Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Petertide ordinations in Cork

Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral ... three deacons were ordained the cathedral last night (Photograph: Charlie Cravero)

Patrick Comerford

Traditionally, Anglicans refer to ordinations at this time of the year as “Petertide ordinations.” For the last few weeks, I have been attending ordinations and licensings in cathedrals and churches throughout Ireland. But, as yesterday was the Feast day of Saint Peter, last night’s ordinations in Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral in Cork was a truly “Petertide” occasion.

Three new deacons were ordained in Cork last night by the Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross: the Revd Anne Skuse, the Revd Adrian Moran and the Revd Patrick Burke. And Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral was a truly splendid setting for the occasions.

Before we processed in, the Revd Peter Hanna, from Inishannon, reminded me that he too had been ordained deacon in this cathedral on Saint Peter’s Day ... 21 years ago.

Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral has been described by Peter Galloway as “a magnificent and startling creation in the French Gothic style,” and is unique in Ireland because of its style and design. It is the most richly decorated and one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the Church of Ireland.

Saint Fin Barre, who has given his name to the cathedral in the southern capital, is closely associated with an early monastic settlement at Gougane Barra, at the sources of the River Lee. Local tradition says that the site of Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral has been a place of worship since the seventh century, and that his monastic school was one of the five principal monastic schools in Ireland until the 10th century. However, no trace of the early foundation remains, and there are even few traces of the mediaeval buildings.

A square stone font, some carved heads, a piscina, and a carved doorway -- now inserted in the south boundary wall – are all that survive from the mediaeval cathedral. The oldest communion vessels still in use include a silver gilt chalice (1536) and a silver chalice and patens made by the Cork Huguenot goldsmith Robert Goble (1712).

The mediaeval cathedral was severely damaged during the siege of Cork (1689-1690) when it came under fire from the nearby Elizabeth Fort. Bishop Peter Browne laid the foundation stone of a new cathedral in 1735. That was a small plain classical building, incorporating the tower and spire of the earlier cathedral.

In 1865 the mediaeval cathedral was demolished because it was felt to be inadequate for the needs and the dignity of a cathedral and the size of the diocese. However, the fine entrance gate to the 18th century cathedral was preserved.

The present cathedral was built by William Burges, who was appointed the architect for a new cathedral in 1862, following a competition which had 63 entries. The requirements of the competition included a stipulation that the new building should not cost more than £15,000, and Burges, who was only 35 at the time, was criticised by other architects because the costs of the towers, spires and carving were not included in his estimate. In the end some £100,000 was spent on the building.

The foundation stone for the new cathedral was laid by Bishop John Gregg in 1865, and the cathedral was consecrated on Saint Andrew’s Day, 30 November 1870, although the towers and spires were not completed in 1879.

Burges designed the overall iconographic scheme for the cathedral windows, and maintained control over all stages of the work. He also designed all the sculpture, mosaics, furniture and metalwork. Because of this, the cathedral preserves a remarkable unity of style throughout.

Sitting in the chapter stalls, between Archdeacon Robin Bantry White and a past archdeacon, Bishop Michael Mayes, I found myself gazing up at the window in the north transept with its wonderful depiction of the resurrection of the dead and the Last Judgment.

Outside, on the pinnacle of the sanctuary roof, the Resurrection Angel is made from copper and covered with gold leaf. It was a gift from Burges to the cathedral and in many ways has become a symbol of the city itself.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

The priest: an icon of Christ

Patrick Comerford

Trinity 3, Sunday 28 June 2009,

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, 11 a.m.: The Cathedral Eucharist

Wisdom of Solomon 1: 13-15; 2: 23-24; Psalm 30; II Corinthians 8: 7-15; Mark 5: 21-43.

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

This afternoon three deacons will be ordained to the priesthood in this cathedral: Stephen Farrell of Taney, Robert Lawson of Celbridge, Straffan and Newcastle Lyons, and Ann-Marie O’Farrell of Sandford and Milltown.

This is always a joyous occasion for the new priests, for their families and friends, and for the parishes in which they serve.

But let’s set pride apart. Priesthood is first-and-foremost not an honour, but a charge to service. It is a grave and serious undertaking for everyone who is being ordained.

Prior to their ordination, the candidates will be reminded of this by the archbishop before he puts very searching and serious questions to them. And by no means are these mere formalities or preliminaries to be gone through before the ordination – they are essential, integral and vital parts of the service.

They will be reminded by the archbishop this afternoon first of all that priests are shepherds. Then they will be told what they are to do.

They are to proclaim the Word of the Lord, to call us to repentance and to pronounce absolution and forgiveness; to baptise and to catechise; to preside at the Eucharist; to lead God’s people in prayer and worship, to bless them, teach them and encourage them by word and example; to minister to the sick; and to prepare those who are dying for death.

They are to be caring and loving, to pray, read and study, to respect those in authority in the Church, to visit the sick, to care for the poor and needy, and to promote peace and unity.

They are to do all this with Christ as their example. And in this morning’s Gospel reading, Christ provides some very real examples of what it is to be a priest who lives up to this vocation and calling.

All of this is set before us as an example of the pastoral and sacramental ministry of the priest in our Gospel reading this morning.

In this morning’s Gospel reading, there is a large cast of dramatis personae … of people who receive the gentle, caring, loving pastoral attention of Jesus in equal measure, each within the list of people priests are told are our priority:

The crowd who gather around Jesus by the lake are going to learn what the Kingdom of God is like not through another sermon or another lecture, but by seeing what Jesus does. After the episodes in this morning’s Gospel, would each and every one of them been happy to wear one of those wristbands with the initials ”WWJD” – What Would Jesus Do? If they looked at the actions of our priests for an example of Christian lifestyle, would they know what Jesus does?

Jairus is a respected provincial leader of the day. He shows us what true worship is when he throws himself at the feet of Jesus. He prays, entreats, begs, not on behalf of himself, but on behalf of a sick and dying girl. If we were to look at our religious leaders today, would we be happy that they place their life and their leadership at the feet of Christ and make their first priority the needs of others who cannot speak for themselves?

By now the large crowd is pressing in on Jesus. They really want to see what religious leadership and Christian lifestyle is about. And who becomes the focus of attention within this crowd?

Too often when in a crowd, it is those who get to the front first, who have the loudest voices, who are heard, whose demands are met.

But in this case, though, it is not the loud and the proud, the rich or the famous, who grab the attention of Jesus – it’s a weak, timid, neglected impoverished, exploited and sick woman. All her money has gone on quacks, and she has no man to speak up for her.

But look at what Jesus does for her. Without knowing it, he heals her. And when he realises what has happened, he calls her “Daughter.”

In a society where men had the only voices, where to have a full place in society was to be known as a Son of Israel, she is called “Daughter.” She too has a full and equal place in society, she is commended for her faith, she is restored personally and communally, she is offered healing, and she is also offered peace. From now on she can be at one with herself, with her society, with the world and with God.

But perhaps there was a danger that all this could become a sideshow for the crowd. Poor Jairus appears to have been forgotten. His household – perhaps religious and community leaders too – tell him to give up on Jesus. The girl is dead. Was Jesus only worth what he could do for their inner circle? If so, why bother with him any further?

Jesus doesn’t want to put on a show, either to impress the pressing crowd or to prove wrong the inner circle around Jairus. Instead, with just his three closest friends – Peter, James and John … the three disciples who would soon witness the Transfiguration – he goes directly to the house of the dying girl, where her family and neighbours are in the greatest distress.

Even as he was being told not to bother coming, even when he was being laughed at, Jesus keeps focussed on who is important here – not those who shout the loudest and who press their demands.

Twelve-year-olds have no say and no voice and no power. But Jesus now offers her new life, new hope, a new future, a full place in society. When Jesus was her age, he was in the Temple. Now she is walking with her God.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus behaves just like a priest should. He calls people to faith and to right worship; he goes out of his way to care for the sick and the dying, and their families; he offers peace and he calls people to full dignity as themselves, in their families, in their communities, and in the world. This is what the priests ordained this afternoon are being called to do. To care for people, by bringing them close to God and God close to them in sacrament, word and pastoral care.

However, as they are being ordained, some of their families and friends may be frustrated. Like the people who were left outside the door in the house of Jairus, they may not be able to see much if they are in the side aisles. As we found out last week, the icon exhibition means that some people in the side aisles may find it difficult to see what is going on.

Yet I think it is a great blessing that this exhibition is taking place in this cathedral at the same time as the ordinations are taking pace.

All icons are supposed to point to Christ. Icons of the Virgin Mary always have her hands and eyes pointing to Christ. The saints who are celebrated in icons are only represented because they point to the glory of Christ. And in that sense, it is often said, particularly in the Orthodox tradition, that the priest must be an “Icon of Christ.”

As members of the Church, all Christians share in Christ’s unique priesthood. But through the ordained priest, Christ himself makes his members an eternal gift to the Father (cf. I Peter 3: 18). At the mysteries of the Eucharist, the ordained priest is “the sacramental representation of Christ the head and shepherd.” In other words, the priest is an icon of Christ the Great High Priest.

But discipleship remains a prerequisite for priesthood. The priesthood is about service, not power. An ordained priest must believe that what the Church offers the world is not another brand-name product in a supermarket of spiritualities, but the truth about the world itself, its origins and its destiny. Not a truth that’s true for Christians alone, but the truth.

At their ordination this afternoon, the priests are being set apart from the world for the world’s sake. In a culture like ours, a priest's life should be a living lesson to the world that self-giving, not self-assertion, is the royal road to human flourishing.

As priests they will present God’s gift to his people and present the people’s gift to God. And, in a very unique way, in a very special way, they do this through the sacraments, as well as through their preaching, through their prayers and through their pastoral care.

An icon conveys a spiritual reality to the worshipper, it serves as an image of the Divine, even though it has no divine power of its own. An icon has the spiritual function of helping us receive into our souls the spiritual awareness of what it depicts.

We are reminded in our reading from the Wisdom of Solomon this morning that God has created us in the image or as icons of his own eternity (Wisdom 2: 23). We are all – laity and priests – icons of God and God’s goodness. But there is a unique way in which bishops, priests and deacons are called to be icons of Christ.

And if the priests ordained this afternoon are icons of Christ as he is presented to us in this morning’s Gospel reading – caring for the poor, the sick, the dying, the marginalised, presenting Christ as the living, incarnate love of God before whom we should all fall down, to whom all our worship and service should be directed – then they will be wonderful icons of Christ indeed.

And now, may all our thoughts, words and deeds be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Cathedral Eucharist on Sunday 28 June 2009, the Third Sunday after Trinity

Saturday, 27 June 2009

The Cretan School of Icons and its contribution to Western Art

Icons in Liturgy and Culture:
The Cretan School of Icons and its contribution to Western Art

Patrick Comerford

I don’t know how many of you have watched the way people have been viewing the exhibition here rather than viewing the exhibition itself. (The exhibition, “Icons in Transformation,” at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, is running from 11 June to 19 July 2009). But it is part of the reviewers’ art to watch both the exhibition and those who view the exhibition.

1: The Exhibition, Byzantium 330-1453, at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, earlier this year

Earlier this year, I was asked by the Athens News to review the exhibition, “Byzantium 330-1453,” at the Royal Academy of Arts in London [Illustration 1].

In the English-speaking world, Byzantium represents political intrigue and decadence, on the one hand, or, on the other, the height of cultural achievement and spiritual awakening. For W.B. Yeats, in Sailing to Byzantium, it embodied the mystery and splendour of our culture:

… I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium …

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

The exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, organised in conjunction with the Benaki Museum in Athens, was the first major exhibition of its kind in Britain for half a century. It was interesting to watch visitors as they followed a chronological path, from the foundation of the city by Constantine in 330 to its fall in 1453, through a variety of themes as they explored the origins of Byzantium, the rise of Constantinople, the ravages of iconoclasm, the post-iconoclast revival, the great crescendo in the Middle Ages, and the close links between Byzantine and early Renaissance art in Italy.

The exhibition opened appropriately with visitors standing beneath a large 13th or 14th century copper chandelier or choros that once hung in the central dome of a Byzantine basilica or church – a first reminder that Byzantium was essentially enlightened by the light of Christianity and enriched by the liturgy, icons, rituals and music.

It is too easy to mourn that so much of Byzantium was either first destroyed by the iconoclasts or later dispersed throughout the world. But the imaginative selection of works from across the Mediterranean basin, the Balkans and Europe and beyond shows the far-spread influence of Byzantium.

As they came towards the end, many visitors thought the collection of Russian works – including an embroidered icon from Moscow, woven to advance the city’s claim to be the Third Rome – was providing the historical departure point for the exhibition. Instead, just as it opened with a realisation of the over-arching influences of the liturgy on Byzantine life, the exhibition closed with a dramatic presentation from the place of greatest splendour for iconography with a collection of icons from Mount Sinai.

As an unexpected consequence of the Muslim conquest of Egypt in 640-642, iconography survived iconoclasm on Mount Sinai, and Saint Catherine’s went on to contribute to a new flowering of iconography and to western art through the Sinaitic School of Saint Catherine in Iraklion on Crete.

2: The icon of Christ from Saint Catherine’s, Mount Sinai ... one of the earliest known icons

Of course, one of the earliest icons [Illustration 2] we know is from Mount Sinai: the image of Christ the Pantocrator is synonymous with Mount Sinai, and a copy of it hangs in the Chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.

3: The Heavenly Ladder of Saint John Klimakos

Many of the icons from Mount Sinai at the exhibition are larger than life. Appropriately, the final treasure was the 12th century icon, The Heavenly Ladder of Saint John Klimakos [Illustration 3]. It is so well-known, viewers were visibly amazed that this work is so small (41.1 x 29.1 cm). Yet this one small icon is a reminder that the secret in Byzantium’s splendour lies in its ability to bridge the chasm between earth and heaven.

4: Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai

Following the Arab and Islamic conquest of Mount Sinai, the Christian integrity of Saint Catherine’s was protected and guaranteed, supposedly through a personal firmat or achtiname issued by the Muslim Prophet Muhammad himself and a copy is still on display in the monastery library. [Illustration 4] As a consequence, as other centres of Orthodoxy suffered or waned under Islamic occupation, schism and heresy, including the three historic patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem – even as Constantinople fell first to the Crusaders and later to the Ottomans – Sinai was protected and prospered. The icon school on Mount Sinai survived through the iconoclast controversy (730-843), an irony of history – given that this was due to the protection of Egyptian Muslim rulers who themselves were iconoclasts.

Mount Sinai was popular with Western pilgrims since at least 383-384, as we know from the accounts of the Spanish nun, Egeria. This Western interest continued with the so-called Piacenza pilgrim (ca 570). In 1099, Sinai came under the tutelage of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, and this and the rise of the cult of Saint Catherine in the West, increased the popularity of Sinai to Western or Latin pilgrims.

After the Fourth Crusade (1204), the Venetians became the dominant force in large parts of the Byzantine Empire and took possession of the Sinaiatic dependencies in Crete, Cyprus, Antioch, Latakia, Jerusalem and other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean. This opened a crucial interface between Venice and the Sinaitic tradition, that found the height of its expression in subsequent generations in Crete, and would bring an immense Byzantine influence on Western art through Cretan masters, especially Theophanes the Cretan, Mikhail Damaskinos and, of course, El Greco.

This two-way movement between Venice and Sinai had an influence on icon writing in Saint Catherine’s. Such an impressive number of icons were written in the monastery from the 13th century on adopting Western elements that it has even suggested by some that they were written by Crusader artists who had settled in the monastery. And this was two-way traffic, so that, for example, in the late 14th century the Catalan consul in Damascus commissioned Martinus de Vilanova of Barcelona to write an altar panel for the monastery depicting Saint Catherine.

Orthodox Christians in other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean generously endowed Saint Catherine’s, transferring lands, monasteries, city properties and churches. One of the best-known examples of these endowments comes from the island of Crete, which was occupied by the Venetians from 1204 until 1669, and which was one of the last Greek islands in what is now the modern Hellenic state, to have fallen to the Ottoman Turks.

5: Saint Catherine’s Square, Iraklion

In the middle of the Cretan capital, Iraklion, Saint Catherine’s Square [Illustration 5] is a pleasant oasis in this bustling port city. Towering over the square is Saint Minas Cathedral, which can hold a congregation of 8,000 and is the largest cathedral in Greece. It is so large you might miss the tiny Church of the Monastery of Saint Catherine of the Sinaites (Αγία Αικατερίνη) in the north-east corner of the square.

6: Saint Catherine’s, Iraklion, was a metocheion or dependency of Saint Catherine’s, Mount Sinai

For centuries, Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Iraklion was a metocheion or dependency of Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai. It was founded around the 10th century and today’s church stands on the site of the monastery’s katholikon or main church. [Illustration 6] The present church was built in the 16th century and is obviously influenced by Venetian architecture.

By the 16th century, Saint Catherine’s was supporting a large monastic community. Between 1550 and 1640, the School of Saint Catherine of the Sinaites became a centre of learning, teaching Classical Greek, philosophy, theology, rhetoric and art, with many of its graduates distinguishing themselves in Greek arts and literature, including the writers Vitsentzos Kornaros (1553-1614), author of the epic poem Erotokritos, and Georgios Chortatzis from Rethymnon, author of Erophile, and the musician and composer Frangiskos Leontaritis, who made his career in Venice and Vienna.

When Iraklion fell to the Turks in 1669, the church was converted into the Zulfikar Ali Pasha Mosque. It continued as a mosque until the last Muslims left Iraklion in 1922, during the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey. In 1924, Saint Catherine’s Church was transferred from Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai to the Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Minas. Although now used as a museum, it remains a consecrated church, and the Divine Liturgy is celebrated in the church every year on 25 November, the feast of Saint Catherine.

Since 1967, Saint Catherine’s Church has housed the Museum of Religious Art, with its unique collection of Byzantine icons, manuscripts, vestments, and wall paintings, representing six centuries of Orthodox history, from the 14th to the 19th century, including six unique works by the famous icon-writer Michael Damaskinos, a major exponent of the Cretan School.

The Cretan School of Icon-Writing

After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, there was an exodus of Byzantine scholars and artists, especially to Venice. The émigrés were grammarians, humanists, poets, writers, printers, lecturers, musicians, astronomers, architects, academics, artists, scribes, philosophers, scientists, politicians and theologians. They reintroduced the teaching of the Greek language to their western counterparts, and brought with them Classical texts that were printed on the first printing presses for Greek books in Venice in 1499.

7: Noli me tangere, an early Cretan icon in Venice

One of the earliest works of a Byzantine icon-writer in Venice may be the icon Noli me tangere (Μη μου άπτου, 84 X 73 cm) [Illustration 7] by an unknown icon-writer from Crete at the beginning of the 16th century. In this work, the Risen Christ is depicted in traditional Cretan style, with a fine face and the gold paint on his clothes radiating light, while Mary Magdalene is painted in a Western style that is redolent of Bassano.

This migration of Byzantine scholars and other émigrés helped to trigger the revival of Greek and Roman studies, arts and sciences, and is a key to understanding the development of the Italian Renaissance humanism. Without this reintroduction of patristic texts – and their rapid dissemination because of the development of printing – would the Reformation that followed in the decades immediately after been more than a damp squid?

But I digress. Byzantine scholars also arrived in great numbers in Venetian-ruled Crete, bringing with them their own approach to icon-writing.

In the decades that followed, the interaction between Venice and Crete saw the introduction of some aspects of Renaissance Italian art to Crete, especially in the areas of technique and subject-matter. These were amalgamated into the Byzantine tradition, and gave rise in the 16th and 17th centuries to an entirely novel style known as the Cretan School of Icon-Writing. By 1600, Iraklion had 20,000 inhabitants and 200 painters – a proportion that indicates how the arts were then flourishing in Crete. All this came to a violent end with the fall of Iraklion to the Turks in 1669.

The main features in this school included the perfection of figures, which are depicted in more human form, and the attention to detail, rendered in rich colours. It was against this background that the greatest artists in Iraklion emerged. They included:

● Theophanes the Cretan (died 1559).

● Michael Damaskinos (1535-1593).

● Giorgios Klontzas (ca 1540-1608)

● Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541-1614), known worldwide as El Greco.

Theophanes the Cretan (died 1559)

8: Epitaphios by Theophanes the Cretan

Theophanis Strelitzas (Θεοφάνης Στρελίτζας), also known as Theophanes the Cretan (Θεοφάνης ο Κρης) or Theophanes Bathas, was a leading icon writer of the Cretan School in the first half of the 16th century, and the most important figure in Greek wall-painting of the period.

He was born in Iraklion (date unknown), and trained there as an icon-writer. Theophanes was active from about 1527 to 1548, all his known work was carried out in mainland Greece rather than on Crete, and he trained his sons and several pupils, many of them from Crete. By 1535, Theophanes and his two sons, Symeon and Neophytos, had become monks in the Great Lavra Monastery on Mount Athos, where many of his best works remain. His icons can be found in the Great Lavra (1535), Ivrion (1535-1545), Pantokrator (1535-1545), Stavronikita (1545-1546), and Gregoriou (ca 1546). Many of these were seen by the outside world for the first time at the exhibition, “Treasures of Mount Athos,” in Thessaloniki in 1997. Theophanes also wrote many panel icons, either for iconostases or small portable works, before returning to Crete, where he died in 1559.

9: The Mystical Supper by Theophanes the Cretan

His signed frescoes can be seen on Mount Athos, especially in Stavronikita (Epitpahios and The Mystical Supper) [Illustration 9] and the Great Lavra, and in Meteora, which has his earliest dated work (1527). Two detached wall-paintings attributed to him are in the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.

While Theophanes and his sons were working on the Holy Mountain, a number of other icon writers from Crete were working on Mount Athos too, including a painter named Zorzis, while many Cretan icons were brought to Mount Athos, including works by the priest Euphrosynos and Michael Damaskinos. Through these influences, the output of icon workshops in the Athonite monasteries was strongly influenced by the iconographical types of the Cretan school.

Like most Cretan painters of this date, Theophanes was influenced in part by Western painting, although in his case this is less so. He used traditional Byzantine compositions, in a rather austere and powerful manner. But some of his faces are personalised or looking out at the viewer and his figures are modelled to convey volume. His work is more conscious of visual perspective than older Byzantine artists, but he does not use the schemes of geometrical perspective that had become standard in the West by then.

Giorgios Klontzas (ca 1540-1608):

10: The Second Coming by Georgios Klontzas

Georgios Klontzas (Γεώργιος Κλόντζας) also worked in Venice. His icon, The Second Coming (Η Δευτέρα Παρουσία, 127 X 96 cm) [Illustration 10] in the Museum of Icons in the Hellenic Institute of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Studies in Venice, across the courtyard from San Giorgio, is of inestimable artistic value.

11: Detail from The Second Coming by Georgios Klontzas

In this icon, Klontzas shows Christ on high with the Apostles as he judges the Saints who come forward together. In the lower part is the Resurrection of the Dead, and on the right is Hell. [Illustration 11] The figures of the righteous are painted within an atmosphere of quiet expectation. The faces, clothes, naked bodies, books, thrones, and building are painted in marvellously warm colours.

12: Triptych by Georgios Klontzas

A related masterpiece by Klontzas in this museum is his Triptych (67 X 79 cm) [Illustration 12].

13: Detail from Triptych by Georgios Klontzas

The inner part of all three leaves also depicts the Second Coming of Christ in great detail, while medallions on the upper part contain 15 miniatures of the Creation story. [Illustration 13]

The outside leaves tell the story of the Dormition or Assumption of the Virgin Mary and the Visit of the Magi and the Slaughter of the Innocents.

14: In thee rejoiceth, by Georgios Klontzas

His icon of the hymn In thee rejoiceth (Επί σοι χαίρει, 71.5 X 47 cm) [Illustration 14], which blends many themes, is one of the masterpieces of post-Byzantine art. The central figure of the Virgin Mary is surrounded by angels, virgins, saints, scenes from the Akathistos Hymn, and other scenes, including the Miracle of Saint John Chrysostom. Beneath all is the Heavenly Jerusalem. The signature shows the great labour of the artist: “Study and toil of George Klontzas.”

Michael Damaskinos (1535-1593):

The leading exponents of the Cretan School in the second half of the 16th century was Michael Damaskinos (1535-1593). He was born in Iraklion in 1535 and later lived in Venice for many years. It was Damaskinos probably who established the rules of the Cretan School. Six of his icons, originally from the Vrondisi Monastery in Zaros, about 30 miles south of Iraklion, are now on display in Saint Catherine’s, Iraklion. Damaskinos was a near-contemporary of the most famous of all Cretan painters, El Greco, and is believed by many to have been El Greco’s teacher.

Damaskinos was born in Iraklion, the son of Tzortzis Damaskinos; his daughter Antonia later married the painter Yannas Mantoufos.

From 1574, Damaskinos lived in Venice for several years, and from 1577 to 1582 he was a member of the Greek Brotherhood of Venice. There he learnt miniature painting and along with Emmanuel Tzanes he painted the icons and frescoes in the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of San Giorgio dei Greci in Venice. At the time, many Greek artists were working in Venice, and the invitation to paint the frescoes of San Giorgio dei Greci is an indication of his particular standing and reputation.

15: San Giorgio dei Greci (Saint George of the Greeks) in Venice

San Giorgio dei Greci (Saint George of the Greeks) [Illustration 15] is a church in Castello in Venice. For centuries, despite the extensive interests of Venice in the Byzantine world, the Greek Orthodox community not allowed to celebrate the Liturgy in Venice. However, in 1498, they gained the right to found the Scuola de San Nicolò dei Greci, a Greek confraternity, and in 1539, after protracted negotiations, permission to build San Giorgio. The work, financed by a tax on all ships from the Orthodox world, began in 1548.

16: The Iconostasis in San Giorgio dei Greci in Venice

Many of you probably know the church, east of Saint Mark’s Square, for its leaning bell-tower. The fresco of The Last Judgment (1589-1593) in the dome is the work of John Kyprios, while the iconostasis [Illustration 16] is the work of Kyprios, Thomas Bathas, Benedict Emporios, the Cretan priest and iconographer, Emmanuel Tzane-Bounialis and, most especially, Michael Damaskinos.

From Venice, Damaskinos travelled throughout Italy. By 1584, he was back in Greece, and from then on he worked mainly in Crete and on the Ionian islands. Damaskinos planned to return to Venice to paint the Dome in San Giorgio. But the Venetian authorities refused to allow him to leave Crete, and so Kyprios completed the Dome under Tintoretto’s supervision.

The works of Damaskinos are in the traditional Byzantine style. But, like other masters of the Cretan Renaissance, he mastered both the “Greek manner,” deriving from the Paleologi tradition, and the “Italian manner.” He embraced the technical and iconographic innovations of 15th and 16th century Tuscan and Venetian painters such as Veneziano, Pisanello, Gentile de Fabriano, Titian, Veronese, and, of course, Tintoretto.

Yet he remained stylistically close to his Greek roots. His works are characterised by his particular use of a rose colour. He was also the first icon writer to introduce paler flesh tones into post-Byzantine painting, and this became one of his stylistic features. The dimensions of his figures are defined by only a few brush strokes. An interesting innovation is his thrones, which are wooden rather than the marble that had typified the Cretan School.

17: The Mystical Supper by Michael Damaskinos

His six works in the museum in Iraklion are:

1, The Mystical Supper: [Illustration 17] The Italian manner suffuses this icon from Moni Vrondisi (a copy can be seen above the altar in the Saint Edmund Chapel). But it is mingled with echoes of the Byzantine style, whose anti-naturalistic principles were never abandoned by Damaskinos. The care he takes here in representing objects is worthy of a still-life. A depth of perspective underpins the composition, with the two servants in the foreground, the dogs under the table and the framing function of the architecture.

2, The Women at the Tomb: The principle scene here is Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection. Although this was a popular scene for Italian artists, Damaskinos presents it in the Byzantine tradition, including his style of the mountains, his narrative sequence of the scenes of different sizes, and the red-letter inscription on his halo, as well as Christ’s detached pose in the foreground. On the other hand, Mary Magdalene’s kneeling posture corresponds to the ideals of beauty found in Italian mannerist art in the 16th century. The similarities between this work and the work from a generation earlier, Noli me tangere, are obvious.

18: The Divine Liturgy by Michael Damaskinos

3, The Divine Liturgy: [Illustration 18] In this icon, dating from 1579-1584, Damaskinos presents his theme in a traditional iconographic interpretation. The Father and the Son are surrounded by seraphim; between them, the altar is draped with a gilded cloth; above them, the Holy Spirit appears as a dove. Encircling angels are present for the Divine Liturgy.

19: The Virgin with the Burning Bush by Damaskinos

4, The Virgin with the Burning Bush: [Illustration 19] Although the theme of this icon can be found in Italian sources, the Burning Bush is also a natural theme for an icon writer in a school with strong links to Mount Sinai. Byzantine elements abound in the stylised mountains, the presence of Moses in each episode and, in the foreground, the two figures of Moses: the first is erect, listening to the voices of the angels; the second is kneeling to fasten his sandals.

20: The Adoration of the Magi, by Damaskinos

5, The Adoration of the Magi: [Illustration 20] This icon represents the high point of Western influence on Cretan iconography, drawing on Italian presentations of the Nativity rather than Byzantine images of the Magi. And yet there are Byzantine characteristics, for example, in the depiction of the mountain and the detached attitude of Joseph.

6, The Council of Nicaea: This was the last known work by Damaskinos, and is dated 1591. In it we can see his return to traditional techniques and aesthetic norms. Yet the realistic faces and his rendering of the bishops’ veined hands show how he learned and absorbed lessons from Italy.

As was usual for distinguished painters, Damaskinos signed his works: Χειρ Μιχαηλ του Δαμασκηνου or Χειρ Μιχαηλ Δαμασκηνου, Δαμασκηνου Μιχαηλ Χειρ (by the hand Michael Damaskinos) or even Ποιημα Μιχαηλ του Δαμασκηνου (the work of Michael Damaskinos).

Doménikos Theotokópoulos, ‘El Greco’ (1541-1614)

21: Doménikos Theotokópoulos or “El Greco” is closely identified with the Spanish Renaissance

Doménikos Theotokópoulos or “El Greco” (1541-1614) [Illustration 21] is closely identified with the Spanish Renaissance. Yet, as his popular nickname indicates, he was Greek by birth and he normally signed his works with his full birth name in Greek letters, Δομήνικος Θεοτοκόπουλος (Doménikos Theotokópoulos).

Theotokópoulos was born in Venetian Crete in 1541, the descendant of a prosperous urban family that had probably been driven out of Chania in western Crete to Iraklion after an uprising against the Venetians in 1526-1528. His father, Geórgios Theotokópoulos (died 1556), was a merchant and tax collector.

There is an ongoing debate about his birthplace. Most authorities say he was born in Iraklion, but many Greeks say he was born in the village of Fodele, west of Iraklion, where villagers point to the ruins of his family home. Some Catholic sources have claimed El Greco from birth, but modern Greek scholars, including Nikolaos Panayotakis, Pandelis Prevelakis and Maria Constantoudaki, have shown that the Theotokópoulos “family was almost certainly Greek Orthodox.” One of his uncles was an Orthodox priest, and his name is not mentioned in the Roman Catholic baptismal archives in Crete.

El Greco received his initial training as an icon-writer at the Cretan School in Saint Catherine’s in Iraklion. In addition, he probably studied the Greek classics. In 1563, at the age of 22, he was described in a document as a “master” (“maestro Domenigo”), meaning he was already a master of the guild and presumably operating his own workshop. Three years later, in June 1566, as a witness to a contract, he signed his name as μαΐστρος Μένεγος Θεοτοκόπουλος σγουράφος (Master Menégos Theotokópoulos, painter – Menegos is the Venetian dialect form of Doménicos, while Sgourafos (σγουράφος = ζωγράφος) is a Greek term for painter).

Archival research in Crete shows that at the age of 26 he was still working in Iraklion, where his work in the post-Byzantine style was highly esteemed. On 26 December 1566, the Venetian authorities gave him permission to sell a “panel of the Passion of Christ executed on a gold background.” That Byzantine-style icon was sold a day later in Iraklion for 70 gold ducats. The two artists who valued the work included the Cretan icon-writer Georgios Klontzas. At the time, 70 ducats was the going price for a work by Titian or Tintoretto.

Soon after, probably early in 1567 at the age of 26, El Greco moved to Venice, like other great Cretan masters before him. But, unlike other Cretan artists in Venice, El Greco substantially altered his style and sought to distinguish himself by inventing new and unusual interpretations of traditional religious subject matter. He was influenced by the Venetian Renaissance style of the period, with agile, elongated figures reminiscent of Tintoretto and a chromatic framework that connects him to Titian. According to the Croatian miniaturist Giulio Clovio, El Greco in Venice was a “disciple” of Titian, who was then in his 80s but still active.

The Venetian painters also taught him to organise his multi-figured compositions in landscapes vibrant with atmospheric light, and during his stay in Italy he enriched his style with elements of Mannerism and of the Venetian Renaissance.

In 1570, he moved to Rome, where his works were strongly marked by his Venetian experiences. By then, Michelangelo and Raphael were dead, and El Greco was determined to make his own mark in Rome. Later, when asked what he thought about Michelangelo, he replied that “he was a good man, but he did not know how to paint.” When Pope Pius V asked him to consider painting over parts of the Sistine Chapel, he is supposed to have claimed that he could do just as well as Michelangelo while also observing the proprieties.

22, View of Mount Sinai, Doménikos Theotokópoulos

In Rome, he came into contact with the intellectual elite of the city, including Fulvio Orsini, whose collection would later include seven paintings by El Greco, including his View of Mount Sinai and a portrait of Clovio. El Greco’s View of Mount Sinai [Illustration 22] dating from around 1570, is his only work in the Historical Museum in Iraklion, yet it is such an obvious theme for someone from Saint Catherine’s. The painting, in oils on tempera-primed wood, shows an imaginary view of Mount Sinai, with Saint Catherine’s Monastery and a group of pilgrims in the foreground. The misshapen, stylised mountains give a foretaste of his later, elongated style, but are a familiar way of depicting mountains in Byzantine iconography.

23, View of Toledo, Doménikos Theotokópoulos

The Byzantine use of space in that work is found forty years later in his View of Toledo [Illustration 23], the first true romantic landscape in the history of art.

24, The Assumption of the Virgin, Doménikos Theotokópoulos

By then, El Greco had acquired enemies in Rome. He may have returned to Venice ca. 1575-1576, but in 1577 he moved to Spain, first to Madrid, and then to Toledo, the religious capital of Spain. He signed contracts for a group of paintings for the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo and by September 1579 he had completed nine paintings for the church, including his first work in Toledo, The Assumption of the Virgin (1577-1579) [Illustration 24], with his signature in Greek, and The Trinity, now in The Prado in Madrid [Illustration 25].

25, The Trinity, Doménikos Theotokópoulos

These works established El Greco’s reputation in Toledo. According to Hortensio Félix Paravicino, a 17th-century Spanish preacher and poet, “Crete gave him life and the painter’s craft, Toledo a better homeland, where through Death he began to achieve eternal life.”

26, The Martyrdom of Saint Maurice, Doménikos Theotokópoulos

Subsequent works, including the Allegory of the Holy League or the Adoration of the Holy Name of Jesus and The Martyrdom of Saint Maurice, [Illustration 26] violated a basic rule of the Counter-Reformation that in an image the content was paramount rather than the style. Because of this, any hopes he held for royal patronage came to an end and El Greco was obliged to remain in Toledo.

27, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, Doménikos Theotokópoulos

In 1586, he received the commission for The Burial of the Count of Orgaz [Illustration 27], his best-known work. The discovery in 1983 on Syros of The Dormition of the Virgin and its identification as an early work by El Greco places this great masterpiece within the Byzantine tradition of iconography. Christ, clad in white and in glory, is the crowning point of the triangle formed by the figures of the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist in the traditional Orthodox composition of the Deesis. The soul of the dead man is being transported to Heaven in the form of an ethereal infant in accord with Orthodox tradition

28, The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, Doménikos Theotokópoulos

From 1597 to 1613, El Greco was working intensely on several major commissions, including three altar pieces for the Chapel of San José in Toledo (1597-1599); three paintings for the Colegio de Doña María de Aragon in Madrid (1596–1600); the painting Saint Ildefonso for the Capilla Mayor of the Hospital de la Caridad (Hospital of Charity) at Illescas (1603-1605); and The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception (1607-1613) [Illustration 28].

El Greco lived in considerable style in Toledo, but did he live with his Spanish companion, Jerónima de Las Cuevas? We do not know. They probably never married, although she was the mother of his only son, Jorge Manuel, born in 1578, who also became a painter.

El Greco died on 7 April 1614. Two Greek friends had witnessed his last will and testament, showing how El Greco never lost touch with his Greek roots. Although Prevelakis doubts whether El Greco was ever a practicing Roman Catholic, it appears that, as with many other Orthodox migrants in Western Europe at the time, he had transferred to Roman Catholicism, and in his will he described himself as a “devout Catholic.”

The Byzantine legacy inherited by El Greco

Since the beginning of the 20th century, scholars have debated whether his style had Byzantine origins. Some art historians assert that his roots were firmly in the Byzantine tradition, and that his most individual characteristics derive directly from the art of his ancestors.

The Byzantine influence from his training under Damaskinos at Saint Catherine’s, Iraklion, remained an important factor in El Greco’s work throughout his life. His pictures are theological in character rather than religious. He makes a clear distinction between the divine world and the material world, which he shows as separate yet mutually accessible realms.

The primacy of imagination and intuition over the subjective character of creation was a fundamental principle of El Greco’s style. He discarded classicist criteria such as measure and proportion. He believed that grace is the supreme quest of art, but that the painter achieves grace only if he manages to solve the most complex problems with obvious ease.

29, View of Mount Sinai, Doménikos Theotokópoulos

For him, colour was the most important and the most ungovernable element of painting, and he declared that colour had primacy over form. We have seen how his preference for exceptionally tall and slender figures and elongated compositions found early expression in his View of Mount Sinai [Illustration 29].

In these elongated figures, he was marrying Byzantine traditions with those of Western painting. This preference served both his expressive purposes and aesthetic principles, and led him to disregard the laws of nature and to elongate his compositions to ever greater extents, particularly when they were commissioned for altarpieces, so that the human anatomy becomes even more other-worldly in his mature works.

30, The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, Doménikos Theotokópoulos

When he was working on The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception [Illustration 30] for the side-chapel of Isabella Oballe in the Church of Saint Vincent in Toledo (1607-1613), he asked to have the altar piece lengthened by another 4.5 ft “because in this way the form will be perfect and not reduced, which is the worst thing that can happen to a figure.”

Another adaptation of Byzantine influences in El Greco’s work is his use of light, so that “each figure seems to carry its own light within or reflects the light that emanates from an unseen source.”

The English art historian David Davies finds the roots of El Greco’s style in the intellectual sources of his Greek Orthodox education and in his memories of the liturgical and ceremonial life of the Orthodox Church. Davies believes that the religious climate of the Counter-Reformation and the aesthetics of mannerism acted as catalysts to activate his individual technique. Davies asserts that the philosophies of Platonism and Neo-Platonism, the works of Plotinus and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, the Patristic texts or writings of the Early Church Fathers and the Orthodox Liturgy offer the keys to understanding El Greco’s style.

33, The Dormition of the Virgin, Syros, Doménikos Theotokópoulos

The discovery in 1983 on Syros of the Dormition of the Virgin [Illustration 31] in the church of that name – an authentic, signed icon from the painter’s Cretan period – and earlier, extensive archival research in the early 1960s, have helped to reposition El Greco within the Byzantine and post-Byzantine traditions of icon-writing in Crete. This work, which provided the model or type for El Greco’s best-known masterpiece, the Burial of the Count of Orgaz (1586-1588), “employed Palaiologian stylistic methods” and follows many of the conventions of Byzantine icon-writing. Where we can detect Venetian influences, they are shared by El Greco with his Cretan contemporaries from the Sinatic tradition.

The composition of the Dormition, showing the death of Mary, skilfully balances the differences between the Orthodox doctrine of the Dormition of Mary and the Roman Catholic doctrine of her Assumption, sensitively balancing contemporary denominational affiliations in Venetian-ruled Iraklion.

32, The Modena Triptych, Doménikos Theotokópoulos

The discovery of the Dormition has since led to the attribution of three other signed works of “Doménicos” to El Greco – the Modena Triptych [Illustration 32], which may have been painted before he left Crete and with a centrepiece also depicting Mount Sinai [Illustration 33, detail]; Saint Luke Painting the Virgin and Child (the Benaki Museum, Athens) and The Adoration of the Magi.

33, Mount Sinai, detail from Modena Triptych by Doménikos Theotokópoulos

The notes written in El Greco’s own hand, his unique style, and the fact that he signed his name in Greek, all show an organic continuity between his art and Byzantine icon-writing from Mount Sinai and Byzantium to Crete. According to Marina Lambraki-Plaka, “far from the influence of Italy, in a neutral place which was intellectually similar to his birthplace, Candia [Iraklion], the Byzantine elements of his education emerged and played a catalytic role in the new conception of the image which is presented to us in his mature work.”

The influence of El Greco

El Greco’s contemporaries found him incomprehensible and, apart from his son, he had no important followers. His dramatic and expressionistic style was met with puzzlement by his contemporaries. But there was a revival of interest in his work in the late 19th century and we can now see him as the precursor of the European Romantic movement. In the 1890s, Spanish painters living in Paris adopted him as their guide and mentor, and he found a new appreciation in the 20th century so that he is also regarded as a precursor of both Expressionism and Cubism.

His expressiveness and colours influenced Eugene Delacroix and Édouard Manet. To the Blaue Reiter group in Munich in 1912, he typified that mystical inner construction that was the task of their generation to rediscover. El Greco and Paul Cézanne, one of the forerunners of cubism, have been described as “spiritual brothers despite the centuries which separate them.”

34: Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

The symbolists and Pablo Picasso during his Blue Period drew on the cold tonality of El Greco, utilising the anatomy of his ascetic figures. While Picasso was working on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon [Illustration 34] he visited his friend Ignacio Zulogia in his studio in Paris, where he studied El Greco’s The Opening of the Fifth Seal [Illustration 35], which Zuloaga had owned since 1897.

35: El Greco, The Opening of the Fifth Seal

Foundoulaki asserts that Picasso “completed … the process for the activation of the painterly values of El Greco which had been started by Manet and carried on by Cézanne.” El Greco’s influence has also been traced in the work of Franz Marc and of the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock.

El Greco and the Greeks

Yet to Greeks, El Greco remains the quintessential Greek artist. In Greece, he is loved not just by experts and art lovers but also by ordinary people. Led by the Greek composer Vangelis Papathanassiou, Greeks were passionate and spontaneous in a campaign that raised $1.2 million to buy El Greco’s Saint Peter for the National Art Gallery in Athens in 1995.

The Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis, who was born in Iraklion, felt a great spiritual affinity for El Greco, called his autobiography Report to Greco and wrote a tribute to the artist. El Greco has inspired the Greek poet Odysseas Elytis (Diary of an Unseen April). In 1998, the composer Vangelis produced El Greco, a symphonic album inspired by the artist. This develops his earlier work, Φόρος τιμής στον Γκρέκο, A Tribute to El Greco (1995). El Greco’s life is also the subject of the recent film El Greco (2006) directed by Ioannis Smaragdis and filmed in Crete.

Conclusion and summary

To conclude: it is an irony of history that icon-writing survived on Mount Sinai through the violence of iconoclasm because of the protection provided to Saint Catherine’s Monastery by Egyptian Muslim rulers. Following the Venetian acquisition of Mount Sinai, that particular approach to icon-writing became dominant in Crete. Through Theophanes, Damaskinos, and other members of the Cretan school and their influence, the tradition of icon writing on Mount Athos was transformed in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. And through Cretan icon-writers such as Damaskinos and El Greco, icon-writing burst into the artistic world in Renaissance Europe, and had an indelible influence on the ways in which form, shape and light were used in European painting ever since.

36: The Ladder of Saint John Klimakos, Mount Sinai

Just as The Ladder of Saint Kilmakos shows how Byzantine iconography on Mount Sinai bridges the gap between heaven and earth, those Cretan icon-writers have bridged the gap between Byzantium and the West, they have “set upon a golden bough to sing” and for us to see those sacred, golden things of “what is past, or passing, or to come.”

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This paper was read at the seminar ‘Icons in Liturgy and Culture’ in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on Saturday 27 June 2009 in association with the exhibition, ‘Icons in Transformation’ by Ludmilla Pawlowska (11 June to 19 July 2009).

Friday, 26 June 2009

Icons in Liturgy and Culture

Patrick Comerford

Christ Church Cathedral is hosting a series of lectures in the crypt on Saturday 27 June to mark the history and relevance of icons down through the years.

The speakers will include Dom Gregory Collins, OSB, author of the Glenstal Book of Icons, Dr Sarah Smyth, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies, Trinity College Dublin; Tim Thurston, the presenter of Gloria on RTÉ Lyric FM every Sunday morning; and myself.

The lectures start in the cathedral crypt at 11 a.m., and have been organised in association with “Icons in Transformation,” an exhibition of the work of the Russian-born artist, Ludmila Pawlowska, with an interesting collection of some traditional Russian Icons.

Sarah Smyth organised a major exhibition of Russian icons in the National Gallery of Ireland to mark the Russian millennium in 1998. In the morning, Sarah will have an illustrated talk introducing the topic: “What is an icon?”

Dom Gregory has taught Byzantine studies at Queen’s University, Belfast, and is a former headmaster of Glenstal Abbey School. He now lectures at the Benedictine university of Sant’Anselmo in Rome. His lecture in the afternoon will be illustrated with icons from the unique collection of icons in Glenstal Abbey.

Later, I hope to look at the Cretan school of icon-writers and their contribution to Western art, particularly through Theophanes the Cretan, Michael Damaskinos and Domenikos Theotokopoulos (“El Greco”).

Throughout the day, Tim Thurston will introduce three musical interludes under the topic “Icons of Sound.” These interludes will include works by John Tavener, Arvo Part, Grechaninov and Rachmaninov.

The lectures will be followed by Choral Evensong at 5 p.m. with appropriate settings by Tavener and Leighton.

Meanwhile, “Icons in Transformation” – the exhibition of Ludmilla Pawlowska’s work, continues in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, until 19 July.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and has taught Byzantine and Islamic studies

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Communion as noun and verb

Two groups from USPG Ireland on the terrace at High leigh Conference Centre, Hoddesdon, this morning before the closing Eucharist at the USPG Conference

Patrick Comerford

The annual conference of the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG – Anglicans in World Mission) came to an end this afternoon after our concluding Eucharist at High Leigh. Today is the feast day of Saint John the Evangelist. The former Scottish primus, Bishop Idris Jones, presided, using the Eucharist of the Scottish Episcopal Church, and the preacher was the Most Revd Purely Lyngdoh, Moderator of the Church of North India.

In her concluding reflection this morning, Dr Jenny Plane Te Paa from Aotearoa/New Zealand, spoke generously of how she had found the conference “purposeful, mutually enriching and faith-filled.” It was a remarkably pastoral conference, she told us, with opportunities to speak and listen, inquire and affirm, enriching her life and her ministry.

Speaking of the current crisis and divisions within the Anglican Communion, she pressed the need for vulnerable engagement, quietly charitable servant-hood behaviour, marked by forgiveness, compassion and reconciliation.

She reminded us that Communion is both a noun and a verb, and that it describes both who we are and what we are called to do.

Speakers from the floor included one of the newest staff members, Stephanie Mooney, Link Officer for Africa and the Indian Ocean. The Revd Canon George Wauchope, of SOCMS, Birmingham, spoke from his South African experience of how reconciliation and justice must be inseparable, but how justice has been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.

Two ordinands from Saint Michael’s College, Llandaff (the Church in Wales) also spoke from the floor: Jennifer Hood and Heidi-Maria de Gruchy, who expressed her hope that we could see one another as Christ sees us with eyes of love and in God’s image and likeness.

The Revd Dr James Walters (Diocese of London) spoke passionately about the urgency of solidarity, declaring that “now is the time to stand up for the poor.”

The new chair of USPG, Canon Linda Ali (York) expressed generous appreciation for the hard work of the staff. She described USPG as a tremendous family, and pointed to the mission companions and their families who had shared their experiences in the interest groups out of difficult, challenging situations.

She reminded us that the BNP has a “warped view of Jesus” and underlined the need “to get to the people before they get to them” as part of mission too.

The Revd Michael Chatfield, who has completed his time as a USPG mission companion in Trinidad, spoke of it as a place where many people have lost hope, and pointed to how we could and must find hope in the God who loves us.

Tuesday’s guest speaker was the former Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, Bishop Idris Jones, and throughout the three days, time and again, speakers took the opportunity to offer their congratulations to and prayers for the Revd Canon Dr Chad Gandiya, Regional Desk Officer for Africa and the Indian Ocean, who has been elected Bishop of Harare.

Earlier yesterday, Canon Edgar Ruddock, USPG’s International relations director and Deputy General Secretary, spoke of the planned USPG visit to the Holy Land next year from 3 to 12 May. He reminded us of the plight of the shrinking Christian community in Palestine and Israel, which had been described in workshops yesterday by Janina Zang, former USPG mission partner in Jerusalem.

He said those taking part in the visit would stay in Palestinian hotels that do not benefit from the same tax breaks as Israeli hotels. But while this would mean the visit was dearer than other pilgrimages, it also benefits the Palestinian economy.

Canon Patrick Comerford is a member of the board of USPG Ireland and of the council of USPG – Anglicans in World Mission

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Reconciliation and mission: the Irish experience

The High Leigh Conference Centre on the edges of Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire, where the USPG conference is taking place this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Opening Prayer

Wonderful Counsellor, give your wisdom to the rulers of the nations; Mighty God, make the whole world know the government is on your shoulders; Everlasting Father, establish your reign of justice and righteousness; Prince of Peace, bring in the endless kingdom of your peace, Amen.

Opening questions

Let me begin by asking some questions about your perceptions of Ireland, north and south today:

● Have you been to Ireland?

● Do you see the recent problems in Ireland as civil war between Catholics and Protestants?

● Or a conflict between North and South?

● Or a hangover from British colonial days?

● Was it about ethnic identity, or about religious identity?

● Which group were ideally positioned as mediators and reconcilers?

● How did this conflict impact on the Irish outside Ireland?

● Who were the victims?

● Who were the perpetrators?


In opening, I would like to dispel two misconceptions or myths.

The first is about the Church of Ireland, a full member church of the Anglican Communion. This week, we have an opportunity to bring closer together the people working in Ireland and England in the USPG family. We share a lot in common. But it is often forgotten within the Church of England, that we are not an Irish or overseas branch of the Church of England. Saint Patrick’s mission in Ireland and our historic episcopate long predate the Pope’s decision to send Augustine to Canterbury!

Secondly, there is a myth that all the efforts at reconciliation in Ireland derive from or are focussed on the consequences of decades-long violence in Northern Ireland.

Personal experience

Let me tell you a personal story that may help, in some way, to dispel this second myth.

As a small child, I grew up in the south-east of Ireland under the shadow of the Fethard-on-Sea boycott. In 1957, in a small village in Co Wexford, Protestant shops, businesses, farms, schools and neighbours were boycotted by local Roman Catholics after a local Protestant woman in an inter-Church marriage refused to accept the canon law demands on her husband. She refused to send her two daughters to the local Roman Catholic school, and eventually fled with them to Scotland.

It was a sad and searing division in that community. Even the Catholic bell-ringer withdrew his services from the Anglican parish church. But It came to an end when the Catholic parish priest bought his cigarettes in a Protestant-owned shop and when the husband in the family, Sean Cloney, helped to carry a neighbour’s coffin into the Church of Ireland (Anglican) parish church, once again in defiance of the strictures still in place in the 1950s.

Sean and Sheila Cloney were reunited. Forty years later, I found myself collaborating with him on an interesting project. I was involved in the events in Co Wexford commemorating the bicentenary of the revolution known as the 1798 Rising. A few miles from where the Cloneys lived, in the neighbouring parish of Old Ross, there is a mass grave, where the victims of one of the worst massacres carried out during the Rising had been buried in a mass pit.

For 200 years, the victims of the massacre in Scullabogue Barn lay together in a pit, without ever being committed to the earth in a proper funeral service, and without any gravestone to mark their place of burial. Sean and I ensured that the wording on a new gravestone would use none of the language of victims or perpetrators.

In our language and in our violence towards one another in Ireland over the generations, we have all been victims and we have all been perpetrators. And to dismiss those who had been burned to death in Scullabogue Barn on 5 June 1798 by categorising them would amount to trampling on their graves.

The mythical depiction over the generations, by people who remained poles apart, was either that those who died were loyalist collaborators or planters and that those who killed them were their executioners; or that those who died were innocent civilians, who had been the victims of an early form of “ethnic cleansing” and those who killed them were sectarian murderers.

The truth is that among the 113 victims, the family names were names that are shared across the two local communities, protestant and Catholic – and, not surprisingly, so too with those who set the barn alight. Catholics and Protestants were murdered together; Protestants and Catholics engaged in the killing together. And all of us there that sun-soaked summer’s evening, as I unveiled the first gravestone on that cold pit in Saint Mary’s Churchyard in Old Ross, shared in that heritage. We were all heirs to those in the barn who cried out for mercy, and all heirs to those outside who bayed for blood.

It stands out as one of the single most appalling massacres in Irish history – worse than Abercorn, Omagh, Enniskillen or Darkley. But the fact that no gravestone had been erected for 200 years was silent testimony to the silence of generations in the locality on this monstrous atrocity, which had never been talked about openly in the local community.

If a wound is left bandaged for too long, and not allowed to bask in the healing rays of sunshine, it becomes infected or even gangrenous. Is it any wonder then, that within a few miles of Scullabogue and Old Ross, the Fethard-on-Sea boycott broke out just a century and a half later, five generations later?

On that summer’s evening, as we adjourned for the traditional Anglican bun-fight, I was assaulted verbally by one diehard irredentist nationalist who challenged my assertions that John Kelly, one of the revolutionary leaders in 1798, was an Anglican, a member of the Church of Ireland. I was told “Kelly” was not a “Protestant family name.” I knew from my own background of generations of Kellys in the south-east who were just that. Eventually, the argument that gone down a very different path ended when I pointed out that Sheila Cloney’s name before she married Sean was Sheila Kelly.

When communities refuse to be reconciled we all become heirs to the victims and heirs to the perpetrators. And the injunction must never be to “Forgive and Forget” but to “Remember and be Reconciled,” to remember so that we may be reconciled.

The Church of Ireland experience

Recently, a bishop of the Church of Ireland offered the opinion that we, as the Church of Ireland, had something unique to offer to other European churches we meet in the different ecumenical forums and bodies that we are members of. These include:

● Our experience of being a minority church.

● Our experience as a disestablished church

But these are not unique experiences; that many churches in Europe today are minority churches, and many of those minority churches once had the dubious pleasure of being established and majority churches.

So why have I got the arrogance to stand here in front of you today and talk to you about reconciliation? What has someone from Church of Ireland got to share with you ever the next few days that may be relative to your experience of mission and of church today?

Others have often seen the Church of Ireland as an English-speaking church, as a Church that has been associated with the settler or the colonist, as a Church that looked more easily to London than to the Irish provinces, as a Church that in the past enjoyed the benefits of establishment but had never provided a prophetic critique of the society in which it lived.

Now, I’m not saying I agree with these. These are perceptions, but perceptions are often polite expressions of prejudice.

We too have had perceptions of our place in the wider society that have not helped us in developing a vision and in moving forward in mission.

We have been a polite Church. Since disestablishment we have been a Church that has often found it difficult to relate prophetically to the wider political culture, and even to the wider culture itself.

If we are going to talk about “Reconciliation” at this conference, it may he helpful to define reconciliation as being reconciled to God and being reconciled to one another (see Ephesians 2: 16). But the process of reconciliation demands of us: How reconciled are we with one another? And are we aware of our need to be reconciled with ourselves:

Reconciled with our past

The War Memorial in the the town centre of Hoddeson ... the USPG conference is taking place nearby in the High Leigh Conference Cente (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A common experience in dysfunctional families is when those who have been hurt in the past try to deal with their hurts in the present and are told by other members of the family that they would be better off to forgive and to forget.

It is impossible to do both – to forgive and to forget. Unless we remember, we cannot reconcile ourselves with the past. And failing to remember the past creates a dysfunctional identity in the present, which leaves us, therefore, with no possibility of moving forward, honestly and equipped, into the future.

The Czech writer, Milan Kundera, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, offers a series of reflections on the importance of memory as the root from which emerges the self-understanding by individuals and groups of their identities. In one of the essays in that book, Kundera analyses the writings of Franz Kafka and comments:

“Prague in his novels is a city without memory. It has even forgotten its name. Nobody there remembers anything, nobody recalls anything … No song is capable of uniting the city’s present with its past by recalling the moments of its birth.

“Time in Kafka’s novel is the time of humanity that has lost its continuity with humanity, of a humanity that no longer knows anything nor remembers anything, that lives in nameless cities with nameless streets or streets different from the ones they had yesterday, because a name means continuity with the past and people without a past are people without a name.”

In his essay, Kundera explores the theme in relation to the way in which an attempt had been made by the state authorities to change the awareness of the identity of the Czech people since the end of World War II. An attempt has been made to erase the nation’s memory, and through this the identity of the people has been eroded. As Kundera notes when he quotes his friend Milan Hubi approvingly: “The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory.”

The culture, traditions, songs, religious commitment, political ideas embodied above all in the literature and the poetry of the community are important vehicles communicating and challenging the identity of the society.

But in many instances, in the Church of Ireland, we have forgotten the culture, tradition, songs, commitment, politics, literature and poetry of the community of which we are part. And by erasing that memory of the past we have found ourselves stumbling around in the dark of the present, without road signs or street names to help us find our place.

In the past, there has been such a separation between Catholic and Protestant culture in Ireland that it has been a deep chasm that is reflected in cultural and even in everyday life until quite recently.

I don’t know how extensive the problem of bats in the belfry is for your church. But there are two principal bat species in Ireland: one favours attics, while the other favours more open spaces. But in church ruins in Ireland, there is a preponderance of attics in the ruined Church of Ireland parish churches, so that there was a rumour some years ago that Irish bats were divided on sectarian grounds: Protestant bats and Catholic bats.

Perhaps in Wales they have church bats and chapel bats!

But, to be serious, culturally there has been a big divide between Protestants and Catholics even on the playing fields: rugby was essentially a Protestant game, played in Protestant schools, to which middle-class Catholics were invited under sufferance; while Gaelic football and hurling were almost exclusively Catholic – well, those were the perceptions. The Irish language was perceived – on both sides – as being the preserve of Catholics, and of Republic Nationalist Catholics at that – and this despite the fact that the first book printed in Irish was the Book of Common Prayer, and that the first President of Ireland, Douglas Hyde, a rector’s son, was a Professor of Irish and one of the key figures in the modern revival of the Irish language.

There were different perceptions of what to expect on each other’s farms, in each other’s homes, how each other set standards as employers and employees. A Russian diplomat who had been posted in Dublin many years ago returned to Moscow and wrote about his perceptions of Ireland. He claimed he could know whether he was at a dinner party in a Catholic or a Protestant household: Catholics arrived late and left late, Protestants arrived early and left early.

But this cultural chasm, this gap that reinforced behavioural patterns, has also deprived us as a Church of finding easy opportunities to be reconciled with our past, with our present, and with our future.

The Past

There are many things in the past that I cannot be reconciled with. As Archbishop Rowan Williams reminded the 1998 Lambeth Conference, it is very hard for us to accept that we are members of the Body of Christ if we consider that body includes people in the past who waged crusades, who carried out the Inquisition, who linked mission and colonialism. But they are dead, and they remain part of the Body of Christ, of the one church I Confess to be part of in my confession of faith each week. I can do nothing to excommunicate them now. I must accept that I will be reconciled with the past, including the ugly past, in Christ’s own plan for the future.

Not being reconciled with our past has deprived many in the Church of Ireland of the great riches our neighbouring Churches find it easier to claim.

Over a decade ago, while I was attending a course at the College of the Ascension, a group of Welsh ordinands who realised I was testing my own call to ordained ministry, presented me with a small book on Celtic spirituality. It was a kind and generous gesture.

But our failure to reconcile ourselves with the past has made Celtic Spirituality in Ireland something for “them” rather than “us.” More than ten years were to pass before the Revd Grace Clunie was appointed Director of Celtic Spirituality at Armagh Cathedral in 2007. But that neglect of Celtic Spirituality by the Church of Ireland in past generations has deprived us of many riches.

We remain unaware of the great stories of the Celtic saints who founded and built up the Church in Ireland. We are unable to understand the wonders of the great, carved high crosses that speckle the Irish countryside. We are unable to understand the significance and the spirituality that lay behind the founding of many of our cathedrals and parish churches.

In many Irish towns and villages, it is virtually certain that the Roman Catholic parish church will have a name like Our Lady of the Rosary, or Our Lady Queen of Peace. But invariably Church of Ireland cathedrals and parish churches stand on the original monastic site in a town or village, and carry the name of the founding saints, names that are often unpronounceable for the tongues of semi-Anglo-Saxon Church of Ireland parishioners, who, if they don’t know how to pronounce those names, know less about the monks and abbots who bore them: Saint Fethlimidh, Saint Flannan, Saint Carthage, Saint Colman, Saint Finn Barre, Saint Fachtna, Saint Laserian ...

The average, ordinary, pew-filling parishioner, and therefore the whole Church of Ireland, is deprived of some of the wealth and the insights of the founding fathers and the founding mothers of Irish Christianity.

The cathedral in Kildare, a small market town 50 km south-west of Dublin, is dedicated to Saint Brigid, one of the three patron saints of Ireland and a woman who was the abbot of a mixed community of men and women. During the debate on the ordination of women in the Church of Ireland in the 1980s, I cannot recall one reference to Brigid as one of the apostles of Ireland, nor any reference to the popular mediaeval depiction of her as a mitred abbot.

For many years, I worked in Tallaght parish on the margins of Dublin. Externally, this is a marginalised urban deprived area or UPA. A large shopping centre and dull drab housing make up a city that doesn’t even have its own town council or mayor, yet is big enough to be Ireland’s third city.

The Church of Ireland parish church, Saint Maelruain’s, stands on one of the earliest monastic sites in Ireland, associated with the Ceilí Dé movement, an early reform movement in the Celtic Church, and such a centre of learning that it was once known as one of the “Eyes of Ireland”. In the early 19th century, the last remaining monastic buildings were demolished to provide building rubble to erect a new parish church. Memory was erased, was bulldozed, just as the streets in Kafka’s city had their name plates stripped down.

Today in a dormitory city, where people feel they have no roots and where they have no sense of continuity, the only common focus is a pyramid-shaped shopping centre, known as The Square. If only the Church had retained its memory, those people could have found a sense of identity, a sense of rootedness, in a centre of prayer and worship that dates back through the centuries … and that in the present economic crisis should be giving them hope for the future.

If we are not aware of the stories of our past, if we are not aware of the riches of the iconography of our saints from the past, then we have been truly impoverished – but not for the sake of the Gospel.

The attitude that Celtic Spirituality is “something for them rather than us” is dangerous – and in other ways too. If we leave it aside, then we abandon it to quacks and those with fertile religious imaginations. But we also fail to tap into one of the many spiritual vocabularies used by thinking and questioning people today, and therefore fail to understand their agenda and their questions on faith topics. And that is a failure in mission too.

In addition, we are unable to understand how hurt in the past lives in memories, even unarticulated memories, and has shaped attitudes to us today.

There is a series of scandals rocking the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland today: allegations of sexual abuse, the physical abuse of children in homes run by religious orders, the ineptitude of bishops, and – some time ago, you will recall -- the tales of a bishop and his secret mistress.

But we have forgotten that parallel controversies dogged the Church of Ireland in previous generations, along with rectors who were flogging and hanging magistrates and bishops who were caught in scandalous positions with naked sailors in London taverns.

And there was worse: for generations, the bench of bishops of the Church of Ireland provided the working majority in the Irish House of Lords, where, on their own initiation, they pushed through the most iniquitous laws of oppression aimed against Roman Catholics – laws that are remembered to this day as the Penal Laws. Invariably, until the Act of Union was passed in 1800, two out of three of the highest offices of state in Dublin were held by members of the House of Bishops.

Over the past 200 years or more, one of the strongest vehicles for perpetuating sectarianism on my island has been the Orange Order. Admittedly, in many parishes, this is a benign and benevolent, quasi-masonic order. Its older members see it as something that is merely quaint that Roman Catholics are excluded from membership, in the same quaint way that “ladies” are excluded from membership. But so too, in the past, were Presbyterians excluded. We have allowed ourselves to forget that this organisation was formed firstly to protect the interests of the Church of Ireland as the established church, at a time when the prelates and the landed aristocracy combined to form what was known as the “Protestant Ascendancy”.

Transition from past to present

Fear of the past and clinging on to the memories of past fears also immobilises us in the transition from the past to the present.

This explains the fear that innovation or moving towards ownership of the insights of modern liturgical thinking will deprive us of our identity and make “us” more like “them”.

Yet change has to take place, and this change is being hindered by our failure to face up to the past and to be reconciled with that past and with our neighbours. Let me give you some examples:

An increasing number of parishes are being amalgamated, so that often we have one rector or parish priest serving six or seven churches. It is impossible for this priest to visit each of these churches on a Sunday morning, But when someone suggests a Saturday evening liturgy, the principal line of resistance is the argument that we could not do it … because Roman Catholics have long had Saturday evening Mass.

And so the people are deprived of the opportunity to worship at the weekend and to have their rector stay long enough at the church door afterwards to give them pastoral attention and a listening ear, instead of racing off like Lewis Hamilton to the next ecclesiastical pit-stop.

It deprives people of an opportunity to have regular sacramental ministry.

It deprives them of sharing the same worshipping experiences as their neighbours, because if we cannot worship together then at least if we can worship at the same time as a community it can engender an amazing sense of a shared worship life in small towns and villages.

Our fear of the liturgical movement and innovation in liturgy has left us afraid not just of bells and smells, but of candles and icons, of the healing ministry, of aural confession, of priests wearing our Sunday best on Sundays.

The beginning of the present

Callum D. Brown in his book, The Death of Christian Britain (2002), says the present decline of Christianity in Britain to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Everyone rushed out to buy televisions, and then television rushed into the homes, destabilising ideas and thoughts through the media of That Was The Week That Was, the Monty Python Show, and other irreverent horrors.

That may be an exaggeration, and if not I doubt if I could accept it as the beginning of secular Britain.

The beginning of the story of reconciliation in Ireland is a little bit more difficult to trace.

As the violent clashes in Northern Ireland unfolded in the wake of the failure of the civil rights marches of the 1960s, there was a number of efforts to try to form peace movements, some of them sad failures, some of them sad constructions in themselves.

Sad failures would include that beautiful but ineffective movement, “What Price Peace?” that arose from a lone vigil by a bereaved Church of Ireland priest, the Revd Joe Parker, following the death of his 13-year-old son.

Sad constructions included movements like PACE, Protestant and Catholic Encounter, which brought middle class people together for morning coffee and afternoon tea, and wondered why there couldn’t be reconciliation without first exposing the wounds of the past to the light of the sun so that they could be healed. We were unwilling to name the beast so that it could be slain. There can be no reconciliation without a healing of memories.

Friends of mine who were once involved in the Provisional Republican Movement in Derry have recalled how they recoiled at the use of the word reconciliation. Its use was probably inspired by the Ministry of Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral. But there the word reconciliation had been adopted by the bombed, by the victims. It is wrong for the demand for reconciliation to be first made, not by victims, but by those who have a vested or economic interest in merely reforming the present unjust structures without facing up to the hurt of past injustices, without facing up to the awful truth of the awful past.

As a southerner I have no sympathy with Provisional Republicanism, but I could understand my friends recoiling at the way the word reconciliation was misappropriated in Northern Ireland. And I came in a stark way to realise this misappropriation almost 30 years ago.

I was then a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), and particularly active in Christian CND. At a meeting of peace groups from across Ireland, I raised the issue of nuclear weapons, and the move to deploy a new generation of nuclear weaponry, Cruise and Pershing Missiles, in Europe. I was sternly told by a group of Belfast women that the nuclear arms race had nothing to do with the “peace movement” and was publicly berated by one clergyman at the meeting who accused me of not being interested in reconciliation, of – yes – being a Communist.

Reconciliation was all right if you were going to bring back investment to Belfast. But we dare not talk about reconciliation in terms that challenged the rhetoric of the Cold War.

Sectarianism and reconciliation

Reconciliation begins where sectarianism ends ... Christ and the Samaritan woman at the well, from a stained glass window in Hoddesdon Parish Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Of course, we have moved on since then. It may emerge in time that we will agree that real reconciliation in Ireland, as far as the churches are concerned, can be traced back not to the morning coffee and afternoon tea gatherings in South Belfast, but to the pioneering work of the Jesuit Michael Hurley and his friends who established the Irish School of Ecumenics.

In coming to terms with the present, in reconciling our religious traditions and cultures, and in reconciling those of us who live in the present with the ugly heritage and memories of the past, the Church of Ireland has eventually been involved in a three-stage process.

1, Reconciling of Memories: In 1987, the Irish School of Ecumenics undertook a programme of study and reflection on the subject of the Reconciliation of Memories. In the course of this programme, theologians, historians, philosophers, political scientists and literary critics were invited to contribute to the examination of those situations where “all could not be forgiven because all had not been forgotten.”

2, Moving beyond Sectarianism: This programme was followed by the Irish School of Ecumenics with a programme called “Moving Beyond Sectarianism,” a six-year research project focussing on the role of Christian religion in sectarianism in Northern Ireland. Instead of demonising the more violent, bigoted and overt expressions of sectarianism, the project chose instead to highlight the subtle, polite and understated expressions of sectarianism. This form of sectarianism seems innocuous but serves as an essential under-pinning for the ethos of antagonised division that allows the more blatant expressions to flourish. It pointed the finger at each and every one of us – we were all to blame, and we all needed to take responsibility if were going to move beyond sectarianism and bring about real, lasting reconciliation.

3, The Hard Gospel: The next stage came when the Church of Ireland took the challenges of these projects seriously and we started to own them for ourselves so that the process took on a new dynamic. The General Synod established a Sectarianism Education Programme, and commissioned a scooping study, The Hard Gospel, which did not have to dig too deep to find out how deeply rooted sectarian attitudes and values are throughout the Church of Ireland.

But we all know reports are not the end. So often we are used to reports being received by General Synods, and that is it. In this instance though, the report was handed down to Diocesan Synods, were it was discussed, in most cases, not as part of the normal business that had to be rushed through as one of many items on the agenda, but at special sessions, called with only one item on the agenda, The Hard Gospel. And the dioceses then sent the report on the parishes, in the form of study packs, each unit beginning with a Gospel study but then demanding a critical look by the participants – whether they were in parishes north or south of the border – at the barriers and boundaries in their own parishes.

The future

The Hard Gospel Project was steered through first by Archdeacon (now Bishop) David Chillingworth, now Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, and then by Dean Patrick Rooke of Armagh. It was finally wound up last year.

But many of us have realised by now that we are only starting to scratch the surface. Itching wounds are wounds that want to heal. We are naming the beasts. They are ugly and they breathe deadly fire. But by naming them we are acquiring the courage to be reconciled not just with the past and the present, but with the future.

The problems we have to face in the future are many. They include not only theological differences, but inbred, generations-old class values, snobbery, elitism, indifference; how we deal with immigration and the social changes it has introduced; and – like all parts of the Anglican Communion – how we continue in communion with one another while sharing different and not always complementary views on sexuality.

There are problems for members of the Church of Ireland in Northern Ireland, formed in the old political mould, adjusting to the changes brought about by the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement, and facing the future with some trepidation. Bishop Harold Miller of Down and Dromore, speaking at his diocesan synod a few years ago, articulated some of these fears on their behalf:

“Here in Northern Ireland, we find ourselves in a time of both great change and of numbed ‘stuckness’. We are uncertain, in our post-traumatic ‘peace,’ about whether or not we can find our way through to a complete resolution of our troubles. And we are uncertain about whether the Belfast Agreement can provide the foundation we had hoped for, which would allow a society to develop which would include all, and have the loyalty of all.

“We can critique the ‘Peace and Reconciliation’ model of South Africa, but we do not know how or when we might find our own equivalent but locally applicable way of dealing with our common hurts and memories, and especially with the hurts and memories of victims of the troubles.”

And these sores came to the fore last year when it was suggested by the Consultative Group on the Past, a commission co-chaired by the former Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh, Lord Eames – that compensation should be paid in the same way to all the families of victims of violence, whether those who died were paramilitaries, civilians or members of the security forces and the police.

But at least we have made a start in the Church of Ireland. We have begun to own the process of reconciliation. We have named the beasts.

Now are we prepared to move on and slay them? I certainly hope so, because I believe we have started the real process of reconciliation. I think we are ready to be reconciled with the past, held in our memories; reconciled with the present.

I am less confident that we can be reconciled with what the future can hold for us as potential as we move forward as a church in mission.

When we mature and get over the legacy of the past, when we have reconciled ourselves with our memories, when we have overcome the bitterness and the hurt of the past, let’s hope it’s not too late to face up to the fact that the world is changing rapidly, and that we need a theology of reconciliation and a theology of mission that it relevant to the world of the future, the world of secularism and pluralism.

Secularism deprives people of their great cultural reference points. Many do not know the symbolism of our great paintings, or understand the themes that have inspired our great composers. Yet in many places the church is the only building of beauty.

“Christian Ireland” is a myth from the past, perhaps in the same way many once thought of England as a predominantly Christian country at least in cultural and moral values, if not in church attendance and commitment.

Ireland too is an increasingly pluralist society. A large number now reject any label that tries to identify them as Church members, there are interesting numbers seeking and exploring spiritual riches offered by Buddhism, Sufi mysticism. There is an increasing number of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists who are not foreign-born, and who do not regard themselves as being of foreign decent.

There are 20,000-40,000 Muslims in Ireland today: they outnumber the combined numbers for Presbyterians and Methodists, and the vast majority of them Irish-born. If continue to grow at this rate, then within a generation, in 30 years time, they will be 160,000, making them larger than the Church of Ireland, making them the second largest faith tradition in the Republic of Ireland.

In Northern Ireland, racism is on the rise. Although Sinn Féin and their strong-armed members have, by-and-large, been able to control racist attacks in their own areas, the Loyalist paramilitaries have not been able to do this in their areas. Last week, we saw racist, neo-Nazi gangs, linked by some to the UDA, forcing g 20 Romany families, among them a five-day-old baby, to abandon their homes and seek shelter in a church hall.

In the Republic of Ireland, the Church of Ireland has one Nigerian priest working with immigrants from African – but his contract comes to an end soon. Why have the 20,000 or so Nigerians in Ireland, many of them cradle Anglicans, failed to find the average Church of Ireland parish welcoming?

Racism in Ireland, north and south, is not going to go away because of one good sermon next Sunday. It will spread its vicious tentacles across the island unless there is a concerted response from secular and church leaders. But who will take the initiative?

Despite the constitutional guarantees the Irish government sought for the Republic of Ireland on constitutional stumbling blocks such as abortion ahead of a new referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, many of you will be surprised to learn that the Republic of Ireland has come of the most tolerant and relaxed laws on homosexuality in the European Union.

Can we see all these issues as opportunities for the Church of Ireland? Or do we see the as a threat to our identity?

Threat or opportunity?

One of the insights of the Anglo-Catholic revival in the latter half of the 19th century, which had the support of SPG, was the insight from the slum priests of the early 20th century that we cannot separate mission at home from mission abroad, that we cannot separate social reconciliation from the mission of the Church.

Reconciling ourselves with the good and the bad of the past, facing up to the reality of the present where we need to be reconciled as Anglicans with one another, where the different traditions and families in the Church need to be reconciled with one another, and where the Church needs to be reconciled with the world, is part of entering into the movement of God as Trinity, the process by which the kosmos, the whole of creation, is becoming ekklessia.

In the liturgy the world is invited into the Lord’s House and to seek the Kingdom to Come. And what greater reconciliation can we look forward to in the future than the realisation of the Kingdom, for which all our liturgy, all our theology, all our mission activity, can only be a foretaste.

Questions fro discussion:

● Can you relate the Irish experience to your own experience?

● Which experiences of conflict in your own society would you prefer to forget?

● Which experiences of conflict in your society are you reluctant to forgive?

● Is it always necessary to remember to be reconciled?

● Which parts of your past – individual and social – are you reluctant to be reconciled with?

● In the conflict within the Anglican Communion, is the party you identify with perpetrator or victim?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, a member of the Council of USPG – Anglicans in World Mission, and a director of USPG Ireland. USPG – Anglicans in World Mission. This paper was prepared for the seminars in Session 4 and Session 5 of the Interest Groups at the annual conference of USPG in the High Leigh Conference Centre, Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, on 23 June 2009