Wednesday, 31 December 2008

What’s the difference between Iceland and Ireland?

Going back in time: outside No 108 Birmingham Road, Lichfield

Patrick Comerford

Undoubtedly the news this year has been dominated by the global economic crisis, global warming, global conflicts, and by the way global hopes have been raised by the election of Barack Obama.

I am constantly caught off-guard as I wake up so often to the reality that the Bush era is over. The world has become so much a safer place for all of us, I hope. But so many hopes andd expectations have already been laid on Obama’s shoulders, he cannot possibly meet them all; many, undoubtedly, will be disappointed. But then I remember expecting little from Robert Runcie and a lot from George Carey when they became Archbishops of Canterbury, and how I was then delighted that Robert Runcie stood up to Margaret Thatcher and surprised at how disappointing George Carey was.

Taking responsibilty

Thanks to the government, everyone here in Ireland has become a shareholder in the major banks – the Bank of Ireland, Allied Irish Banks and Anglo-Irish Bank. I don’t have any deposits in any one of these banks, so I feel I’ll never get value for my money. My future pension fund is being used to gamble on the future performances of people who have already proved themselves wanting when it comes to managing the national banking system. I’ll never get to vote for their removal, and they are hardly the people to trust with my pension and my future.

Someone recently joked that the only differences between Iceland and Ireland are one letter and six months. If we are not to get to the same plight as Iceland within the next six months, then the banks and the government must accept more responsibility for leading us into the present crisis. But how can they? Already, Bertie Ahern has washed his hands and walked away, as has the chairman of one major bank. How can they take the blame if they are not in office?

It’s much more serious than being sentimental about the passing of Woolworth or other brand names we all remember from our childhoods. The Bishop of London, Dr Richard Chartres, hit the nail on the head when he said: “It is becoming clearer how far we have been mortgaging our children’s tomorrow to fund our today, both financially and in our use of the finite resources of the earth.”

In recent weeks, the Irish Government also appears to have mishandled the problems in the pig-meat industry. The poor handling and over reaction dealt a severe blow to farmers and bacon producers all over the country. But it also threatened disaster for small, family-run businesses such as organic farmers, small hotels and bed-and-breakfasts, small-shop butchers and cafés that depend on selling breakfasts.

I respect pigs as intelligent and sensitive animals – one of the nicest rural sights I know in England is a free-range, organic pig farm at Packington, halfway between Lichfield and Tamworth. I have been a vegetarian for almost 40 years. But the way the government mishandled this crisis and over-reacted was almost enough to make me reconsider my principles, because people must always be put before animals.

In recent weeks we’ve also seen the Greek Government fail to accept responsibility for the crisis that has found expression in the riots on the streets of Athens and other Greek cities. My Greek friends are divided as they discuss these riots. But many young people in Greece have lost faith in the future and faith in the political system. This is dangerous for Greek democracy. The Government there must take responsibility, and immediate responses of responsibility would be promises to reform the police and promises to thoroughly reform rather than further privatise the education system.

The Olympic Games in Beijing showed China at its best, and the government response to the earthquakes in China also boosted confidence in China. But human rights there are still a worry in China, and the monks in Tibet, link the monks in Burma, offer an ethical example of people of religion taking responsibility for human rights, freedom of expression and democracy in their own countries.

Moral leadership

I wonder where the moral voice is being heard and moral leadership is being provided with the present humaniotarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. Despite Israel’s claim that is only responding to the breakdown in the Hamas ceasefire, the response bears no relationship in its proportion to the violence Israelis have suffered: in Gaza, they havehit innumerable civilian targets, including children in their homes, female students in their dormitories, patients in hospitals, and people whose only crime is to be the neighbours of politicians Israel does not want to listen to and to talk to.

The Palestinian Administration has attempted to steer a moderate course. Israel has already risen to the bait shamefully, proving the point that Hamas wants to make: that violence will be listened to. Barack Obama is silent, and appears to be listening to Condoleza Rice. When will the rest of the world listen to cries of the starving and dying children of Gaza who have been deprived of food and medicine in a cruel siege that has choked them of any hope?

Israel’s action may have less to do with the legitimate desrire security of Israeli citizens for security and more to do with Tzipi Livni’s fright at seeing her Kadima party slipping in opinion polls and wanting to prove that she is as tough, as militant and as hard-hearted as Binyamin Netanyahu and his Likud party ahead of general elections next February.

Until the spiralling of violence in the Gaza Strip in the past week, the American presidential election, the global economic crisis and events in China, Burma, India, Darfur, DR Congo and Zimbabwe tended to knock the Middle East off the front pages. The visit of Irish Church leaders, including Cardinal Sean Brady, to the Israel and the Palestinian territories was a boost for people of faith seeking peace and justice in the region. In their Christmas message earlier this month, 13 Patriarchs and heads of Churches in Jerusalem spoke of their being more than the usual “darkness, conflict, and despair in the world around us.”

Church leadership

In the church, the major news for the Anglican Communion was this year’s Lambeth Conference, which obviously failed to prevent a future split in the Anglican Communion. But, as the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (TEC), Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, has noticed, while most Episcopalians are concerned with “gathering for weekly worship, saying their prayers, and serving their neighbour, nearby and far away,” news about the Church only makes the front pages “if it’s about but schism or sex – and in the current era, preferably both.”

The agenda at the Gafcon meeting in Jerusalem provided stories about both schism and sex, but how deep the coming split is going to be, or the degree to which it is about sex rather than authority is still to be seen.

I was able to take part in a pre-Lambeth conference organised by Anglicans in World Mission – the new name for the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG) at Swanwick in Derbyshire. Typically, the media once again focussed on sex and schism, dissecting a paper by Archbishop Alan Harper of Armagh on Hooker and the place of tradition in Anglican theology.

It was my first return visit to Swanwick for, I think, a quarter of a century. Later in the year, the general secretary of USPG, Bishop Michael Doe, visited Ireland for a board meeting of USPG Ireland in Kilkenny, and to preach at the Harvest Festival Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

There was much talk at the General Synod of the Church of Ireland in Galway about the transformation of the Church of Ireland Theological College into the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. I shall truly miss my colleague, the Revd Canon Dr Adrian Empey, who retired as the Principal of CITC at the end of August.

Later, there was formal inauguration of the new institute at a special Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, at which my new colleague, the Revd Dr Maurice Elliott, was introduced as the Director of the new institute.

Visitors to the college during the year included, Hubert Che, a third year student at the Ming Hua Theological Institute in Hong Kong, who stayed at CITC as an exchange student in a programme arranged jointly by CITC and the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission.

Some new books and publications

My book on immigration and cultural diversity, Embracing Difference, was launched by the Minister for Integration, Conor Lenihan, at the ‘Hard Gospel’ conference in Swords in January, along with the Church of Ireland’s new Guidelines for Interfaith Events and Dialogue.

Peter Thompson, in his review of Embracing Difference in the Church of Ireland Gazette, said: “The fusion of theology and praxis, combined with an eminently readable style, make this book a very welcome, timely and important publication which demands wide circulation.”

In March, as chair of the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission, I wrote the foreword to and launched a new report commissioned by DUFEM and the China Educational and Cultural Liaison Committee. This sociological study looks at the religious values and beliefs of the Chinese people living in Ireland, and was carried out as the first step in determining the pastoral care the Churches might offer to these people.

The report, Mainland Chinese Students and Immigrants in Ireland and Their Engagement with Christianity, Churches And Irish Society, by Dr Richard O’Leary of Queen’s University Belfast and Dr Lan Li of University College Dublin, was launched in the Chapel in Trinity College Dublin after Choral Evensong.

During the year, the National Bible Society of Ireland has published my lecture in the Bedell Boyle Lecture series in a new booklet: Reflections of the Bible in the Qur’an: a Comparison of Scriptural traditions in Christianity and Islam.

My other publications this year included a sermon preached in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in 2006 as part of the commemorations to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The sermon is included in a collection of sermons selected and edited by Dean Robert MacCarthy. Its inclusion in this book is surprising because at the time I was working for the Church Mission Society Ireland, which refused to post it on their website, although it received very positive coverage in the print media, including The Irish Times and the Sunday Independent.

In May, The Lure of Greece: Irish Involvement in Greek Culture, Literature, History and Politics, was published by Hinds on behalf of the Irish Institute of Hellenic Studies in Athens (IIHSA). The book includes the papers and proceedings of the institute’s conference in the NUI Galway in 2003, and is edited by Professor John V. Luce, Dr Christine Morris, Dr Christina Souyoudzoglou-Haywood.

My paper, ‘Sir Richard Church and the Irish Philhellenes in the Greek War of Independence,’ is the opening chapter in this book. This is the first major publication of the Irish Institute for Hellenic Studies at Athens, and there were book launches in both Athens and Dublin.

In May, I also contributed a paper on the spirituality of icons to the sumptuous catalogue that went with an exhibition of modern Greek icons, organised by the Gordon Gallery, Derry, in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and in Derry at the Gordon Gallery. The exhibition was organised in collaboration with the Hellenic Foundation for Culture and the Panhellenic Society of Iconographers. This exhibition was a rare opportunity to see modern Greek icons written in the Byzantine tradition, and works like these had not been seen in Ireland since Gordon Galleries hosted an exhibition of icons written by Sister Aloysius McVeigh in Derry in 1993.

A paper on prayer and the spiritual life was published in the Spring edition of Search, a Church of Ireland Journal (Vol 31, No 1), I was invited to contribute to the Dublin Review of Books, and I continue to write for The Irish Times, the Church of Ireland Gazette, the Church Review (Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough), the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory) and Newslink (Limerick and Killaloe).

Broadcasts and lectures

My broadcasting work this year included ten contributions to A Living Word on RTÉ, five in the week after Easter and five on inter-faith dialogue. I took part in a number of broadcast services, including the RTÉ televised service organised by the Irish School of Ecumenics to mark the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

I was asked to join a panel discussion on Newstalk that turned into a very heated debate about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s remarks on civil and religious law. Two other heated debates took place in July, when I was invited on Sunday Sequence and the Stephen Nolan Show on BBC Northern Ireland to discuss Archbishop Alan Harper’s pre-Lambeth paper at the USPG conference in Swanwick, and George Hooke interviewed me on Newstalk about this too.

I was a panellist at the Greenhills Ecumenical Conference in Drogheda in January, with the Revd Ruth Patterson, the British Ambassador to the Vatican, Francis Campbell, and I was part of a panel of speakers that included Ambassador Campbell, and the chair of the Irish Council of Churches, Gillian Kingston.

Other lectures outside the theological college included a lecture in Maynooth on Anglican mission history, a paper to the Church of Ireland Historical Society in Christ Church Cathedral on Irish Anglicans who took part in the Greek war of Independence, and a lecture in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Dublin, on the contemporary relevance of the Anglo-Catholic Movement as part of the commemorations of the 175th anniversary of the Oxford Movement.

Cultural highlights

The cultural highlights of the year for me included Leonard Cohen’s concert in Kilmainham in July. Other high points in my cultural calendar included the presentation of the Cloud of Unkowing , as a tribute to the late Dean Desmond Harman, and Mozart’s Requiem and Duruflé’s Requiem in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, with the cathedral choir, the Orchestra of St Cecilia, and the gap year choral scholars who have been staying at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.

One of the privileges of being a canon of the cathedral is sitting in the stalls and listening to the choir. It was wonderful, therefore, to be nominated by the new Dean, the Very Revd Dermot Dunne, to sit on the cathedral music committee.

The choral scholars have added a new dimension to music and singing in the chapel at CITI, and they took part in the end-of-year Advent Carol Service, which took place this year in Saint George’s and Saint Thomas’s Church in Dublin city centre.

Dublin City Council’s open-air, lunchtime performances for “Opera in The Open 2008” in the Amphitheatre behind Christ Church Cathedral included Donizetti’s comic opera L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love) and Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, both of which I attended with a dear friend. On both occasions, I found that opera is good for the soul and that comedy and stories of love are good for the heart.

This year also marked the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Vaughan Williams. I was first introduced to the music of Vaughan Williams when I was 19 and was staying in Wilderhope Manor on the slopes of Wenlock Edge. It was 1971, and I was walking through rural 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. Ever since, I have continued to enjoy the music of Vaughan Williams.

Travels in England and Europe

During the year, I continued to enjoy travelling. In Turkey, I stayed once again in Kusadasi, which is a brash resort but an ideal base for visiting Ephesus, where I spent a few days, and the sites at Priene, Miletus and Didyma. I also visited the island of Samos in Greece twice. It’s a charming island, but I missed getting back to other favourite spots in Greece this year, including Athens, Thessaloniki and Crete.

In addition, I had a pleasant week in Cambridge in the summer, thanks to the generosity of the J.E.L. Oulton Memorial Fund. I stayed at Sidney Sussex College while I took part in the summer school on patristics and holiness run by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, one of the theological colleges in the Cambridge Theological Federation.

During my stay in Cambridge, the Revd Christopher Woods arranged a warm welcome for me at Christ’s College, where I visited the chapel and was invited to dinner with some of the fellows, and I spent a day at the Orthodox monastery in Tolleshunt Knights.

There were a few visits to London, including one with my elder son to see the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum. During that visit to London, we also attended choral evensong in Westminster Abbey, and walked the legs off ourselves as we visited Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Whitehall, Downing Street, Chinatown, Piccadilly Circus, the City, the Tower of London and the Globe Theatre. And the year eneded with a visit to London for the Byzantium exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts.

I spoke about theological education in the Church of Ireland at a pre-Lambeth Conference symposium on teaching Anglicanism at Trinity College Bristol. The visit gave me time to visit Bristol and, for the first time, Bath, as well as spending time in Calne and Quemerford, in Wiltshire, to which the Comerford family traces its origins.

I managed three return visits this year to Lichfield, where I stayed in the Cathedral Close as part of my own, self-designed retreats, listening to the choir, praying, and visiting the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital in Upper John Street, where I had my first adult experience of the light and love of God at the age of 19.

One of those visits coincided with the Lichfield festival and the Mediaeval Fayre in the Cathedral Close. And there was even an opportunity to revisit the house on Birmingham Road that I stayed during those years, while I was freelancing for the Lichfield Mercury, the Rugeley Mercury and the Tamworth Herald.

My stays in Lichfield also allowed me to return to the Moat House, the Jacobean mansions on Lichfield Street, Tamworth, once owned by the Comberford family, and to visit Comberford Hall, which has been back on the market since last March.

During those return pilgrimages to Lichfield, I was reminded of John Yates, the former Principal of Lichfield Theological College (1966-1972) and later Bishop of Whitby (1972-1975) of Gloucester (1975-1991) and at Lambeth (1991-1994). He died in Winchester in February, but back in 1971 I think he was probably the canon in Lichfield Cathedral who first suggested to me that I should consider ordination.

Family, friends, colleagues and losses

I visited my Lynders cousins in Portrane throughout the year. There I received the warmest welcome imaginable, and there I had the best fun weekend of the year when I took part in the Great Portrane Sale in August, raising funds for projects in Romania and Albania.

The sad moments in the year included the death of my aunt, Eily Murphy, and the deaths of former colleagues in journalism, including Paul Tansey, Nuala O Faolain, Jim Dunne, and June Levine, and three stalwarts of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and other campaigns, Conor Cruise O’Brien and Sean Kilfeather, who had both written for The Irish Times, and Father Austin Flannery, who started up Doctrine and Life.

But my greatest loss this year has been the loss of friendship with a very dear friend who so clearly understood so much of my inner mind. There is a little compensation in discovering as I referred to this on my blog that so many of my friends care about me, and they offered continuing support and comfort. Thank you, all of you.

To close, I was tickled to have been elected President of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (Irish CND), and tickled too that this blog come second in the media awards at the General Synod in Galway in May. But perhaps the best accolade of all came from An Phoblacht, the propaganda mouthpiece for Sinn Fein and the IRA. Their writers said the “prize for the most magnificent act of hypocrisy in trying to have it both ways at once must go to long-time Irish Times journalist and man of the cloth, Canon Patrick Comerford, director of spiritual formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College.”

I upset them when I wrote proudly in The Irish Times and on this blog about my grandfather, explaining why as a pacifist I wear a poppy on Remembrance Day. When I upset people like that, and they shower me with such shallow praise, I know I’m getting through. I’ll keep writing. Please keep reading.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.