Saturday, 16 May 2009

Ministry in Context: Church, Faith and Culture

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

Patrick Comerford

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

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

How society sees the Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The protests last year by Burmese and Tibetan Buddhist monks;

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

The current crisis dividing the Anglican Communion;

Islam after the bombings and attacks in recent years;

The Danish cartoons and the response of Muslims;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The secular world and culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

Challenges for the Church of Ireland in the 21st Century

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

Ireland is changing, as we all know. But how does the Church deal with change?

How do we adapt to change?

And what changes are taking place in Ireland today that challenge the Church to face up to the need to change?

Is Church attendance on Sundays in our average Church of Ireland parish an expression of commitment to Christ and to the Church?

How much of it is a matter of what those in marketing would call “brand loyalty”?

Are the parochial structures that worked well in a mainly rural society relevant to a predominantly urban church today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today, 2 per cent of the Church of Ireland population in the Republic of Ireland is from an African country, compared with 0.8 per cent of the population as a whole. The members of the Church of Ireland throughout this state include:

● 1,404 born in Nigeria;
● 1,156 who are Germans;
● 578 from Lithuania;
● 537 South Africans;
● 529 Travellers.

The number of Travellers, which I learned from Garret Casey, is interesting: he points out that the Church of Ireland accounts for 2.4% of the Traveller population, which is similar to the Church of Ireland proportion (2.9%) of the general population.

How does this challenge the image others have of the Church of Ireland? … of Travellers?

In what way does this challenge the Church of Ireland?

The figure 529 is a respectable size parish in many dioceses. Should we have a Traveller parish, as the Roman Catholic Church has?

As Garrett Casey showed last year in the Church of Ireland Gazette in an analysis of the statistics, we have 77 members of the Church of Ireland who are French nationals: a tradition dating back through the Huguenots to the Anglo-Norman French continues in the Church of Ireland.

If Ireland is not monochrome or mono-cultural, neither is the Church of Ireland. What beautiful opportunities we face. What wonderful challenges we must meet.

Already we have one Nigerian priest working in the Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough. Should we consider having a priest for the Germans, the Lithuanians, the Chinese among us … or even the Travellers? These are challenges for parishes, for dioceses and for mission societies.

One of the biggest groups of African immigrants in the Republic of Ireland today is the Nigerians. And a large proportion of them are cradle Anglicans. Yet only one diocese in the Church of Ireland has a Nigerian-born priest among its clergy.

Does this explain why so many Nigerian-born Anglicans go to predominantly black-African Pentecostal churches on Sundays?

Or is it because they simply do not feel welcome in the average Church of Ireland parish that has yet to face up to the changes and challenges of the 21st century?

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

So, we have to ask: how significant are these figures?

Is this large increase in numbers due to a greater interest in the Church of Ireland – even in religion generally?

Or is it accounted for by the number of immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees?

How relevant are they for the Church of Ireland today, and what challenges do they pose to the Church of Ireland in the 21st century?

As I have suggested, the immigrant communities pose an interesting challenge about the way the Church of Ireland may be changing. Apart from the Africans, the Porvoo Agreement means the Church of Ireland is in full communion with the Episcopal Lutheran Churches of northern Europe and the Baltic states. But how many of our building workers and mushroom pickers from Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia know that they are full members of the Church of Ireland?

How many of our parish clergy have the time, energy, experience or knowledge, or receive encouragement to give practical and pastoral reality to the implications of the Porvoo Agreement? How many of them have the necessary language skills?

In total, the Baltic Lutherans among us may total what may count as a few large parishes. When are we going to bring in priests to serve their needs, who know their language and understand their culture?

There has been a lot of talk in different circles about encouraging “Fresh Expressions of Church.” But do we also need to address the need for new models of ministry and new models of church? And what do we mean by “mission-shaped church”?

Can we have a mission if we have no understanding of “we” ourselves, of what it is to be church? Can we have a mission if we have no theology of mission? Can we have a mission to the world if we have no understanding of the world?

Change is coming. Change is always painful. Can we adjust to change in a way that is not about protecting old structures but about meeting new needs? Can we identify what those needs are and what those changes ought to be? What would you change in the church?

Perhaps I’m putting things the wrong way round. Perhaps we first need to understand the world, what is changing in the world, and what is changing in Ireland.

The new immigrants

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

One of the very visible and noticeable changes in Ireland, north and south of the border, in recent years has been the changing face, or rather, the changing faces of our neighbours.

Despite the once popular misconception, not all our new immigrants are refugees or asylum seekers.

What is your experience?

What do the demographic changes in your parish in recent year say about the changes we need to make and the challenges we are facing in the Church of Ireland?

Is the Porvoo agreement relevant in your parish or diocese?

If not, is it because we haven’t the time, energy, skills or encouragement to get to know our neighbours from the Baltics?

If they feel the Church of Ireland has ignored them or neglected them, what impression of church will they bring home with them?

And what impact will that have on the Episcopal Lutheran Churches in their home countries?

Do the Anglicans from the Southern Hemisphere living in Ireland have any sense of the Anglican Communion and of the Church of Ireland as part of it?

If not, how do we need to change? If so, why are we so unattractive to many of them?

The challenge for the parishes is how we can welcome these people among us, and how we can make sure that we fully benefit from these blessings that God is offering us in every parish throughout our land.

And if the Church of Ireland gets it right in our answer to this challenge and opportunity, if we can develop and ensure right practice, then we will have not only the right, but the duty, to challenge the state about those areas where it remains slow and difficult to deal with.

Diversity and pluralism

A generation ago, pluralism in the Republic of Ireland meant giving thanks that we would never return to the days of the Fethard-on-Sea boycott. In Northern Ireland, it meant praying that our children could go to school together, that we could all work together and live together as good neighbours.

But the new diversity in the Irish population demands new understandings of pluralism and has also led to new forms of violence and rejection.

In Portadown, you are now more likely to be the victim of what we might call sectarian violence if you are a Muslim … and nobody cracks sick jokes any more about whether someone was Catholic Muslim or a Protestant Muslim.

The Chinese shopkeepers in Belfast suffer greatly when it comes to intimidation, taunts and protection rackets.

Apart from the interesting details about membership of the Church of Ireland, the 2006 census returns have also produced unusual and curious details about the number of Greek Muslims, Chinese travellers, teenage widows and Maltese divorcees – all two Maltese divorcees – living in Ireland. They help us to realise that Ireland has become a diverse and multicultural society.

Bu we never were a plain, boring, mono-cultural society. We have always been an island that has been diverse and plural because of the people who come to our shores: Celts, Parthalons, Vikings, the Anglo-Normans (both English and French), the Gallowglass and settler Scots, the French from the Middle Ages to the Huguenot refugees, the Italian in separate waves of plasterers, fast food shopkeepers, the 20th century refugees from Germany, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and then the boat people from Vietnam.

But the census statistics are always on the low side when it comes to telling us who is living among us. Too many people are too afraid and too scared to register themselves at census times, worried that once noted they may face discrimination or forced deportation.

When the state discriminates unfairly, those who are racist can feel they have sanction and permission to discriminate without recrimination. If the state says Romanians and Bulgarians coming to work here are second-class citizens of the European Union, then it is selling us all short on the dream of a better Europe. What a disaster that is ahead of a referendum that should bring us closer to the dream of a Europe where all can share in our freedom and prosperity.

In Embracing Difference, I point out that out of all proportion to their numbers, our new immigrants suffer unfairly. A disproportionate number of them are in prison. A disproportionate number of them are the victims of crime, violence and road traffic accidents. A disproportionate number of them suffer accidents in the workplace. A disproportionate number of their children are in hospital.

If the system was fair, the statistics I gave in Embracing Difference would not have such an appalling consistency.

The unseen suffering of many of our new immigrants is told in the stories of the mushroom pickers forced to work long hours in appalling conditions, their children left at home without parents, and their economies deprived of skills, their societies deprived of the best and brightest.

But apart from the duty on church members to comfort those who are in fear and to welcome the stranger, it is important in the Church of Ireland that we do not see those who have arrived among us in recent years as problems, either in themselves or in the reaction of some sectors of society and government.

They enrich our society, and they enrich our Church life too.

Finding community

Another way we have changed noticeably in Ireland today is that we no longer find community in the same way:

Our current models of parish ministry and parochial structures in the Church of Ireland worked well, perhaps, for a settled 18th century rural society. But today it is one that many of the parochial clergy still struggle to operate as they continue to go around visiting the sick and bereaved and seeking out the unbaptised and trying to instruct young people in the faith – and often ineffectively).

It is a model that has become untenable in the society that is post-modern Dublin and post-modern Ireland. Community no longer exists on a geographical basis. People increasingly derive their sense of society or community from work, gym, golf club, parents’ association, shared school-run, pub. They do not look to their geographical neighbours for community. Against the background of this attitudinal shift, it is increasingly difficult to try to construct a community on the basis of a geographical parish – at best one might piece together a number of different communities that might coalesce on Christmas morning, but would feel very little in common for the rest of the year.

The challenge in many parishes today is to seek ways to create communities through worship, through journeys in spirituality, through issue-based groups, through new approaches. And it’s a challenge that’s facing the mission societies, for example. If our sense of mission, our sense of calling, is not a calling to, a mission to, society as it is today, but instead to a society that was and no longer is, then the Church and the mission societies have no mission at all.

We can’t do mission the way we once did it, because society and the world are no longer the way they were a generation, and certainly no longer the way they were a century or two centuries ago.

The changing economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Church and the European project

For decades, Ireland’s relations with the world were defined primarily by our cross-border relations, our relations with our nearest island neighbour, and then with areas that were once pink blobs on the map of the world.

Increasingly, our relations with the world are now being defined through our relations with the European Union. The debate about the Lisbon Treaty last year was one of the most vigorous debates about the European project in any EU member state.

How are we sharing with the other churches in Europe, and not just with the Church of England?

As a Church have we a challenge that has yet to be faced in the new Europe?

Have we an obligation, as part of one of the richest areas in the new Europe, to stand alongside the Churches in the new Europe, in countries like Romania and Bulgaria, where for most of the post-war decades they were legally prevented from developing their social witness and mission?

The Church and postmodernism

Today, Irish-born people in the younger generations are increasingly being influenced by post-modernist values. Many are no longer willing to be categorised by the old terminology of denominational labelling, and those who are still pick-and-mix in surprising ways. Many parts of Dublin have changed beyond recognition.

Many areas were changed and transformed socially by the affluence of recent decades, so that even the little cottages in Ringsend that once prided themselves on their unique working class heritage became bourgeois. Dublin is cosmopolitan and international, the people are transient, highly-educated, articulate and hedonistic. It is the opposite pole to traditional rural Ireland.

There is still a hunger for spirituality, but it’s not being met for many people by the traditional churches. How should the Church of Ireland respond to these new trends?

One Dublin rector said recently: “Things change and are changing so rapidly!” But he added that many of our churches in Dublin “are simply going to die because their membership will not allow them to evolve.”

How can the Church change in order to meet the changes and needs in our cities and towns?

Today, there are large numbers of new religious labels: there are 15,000-20,000 people who are members of the Eastern Orthodox Churches living in the Republic, and there are 20,000 or more Muslims living in the Republic. They present us with new challenges that call us to sustain and develop a coherent programme of dialogue and respect.

So much has changed in Ireland in the past decade or two that the Church of Ireland has to decide whether we need to change and evolve too. Otherwise, just as that Dublin rector warned about our parishes, we may die, or at least fade away, and find that our place in parishes and mission is taken by new instruments for mission that God will raise up.

Environmental challenges facing the Church

Apart from the challenges facing the Church of Ireland in the 21st century due to changes in Ireland, we also face challenges because of changes in the world. Thomas Aquinas once said that God dwells in the world in the same way as the soul dwells in the body. What about changes in God’s dwelling place that challenge us in the Church today?

In his Letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul talks of “Christ’s plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things in earth” (Ephesians 1: 7-12).

When God creates the earth, we are given dominion over creation, but not unfettered, unhindered, irresponsible dominion. Psalm 72 teaches us that the rest of creation is entrusted to us, not to exploit and destroy, but to rule with mercy, love and real for the concern for the welfare of all. We are made in the image and likeness of God, and so we must care for creation as God would care for it.

Global warming and the threat to the environment are not to be sidelined in the church as the concerns of environmentalists, economists, politicians, campaigners and social activists. They are legitimate theological concerns and challenges for the Church.

We read in Isaiah 11: 6-9:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
and the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The suckling child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand in the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.


We have similar visions of God’s care for the created order in the images of the heavenly city, of a new heaven and a new earth, in the Book of Revelation. It is a promise repeated in the Psalms, by the Prophets, in the Wisdom Literature.

In the Jewish Wisdom tradition, Solomon’s knowledge of flora and fauna, is a sign of his wisdom (I Kings 4: 33-36). The Book of Job teaches us that as humans we are not the only creatures on the divine agenda. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” Job is asked. “Who laid its cornerstones when the morning stars sang together?” (see Job 38: 4, 6-7).

The great Latin American liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez says Job 38 is a forceful rejection of a purely anthropocentric view of creation. The world of nature expresses the freedom and delight of God in creation.

The promise of the redemption of all creation, of course, is fulfilled with the coming of Jesus: “I have come that you may have life and have it to the full.” Christ is the first-born, he was before the world was created, and he is the one through whom all things were made. In every Greek church, usually in the Dome, there is an over-powering image of Christ as the Pantocrator, the one through whom all things were made.

Our concern for the environment and the creation is not dependent on some fashion about the latest ecological crisis, global warming or the latest environmental campaigning fashion. We are concerned about creation because we are entrusted with that care from the very beginning, we are concerned about the creation because it has all been made through Christ, and we are concerned about creation, the whole kosmos, because it too, like us, has been made in the image and likeness of God.

The 17th century Anglican poet and hymn writer George Herbert (1593-1632) saw God reflected in Creation. In The Elixir, he wrote:

Teach me, my God and King,
in all things thee to see;
and what I do in any thing,
to do it as for thee.


[Hymn 601, Irish Church Hymnal]

Unfortunately, the Church for too long abandoned care for creation to the romantic poets, to our hymn writers, and to the mystics, such as John Keble, who wrote There is a book, or Robert Grant, who wrote O Worship the King.

A generation ago, in 1978, the Lambeth Conference resolved: “We must direct our efforts to the achievement for a kind of society where the economy is not based on waste, but stewardship, not on consumerism but on conservation, one concerned not only with work but with the right use of leisure. We may need to contemplate a paradox – an increasing use of appropriate technology, while returning, where possible, to many of the values of pre-industrial society.”

Twenty years ago, Archbishop Robert Runcie of Canterbury said prophetically in 1989: “The conviction that nature does not exist simply and solely for the benefit of humankind ... is becoming increasingly widespread and articulate. Because it finds its true source at such deep levels of the human spirit, it must, I think, be called a religious conviction. But it is not a conviction unique to any one religion in particular, and it is shared by some who would profess no religion at all.”

Today, environmental change may be the greatest threat and greatest challenge facing the world. It is a challenge that demands a change in attitude and change in priorities for the church at every level, from general synod to select vestry. It is a challenge that demands change. Bu are prepared, first, to consider what that change might be like, and, secondly, to make those necessary changes?

The rain forests are being destroyed not because the poor in Latin America can't look after their environment, but because the rich in North America and Europe demand hard woods in our homes and offices, hotels and pubs, and demand more grazing land for cattle so we can have cheap hamburgers in McDonalds.

Tropical rainforests cover 6% of the Earth’s surface, but provide a home for 90% of its species. Yet the tropical rainforests are being destroyed at a rate of 63,000 square miles a year, two areas the size of Ireland each year, removing important species, forgetting the important role forests play in storing and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

We get cheap furniture, wrapping paper and energy from trees in the Third World, and then, each year, the average family throws away 88 lb of glass and over 500 cans: 1.6 million tonnes of Irish domestic and commercial waste each year, and no realistic programme of recycling.

The Anglican Consultative Council’s five points in the definition of mission for Anglicans include: “To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the earth.”

The Church is and must be concerned: concerned because it is God’s creation, concerned because we are destroying creation, which is God’s image, concerned because it runs contrary to Biblical teaching.

At the Eucharist of the Holy Communion, we celebrate the work of Christ on the Cross, which was reconciling all of creation to God, and pray for the coming of His Kingdom, which involves the restoration of creation.

A former Patriarch of Constantinople put it this way about twenty years ago: “Just as the priest at the Eucharist offers the fullness of creation and receives it back as the blessing of Grace in the form of the consecrated bread and wine, to share with others, so we must be the channel through which God’s grace and deliverance is shared with all creation. The human being is simply yet gloriously the means for the expression of creation in its fullness and the coming of God's deliverance for all creation.”

The reason the threats to the environment should challenge us is not just because it is a nice, comfortable or safe issue, but because it’s what God calls us to, what we as the Church pray for in our life as the Church.

Some Reading:

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

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

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