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?

Introduction:

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

Hoddesdon’s churches and parishes

The Clock Tower in Hoddesdon Town Centre stands on the site of the former Saint Katharine’s Chapel, with the parish church in the background to the left (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The annual conference and council meeting of the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG – Anglicans in World Mission) – continues today at the High Leigh Conference Centre, in the beautiful English countryside of Hertfordshire. Yesterday, I had an opportunity to stroll around the town, and a few of the Irish delegates went back into Hoddesdon last night.

The parish church of Saint Catherine and Saint Paul in Hoddesdon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

High Leigh is on the fringes of the commuter town of Hoddesdon, where the parish church of Saint Catherine and Saint Paul in Paul’s Lane has a thriving congregation, with the Revd Jeremy Brooks as its vicar. There are 220 people on the electoral roll, and each week between 120 and 150 adults and children take part in the main Sunday morning service.

Jeremy has been the Vicar of Hoddesdon for the last eight years. A former solicitor, he is the author of a number of collections of children’s prayers, the latest of which, Let there be Peace, was published earlier this year. His wife, the Revd Dorothy Moore Brooks, was ordained 10 years ago. She is the associate minister, chaplain at Isabel Hospice, and oversees the Bereavement Support Group. The Revd Vanessa Parr joined the parish of Saint Catherine and Saint Paul as curate a year ago. She has worked for Crisis, the homelessness charity, and Christian Aid, as a fundraiser.

The East Window in Hoddesdon Parish Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The parish is in the Diocese of St Alban’s, where the Right Revd Dr Alan Gregory Clayton Smith is due to be enthroned as bishop on 19 September next. Bishop Smith is a former Bishop of Shrewsbury and Diocesan Missioner for the Diocese of Lichfield. Saint Alban’s feastday fell yesterday, and we remembered the martyr in our prayers during the USPG conference.

Saint Katharine’s ... before it was demolished

At one time, Hoddesdon was divided between the parishes of Broxbourne and Great Amwell, with the boundary between the two parishes running through an archway in the High Street. The first church in the town was a chapel of ease built by William de la Marche in 1336. Saint Katharine’s Chapel, which was used by pilgrims to Walsingham, survived until it was demolished in the 17th century, and the tower survived until 1836. A more recent clock tower stands on the site.

Meanwhile, a chapel of ease, dedicated to Saint Paul, was built in 1732 by Robert Plomer, a local businessman. Some say Plomer only built the chapel to annoy the Vicar of Broxbourne. However, it appears his church was never used as a place of worship and it soon fell into disrepair.

The Revd Thomas Pickthall was the first priest appointed to the parish – as late as 1823. With Pickthall’s appointment, Hodesdon became a parish in its own right. The new parish grew as the population of the town grew in the 19th century. To match this period of growth in the Victorian era, the church was extended to include two transepts and a chancel at the eastern end.

In 1976, a further reordering the church was carried out under the Revd Percy Gandon, blending together the Georgian and Victorian parts of the building.

Meanwhile, the archway through which the old parish dividing line once ran was demolished in the 1960s. A specially inscribed stone was set into the pavement marking the boundary, and a new clock house was built on the site of Saint Katharine’s Chapel. The present name of the parish church also keeps alive the memory of the old chapel.

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