declared: “They are a tribute to the democratic philosophy.”

The Parthenon is a meticulously self-contained and perfectly proportioned marble temple enclosed by 46 fluted Doric columns. It has long been judged the single most important building in western civilisation – it perfectly embodies classical values and its beauty is impossible to match.

On the other hand, we found the display of the Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum both bewildering and unsatisfactory. They are arranged along the inside of the walls in the Duveen Galleries, facing into the exhibition room. But when Pheidias sculpted the frieze he was using the outside walls of the building to dramatically present the procession in the Panathenaic Festival.

The arrangement of the sculptures in the British Museum gives the impression that they form a whole. But they are not. Many parts are damaged or missing, and there is no indication where the missing slabs should be placed. But then, the story of the theft of the marbles and their arrival in London is one of intrigue, deception and theft.

Democracy and deception

Down the centuries, the Parthenon has been a church, a mosque and even a gunpowder store, and it was partly destroyed by a Venetian mortar in 1687. But throughout those times, it remained a sacred symbol to Greece and it remains a symbol of our democratic values and our civilisation.

In 1799, Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, was appointed the British Ambassador to the Sublime Porte of Constantinople, the Ottoman Court in Turkey. Elgin was then building a grand country house, Broomhall. His architect, Thomas Harrison, was a passionate admirer of Greek classical architecture, and encouraged Elgin to send back drawings of Greek antiquities and to bring back plaster casts.

Elgin asked his government to subsidise a project to draw and make moulds on the Acropolis, claiming this would help to educate artists and the public. Secretly, he knew this would also enhance his designs for his lavish new home. But there was no suggestion at the time that anything should be removed from any monuments or buildings. The government refused his request, and Elgin left for the Mediterranean with his new and rich bride, Mary Nisbet, how hoping to use her money to finance his new adventures.

Elgin arrived in the Mediterranean in 1800, and his staff included a chaplain, the Revd Philip Hunt, who had an insatiable appetite for Greek antiquities, and Giovanni Batista Lusieri, an Italian landscape artist. Athens was then a small, Turkish-occupied town of 1,300 people, clustered around the base of the Acropolis, and the people of Athens welcomed their arrival, hoping this large retinue of foreigners would create jobs and wealth

Elgin used his influence with the sultan to be allowed to draw and make casts of the Parthenon Sculptures. However, the more he busied himself with his project, the more he realised that the Ottoman officials in charge of the Acropolis were easy to bribe, and that the Parthenon Sculptures were there not only for copying but also for the taking.

Elgin’s team dealt with two key Ottoman dignitaries – the Voivode or Governor of Athens and the Disdar or military commander of the Acropolis. Neither of these two was averse to selling off the occasional piece of antiquity. The Disdar was prepared to sell access to the Acropolis, but he drew the line when it came to allowing Elgin’s team to sketch – he was worried that they might spy on the military fortifications or that they might take delight in the women in the Ottoman houses that could be seen from the Acropolis. When the Disdar demanded an official permit from the Sultan, Elgin supposedly obtained a firman or decree of the highest order signed by Sultan Selim III, authorising their work on the Acropolis.

Enthusiastic, competetive chaplain

When Elgin was busy in Constantinople, he delegated the Acropolis project to his chaplain. In his enthusiasm to compete with other Europeans, Hunt went to Constantinople, and returned to Athens in July 1801 claiming he had received another firman.

Later that summer, the sultan invited the glamorous Lady Elgin to the Sublime Porte. She was invited to Topkapi Palace to meet the power behind the throne – the sultan's mother, or Valida Sultana – making her the first western woman invited to witness the opulence and mystery of the fabled harem. In 1802, when the Elgins arrived in Athens, Lady Elgin was pregnant with her third child. She stayed to supervise her husband's project while he went island-hopping. The first two firmans had already been passed on to the authorities in Athens, and Lady Elgin now claimed she had further firmans authorising the removal of the Parthenon sculptures.

Between 1801 and 1804, Elgin’s busy team stripped down the monuments of the Acropolis, removing huge pedimental figures, friezes, metopes, columns and other pieces – representing over half of all the surviving sculptures from the monuments.

The removal of the metopes was witnessed by Edward Daniel Clarke, a visiting British scholar: “We saw this fine piece of sculpture raised from its station between the triglyphs: but while the workmen were endeavouring to give it a position adapted to the line of descent, a pair of adjoining masonry was loosened by the machinery and down came the fine masses of Pentelican marble scattering their white fragments with thundering noise among the ruins. The Disdar, seeing this, could no longer restrain his emotions … and letting fall a tear, said in a most emphatic tone of voice ‘telos’ [‘the end!’ or ‘never again’].”

Elgin personally oversaw the removal of the stunning horse’s head from the chariot of the waning moon (Selene) in the east pediment. Lady Elgin wrapped some of the marbles for shipping herself, and persuaded two British navy captains to disobey Nelson's orders and transport the cases to England. Elgin’s brig, the Mentor, sank with some of the finest sculptures off the island of Kythera (Cerigo), forcing Hunt to seek the help of Captain Clarke and HMS Braakel to salvage the sculptures and ship them to London.

‘The last plunder’

After leaving Constantinople with his family in 1803, Elgin was captured by the French and remained a prisoner-of-war for three years. Lusieri worked on in Athens, removing one whole Caryatid from the Erechtheion and replacing it with a crude bare brick pillar to prevent the roof from collapsing.

When the French released Elgin in 1806, he found a second collection of plundered antiquities was still in Athens. The Ottomans claimed Elgin had never been authorised to remove any sculptures, but once they changed their minds in 1809, Lusieri loaded most of the sculptures onto a ship that sailed hastily for London. The five heaviest cases remained, but were shipped to London a year later on a British navy vessel with Lusieri on board.

In Childe Harold, the poet Byron called Elgin’s destruction of the Parthenon “the last plunder from a bleeding land.” He wrote: “Blind are the eyes that do not shed tears while seeing, O, Greece beloved, your sacred objects plundered by profane English hands that have again wounded your aching bosom and snatched your gods, gods that hate England’s abominable north climate.”

No documentary evidence

Back in London, the Elgins were divorced in two scandalous trials that brought notoriety to them both. By 1816, he was deeply in debt and the British government offered him £35,000 to pay off his creditors. But even the parliamentary hearings on buying the sculptures were tainted. Dr Jeanette Greenfield, in The Return of Cultural Treasures (Cambridge, 1998), points out that “the original firman was never produced by Elgin in the House of Commons Parliamentary Select Committee in 1816. Only a copy written from memory was produced. There is no direct documentary proof of the right to remove the marbles.”

The Greek historian Professor Vassilis Demetriades, who has carried out extensive research in the Ottoman archives in Greece and Turkey, questions whether Elgin ever secured the legal documents he claimed. He is convinced that there never was a firman. Indeed, the only evidence for a firman is an unsigned Italian translation, without any signatures or seal. This document, now in the possession of Elgin’s biographer, the Cambridge historian William St Clair, it is nothing more than an “official letter,” giving Elgin permission to copy, draw, mould and dig around the Parthenon – there was no permission to saw sculptures off the monument. Perhaps all that Elgin ever possessed was a letter of introduction from an obliging vizier, giving instructions for Elgin’s men to be allowed to enter the Acropolis.

The British Museum still claims today the sculptures have been well cared for. However, in the 1930s the sculptures were “cleaned” under the mistaken belief that they were originally brilliant white, although the sculptures were made from Pentelicon marble that acquired a mellow honey colour when exposed to the air. The “cleaning” was carried out under the instruction of Lord Duveen who financed the building of the Duveen Galleries. The cleaners used wire brushes, copper tools and carborundum that caused irretrievable damage. At other times, the Duveen Galleries have been hired out for private parties. Although the museum admitted the damage, the full report remained secret for 60 years until William St Clair revealed it in his book, Lord Elgin and the Marbles (Oxford, 1998).

Restoring integrity

The Parthenon Sculptures are not free-standing works of art – they are integral architectural parts of one of the most magnificent and unique monuments in the world. The former leader of the British Labour Party, Neil Kinnock, once said: “The Parthenon without the Marbles is like a smile with a tooth missing.”

The painstaking task of transferring hundreds of statues and friezes from the Acropolis to the New Acropolis Museum in Athens began in October and is expected to be completed soon. A total of 4,500 antiquities, mostly marble sculptures dating to the 6th and 5th centuries B.C., are being moved to the New Acropolis Museum. “The work is going well and is on time,” says the new Greek Culture Minister, Michalis Liapis. Last month, five of the Caryatids that once acted as pillars in the Erechtheion began their journey from the old museum on the Acropolis to a new museum in Athens. The missing sixth Caryatid is in the British Museum in London, along with the Parthenon Marbles. But on the two mornings we were in the British Museum this month, the gallery exhibiting the missing Caryatid was closed off.

It is unbelievable that over half the Parthenon Sculptures and the sixth Caryatid are separated by 2,000 miles from the monuments for which they were carved. The return of the Sculptures to Athens would help to restore the beauty and meaning of the Parthenon and its physical and historic integrity. As Melina Mercouri said: “The time has come for these Marbles to come home to the blue skies of Attica, to their rightful place, where they form a structural and functional part of a unique entity.”

The New Acropolis Museum, designed by the Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi, is due to open to the public later this year. The museum is ready to receive at least three million visitors a year, and is equally ready to receive the Parthenon Marbles. Whether they ever return to Athens is now a question for politicians that will be debated at a sepcial UNESCO conference in Athens in March.

© Patrick Comerford, 2008

The British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles is at 73 Saint Paul’s Place, London N1 2LT;

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College.