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.