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.

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