Sunday, 28 February 2010

The Second Sunday of Lent

Saint Gregory Palamas ... commemorated on the Second Sunday of Lent

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Second Sunday of Lent. This year, the days of Lent and Easter fall on the same dates in the calendars of the Western Church and the Orthodox Church.

Last week, I was discussing how the First Sunday of Lent in the Orthodox tradition celebrates the Triumph of Orthodoxy. The Second Sunday of Lent follows that theme through by commemorating Saint Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), whose views eventually triumphed in a 14th century theological dispute over ascetic practices on Mount Athos.

Saint Gregory Palamas (Γρηγόριος Παλαμάς), who ended his days as Archbishop of Thessaloniki, was a monk on Mount Athos at the monasteries of Vatopedi and Esphigmenou. His principal feast day is on 14 November.

Saint Gregory Palamas began his monastic life on Mount Athos in the Monastery of Vatopedi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Gregory was probably born in Constantinople in 1296 into a noble Anatolian family. His father was a courtier of the Byzantine Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos (1282-1328). Gregory was still a small boy when his father died, and the child was raised by the Emperor, who hoped that the gifted Gregory would become a courtier and imperial official. Saint Gregory received his secular philosophical education from Theodore Metochites.

From his youth, he was attracted to the monastic life, and he successfully persuaded his brothers and sisters, along with his widowed mother, to take up the monastic life.

Saint Gregory Palamas was a monk on Mount Athos at both Vatopedi and Esphigmenou (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Around 1318, Gregory and his two brothers went to Mount Athos, and there they learned at first-hand the traditional hesychastic way of contemplative prayer. As advancing Turkish forces moved closer, Gregory fled to Thessaloniki, and he was ordained priest there in 1326.

Eventually he returned to Mount Athos in 1331, and was a monk in both Vatopedi and Esphigmenou. Six years later, he became involved in a controversy on Mount Athos, defending his fellow monks against an attack by Barlaam, a Greek monk from Calabria in Italy. Barlaam valued the philosophers, education and learning more than contemplative prayer. He stated the unknowability of God in an extreme form, and said the monks on Mount Athos were wasting their time in contemplative prayer.

When Saint Gregory criticised Barlaam’s rationalism, Barlaam replied with a vicious attack on the hesychastic life of the Athonite monks. Saint Gregory’s rebuttal, the Triads in Defence of the Holy Hesychasts (ca 1338), was a brilliant work and was affirmed by his fellow Hagiorites, who met in a council in 1340-1341 and issued the Hagioritic Tome, supporting Saint Gregory’s theology.

Contrary to Barlaam, Saint Gregory asserted that the prophets in fact had greater knowledge of God, because they had actually seen or heard God himself. Addressing the question of how it is possible for us to have knowledge of a transcendent and unknowable God, he drew a distinction between knowing God in his essence (ουσία) and knowing God in his energies (ενέργειαι).

He maintained the Orthodox doctrine that it remains impossible to know God in his essence (God in himself), but possible to know God in his energies (to know what God does, and who he is in relation to the creation and to man), as God reveals himself to humanity. In doing so, he made reference to the Cappadocian Fathers and other early Christian writers.

Saint Gregory further asserted that when the Apostles Peter, James and John witnessed the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor, that they were in fact seeing the uncreated light of God; and that it is possible for others to be granted to see that same uncreated light of God with the help of repentance, spiritual discipline and contemplative prayer, although not in any automatic or mechanistic fashion.

He continually stressed the Biblical vision of the human person as a united whole, both body and soul. Thus, he argued, the physical side of hesychastic prayer was an integral part of the contemplative monastic way, and that the claim by some of the monks of seeing the uncreated light was indeed legitimate. Like Saint Simeon the New Theologian, he also laid great stress in his spiritual teaching on the vision of the divine light.

A synod in Constantinople in 1341 also supported Saint Gregory’s views, condemning Barlaam. Later, in 1344, the opponents of hesychasm secured a condemnation for heresy and excommunication for Gregory. Gregory’s opponents in the Hesychast controversy spread slanderous accusations against him, and in 1344 Patriarch John XIV jailed him for four years. However, when Patriarch Isidore came to the Ecumenical Throne in 1347, Gregory was released from prison and consecrated as the Metropolitan of Thessaloniki.

The saint’s theology was affirmed again and again at two further synods in Constantinople in 1347 and 1351.

Collectively, these three synods in Constantinople are held by many Orthodox Christians and several theologians to constitute the Ninth Ecumenical Council. Between the latter two synods, Saint Gregory wrote the One Hundred and Fifty Chapters, a concise exposition of his theology.

In 1347, he was consecrated Archbishop of Thessaloniki, but the political climate made it impossible for him to take up his see until 1350. During a voyage to the Imperial capital, he was captured by the Turks and held in captivity for over a year. He died on 14 November 1359; his dying words were: “To the heights! To the heights!”

He was subsequently proclaimed a saint of the Orthodox Church in 1368 by Patriarch Philotheos of Constantinople.

Besides the Triads in Defence of the Holy Hesychasts (c. 1338) and the One Hundred and Fifty Chapters (c. 1347-1351), numerous homilies by Saint Gregory also survive. Substantial passages from his writings are also collected in the Philokalia. The bulk of his work has still to be translated.

The Metropolitan Church of Saint Gregory Palamas, Thessaloniki, where the relics of Saint Gregory Palamas are kept

Troparion (Tone 8)

O light of Orthodoxy, teacher of the Church, its confirmation,
O ideal of monks and invincible champion of theologians,
O wonder-working Gregory, glory of Thessaloniki and preacher of grace,
always intercede before the Lord that our souls may be saved

Kontakion (Tone 4)

Now has come the time to work:
at the door stands the judge.
Let us arise and fast,
offering with tears of shame,
joined with almsgiving,
as we cry out:
“Our sins are more
than the sands of the sea.
But set us free,
Creator of all,
for imperishable crowns.”

Kontakion (Tone 8)

Holy and divine instrument of wisdom,
joyful trumpet of theology,
together we sing your praises,
O God-inspired Gregory.
Since you now stand before the Original Mind,
guide our minds to him, O Father,
so that we may sing to you:
“Rejoice, preacher of grace.”

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Remembering George Herbert, poet, pastor, priest

George Herbert, poet, pastor and priest, remembered in the Anglican calendar on 27 February

Patrick Comerford

At the end of today’s seminar for the course leading to the Archbishop’s Certificate in Theology, we celebrated the Eucharist in the Lady Chapel in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

In the Eucharist we remembered George Herbert (1593-1633); although he died on 1 March 1633, George Herbert is remembered in Church calendars throughout the Anglican Communion on 27 February.

Herbert was born in Montgomery in Wales into an artistic, aristocratic family, and was educated at Trinity College Cambridge, where he excelled in languages and music. Initially he had intended to proceed to ordination, but he stayed on in Cambridge as Reader (Lecturer) in Rhetoric and as university orator.

The Backs at Trinity College Cambridge, where George Herbert was an undergraduate and later a fellow

From 1624, he was MP for Montgomeryshire and was attached to court of King James I. Eventually, he gave up all secular and political ambition and was ordained at the age of 37 in 1630. He spent his final years in south Wiltshire as Rector of Fugglestone St Peter with Bemerton Saint Peter, a little parish in the Diocese of Salisbury.

There he preached, wrote poetry, and helped to rebuild the church from his own pocket. He was unfailing in his pastoral care for his parishioners, bringing the sacraments to them when they were ill, and providing food and clothing for those in need.

Today, he is best remembered as a writer of poems, especially the collection The Temple (1633), and his hymns, including Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life, King of Glory, King of Peace and Let all the World in Every Corner Sing.

George Herbert also wrote The Country Parson, offering practical advice to clergy. In it, he advises priests that “things of ordinary use,” such as ploughs, leaven, or dances, could be made to serve for lights even of Heavenly Truths.”

On his deathbed, he gave the manuscript of The Temple to Nicholas Ferrar, who founded the religious community at Little Gidding, asking him to publish it or to burn it.

An example of George Herbert’s religious poetry is The Altar. The poem itself is shaped like an altar, and this altar becomes his concept for how one should offer himself as a sacrifice to the Lord. He also makes allusions to scripture, such as Psalm 51:17, where it says that what the Lord requires is the sacrifice of a broken heart and a contrite spirit.

At the end of today’s seminar and lectures, it was good to remember George Herbert, poet, pastor and priest, at the altar.


King of glory, king of peace,
who called your servant George Herbert
from the pursuit of worldly honours
to be a priest in the temple of his God and king:
grant us also the grace to offer ourselves
with singleness of heart in humble obedience to your service;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Post-Communion Prayer:

God, shepherd of your people,
whose servant George Herbert revealed the loving service of Christ
in his ministry as a pastor of your people:
by this Eucharist in which we share
awaken within us the love of Christ
and keep us faithful to our Christian calling;
through him who laid down his life for us,
but is alive and reigns with you, now and for ever. Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

The Changing Profile of the Church of Ireland (3): Interfaith Dialogue

I was born a few doors away from Terenure Synagogue on Rathfarnham Road, Dublin

The Changing Profile of the Church of Ireland (3): Interfaith Dialogue

Patrick Comerford

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin: Saturday 27 February 2010, 11.30 a.m.

When I was growing up, the only significant non-Christian faith minority in Ireland was the Jewish community.

The synagogue on South Terrace, Cork … there has been a Jewish presence in Ireland for centuries

There has been a Jewish presence in Ireland for centuries, although the present community is by-and-large the outgrowth of immigrants and refugees who arrived in Ireland from the former Tsarist empire – the present day Baltic states, Poland, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine – in the late 19th century.

So, the presence of religious minorities in Ireland has an intimate link with the arrival of immigrants and refugees on this island.

Many generations of Dubliners knew the area of redbrick side-streets off Clanbrassil Street as Little Jerusalem. But it was a matter of pride that this was part of the mosaic that made Irish identity.

Leopold Bloom was born at 52 Upper Clanbrassil Street, in the heart of Dublin’s “Little Jerusalem” and two doors down from the Comerford home mentioned in James Joyce’s Ulysses (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In a terrace of houses on the east side of Upper Clanbrassil Street, between Leonard’s Corner and Harold’s Cross Bridge, there is a house with a plaque claiming that this was the birthplace of Leopold Bloom, the hero of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

It is a tribute to the early integration, without assimilation, of such a wonderful religious minority that Joyce should have bequeathed to modern literature a Jew, baptised into the Church of Ireland and married to a Roman Catholic, as the archetypal Irishman.

The first Jewish senator in this state was the Countess of Desart, who lived in Co Kilkenny. Since then, all the major political parties have had Jewish TDs: the Briscoes in Fianna Fail, Alan Shatter in Fine Gael, and Mervyn Taylor in the Labour Party.

The Jewish community has made many other important cultural and political contributions to Irish life: think of artists like Harry Kernoff from Dublin, film-makers like Louis Lentin from Limerick, writers like David Marcus from Cork, who died last year, writer and academic Ronit Lentin, politicians such as Chaim Herzog, the Chief Rabbi’s son from Dublin who became President of Israel, or the late Professor Jacob Weingreen, who as Professor of Hebrew in TCD played a role in educating many clergy in the Church of Ireland and has given his name to the Weingreen Museum in TCD.

By the 1960s and 1970s, the Muslim presence in Dublin was becoming more visible too – indeed, there had been Muslims in Ireland since at least the 18th century, if not earlier, but they only became identifiable as a community in the late 1960s or early 1970s.

More visible at that time, perhaps because they were more exotic too – were groups like the “Hare Krishnas” – although, at the time, we were never quite sure whether they were accepted by other Hindus.

With a group of visiting Buddhist monks from Japan at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin in October 1980 (Photograph: Tom Lawlor/The Irish Times)

This may even have been so by the early 1980s. I remember at the time a group of Buddhist monks from Japan visiting Ireland on a peace pilgrimage. As I put them on a bus to Donegal, where they were going to protest against plans for uranium mining, dressed in their flowing saffron robes and banging their dharma drums, a passer-by called out: “Hey Harry, Hey Harry.”

Anyone religious in exotic robes still had to be a “Hare Krishna”!

But things have moved apace since then. Apart from Jews and Muslims, the non-Christian faith communities in Ireland include Sikhs, Bahais, Buddhists, Hindus and many other groups.

But we cannot have a one-approach-suits-all attitude to interfaith dialogue. I would not like to be trapped into suggesting that the alternative is a hierarchy of faiths with which we have dialogue. But there is a need for different approaches to monotheistic faiths of the Abrahamic tradition, other monotheistic faiths, and non-monotheistic faiths.

Monotheistic dialogue:

The dialogue between Christians and our dialogue with other faith traditions is different in expectations, and therefore in approach.

Dialogue between Christians assumes we share the same Gospel, and some basic understandings about membership of the Body of Christ. We seek common ground on shared Scriptures, and from an Anglican perspective we hope that unity around the Word of God and the sacraments of ordained by Christ will lead to some form of visible inter-communion and unity of fellowship in the future.

We are not seeking unity with Judaism or Islam. Jews, generally speaking, do not want us to become Jews. Muslims, on the other hand, are open about Islam being a missionary religion, and generally see dialogue as a means towards conversion.

What do you think is the purpose of dialogue with non-monotheistic faiths and traditions?

Jewish-Christian dialogue:

For Christians, there must be an open, generous and humble approach to our dialogue with the Jewish community.

The following pointers are important as examples:

● There is no difference between the “Old Testament God” and the “New Testament God” – this is the heresy of Marcion. The God Jesus worshipped in the Temple and in the synagogues is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

● In dialogue we must avoid terms such as “Old Testament” and “New Testament” – the Hebrew Scriptures remain Holy Scriptures for Jews, and are neither old nor new. They interpret them in their own way, and we must not treat them as a mere prelude or prologue to the New Testament.

● We must be comfortable yet respectful in visiting synagogues. If Jesus prayed in synagogues, then so too can I.

The whole of Europe, and not just Germany, must share the responsibility for the Holocaust. Louis Lentin has made a television film on how Ireland turned away thousands of German Jewish refugees in the 1930s.

● We must not allow criticism of Israel’s current policies to cast a shadow over Jewish-Christian dialogue. Many Jews – including many in Ireland and Israel – are critical of the policies of the present Israeli government. But friends offer the best criticism; bigots never listen or expect to be listened to.

Visit a synagogue, not as a spectator, but respectfully, prayerfully, with a humble and learning attitude. True theological dialogue always begins with real human dialogue.

There is a great variety in expressions of Judaism, just as there are of Christianity. Don’t imagine that all Jews are Orthodox, or Liberal or Progressive, or secular …

Muslim-Christian dialogue:

al-Faitah, the opening Surah of the Quran

Although Muslims in Ireland do not form one single ethnic minority, Islam has already become the third largest faith grouping in our society, with the number of Muslims equal to – if not greater than – the combined figures for our Methodist and Presbyterian neighbours.

Today, there are between 20,000 and 30,000 Muslims in Ireland. The majority of Muslim women and children in Ireland are Irish-born, as are many of the men. Many of the other Muslims in Ireland are European by birth – from Britain, France, Turkey, Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania, France and Germany.

Some Muslims in Ireland come from Arabic-speaking countries, including Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Palestine, Iraq and Morocco. But many are not Arabs, and the other countries of origin among members of the Muslim community in Ireland include Pakistan, India, Iran, Malaysia, China and Indonesia, which is the largest Muslim country in the world.

The depth and scope of anti-Islamic feeling since the 9/11 attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001 is so strong in many places that it is akin to racism and is now known generally as “Islamaphobia.”

Many of our Muslim neighbours wonder how they can be the victims of such hatred from people who call themselves Christian, and they point to the many similarities between Christianity and Islam, including belief in one God, belief in his prophets, among whom they count Jesus Christ, and belief in God’s revelation through Scripture, including the Torah the first five books of the Bible), the Psalms and the Gospels.

The mosque in Clonskeagh is the largest centre of Muslim worship in Ireland

But we need to be careful and thoughtful in our approaches to dialogue with Muslims. Consider these questions:

● Do Christians and Muslims worship the same one God?

● How ought you respond to an invitation to pray when you visit a mosque?

● Is it appropriate to invite Muslims to pray or take part in a reading at an ecumenical church service, or, for example, at a funeral or wedding?

● How ought I read the Quran?

● Are there lessons we can learn from the faith practices of Muslims?

● Is a marriage between a Muslim and a Christian possible? What are the difficulties.

Dialogue with other monotheistic faiths

Both Sikhs and Bahais say that they too worship the same God as the God worshipped by Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Many Sikhs in Ireland tell me that because of their turbans they have been confused with Muslims, so that they too have been the victims of “Islamaphobia.”

● Can I eat the meal offered to me when I visit a Sikh temple?

● Are Sikhs and Bahais part of the Abrahamic family of faiths?

Dialogue with non-monotheistic faiths

The Dalai Lama and the Archbishop of Canterbury in Lambeth Palace two years ago

Non-monotheistic faiths are not necessarily polytheistic faiths. And it is very difficult to be specific when it comes to dialogue in this field.

When Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western civilisation, he said he thought it would be a good idea. When he was asked why he had never become a Christian, it is said he replied that he had never met one.

I know that some Hindus says they are monotheists, many have a deep love of Jesus Christ, and some may even be happy to consider receiving Holy Communion in church.

Nor are all members of non-monotheistic faith communities necessarily polytheists. For example some Buddhists describe themselves as atheists. One Buddhist monk told me that in our efforts to define God in Christian theological terms we were in danger of creating idols in our own image and likeness. And he challenged me to consider that the “no-God” he spoke of may be the same as God in the apophatic tradition in Orthodox theology or in the Via Negativa of theologians such as Saint John of the Cross.

Ask yourself these questions:

● Can you eat in a “Hare Krishna” restaurant?

● What honour or respect should be given to a religious leader such as the Dalai Lama?

● Can a Hindu who says she/he loves Christ take part in a Christian service?

● Can a Christian practice Zen mediation?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This paper is based on notes prepared for a lecture on the Archbishop’s Certificate in Theology course in Christ Church Cathedral on 27 February 2010

The Changing Profile of the Church of Ireland (2): Five Bible studies

Patrick Comerford

Bible Study 1:

The Hospitality of Abraham (Genesis 18: 1-15):

Abraham is the great patriarch of the Old Testament, and his story is a key story in the Hebrew Bible. Abraham began life as a stranger and a wandering Aramean (Genesis 12; Deuteronomy 26: 5), and his journey from Haran in modern Turkey to Bethel in Canaan was an epic journey (see Genesis 12: 1-9).

In his old age, Abraham finds himself one day sitting at the door of his tent, in the heat of the day. And unexpectedly he finds himself welcoming three strangers by the oaks of Mamre. He takes good care of them, he sits them down, he washes their feet, he brings them food and drink, and Sarah and Abraham find that in welcoming these strangers they are entertaining angels and receiving God as their guest. Sometimes the guests are referred to in the plural, but sometimes the story uses the singular form when we are told the Lord is appearing to Abraham, as Abraham addresses “My Lord” and as we are told the Lord spoke.

As a consequence, God makes a promise to Sarah that at first seems laughable and unbelievable. But this is a key story in the unfolding of God’s plans for all of humanity and all of creation.

This story is traditionally depicted in Orthodox iconography as a visit not by strangers or angels, but a visit by the Triune God. Hospitality is no mere human transaction – “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.”

This story has resonances of the many meals Jesus will have strangers in the New Testament, and an anticipation of the heavenly meal in the world to come. The promise to Sarah also anticipates the promise to Mary, one an old woman beyond the age of expecting a child, the other a young woman too young to expect a child.

The story is reflected in the New Testament in the Letter to Hebrews: “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for in doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13: 1-2).

Points for discussion:

This story brings together several strands of thinking about the stranger than recur again and again throughout the Bible. The promise to the Patriarchs is a promise with universal significance; the command to love is a command not just to love God and to love our neighbour, but to love the stranger and the alien too; there are no ethnic boundaries in the kingdom.

How welcome is the stranger in my church on a Sunday morning, or in my home?

How would I feel when, just as I was looking for a moment’s peace and quiet, I was disturbed by the arrival of three strangers?

How far does my hospitality extend?

How seriously do I listen to what strangers have to say to me?

Bible Study 2:

Joseph and the immigrants (Genesis 41):

Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s Dream (Arthur Reginald, 1894)

This story provides the Lectionary readings for Morning Prayer today [27 February], verses 1-24, and for Morning Prayer on Monday [1 March]. It is a story that is full of strangers. Joseph, who has been sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers, begins his life as a slave, as a stranger, as a foreigner and an immigrant. It was not his choice to end up in Egypt, but then how many immigrants or refugees came to Ireland not by choice design but due to circumstances beyond their control?

In the story of Joseph in Egypt, we read: “They served him by himself, and them by themselves, because the Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination to the Egyptians” (Genesis 43: 32). Nevertheless, Joseph rises to a position of privilege and power, and the man who was once an outsider becomes an insider, the man who was once a stranger now becomes known to all in power.

By means of his gifts, Egypt prepares well during seven years of plenty for seven years of famine that follow, and the man who was once a poor stranger and who arrived without anything he could call his own and who became a prisoner now becomes a blessing to the country in which he had found himself.

Later on, long after the events in this passage, we read that a king arose in Egypt who “did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1: 8). This Pharaoh claimed the foreigners were becoming too many and planned to exterminate them (Exodus 1-2). He made life miserable for them, withholding the necessary materials while forcing them to make bricks. God hears their cry and heeds their suffering, and desires their freedom. But even then, they spend another forty years as wanderers and strangers in the wilderness.

Points for discussion:

Read the story of Joseph in Genesis. Ask whether you know anyone who has arrived in this country penniless and without a choice of where they were going.

Can you imagine someone who came to this country as a stranger but became a blessing?

Can you think of people who left Ireland due to circumstances beyond their control but who became a blessing to their new home country?

To help stimulate this discussion, you might think of Saint Patrick who came to Ireland first as a slave but later returned as a missionary, Eamon de Valera who was born in New York but became President of Ireland; or the many Irish emigrants in America whose family rose to fame, such as the Kennedys; or immigrants who later went home again and became a blessing to their own country, such as Kader Asmal who became a South African cabinet minister.

Joseph was forced to eat on his own because the Egyptians believed that to eat with the stranger would be defiling. Have the new strangers in our midst found themselves welcome in the homes you know?

Discuss also how you enjoy the new ethnic restaurants and take-away outlets in your area. When you go there, do you ever ask the people who work there where they come from?

Are they welcome in your church?

Are their children welcome in your school?

Can you imagine the modern equivalent of foreigners being forced to make bricks with straw?

You might like to consider the wages offered to East European building workers on some sites, or talk to some of the Chinese students working late hours in a local supermarket or filling station.

Try to write an imaginary conversation between a would-be refugee or an illegal immigrant trying to justify a right of entry to immigration officers at the airport or a port.

Bible Study 3: Ruth

Ruth and Naomi ... a modern icon

The Book of Ruth is a compact story of an uprooted family. Elimelech from Bethlehem and his wife Naomi emigrate to Moab, bringing their two sons with them. Eventually Naomi finds herself a widow in a strange land, and when both her sons die she is left dependent on two foreign daughters-in-law. One daughter-in-law, Orpah, returns to her own family, but the other daughter-in-law, Ruth, clings to her mother-in-law, telling Naomi: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people will be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1: 16).

Naomi and Ruth were destitute when they arrived in Bethlehem. Naomi is known to few people there, and the two widows find themselves poor strangers and exiles in a strange land. The system of gleaning, which allows the poor to garner some food from the corners of the fields at harvest time, allows Ruth to gather food for both of them. And while she is gleaning, she meets Boaz and they marry. Two women who were exiles and strangers come to a new-found prosperity. Ruth gives birth to a son Obed, who is the grandfather of David, and the ancestor of Jesus. The stranger finds sympathy and love, and the love shown to the stranger becomes a blessing not just for Israel but for the whole world.

Points for discussion:

What issues does the story raise?

Try to imagine the story in today’s setting, with a family leaving Ireland and returning with a “foreign wife” or a family coming here and, beset by tragedy, returning home.

How do we respond those strangers in our midst who come to our doors asking for the gleanings of the field?

How do you feel about the Roma women selling or begging with her children?

What would have happened to God’s plan of salvation if Ruth had decided not to go back to Bethlehem with Naomi, if Boaz had said no to Ruth’s request, if Ruth had never married again?

Bible Study 4: The healing of a woman’s daughter (Matthew 15: 21-28, or Mark 7: 24-30).

The Syro-Phoenician Woman ... a modern icon by Brother Robert Lentz, OFM

After a very trying and busy time, Jesus tries to find some rest and quiet in the area of Tyre and Sidon – in territory associated with Elijah, the prophet who, in Kieran O’Mahony’s words, “was markedly, even offensively, open to foreigners.” his plans to retreat into hiding are frustrated when a woman from the region comes to him with very pressing demands.

In Saint Matthew’s account she is a Canaanite woman; in Saint Mark’s telling of the story she is a Greek or Syro-Phoenician woman. In either case, she is a Gentile, a stranger, a foreigner, a Greek-speaker and a woman. Her religion, language, nationality and gender put her beyond the compassion of the disciples.

But Jesus refuses every effort to send her away. She is direct and aggressive in demanding healing and justice. And in demanding justice and healing for her daughter, she is demanding them for herself too.

The dialogue between this woman and Jesus must have sounded crude and aggressive. She is a pushy woman, who forces herself into the house and with a touch of melodrama throws herself at the feet of Jesus, demanding he should heal his daughter. But Jesus appears to speak with contempt: he compares his fellow Jews with as “little children,” while Gentiles are compared with dogs. Dogs were then regarded as unclean animals, and as the time it was a popular teaching that dogs were the only animals to be excluded with certainty from heaven.

The woman responds, perhaps with wry humour, with an image of children playing with puppy dogs, away from adult view, under the table. Jesus appreciates this encounter: her insistence on meeting Jesus face-to-face, her refusal to be oppressed because of ethnicity, religion, language or gender, as well as her forthright way of speaking and her subliminal but humorous comparisons are al part of the drama in this story

And this combination produces results. In Saint Mark’s Gospel, Jesus responds to her demands and, as a consequence, when she returns home she finds her child has been healed. In Saint Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus goes further – he commends her for her faith and her daughter is healed instantly.

Points for discussion:

The confrontation between this woman and Jesus, the way they enter dialogue with each other, and the consequences of that dialogue are important when we consider how we deal with strangers and foreigners.

Do we find them pushy and demanding? How do we respond when the foreign woman in our society wants the same treatment in hospital as Irish-born children?

How do we respond when foreigners who are more open and joyful in conversation, appear to be encroaching on our privacy on the bus, on the street or in a shop?

Are we like the Disciple, and want to send them away?

Or are we like Jesus, and engage in conversation with them?

Do we think we have some privileges that should not be shared with the outsider and the stranger?

Bible Study 5: The Samaritan woman at the well (John 4):

Saint Photini ... the Samaritan woman at the well

The Samaritans are religious and cultural outsiders for the Jewish people in the New Testament period. Although these two people share the same land, the Samaritans are strangers and outsiders. Although they share faith in the same God and share the same Torah (the first five books of the Bible), the Samaritans are seen as having a different religion. Jesus tries to break down those barriers. The Good Samaritan is not a stranger but is the very best example of a good neighbour (Luke 10: 29-37). Among the Ten Lepers who are healed, only the Samaritan returns to give thanks, and this “foreigner” is praised for his faith (Luke 17: 11-19).

In this story in Saint John’s Gospel, which was the Gospel reading for Sunday last (the Third Sunday in Lent), the Disciples are already doing something unusual: they have gone into the city to buy food; but this is no ordinary city – this is a Samaritan city, and any food they might buy from Samaritans is going to be unclean according to Jewish ritual standards. While the Disciples are in Sychar, Jesus sits down by Jacob’s Well, and begins talking with a Samaritan woman who comes to the well for water. And their conversation becomes a model for how we respond to the stranger in our midst, whether they are foreigners or people of a different religion or culture.

Jesus presents the classical Jewish perception of what Samaritans believe and how they worship. The Samaritans accepted only the first five books of the Bible – the Pentateuch or Torah – as revealed scripture. For their part, Jews of the day pilloried this Samaritan refusal to accept more than the first five books of the Bible by claiming the Samaritans worshipped not one the one God revealed in the five books but five gods. Jesus alludes to this – with a sense of humour – when he says the woman had five husbands.

In other circumstances, a Jewish man would have refused to talk to a Samaritan woman or to accept a drink form her hands; any self-respecting Samaritan woman would have felt she had been slighted by these comments and walked away immediately. Instead, the two continue in their dialogue: they talk openly and humorously with one another, and listen to one another. Jesus gets to know the woman and she gets to know Jesus. All dialogue involves both speaking and listening – speaking with the expectation that we will be heard, and listening honestly to what the other person is saying rather than listening to what our prejudices tell us they ought to say.

When the Disciples arrive back, they are filled with a number of questions but are so shocked by what is happening before them that they remain silent. Their silence reflects their inability to reach out to the stranger. But there are other hints at their failure and their prejudices: the woman gives and receives water as she and Jesus talk, but they fail to return with bread for Jesus to eat and they fail to feed into the conversation about faith and about life. They are still questioning and unable to articulate their faith, but the woman at least recognises Jesus as a Prophet. They made no contact with the people in Sychar, but she rushes back to tell the people there about Jesus. No one in the city was brought to Jesus by the disciples, but many Samaritans listened to what the woman had to say.

Points for discussion:

The conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is a model for all our encounters with people we see as different or as strangers.

Am I like the Disciples, and too hesitant to go over and engage in conversation with the stranger who is at the same well, in the same shop, at the same bus stop?

If am going to enter into conversation with the stranger, am I open to listening to them, to talking openly and honestly with them about where they come from and what they believe?

When the conversation is over, will they remain strangers?

How open am I to new friendships?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. These Bible Study notes were prepared for a study session on the Archbishop’s Certificate in Theology course in Christ Church Cathedral on 27 February 2010.

The Changing Profile of the Church of Ireland (1): challenges and benefits

The changing face of Ireland? Polish magazines on sale in a shop in Capel Street, Dublin (Photograph Frank Millar/The Irish Times, 2009)

The Changing Profile of the Church of Ireland (1): The challenges and benefits of intercultural parishes and an intercultural church

Saturday 27 February 2010 (9.30 to 11 a.m): Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

Patrick Comerford

This morning’s programme:

Part 1:
In our first session this morning, I have been invited to introduce you to the changing profile of the Church of Ireland and the challenges and benefits that this brings in terms of intercultural parishes and an intercultural church.

Part 2: In the second part of this session, I hope we can break into some small groups for Bible studies, looking at some key passages that can be used in parish settings, for example, to guide us through some of the issues raised.

Part 3: Later this morning, I hope that the topic of inter-faith dialogue from an Anglican perspective. This will then be followed by panel discussion on the dialogue that is actually taking place at this stage.

Part 1: The challenges and benefits of intercultural parishes and an intercultural church


The downturn in the economy over the past two or three years has seen a large number of immigrants who came to the Republic of Ireland from Eastern Europe, and who worked here as casual labourers, begin to return home. They will not show up in the rising unemployment figures, and once they are gone no-one is going to follow up their needs, pastorally, economically or socially. It will be a case of “out of sight, out of mind.”

Those who remain may, I fear, as the “real” unemployment figures rise further, face increasing resentment that will be expressed in racist terms. The jobs that were once despised, and left to Chinese workers who came here on “student” visas, are becoming attractive once again to our own teenage and young adult children – the late night grille at fillings stations, the cleaning and casual labouring shifts, the stacking and shelving jobs in the middle of the night in supermarkets.

These are major moral issues for the Church today. Any outside observer or commentator looking at the Church of Ireland and the Anglican Communion over the past two years would have thought the only moral issues we face are those that dominated the agenda at Gafcon and the Lambeth Conference in the summer of 2008.

But what about the major moral issues facing us in the Church today when it comes to welcoming the stranger in our midst and to providing pastoral care and support for our new immigrants?

The ‘stranger’ in Ireland today

Preaching on Racial Justice Sunday in Saint George’s and Saint Thomas’s Church in inner city Dublin

The statistics analysing the 2006 census returns in the Republic of Ireland produced unusual and curious details about the number of Greek Muslims, Chinese travellers, teenage widows and the two Maltese divorcees living in Ireland – perhaps they should be introduced to each other ... or perhaps their problems started when they were first introduced to each other.

They help us to underline the way in which we have all come to realise and accept: that Ireland has become a diverse and multicultural society. 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: from the Celts, Parthalons and Vikings, to the Anglo-Normans, both English and French, the Gallowglass and the settler Scots; from the French in the Middle Ages, to the Huguenot refugees and the weaver of Dublin’s Liberties.

Who do you think are the single largest identifiable groups of people in the Republic of Ireland on any one day? And I mean among those who were not born in the Republic?

Despite the way we compile statistics, the two largest groups on any one day are:

● firstly, people born in the United Kingdom;

● secondly, tourists.

We don’t notice the first group, because many of them were born in Northern Ireland or were born in England of Irish parents, and they speak and look like the vast majority of people here.

The second group we welcome with open arms. They provide us with income, revenue, and in economic terms the equivalent of exports – they bring in money from other countries, and, so, they are vital to a key sector of the economy.

I have never heard anyone complain in racist terms that the country is being swamped with Italian tourists. But I regularly hear gross exaggerations about the numbers of Nigerians and Somalis here. There are plenty of urban myths about their religious and social practices, and the benefits they are supposed to receive through the Social Welfare system.

Who are our immigrants?

So who are the strangers in our midst?

The face of Ireland appeared to be changing in the first years of this century. The pace of that change may have slowed more recently, or even retreated in some cases. But, nevertheless, that face is changing, and much of the change is irreversible and – we have to accept – is for the good.

A Polish bakery in Capel Street, Dublin ... Polish is now the second language in Dublin

Today, the second most common first language in the Republic is no longer Irish – it is Polish. Poles make up the largest single ethnic minority in the state, and the last census figures showed at least 63,000 Polish nationals living here.

In recent years, the Poles, Lithuanians and Latvians have pushed the Chinese into fourth place, but Chinese remains one of the largest language minority groups, especially in the greater Dublin, where there may be a Chinese population of up to 60,000 people.

Recent research at the National University of Ireland Maynooth shows that more than 167 different languages – from Acholi to Zulu – are used by 160 nationalities among the people in Ireland as their everyday first language of choice.

Ireland has become a multilingual society, so that the 2006 census was conducted in 13 languages. Apart from English and Irish, these languages are: Arabic, Chinese, Czech, French, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian and Spanish. In addition, information was also available in Estonian, Magyar (Hungarian), Slovak, Turkish and Yoruba.

The share of foreign-born people living in the Republic of Ireland is about 11%, although the census figures include 1.3% born in Northern Ireland. The Central Statistics Office estimates that 9% of immigrants are now Chinese, and 8% are nationals from Central and Eastern Europe.

Asylum seekers and refugees are a very small proportion of the number of foreign-born people in Ireland at any one top. In Ireland, the top five countries of origin for new asylum seekers over the past decade have been Nigeria, Somalia, Romania, Afghanistan and Sudan. And over the past decade, their numbers have been decreasing steadily.

Figures from the Central Statistics Office show that the number of foreign-born nationals in the Republic of Ireland is about 457,000, out of a total population of 4.1 million, or about 11 per cent.

When immigration was probably at its highest, in the middle of this decade, more than one-third of 70,000 immigrants in the 12-month period up to April 2005 came from the new accession states in the European Union: 17% (11,900) came from Poland and 9% (6,300) from Lithuania. But those numbers were totally outweighed by the 19,000 returning Irish citizens (27%), and close to the number of UK nationals moving here (6,900 or 10%).

Of the 50,100 people who came to Ireland as immigrants in 2004, one-third (16,900) had Irish nationality – they were returning Irish emigrants, their children, or people from Northern Ireland.

Two-thirds of all non-Irish nationals living in the Republic of Ireland came from the 15 member states of the European Union before the latest expansion, or from other member states of the European Economic Area, including Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. But these people, anyway, enjoy an unrestricted right to migrate within the EEA states and the right to take up employment in Ireland.

Among the other one-third of non-Irish nations living in the Republic, most are workers who came here seeking work even though they do not have an automatic right to work here. Newly-arrived migrant workers make up a far larger group than the people seeking refuge here.

Migrant workers have been found in all sectors of the economy, but a large number were concentrated in unskilled or low-skill employment in services, catering, agriculture and fisheries, and industry.

The largest single category of migrant workers was from Poland, followed by Latvia, Lithuania, the Philippines, Romania, South Africa, Ukraine, Australia, China, the Czech Republic and Malaysia. In other words, the majority of migrant workers from outside the original 15 EU member states and the EEA came from Central and Eastern Europe, and the vast majority of those from countries that are now member states of the EU.

Many migrant workers do not want to be integrated or absorbed into Irish society. They want to feel welcome, but they hope to return home at a future date. They keep in touch with family, social, political and sporting events at home. The Bulgarian embassy has advertised in Bulgarian in The Irish Times to give notice of polling places in Dublin and Cork during elections; Polish, Romanian and Russian-language newspapers are commonplace on many newsstands in inner-city shops in Dublin; walk down Parnell Street and notice the variety in Asian food shops and takeaway restaurants or African hair shops. These people are homesick, they want food and news from home, they want to be welcomed, and welcomed warmly, but many hope some day to return home again.

Despite the downturn in the economy, we should remember that our immigrants contributed to our recent economic boom rather than being a burden on us. The European Commission pointed out at the height of the boom that immigrants had been good for the Irish economy, contributing to the country’s excellent economic performance. The number of foreign workers far out-weighed the number of refugees or asylum seekers, with at one stage 180,000 foreign workers employed in jobs that were boosting Irish industry and that at the time helped to make this one of the richest economies in Europe.

Polish workers marching in a protest in Dublin

The Polish community is the single largest ethnic minority in the state. At their height, there were about 100,000 Poles here with PPS numbers, although some trade union estimates put the number of Poles here at 200,000 to 400,000. In a controversial article, Newsweek described Newbridge as the capital of Polish emigration, saying there were 30,000 people living in the Co Kildare town, although the last census shows Bunclody, Co Wexford, is the town with the largest Polish population.

There are Polish-language parishes, such as Saint Audeon’s Roman Catholic Church near this cathedral, with up to 1,000 Poles attending the Polish-language Masses each Sunday. There are local newspapers with Polish language columns, pubs that are favoured by young Poles hoping to meet one another, and there has even been a daily bus service between Busarus in Dublin and Warsaw in Poland.

The second largest group comes from Latvia, and at one stage numbered 25,000 to 30,000. At one time, the Irish mushroom industry, a multi-million Euro industry, and they have been of economic benefit to us. But there are a number of problems:

● They are often exploited and paid below the minimum wage.

● They leave behind children who are cared for by grandparents – creating what the Latvian media has called a new generation of “mushroom orphans.”

● They are over-qualified for their jobs, so they are part of a brain-drain on Latvia, which has paid for their training and education and needs their skills. Ireland’s Ambassador to Latvia told the International Herald Tribune candidly: “I don’t thinks it’s a good thing when you have Latvian brain surgeons doing McDonald’s jobs.”

● They are easy prey to the racism that can be produced in the present climate. After one industrial protest, an American newspaper ran the headline: “For Irish, Latvians fill the role of bogeymen.”

The Chinese are probably the third largest of these ethnic groupings. There may 60,000 Chinese living in the state, perhaps half in the greater Dublin area, and many are here on student visas and without work permits.

Their Churches

Many of the Poles are Roman Catholics, but worship in their own parishes and congregations. Many of the immigrants from the Baltic countries are Lutherans, and under the Porvoo Agreement they are full communicant members of the Church of Ireland while they are here. But we have very little pastoral or liturgical engagement with them, and many of them probably have no idea of who we are.

Patrick Comerford with Dr Lan Li of University College Dublin and Dr Richard O’Leary of Queen’s University Belfast in the Chapel of Trinity College Dublin at the launch of a study of the beliefs of Chinese students and immigrants in Ireland

The Chinese have their own Catholic parish in Dublin, with Masses in Chinese, while the Chinese Protestant Church is a very conservative evangelical church.

However, despite the increasing popularity of celebrations such as the Chinese New Year, we know very little about the religious beliefs and practices of the majority of Chinese people here.

Despite their visibility, the number of Nigerians in Ireland is probably lower than many of the public estimates. Of the 30,000 Africans thought to be in Ireland, about 20,000 are probably Nigerians. They suffer racism not only from Irish-born people but from other Africans too. Yet they make a positive contribution to public life in Ireland: Rotimi Adebarai became Ireland’s first black mayor in June 2007 in Portlaoise. Other African communities in Ireland include people from DR Congo, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Sudan.

The Romanian population is largely Dublin based. There may be 20,000 Romanians in Ireland, although the numbers are dropping significantly at the moment, according to the priests of the Romanian Orthodox Church.

They often complain that they are all categorised as Gypsies or Roma. Yet there may only be about 2,000 Roma in Ireland, and many of those come from other Easter and Central European countries, including the Czech and Slovak republics, the former Yugoslav republics, Bulgaria and Hungary.

Admittedly, 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.

They suffer discrimination

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 was ahead of last year’s referendum on the European Treaty that was about supposed to be about bringing closer to the dream of a Europe where all can share in our freedom and prosperity.

In Embracing Difference, which was launched two years ago at the Hard Gospel conference in the Emmaus Centre in Swords, I point out that out of all proportion to their numbers, our new immigrants suffer unfairly:

● A disproportionate number of them are in prison: More than one-in-four prisoners are thought to be foreign-born or foreign nationals.

● A disproportionate number of them are the victims of crime and violence. Non-nationals are more likely to be the victims of crime than Irish-born people, according to the Central Statistics Office. For example, in more than one-in-six of the murders in the state, the murder victim is a foreigner.

● A disproportionate number of them suffer accidents in the workplace. The Health and Safety Authority has pointed to this worrying trend, with foreign workers being the victims of more than one-in-seven fatal accidents in the workplace.

● A disproportionate number of the children admitted to our hospitals are the children of asylum-seekers.

● A disproportionate number of them are the victims of road accidents. Of the 33 people killed in the first month of 2006, almost a quarter were non-nationals, mainly Poles.

● A disproportionate number of them are the victims of accidents in the workplace.

● Racism is a common experience for many of our immigrants, but not so common an experience for those who are Irish-born. A survey of Chinese teenagers born in Northern Ireland found that an alarming 100% of them had experienced some kind of racially motivated attacks, both verbal and physical.

A report commissioned by the Health Service Executive (HSE) highlighted flaws in the services in Ireland for separated children seeking asylum: more than 250 separated children went missing from State care in one four-year period.

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

And 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.

The immigrants and foreigners of whatever category who have come to live here, who have placed their trust in Ireland, in our country, in us, suffer as children in the home, as workers in shops, farms, factories and on building sites, or as families seeking housing. Those difficulties then lead to other problems too – problems that are reflected in the figures for road deaths and for prisoners.

Immigrants and the Church of Ireland

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.

Too often, even within the Church of Ireland, I hear people suggesting that immigrants are “different from us,” that they go to or ought to go to their own churches. But in fact immigrants have enriched the life of the Church of Ireland.

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; and
● (as Garrett Casey showed in a recent analysis of those statistics), 77 members of the Church of Ireland who are French nationals.

If Ireland is not monochrome or mono-cultural, then neither is the Church of Ireland.

What beautiful opportunities we face.

What wonderful challenges we must meet.

In Embracing Difference, I have offered parishes the opportunity for parishes to explore those opportunities. The Bible studies and suggestions for action are designed with the ordinary parish and parishioner in mind.

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

How is the Church getting it right? How is the Church getting it wrong? What are the challenges? And what are the opportunities we can grasp in the Church of Ireland?

Example 1:

A positive example of the Church of Ireland has adapted and changed is provided by the Discovery programme based at Saint George’s and Saint Thomas’s Church in inner city Dublin, including the Discovery services, choir and chaplaincy.

This has been positive for the church, for the parish, and for the international community. But it also led to other initiatives, such as the U2charist.

Celebrating the Eucharist at the U2charist in Saint George’s and Saint Thomas’s Church in inner city Dublin

But success was only possible because the priest-in-charge, Canon Katharine Poulton, was open to taking risks. And because her congregation was supportive as she took those risks.

The implications for training in ministry in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute are obvious. We must be willing to train clergy who are adventurous and innovative, who are risk-takers. Our priests are ordained to be “messengers, watchers and stewards.” So often we want them, instead to be building surveyors, caretakers and boiler-fixers.

There are implications for training for lay ministry too. Those are obvious to you. But what about the implications for the laity? Can we encourage and coax them too to be adventurous and innovative, to be risk-takers?

Example 2:

A negative example comes from hospital chaplaincy. I heard someone say recently not that he, but that other members of the Church of Ireland, would not like the idea of a black African chaplain visiting the wards. Why not? He protested that he is not racist. But the implications are frightening.

Many of our hospital and prison chaplains find themselves cast into the role of advocacy. They are the ones people – staff and patients or prisoners – turn to for advice about other minorities. Are our chaplains, lay and ordained, trained properly, and knowledgeable enough for this role in ministry?

Example 3:

There is a large new school in the Greater Dublin area under Church of Ireland management. Before September 2009, there were 58 or 60 children in the old schoolhouse, which was dilapidated and in need of repair or replacement. About half of those children were non-nationals.

The national school has moved to a new building. Other schools in area were giving priority to Roman Catholic children, and so their school rolls were full. Since September last, when the new school opened under Church of Ireland management, the number of children has reached 240-250. Of these, 80% are Nigerian by birth or parentage, 10% are from Eastern Europe or other nationalities, and 10% are Irish-born. In the senior infants’ class, there are 31 children, of whom three are “white,” and of those, only one is Irish-born.

Are the parishioners withdrawing their children? Is this an appropriate move by that Church of Ireland parish? What do you think are the positive and negative aspects of this scenario?

And of course, what are the implications for teacher training or for raising awareness among parishioners?

Example 4:

Is there a special Cathedral ministry in this area. Are you aware of the make-up of the core cathedral congregation here? Have you any thoughts on the way the Afghan refugees and asylum seekers were treated in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral five years ago.

Example 5:

How best can we use our Church buildings? The former Church of Ireland parish churches in Harold’s Cross and Leeson Park are now being used by the Russian Orthodox and Romanian Orthodox Churches, while Saint George’s and Saint Thomas’s, and the parish churches in Donnybrook, Swords and Tallaght are providing hospitality for various Syrian Orthodox communities.

How can we best use our church buildings to reflect the needs of the changing and changed Ireland?

Bible studies

But rather than smothering ourselves in statistics this morning, I want to draw on some Bible studies that I used in Embracing Difference, and explore what are the implications for our parishes, including Sunday worship, Sunday schools, and parish schools, the opportunities for our dioceses, including plans for ministry and mission, and the opportunities for the Church of Ireland and the whole church on this island.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This paper is based on notes prepared for a lecture on the Archbishop’s Certificate in Theology course in Christ Church Cathedral on 27 February 2010.

Some Reading:

P. Comerford, Embracing Difference (Dublin: Church of Ireland Publishing, 2007).
Guidelines for Interfaith Events & Dialogue (prepared by the Committee for Christian Unity and the House of Bishops of the Church of Ireland, Dublin: Church of Ireland Publishing, 2007).
M. Macourt, Counting the People of God? The Census of Population and the Church of Ireland (Dublin: Church of Ireland Publishing, 2008).
A. McGrady (ed), Welcoming the Stranger: Practising hospitality in contemporary Ireland (Dublin: Veritas, 2006).
R. O’Leary and Lan Li, Mainland Chinese Students and Immigrants in Ireland and their engagement with Christianity, Churches and Irish Society (Dublin: Agraphon Press, 2008).
K.J. O’Mahony, What the Bible says about the Stranger (Belfast: Irish Inter-Church Meeting, 2009).
R.J. Whiteley and B. Maynard, Get Up Off Your Knees … Preaching the U2 catalog (Cambridge MA: Cowley, 2003).
G. Wynne, Pastoral Care in the Recession (Dublin: Church of Ireland Publishing: 2009).

Friday, 26 February 2010

Novels ‘not to be confused with sermons’ – noted author at Theological Institute

This week’s edition of the Church of Ireland Gazette [26 February 2010] carries the following report and photograph:

Novels ‘not to be confused with sermons’ – noted author at Theological Institute

Catherine Fox (2nd left) is pictured on her visit to the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, accompanied by her husband, Canon Peter Wilcox (left), and Institute staff, Canon Patrick Comerford (2nd right) and the Revd Dr Maurice Elliott, Director.

By Garret Casey

The author, columnist and Church historian, Catherine Fox, recently visited Dublin with her husband, Canon Peter Wilcox, and spoke at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute on the topic of ‘The Novelist as a Theologian’.

Ms Fox has written three novels, all set in the context of theological study or a life in ministry: Angels and Men, The Benefits of Passion and Love for the Lost.

In her talk, Ms Fox said that “the point of a novel is to entertain”. She continued: “When you entertain someone in your home, you invite them into your life for a certain space of time … when you publish a novel, you issue an invitation: ‘Come into my world’.”

She was critical of any suggestion that a novel should be about converting the reader to the author’s point of view: “The point of a novel is no to instruct, browbeat or convert the reader … novels are not to be confused with sermons or propaganda. A novel that is simply a showcase for the author’s ideology – with characters that are no more than mouthpiece es spouting the writer’s creed – that novel is so badly compromised it will never engage the readers. I doubt it will even find a publisher.”

On novels and theology, she said that “a novel may well embody theological concepts, just as it can embody political and philosophical ones.”

Ms Fox went on to expand on the idea: “It’s perfectly possible that theories of atonement and explorations of judgment and salvation may be incarnated in the nexus of human relationships portrayed in a novel; thus, the characters’ journeys – which is to say the plot – may be the mode of descent to earth and merging into the history of a doctrine.”

A similar report and photograph were published in the March 2010 edition of the Church Review (Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough).

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Mission: the common ground for ecumenism

Looking up at the cross in the ceiling of Chong-Yi Church in China ... should ecumenical dialogue work from the top down or the bottom up? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Patrick’s College, Kiltegan, Co Wicklow

Thursday, 25 February 2010, 7.30 p.m.

Luke 24: 1-12; Luke 24: 25-25; Luke 24: 36-49

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

I want to begin by thanking Father Joe Cantwell for his kind invitation and the honour of speaking here this evening at this annual ecumenical gathering in Saint Patrick’s College, Kiltegan.

When Father Joe worked with the Irish Missionary Union, we worked closely together in the Mission Dialogue Group, linking IMU and the Association of Mission Societies (AMS) in the Church of Ireland. We were both members too of the Development Forum in Ireland Aid and the Department of Foreign Affairs, where we represented the mission agencies.

Father Joe was also a member of the committee of the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission, when I was secretary and later Chair of DUFEM. So, we both have had positive experiences of the ecumenical support the personnel in mission agencies offer and provide for each other. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus in our second reading this evening, we walked together on those roads, and in walking together we knew that we were walking together with the Risen Christ.

Our Gospel readings this evening are from Saint Luke’s Gospel. The Gospel reading on Sunday, for the first Sunday of Lent (Luke 4: 1-13), was about the temptations Christ faced in the wilderness – temptations to opulently display his kingship, majesty and glory. And in many ways, there is lesson there for us this evening. It has been said time and again in recent years that we are in an ecumenical wilderness, so we seem to be getting nowhere in the ecumenical project.

But sometimes I think in ecumenical dialogue we have worked from the top down rather than from the bottom up. We have been concerned about the power, majesty and glory of our Church structures. Instead we should have been working from the bottom up, like Christ spent his time working with people, living with them, eating with them, walking with them.

True mission, like true ecumenism, is more concerned with the Good News than with good statements, is more concerned with proclaiming justice than passing judgment, is more concerned with mission than with conformity, rejoices in diversity by finding our unity in the Word of God.

Diversity and unity

Members of a young congregation in China ... are our divisions a barrier to the mission of the Church? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

How the mission bodies – such as the Irish Missionary Union and the Association of Mission Societies, or Saint Patrick’s Missionary Society and the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission – work together in mission is, in many ways, a model for how the Churches should be working together too.

Ecumenism looks out, in trying to bring about the unity of all branches of the one Church; but it must also look within, seeking to bring healing and unity within each branch or tradition of that one Church.

For example, within the Anglican tradition, there is a wide divergence and diversity that is so wide it seems at times to be threatening Anglican unity. Those divisions and diversity separating the different mission agencies within the Anglican tradition of the Church reflect the divisions within Anglicanism today, and have also contributed in a large measure to creating those divisions today.

I have had first-hand experience through my work with them: USPG (the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel) – on whose board and council I serve – has long been seen as being the more Catholic agency within the Anglican churches. On the other hand, the Church Mission Society family of mission agencies – and I worked for CMS Ireland for four years – are seen as being more Protestant.

This can be damaging not only for the witness and mission of one tradition within the Church, but for the witness and mission of the whole Anglican tradition … indeed for that whole one Church, the Church Catholic.

Anglican divisions

The present divisions within Anglicanism reflect the decision by the two main Anglican mission agencies to carve up, divide and share their Victorian world. In an article in the Guardian on the “Battle for the soul of Anglicanism,” the Revd Canon Dr Giles Fraser, now Canon-Chancellor of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, typified the two main Anglican mission agencies, CMS and USPG, as conservative, evangelical and liberal, high church societies that “carved up the empire, creating Anglican provinces of hugely different theological temperaments.”

This rift is also reflected in the current debate within the Anglican Communion, supposedly about the sexuality of one bishop in the United States, and the attitude of the Diocese of New Westminster in Canada to same-sex relationships. But Christianity today largely belongs to the “two-thirds” world, and there is a perception in many African, Asian and Latin American Churches that the Churches in the northern Hemisphere and Australia are rich, domineering, and demanding that churches in the two-thirds world be shaped in their image and likeness in return for mission activity and generous financing in the past.

The rift threatens to divide the Anglican Communion. Already African bishops and archbishops are sending missionaries and priests to North America, not to convert non-Christians or to plant churches, but to win away members of the Anglican or Episcopal Church (TEC).

The Risen Christ in front of the Cross above the high altar in Saint Luke’s Episcopal Cathedral, Orlando ... we can know him when we walk together (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The mission agencies are caught in a dilemma: do they support the churches they once gave birth to and that still look to them for support, or do they support the bishops of their own churches at home? So, within Anglicanism, mission agencies need to examine their own contribution to internal divisions within their own traditions before making any claims to a right to engage externally with the divisions in the wider Church Catholic.

The debate within the Anglican Communion may deeply injure if not divide many of the mission societies. This is the sad legacy of an Anglican approach to mission that was based on enthusiasm and the voluntary principle but failed to develop a coherent theology of mission, integrated with a coherent and consistent ecclesiology.

Mission demands ecumenism

Yet, while we seem to bicker and backbite in public, we seem to get along well when it comes to the practicalities of mission. One worker in a markedly evangelical mission agency, working for many years in East Africa, told once how, when you badly need loo rolls and you’ve run out of them, you don’t care, when the nuns give you a fresh supply, whether they are Protestant rolls or Catholic rolls.

Mission can force us into ecumenical dialogue. Mission demands ecumenical dialogue. Mission creates ecumenical dialogue. And mission is the foundation for all true ecumenism.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the great Edinburgh Missionary Conference in 1910. And I hope to return to the significance of this centenary in a moment or two. But we ought to recognise that even before Edinburgh 1910 there were mutual exchanges between [Roman] Catholics and Anglicans on this island that helped us all to grow in mission and to be inspired in mission from the late 19th century on. And it would be impossible to do mission in an Anglican context without being conscious of the ecumenical imperative.

One of the failures of the Anglican tradition after the Reformation was the failure to develop a real sense of mission. The first Anglican overseas mission agency, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), was formed in 1701, and its first Irish committee was formed in 1714 – almost two centuries after the Reformation.

The arrival of Moravian missionaries from central Europe in these islands in the 18th century helped stoke the slow-glowing embers of mission among Anglicans at the time, and ignited the flames that burst into the great fire of Methodism. The failure of Anglicans to celebrate and be joyful in the Methodist missionary impulse was a loss that is still to our great shame.

Philip Embury and Barbara Heck ... a reminder of the Irish contribution to Methodist missions (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

In Orlando last month, in the First United Methodist Church, I noticed panels in the stained glass windows commemorating two early Irish Methodist missionaries, Philip Embury and Barbara Heck. And I wondered: What if Anglicanism had accommodated and affirmed the enthusiasm of those early Methodists and their mission work in America? Would Anglicanism be very different today? While those pioneering Methodists engaged in real mission, Anglicans, including the mission agencies, retreated into the great pink blobs on the map of the empire, giving their priority to chaplaincy rather than to mission.

When Anglicans moved from chaplaincy to mission, we soon realised the ecumenical demands of mission: in India, the first Anglican missionaries, supported and financed by SPG and SPCK, were Lutherans who were ordained in Denmark but were happy to use the Book of Common Prayer; in Jerusalem, Anglicans and Lutherans co-operated in establishing a new diocese; despite misgivings about ecumenical co-operation within their own traditions, they knew it was necessary for the sake of mission, for the sake of the Church, for Christ’s sake.

Unique Irish experiences

In the 19th century, frustrations with the perceived failure to drive forward the mission of the Church led to the formation of the first great university missions on these islands. David Livingstone’s account of his travels in Africa in a speech in Cambridge in 1857 generated new mission enthusiasm, giving rise to the formation of new mission societies at the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Dublin and Durham.

In Ireland, a unique outgrowth of the work of SPG and CMS was the formation of two university missions in Dublin, modelled on the Oxford and Cambridge Missions. These two university missions in Dublin predate the missions formed in Maynooth by more than 30 years or a full generation. At a series of meetings in Trinity College Dublin in 1885, the inspirational Robert Stewart appealed for volunteers for China. At those meetings, over 40 students solemnly dedicated themselves to mission work overseas.

These meetings led to the formation of what is now the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission, which worked principally in China, and, in 1890, of the Dublin University Mission to Chota Nagpur, which worked in India. Both university missions sent pioneering Irish missionaries to China and India from the late 19th century on. They gave their names to two uniquely Irish foundations that continue to this day: Trinity College, Fuzhou and Saint Columba’s Hospital, Hazaribagh.

In an ecumenical “infection” that is impossible to imagine in the cultural and religious atmosphere of the time, both university missions probably played roles in creating the atmosphere if not the inspiration that led to the creation of two university mission societies with roots in Maynooth.

What was once the Maynooth Mission to China dates from 1912, when Father Edward Galvin volunteered for mission work in China. He was joined by Father Paddy Reilly and Father Joe O’Leary, and over the next four years they developed their idea of an Irish university mission society.

When Galvin returned to Ireland in 1916, he and the new Professor of Theology at Maynooth, Father John Blowick, formed a new mission society, the Maynooth Mission to China, later the Missionary Society of Saint Columban. The first group of eleven Columban missionaries arrived in Shanghai in 1920. Since then, the Columbans have continued to grow, working throughout East Asia, and their work has spread far and wide, even to Fiji, Australia, New Zealand and Latin America.

The same missionary impulse that had its seeds in Maynooth also led to the formation of the Saint Patrick’s Missionary Society, based here in Kiltegan, Co Wicklow. Bishop Joseph Shanahan, a Spiritan, was running a huge diocese in Nigeria, with eight million people and only 23 priests. He appealed to students being ordained in Maynooth to give the first five years of their priesthood to Nigeria. The first student to volunteer was Father P.J. Whitney, who was ordained in 1920 and then joined Bishop Shanahan in Nigeria.

When Father Whitney returned to Maynooth in 1930, he too made an appeal to the students just as Bishop Shanahan had a decade earlier. The society became a permanent missionary body on Saint Patrick’s Day 1932. Since then the work has spread far beyond Nigeria to nine African countries, but also to Brazil and the West Indies.

The ecumenical spark

These two societies are unique in the [Roman] Catholic Church in Ireland. Unlike the Spiritans, for example, they are not religious orders. Unlike other missionary societies or orders, they are uniquely Irish. In their university origins and in their organisation outside the normal diocesan structures or the traditional vows and rules, and in their initial focus on a particular mission field, China on the one hand and Nigeria on the other, they reflect the way the two earlier missions emerged in Dublin University and the ways in which they were organised.

How was this, perhaps unconscious inspiration, this surprising ecumenical cross-pollination, possible in those days? What happened in the generation or two between the formation of the Dublin University missions and the formation of the Columbans and Saint Patrick’s?

The key event in between was the great Edinburgh Missionary Conference, or World Missionary Conference, in June 1910. Although no Orthodox or Roman Catholic representatives were present, or invited, Edinburgh marks the formal beginning of the modern ecumenical movement. The spirit among the 1,200 people present was summarised in the slogan: “The evangelisation of the world in this generation.” Of the eight conference commissions and reports, the most important was that on “Co-operation and the Promotion of Unity.”

A sense of obligation and urgency ran through the debates and reports. Although no common liturgy was celebrated by the delegates, that call to unity among missionaries was expressed as a common desire. Unity around the altar may have been difficult if not impossible; but there could be unity around the Word, and they realised that mission was debased without that unity. The conference laid the foundations for the International Missionary Council in 1921, and, later, for the World Council of Churches in 1948. And so the needs of mission gave rise to realising the need to work for unity.

The purpose of mission

The two Dublin University missions and both the Columbans and Saint Patrick’s recognised something that earlier mission societies, both Anglican and [Roman] Catholic, had often failed to grasp: the difference between mission and chaplaincy. When Bishop Shanahan first made his appeal, it was normal for newly-ordained priests to go to England or America to work among Irish emigrants and their families. But until then, none had gone to Africa. Similarly, Irish Anglican missionaries often worked with Irish Anglican emigrants in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, for example. Realising the mission needs of India and China was a breakthrough in mission thinking in the Church of Ireland. And so we share not only similar stories, but similar insights … we have learned the same lessons at the same time.

In the past, Anglican mission agencies were divided on whether their purpose was to make converts or to work for the expansion of the Church. One emphasised individual salvation, the other emphasised the Kingdom of God through its sacramental and liturgical life.

But today, by and large, all Anglican mission agencies accept the five-point definition of mission, first formulated at the Anglican Consultative Council in 1984 and developed in 1990. That five-point definition says mission is:

● To proclaim the good news of the kingdom;
● To teach, baptise and nurture new believers;
● To respond to human need by loving service;
● To seek to transform the unjust structures of society;
● To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

In those five aims, there is a real overlapping with contemporary theology of mission in [Roman] Catholic thinking, particularly as I find it outlined by Donal Dorr in his book, Mission in today’s world (Dublin: Columba, 2000).

The challenges in mission today

The principal day-to-day challenges facing us all in mission today are shared and demand co-operation and ecumenical vision. They include these ten:

1, Working with HIV/AIDS. Surely the suffering of people is more important than their sexuality, liberation from their exploitation more important than judgment?

2, A drop in giving to all mission agencies throughout the northern hemisphere, and making them more dependent on the demands of the support base rather than responding to the needs of churches.

3, Growing secularism and the general acceptance of post-modernism: for example, post-modernist thinking affirms the separateness of mission agencies at a time when they need to coalesce in a secular world.

4, Muslim-Christian encounters, which are often confrontational but need to be turned into dialogue. An example of seeking best practice in this field is the Anglican-Muslim dialogue initiative in Egypt, but this is not something we can do on our own, we can only do it honestly if we are hoping to engage the whole Church Catholic in this dialogue.

The emerging needs of churches in post-communist countries make new demands on our understanding of mission (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

5, The emerging needs of churches in post-communist countries such as Romania and China to be equipped in and empowered for mission. In central Bucharest, the Anglican and Orthodox churches, realising their shared experience of suffering and oppression, can share in meeting the needs of homeless people living on the streets of the Romanian capital. In China, you cannot imagine the impact of a group of northern European Protestant church leaders dropping to their knees in prayer together in Shanghai’s Catholic Cathedral ahead of a meeting with Bishop Jin. For in China, Protestants and Catholics are divided within themselves, and are seen by the rest of the Chinese people as two separate religions.

An ecumenical mission group from Europe meeting Bishop Jin in Shanghai

6, Learning to distinguish between development work and mission. It is easier in many parishes in Ireland to raise funds for Trocaire, the Church of Ireland Bishops’ Appeal Fund or Christian Aid than to raise support for a mission project. There is a danger that dependence on Irish Government funding can set priorities for the mission agencies, focussing more on development than on mission. We need to guard against reducing mission to evangelism, on the one hand, or, on the other hand, to good works.

7, Ecumenism not only externally between the churches, but internally, for example between the agencies within Anglicanism, which are competing with each other for a support base, and feel threatened when another agency is seen to shift its ethos because of closer working relations with external bodies.

8, The emergence of new churches that are not easy to define within traditional ecclesiology: for example, is the China Christian Council a Church in ecclesiological terms? How do we co-operate with these churches without being judgmental? How do we protect them from heresy yet respect their independence and their authentic identity so they can explore their potential for mission?

9, The emergence of a shallow fundamentalism that is lacking in real spirituality, and which promotes a feel-good factor but not discipleship. And this point is one that threatens the church in all its expressions in various guises. It is, by nature, opposed to all ecumenism.

10, And finally, I could not go without mentioning the present crisis in the Church here in Ireland, which is the most immediate challenge we face in ecumenism and in mission. This is a crisis of confidence in integrity, in morality, in the life, witness and mission of the Church. It is a crisis that is so deep that it is a barrier to many people ever being open again to receiving the ministry of Word and Sacrament in their lives. It is a crisis that has dealt a severe blow to the whole Church, not just to one part of the Church, and if we fail to face this crisis as partners in the Gospel, if we fail to walk on the road together, we will fail to allow the Church to be transformed by the Risen Christ.

If we fail to face up to our need to work together in ecumenism, we may fail in the mission of the Church, in fulfilling the Great Commission itself. But if we walk together, then shall find that we are walking with the Risen Lord, and together we can say we know him too in the Breaking of the Bread. As I said earlier: mission can force us into ecumenical dialogue. Mission demands ecumenical dialogue. Mission creates ecumenical dialogue. And mission is the foundation for all true ecumenism.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This is the 2010 Annual Ecumenical Lecture given at Saint Patrick’s College, Kiltegan, Co Wicklow, on Thursday 24 February 2010.