Saturday, 14 May 2011

‘As neat and trim as a lady’s drawing-room’

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh ... ‘As neat and trim as a lady’s drawing-room’ according to Thackeray (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

For the past three days I have been staying almost in the shadow of Saint Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh. The Charlemont Arms Hotel is just a two or three minutes’ stroll from the hill on which the cathedral stands and from which Armagh takes its name – Ard Mhacha, the “Hill of Macha”. On the other side of the hotel, on the neighbouring hill, is Saint Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cathedral.

Macha was a legendary pre-Christian tribal princess associated with nearby Eamhain Mhacha, or Navan Fort, a major ritual site occupied from the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age, and thought to have been the centre of Iron Age Ulster.

Eamhain Mhacha is associated with the epic Ulster cycle, the Táin Bó Cúailnge (“The Cattle Raid of Cooley”) and its doomed hero, Cú Chulainn, the “Hound of Ulster.”

After the ritual destruction of the sanctuary at Eamhain Mhaccha in the first century AD, it is likely that the nearby hill of Ard Mhacha became the centre of the Ulaidh – the local tribal group that gave their name to Ulster. This is this hilltop enclosure that Saint Patrick acquired and in the year 445 in this enclosure he built his first “Great Stone Church,” the Church of the Relics, on the Druim Saileach (Sallow Ridge) Hill, a site close to Scotch Street, below the Hill of Armagh.

The monastic community that developed around Saint Patrick’s Church produced the Book of Armagh, a ninth century Irish manuscript now in the Library in Trinity College Dublin, and containing some of the earliest surviving examples of Old Irish.

The Vikings raised the monastery in Armagh on at least two occasions in the ninth century – in 839 and in 869. The church was also damaged in a lightning strike in 995.

Brian Boru, who defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Clontarf on Good Friday 1014 – only to be executed as he prayed in his tent that evening – is said to be buried beside the North Wall of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. However, the church remained in ruins until 1125 when it was repaired and re-roofed by Bishop Cellach or Celsus.

After his death, the see remained vacant for five years until he was succeeded by Saint Malachy in 1134.

A head stoop at the West Door of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The most far-reaching work of restoration was carried out by Archbishop Patrick O’Scanlon (1261-1270). Further damage required major rebuilding by Archbishop Milo Sweetman in the 1360s and by Archbishop John Swayne in the 1420s.

Archbishop Edmund Connesburgh, who was appointed Archbishop of Armagh in 1475, was consecrated but never gained possession of the diocese. He resigned in 1477, and acted as a suffragan bishop in the Diocese of Ely in 1477. He became titular Archbishop of Chalcedon in 1478, by 1483 he was styled “Archbishop in the universal church,” but by 1502 he was a suffragan bishop in the Diocese of Exeter.

In the 1560s, as Lord Deputy of Ireland, the Earl of Sussex fortified the cathedral against Shane O’Neill, but in 1566 O’Neill “utterly destroyed the cathedral by fire, lest the English should again lodge in it.” A century later, in 1641, Sir Phelim O’Neill burned down the cathedral.

Archbishop James Margetson carried out repair work in the 1660s, and further restorations were undertaken in 1727, 1765, 1802, 1834, 1888, 1903, 1950, 1970, and most recently in 2004 under Dean Herbert Cassidy.

The extensive restoration carried out between 1834 and 1837 was commissioned and largely paid for by Archbishop John George Beresford. The architect Lewis Nockalls Cottingham (1787-1847) addressed the structural vulnerability of the cathedral by restoring the nave walls to the perpendicular and removing the short wooden spire that can be seen on the cathedral seal (right).

He also reopened the clerestory windows that had been blocked by Archbishop Margetson and restyled them in decorated Gothic, enlarged the choir windows and overlaid the timber vaulting with plasterwork.

Cottingham came to Armagh after restoring Saint Alban’s Abbey, and in Armagh he tried to replicate some features which had impressed him in Saint Alban’s, erecting a stone screen to separate the nave from the choir.

This innovation shows how Cottingham was influenced by the ideas of AWN Pugin and the early Gothic Revival. These influences can be seen too in his restoration of the High Altar from the west end, where it had been relegated by Archbishop William Stewart at the beginning of the 19th century, to its proper eastward position in the form of a stone altar backed by a reredos of canopied niches. These too were copied from Saint Alban’s.

However, many felt that, far from providing a sense of mediaevalism, Cottingham was too deliberate and precise and that he tended to eclipse the earlier features of the cathedral. According to William Makepeace Thackeray, Cottingham’s cathedral was “too complete ... not the least venerable. It is as neat and trim as a lady’s drawing-room.”

Although the rood screen was removed in 1888, much of Cottingham’s work remains, although the basic shape of the cathedral is still as it was conceived by Archbishop O’Scanlon in the 13th century.

The West Door of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Armagh’s Georgian architectural heritage is one of the attractive features of this cathedral city. To the left, as you leave the cathedral gates, is Armagh Public Library, founded in 1771. Across the street is the former Armagh Infirmary, dating from 1774. The 18th century is also represented in the 11 houses of Vicar’s Hill facing the great west door of the Cathedral.

Other well-known Georgian buildings in the city include the former Archbishops’ Palace (1770), now the offices of the city council, the former women’s prison (1780) and Armagh Observatory, founded in 1790.

Opposite the Library is the neo-Elizabethan Synod Hall, built in 1912, and, to its right, the limestone pillars and 18th century iron gates, the site of the Archbishops’ Palace. The new See House is expected to be completed by the end of this year.

Caught between the Scylla of repression and the Charybdis of oppression

Visiting a Hindu temple in Leicester ... one of the images presented during the Inter-Faith debate at General Synod in Armagh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

On the third day of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland in Armagh this morning [Saturday], I seconded the report of the Commission for Christian Unity and Dialogue, and as secretary of the Inter-Faith Working Group, seconded Motion No 10:

“General Synod welcomes the work of the Inter-Faith Working Group and encourages each diocese to appoint an Inter-Faith resource person to foster and encourage Inter-Faith initiatives at diocesan and parochial level.”

The motion was proposed by the Archbishop of Dublin, the Most Revd Dr Michael Jackson. As we spoke, a collection of images from two conferences – the Inter-Faith Conference in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute last September, and the Inter-Faith Conference in Leicester earlier this year – were projected on the main screens behind us.

Seconding the report and the motion, I said:


Over the past few weeks, I have followed with fascination the news from the Middle East and the Islamic world – the Arab Spring that has gripped Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Qatar, the Emirates …

And as I’ve watched, like you, I have found I am reacting with a mixture of hope and fear, joy and anxiety, wonder and heartbreak.

There are up to 10 million Christians in Egypt … twice the population of Ireland. There are 2 million Christians in Syria … greater in number than the membership of the Church of Ireland.

In both countries, these people have joined the calls for democracy … knowing that the price of demanding democracy risks being caught between the Scylla of an even more repressive regime that clamps down any lingering liberties, and a Charybdis of a new order controlled largely by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The bravery of these Christian communities, the willingness of their Muslim neighbours to stand guard as they prayed, and of Christians to stand protectively by their Muslim neighbours as they bowed in prayer, is an example of how good Christian-Muslim relations produce fruits that are for the benefit of the whole of society.

Last February and March some of us heard similar heart-warming stories – how Muslims and Christians have stood together in the face of hatred and in the face of provocation.

But whether we are talking about these islands or the Middle East, good relations cannot be created at a moment of crisis. They come about only through hard work, honesty and commitment, from communities that respect themselves while respecting others.

Events in the Middle East and the Islamic world are a sharp reminder that the world is changing rapidly, and that the agenda the context for Inter-Faith relations is changing faster than we can grasp.

The time is now to prepare for this on this island. We need people in each diocese who are resourced so they can answer and advise us at all levels in the Church about the difficult questions about school prayers, community prayers, shared events, marriage, family tensions, community opportunities …

That is why the Inter-Faith Working Group believes there is a need for a commitment in each diocese to have an Inter-Faith resource person.

All of us who went to Leicester a few weeks ago were impressed not so much about the theoretical under-pinning of dialogue in that city and that diocese but more by the stories that underlined the value of pastoral and personal encounters, that were built on the church, in the diocese, in parishes, in schools, engages with community and society.

At times of crisis, the church in Leicester was able to offer solidarity with those who were targeted by those with violence in their hearts, violence stirred and provoked by media caricature and images.

Our images from Leicester are positive and encouraging. And we hope that these images, and other positive images from our conference last September, encourage each diocese – more than this resolution – to appoint an Inter-Faith resource person to foster and encourage Inter-Faith initiatives at diocesan and parochial level.

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

A decisive day for the House of Bishops at the General Synod in Armagh

The Central Tower of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

The General Synod of the Church of Ireland enters its third day today [Saturday] in Armagh. As I blogged yesterday morning, I wondered what our ecumenical guests and the visitor from other churches made of our laborious and tedious way of dealing with synodical leadership.

Then, yesterday three of those guests had an opportunity to speak for themselves. Father Sean Dooley of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Armagh brought greetings from Mellifont in south Co Louth, and from Bishop Gerry Clifford. He spoke of working and praying with Dean Patrick Rooke, Canon John McKegney, the Red Grace Clunie and others throughout the Diocese of Armagh, standing together publicly in troubled times.

Father George Zavershinsky brought greetings on behalf of the Archbishop of Sourozh and the Russian Orthodox Church in Britain and Ireland, which has parishes in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. His church is using Church of Ireland churches in Galway, Harold’s Cross in Dublin, and Saint George’s in Belfast.

The former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Very Revd Dr Stafford Carson, said the General Assembly, like the General Synod, could be filled with moments of “fizz and passion” and moments that are gruelling and tedious. He spoke of a changing ecclesiastical landscape in Ireland, and said it called on us to express “passion for Christ and compassion for people.”

Patrick Comerford with Geoffrey Perrin of the Representative Church Body at the General Synod of the Church of Ireland in Armagh (Photograph: David Wynne, 2011)

But I wondered if they realised the ground-breaking and unprecedented moment they witnessed as the House of Bishops for the first time voted publicly at a sitting of the General Synod. Nine bishops stood on the platform to vote publicly in favour of the Church of Ireland subscribing to the Anglican Covenant. The Bishop of Cork – a noted canon lawyer – was alone when he stood to vote against the motion.

Moments earlier, the General Synod voted 235-52 – an overwhelming majority – for the motion. The motion said: “Seeing that the Anglican Covenant is consonant with the doctrine and formularies of the Church of Ireland, the General Synod hereby subscribes the Covenant.”

As I sat at the press table, some people there observed that the public nature of bishop’s vote was unprecedented, and they asked whether it opened the possibility of public and open voting by the House of Bishops in future synods. Others noted the Bishop of Cork’s courageous if lonely stand.

Proposing the motion, Bishop Michael Burrows (Cashel and Ossory) said the Anglican Covenant was the one available remedy at the moment. It would not become part of the formularies of the Church of Ireland, nor would it change the Church of Ireland’s self-understanding. Subscribing to the covenant would reserve the right to walk away or to seek other possibilities.

The motion did not mean adopting the Anglican Covenant, he said. There is no walking away from adoption, while subscribing means honourably aligning with the Anglican Covenant, living up to what it asks of us. “We are not giving away our sovereignty,” he stressed.

Bishop Harold Miller (Down and Dromore) answered arguments that the covenant was too restrictive or punitive. Seconding the motion, he said the Preamble and Declaration remained foundational for the Church of Ireland.

Revd Canon Michael Kennedy (Armagh) said this was one of the most serious theological documents the General Synod had been asked to vote on. “The sting in the tail” was the way the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion could make recommendations that amounted to excommunication, and he warned of the danger of deepening divisions.

Mr Eimhin Walsh (Dublin) said the proposed grievance procedure was based on the language of threat rather than love, offering legalistic solutions and limiting potential prophetic actions, and creating a two-tier communion, rather than honouring and respecting differences.

Revd Brian O’Rourke (Cork) described the Anglican Covenant as an attack on traditional Anglican pluralism, redefining what it means to be an Anglican, and threatening Anglican diversity. He suggested it is a covenant of exclusion.

Revd Patricia Hanna (Limerick and Killaloe) recalled how she was impressed by a recent lecture by Canon Paul Avis in Trinity College Dublin, and his emphasis on koinonia. She gave images of the Covenant as a way forward and a process of enabling communication without opposing sides being expected to become the same.

Mr Dermot O’Callaghan said the covenant arose from a clash of world views. He claimed the majority of the Anglican world had lost confidence in the covenant process. He feared the covenant may be a valiant failure and was voting against it.

Canon Paul Willoughby (Cork) called for prayer before we do anything that is radical. He found no love and no healing in the covenant. “We want to walk together as God’s people.” He pleaded for a “loving rejection.”

Canon Norman Jardine (Down and Dromore) described the covenant as an attempt to celebrate the good things of being a world-wide church, open to all sorts of people and places, being part of their suffering and sharing, so that we could be a blessing not just to ourselves but to the world.

Miss Cate Turner (Connor), a member of the Anglican Consultative Council for the past ten years, described the difficult divisions she had experienced in the Anglican Communion. She said that they way the Church of Ireland handles division is an important voice to bring to the Anglican Communion,

The Dean of Cork, Very Revd Nigel Dunne, said the first three sections of the covenant are among the best statements of Anglican doctrine. He had problems with section 4, which lead us to being a confessional church rather than a communion, and which had serious implications. The Church in Wales had said Section 4 introduced the formal means for dividing the Anglican Communion rather than nurturing the unity of the church. He warned of the danger of Anglicanism imploding on itself, and cautioned that the narrowing of boundaries leads to destruction.

Earlier, Revd Andrew Foster (Armagh) said the Anglican Covenant “has a strong Church of Ireland DNA, having been born out of the Windsor Report chaired by Lord Eames and the close involvement of Archbishop John Neill “in its drafting and inception” – a point repeated by Bishop Burrows when he responded to the debate. If the Church of Ireland rejected the covenant, the Anglican Communion would face failure, he said.

Responding to Canon Willoughby’s suggestion, Archbishop Harper asked for a time of quiet prayer.

Friday’s debate has delayed our debates on the Covenant with the Methodist Church and ecumenical and Inter-Faith dialogue. I expect to have an opportunity to speak on the Inter-Faith work of the Church of Ireland during the closing day of the General Synod today [Saturday].

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