Friday, 29 May 2009

Should priests shave? Should priests have beards?

Why do Greek priests always seem to have beards?

Patrick Comerford

Why do Orthodox priests always have beards?

I’m often asked do I have a full beard for religious reasons. When I try to say I’m a child of the ’60s, I know the answer is taken as avoiding the question.

Apart from one brief period of a few short weeks, I’ve had a beard since I was 20 – for the past 37 years. My younger son, when he was still a toddler, sat at the top of the stairs one evening, and looking down at my bald pate asked me why I didn’t try moving the hair from my face to the top of my head.

Once, at the height of panic in the aftermath of 9/11, on my way back from speaking at a retreat in a convent in Llandudno, I was stopped by police at Holyhead who were worried looked at my beard, some books in my backpack, and a large number of Middle East visas in my passport, added 1 and 1 together and got “militant Muslim.” But in my travels through Greece, Cyprus, Romania, Albania, the former Yugoslavia and the Middle East, it seems everyone I meet already presumes I am a priest. The surprise only comes when they find out that I am an Anglican.

In my theological college in the 1980s, there were three Orthodox students who were particularly bright, but two said of the third that he could never become a bishop .... because he couldn’t grow a full beard.

So, why do Orthodox priests always appear to have beards?

Bearded and shaven priests in a city centre church in Bucharest

On my first visit to Romania, I was surprised to find the majority of priests were clean-shaven. This has been reversed since the end of the Ceausescu regime, and today most Romanian Orthodox priests have beards. However, many Orthodox clergy in North America have reached some kind of cultural compromise. Many think that shaving might make them look effeminate, and so they trim their beards quite closely. But the portrayal of the priest at the wedding in My Big Fat Greek Wedding was a reminder that many Orthodox priests in North America actually shave.

The Orthodox explanations for priests’ beards sometimes quote Biblical examples, such as the beards of the unshaved Nazarenes, or Biblical passages such as: “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard” (Leviticus 19: 27). In addition, I have been told that Moses told the sons of Aaron, the priests, not to “shave off the edges of their beards” (Leviticus 21: 5), that the Ancient of Days appeared to Daniel with whiskers and beard (Daniel 7: 9), and that our Forefathers in Faith, the Patriarchs, Prophets and Apostles, all wore beards.

But the most common argument I hear is that as the priest as a dispenser of sacramental grace and an icon of Christ should physically and visually resemble Christ in humility as he leads the people in celebrating the Divine Liturgy, not only in wearing a robe or cassock, but also in being bearded and having the same hairstyle, which means long hair that is parted down the middle.

Nobody quotes the Apostle Paul who wrote: “Does not nature itself teach you that, if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is to her glory?” (I Corinthians 11: 14-15).

In the past, there have been saints in the Orthodox Church who trimmed and shaved their beards, including the Emperor Constantine the Great, Theodore Ushakov and Justinian the Great. Saint Photius the Great says that clean-shaven clergy do not distort the essence of our faith, and that a sensible man does not condemn those who shave.

The origins of the Orthodox tradition are shrouded in the mists of history. It was customary in the Roman Empire for men to shave. Not to shave was to be a barbarian, not to be Roman, to be culturally inferior. The custom of shaving was particularly strong in the Western Empire, especially in Rome. Even in the Eastern Empire, beardless priests were still common until the 5th century, although beardless clergy had disappeared by the eighth century at latest, mainly due to the decisions of the Church council known as the Quinisext Council (Penthekte Synodos, or Fifth-Sixth Council).

The Byzantine Emperor Justinian II convened the council in Constantinople in 691-692 to complete the work of the Fifth and Sixth Ecumenical Councils, which omitted to approve disciplinary canons, and to decide on unresolved disciplinary matters. The council was attended by 215 bishops from the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire. In addition, Bishop Basil of Gortyna in Illyria was present as the Papal Legate.

Many of the canons simply reiterated earlier enacted canons. They included regulations to eliminate festivals and practices that were seen as having pagan origins. Other canons tried to settle differences between the Eastern and Western churches over ritual observance and clerical discipline. Many seemingly differences in the West were condemned, including celebrating the Eucharist on weekdays in Lent instead of having Pre-Sanctified Liturgies; fasting on Saturdays throughout the year; omitting the “Alleluia” in Lent; and depictions of Christ as a lamb or Agnus Dei.

The council exposed major differences between East and West on issues such as the western efforts to impose celibacy on priests and deacons. The council affirmed the right of priests to marry and prescribed excommunication for anyone who attempted to separate a priest from his wife, or for any priest who abandoned his wife.

Many of the provisions of the council affected the day-to-day details of the life of the clergy. It ruled that they should not own taverns, lend money at interest, change dioceses without Episcopal permission, or fail to mix water with wine at the Eucharist, and they must not fail to preach on the Scriptures at least on Sundays.

In addition, the council ruled that the clergy must not shave their beards. By then, it was already the custom and practice throughout the Eastern Church for clergy not to shave.

The acts of the council were signed by all four Eastern Patriarchs – Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople and Jerusalem – but Pope Sergius I refused to sign the canons, claiming they were at variance with the traditions of the Western Church. Justinian II sent a military delegation to Rome to induce him to sign, but when the imperial soldiers arrived at Ravenna they declared their support for the Pope. Unsuccessful negotiations on signing the canons continued for 30 years without an agreement between East and West being reached.

Because the council completes the work of the Fifth and Sixth Councils, the Eastern Orthodox Church holds that this council is part of the Fifth and Sixth Ecumenical Councils, that it was properly convened and authoritatively ecumenical, and that its canons have full canonical status.

In his comments on Canon 96 of the Sixth Ecumenical Synod, Saint Nicodemus the Hagiorite said the sentence of excommunication provided applied equally to those who allowed their hair to “grow long enough to reach to the belt like that of women, and those who bleach their hair so as to make it blond or golden, or who twist it up and tie it on spills in order to make it curly; or who put wigs or ‘rats’ on their head. This excommunication is incurred also by those who shave off their beard in order to make their face smooth and handsome after such treatment, and not to have it curly, or in order to appear at all times like beardless young men; and those who singe the hair of their beard with a red-hot tile so as to remove any that is longer than the rest, or more crooked; or who use tweezers to pluck out the superfluous hairs on their face, in order to become tender and appear handsome; or who dye their beard, in order not to appear to be old men.”

He argued that by the outward decency and plainness of their garments, and of their hair, and of their beard, priests and monks were able “to teach the laity not to be body-lovers and exquisites, but soul-lovers and virtue-lovers.”

The canon censured priests of the Latin-rite who “shave off their moustache and their beard and who look like very young men and handsome bridegrooms and have the face of women. For God forbids men of the laity in general to shave their beard, by saying: ‘Ye shall not mar the appearance of your bearded chin’ (Leviticus 19: 27).”

In the West, hermits and monks continued to have long hair and beards, like Saint Martin of Tours. But the tradition of trimmed beards was lost in the West under Charlemagne at the end of the eighth century. With his massive “barbarian” inferiority complex, he tried to imitate pagan classical Rome and ordered the Western clergy to shave regularly. The Council of Aachen ruled in 816 that priests and monks were to shave every two weeks.

Despite this, until the beginning of the 11th century most western hermits and bishops were still bearded. By the end of the 11th century, most priests and monks shaved regularly, at least 10 times a year if not more frequently, and in 1080 Pope Gregory VII tried to enforce shaving. Pope Gregory VII even resorted to force in order to make bishops and priests shave off their beard.

Surprisingly, there were bearded popes after Gregory VII, including Pope Gelasius. But in the 16th century, further canons barred Roman Catholic clergy from keeping their beards, and while many friars and monks continued to wear full beards, this prohibition was not dropped officially until the Second Vatican Council.

Metroplitan Nikitas (left) and Patrick Comerford at a conference in Rome

Some patristic and Orthodox sayings on priests’ beards

“In their manners, there was no discipline. In men, their beards were defaced … The beard must not be plucked. ‘You will not deface the figure of your beard’.” [Leviticus 19: 27] – Saint Cyprian of Carthage.

“Men may not destroy the hair of their beards and unnaturally change the form of a man. For the Law says, ‘You will not deface your beards.’ For God the Creator has made this decent for women, but has determined that it is unsuitable for men.” – Apostolic Constitutions 7.392. (ca 390 AD)

“How womanly it is for one who is a man to comb himself and shave himself with a razor, for the sake of fine effect, and to arrange his hair at the mirror, shave his cheeks, pluck hairs out of them, and smooth them! … For God wished women to be smooth and to rejoice in their locks alone growing spontaneously, as a horse in his mane. But he adorned man like the lions, with a beard, and endowed him as an attribute of manhood, with a hairy chest – a sign of strength and rule.” – Clement of Alexandria.

“It is not lawful to pluck out the beard, man’s natural and noble adornment.” – Clement of Alexandria.

“Let the head of men be clipped, unless they have curly hair. But let the chin have the hair … Cutting is to be used, not for the sake of elegance, but on account of the necessity of the case … so that it may not grow so long as to come down and interfere with the eyes.” – Clement of Alexandria.

“This, then, is the mark of the man, the beard. By this, he is seen to be a man. It is older than Eve. It is the token of the superior nature….It is therefore unholy to desecrate the symbol of manhood, hairiness.” – Clement of Alexandria.

“There are some things, too, which have such a place in the body, that they obviously serve no useful purpose, but are solely for beauty, as e.g. the teats on a man’s breast, or the beard on his face; for that this is for ornament, and not for protection, is proved by the bare faces of women, who ought rather, as the weaker sex, to enjoy such a defence.” – Saint Augustine of Hippo

“You, young men, honour those with beards. And if there is a man of 30 with a beard and one of 50, or 60, or 100 who shaves, place the one with the beard above the one who shaves, in Church as well as at the table. On the other hand, I don’t say that a beard will get you to heaven, but good works will. And your dress should be modest, as well as your food and your drink. Your whole conduct should be Christian so that you will be a good example for others … I beg you, my fellow Christians, say three times for all those who let their beards grow: ‘May God forgive and have mercy upon them.’ Let your nobility also ask for forgiveness. And may God enlighten you to let go of your sins as you let your beard grow – Saint Cosmas of Aetolia.

“What can be worse and more disgusting than cutting one’s beard, which is an image of a man … The word of God and the teaching in the Enactments of the Apostles, on the issue of a beard, prescribes not to spoil it, which means not to cut the hair of the beard.” – Saint Epiphanius of Salamis.

“I am saddened by and pity those clerics who reject the cassock and who shave their beards.” – Elder Philotheus (Zervakos) of Paros.

“To shave the beard is a sin that the blood of all the martyrs cannot cleanse. It is to deface the image of man created by God.” – Tsar Ivan the Terrible of Moscow.

“God did not create men beardless, only cats and dogs. Shaving is not only foolishness and dishonour; it is a mortal sin.” – Patriarch Adrian.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Sacred space on the web

Today’s photograph in The Irish Times shows Westminster Abbey’s online editor Imogen Levy preparing for the Commonwealth Observance in March, the first time such a website was used to cover a royal event.

Patrick Comerford

In The Irish Times today (27 May 2009), Alannah Gallagher writes about the way religious leaders are using websites to reach out to their followers, particularly those who can’t make it to church services.

Her feature gives favourable mention to Ian Poulton’s blog and my Facebook page.

In her feature, she writes:

“As our lives get busier and busier, there is less and less time for quiet spiritual contemplation. The idea of nine-to-five working is a thing of the past, and many of us no longer have time to drop into the local church for a moment of prayer, something which provided generations with their daily spiritual bread.

“This, coupled with the fact that few churches open late these days, means more people are turning to the web for their spiritual fix. It’s private, open 24/7 and offers a range of services to suit every creed. You can attend baptisms, weddings and funerals. Even Cardinal Cahal Daly recognises its potential, recently urging social networkers to start sending daily prayers by text, Twitter or e-mail.

“The Catholic Church is embracing the web with gusto. The Vatican has its own YouTube channel. In Britain, Westminster Abbey uses Twitter and podcasts to spread the word.

“In Ireland, the website lists every Mass time and service in every Catholic Church in the country. Diocesan and parish sites have almost doubled their number of users since last December. Figures are up from 36,271 in December 2008 to 70,892 in April 2009.

“, the Jesuit prayer site, was set up 10 years ago by Fr Alan McGuckian. It asks you to find ‘sacred space’, 10 minutes for prayer, in your day. This avenue to the soul has users responding with delight, as a recent American post reads: ‘What a wonderful, inspirational site. To be able to break off from work and reflect is such a gift.’ Its success lies in the fact that you don’t have to move physically to engage spiritually.”

And she continues:

“The Church of Ireland also has a significant online presence. Nothing replaces human contact but the internet offers another dimension to church ministry, explains Ian Poulton, rector of Ballybrack. His blog,, attracts 1,000 unique visitors per month. The web is both the medium and the message, says the rector. ‘In times gone by clergy used to write huge diaries. This is simply keeping up with the times.’”

Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological Institution [sic]. He trains people for ordination and is also Canon at Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin.

“‘Everyone in ministry should have a blog or be on Facebook,’ he believes. ‘It’s about availability in ministry and communicating in a number of ways.”

Friday, 22 May 2009

The debate continues

Patrick Comerford

In this week’s edition (Friday 22 May 2009), the Church of Ireland Gazette publishes the following letter on page 8:

‘The General Synod’

Canon Patrick Comerford is to be congratulated on his blog which justly won a prize at General Synod. It contains two references to me (8th May, though I am not named) which deserve comment.

First, as seconder to Bill No.1 (that the Church’s 1999 Declaration on the 39 Articles of Religion be printed in future editions of the Prayer Book), he says that I wanted the Bill “amended and watered down”. In fact, the Bill’s proposer and
I both supported the amendment. It had been suggested that the unamended Bill might have the effect of changing the doctrine of the Church, which we had not intended. The Legal Advisory Committee had (understandably and correctly) said that determining this question was beyond its remit; but it was universally agreed that if the amendment were passed (as it subsequently was) there would be no doctrinal implications. This is clearly what Synod intended.

Secondly, Patrick claims that I “pilloried” the Benedictine mystic Dom Bede Griffiths. I said that Griffiths sought to persuade C.S. Lewis to integrate some aspects of Hinduism into his Christian thinking. I quoted Lewis as responding: “Your Hindus certainly sound delightful. But what do they deny? That has always been my trouble with Indians – to find any proposition they would pronounce false. But truth must surely involve exclusions?” I said that Lewis and Griffiths were lifelong friends; I did not intend to pillory, and I don’t think members of Synod would have taken me to be doing so.

Dermot O’Callaghan
27 Monument Road
BT26 6HT

Dermot is a good friend, I am grateful for his comments on my blog. I hope he keeps reading, and I have no intention of questioning his motives or his sincerity. But firstly, I, like many other members of the synod, was astounded that the seconder of a Bill could seek to amend it at the very beginning of the debate. It was only after the debate that followed this unprecedented move that the proposer of the bill agreed to accept the amendment. If that had happened to me I would have been shocked, to say the least.

Secondly, I found this reference to Dom Bede Griffiths in the context of the 39 Articles shocking. To me, the inference was that Roman Catholics – even those as ecumenical and broadminded as that great writer and mystic – were and are in the same category as non-Christian polytheists. This set the tone for other contributions to the debate in which speakers claimed to be polite but made totally negative comments about other Churches, whose representatives were seated in the front row as guests.

Dermot says: “… I don’t think members of Synod would have taken me to be doing so.” But this member of General Synod did, and I told him so outside the synod hall.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Don’t just stand there, do something

A modern icon of the Ascension

Patrick Comerford

Thursday 21 May 2009, The Ascension Day: 5 p.m., The Holy Communion:

Acts 1: 1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1: 15-23; Luke 24: 44-53

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Ascension Day is one of the 12 great feasts of the Church.

On this day, we celebrate the culmination of the Mystery of the Incarnation.

On this day, we celebrated that Christ, by ascending into his glory, completed the work of our redemption.

On this day, we celebrate the completion of the work of our salvation, the pledge of our glorification with Christ, and his entry into heaven with our human nature glorified.

On this day, Christ ascends in his glorified human body to sit at the right hand of the Father.

On this day, we are given the final visible sign of Christ’s two natures, divine and human.

On this day, we see the completion of Christ’s physical presence among his apostles and the consummation of the union of God and humanity.

On this day, we are shown that redeemed humanity now has a higher state than humanity had before the fall.

On this day, as Saint Matthew reminds us in the account of the Ascension we read at Morning Prayer this morning, we receive our commission for mission, the command to go out, to make disciples, and to baptise.

But, on this day, are we like the disciples, left standing and staring and not knowing what to do?

Or, on this day, do we listen to the advice to head off, to expect the promise of the Father and the gift of the Holy Spirit?

As so often throughout the Gospels, it is easy to imagine in today’s readings from Saint Luke’s Gospel and from the Acts of the Apostles that the disciples have still not caught on to the sort of Messiah that Jesus is: they are still wondering whether they have arrived at the moment when Israel is going to be restored as a kingdom, to become a regional power once again.

The disciples kept their heads in the clouds, even though Jesus has told them to go back to Jerusalem. They have their heads in the clouds, and while their feet rooted to the ground, they are feet that should have been walking, walking back to Jerusalem, ready to step out bravely into the world in mission.

The two men in white who appear beside them are like the two angels at the grave on Easter Morning. They remind them to get on with doing what Christ has told them to do.

They are being sent back to Jerusalem not to be passive but to pray to God the Father and to wait for the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In time, the Holy Spirit will empower them, and they will be Christ’s witnesses not just in Judea and Samaria, but to the ends of the earth fulfilling that commission in Saint Matthew’s Gospel.

In an old Ascension Day tradition in the Church of England, parishioners carried a banner bearing the symbol of a lion at the head of the procession, and a second banner bearing the symbol of a dragon at the rear. This represents the victory of Christ over the devil.

For many Christians, the meaning of the Day of Ascension is found in the sense of hope that the glorious and triumphant return of Christ is near. It is a reminder of the Kingdom of God within our hearts, and of the ever-present Spirit of God, watching over and protecting us as we spread the light of Christ and his truth throughout the world.

The disciples who are left below are left not to ponder on what they have seen, but to prepare for Pentecost and to go out into the world as the lived Pentecost, as Christ’s hands and feet in the world.

But, like the disciples in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we can be left looking and wondering, being without doing.

When the exams are over next week, will we be left standing and staring, some wanting to cling onto the joyful life of students? I jest not, for in time some of you will look back on your three years here as happy days.

But those three years here, including the exams these weeks, are not about academic standards and achievements. They are first and last about preparing for that moment when the Church prays “earnestly” at your ordination “for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on these persons” (Book of Common Prayer 2004, p. 557).

The Holy Spirit, as the Apostle Paul writes in our Epistle reading, is the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, the Spirit that enlightens the hearts of disciples, is the Spirit that gives knowledge of the hope to which we are called, the Spirit that gives us knowledge of the Christ’s glorious inheritance among the saints.

This is precisely what the bishop prays for you at your ordination as deacons, when it comes to laying hands on your heads and praying for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

After the bishop lays hands on you, praying for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon you for the office and work of a deacon, he then prays that you will be given grace and power to fulfil your ministry, making you faithful to serve, ready to teach, constant in advancing the Gospel, praying that you have “full assurance of faith, abounding in hope, and being rooted and grounded in love,” and that you “may continue strong and steadfast” in Christ (Book of Common Prayer, p. 559).

The bishop will pray that you will be filled with the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, that the Holy Spirit will make you faithful to serve, ready to teach, constant in advancing the Gospel, that the Holy Spirit will empower you to work in faith, hope and love, that the Holy Spirit will give you wisdom and discipline.

Already, you have received those gifts in large measure. But they are not for your benefit. They are for the sake of the Gospel and the sake of the Church. They are more important, more to treasure, more to be desired than good exam results, a good curate’s house, or a choice parish.

May you exercise those gifts constantly and confidently, in faith, hope and love. Without exercise, every gift and ability wears thin. Look forward to the kingdom, and be signs and tokens of the love of God, the grace of Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

And now may all praise, honour and glory be to God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This reflection was shared at the Community Eucharist on the Ascension Day, 21 May 2009.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

A tragedy beyond comprehension

A banner proclaiming hope, compassion and solidarity in a Church in Swaziland (Photograph: Linda Chambers/USPG Ireland)

Patrick Comerford

I was in Kilkenny twice last week for meetings in the Bishop’s House. Two visits to Kilkenny is bliss, three so far this year is undescribable bliss – trying to peel me out of Ireland’s most beautiful city is more difficult to describe.

At the end of the week, I was at a meeting to discuss Continuing Ministerial Education in the Dioceses of Cashel and Ossory, with imaginative programmes being put forward by the Dean of Leighlin, the Very Revd Gordon Wynne.

Earlier in the week, the directors of USPG Ireland – Anglicans in World Mission met in the same room to plan future Irish strategy for the United Society for the propagation of the Gospel (USPG) one of the oldest mission agencies in the Anglican Communion.

The meeting ended with a briefing by Jan de Bruijn and Linda Chambers on the work of USPG in Swaziland, a land-locked country in Southern Africa that is bordered to the north, south, and west by South Africa, and to the east by Mozambique.

Swaziland became a British protectorate at the end of the Second Boer War, and became an independent kingdom in 1968, when the Anglican Diocese of Swaziland was first established.

The economy of Swaziland is dominated by services industry, agriculture and subsistence farming, but growth has been hampered by the effects of HIV and AIDS, which – at 38 per cent – has highest prevalence in the world.

Swaziland is less than one-fifth the size of Ireland with 17,600 sq km (6,700 sq m), and has a population of a little over 1.1 million.

Jan and Linda gave a very moving account of life in Swaziland, where HIV/AIDS affects the life of every parish, where people are trying to live positively and fight stigmatisation.

The Swazi “tragedy” means 20,000 people are dying of AIDS-related illnesses every year in Swaziland. Life-expectancy is expected to drop from 62 to just 27 by next year. The most productive section of society – those aged around 30 – have effectively been wiped out, wrecking the country, which has already been crippled by drought and economic disintegration.

The UN recently declared that Swaziland has surpassed Botswana and is now the country with the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence in the world. Of Swaziland’s one million people, 500,000 are under 15 years of age. Of the remaining half million, 200,000 are HIV infected.

The chance of a 15-year-old reaching the age of 35 is only 10 per cent. More than 5,500 homes or 15 per cent of households are now headed by an orphan child – with an average age of 11 – according to Linda and Jan.

The crisis in Swaziland, caused by HIV/AIDS and years of drought, is now “beyond comprehension,” according to the Anglican Church there. Life expectancy has been halved, an entire generation of orphans is growing up and as the Swazi government remains inactive the Church has become the only hope for many of the people.

According to Linda and Jan, 70 per cent of people in Swaziland live below the poverty line, currently set at $8.50 a month.

The Anglican Church of Swaziland – a diocese of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa – has a programme to combat HIV/AIDS but desperately needs support. The Diocese of Swaziland recently issued a mission statement on its strategy, highlighting poverty and the spread of HIV/AIDS as inseparable issues, and pointing out that the care of the sick and their families must be implemented within a much wider task of pastoral care.

Earlier this month, Veronica Maziya of the Anglican Diocese of Swaziland presented statistics and eyewitness accounts of the devastation facing her country.

“The situation is amplified by the fact that there are only 2,000 hospital beds in the country,” she continued. “And as there is no social welfare system, very few can afford treatment.”

Ms Maziya told the Anglican Communion news Service (ACNS) of the devastation, “grief and agony” that HIV/AIDS is causing in Swaziland and how the Anglican Church is attempting to relieve its suffering. She called on the Anglican Communion to pray for the efforts of the Anglican Church to bring the crisis to an end. “The situation is a disaster for Swaziland,” she said. “HIV has destroyed our youth and the future. We have been left with an orphaned country. We face a tragedy beyond comprehension.”

Patrick Comerford with Bishop Michael Burrows of Cashel and Ossory and Bishop Michael Doe, General Secretary of USPG, in Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny, last week (Photograph: Linda Chambers/USPG Ireland)

USPG Ireland is at:

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Prayer and Spiritual Growth

The Pharisee and the Publican praying in the Temple ... who was good at praying, and who was a model for praying?

Patrick Comerford


Prayer is both an individual and a collective action. And even when we pray individually, we pray for ourselves and we pray on behalf of others. Praying must not be a neglected activity and a forgotten part of our life. The person who wants to learn how to pray is a person who wants to get closer to God. Without praying, how can I establish a deeper communion with God?

When you came here to train for ordination, you realised that people expected you to be a person of prayer, someone who would pray with them, pray for them, teach them to pray and lead a life that had a rhythm of prayer.

But perhaps you have noticed since you came here that old styles of prayer are less satisfying, that old formulas no longer have the same meaning, or that you sometimes find it difficult to maintain a life of regular prayer at the level you expect and hope for.

If we are going to help others to pray, then we must first develop and strengthen our own prayer life and to watch, tender and nurture it carefully.

What is prayer?

Prayer is doxology, praise, thanksgiving, confession, supplication and intercession to God.

“When I prayed I was new,” wrote a great theologian of Christian antiquity, “but when I stopped praying I became old.”

Prayer is the way to renewal and spiritual life. Prayer is aliveness to God. Prayer is strength, refreshment, and joy.

Through the grace of God and our disciplined efforts, prayer lifts us up from our isolation to a conscious, loving communion with God in which everything is experienced in a new light.

Prayer becomes a personal dialogue with God, a spiritual breathing of the soul, a foretaste of the bliss of God’s kingdom.

As we pray deeply within our hearts we grow in prayer. By the grace of God we suddenly catch a glimpse of the miracle of the presence of the Holy Spirit working within us. At first it is only a spark but later it becomes a flame freeing and energising our whole being, provided we do nothing to grieve the Holy Spirit; and if we do sin we repent of our sin immediately and ask for God’s forgiveness.

To experience the fire of God’s holy love, to give it space within us to do its cleansing and healing work as a breath of the Holy Spirit, and to use it as light and power for daily living – such are the goals as well as the fruits of true prayer.

Prayer in ministry

In prayer, we should be mindful of the needs of others, and for those of us in ordained ministry we should be willing to – we are expected to – help and teach others to pray. But what is prayer?

What are we expected to do when it comes to helping others to pray?

We pray for ourselves and we pray on behalf of others. But even before that, the Eastern Fathers of the Church insist, prayer is primarily the action of God.

Prayer can be described as conversation with God, allowing the Word to penetrate mind and heart. As the Carmelite Rule says, prayer can be described as “meditating on the law of the Lord, day and night.”

Rosalind Brown describes prayer as “the intimacy of our life with God. Prayer is being lost in wonder, love and praise.”

Prayer is not a shopping list that we tick off, and then use to tick off God when our shopping trolley hasn’t been filled.

The Lord’s Prayer is the Model Prayer. It teaches us that prayer:

• Must be addressed to God as our Father.
• Must ask for his will.
• Must pray for his Kingdom.
• Must include our daily needs.
• Must seek forgiveness.
• Must pray for God’s guidance and leading.
• Must ask for deliverance from evil.
• Must also assure us that God hears and answers our prayers.

Some Biblical foundations

Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray, by word and by example. When they ask how to pray, he teaches them the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6: 9-13; Luke 11: 1-5), giving them an immediate example of model prayer

But he also gives example of prayer in parables, particularly in the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee in the Temple (Luke 18: 9-14).

In the New Testament, prayer is presented as a positive command (Colossians 4: 2; I Thessalonians 5: 17). The people of God are challenged to include prayer in their everyday life, even in the busy struggles of marriage (I Corinthians 7: 5) as it is thought to bring those who believe closer to God.

Throughout the New Testament, prayer is presented as God’s appointed method by which those who believe obtain what he has to bestow (Matthew 7: 7-11; Matthew 9: 24-29; Luke 11: 13).

Lengthy passages in the New Testament are prayers or canticles:

The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6: 9-13; Luke 11: 1-5);

Christ’s prayer before his arrest, “may this cup be taken from me” (Matthew 26: 36-44);

The prayer for forgiveness (Mark 11: 25-26);

The Magnificat (Luke 1: 46-55);

The Benedictus (Luke 1: 68-79);

Christ’s advice to “Pray that you will not fall into temptation” (Luke 22: 39-46);

Jesus’ great thanksgiving prayer in his final discourse at the Last Supper (John 17);

The Believers’ Prayer (Acts 4: 23-31);

Exclamations such as, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1: 3-14);

Saint Stephen’s Prayer (Acts 7: 59-60);

The prayer of Simon Magus (Acts 8: 24);

Maranatha (I Corinthians 16: 22).

The Apostle Paul’s advice to “pray that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men” (II Thessalonians 3: 1-2).

Prayer, according to the Acts of the Apostles, can be seen at the first moments of the church (Acts 3: 1). The Apostles regarded prayer as the most important part of their life (Acts 6: 4; Romans 1: 9; Colossians 1: 9). They frequently incorporated verses from the Psalms into their writings. For example, in Romans 3: 10-18, the Apostle Paul borrows from Psalm 14: 1-3 and from other psalms.

A parable for praying

Let’s just take the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican and their prayers as a way of examining our own approaches to prayer. In this parable, Christ teaches the disciples to pray by giving examples of how others.

Both the Pharisee and the Publican prays for himself. Each bares himself before God.

The Pharisee gives thanks to God. He prays. In fact, by all the current standards of and means of measuring Jewish piety, he is a good man. Look at what he tells God and us about himself. First of all he thanks God that he is not like other people. The Morning Prayer for Orthodox Jewish men, to this day, includes a prayer with these words: “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hast not made me a gentile, … a slave, … a woman.”

Thanking God that I am not like others is not an expression of disdain for others; it is merely another, humble way of thanking God for being made the way we are, in God’s image and likeness. The Pharisee’s prayer is not unusual.

The Pharisee then goes on to tell God that he obeys all the commandments: he prays, he fasts and he tithes – in fact, he tithes more than he has to, and perhaps also fasts more often than he has to – and he gives generously to the poor. He more than meets all the requirements on him under Mosaic law, and goes beyond that. He is a charitable, kind and faithful man. Anyone who saw him in the Temple and heard him pray would have gone away saying he was a good man, and a spiritual man.

The Pharisee in this parable does not pray for the needs of others, in so far as we are allowed to or can hear his prayers. But then, neither does the publican. So neither man is condemned for not being heard to pray for the needs of the other. What marks the prayers of the Pharisee out from the prayers of the publican is that, in his prayers, the Pharisee expresses his disdain for the needs of others.

Growing and developing in your own prayer life:

The Apostle Paul encourages us to “pray without ceasing.” But how can we encourage others to do this unless we first may attention to our own prayer patterns and prayer life? How is one to pray?

Only the Holy Spirit can guide us to pray as we should. Just as a child learns to walk by walking, one can best learn to pray by praying, trusting in the help of God.

1, Review your approach to prayer:

Put your whole soul into your prayer. Think about the meaning of every word you pray. Make every prayer your own personal prayer.

2, Be regular and persistent:

Be persistent in prayer. Do not yield to carelessness or neglect. Strengthen your prayer through a lively faith in the Lord, a spirit of forgiveness toward others, and genuine Christian living.

3, Fix a pattern:

Fix a pattern for prayer. Using the office (Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer each day, or one of the shorter forms available in either the Book of Common Prayer, pp. 136-138, or in Celebrating Common Prayer) may be a good start.

The Daily Office is one of the great treasures of our Anglican heritage. The Eucharist and the Office complement each another.

The Daily Office is the daily worship of the Church Catholic. It is both symbolic of and an aid to Saint Paul’s advice to “pray without ceasing.” Its constant round of Psalms and Scripture gives us food for our daily spiritual feeding and action. It binds us into the unceasing worship of the whole Church – Militant, Expectant, and Triumphant. It forms us as Christians. It is one of the great gifts that we have to offer to the divided and broken Body of Christ. It is a fragment of the treasure of the whole that we have preserved and, in this time, we may find that we can offer it back to the whole Church for the edification and rejoicing of all.

In praying the daily office, a clearly defined structure for intercessions can be helpful at times of prayer.

The most common structure in Anglican worship is:

● prayer for the Church;
● prayer for the World;
● prayer for Our Community;
● prayer for Others, especially those in need
● remembrance of, and thanksgiving for, the faithful departed.

4, Value silence

Silence allows me to learn to rejoice in new ways of spending time with God. I know one student who regularly goes for a cup of coffee with God during the week. When I go for a cup of coffee with my friends I don’t take the newspaper or a magazine to read withy me, I don’t keep my iPod in my ears.

Use silence in your prayers. This should not be frightening. You don’t have to fill every gap in times of private prayer with sounds or words, not even sounds and words within your heart. If I talk regularly to God, then I should be prepared to give God space to talk to me too.

5, Be regular at the Eucharist.

The sacrament of the Eucharist is both reconciling and nurturing. If you feel guilty at times about not praying for everything, then the Eucharist can help overcome this. For the Eucharist is the great thanksgiving; all our prayers are caught up in it, and if you are regular in attendance and eventually in celebration you will be bringing the whole of existence and creation before God. Nothing can be or is left out then.

6, Pray as you read Scripture, don’t just study it.

7, Think simply.

Think simply and use simple word. And don’t try to reduce prayer to an exercise in theology.

Think simply because if you try to pack too many ideas into your prayers, you fall into the danger of thinking more about your thoughts than your prayers, and thinking more about the way you are praying than the God you are praying to.

Use simple words and simple ideas: don’t find that you’ve packed so much into one package that you have forgotten what went in first by the time it comes to owning that prayer with an Amen.”

Keep to one idea or stay focused on one idea at a time before moving on to the next idea.

Avoid the temptation to teach yourself – and to teach God – anything during prayers. Praise is one thing. But your personal prayers are between you and God. God doesn’t need a theological lesson each time you pray, nor do you. God already knows of his majesty, creativity and power. He doesn’t need me to remind him at the beginning of each petition. .

8, Be aware of who are you addressing.

Be aware of the movement and direction of your prayer. Are you talking to yourself? Are you talking to God? Are you talking to God as Father, Son and/or Holy Spirit?

It will help you too if you know where your prayers are going. This frees you to pray, and to respond to the Spirit’s prompting.

9, Make a sacred place:

When they stop to pray, it takes time for their minds to change track and to focus in on God. You may find it can be good to ease yourself into prayer gently, perhaps by listening to music on a CD, or by reading a psalm or a passage from the Bible, or simply by reflecting on what we have to be thankful for. Then we can enter into a conversation with God with our minds properly prepared.

Create a place you know you can pray in. This could be your room. It could be in your car. It could be in the chapel. Or you could create the space for prayer anywhere simply by creating the atmosphere for prayer. This can be done by attending to the appropriate background sound, by listening to music you associate with prayer. This could be on your walkman or iPod, but you need to know you are doing this to create the appropriate atmosphere, not so you can simply listen to the music for its own sake or for your pleasure.

10, Pay attention to your physical posture.

Many of us were taught as children to say our prayers kneeling beside our beds. Certain physical gestures and postures often accompany prayer. Some you may be familiar with others may be outside your tradition.

There are traditional gestures such as genuflection, making the sign of the cross, kneeling, bowing and prostrating.

Frequently in Western Christianity the hands are placed palms together and forward as in the feudal commendation ceremony. At other times, the older orans posture may be used, with palms up and elbows in.

11, Use aids to prayer.

Think about the creative use of icons, candles, prayer beads, or placing an open Bible or an open Book of Common Prayer placed before you during your time of prayer.

12, Try different styles of prayer.

Are you familiar with the Jesus Prayer, Lectio Divinia, speaking in tongues, or the practice of meditative prayer?

But balance experimentation with stability.

13, Pray when you can’t pray.

If you are someone who has a difficulty in finding appropriate words when you come to pray, then you may find it helpful to learn some collects off by heart so that they come to mind immediately on those occasions.

Remind yourself that others have the same difficulties, and remember that God knows what your prayers should be any in case.

And remember these moments so that you will never put someone else on the spot or make them feel embarrassed by being asked to pray in public.

When you can’t pray, have prayers to hand that express that too. For example: “Father, we now bring before you in the silence of my heart those who have forgotten to pray for, and those who are too afraid to ask for prayers.”

Or: “Lord God, I don’t know what I should be praying about when it comes to [the conflict in Iraq/ the European elections/ …] but I bring these situations before you in silence and in my heart.”

14, Think of singing:

For some people, it may be useful to suggest they think of singing. Saint Augustine in his commentary on the Psalms stated that those who sing pray twice. Many people forget that they are praying when they are singing, whether this is in private or in public. When they are reminded of this, it can sometimes become easier for them to pray in private or in public. You sing in church and in the college chapel. Have you ever thought of singing as part of your private prayer?

15, Teach others to pray:

Praying must not be a neglected activity and a forgotten part of our life. The person who wants to learn how to pray can learn too teaching others how to pray, which is a great privilege and responsibility.

As you try to teach people to pray, you will hopefully find that, of course, it is the Spirit who teaches people to pray, and teaches you to pray

16, Face difficulties in prayer honestly

Many people start off praying with great enthusiasm but when they begin to flounder and to experience difficulties they need understanding, help and stimulation from one who has gone the same way.

Even when people pray regularly and pray often, the most common barrier to prayer is wandering thoughts. One survey found over 80% of respondents find this at least “sometimes a problem.”

Two-thirds also found noise or other distractions a problem. A similar survey found that “keeping concentration” was also an issue, with 40% of respondents mentioning this as a barrier to prayer.

It is important not to worry about your minds being distracted. You can learn to gently bring it back to focus on God, and the area you were praying about.

Just as when we are in conversation with others, our minds naturally have some apparently irrelevant thoughts, and need to return to the topic at hand.

Saint Francis of Sales said: “Even if you did nothing in your meditation but bring your heart back, and place it again in our Lord’s presence, though it went away again every time you brought it back, your hour would be very well employed.”

Remember too that difficulties with prayer also come with going through different stages of faith. We than old prayers lack meaning or significance, and find it difficult to find new prayers. For some, if they are not helped through this stage, the problem becomes more difficult.

Others have difficulty in prayer because of personal tragedy or their personal difficulties with God. But these difficulties often reflect the stage of faith they are at. Help them to grow in that stage rather than pushing them on, and they will mature.

Prayer and worthiness:

To return to the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, it is worth remembering that sometimes people think that because they have sinned they should not pray.

But the story of the story of the Pharisee (apparently good) and the Publican (apparently bad), in Luke 18: 10-14, tells us that the Pharisee prayed easily, while the publican could not even lift his eyes to heaven but smote his breast and prayed, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus tells us it was the publican who “returned home justified” not the Pharisee.

The publican wants to pray even when he feels guilty of sin. We do not have to wait until we feel righteous, like a Pharisee, so we can pray. Such prayer is almost useless. I know I can all too easily pray the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner,” more readily when I am feeling righteous than when I realise I am a sinner.

Religious feelings can be deceptive in the extreme. When I think I feel like praying, I may in fact be feeling “pious,” and I may not be ready to pray at this stage. Instead, I may be preparing to be self- consumed and self-congratulatory about being a pious person of prayer.

But when I feel like the Publican in our parable, then I can pray like a Publican. Many times people will tell you, “I can’t take communion … lead the intercession … serve at the altar today, because I don’t feel worthy.” But surely I’m in much greater danger when I do feel worthy.

When does someone ever say, “I’ve been so good this week I haven’t felt in the least like a sinner, and this is a great sin and deception.” Now we would be getting somewhere with prayer!

Help people to pray like a publican. They will find so many more times available for prayer if they do. And while they are there, you and I should pray for those who are praying like a Pharisee, so that God may free us from our delusions.

Appendix: Fowler’s stages of faith development:

A series of stages of faith development was proposed by Professor James W. Fowler, a developmental psychologist at Candler School of Theology, in his book Stages of Faith. His study proposes a staged development of faith, or spiritual development over the span of a life. It is closely related to the ideas of Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson and Lawrence Kohlberg and their theories about psychological development in children and adults.

Fowler sees faith as a holistic orientation that is concerned with the individual’s relatedness to the universal. And each stage is reflected in a different and unique approach to prayer.

Stage 0: “Primal or Undifferentiated” faith (birth to 2 years), which is characterised by an early learning of the safety of their environment (i.e., warm, safe and secure versus hurt, neglect and abuse).

Stage 1: “Intuitive-Projective” faith (ages of three to seven), which is characterised by the psyche’s unprotected exposure to the Unconscious.

Stage 1: Intuitive-Projective faith, is a stage full of fantasy and imagination. The child imitates the faith of adults without understanding the symbols and meanings of the rituals. If sins are washed away, then perhaps one can see the sins floating on the water after a baptism.

The child’s faith is in the adults. The child imitates the adults’ faith without understanding it. The child becomes very upset when the adult rituals they have learned are interrupted or changed.

The danger of this stage lies in the fears inherent in a child’s mind. A child may become terrified of hell and not be able to sleep, or an adult may use the fears of a child to manipulate the child into co-operation by descriptions of God’s punishment.

Stage 2: “Mythic-Literal” faith (mostly in school children), in which individuals have a strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe, and their deities are almost always anthropomorphic.

Stage 2: Mythic-Literal faith, is a time when the child organises the stories of the faith into an orderly fashion. Symbols and words are one-dimensional and literal. Baptism is being dunked in the water – nothing more, nothing less. Stories become powerful for the child or adult in this stage of faith. The child may attempt to walk on water or imagine himself as Jesus performing miracles.

If I am good to God, God will be good to me is a strong belief of the Stage 2 believer. Jacob’s bargain with God after the dream of Jacob’s ladder is a prime example of this kind of faith. Someone who believes there cannot possibly be a God because of all the suffering of innocent children in the world is a Stage 2 atheist.

The child may believe that if they don’t say their prayers every night they will be lost and go to hell if they die. They hurry to say the “in Jesus’ name, Amen” before they die, so the prayer will be routed correctly.

The woman who loses belief after not having an important prayer answered when she devoted herself all week to God, is firmly in Stage 2.

Superstitious religions are part of Stage 2. Job’s friends, who insisted he must have sinned if all of these terrible things were happening to him, were solidly in Stage 2.

Stage 3: “Synthetic-Conventional” faith (arising in adolescence), which is characterised by conformity.

Stage 3: Synthetic-Conventional Faith, is the authoritarian time of faith. The individual is not strong enough yet to hold their faith in themselves, so they entrust the faith to their group. Their group holds their faith. The group interprets truth, and loyalty to the group is of utmost importance. Groups are divided into groups like us and groups not like us. Only groups like us are good. All others are bad.

Learning the rules and symbols of the faith are very important in this stage of faith. “What do we believe about baptism?” “What does brother the Bishop teach on the topic of Lambeth resolutions?” Most have a one-dimensional understanding of the rules.

Advanced Stage 3 people want to know why the rules are the way they are.

Leaders are very important to the person in this stage of faith. If a leader falls due to sin, or there is a church split, the person in Stage 3 may have a crisis of faith: the group that held their faith did not hold it safely.

This person has difficulty in understanding what is the most important thing to teach to a new convert. Have you heard about the Stage 3 missionary in Africa who spent an hour teaching a Swahili woman that the New International Version is the only reliable translation of the Bible?

Most people in this part of the world remain stay in Stage 3 for the rest of their lives, whether they are religious or not. They identify with a group and never go beyond that identification. Fowler believes that most churches aim to grow their members up to Stage 3 and almost to Stage 4, and then stop. Any further and the church becomes uncomfortable with the member’s faith.

Stage 4: “Individuative-Reflective” faith (usually mid-20s to late 30s), which is a stage of angst and struggle. At this stage, the individual takes personal responsibility for their beliefs and feelings.

Stage 4: Individuative-Reflective Faith, is the faith that no longer needs to depend on a group, but has strong personal beliefs that have been worked through in one’s own mind.

A woman in Stage 4 may be peaceful when separated for a time from her church by illness. She has a personal way of praying to God that chases away her loneliness. Others come to her to be taught how to be so peaceful. She can stand outside herself and see what her faith looks like to outsiders, and ask questions about her own faith. She is curious to grow and does not believe that she knows everything.

A man in stage 4 knows what he believes and he knows why he believes it. He has reflected on his faith and has his own view unique to himself. Compared with Stage 3, he seems not to care what others think, except to argue and try to convert them. When they threaten to withdraw from him, he is sad, but he stands firm in his beliefs. Stage 4 people are often angry about what they view as the hypocrisy of Stage 3.

People in stage 3 feel the stage 4 person is rebellious and angry and are irritated by his constant questions and off-the-wall comments in Bible class. Why can’t he be respectful to the teachers who know what the group believes?

Most people drop out of churches in Stage 4 and have a very difficult time finding a church to worship with.

Stage 5: “Conjunctive” faith (mid-life crisis) acknowledges paradox and transcendence, relating reality behind the symbols of inherited systems.

Stage 5: Conjunctive Faith, is faith that has gone beyond one’s own group and has learned to see patterns in the faith of outsiders that look similar to one’s own group. Other groups have much to teach the person in Stage 5, and they love history, seeing themselves as part of a long chain. Racial and ethnic barriers do not exist to the person in Stage 5.

In Stage 5, people are fascinated with outside groups and may seem wishy-washy to people in other stages. Their powerful appreciation for the many facets of faith life may make everything seem relative to them and they may feel paralysed when they need to make a stand.

Stage 5 people are usually in mid-life and are often willing to make large investments in younger people to give them a sense of meaning in their lives.
Another of the strengths of a person in Stage 5 is that they love symbols and ritual. Baptism is so rich and meaningful to the person in Stage 5 that they could not finish telling you all they love about baptism even if they taught it for an entire term. They are grieved when people rush through the Eucharist or Holy Communion because they relish partaking of the body and blood of Christ and they cannot explain why they look forward to it so much. Yet they understand that they still only have a glimpse of the transcendent glory of God.

Stage 5 believers are not interested in rules at all. They are only interested in principles. If a rule violates one of the principles they believe in, the rule gets thrown out with much thought.

Stage 6: “Universalising” faith, or what some might call “enlightenment.”

Stage 6: Universalising Faith is very rare. It is the faith that makes someone suddenly sell their house and move to Burundi to build a hospital because “they need hospitals in Burundi.” If you marvelled at them for their sacrifice they would not know what you are talking about. They were being joyful, not sacrificing. They have no thought for themselves. They love to serve others.

People in Stage 6 create liberating spaces around themselves that attract and motivate others. Mother Teresa saw the poor dying in the streets of Calcutta. She asked permission from her order to open a hospice for them. She nursed them during their last days and gave them dignity. And she loved doing it. She taught her workers to look for Christ in each one of their faces.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a seminar with Year II students on the Non-Stipendiary Ministry (NSM) course on Sunday 17 May 2009

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Ministry in Context: Church, Faith and Culture

The u2charist in Saint George’s and Saint Thomas’s Church, Dublin ... where Church, Faith and Culture came together

Patrick Comerford

A good starting point for talking about the links between your Ministry, the Church and Faith and Culture is to ask the question:

“What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness [or mercy], and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6: 8).

How society sees the Church

A major crisis in recent years that has shaped the ways in which society sees and responds to the Church has been the crisis within the Roman Catholic Church arising from the cases of clerical child abuse.

The portrayal of the Church in the media is often a cultural reflection of how people see the Church at that time.

These portrayals can be negative. Examples have been provided by the news coverage of the cases of clerical sex abuse, when the Church is blamed for its own perceived failures and inaction or for the actions of those in ministry.

These portrayals can be negative when it comes to reporting on the reaction of Christians to events such as the staging of Jerry Springer the Opera, and the Church is seen as being easily offended when its cherish beliefs are ridiculed. Meanwhile, Christians are perceived to be inactive about issues of war and peace or social injustice. In other words, the Church is often portrayed not so much as getting it wrong, but getting its priorities wrong.

They can be negative when we are seen as being obsessed with a morality that emphasises sexual mechanics and engineering at a cost of ignoring the causes and effects of sexual oppression, or not being equally concerned with socially demanding issues such as immigration, debt, poverty or bad housing.

They can be negative when the Church is portrayed in the media as a closed shop that is not prepared to open its school doors to all and demands that a child should be baptised or the parents are church-goers before offering a place in a Church-run school.

They can be negative when phone-in shows spend time discussing how a couple have been told they cannot have their wedding the way they want it, or that a family has been told they cannot have the songs they want at granddad’s funeral.

I’m not saying the Church, as such, is right or wrong in these situations. I am saying that these are typical of the situations that give rise to the Church being seen as distancing itself from its context and the surrounding culture, and that lead to negative portrayals in the media.

On the other hand, positive images can be sanitised and – in a hidden way – offer an equally dangerous portrayal of the Church.

How many of you enjoy Songs of Praise? I know some people see it as too sanitised and squeaky clean. At times, I have been moved by the beauty of the music or the buildings, and even more by the personal stories of people’s lives and faith. But it can be too sweet, and it never gives the impression that the worship of the Church is first of all, and in its fullest sense, worship that is focussed on Word, Sacrament and Service, not on some sweet version of an old Cliff Richard number.

Even more insidious is the portrayal of the clergy on popular soap operas. I am a keen fan of EastEnders. But I find the vicars on EastEnders or Emmerdale are invariably saccharine, too sweet and too distant from their context and from the surrounding culture. Nor would any of us want to hold up Dot Cotton’s use of Scripture as a model for Scripture being a lantern to our feet, let alone being hermeneutically sound.

On the other hand, the media and popular culture can portray the Church and Faith in ways that are often surprisingly constructive. Good examples are provided by the “Rite and Reason” column, commissioned and edited by Patsy McGarry in The Irish Times every Tuesday, and similar columns every Saturday in newspapers such as The Times and The Guardian. There are the great Would You Believe? series and similar television programmes on RTÉ.

Can you recall the coverage of John Paul II’s death and funeral?

There is a generally positive attitude towards the Church of Ireland in the Irish media. Both main newspapers gave coverage to the General Synod of the Church of Ireland in Armagh last weekend, and the Irish newspapers have been far kinder and gentler towards the Church of Ireland than to our sister Church when it comes to court cases.

Is the Vicar of Dibley a positive or negative portrayal of clergy in popular culture?

But consider some other representations of the Church in popular culture.

Is Father Ted positive, negative, constructive, realistic? In an Anglican context, what about the Vicar of Dibley?

What do you think the coverage of the following indicate about what the media thinks of religion:

The protests last year by Burmese and Tibetan Buddhist monks;

The role of the Roman Catholic Church in schools and the crisis over school places for immigrants;

The current crisis dividing the Anglican Communion;

Islam after the bombings and attacks in recent years;

The Danish cartoons and the response of Muslims;

Pope Benedict’s comments on Islam some time ago or his visit to the Holy Land in the past week.

Consider the portrayal of religion in general and the Church in particular in other areas of the media.

Television: Think of the Reverend Lovejoy and how the clergy, churches and religious values are projected in The Simpsons. Who is most religious? Have you ever noticed how often Homer puts his questions to God? How often the family says grace before eating? How often there are references to, and images of, heaven and hell? How often the Simpson family and their neighbours go to Church?

Cinema: When I was working for mission agencies, I often held up the movie The Mission as a good portrayal in popular culture of the clash between different models of missions. Or I used Amadeus as a movie to discuss ambition and service, or Captain Corelli’s Mandolin to discuss healing and miracles. We even used My Big Fat Greek Wedding to discuss conversion, and to discuss the way cultural identity and denominational affiliation can be confused.

Do you have other examples of movies that manage to debate great religious, moral, ethical and faith-relevant issues?

Do you think The Passion of the Christ was good or bad for the Church and for Christian faith? What about the Lord of the Rings movies, or the Chronicles of Narnia? Other films worth considering include Blade Runner, The Matrix, The Fifth Element, Alien or Se7en.

What movies have been good for you as openers when discussing your faith and your core values?

Music: We should never forget that Bach say himself primarily as one of God’s workmen. How many people enter into the meaning of the passion through Bach’s music? How many people are deeply moved by Mozart’s Requiem or enjoy his Coronation Mass without knowing who or what was being crowned? They don’t need to debate the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed and Orthodox understandings of the procession of the Holy Spirit to be lifted up by Rachmaninov’s Vespers.

But then music was always closely interwoven with expressions of faith. Without the development of polyphony in the monastic tradition, I cannot imagine how the Western musical tradition would have developed.

And so too, even with contemporary music: In their book Get Up Off Your Knees … Preaching the U2 catalog, Raewynne J. Whiteley and Beth Maynard have looked at how many of our core Christian values are made relevant to many people who would not otherwise pay attention to them. I was surprised with the response to the U2Charist I took part in at Saint George’s and Saint Thomas’s Church in inner city Dublin about two years ago.

Literature: In literature, value and meaning are conveyed in fiction such as JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings cycle, Colin Thurbon’s Falling, Hilary Mantel’s A Change of Climate, or Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

There are the clerical novels of Susan Howatch, Catherine Fox’s two novels, Angels and Men and The Benefits of Passion, or Margaret Craven’s I heard the owl call my name.

In poetry I think of TS Eliot, Rainer Maria Rilke, or even secular poets such as Yiannis Ritsos.

In architecture, profound thoughts that could never be conveyed through the limitations of vocabulary and grammar are expressed in the triumphal statements that are Chartres Cathedral and Notre Dame in France, Saint Paul’s Cathedral and Saint Peter’s Basilica in London and Rome, or in the frescoes and interior domes of simple white washed, blue domed churches in the Aegean.

What role do you think popular culture has played in conveying values – good or bad – to certain sectors of society in, for example, Northern Ireland?

The secular world and culture

In our ministry and mission, we need to be aware of how values are conveyed in modern culture; how the church responds to this way of imparting values; and these two points can impinge on, change and re-direct the life of the Church.

Understanding post-modernism is central to understanding the search for meaning and values and the new questions that search raises about the place of faith in culture. Without the one overarching narrative of the Gospel to inform and guide society today, there are many ways in which values are conveyed and expressed in society today. Can we find meaningful ways of conveying core values today?

The role of religion in conflict, including the perceived rise in Islamic militancy, the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks, and the continuing conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East, the place of religion in the Middle East conflicts, such as Jewish Israelis and Muslim Palestinians, the clashes between Muslims and Hindus in the Indian subcontinent, and the clash between Christians and Muslims in the Balkans or in Cyprus makes many people ask whether religion is a negative influence in the world’s conflicts and in the clashes of cultures.

The Double Arch of McDonald’s and the logos of Adidas and Nike are more widely recognised as brand marks or logos globally than the Cross is. Mass culture often deals more competently than we do in the Church with some of the major issues facing the Church as we engage with the world, society and culture.

This is not so shocking really. Values, religious and moral, have long been conveyed in culture through literature, poetry, movies and the arts. More people probably know the incarnation story through the words written as the libretto for Handel’s Messiah than though the Gospel narratives. Michelangelo’s Pieta is often a more moving account of the Passion for who people who see it that any sermon than may hear in Saint Peter’s. Our images of Jewish Patriarchs and Prophets are more likely to have been shaped by the Jews of Amsterdam who sat for Rembrandt than by any physical descriptions of them in the Old Testament, our images of Peter and Paul owe so much to El Greco.

Many people in their search for beauty, through their love of art, or in their journey towards meaning and truth, will come to our churches. Will you be equipped and resourced for that in our ministry after your time here?

Challenges for the Church of Ireland in the 21st Century

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

Ireland is changing, as we all know. 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 most recent census returns indicate large increases in the Church of Ireland population in every diocese and county and diocese in the Church of Ireland. The social statistician Malcolm Macourt, in his analysis last year of the census returns, shows how the Church of Ireland figures in the Republic of Ireland have increased from less than 85,000 in 1991 to over 115,000 in 115,000 in the 2006 census.

This represents an increase of over 46 per cent in 14 years, in less than half a generation – a 15-year period when the population of the Republic of Ireland rose by 20 per cent to over 4.2 million.

Analysing these figures, Macourt says one contribution in the increase is an influx of immigrants from the United Kingdom – including at least 9,000 residents in the Republic who give their religion is Church of England.

Only 6 per cent of the population failed to claim a religion in the 2006 census.

In both the Republic and in Northern Ireland in recent years, the census organisers have reformulated the phrasing of questions about religion. In Northern Ireland there three questions now allow people to identify the religion they were brought up in or what might be considered “community background.”

In the Republic, the question does not differentiate between the religion of childhood and background and the religion one practises today.

Who answers “Church of Ireland” in the census returns? The answer is both church-goers and those on the periphery of the Church – but also those whose “heritage” is Church of Ireland.

He provides some interesting examples of the changes in the years between 1991 and 2006: the Church of Ireland population in Ennis, Co Clare, increased from 68 to 400, in Navan, Co Meath, from 111 to 541, and in Newbridge, Co Kildare, from 91 to 402. A similar trend was recorded in smaller towns: in Tuam, Co Galway, from 10 to 121; in Kildare from 32 to 177; and in Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary, from 16 to 122.

A substantial part of the increase in the Church of Ireland urban population may relate to those who moved into the Republic in recent years. But other Church of Ireland people moved from areas where they had been present in significant proportions to areas where they are – or were – present only in very small numbers.

Macourt concludes that the census yields important evidence which the Church and society at large “ignore at their peril”. He sees a tendency for those filling in census forms to tick a religion they regard as their “cultural heritage” rather than something that is put into practice. In the Republic, people think they are Irish and Catholic even if they have not attended Mass since they were in school; in Northern Ireland they will tick the Church of Ireland or Presbyterian box in the census form.

A large proportion of the population has “no practical association with the religion they write down. They are identifying with a cultural heritage,” Malcolm Macourt told a recent interviewer.

“Church organisers have to tread very carefully because by assuming that all those who tick the Catholic box, or Church of Ireland or Presbyterian are practising members is a serious mistake. As we know with the Catholic Church in Ireland, there are declining numbers at Mass, but that does not affect in any major way the numbers of people who tick the Catholic box in the census.”

At the same time, an understanding of the “new Irish” within the Church of Ireland is also needed in understanding the extent of the new reversal.

Extensive inward migration has made the separate identity of Church of Ireland people more difficult to quantify. The “ethnic group” which the Church of Ireland in the Republic appeared to be in the decades from the 1920s to the 1990s can no longer be easily measured using the religion inquiry.

In responding to the first ethnicity question in the Republic in 2006, one in 20 of those who ticked the “Church of Ireland” box, or were allocated to the Church of Ireland by the Central Statistics Office, indicated they were not “white”.

Of these, 3,147 ticked the “African” or “any other black background” boxes related to the ethnicity question; 306 ticked the “Chinese” box; and 426 ticked the “any other Asian background” box. Meanwhile, 2,415 ticked the “other including mixed background” box.

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 last year in the Church of Ireland Gazette in an analysis of the statistics, 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. Should we consider having 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.

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?

According to Macourt, anecdotal evidence suggests some people have attached themselves to the Church of Ireland since arriving to Ireland. “This may only be in particular locations where the Church has made an effort to make contact. However, it may be because of the ethos of schools under its control, rather than the social and cultural position of the church in society that people have been attracted.”

So, we have to ask: 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?

As I have suggested, the immigrant communities pose an interesting challenge about the way the Church of Ireland may be changing. Apart from the Africans, 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 that 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?

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.

The new immigrants

The commissioning of Discovery, the Diocesan Committee for the International Community, in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

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?

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.

Diversity and pluralism

A generation ago, pluralism in the Republic of Ireland meant 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.

Apart from the interesting details about membership of the Church of Ireland, the 2006 census returns have also 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.

Bu 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.

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.

The changing economy

Ireland is also changing economically, socially and politically, as the world is. Economically, this country moved rapidly in recent decades from being one of the poorest countries in Europe to having the second highest per capita income in the European Union, outstripped only by tiny Luxembourg.

Now, after ten to 15 years of unprecedented prosperity, we are facing a severe economic recession. We have experienced the most rapid downturn in economic growth, sudden rises in unemployment, and after initial; worries about inflation, we are now facing the prospect of economic decline and stagnation.

Pension schemes have been wiped out, unemployment has left families unable to pay mortgages, price rises have hit poorest hardest when it comes to buying food and fuel, investment losses and the losses in earnings leave parishes without the resources to think about helping needy and desperate parishioners.

How can the Church and the clergy provide a listening ear, comfort and practical advice about where and who to gain help from, about how to survive spiritually in the challenging times we face?

And what is the role of the Church in advocacy on behalf of those who feel they have been discarded as a result of decisions made by the government, the banks, property developers, builders and business?

Is there a danger of becoming part of the “blame game” without becoming a prophetic voice, without articulating the interests of those who are made unemployed, or homeless, or forced to the margins of society?

In the Church of Ireland, have we the theological language and tradition that allows us to talk about God’s option for the poor?

The Church and the European project

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. The debate about the Lisbon Treaty last year was one of the most vigorous debates about the European project in any EU member state.

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?

The Church and postmodernism

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 were changed and transformed socially by the affluence of recent decades, so that even the little cottages in Ringsend that once prided themselves on their unique working class heritage became 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 that 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 his Letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle 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 is 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, the one 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.”

Twenty 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 McDonalds.

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 of the 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 about twenty 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.

Some Reading:

The Hard Gospel: Scoping study report to the Sectarianism Education Committee.

P. Comerford, Embracing Difference (Dublin: Church of Ireland Publishing, 2007).
A. Falconer (ed.), Reconciling Memories (Dublin: Columba, 1988; new ed. 1998).
V. Griffin, Enough Religion to make us hate (Dublin: Columba, 2002).
B. McLaren: The Church on the Other Side: Doing Ministry in the Postmodern Matrix (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000).
M. Macourt, Counting the People of God? The Census of Population and the Church of Ireland (Dublin: Church of Ireland Publishing, 2008).
I. Maher, Faith and Film (Nottingham: Grove Books, 2002).
E. Storey, Traditional Roots (Dublin: Columba, 2002).
S.R. White (ed.), A Time to Build (Dublin: APCK, 1999).
R.J. Whiteley and B. Maynard, Get Up Off Your Knees … Preaching the U2 catalog (Cambridge MA: Cowley, 2003).
R. Williams, Writing in the Dust: reflections on 11th September and its aftermath (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2002).
A. Wright, Why Bother with Theology? (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2002).
G. Wynne, Pastoral Care in the Recession (Dublin: Church of Ireland Publishing: 2009).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a seminar with the Year I students on the NSM (Non-Stipendiary Ministry) course on Saturday 16 May 2009.