25 February 2012

‘Believing and Belonging’ (1): The Changing Profile of the Church of Ireland

Corfu in Parliament Street had its official opening last night ... the restaurants on one small street reflect the cultural diversity in Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

‘Believing and Belonging’ (1): The Changing Profile of the Church of Ireland

Patrick Comerford

Saturday 25 February 2012 (9.30 to 10.50 a.m):

Archbishop’s Certificate Course in Theology,
Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

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 to our worship and to our parishes 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 to look at the changing belief landscape in Ireland. This is an opportunity to look at the topic of inter-faith dialogue from an Anglican perspective.

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


The downturn in the economy over the past four or five years has seen a large number of immigrants who came to the Republic of Ireland from Eastern Europe, and who worked here in the construction industry, in services and hospitality, or as casual labourers, begin to return home. They are not showing up in the escalating unemployment figures, and once they are gone no-one is following up on their needs, pastorally, economically or socially. It appears to be a case of “out of sight, out of mind.”

Those who remain, as the “real” unemployment figures rise further, may be facing increasing resentment that is going to 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 teenagers and young adults – the late night grille at fillings stations, the cleaning and casual labouring shifts, the stacking and shelving jobs in supermarkets in the middle of the night.

These are major moral issues for the Church today. Any outside observer or commentator looking at the Church of Ireland and the Anglican Communion in recent years would have thought the only moral issues we face are those that are dominating the agenda for the special conference in the Slieve Russell Hotel in Cavan next month, or that dominated the agenda at Gafcon and the Lambeth Conference in 2008.

But what about the major moral issues facing us in the Church today when it comes to welcoming the stranger in our midst, or 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.

These figures help to flesh out the ways in which we have all come to realise and accept that Ireland has become a diverse and multicultural society.

But 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 weavers 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 here are:

● firstly, people born in the United Kingdom;

● secondly, tourists.

We do not 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 50,000 or 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.

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

When immigration was probably at its highest, in the middle of the last 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) 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.

I was in Parliament Street last night as a guest at the formal opening of the Greek restaurant, Corfu. And if you have not been in Parliament Street recently – it is only three minutes away from this room – go there after this session and take note of the cultural variety in the restaurants on that one small street: not just Greek, but also Italian, Spanish, Lebanese, Turkish, Persian, Brazilian … I’m already counting on the fingers of a second hand – and that’s just one small street.

Or 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 once 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.

Bunclody, Co Wexford … the Irish town with the largest Polish population (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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 was once a daily bus service between Busarus in Dublin and Warsaw in Poland.

The second largest group comes from Latvia, and at one stage they 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, and the recent Rostas family tragedy helps to perpetuate that perception. 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 the referendum on the European Treaty in 2009 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 an 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 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 at the time, Canon Katharine Poulton, now Dean of Ossory, 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 since moved to a new building. Other schools in area were giving priority to Roman Catholic children, and so their school rolls were full. Since the new school opened under Church of Ireland management, the number of children has reached somewhere around 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 a count two years ago, I was told the senior infants’ class had 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 some 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.

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).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, 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 25 February 2012.

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