Sunday, 31 August 2008

With Vaughan Williams on Wenlock Edge

Wilderhope Manor on Wenlock Edge: my first introduction to the music of Vaughan Williams

Patrick Comerford

This month (August) marks the 50th anniversary of the death of the English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), who died on 26 August 1958.

Vaughan Williams wrote symphonies, chamber music, opera, choral music, and film scores, arranged a number of hymns, adapting them to popular melodies, and collected English folk music, folk dance and songs. And it a great pleasure to find that the BBC’s Proms last night (30 August) was a tribute to Vaughan Williams.

I was first introduced to the music of Vaughan Williams when I was 19 and I was staying in Wilderhope Manor on the slopes of Wenlock Edge. It was 1971 and I was walking through Shropshire, visiting small towns and villages such as Much Wenlock, Church Stretton, Longville and Shipton. Appropriately, the warden of the youth hostel suggested I should listen to Vaughan Williams’s On Wenlock Edge.

Six settings of poems from A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad make up On Wenlock Edge, which is Vaughan Williams’s first totally characteristic work. The landscape inhabited by Housman is that of a mythical, idealised Shropshire, similar to the Wessex evoked in the novels of Thomas Hardy. His dominant themes are love, and a post-industrial pastoral nostalgia, infused with expressions of disillusionment at the sacrifice of the young soldiers going to war, never to return.

In recent weeks I have been listening again to some of those works I first came to know in the 1970s, including In the Fen Country (1904), Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 (1906, revised in 1914), The Wasps, based on the play by Aristophanes (1909), On Wenlock Edge (1909), Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910, revised in 1913 and 1919), Fantasia on Greensleeves (1934) and The Lark Ascending (1914). In all these works, Vaughan Williams is characteristically English, and Bishop Edward Darling and Donald Davison, in their Companion to Church Hymnal, say: “Many would claim he was the greatest 20th century English composer.”

A vicar’s son, Vaughan Williams was born on 12 October 1872 in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire. His father, the Revd Arthur Vaughan Williams, who died in 1875, was the Vicar of Down Ampney, while his mother, Margaret Susan Wedgwood (1843–1937), was a direct descendant of the Staffordshire potter Josiah Wedgwood, and was related to the Darwin family – Charles Darwin was a great-uncle and Tony Benn is a distant cousin. With a background like that, it is little wonder that Vaughan Williams grew up with life-lasting democratic and egalitarian ideals – a socialist who refused all honours except the Order of Merit, which he accepted after the death of Elgar in 1935.

At the Royal College of Music, Vaughan Williams studied under the Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford. Later, as he read history and music at Trinity College, Cambridge, he became friends with the philosophers George Moore and Bertrand Russell.

During World War I, he was a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps. His war-time experiences eventually led to his complete deafness in old age, but his Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No. 3) draws on his experiences as an ambulance volunteer. During World War II, he spoke up for his fellow composers Britten and Tippett who were conscientious objectors.

Last night, we heard three of his great works: His Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was his first big public success when he conducted the premiere in Gloucester Cathedral in 1910. His Serenade to Music – a setting of a scene from Act 5 of The Merchant of Venice – was written for orchestra and 16 vocal soloists as a tribute to the conductor Sir Henry Wood. His last symphony, his Symphony No. 9 in E minor, was written in 1956-1957 and is based on Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. It was first performed in May 1958, just three months before his death. This dark and enigmatic work is regarded by many as a fitting conclusion to his sequence of symphonic works. When he died three months later, he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

His second wife, the poet Ursula Wood, claimed he was an “atheist … [who] later drifted into a cheerful agnosticism.” But Vaughan Williams is a deeply mystical and spiritual composer, and many of his works have religious subject-matters.

His hymn settings include To be a pilgrim, based on John Bunyan’s hymn Who would true valour see, using the traditional Sussex melody Monk’s Gate; the tune Sine Nomine for William Walsham How’s For All the Saints; the tune Forest Green for the carol O Little Town of Bethlehem by Phillips Brooks; and his setting for Come Down, O Love Divine, named Down Ampney after his birthplace. He wrote settings for canticles, carols and masses, and composed a Te Deum in G for the enthronement of Cosmo Lang as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1928.

With Percy Dearmer and Martin Shaw, Vaughan Williams can be credited with the revival and spread of traditional and medaieval English musical forms. Without Vaughan Williams, it is impossible to imagine the English Hymnal (1906), for which he was the musical editor and in which he collaborated with Percy Dearmer.

In collaboration with the organists of Saint Mary’s, Primrose Hill, Martin and Geoffrey Shaw, Vaughan Williams and Percy Dearmer later produced two more hymnals, Songs of Praise (1925) and The Oxford Book of Carols (1928). These hymnals have been credited with reintroducing many elements of traditional and mediaeval English music into the Church of England, as well as carrying that influence into the rest of the Anglican Communion.

Without Vaughan Williams, where would Anglican liturgy, hymnody, music and spirituality be today? As David Johnson said in a recent essay (23 August) in The Tablet: “The preoccupation with the journey of the soul shines through the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams. His music is the enduring elgacy of one of the most insightful and visionary of pilgrims.”

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

Friday, 29 August 2008

Opera is good for the soul and humour for the heart

Patrick Comerford

For the past four weeks, Dublin City Council has been presenting “Opera in The Open 2008” – with a free outdoor event each Thursday lunchtime at 1 in the Amphitheatre between Christ Church Cathedral and the Civic Offices on Wood Quay.

During August, the programme included Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutti, Handel’s Alcina, and Puccini’s La Boheme, narrated by Ted Courtney, with David Wray as musical director and Anthony Norton as Director.

This week it was The Barber of Seville by Gioachino Rossini. Opera is good for soul and humour is good for the heart, and The Barber of Seville is one of the most sparkling comedies in opera.

Workers, mothers with toddlers, tourists, foreign language students and local residents crowded around the amphitheatre steps, stood under the shade of the lime trees, and spread out their jackets and newspapers to laze on the grassy mound

The Barber of Seville, or The Useless Precaution (Il barbiere di Siviglia, ossia L’inutile precauzione) is an opera buffa in two acts by Rossini with a libretto by Cesare Sterbini, and was first staged in Rome in 1816. The story is based on the first of the plays from the Figaro trilogy by the French playwright Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais … Mozart’s opera Le nozze di Figaro, composed 30 years earlier in 1786, is based on the second play in the Beaumarchais trilogy.

It took Rossini only three weeks to write The Barber of Seville, but he borrowed the famous overture from two of his earlier operas, Aureliano in Palmira and Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra.

It is hard to imagine how that the first performance of the Barber was a disaster for Rossini. The audience hissed and jeered throughout, and there were several on-stage accidents. But with its second performance, the opera became a roaring success.

The Barber takes place in Seville in 17th century Spain, where Count Almaviva disguises himself as a poor student, Lindoro, hoping to win the heart of the beautiful Rosina. Disguised as Lindoro, he hopes that the beautiful Rosina will love him for himself and not for his wealth and status.

The barber is the quick-witted Figaro, who is hired to assist Almaviva in Rosina’s hand. But her guardian, old Dr Bartolo, has other plans – he wants to marry her himself, and as the plot unfolds there are some hilarious and farcical twists and turns.

Figaro advises the Count to disguise himself as a soldier and to pretend to be drunk to gain entrance to Dr Bartolo’s house. He also asks Rosina to write a few encouraging words to Lindoro, although she has already written him such a letter. Disguised first as a drunken soldier, then as a singing tutor, The Count manages to get into the doctor’s house twice, but is thrown out on each occasion by Bartolo.

The old doctor then rushes to a notary to draw up a marriage contract between the doctor and Rosina. Meanwhile, Rosina feels betrayed and heartbroken. But when Almaviva returns to the house yet again, he reveals his true identity to Rosina. The two are reconciled and are married before Bartolo’s return, with Basilio the singing instructor and Figaro the Barber as their witnesses.

True love won out in the end. That may not be how life is all the time. But it was fun yesterday, even if it was over within an hour. And it was good for the heart and the soul.

“Opera in The Open 2008” ends its season next Thursday (4 September) with L’elisir D’amore by Donizetti.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

A rock-solid apostolic faith like Peter’s

Petra: the city is carved out of a great rock at an oasis near the Dead Sea

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 24 August 2008 (Trinity 14): Exodus 1: 8 – 2: 10; Psalm 124; Romans 12: 1-8; Matthew 16: 13-20.

May all our thoughts words and deeds be to the praise, honour and glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

One of the most majestic and visually stunning sites in the Middle East is the carved rock city of Petra (Greel πέτρα, petra, rock; Arabaic, البتراء, al-Batrā) in Jordan. This “rose-red city, half as old as time,” stands in the valley running from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba, and today it is regarded as one of the new wonders of the world.

Petra was known to historians, and it is known as Rekem in the Dead Sea Scrolls. It was built by the Nabateans as their capital in an oasis in the middle of the desert. According to Arab tradition, Petra is the spot where Moses struck a rock with his staff and water came forth, and where his brother Aaron is buried.

However, in the west we lost sight of Petra after the Crusades, and it only became known to us once again in 1812, when it was rediscovered by a Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. But since its discovery almost 200 years ago it has had a fascinating grip on western imagination. UNESCO describes it as “one of the most precious cultural properties” in our “cultural heritage,” and in 1985 Petra was designated a World Heritage Site.

It has featured in a number of movies, including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Passion in the Desert, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, in the video game Spy Hunter, and in novels such as Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death, Simon Scarrow’s The Eagle in the Sand, and in The Red Sea Sharks, one of the Adventures of Tintin.

It is an archaeological site of breathtaking proportions, and its rock-hewn, sculpted and carved buildings include a Temple, a Treasury, a Theatre, tombs and a Monastery.

The Lycian rock tombs in Fethiye look like the facades and porticos of temples (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Rock-hewn architectural works of cultural significance can be found in many other parts of the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean. Two years ago, I climbed up the cliffs that shape the horse-shoe harbour of Fethiye in western Turkey to see the Lycian tombs carved and hewn into the rock face, for all the world looking like the facades of classical temples.

When you see breathtaking sights like these, you understand how culturally relevant it was for Jesus to talk about the wise man building his house on a rock rather than on sand (Matthew 7: 24-26; Luke 6: 48) – a Gospel reading, you may remember, we had way back at the beginning of June.

Ordinary domestic buildings might have been built to last a generation or two, at most. But building on rock, building into rock, was laying the foundation for major works of cultural, political and religious significance that would last long after those who had built them had been forgotten.

And so, when Jesus says to Peter in our Gospel reading this morning that the church is going to be built on a rock, he is talking about the foundations for a movement, an institution, an organisation, a community that is going to have lasting, ever-lasting significance.

In the past, Christians have got ourselves tied up in knots over very silly arguments about this morning’s Gospel story. Some of us shy away from dealing with this story, knowing that in the past it has been used to bolster not so much the claims of the Papacy, but all the baggage that goes with those claims. In other words, it was argued by some in the past that the meaning of this passage was explicit, and if you accepted this narrow meaning, you accepted the Papacy, and if you accepted that then you also accepted Papal infallibility, Papal claims to universal jurisdiction, and Papal teachings on celibacy, birth control, the immaculate conception and the assumption of the Virgin Mary.

And that’s more than just a leap and a jump from what is being taught in our Gospel passage this morning. But to counter those great leaps of logic, Protestant theologians in the past have put forward contorted arguments about the meaning of the rock and the rock of faith in this passage. Some have tried to argue that the word used for Peter, Petros (πητρος), is the Greek for a small pebble, but that faith is described with a different Greek word, petra,(πητρα), meaning a giant rock, the sort of rock you would use to carve out the rock tombs of Fethiye or even the desert city of Petra itself.

A little pebble, or a fisherman with rock-solid faith?

They were silly arguments. The distinction between these words existed in Attic Greek in the classical days, but not in the Greek used at the time of Jesus or at the time Matthew was writing his Gospel. Petros (πητρος) was the male name derived from a rock, petra (πητρα) was a rock, a massive rock like Petra, and the word lithos (λιθος) was used for a small rock, a stone, or even a pebble – it’s the Greek word that gives us words like lithograph and megalithic, meaning Great Stone Age.

And Peter is a rock, his faith is a rock, a rock that is solid enough to provide the foundations for Christ’s great work that is the Church.

How could Peter or his faith be so great? This is the same Peter who in last week’s reading (Matthew 15: 21-28) wanted Jesus to send away the desperate Canaanite woman because “she keeps shouting at us.” The week before (Matthew 14: 22-33), he tried to walk on water and almost drowned, and Jesus said to the same Peter: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (verse 31). And in the week before that (Matthew 14: 13-21), he was among the disciples who wanted to send away the crowd and let them buy food for themselves (verse 15).

This is the Peter who seems to get it wrong constantly. Later in this Gospel, he denies Christ three times at the Crucifixion (Matthew 26: 75). After the Resurrection, Jesus has to put the question three times to Peter before Peter confesses that Jesus knows everything, and Jesus then calls him with the words: “Follow me” (John 21: 15-19).

The Apostle Peter in an icon on Mount Athos (1546): so often he gets it wrong, like I do, but he has rock apostolic solid-faith

Peter is so like me. He trips and stumbles constantly. He often gets it wrong, even later on in life. He gives the wrong answers, he comes up with silly ideas, he easily stumbles on the pebbles and stones that are strewn across the pathway of life.

But eventually, it is not his own judgment, his own failing judgment that marks him out as someone special. No. It is his faith, his rock solid faith.

Despite all his human failings, despite his often tactless behaviour, despite all his weaknesses, he is able to say who Christ is for him. He has a simple but rock-solid faith, summarised in that simple, direct statement: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (verse 16).

It is a faith that proves to be so rock-solid that you could say it is blessed, it is foundational. Not gritty, pebbly, pain-on-the-foot sort of faith. But the foundational faith on which you could build a house, carve out a temple or monastery or treasury, rock-solid faith that provides the foundation for the Church.

There are other people in the Bible and in Jewish tradition who are commended for their rock-solid faith, including Abraham and Sarah (see Isaiah 51: 1f),

It’s the sort of faith that will bring people into the Church, and even the most cunning, ambitious, evil schemes, even death itself, will not be able to destroy this sort of faith (verse 18).

Throughout the Bible as people set out on great journeys of faith, their new beginning in faith is marked by God giving them a new name: Abram becomes Abraham, Jacob becomes Israel, Saul becomes Paul, and Simon son of Jonah is blessed with a new name too as he becomes Cephas or Peter, the rock-solid, reliable guy, whose faith becomes a role model for the new community of faith, for each and every one of us.

Why would Jesus pick me or you?

Well, why would he pick a simple fisherman from a small provincial town?

It’s not how others see us that matters. It’s our faith and commitment to Christ that matters. God always sees us as he made us, in God’s own image and likeness, and loves us like that.

In the past few weeks, I’m sure we have all been disturbed by the war in Georgia. As I was praying for the people caught up in this war, I was taken by the fact that the main Church in Georgia, one of the most ancient churches in the world, doesn’t call itself the Georgian Orthodox Church but calls itself officially the Georgian Orthodox and Apostolic Church.

In its name it proclaims not only that the Georgian Church holds to the true faith, but that it holds too to the rock-solid faith of the apostles.

The faith that the Church must look to as its foundation, the faith that we must depend on, that we must live by, is not some self-determined, whimsical decision, but the faith that the Apostles had in the Christ who calls them, that rock-solid, spirit-filled faith in Christ, of which Peter’s confession this morning is the most direct yet sublime and solid example.

Apostolic faith like Peter’s is the foundation stone on which the Church is built, the foundation stone of the new Jerusalem, with Christ as the cornerstone (Ephesians 2: 20; Revelation 21: 14).

It doesn’t matter that Peter was capable of some dreadful gaffes and misjudgments. I’m like that too … constantly.

But Christ calls us in our weaknesses. And in our weaknesses he finds our strengths. So that, as the Apostle Paul reminds us in our Epistle reading this morning, the church is then built up by the gifts that each one of us has to offer in ministry, in service to Christ, “each according to the measure of faith that Christ has assigned” (Romans 12: 3).

Our weaknesses can be turned to strengths if we accept the unique gifts each of us has been given by God and joyfully use them, lovingly use them, in God’s service, for building up his kingdom.

Let’s not be afraid of our weaknesses. Let’s not be afraid of the mistakes we inevitably make. But let’s accept the gifts God has given us. Let’s use those to build up our faith, to build up the Church, and to serve Christ and the world.

And now, may all our thoughts words and deeds continue to be to the praise, honour and glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College. This sermon was preached at the Parish Eucharist in Holy Trinity Church, Rathmines, Dublin, at 10.30 a.m. on Sunday 24 August 2008.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

The pushy woman who refuses to accept her fate

Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Folio 164r - The Canaanite Woman (The Musée Condé, Chantilly)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 17 August 2008: Trinity 13

Genesis 45: 1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11: 1-2a, 5-15; Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28.

May all our thoughts words and deeds be to the praise, honour and glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Ever since he first took part in the CMS summer camps in Kinsale, one of my sons has continued to wear a wristband that simply carried the initials WWJD – What Would Jesus Do?

He’s worn it every day since – in school, throughout his exams, on his holidays, even in the swimming pool.

It’s a popular phrase, and at first sight it’s an easy standard to look to when we need a yardstick for moral decisions and how to behave towards one another. But would you like to behave the way Jesus did when he first met the Canaanite or Syro-Phoenician woman in the district of Tyre and Sidon?

Our Gospel reading this morning, on first reading, seems to show us a Jesus who first rejects the pleas of a distressed woman, deeply worried about her daughter. One writer suggests that this is a Gospel story where Jesus is caught with his compassion down. Even his disciples want to turn her away. They see her as a pest, a nuisance, a pushy woman breaking in to their closed space, their private area.

After a very trying and busy time, that included the beheading of John the Baptist, the feeding of the 5,000, the calming of the storm, and a major debate with leading Pharisees, the disciples and Jesus have arrived in the coastal area of Tyre and Sidon, an area of small villages, perhaps looking for a quiet break for a few days.

This is foreign territory, inhabited by a large number of Canaanites or Phoenicians, who were culturally Hellenised and mainly Greek-speaking. It was also territory associated with Elijah, the prophet who raises the widow’s child from death (I Kings 17: 9-24), and who, in Kieran O’Mahony’s words, “was markedly, even offensively, open to foreigners.”

So Jesus could expect to find himself among a large number of Greek-speaking “Gentiles” in this area. Would the Disciples expect him to behave like Elijah and to break all the rules in being open to them, take miraculous care of a lone mother and her chils?

If Jesus was planning simply to get away for a quiet break with his friends and companions, then those plans were frustrated when a woman from this region comes to him with her very pressing demands.

In Saint Matthew’s account, she is a Canaanite woman; in Saint Mark’s telling of the story (Mark 7: 27-31), she is a Greek or Syro-Phoenician woman (verse 26). Both mean the same thing, for Canaan in Hebrew and Phoenicia in Greek both mean the Land of Purple. She was a Gentile, a foreigner, a Greek-speaker and a woman. What right had she to invade their privacy? Could she not just accept life as it is?

In the classical world, Phoenician women were pushy women. About 400 years earlier, the great Greek playwright Euripides wrote his tragic play The Phoenician Women (Φοίνισσαι, Phoenissae), rewriting a similar story used by Aeschylus in his play, Seven Against Thebes, and dealing with tragic events following the fall of Oedipus.

The title of the play, The Phoenician Women, refers to the Greek chorus, which is composed of Phoenician women on their way to Delphi and who are trapped in Thebes by the war.

The two key women in the play by Euripides are Jocasta and her daughter Antigone, who have survived against all odds. They challenge the accepted concepts in Classical times of fate and free-will.

In the face of death, they refuse to accept what other people regarded as their destiny, they refused to be pushed aside, marginalised and dismissed as the men around then compete for power.

So, in the time of Jesus, educated, Greek-speaking people, including those around Tyre and Sidon, would have known how a Greek-speaking Phoenician woman and her daughter could be pushy when faced with what appeared to be a cruel fate, even if this involved confronting successful or ambitious men: they were prepared to stand up to kings and rulers, prepared to challenge them, and prepared to risk rejection and exile.

For their part, the disciples, who were probably without this cultural knowledge, would have dismissed the woman for what they saw her as: a Gentile, a stranger, a foreigner, a Greek-speaker and a woman. Her religion, language, nationality and gender put her beyond the compassion of the disciples.

But faced with her daughter’s needs, the woman ignores the disciples: she is direct and aggressive in demanding healing and justice. And in demanding justice and healing for her daughter, she is, of course, demanding these for herself too.

The dialogue between this woman and Jesus must have sounded crude and aggressive to those who had gathered around to hear what was going on.

This pushy woman forces herself into the house, addresses Jesus in Messianic terms, and demands not that he should heal her daughter, but that he should show mercy. On whom? On her tormented daughter? On the distressed mother? The NRSV translation is clear, where the RSV is not: in the original Greek, she asks for mercy for herself (verse 22).

At first, Jesus appears to treat her with contempt: at first he doesn’t even respond to her, he didn’t even utter one word. Instead, he turns away and tells his friends he is only here for the lost sheep of Israel (verse 24).

But she is persistent and – with a touch of melodrama – she throws herself at the feet of Jesus, the original Greek says she was worshipping him, saying “Lord, help me” (verse 25).

Jesus then shockingly describes his fellow Jews as “little children,” and compares the Gentiles with dogs, little dogs (verse 26).

Today, it would sound like Jesus was calling this woman a bitch, and her daughter a little bitch. But there is something even more shocking here: at that time, dogs were regarded as unclean animals. They were kept outside the city gates, and it was an indication of how low Lazarus had sunk that outside the gates the dogs licked his sores (Luke 16: 19-31, see especially verse 21).

Despite the title of Don Bluth’s 1989 animated movie, All Dogs go to Heaven, it was a popular teaching at that time that dogs were not only kept outside the city gates, but also that they were the only animals to be excluded with certainty from heaven (see Revelation 22: 15).

It is language that is deeply offensive, culturally and theologically, unless Jesus was engaging in humorous banter with this woman.

Just for one moment try to imagine the body language of the conversation, imagine you were trying to stage it as drama, to put it on stage. You would have Jesus talking face-to-face with this pleading, pushy woman. But the disciples are standing behind him and can see her facial reactions … but not the face of Jesus.

If, by now, Jesus has engaged with this woman face-to-face, she now knows it’s worth pushing her demands for mercy and help.

So who is Jesus looking for a response from? The woman has already shown both her compassion and her faith. But can the disciples also show compassion and faith.

The woman not only has compassion and faith, but she also shows humour when, in her response to Jesus she engages in banter with him, telling him that even puppy dogs, when they are away from adult view, play under the table. Could Jesus, when he is away from the view of Jewish crowds, not engage with those he doesn’t sit at table with but who nevertheless are in his presence, those he had dismissed as dogs?

Jesus appreciates this encounter: her insistence on meeting him face-to-face, her refusal to be oppressed on the grounds of ethnicity, religion, language or gender, her forthright way of speaking and her subliminal but humorous comparisons are all part of the drama in this story

And this combination, when it all combines to show that she is a woman of faith, produces results. In Saint Mark’s Gospel, Jesus responds to her demands and when she returns home she finds her child has been healed (Mark 7: 30). In Saint Matthew’s account this morning, Jesus goes further – he commends her for her faith (verse 28) and her daughter is healed instantly.

Nothing is said about the response of the disciples, who had been trying to push her away, despite her crying, her tears, her distress, her plight over her daughter.

Nothing is said about the response of the disciples … because we are the disciples. How do you and I respond to encounters like this?

As a social response, for example, we might consider that the confrontation is an illustration of how we might respond to the needs of strangers and foreigners.

Do we find them pushy and demanding? How do we respond when the foreign woman in our society wants the same treatment in hospital as Irish-born children? How do we respond when foreigners who are more open and joyful in conversation, appear to be encroaching on our privacy on the bus, on the street or in a shop? Are we like the Disciples, and want to send them away? Or are we like Jesus, and engage in conversation with them? Do we think we have some privileges that should not be shared with the outsider and the stranger?

How do we respond to people who are pushy and continue to demand care for their children in the face of society’s decision to say no? The parents who want teaching support for children with learning disabilities, the parents who want to know why children’s hospitals are so badly funded that they have to raise funds with charity events while their children wait for treatment.

But this Gospel story also raises questions at a personal, spiritual level too, when it comes to matters of faith.

How many people do you know who give up when they turn to God in prayer and find those who are supposed to represent Jesus appear to turn them away? How many times have I dismissed the needs and prayers of others because they appear to be outside the community of faith as I understand it? And, at a personal level, how many times have I gone to God in prayer, and given up at what appears to be the first refusal?

This woman never asked for healing for her daughter. She first asked Jesus for mercy. She had a difficult situation back at home and may have found it difficult to deal with. And she got no answer. She asked again for help, not for her daughter, but for herself. And she was rebuffed. But she was insistent, she refused to accept what other people regarded as her fate and destiny. And in the end, she received the mercy and help she asked for, and lots, lots more … for she was commended in front of the disciples for her faith, and her daughter was healed, healed instantly.

We do not have to accept misery in our family life, even if others see it as our fate or our destiny. And in simple prayers we may find more in the answer than we ever ask for.

And now, may all our thoughts words and deeds continue to be to the praise, honour and glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College. This sermon was preached at the Parish Eucharist in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham, Co Dublin, at 10.30 a.m. on Sunday 17 August 2008.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

The great Portrane sale helps ‘the poorest of the poor’

Mary Lynders … her energy and enthusiasm are infectious

Patrick Comerford

This week’s rains in Dublin and the floods last weekend and ever since have been a major disappointment. After more almost 4½ hours on the M50 on Saturday night, I had to give up all efforts to get to a barbeque in Portrane, and turn home dejected.

It was so disappointing – not just because I was missing out on a good Saturday night, but because the Lynders family in Portrane are among the best bunch of people I know, and are among my favourite cousins.

I was not alone in failing to get to it, but the barbeque was a great night and those who did make it “had a blast.” It was a real celebration of the fantastic success of the three-day August Bank Holiday Sale at The Quay in Portrane.

For the last few years, this sale has been a major date in the social and community diary for everyone on the North County peninsula that is Portrane and Donabate. From dawn on Saturday morning until dusk on Monday evening, August Bank Holiday was one “fund-raising rave” at The Quay, the home of Mary Lynders and her family.

There were tents, gazebos, marquees and open tables to make space for the book stalls, the bric-a-brac, the antiques, the furniture, the designer clothes, the Halloween and Christmas gifts, the toys and novelties, the children’s gifts, the plants … and the wheel-of-fortune, where most of the children – and even some of the adults – put their hopes on winning the Giant Toblerone.

You name it and Mary had someone to run a stall with it to raise funds for “Hand to Heart,” the project that has become her life’s mission and that consumes every waking and thinking moment of her committed life. Mary’s enthusiasm is so infectious that she has persuaded, enlisted, cajoled and conscripted the most diverse but wonderful group of assistants for the mega sale, which takes place in full carnival atmosphere.

Those who come to support the mega sale each year can hardly imagine the year-round slog of hard work and preparation that goes in to making this weekend the success it is. Mary and her daughters, Antoinette, Mar, and Anna, spend sleepless nights and forego weekends just to get everything together, and to pack the containers that no-one sees during the sale. For it’s all in aid of “Heart to Hand,” which works helping the poorest of the poor in Albania and Romania.

“Heart to Hand” works with poorest of the poor in countries such like Albania, Bosnia, Moldova and Romania.

“Heart to Hand” is a registered, non-denominational, charity working with the poorest of the poor in countries like Albania, Bosnia, Moldova and Romania, sending out medicine, clothing, shoes, food, non-perishable goods, furniture, and other humanitarian aid, as well as helping education, building and training projects, with support channelled through local communities, schools, orphanages and churches.

The story of “Heart to Hand” goes back to 1991, when Kieran Byrne, a transport haulier from Co Wexford, was watching a television documentary that graphically portrayed showed in the devastation and deprivation in Romania, with children abandoned in the streets, and poor and hungry people living in dilapidated buildings.

Kieran was traumatised and with the help of friends and neighbours sent out two loads of humanitarian aid to Bucharest. There he met Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who asked Kieran to help her people in Albania and Romania, saying that “the Lord would provide” if there was a positive response.

When Mary Lynders saw a similar programme she got in touch with the producers and was eventually put in touch with Kieran. Through people like Mary and her wonderful, life-affirming family, the response has been positive and “the Lord has been providing for this charity ever since.”

“Heart to Hand” has helped to build Saint Joseph’s House, a shelter for street children in Bucharest and that opened in 1999 to cater for 26 street children and that is run by an organisation known appropriately as the Street Children of Bucharest. “Heart to Hand” is also involved in supporting Caritas in northern Romania in training and education programmes. One example is provided by a massive attic that has been converted into school rooms, offices and toilets for the children of a local village, where a state-of-the-art school is now in place.

Working with people who have this sort of vision, hope and love is one of the most rewarding life experiences I can have. And, to add to the joys of it all, working on the book stall with William and Dan in the red-and-white marquee was three days of fun. As for watching Antoinette entertain and enchant those bedazzled children – well, that was eye-opening.

But then Portrane is a little, romantic corner of heaven. After all, The Quay is where my grandparents met and it was from that same house that they got married.

After donations, this year’s sale in Portrane is expected to equal if not pass last year’s figure of more than €32,000. When the work was over and done, I spent Tuesday at the clear-up, but I was sure there is a lot more to be done long after I had vanished home.

I’m still upset about missing the BBQ, when we could have all celebrated this wonderful achievement. If you missed the sale, you can still send your donation to “Heart to Hand,” c/o Mrs Mary Lynders, the Quay, Portrane, Co Dublin. And if you have good clothes to donate, she’s hoping another container will be going out soon, thanks to Kieran Byrne’s organisational skills and dedication. Why not give a helping hand?

You can read more about “Heart to Hand” at www.hearttohand.net, where there is more information about the charity and its story. For a feature in the Irish Examiner by Terry Prone, who lives in the Martello Tower in Portrane, click on this link: http://www.examiner.ie/irishexaminer/pages/story.aspx-qqqg=opinion-qqqm=opinion-qqqa=general-qqqid=68953-qqqx=1.asp

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Canon-in-residence in the cathedral

Canon Patrick Comerford with Archbishop Ephraim Adebola Ademowo of Lagos and his wife Oluranti after the mid-day Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on Monday

Patrick Comerford

Throughout this week, I am the canon-in-residence in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. There was no visiting choir in the cathedral for the Eucharist on Sunday morning, but the guest organist was Vincent Lynch, a former organ scholar in the Chapel at Trinity College Dublin.

As canon-in-residence, I preached at the Cathedral Eucharist on Sunday morning, and I am in the cathedral each evening for Evening Prayer at 5 p.m.

In addition, I have been in the cathedral a few days between this week and last week as the priest-chaplain, leading the mid-day Peace Prayers at noon, presiding at the Eucharist at 12.45, and generally being available for the visitors and tourists who appear to be arriving in the cathedral in great numbers.

There seems to be a large number of Italian tourists this year. But I’ve also sat and talked with people from Argentina, Canada, England, France, Germany, Israel, Jamaica, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, South Africa, Spain and the United States, among other places … on Monday afternoon, three priests from the Romanian Orthodox Church arrived, unannounced, with their families and friends.

And then there was the family from Dublin – father, mother, two children – who had never been in the cathedral before, and were sorry that as “True Dubs” they never knew what it was like inside.

On Monday, when we remembered John Henry Newman in the cathedral calendar, the Archbishop of Lagos, the Most Revd Dr Ephraim Adebola Ademowo, and his wife Oluranti, were present at the mid-day Eucharist. Archbishop Ephraim pronounced the absolution and the blessing, and the congregation also included an interesting group of visitors from Canada.

Afterwards, the Archbishop and his wife, known in her diocese as “Mama Lagos,” were brought on a guided tour of the cathedral by the Administrator, Mr Michael Denton.

On the previous evening, there was a welcome dinner in the Orlagh Retreat Centre for the Archbishop of Lagos and his wife in the Orlagh Retreat Centre. Archbishop Ademowo was in Dublin to baptise his grandson in Whitechurch Parish Church on Sunday morning. The guests at the dinner included Archbishop John Neill of Dublin, his wife Betty, members of the Augustinian community and retreat team at Orlagh, and clergy, readers and parishioners from Tallaght and Whitechurch parishes.

Like all the Anglican bishops in Nigeria, Archbishop Ephraim was not present at the Lambeth Conference this year. But his presence in the cathedral and in Whitechurch, the good fun we had at dinner on Sunday, and his meeting with Archbishop Neill in See House today (Tuesday) all go to show that the Anglican Communion is still holding together despite what some commentators and observers may say.

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

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Why do England’s charms fail to attract the Irish?

The pretty town of Calne in North Wiltshire is only a short hop from Ireland. But why do England’s charms fail to attract the Irish? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Over the years, I have been stimulated and excited by my commitment to and involvement in programmes to combat racism in Ireland and internationally. These have included the Discovery programme in the Dioceses of Dublin and Glendalough, the publication of Embracing Difference by Church of Ireland Publishing, work on interfaith dialogue, combating anti-Semitism, and, in previous decades, the Anti-Apartheid Movement and work with people engaged in the World Council of Churches Programme to Combat Racism.

But for some time I have had a little problem about racism that worries me. I don’t know whether I’m right about this. But if I am, I wonder how I should deal with it. Because for some years, I have been worried the one form of racism that goes unmentioned and unchallenged – even in polite circles in Ireland – is anti-English racism.

Walk into any bar or pub in your town or city on a night when big name English clubs such as Manchester United or Liverpool are playing, and you will find the place crowded with roaring, shouting full-grown men, dressed in team shirts and colours, all identifying with the team they’re cheering, and speaking in terms life “we” and “us.”

Walk into the same bar or pub when the English rugby or soccer team is playing an international match, and you’ll find that the same men – some still wearing English club shirts – will inevitably cheer any country from any continent that is playing against England. That fact that England failed to qualify for Euro 2008 appears to have brought pleasure to many Irish soccer fans.

Jokes that fall flat

When I hear not just schoolchildren but mature, sophisticated adults talking without qualification about “800 years of English oppression” or “occupation,” I wonder who they think we are descended from. After all, no-one whose family has lived in Ireland since the days of at least their grandparents or great-grandparents can be without English ancestors, even if they came from England over 800 years ago.

I listen with pained embarrassment when I hear people in polite company telling jokes in which English people are the butt of humour. The joke-tellers are often unaware that similar jokes were told in England until the 1970s, with the Irish as the pilloried victims. The same people would cringe if they those jokes were retold with the English characters replaced by Poles, Latvians, Romanians or Nigerians.

How has this sad situation developed? Why haven’t we changed our attitudes to the English in recent years? After all, we Irish are now seen as chic in England, and most of us have countless strains of English ancestry. We can hardly blame it on the situation in Northern Ireland – after all this, was primarily an Irish problem, not an English problem, and we have all grown up a lot in many other ways since 1998.

I don’t want to be put in the same category as some over-zealous, over-conservative newspaper columnists who present their Anglophile views in an extreme fashion that often irritates Irish readers. But why don’t we love England in the same way we love Italy, France, Spain or Greece, even when it comes to holidays? Why don’t we welcome the English in the same way as they welcome us? When will we realise that the Irish are among the most popular tourists and visitors in England today?

Ten thousand welcomes

During my recent working visits to England, I pondered these questions. In the course of events, I normally find myself in England three or four times a year, and I always enjoy tacking on an extra day to those events. Many of my friends enjoy a few days shopping in London, or a night or two in the West End, perhaps taking in some of the tourist sites and trails. But few of them understand why I love staying in small English towns or villages or in small historic cathedral cities.

On my most recent visit to England, as we passed through the pretty village of Hopwas on the way to Lichfield, a taxi driver from Tamworth talked warmly about Waterford, and how pleasant it was to visit south-east Ireland.

In Lichfield, I have always received the warmest welcome imaginable. Once again, there was a warm welcome last month in the cathedral, in the Cathedral Close, in shops, restaurants and on the streets. The Lichfield Festival in July has as attractive and as imaginative a programme as any arts festival in Irish cities and towns, with orchestral concerts, street theatre, art exhibitions, fireworks, debates, Irish dancers and mediaeval mystery plays. But I imagine few Irish people would think of placing the Lichfield Festival in their cultural diary.

Walking in the Wiltshire Downs

A few weeks before that, I was in Bristol for a conference at Trinity College. Both Bristol and Bath met every expectation of this visitor. But I also decided to spend a night in the small market town of Calne, on the edge of the Wiltshire Downs.

The warm welcome I received in Calne in shops, restaurants, hotels, the library and museum, or while I was on an early morning jog through fields and by rivers and millponds, was reminiscent of how Irish hospitality once was once, but which we seem to have forgotten since the rise of the Celtic Tiger. With its yellow cut-stone houses, domestic architecture by Robert Adam, cobbled streets, alleyways and courtyards, canals, pools and ponds, and its pretty almshouses and boutique shops, Calne is a town that oozes character and charm.

The parish church, with its tower by Inigo Jones, traces its history back to a synod in Calne in the year 978, when Archbishop Dunstan sought to reform the clergy and enforce strict celibacy. The earliest parts of the present Saint Mary’s, including the arches and naves, part of the north aisle wall and the transept are Norman in style, and the church had reached almost its present size by 1155. Eight and a half centuries later, it is still by far the largest church in the area, and is known locally with pride as “The Cathedral of North Wiltshire.”

Charm and character

Calne is one of the oldest market towns in Wiltshire. The town’s character has been enhanced by the local stone from which most of the older buildings are built. This soft, honey-coloured limestone was extracted from local quarries, but local conservationists warn that because of the soft texture of this stone the recent fashion for exposing stone could yet have potentially disastrous consequences.

Calne’s famous residents from the past included Saint Edmund, who was Vicar of Calne when he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1234; Dr Jan Ingen-Housz (1730-1799), who is widely credited with inventing the vaccination; Dr Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), who “discovered” oxygen in 1774 while carrying out experiments at Doctor’s Pond as he was working for the Marquis of Lansdowne at Bowood House, two miles outside Calne; the architect Robert Adam (1728-1792), who designed Bowood House and some of the houses seen to this day in the streets of Calne; and the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), who stayed in Calne in 1814-1815.

I stayed in the White Hart, a small hotel that was once one of the great coaching inns in Calne and an important resting place on the great road from London to Bristol. Parts of the building date from the 16th century. I stayed in a room that dates from the late 16th or early 17th century, looking out onto a cobbled courtyard. Some of the other rooms look out onto the green, once used by the fullers who first made Calne a prosperous town and built many of its charming houses.

From the Middle Ages, the Green was the heart of Calne’s woollen industry. Weaving was essentially a cottage industry, with people expanding their houses as their families and businesses grew. Many of these houses have been adapted and rebuilt over the centuries, giving the Green a particular curious charm. Numbers 10, 12 and 13, continue to reflect the wealth and status of their previous occupants. No 10 was the home of the Baily family, who were wealthy clothiers. No 13, briefly home to the architect Robert Adam, is noted for its “pineapple” finials.

The Priestly House and No 20 The Green, close to the White Hart Hotel, are part of a 16th century building that was subdivided in 1758. Joseph Priestley stayed here from 1772 to 1779, while he was working for the Marquis of Lansdowne at Bowood House.

The Irish connection

The Lansdowne connection has left a number of street names that engage the curiosities of any Irish visitor. They include Fitzmaurice Square, Kerry Crescent, Lansdowne Close, Lansdowne Square, Shelburne Road and Shelburne Terrace. William Fitzmaurice (1737-1805), 2nd Earl of Shelburne, inherited the vast wealth of the Fitzmaurice and Petty families at the age of 24, before becoming Prime Minister and Marquess of Lansdowne. Other titles still in the family include Earl of Kerry and Viscount Calne. And the Lansdowne Strand Hotel, one of the town’s great coaching inns, displays the Lansdowne coat-of-arms, with the emblems of the Fitzmaurice and Petty families. The Irish links continued when the Irish pig trade between Bristol and London gave rise to the Harris bacon factory, which prospered until the 1980s.

Within just one day, the visitor to Calne can have breakfast in the nearby Georgian city of Bath, spend the afternoon visiting the world heritage sites at Stonehenge and Avebury, and see the famous white horses carved into the chalk hillsides, including the White Horse at Cherhill. Close by are Lacock Abbey, the Marlborough Downs and the Vale of Pewsey. Nearby towns and villages include Chippenham, Pewsey and Devizes, with their many listed buildings, and Marlborough, with its wide street and public school.

Towns with this sort of charm – when they are on the shores of Lake Garda – attract Irish tourists in our thousands every summer to northern Italy. Yet Calne and other towns on the edges of the Wiltshire Downs are just a short hop from Dublin: a 45-minute flight to Bristol, and an hour by train or bus through Bath and Chippenham. It is unlikely that Calne will ever become a popular destination for weekend tourists. Perhaps that’s because of the residual anti-English feelings that many Irish people still retain. Who would ever think of spending a weekend break in Calne and Wiltshire Downs? I would, but I’ll have them all to myself. I don’t know whether to be sad or happy.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College. This essay was first published in The Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) in August 2008.

‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid’

Patrick Comerford

Trinity 12: Genesis 37: 1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105: 1-6, 16-22, 45b; Romans 10: 5-15;Matthew 14: 22-33.

May all our thoughts words and deeds be to the praise, honour and glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

At first reading, our Lectionary readings this morning are about exclusion and inclusion: who is inside the community of faith, and who is outside the community of faith.

In our reading from the Book Genesis, Joseph is excluded from his family and therefore denied his place as a Child of the Covenant when his brothers sell him into slavery in Egypt.

The Apostle Paul, in our reading from his Letter to the Church in Rome, warns those early Christians against raising dangerous and discriminating barriers against one another. Instead, he tells us, that in Christ there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, there is no distinction between believers or people of faith that can be justified on the grounds of language, ethnic background, or physical difference – and the physical difference between male Jews and Greeks was a discreet but at times visible one.

In Paul’s days, the big division in the Church was between those who claimed that we could not be members of the Church unless we first converted to Judaism. These were the Judaisers. Paul is not talking here about Jews as a religious community, but those who insisted that we could not be Christians without first becoming Jews, in other words, being circumcised.

Old symbols, such as circumcision, and old rules, such as taboos about food and sexual behaviour, mattered more to them than faith. They wanted to restrict the Good News of the Gospel to a select few rather than bringing that Good News out into the world, the cosmos, that God loves so much that he sent his only Son into it at the incarnation.

In our Gospel reading, it is a little bit more difficult to find what is being said about discrimination and exclusion. But it is important, and should not be lost sight of.

To put our Gospel story in its context, Jesus has just fed the multitude with five loaves and two fishes. As the Community of Faith, as the Church, as the Eucharistic Community gathered around the Risen Lord, we read all the Gospel accounts of meals with Jesus with both the hindsight of our faith in the Resurrection and with our conviction of the presence of Christ in the meals we share in his name.

The five loaves and two fishes are potent Eucharist symbols. The bread with which the multitude has been fed is not simply a meal of convenience – it is also the Bread of Life. For early Christians, the Greek word for fish, icthus (ἰχθύς) symbolised Christ, for its letters stood for the Greek acronym, Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ, meaning Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.

To eat the bread, to be fed with the fish, was to feed on Christ, to accept him as the Risen Christ, to believe in him as the Son of God and Saviour, to be part of the Communion of the Church, the Body of Christ.

But these were the very people the Disciples wanted to avoid feeding and wanted to send away. Jesus has refused to send them home until he speaks to them and until he feeds them. They symbolically represent the outsiders, the multitude, the many, who are invited into the Church, to be fed by the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Sacrament.

After the crowd has been fed, Jesus makes the disciples get into the boat, and sends the crowd away. The act of sending is at the heart of mission. Mission begins with God so loving the world that he sends his only Son so that we may know that love. And Christ then sends those who come to know this love out into that world with his message.

Sending is the foundation of mission – and the sending of the crowd is a sending on mission, just as our dismissal at the end of this Eucharist will mark, not so much the end of this Liturgy, but the beginning of our week in mission; we will be dismissed to go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

For their part, the disciples are made by Jesus to get into the boat. From the writings of the Early Fathers, we know that the boat or barque was an early symbol of the Church (Apostolic Constitutions 2: 47; Tertullian, De bap., 12; P.L., 1:1214; Clement of Alexandria, Pæd. 3:2; P.G., 8:633).

But the disciples, instead of finding that the boat or the church empowers them for mission, treat it as a place to take them away from the crowds and the world. They see it as their own cocoon, their safe territory.

How wrong they were. When the storm comes, when the waves batter them, when he wind rises up against them, they find that we cannot be in the church and be without Jesus and without the crowd.

In their rush to get away from the masses and the world that needs to be fed, they left Christ behind too. And when the storm comes, they realise their need for him. They call out to him, but when they see him, they respond with the same reaction that some had when they first heard the news of the Resurrection – they think he is a ghost rather than the Risen Christ.

In the person of Peter, their faith is tested, and it is found to be weak, it is found to be shallow. Peter is called out of the barque and back into the world, but he cannot make the journey without faith, and without Christ.

Peter is called too to join Christ in mission, to be sent out into the world. But when we neglect the needs of the world, when we ignore those who are hungry, when we see the church as a comfort zone, rather than seeing the Church as something to send us out into the world, then we are not travelling with Christ on our journey through life.

There should be no room in the Church for us to think about it as a comfort zone. When we cut ourselves off from the world and from those we see as different, when we cut ourselves off from those Christ would feed, we cut ourselves off from Christ himself.

When we raise barriers between Jew and Greek, between people who are different because of their social or ethic or linguistic origins, because of their physical differences, we erect a barrier between ourselves and the Christ who is with them.

When we would separate ourselves from our brothers and sisters, like Joseph’s brothers separated themselves from him, we deny the promises of God’s covenant. When we deny others their place in the believing community and the Kingdom of God we are, ultimately, as Joseph’s brothers found, selling our very selves into slavery.

All that is important for the Apostle Paul in our reading this morning is faith in Christ. In turning away from the crowd, the disciples were in danger of losing their trust in Christ; they were turning their back on the call to recognise him as the Son of God.

In the Anglican Communion today, we must ask what old barriers, divisions and taboos we stick to, we cherish, we regard as being far more important than faith in Christ.

In the Anglican Communion today, we must ask whether we are in danger of seeing the Church as a refuge, as a safe haven, as a retreat from the world in which we can be pure and undefiled, rather than seeing the Church as a boat that takes us into the choppy waters of the world, where we will be safe despite all the waves and storms if we trust first in Christ and not put our first emphasis on our own social barriers, divisions and taboos.

In the Anglican Communion today, we must ask whether those people some would want to exclude from the Church, simply because they are different, are in danger of being denied their place as heirs to the promises of God’s kingdom?

But the story of Joseph has a surprising end: the brother who was denied his place in the family becomes the agent of their redemption.

The conflict Paul addressed had a surprising end too: the divisions over taboos and circumcision came to an end and the Church realised Christ’s message was for all.

The Peter who is in danger of being drowned because of his weak faith becomes a foundation stone of the Church. And instead of being tossed around in the storm, the barque or the boat becomes the Church, the symbol or the sacrament of the Kingdom of God.

We need not fear the present storms and waves battering the Anglican Communion. If we have faith in Christ, if we refuse to turn away from the multitude and the world, if we refuse to allow our brothers or sisters to be sent away and sold as slaves, then Christ will rescue us, will allow us to walk through those storms, will allow us to come to him, and we will find many more beyond ourselves who can say: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.”

And now, may all our thoughts words and deeds continue to be to the praise, honour and glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College. This sermon was preached at the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, at 11 a.m. on Sunday 10 August 2008.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Remembering the dead of Hiroshima

Canon Patrick Comerford addressing the Irish CND Hiroshima Day commemoration in Merrion Square, Dublin. Also in the photograph are musicians Máire Ní Bheaglaoich and Brenda Molloy

Patrick Comerford

Over 40 people gathered at the Hiroshima cherry tree in Merrion Square at lunchtime on 6 August to remember the dead of Hiroshima. This commemoration has been organised by Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (Irish CND) each year since 1980. This afternoon, other groups represented included the Irish Anti-War Movement, Pax Christi, the Peace and Neutrality Alliance (PANA), and Burma Action Ireland.

Music was provided by Brenda Molloy and Máire Ní Bheaglaoich, and white chrysanthemums in the shape of the CND logo were placed in front of the cherry tree by Fionn Fitzmaurice.

It is 28 years since I was involved in planting this cherry tree in Merrion Square on 6 August 1980 to commemorate the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In my address as President of Irish CND, I said:

It would be wonderful to think that 63 years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the world had learned its lessons and had turned its back on nuclear destruction.

It would be wonderful, a decade after the end of the Cold War, that we could say the nuclear arms race had come to an end.

It would be wonderful, with the US cooling down on its tirades against Iran and North Korea, if we could say the lessons of the nuclear arms race had been learned by all, especially the nuclear powers.

But, despite the British government’s claims in public that it has not yet made a decision on new nuclear warheads, and despite promises of an open and transparent debate about replacing the Trident nuclear force, it emerged within the last fortnight that in secret the British Ministry of Defence has gone ahead with plans to spend more than £3 billion on replacing its present stockpile of nuclear weapons.

As Nick Harvey of the Liberal Democrats commented, “this feels more like the cloak-and-dagger days of the cold war.”

The current Trident system is expected to become obsolete within the next seven years. But these plans to replace the Trident warheads commit the United Kingdom to a nuclear weapons system beyond the middle of this century, to the year 2055 – 110 years after Hiroshima.

More perversely, this plan comes just two years ahead of the key talks on Nuclear Non-Proliferation. Britain demands openness and honesty from other countries about their nuclear weapons programmes, but arrogantly makes its own nuclear decisions behind closed doors, in a cloud of secrecy. Britain is making sure that while it demands that other countries control their development of nuclear weapons, it can race ahead with its plans for nuclear warfare.

Building newer, potentially more dangerous nuclear warheads will breach Britain’s commitment under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to work towards eventual nuclear disarmament. This decision sends out a destabilising and hypocritical message to other states, whether or not they have nuclear weapons at present.

In the United States, the Bush administration is insisting, against a tide of global opposition, on going ahead with plans to enhance the nuclear capabilities of India. And as if he was blissfully aware of past conflicts, Bush is also using money supposedly designated for “anti-terror funds” to strengthen Pakistan’s air force.

Almost $230 million in aid ear-marked by Congress for counter-terrorism has been diverted to build up Pakistan’s air force. Building up the nuclear and military capacity of two rogue nuclear powers that have already been at war with one another is not just folly, it is gross criminal madness.

What is our government doing about this? What is the Irish government’s strategy for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review? Are we going to be asked to sit back idly and accept the plans of Washington and Whitehall, just as we have been asked to accept assurances of the United States about the use of Shannon Airport for rendition flights?

In the last few weeks, the world has welcomed the arrest of Radovan Karadzic, who stands accused of genocide and the gravest war crimes of the past decade. But those who plan and develop a new generation of nuclear weapons are prepared to engage in the grossest and gravest war crimes imaginable, they are prepared to engaged in genocide for nuclear weapons will wipe out whole cities, and whole nations once they resort to using them.

We must remember the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki not just today, but every day. Because, if we forget, the consequences are too horrific to imagine. Let us remember them in a moment’s silence, and in that moment’s silence commit ourselves once again to seeking peace and justice for the whole world.

Canon Patrick Comerford is President of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament