08 May 2009

General Synod opens in Armagh

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral stall at the General Synod in Armagh

Patrick Comerford

This year, the General Synod of the Church of Ireland is meeting in Armagh, the primatial capital of Ireland. The synod opened this morning [Friday 8 May 2009] in Armagh City Hotel, and the General Synod Eucharist takes place on Sunday morning [10 May] in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.

The normal format of synod has been changed, in the hope that there will be more open debate, and that speeches and speakers will try to look forward to what we should be doing as a Church, rather than looking back on the things we have done and left undone over the past year.

Speeches today were peppered with the usual synod humour, ranging from references to the colour of bishops’ socks – which vary from sombre black through technicolour, in the case of the Bishop of Limerick to traditional Episcopal purple – to references to the largesse of the Bishop of Cork and his supposedly large pockets.

In the morning, we had a lengthy debate on the place of the 39 Articles in the Book of Common Prayer and how they should be interpreted. Indeed, there sixteen members of the General Synod – five clerical and eleven lay – who didn’t even want to have this discussion and voted against the Bill having a second reading.

It is sad to see a seconder pulling the rug from under his own Bill by declaring in his opening speech that he it doesn’t have his full support and that he wants the Bill amended and watered down. It was shocking to realise that some of the speakers could still argue that the language of the 39 Articles can be taken out of their 16th and 17th century contexts, with the presumption that members of other Churches still hold to dogmas and doctrine as they were interpreted at the time of the Reformations.

I was taken aback that members of a sister Church could be patronisingly compared to misbehaving children who needed to be paternally reprimanded for smashing windows, or that the Benedictine spiritual writer and mystic, Dom Bede Griffiths, could be pilloried as a Hindu polytheist.

No matter how polite anyone may pretend to be, prejudice, sectarianism and bigotry never have an acceptable face. And I cringed as concessions were made in hope of bringing along those who misrepresent and vilify our Christian friends and neighbours, especially when they are seated as guests in the front row.

Earlier in the morning, in the context of prayers led by Bishop Trevor Williams of Limerick, we were addressed by the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, the Right Revd Dr D Patton; tomorrow [Saturday] we will be addressed by the President of the Methodist Church, and on Sunday Cardinal Sean Brady will speak at the Synod Eucharist on Sunday.

It was a privilege to be asked to have lunch and dinner today with the visitors from other Churches: Father Kieran McDermott, of Dundrum, Dublin, and Sister Catherine Kealy, a Cross and Passion nun (Roman Catholic); Bishop Bruce Cameron, former Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church; Bishop Michael Doe of the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG – Anglicans in World Mission); the Revd Aian Ferguson and Mrs Margaret Copeland (the Methodist Church in Ireland); Very Revd Dr John Finlay and Mr William Scott (the Presbyterian Church in Ireland); the Revd Jan Mullin from Gracehill (the Moravian Church); and the Revd Tony Davidson, a Presbyterian minister in Armagh City, representing the Irish Council of Churches.

Tomorrow [Saturday] I am seconding the report of the Commission for Christian Unity and Dialogue and with the Bishop of Meath, Dr Richard Clarke, tabling a motion on exploring afresh with the different Christian traditions in Ireland “a common theology of baptism.”

A new publication on the stall of Affrming Catholicism Ireland

Before I left the hotel this evening for Loughgall, where I am staying, I picked up a new publication from the stand of Affirming Catholicism Ireland, Celebrating the Oxford Movement. This small, 52-page book, published as ACI Occasional Papers No 4, and edited by Donald Davidson, includes a collection of papers, sermons and addresses last year to mark the 175th of the Oxford Movement.

Chapter 1 (pp 5-34) is my lecture in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, on 29 November 2008. The other three chapters are sermons delivered last year to mark the anniversary: Bishop Michael Jackson (Chapter 2, pp 35-42) in Saint George’s Church, Belfast, on 8 October 2008; Canon Hugh Wybrew (Chapter 3, pp 43-46) in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on 23 November 2008; and Canon Michael Kennedy (Chapter 4, pp 47-51) in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, on 14 December 2008.

As I look out my window across the hills of South Armagh, the apple blossoms are coming to an end. The fruit will soon begin to fill out. If the first blossoming of the Oxford Movement has left us any fruit, let’s hope it will be the sweet end to sectarianism and divisiveness. Meanwhile, tomorrow is a new day.

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