Archbishop Alan Harper: in his presidential address this morning drew attention to the plight of Palestinian Christians
The General Synod of the Church of Ireland is meeting in Galway – and in Connacht – for the first time. General Synod has now met in all four provinces of Ireland. For the first time, a President of Ireland is to address the General Synod. President Mary McAleese is due to speak at General Synod on Wednesday.
In his visionary presidential address this morning, Archbishop Alan Harper, spoke strongly about turning vision into venture. He spoke passionately of the problems facing Palestinian Christians and the need for peace in Middle East. Archbishop Harper, and the other three main Church leaders, recently visited the Palestinian Territories and Israel. He hoped Jews, Christians and Muslims – as members of the three great monotheistic faiths – would see that religion, which is part of the problem, became part of the solution in Middle East.
“As long as Palestinians suffer what they experience as Israeli occupation, aggression and oppression, and as long as Israelis endure guerrilla attacks undertaken by militant Palestinians, (some of whom deny the right of the State of Israel to exist,) so long will there be no justice, no peace, no stability and no hope. And yet justice, peace, stability and hope are what all right minded Israelis and Palestinians long for, including the Christians of the Holy Land, most of whom are ethnic Palestinians.
“If the vision of peace and an interdependent future can take root in Ireland, aided by the patient commitment and enlightened self interest of the governments of the United Kingdom, the United States and the Republic of Ireland, may not a similar vision overtake the embattled peoples of Israel and Palestine?”
Archbishop Harper described his recent visit to the Holy Land in the company of Cardinal Brady, the Presbyterian Moderator, Dr Finlay, and the President of the Methodist Church, the Revd Roy Cooper, at the invitation of local church groups and with the support of Trocaire and Christian Aid, as “a harrowing but not hopeless experience.”
“I find myself deeply moved by the resilience of West Bank Palestinians in circumstances of intolerable hardship, denial of dignity and severe restriction of freedom of movement, he said. “I weep that the only Israelis encountered by Palestinians are either young conscript soldiers at innumerable checkpoints, or armed settlers who, in turn are guarded by the Israeli Defence Forces. The settlers continue to be permitted to occupy greater and greater tracts of what was Palestinian land and they are provided with infrastructure, including good roads and assured water and electricity supplies, far superior to that afforded to resident Palestinians.
“The denial of opportunity for ordinary Israelis to meet ordinary Palestinians, share their stories, their hopes and especially their fears, is a tragic consequence of the policy of separation symbolised most dramatically by the Separation Barrier. Israel rightly requires security for its citizens with freedom from attacks by militants. There is no doubt that the building of the Separation Barrier has significantly reduced the number of such attacks.
“Yet, in truth, security is never guaranteed by force of arms, but only by the creation of circumstances that disarm hostility. I believe that any country which takes upon itself the responsibility to annex additional territory also takes upon itself the responsibility to treat the inhabitants of the annexed territory with the same respect, care, justice and equality it accords to its own citizens. Not to do so is at the least discrimination and at worst may amount to collective punishment.”
He expressed concern that as the search for peace is delayed, there is a greater “likelihood that moderates will be supplanted by extremists. Meanwhile, the Christians of Israel and Palestine are steadily reducing, both in numbers and as a proportion of the population of both Israel and the West Bank. I should make it clear that Christians express no sense of any threat from Islam. Rather what threatens is the intolerable conditions in which they are forced to live together with opportunities for a peaceful and prosperous future elsewhere.”
He pointed out that “for 2,000 years the ancestors of Palestinian Christians have worshipped at and preserved the Holy Places. The places themselves, evocative though they be, are inanimate stones. It is the people who are the ‘Living Stones’ and who through living and worshipping there make the Holy Land much more than merely a museum. The Living Stones need our active support and solidarity. They need to know that they are not the forgotten people of the Middle East. We need to ensure that those who go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land are as committed to the Living Stones as they are to the Holy Places.
“Let us put Palestinian Christians at the heart of our continual prayers for peace and justice. As in Ireland so in Israel and Palestine, religion is a component of a conflict about land and identity. It seems to me important for people of faith to try to contribute positively to the resolution of such conflict. Three great faiths have the Holy Land as both meeting place and common ground. In these days of inter-faith dialogue might it be possible to pursue the search for peace and parity of esteem by an exploration and articulation of shared ethical values?”
Christians, Muslims and Jews already share a monotheistic faith and have shared spiritual roots in Old Testament scripture, he pointed out. “If religion is part of the problem it must become part of the solution. Only by working constructively towards it may religious people, with integrity, pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”
The need to engage passionately with the world as disciples and as people actively engaged in discipleship. The mission we are engaged in is not our mission, but God’s mission, he said. He used a video-clip on the work of the Jethro Centre in Shankhill Parish, Lurgan, as an example of the Church serving the whole community through seeking and sharing the right vision.
He spoke too of the need for synod reform. The first steps had been taken with a re-evaluation of the Church’s committee structures, and the decision to hold General Synod next year in Armagh over a weekend, and new ideas about focusing over a three-year synod period on one aspect of the life and work of the Church each year.
Looking at training for ministry, the archbishop spoke of the need to integrate training and practice and to develop a culture of life-long learning. He told synod members the distinction between NSM and stipendiary ministry needed to be seen only as a matter of deployment. While outlining some of the proposals for the new Church of Ireland Theological Institute, he apologised for the lack of communications to staff members at the Church of Ireland Theological College.
“I have … to accept that not everything has been handled as well as we should have liked. It would be untrue to say that we have made no mistakes in taking forward our proposals, particularly in managing the flow of information between the bishops and the staff of the Theological College. I want to express to the staff our regret that sometimes we could not, for reasons of confidentiality, keep them fully informed. I hope that Professor Empey and his colleagues will accept the genuineness of my expression of regret. This has been and remains a complicated and fast moving scenario throughout which we have learned important lessons. We remain genuinely grateful to the staff of the Theological College for their service to the Church of Ireland over the past years.”
Archbishop Harper paid “particular tribute to Canon Professor Adrian Empey, who has been Principal of the Church of Ireland Theological College for the past seven years. Adrian Empey is a scholar of international repute who also brought to his oversight of clergy training a wide experience in parochial ministry, both urban and rural. He took responsibility for the Theological College at a crucial time for the Church of Ireland, during a period of great change, which also included the first formal academic inspection of the College – an exercise he encouraged and supported throughout. In thanking him for all that he has contributed throughout his ministry, I take this opportunity to wish him and Mrs June Empey everything that is good for a long and rewarding retirement.”
In addition, the archbishop paid tribute to Bishop Michael Mayes, who retired at the end of March as Bishop of Limerick and Killaloe, to Dean Desmond Harman, who died last December, including their work with the Church of Ireland Bishops’ Appeal Fund.
The opening worship was led for the first time by the Bishop of Connor, the Right Rev Alan Abernathy. In the opening session, there were tributes to Canon Ian Ellis, clerical honorary secretary, who is still recovering from surgery, to Mr Derek Philips, who is retiring from the RCB staff after 45 years, and to Mr Michael Davey who is standing down as assessor after many years.
A sad task was the election of a clerical honorary secretary to replace Dean Harman. The Archdeacon of Cork, Cloyne and Ross, the Ven Robin Bantry White, was elected when he was proposed by the Dean of Ossory, the Very Revd Norman Lynas, and seconded by the Dean of Limerick, the Very Rev Maurice Sirr. Earlier in the morning, the House of Bishops met and confirmed and ratified the election of Canon Trevor Williams as Bishop of Limerick and Killaloe.
Professor Brendan Leahy also spoke warmly of Dean Harman, Bishop Mayes and Bishop-elect Williams when he spoke as the guest representative of the Roman Catholic Church.
“I was built more for comfort and speed” – Sam Harper.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College. He is a representative of the Diocese of Dublin at the General Synod.