Friday, 9 May 2008

The Church of Ireland – Challenges in the 21st Century

Members of the Discovery Committee at Choral Evensong in Christ Church Cathedral Dublin recently. How are immigration and other changes challenging the Church of Ireland today?

Patrick Comerford

There has been a lot of talk in the Church of Ireland in recent years about the challenge facing the Church to move from models of maintenance to models of mission.

Ireland is changing, as we all know. In a seminar discussion, some of the changes identified included a more questioning attitude towards authority, greater emphasis on the individual and individualism, the prevalence of a more questioning attitude and approach to life, the loss of the relevance of the Church for some if not many, the weakening of the traditional Sunday, a visible rise in substance abuse and the immediate, pressing demands made by modern communications.

But how does the Church deal with change? How do we adapt to change? And what changes are taking place in Ireland today that challenge the Church to face up to the need to change?

Is Church attendance on Sundays in our average Church of Ireland parish an expression of commitment to Christ and to the Church? How much of it is a matter of what those in marketing would call “brand loyalty”?

Are the parochial structures that worked well in a mainly rural society relevant to a predominantly urban church today

The analyses of the census returns show large increases in the figures for the Church of Ireland population in every county and diocese in the Church of Ireland. But how significant are these figures?

Is this large increase in numbers due to a greater interest in the Church of Ireland – even in religion generally? Or is it accounted for by the number of immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees. How relevant are they for the Church of Ireland today, and what challenges do they pose to the Church of Ireland in the 21st century?

Just let us look at immigrants for the moment. They pose an interesting challenge about the way the Church of Ireland may be changing. The Porvoo Agreement means the Church of Ireland is in full communion with the Episcopal Lutheran Churches of northern Europe and the Baltic states. But how many of our building workers and mushroom pickers from Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia know they are full members of the Church of Ireland?

How many of our parish clergy have the time, energy, experience or knowledge, or receive encouragement to give practical and pastoral reality to the implications of the Porvoo Agreement? How many of them have the necessary language skills?

In total, the Baltic Lutherans among us may total what may count as a few large parishes. When are we going to bring in priests to serve their needs, who know their language and understand their culture?

One of the biggest groups of African immigrants in the Republic of Ireland today is the Nigerians. And a large proportion of them are cradle Anglicans. Yet only one diocese in the Church of Ireland has a Nigerian-born priest among its clergy. Does this explain why so many Nigerian-born Anglicans go to predominantly black-African Pentecostal churches on Sundays? Or is it because they simply do not feel welcome in the average Church of Ireland parish that has yet to face up to the changes and challenges of the 21st century?

There has been a lot of talk in different circles about encouraging “Fresh Expressions of Church.” But do we also need to address the need for new models of ministry and new models of church? And what do we mean by “mission-shaped church”?

Can we have a mission if we have no understanding of “we” ourselves, of what it is to be church? Can we have a mission if we have no theology of mission? Can we have a mission to the world if we have no understanding of the world?

Change is coming. Change is always painful. Can we adjust to change in a way that is not about protecting old structures but about meeting new needs? Can we identify what those needs are and what those changes ought to be? What would you change in the church?

Perhaps I’m putting things the wrong way round. Perhaps we first need to understand the world, what is changing in the world, and what is changing in Ireland.

New immigrants

One of the very visible and noticeable changes in Ireland, north and south of the border, in recent years has been the changing face, or rather, the changing faces of our neighbours.

Despite the once popular misconception, not all our new immigrants are refugees or asylum seekers.

What is your experience?

What do the demographic changes in your parish in recent year say about the changes we need to make and the challenges we are facing in the Church of Ireland?

Is the Porvoo agreement relevant in your parish or diocese?

If not, is it because we haven’t the time, energy, skills or encouragement to get to know our neighbours from the Baltics?

If they feel the Church of Ireland has ignored them or neglected them, what impression of church will they bring home with them?

And what impact will that have on the Episcopal Lutheran Churches in their home countries?

Do the Anglicans from the Southern Hemisphere living in Ireland have any sense of the Anglican Communion and of the Church of Ireland as part of it? If not, how do we need to change? If so, why are we so unattractive to many of them?

Diversity and pluralism

A generation ago, pluralism in Ireland meant, in the Republic, giving thanks that we would never return to the days of the Fethard-on-Sea boycott; in Northern Ireland, it meant praying that our children could go to school together, that we could all work together and live together as good neighbours.

But the new diversity in the Irish population demands new understandings of pluralism and has also led to new forms of violence and rejection.

In Portadown, you are now more likely to be the victim of what we might call sectarian violence if you are a Muslim … and nobody cracks sick jokes any more about whether someone was Catholic Muslim or a Protestant Muslim.

The Chinese shopkeepers in Belfast suffer greatly when it comes to intimidation, taunts and protection rackets.

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 – all two Maltese divorcees – living in Ireland. They help us to realise that Ireland has become a diverse and multicultural society.

But 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, the Italian in separate waves of plasterers, fast food shopkeepers, the 20th century refugees from Germany, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and then the boat people from Vietnam.

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 that is ahead of a referendum that should bring us closer to the dream of a Europe where all can share in our freedom and prosperity.

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 gave in Embracing Difference would not have such an appalling consistency.

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;
537 South Africans;
529 Travellers.

The number of Travellers, which I learned from Garret Casey, is interesting: he points out that the Church of Ireland accounts for 2.4% of the Traveller population, which is similar to the Church of Ireland proportion (2.9%) of the general population. How does this challenge the image others have of the Church of Ireland? … of Travellers? In what way does this challenge the Church of Ireland? The figure 529 is a respectable size parish in many dioceses. Should we have a Traveller parish, as the Roman Catholic Church has?

As Garrett Casey showed in a recent analysis of the statistics in the Church of Ireland Gazette, 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, 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, the Chinese among us … or even the Travellers. These are challenges for parishes, for dioceses and for mission societies.

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

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.

Finding community

Another way we have changed noticeably in Ireland today is that we no longer find community in the same way: Our current models of parish ministry and parochial structures in the Church of Ireland worked well, perhaps, for a settled 18th century rural society. But today it is one that many of the parochial clergy still struggle to operate as they continue to go around visiting the sick and bereaved and seeking out the unbaptised and trying to instruct young people in the faith – and often ineffectively).

It is a model that has become untenable in the society that is post-modern Dublin and post-modern Ireland. Community no longer exists on a geographical basis. People increasingly derive their sense of society or community from work, gym, golf club, parents’ association, shared school-run, pub. They do not look to their geographical neighbours for community.

Against the background of this attitudinal shift, it is increasingly difficult to try to construct a community on the basis of a geographical parish – at best one might piece together a number of different communities that might coalesce on Christmas morning, but would feel very little in common for the rest of the year. The challenge in many parishes today is to seek ways to create communities through worship, through journeys in spirituality, through issue-based groups, through new approaches.

And it’s a challenge that’s facing the mission societies, for example. If our sense of mission, our sense of calling, is not a calling to, a mission to, society as it is today, but instead to a society that was and no longer is, then the Church and the mission societies have no mission at all. We can’t do mission the way we once did it, because society and the world are no longer the way they were a generation, and certainly no longer the way they were a century or two centuries ago.

How Ireland is changing

Ireland is also changing economically, socially and politically, as the world is. And all of us will be challenged to change because of the great environmental challenges and changes facing us. Economically, this was once one of the poorest countries in Europe. Despite the recent downturn in economic growth and the creeping rises in inflation and unemployment, we have the second highest per capita income in the European Union, outstripped only by tiny Luxembourg.

For decades, Ireland’s relations with the world were defined primarily by our cross-border relations, our relations with our nearest island neighbour, and then with areas that were once pink blobs on the map of the world. Increasingly, our relations with the world are now being defined through our relations with the European Union.

How are we sharing with the other churches in Europe, and not just with the Church of England? As a Church have we a challenge that has yet to be faced in the new Europe? Have we an obligation, as part of one of the richest areas in the new Europe, to stand alongside the churches in the new Europe, in countries like Romania and Bulgaria, where for most of the post-war decades they were legally prevented from developing their social witness and mission?

Today, Irish-born people in the younger generations are increasingly being influenced by post-modernist values. Many are no longer willing to be categorised by the old terminology of denominational labelling, and those who are still pick-and-mix in surprising ways.

Many parts of Dublin have changed beyond recognition. Many areas are now hugely affluent, so that even the little cottages in Ringsend that once prided themselves on their unique working class heritage are becoming bourgeois. Dublin is cosmopolitan and international, the people are transient, highly educated, articulate and hedonistic. It is the opposite pole to traditional rural Ireland. There is still a hunger for spirituality, but it’s not being met for many people by the traditional churches?

How should the Church of Ireland respond to these new trends? One Dublin rector said recently: “Things change and are changing so rapidly!” But he added that many of our churches in Dublin “are simply going to die because their membership will not allow them to evolve.” How can the Church change in order to meet the changes and needs in our cities and towns?

Today, there are large numbers of new religious labels: there are 15,000-20,000 people who are members of the Eastern Orthodox Churches living in the Republic, and there are 20,000 or more Muslims living in the Republic. They present us with new challenges that call us to sustain and develop a coherent programme of dialogue and respect. So much has changed in Ireland in the past decade or two the Church of Ireland has to decide whether we need to change and evolve too. Otherwise, just as that Dublin rector warned about our parishes, we may die, or at least fade away, and find that our place in parishes and mission is taken by new instruments for mission that God will raise up.

Environmental challenges facing the church

Apart from the challenges facing the Church of Ireland in the 21st century due to changes in Ireland, we also face challenges because of changes in the world. Thomas Aquinas once said that God dwells in the world in the same way as the soul dwells in the body. What about changes in God’s dwelling place that challenge us in the Church today?

In the Letter to the Ephesians, Paul talks of “Christ’s plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things in earth” [Ephesians 1: 7-12].

When God creates the earth, we are given dominion over creation, but not unfettered, unhindered, irresponsible dominion. Psalm 72 teaches us that the rest of creation is entrusted to us, not to exploit and destroy, but to rule with mercy, love and real for the concern for the welfare of all. We are made in the image and likeness of God, and so we must care for creation as God would care for it.

Global warming and the threat to the environment are not to be sidelined in the church as the concerns of environmentalists, economists, politicians, campaigners and social activists. They are legitimate theological concerns and challenges for the Church.

We read in Isaiah 11: 6-9:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
and the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The suckling child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand in the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.


We have similar visions of God’s care for the created order in the images of the heavenly city, of a new heaven and a new earth, in the Book of Revelation. It’s a promise repeated in the Psalms, by the Prophets, in the Wisdom Literature.

In the Jewish Wisdom tradition, Solomon’s knowledge of flora and fauna, is a sign of his wisdom (I Kings 4: 33-36). The Book of Job teaches us that as humans we are not the only creatures on the divine agenda. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” Job is asked. “Who laid its cornerstones when the morning stars sang together?” (see Job 38: 4, 6-7).

The great Latin American Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez says Job 38 is a forceful rejection of a purely anthropocentric view of creation. The world of nature expresses the freedom and delight of God in creation.

The promise of the redemption of all creation, of course, is fulfilled with the coming of Jesus: “I have come that you may have life and have it to the full.” Christ is the first-born, he was before the world was created, and he is the one through whom all things were made. In every Greek church, usually in the Dome, there is an over-powering image of Christ as the Pantocrator, he through whom all things were made.

Our concern for the environment and the creation is not dependent on some fashion about the latest ecological crisis, global warming or the latest environmental campaigning fashion. We are concerned about creation because we are entrusted with that care from the very beginning, we are concerned about the creation because it has all been made through Christ, and we are concerned about creation, the whole kosmos, because it too, like us, has been made in the image and likeness of God.

The 17th century Anglican poet and hymn writer George Herbert (1593-1632) saw God reflected in Creation. In The Elixir, he wrote:

Teach me, my God and King,
in all things thee to see;
and what I do in any thing,
to do it as for thee.

[Hymn 601, Irish Church Hymnal]

Unfortunately, the Church for too long abandoned care for creation to the romantic poets, to our hymn writers, and to the mystics, such as John Keble, who wrote There is a book, or Robert Grant, who wrote O Worship the King.

A generation ago, in 1978, the Lambeth Conference resolved: “We must direct our efforts to the achievement for a kind of society where the economy is not based on waste, but stewardship, not on consumerism but on conservation, one concerned not only with work but with the right use of leisure. We may need to contemplate a paradox – an increasing use of appropriate technology, while returning, where possible, to many of the values of pre-industrial society.”

Almost 20 years ago, Archbishop Robert Runcie of Canterbury said prophetically in 1989: “The conviction that nature does not exist simply and solely for the benefit of humankind ... is becoming increasingly widespread and articulate. Because it finds its true source at such deep levels of the human spirit, it must, I think, be called a religious conviction. But it is not a conviction unique to any one religion in particular, and it is shared by some who would profess no religion at all.”

Today, environmental change may be the greatest threat and greatest challenge facing the world. It is a challenge that demands a change in attitude and change in priorities for the church at every level, from general synod to select vestry. It is a challenge that demands change. Bu are prepared, first, to consider what that change might be like, and, secondly, to make those necessary changes?

The rain forests are being destroyed not because the poor in Latin America can’t look after their environment, but because the rich in North America and Europe demand hard woods in our homes and offices, hotels and pubs, and demand more grazing land for cattle so we can have cheap hamburgers in McDonald’s.

Tropical rainforests cover 6% of the Earth’s surface, but provide a home for 90% of its species. Yet the tropical rainforests are being destroyed at a rate of 63,000 square miles a year, two areas the size of Ireland each year, removing important species, forgetting the important role forests play in storing and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

We get cheap furniture, wrapping paper and energy from trees in the Third World, and then, each year, the average family throws away 88 lb of glass and over 500 cans: 1.6 million tonnes of Irish domestic and commercial waste each year, and no realistic programme of recycling.

The Anglican Consultative Council’s five points in the definition of mission for Anglicans include: “To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the earth.”

The Church is and must be concerned: concerned because it is God’s creation, concerned because we are destroying creation, which is God’s image, concerned because it runs contrary to Biblical teaching.

At the Eucharist/Holy Communion, we celebrate the work of Christ on the Cross, which was reconciling all of creation to God, and pray for the coming of His Kingdom, which involves the restoration of creation.

A former Patriarch of Constantinople put it this way almost 20 years ago: “Just as the priest at the Eucharist offers the fullness of creation and receives it back as the blessing of Grace in the form of the consecrated bread and wine, to share with others, so we must be the channel through which God’s grace and deliverance is shared with all creation. The human being is simply yet gloriously the means for the expression of creation in its fullness and the coming of God’s deliverance for all creation.”

The reason the threats to the environment should challenge us is not just because it is a nice, comfortable or safe issue, but because it’s what God calls us to, what we as the Church pray for in our life as the Church.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College. This essay is based on notes prepared for a seminar with Year III students on the NSM (Non-Stipendiary Ministry Course) on 9 May 2008.