Friday, 31 December 2010

A year that was more than bailouts and being impoverished by bankers

Bless us O Lord, in our coming in and in our going out ... a sign for the old year and the new year in Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

The year opened with the disaster created by the earthquake in Haiti, leaving almost a quarter of a million people dead and over a million people homeless. By the end of the year, the plight of the people in Haiti had not improved. Despite pledges and promises from the international community, the despair of Haitians continues to deteriorate, compounded by a deadly outbreak of cholera and internal political upheavals.

Other international disasters, including the floods in Pakistan which affected a staggering 20 million people, and the BP-induced disaster that turned the Gulf of Mexico into a Black Sea, make our own climate problems in Ireland at the end of the year seem quite trivial by comparison.

This was the year of bailouts for Greece and Ireland; it was the year of Wikileaks; the year of miners’ recues in Chile and mining disasters in China and New Zealand; the year of the World Cup in South Africa, and the year Lansdowne Road reopened on 14 May as the Aviva Stadium – although I can never see myself calling it anything other than Lansdowne Road. It was the year of Aung San Suu Kyi’s release in Burma and the year of David Cameron’s election victory in Britain. And, sadly, this may also have been the year that marked the last stage of the disappearance of Christians from Iraq – they have suffered more since the US invasion in 2003 than they have suffered in 2000 years of existence as heirs to the great, Biblical Chaldean people.

If Iceland had its financial woes last year, then it gave us all travel woes this year, with flight disruptions across Europe as drifting volcanic ash caused the biggest disruption of air travel since 11 September 2001. Little did we realise there would be travel disruptions of almost equal dimensions once again at the end of the year.

In Ireland, we began the year with a banking crisis and ended the year with the whole country on the brink of bankruptcy. Bankers and developers have brought this country to the brink, and our politicians have left us peering over the precipice rather than rescuing us. The response on the streets of Dublin has been mild compared with the protests and strikes in Greece. But the Irish voters have an opportunity to give their verdict at an early general election in the New Year. But can anything be rescued? Will anything change?

I almost wish that Bertie Ahern would stand in the presidential election too, if only for the voters to tell him what we think of his stewardship of the talents of this nation while he was Finance Minister and Taoiseach.

Not all doom and gloom

The sage on stage ... Leonard Cohen at Lissadell House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Of course, it was not all doom and gloom over the past 12 months. For me, the cultural highlights of the year included Leonard Cohen’s open-air concert in summer rain at Lissadell House in Co Sligo, Sting’s concert in the O2 in Dublin, the wonderful music produced in Christ Church Cathedral and in the chapel at CITI throughout the year, the singing of excerpts from Handel’s Messiah by the choirs of Christ Church and Saint Patrick’s, some live music in both Greece and Turkey, visiting Pugin’s churches throughout Ireland and the English Midlands, visiting the National Gallery in Dublin with students, and re-reading the poems of T.S. Eliot, especially East Coker. I made three attempts to start reading Victoria Hislop’s The Island. On the first attempt, I left the book at home as I left on holiday; on the second attempt, I left the book behind on a plane; on the third attempt ... well there is no excuse, I must resolve to finish it soon.

J.D. Salinger, who died on 27 January, will be remembered by most as the author of The Catcher in the Rye (1951). But we should remember too that the use of the Jesus Prayer according to the tradition of the Philokalia, became familiar to many in the west in the 1960s through Salinger’s novel, Franney and Zooey (1961), where Franny is introduced to the Jesus Prayer through her reading of the Russian classic, The Way of a Pilgrim.

The death of Gerry Ryan, despite the circumstances, came as a shock in April. He interviewed me once about mail-order and fake degrees. I felt sorry too for poor Melanie Verwoerd, who once preached at a ‘Discovery’ service.

With Melanie Verwoerd (centre), when she preached at a ‘Discovery’ service, and the Very Revd Katharine Poulton (left), who became Dean of Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny, this year

I remain President of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and in that capacity welcomed a visiting group of hibakusha, Japanese survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to Dublin. As President of Irish CND, I was also invited to speak at protests in Dublin following Israeli attacks on the humanitarian flotilla to Gaza, including an Irish-owned ship. When I blogged about this, when I supported a resolution at the USPG conference on this act of piracy, and when photographs and reports of these protests appeared on a number of websites, I was deluged with a storm of hate messages by email, and found I had constantly to delete offensive and racist comments from my blog and my Facebook page.

To condemn Israeli military actions is not to be anti-Israeli; to criticise current excessive military expressions of Zionism is not to condone Islamic militancy; to understand the plight of besieged Palestinian mothers and children is not to be anti-Semitic. But for saying this I can expect the usual critics to bombard me once again with their messages of blinkered intolerance and blind hatred.

The end of an era

2010 ... a year in retrospect

Academically, this year saw the end of an era at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. We had the last examinations and the final conferrings for the BTh course, and the NSM course is also coming to an end. This year, we had our Ash Wednesday retreat by the sea in Donabate, where there was plenty of time for beach walks and silent reflection, and ending with a celebration of the Eucharist in Saint Patrick’s Church, Donabate.

Visiting preachers and lecturers at the institute in the past year included Bishop Chad Gandiya of Harare, who spoke eloquently and movingly of the current situation in Zimbabwe; the Revd Paul Bogle, then senior student, who recalled his summer placement in the Diocese of Swaziland; Canon Pete Wilcox of Lichfield Cathedral, who preached at Candlemas; and his wife, the writer Catherine Fox, who spoke about the author as theologian. Other visitors to the institute during the year included Bishop Tim Thornton of Truro, Bishop John Ford of Plymouth, and Archdeacon Roger Bush of Cornwall.

I was a panellist at the Church of Ireland Interfaith Conference in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute on 1 and 2 September. The conference programme included visits to the Irish Islamic Centre and mosque in Clonskeagh, and the Synagogue on Rathfarnham Road in Terenure. Twice I brought groups of MTh and NSM students to the mosque in Clonskeagh this year, and the conference has strengthened the place interfaith dialogue as an important part of the agenda of the Church of Ireland and as an integral part of the life of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.

In ministry, I continue to be involved on a week-by-week basis in the liturgy and ministry of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. It is a privilege to sit in the chapter stalls week-after-week, listening to such a talented and gifted choir. I continue to serve too on the cathedral board, on the General Synod of the Church of Ireland, on Standing Committee, on the boards or councils of USPG (Anglicans in World Mission) in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and in Britain, and as secretary of the Church of Ireland’s Interfaith Working Group.

Without parochial responsibilities, I am often called on to serve in other churches. It has been a particular pleasure this year to celebrate the Eucharist and to preach in Saint Patrick’s Church, Donabate, Holmpatrick Church, Skerries, Kenure Church, Rush, Co Dublin, Holy Trinity, Rathmines, Saint John’s, Sandymount, Saint Bartholomew’s, Ballsbridge, and Saint Columba’s, Swords. I was also asked to take part in a memorial service in the Unitarian Church in Dublin, honouring deceased members of the staff of The Irish Times.

I chose ‘Mission: the common ground for ecumenism’ as my theme for the annual ecumenical lecture in Saint Patrick’s College, Kiltegan, Co Wicklow, which I delivered in February, and spoke to Rotary Club of Dublin Fingal about the history of the Church of Ireland north Co Dublin..

2010 ... through the prism of Facebook

Publishing and broadcasting

In her new book this year, The Things I’ve seen: nine lives of a foreign correspondent (Dublin: Liberties Press), Lara Marlowe, the Washington correspondent of The Irish Times, says she has had “five fine foreign editors at The Irish Times,” who, she says, “have been the umbilical cord that tied me to the paper, providing moral support guidance and a degree of freedom that few publications grant their journalists.”

And she then recalls: “In January 1988, Patrick Comerford commissioned ‘Going West in Beirut’, the first article I published in The Irish Times.” This essay, dated 9 January 1988, is reprinted in her book.

My own publications this year included a photograph and short essay on the ‘Memorial plaque to … Henry Wallop …’, (eds), Enniscorthy, A History, edited by Colm Tóibín and Celestine Rafferty nad launched in Enniscorthy at the end of November; a Chinese translation of ‘Heroism and Zeal: Pioneers of the Irish Christian Missions to China,’ which I co-authored with Dr Richard O’Leary of QUB, and which has been published as Chapter 7 in the Mandarin translation of Chapter 7 in Jerusha McCormack (ed), China and the Irish, edited by Jerusha McCormack, and published this year in Beijing by the People’s Publishing House; and ‘Bishop Joseph Stock (ca 1740-1813) and the Clergy of the Diocese of Killala and Achonry during the 1798 Rising’ in Victory or Glorious Defeat?: Biographies of Participants in the Great Rebellion of 1798, edited by Sheila Mulloy and launched in Castlebar in June.

And there were photographs from Saint Edan’s Cathedral in Ferns, Co Wexford, published in a Dutch academic journal on mediaeval history, a photograph of Sir Richard Church’s grave in Athens, published on Wikipedia, and architectural photographs of houses and buildings in Lichfield, Tamworth, Comberford, Calne and Quemerford published on the British Listed Buildings collection.

I continue to write my monthly columns in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory), features and analysis for the Church of Ireland Gazette, the occasional commentary for The Irish Times, and wrote a book review for the Irish Catholic.

In August, I took part in the popular BBC television genealogy programme, Who Do You Think You Are?, introducing the actress Dervla Kirwan to the story of her great-grandfather Henry Kahn. On Saint Patrick’s Day, I led Choral Evensong in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, which was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 17 March and repeated on Sunday 21 March. I have also been a panellist once again on Talking History on Newstalk 106, when I discussed the Reformation in January and Thomas More in June.

Beach walks and travel

Walks on the beach have been good for my sense of well-being (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Walks on the beach: at Lissadell, in Co Sligo; Kilmore, Kilmuckridge, Morriscastle and Courtown in Co Wexford, Kilcoole, Greystones and Bray in Co Wicklow, Dalkey and Sandymount on the south side of Dublin, Bull Island, Portmarnock, Malahide, Donabate, Portrane, Rush, Loughshinny, Skerries and Balbriggan in north Dublin, and Laytown, Bettystown and Mornington, Co Meath.

Outside Ireland, there were beach walks too in Crete, Samos and Turkey, but I never got to walk on the beach in Florida during a week’s holiday there.

My foreign travel this year began with a week’s holiday in Orlando at the beginning of the year. The welcome in Saint Luke’s Episcopal Cathedral was warm and embracing, and the Sunday Eucharist there was a model of what cathedral liturgy should be like.

A week in Crete included strolls on the beach too (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

I was delighted to get back to Greece twice this year: in July, I was back in Crete after an absence of almost ten years. I spent a week on the island, where my younger son was working in the village of Piskopiano, outside Hersonnisos. During that week, I travelled to Aghios Nikolaos, spent a day on Spinalonga, had a day in Iraklion, and had a rewarding return visit to Rethymnon, where I spent many fulfilling summer and autumn weeks, often for weeks on end, in the 1980s and 1990s.

I was back in Greece the following month, when I visited Sámos in August, visiting both Vathý and Pythagóreio, and climbing down into the Efpalínio Tunnel, a marvel of ancient engineering that dates from the 6th century BC, when Sámos was ruled by Polycrates. During his reign, two groups working under the engineer Efpalinos dug a tunnel through Mount Kastro to supply fresh water to the island’s ancient capital.

In August, I also spent a week in Turkey, staying in the Palmin Sunset Plaza in Kuşadasi and also visiting Ephesus and Seljuk. It was Ramadan at the time, and it was a tough time for the waiters and bar staff in hotels and restaurants in Turkey. But the improved state of Turkey’s relations with neighbouring Greece only goes a small way towards explaining a new openness to Muslim-Christian dialogue in Turkey, and I went home with a surprising and generous gift of a copy of an icon of Christ Pantocrator from a young student working in the resort as a waiter.

The Cathedral Close, Lichfield ... I had two return visits to Lichfield during the year (Photograph © Patrick Comerford 2010)

In England, I stayed twice in Lichfield: in March, when I was privileged to take part in a candlelight tour of Lichfield Cathedral, and again in June. I am sorry to see the Revd Canon Roger Williams is retiring as Master of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield, on 13 February next. He has always made me welcome, knowing that the chapel there played an important part in the formation and development of my own adult Christian faith. Last year, he invited me to speak in the chapel of Saint John’s about Jeremy Taylor, and this year he provided valuable advice about Pugin’s churches and his contemporaries in rural Staffordshire.

I was back in England in June for the annual residential conference and council meeting of USPG in Swanwick, Derbyshire, when I gave two papers on ‘Spirituality and Mission.’ This was probably the last year for the council to meet in the Hayes Conference Centre, with all future council meetings taking place in High Leigh, outside Hoddesdon. Derbyshire in a beautiful part of England, and I shall miss Swanwick, where I first attended a conference almost 35 years ago in 1976. But then, I suppose, High Leigh has the advantage of being close to Cambridge.

Participants in the IOCS Summer School in the grounds of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, this afternoon

During the summer, I also spent a weekend at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and I was back in Cambridge in July for a week’s study at Sidney Sussex College and the annual summer school of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge. This summer school focuses on patristics, and this year’s theme was “Passion: Human and Divine.” There were lectures by Dr Sebastian Brock, Dr Christine Mangala Frost, Professor David Frost, the Revd Professor Andrew Louth, Dr Marcus Plested and Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia, and the programme also included visits to the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist and to the Parker Library in Corpus Christi College.

Pursuing Pugin

Saint Mary’s Church, Tagoat, is the last of Pugin’s churches in Co Wexford and many regard it as his most important parish church in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

During those visits to England, I visited a number of churches designed by or associated with AWN Pugin, the architect who was more responsible than any other for the Gothic revival in the 19th century. These churches include Saint Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham, Pugin’s churches in Cheadle, Solihull and Uttoxeter, the chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge, where he was involved in the restoration and redecoration in the mid-19th century, Ely Cathedral, where the Lantern inspired his work on the chapel at the Loreto Convent in Rathfarnham, and the Cambridgeshire village, Longstanton, where Saint Michael’s is one of the few surviving thatched churches in England and influenced Pugin’s church designs for his church in Barntown.

I continued to pursuit of Pugin in Ireland too, visiting and photographing Saint Mary’s Church, Killarney, Saint Aidan’s Cathedral, Enniscorthy, Saint Michael’s, Gorey, the chapel at Saint Peter’s College, Wexford, his churches in Bree, Barntown and Tagoat, in Co Wexford, his convents in Killarney and Birr, Co Offaly, and Adare, Co Limerick, where he worked on the restoration of the local parish church and on the remodelling of Adare Manor.

My travels around Ireland also brought me to Kilkenny for the installation of the new Dean of Saint Canice’s Cathedral, the Very Revd Katharine Poulton, and to Old Leighlin, Co Carlow, for the installation of the new Dean of Saint Laserian’s Cathedral, the Very Revd Tom Gordon, a former colleague on the staff of the Church of Ireland Theological College.

Kataharine invited me back to preach at her first cathedral harvest service in Saint Canice’s. Kilkenny remains my favourite city in Ireland, and at times I think you might have to peel me out of it.

I paid a return visit to my old school in Gormanston, toured the Blessington Lakes in Co Wicklow and the Lakes of Killarney in Co Kerry, was in Castlebar for a book launch, and accidentally found myself with a delightful albeit unplanned morning in Dundalk, Co Louth. There were visits too to Bunclody and Templeshanbo, important places on the Comerford ancestral trail in Co Wexford.

Courage in life and death

A return visit to Millstreet (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

After many years of absence, I also briefly visited Millstreet, my mother’s home village in north Co Cork. This is a charming village, and I regret that I never got to know it properly. I’m very aware of my family history on the Comerford and Lynders sides of the family, but know little about the stories of the Murphy and Crowley families in Millstreet.

There have been family baptisms, weddings and funerals, including the baptism of a cousin’s child in Donabate, continuing into another generation a long family association with that parish, and the death of my foster mother, Peggy Kerr.

This year saw the deaths of some clerical colleagues in the Church of Ireland, including the the Revd Professor Eric Woodhouse, former Regius Professor of Divinity at Trinity College Dublin, the Revd Wilbert Gourley, Rector of Zion Parish, Rathgar, Father John McKay, former Vicar of Saint Bartholomew’s, Ballsbridge, Archdeacon Donald Keegan, former Archdeacon of Killaloe and Rector of Birr, Co Offaly, the Revd Alan Matchett, Rector of Adare, Co Limerick, the Revd Douglas Slator, who in retirement gave faithful service to Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and the Revd Cecil Kerr, who had been instrumental in the charismatic and renewal movements, as well as the death of the Revd Declan Deane, a Jesuit who had been one of my tutors at the Irish School of Ecumenics in the 1980s.

I only ever briefly met knew the Very Revd Colin Slee, but I was familiar with and appreciated his work as the Dean of Southwark Cathedral. He died a month before Christmas, on 25 November, and he is a great loss not just to the Church of England but to wider Anglicanism too.

He was courageous, outspoken and combative in his defence of the marginalised, the oppressed and the forgotten, but always an orthodox priest in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. Although he was far from being pompous or solemn, he insisted on his cathedral clergy following the proper form in prayer and dress, and was critical of those clergy who spurn vestments, descend into praying vacuously, but try to claim that they and only they are truly orthodox.

He once said in typically robust and caustic style: “I insist the cathedral clergy wear black shirts because it is a statement of history and origin, a uniform deeply rooted in tradition and monastic antecedents ... [not] the floral extravaganzas more symptomatic of a photo-collage of the Chelsea Flower Show than the hard work of saving souls ... All that makes me ‘liberal,’ a moderniser. Then there are those who ... don’t wear clerical dress, so you don’t know who they are or what they represent ... all that makes them ‘conservative’.”

Snow, snow and sarcoidosis

Sunset at Skerries Harbour on an autumn evening this year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The year ended with heavy snowfalls and water being cut off to most households throughout Ireland – we have a Minister for Transport who is quick to make media appearances when he feels compelled to defend his pension, but is retiring indeed when it comes to discussing how this country has been brought to a standstill. We have had the greatest precipitation imaginable in the past few weeks, yet somehow this is said to explain why domestic water has been cut in some places for 18 hours in every 24 ... although the Environment Minister was not to be heard explaining anything until late yesterday.

But our water problems in Ireland pale into insignificance as I read the words of Bishop Michael Burrows in the annual report of the Church of Ireland Bishops’ Appeal Fund. He points out that one in eight of the world's population, 900 million people, do not have safe, clean, drinking water. As a consequence, a child dies every 20 seconds, and every day many African women and children must spend up to four hours every day carrying water that may already be unsafe.

On occasions, the December snows have meant having to sleep overnight at work, or being housebound for a day or two. The last time I was trapped by snow was in Cambridge almost two years ago, after the Revd Christopher Woods had invited me to preach at Candlemas in Christ’s College. I hope I am not trapped by snow again in Cambridge when I return to preach in the chapel in Sidney Sussex in a few weeks’ time.

Snow in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge

Meanwhile, my personal health remains stable .and unchanged. I continue to have regular hospital visits for tests and consultations, and to see my consultant and GP on a regular basis about my Sarcoidosis and my Vitamin B12 deficiency. Being stable means nothing has changed; I still have a persistent cough, pains in my joints and uncomfortable swelling in my neck, and a constant sensation of “pins-and-needles” under my feet.

This has prevented me from attending as many ordinations I would have liked to be at this year. But my faith, the constant love and support I receive from family, friends and colleagues, and my regular beach walks keep my spirits up.

And so, all in all, it has been a good year. This year marked the tenth anniversary of my ordination as deacon. I hope to be in good spirits – perhaps even better spirits – next year as I celebrate the tenth anniversary of my ordination as priest.

A toast to 2010 as the year comes to a close (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Seven swans-a-swimming on the Seventh Day of Christmas

On the Seventh Day of Christmas ... seven swans-a-swimming on the Grand Canal at Harold’s Cross earlier this week on Saint Stephen’s Day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

This is the Seventh Day of Christmas, 31 December, and I realise that the end of the year falls in the middle of Christmastide, even though it has no particular connection with the Feast. How wonderful that in the Lectionary readings for the Eucharist today, the opening verses of Saint John’s Gospel remind us of true beginnings and true endings.

In mediaeval and early modern Europe, the New Year began on 25 March, the Feast of the Annunciation – hearing the beginning of the salvation story at the beginning of the year also seems very appropriate.

On 31 December, the calendar of the Episcopal Church (TEC) recalls Samuel Ajayi Crowther (1891), Bishop in the Niger Territories and the first black African bishop in the Anglican Communion – another new beginning to celebrate.

In the Orthodox tradition, the Afterfeast of the Nativity – similar to the Western Octave – continues until 31 December, which is known as the ἀπόδοσις (Apodosis) or “leave-taking” of the Nativity.

The Swan ... once claimed to be the oldest pub in Lichfield, but has since been turned into a restaurant and apartments (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The seventh verse of the traditional song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, is:

On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...
seven swans-a-swimming,
six geese-a-laying,
five golden rings,
four Colly birds,
three French hens,
two turtle doves
and a partridge in a pear tree.


The Christian interpretation of this song often sees the seven swans-a-swimming as figurative representations of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety and Fear of the Lord.

The Church of Ireland Lectionary readings for the Eucharist today are: I John 2: 18-21; Psalm 96: 1-2, 11-13; John 1: 1-18.

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