Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Vicar of Bart’s makes way for the Vicar of Dibley

The Vicar of Dibley ... a tune matching a theme

Patrick Comerford

The Vicar of Saint Bartholomew’s, the Revd Andrew McCroskery, was away today, and I was invited to preside and preach at the Sung Eucharist this morning.

I had arrived early, and waiting in the vestry it was a delight to listen to the choir rehearsing beforehand.

As we waited for the bells at 11, I joked before the procession that listening to them rehearsing I realised that, while the Vicar of Saint Bartholomew’s was absent, we would have the joys of listening to The Vicar of Dibley.

And we did.

The setting for this morning’s Eucharist was the Holy Communion in C by John Ireland (1879-1962). But the Communion Motet was ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ by Howard Goodall. This setting of Psalm 23 is better known as the theme from The Vicar of Dibley. How appropriate for a morning in which the Psalm and Lectionary readings focussed on the theme of the Good Shepherd.

Last night, when I mentioned this on Facebook, George Lawlor recalled how Howard Goodall came to Wexford a few years ago to see the Wexford Light Opera production of The Hired Man, “a brilliant musical which he composed with Melvyn Bragg.”

Apart from The Vicar of Dibley, Howard Goodall has composed incidental music for several popular British comedy programmes, including Red Dwarf, Blackadder, Mr Bean, and The Catherine Tate Show.

As an undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford, Goodall met the actor Rowan Atkinson and the writer Richard Curtis, and the three have collaborated on several television projects, including Not The Nine O’Clock News.

He has written requiems and settings for psalms, and has been commissioned by schools, chapels, churches, choirs, cathedrals and festivals throughout Britain.

Recently, he was commissioned by Truro Cathedral to write a new work for all four cathedral choirs: Truro Cathedral Choir (boys and men), Saint Mary’s Singers (mixed adults), Cornwall Youth Choir and Cornwall Junior Choir. This piece, A New Heart, A New Spirit, sets Biblical texts from Wisdom and Ezekiel in four languages – English, Latin, French and Cornish – and was first performed in Truro Cathedral last June, along with several of his other choral compositions.

Over coffee in Saint Bartholomew’s, it was good to meet some long-standing friends, including Leslie and Averil Forrest from Co Wexford.

Patrick Walshe’s exhibition in the Crypt in Christ Church Cathedral continues until 10 May (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

After lunch in the Silk Road Café at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin Castle, I went back to Christ Church Cathedral to view “Light-Silence-Time,” an exhibition in the Cathedral Crypt of paintings by Patrick Walshe.

Later, at Choral Evensong, I read the first lesson (Exodus 16: 4-15), and the second lesson was read by the canon-in-residence, Canon John McCullough.

Afterwards, I went around the corner to Cow’s Lane for coffee in La Dolce Vita. By now, the rains blown in by that north-easterly wind were coming down, the temperature had dropped to seven or six, and the weather had turned wintery. But the Vicar of Dibley was still bringing a smile to my face.

A rain-soaked afternoon at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Lost sheep and little children

The Good Shepherd ... a stained glass window in Saint Mary’s Church, Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 29 April 2012, The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin

11 a.m.: Choral Eucharist

Acts 4: 5-12;
Psalm 23;
I John 3: 16-24;
John 10: 11-18.

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

This morning, the Psalm and the Gospel reading are going to prompt plenty of sermons throughout the Church of Ireland on the Good Shepherd, doubtlessly heavy-laden not just with fluffy little lambs but with romantic images of shepherds, dressed in white flowing robes and covered with red cope-like cloaks buckled with gold clasps.

Think about the many stained glass windows in parish churches up and down this land, or the images being presented in Sunday School lessons in most parishes this morning, and you realise how we have romanticised the Good Shepherd … along with romanticising the idea of laying down my life for the sake of the sheep.

The reality, of course, is that there is nothing romantic about laying down your life for someone else, and certainly not for a little lamb. And in the time of Christ there was nothing romantic either about being a shepherd, good or bad.

But the story of the Good Shepherd is so familiar that for the vast majority of people in church this morning, it is going to be very difficult for us to get to grips with the force of a Gospel reading coloured by stained-glass windows and Sunday school colouring books … a cultural perception that has even been reinforced by nursery rhymes that tell us “Mary had a little lamb.”

How sweet. But there was nothing sweet about being a shepherd in the time of Christ.

This Gospel reading recalls a pre-Crucifixion event in the life of Christ. But it has been chosen in the lectionary for this Sunday in the Easter Season to challenge us to think about who the Risen Christ is for us today.

This is probably the best-known and best-loved of the seven ‘I AM’ sayings in Saint John’s Gospel. But it suffers from urban understandings or misunderstandings about shepherds and sheep.

I remember once, on Achill Island, hearing about a shepherd who went down a rock-face looking for a lost lamb, and who lost his life. Local people were shocked – lambs at the time did not fetch a price that made them worth losing your life for.

The lamb survived, but in the process of being lost had been torn by brambles, had lost a lot of its wool, was bleeding and messy. Any shepherd going down that island cliff after a lost lamb would be torn by brambles too, covered in sheep droppings, would slip on the rocks and risk his life.

And all for what?

And yet Christ says he is the Good Shepherd who seeks out the lost sheep, in the face of great risks from wolves and from the terrain, and against all common wisdom, as the hired hands would know.

Against all the prevailing wisdom of his day, Christ identifies with those who are lost, those who are socially and religiously on the margins, who are smelly and dirty, injured and broken, regarded by everyone else as worthless, as simply not worth the bother.

God sees us – all of us – in our human condition, with all our collective and individual faults and failings, and in Christ totally identifies with us.

Perhaps the disciples – as they listened to Christ describing himself as the Good Shepherd – recalled that David too had been a good shepherd (see I Samuel 17: 34-35). But that was when David lived on the margins, before he became king. Would they recall the many Old Testament promises that God would come to shepherd his people (see Isaiah 40: 11; Jeremiah 23: 1-6; Ezekiel 34: 11)?

By the time of Christ, shepherds are among the dispossessed, on the lowest rung of society. They neither own their own land nor own their own sheep. They often end up as the hired hands of the wealthy urban dwellers, the absentee landlords who figure prominently in so many of the Gospel parables.

These hired shepherd-servants depend for their livelihood on work that requires being out at night, in unsociable hours, in the dark, in the fields – away from their mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters, the family members any honourable man would have stayed at home to protect.

As a consequence, shepherds were seen as men without honour. At best, they were unreliable; at worst, they were borderline bandits.

The story of the Good Samaritan is unique to Saint Luke’s Gospel; and the image of the Good Shepherd is unique to Saint John’s Gospel.

In those days, shepherds were despised as much as Samaritans. In this context, a good shepherd, like a good Samaritan, is a contradiction in terms.

Yet it was to shepherds that the Good News of the Incarnation was first proclaimed in Saint Luke’s Gospel.

And, as with Saint Luke’s story of the Good Samaritan, Christ uses the image of the Good Shepherd, a despised external “other,” to challenge our preconceptions about others. The invitation is to think about what is really important in human relationships.

And Christ’s answer is always the same: compassion, individual moral character, and generous, inclusive action. We are not to condemn by assigning human beings to hated categories.

Christ constantly challenges his followers to live out the Gospel on the margins, just as he consistently places himself among those society has pushed to the margins: tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes, Samaritans, shepherds …

In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, the members of the Sanhedrin sitting in judgment on Peter and John are offended, not because the two disciples have performed a healing ministry … it is difficult for us to understand today, but at the time healing miracles were expected and accepted.

The problems arise because Peter and John have done this without the authority of the High Priests, scribes and Sadducees, and have done this for a disabled beggar outside the Temple gates.

John and Peter are asked to explain who gave them power or authority to cure the lame beggar (verse 7).

The power and authority that challenges and perplexes the ruling elite in Jerusalem is not a challenge to their right to monopolise the office of High Priest. It is threatening because it counts in those who are counted out, those who are counted outside the Temple cult and sacred and secular society.

Peter and John work with an authority that brings new meaning and new life to someone who, because he is both disabled and poor, has been forced outside the Temple gates, who has been excluded from full religious rights, who is not accepted as a member of the religious community, who is one of the lost sheep.

The work of the Good Shepherd continues not by going after the insider but by going after the outsider, risking our reputations, and risking our place in life, in polite society, for the one who is categorised as the outsider, who is seen as having no value.

Even if we have little value in the eyes of those who see us day-by-day, we all have value in Christ’s eyes.

In our Epistle reading (I John 3: 16-24), Saint John tells us that our response to this outpouring of love from God, an outpouring that is risky and beyond all human understanding of generosity, is to love. To love not just those who are easy to love, but to love those who are difficult to love too. And to love beyond words.

He says: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (I John 3: 18).

‘Little Children, love one another’ … the Basilica of Saint John on the hill of Ayasoluk, overlooking Ephesus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2008)

Jerome tells the well-loved story that Saint John continued preaching even when he was in his 90s (Comm. in ep. ad. Gal., 6, 10).

He was so enfeebled with old age that the people had to carry him into the Church in Ephesus on a stretcher.

And when he was no longer able to preach or deliver a long sermon, his custom was to lean up on one elbow each time and say simply: “Little children, love one another.”

This continued on, even when the ageing John was on his deathbed.

Then he would lie back down and his friends would carry him back out.

Every week, the same thing happened, again and again. And every week it was the same short sermon, with the same message: “Little children, love one another.”

One day, the story goes, someone asked him about it: “John, why is it that every week you say exactly the same thing, ‘little children, love one another’?”

And John replied: “Because it is enough.”

If you want to know the basics of living as a Christian, there it is in a nutshell. All you need to know is. “Little children, love one another.”

If you want to know the rules, there they are. And there’s only one. “Little children, love one another.”

That is all he preached in Ephesus, week after week, and that is precisely the message he keeps on repeating in his first letter (I John), over and over again: “Little children, love one another.”
But John tells us this morning that this love is shown not so much in word or speech but in truth and action.

Peter and John, in their deeds and action this morning, give this love visible expression. It is a love that that is a true living out of the Resurrection faith. It is a love that embraces not just those like us but those God counts in too, calls in from the margins, counts in when others count them out of sacred and secular society, and counts them in as children of God.

“Little children, love one another … because it truly is enough.”


Almighty God,
whose Son Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life:
Raise us, who trust in him,
from the death of sin to the life of righteousness,
that we may seek those things which are above,
where he reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Merciful Father,
you gave your Son Jesus Christ to be the good shepherd,
and in his love for us to lay down his life and rise again.
Keep us always under his protection,
and give us grace to follow in his steps;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and a con of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Choral Eucharist in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin, on Sunday 29 April 2012.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Lion or lamb? Or an Aegean postcard?

Blue skies and blue waters seen through the sea defences at the harbour in Rush this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

Despite the forecasts of rain, and despite the continuing north-easterly winds, and despite low temperatures hovering around 11 or 12, it looked like a sunny afternoon today, with clear blue skies and strong sunshine.

My sermon for tomorrow morning has long been prepared, and I’m looking forward to the Sung Eucharist in Saint Bartholomew’s Church. This afternoon was one that it would have been a shame not to rejoice in, one that had to be rejoiced in. And so I went out to Fingal for a stroll along the harbour front in Rush and a walk along the North Strand.

Blue waters, golden sands and Aegean-like houses along the harbour in Rush this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

In the small harbour, all the fishing boats were tied up, three small boys were playing ball on the small portion of sand, and the waves were swelling and rising, battering against the harbour walls and the sea defences.

Two lone kite surfers were out on the choppy waves, enjoying the surf, the sun and the inflowing tides.

The square-shaped, cubist-like, bright coloured houses along the rim of the harbour stood out in relief against the blue skies like an Aegean postcard.

We walked around the rim of the harbour beach and down unto the north beach, where the waves were still battering the shoreline, scattered with mussel and sea shells.

The Thatch ... said to be the oldest two-storey thatched cottage in this part of Fingal (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

We walked back into Rush and had a late lunch in The Thatch, a coffee house, wine bar and restaurant on Lower Main Street.

But this is no ordinary coffee house. This is one of the oldest thatched, two-storey thatched cottages in Fingal. It dates back to the mid-18th century, and is said to have been the home of ‘Jack the Bachelor,’ a smuggler who took advantage of the coves and coves around this part of north Co Dublin.

The decor is engaging, to say the least, and the character is matched by the welcome, the menu and the quality of the food.

Trees forming an arch at Turvey on the road to Donabate this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

I thought of going back to see if there was a game at Rush Cricket Club, opposite Kenure Church. But instead we made our back through Lusk and Rogerstown to Turvey Avenue, which was lined with trees whose spring-green boughs formed an arch across the road leading to Donabate.

We spent an hour or two in Portrane, and as we left the clouds were covering the once-blue skies and the waves were chopping in against the beach at the Burrow.

It is often said that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. In Wales this proverb is applied to the month of April more often than March. But throughout this month it has felt that April came in like a lamb and is going out like a lion. But, despite all the predictions, these last few days in the countryside and on the beaches of Dublin and Wicklow have stirred my heart and lifted my expectations for summer.

Fading lights at Portrane, looking out to Lambay and the Irish Sea this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Friday, 27 April 2012

A sunny afternoon in Greystones

Waves rolling and breaking against the shoreline in Greystones this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

It is difficult to believe the change in the weather over the past 48 hours. On Wednesday night, on the way back from Dunlavin through Blessington, the rains were heavy, the winds were high and the roads were flooding in the Wicklow Mountains.

By Thursday evening, it looked as though the wind and the rains had blown and washed much of the blossoms from the cherry trees in the Churchtown area, and the verges and footpaths were covered in pink, snow-like blankets.

Pink, snow-like blankets below cherry trees in Churchtown late on Thursday afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

But the sun came out this afternoon, and despite a chill being blown in by a north-easterly breeze, the skies were blue and there was a heart-warming glow in the sunshine. It was an afternoon to be cherished.

After reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting essays, assignments and dissertations during the morning, two of us drove down the M50 to Bray this afternoon and on to Greystones. Parking in Burnaby Road, we stopped for coffee in Insomnia before going behind the railway line and on to the lengthy beach for a long stroll.

The sand was damp, but the skies were still blue, and the tide was rolling in. There was a strong thunder-like sound as the waves rose, broke and clapped against the shoreline. Without the chill in that north-easterly, it might have been easy to imagine that summer is on the way.

Looking down on the beach from the bank beside the railway line south of Greystones (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

We stepped up onto the bank above the sand and running alongside the railway line, as we walked back towards Greystones and the DART station.

As the road rose out of Greystones on the way back north towards Bray, the fields were green beneath the sunshine. Below us, the Irish Sea spread out to the east, and the new harbour at Greystones stood out clearly behind us.

There has been a beautiful sunset this evening. The rains are expected to return over the weekend. But the end of April holds promises of bright summer days ahead.

Looking back at Greystones and out to the Irish Sea on the road to Bray (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Thursday, 26 April 2012

A new rector in Dunlavin, Co Wicklow

Cherry blossom and Saint Nicholas’ Church, Dunlavin, Co Wicklow, where the Revd Olive Henderson was instituted as Rector last night (photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

I was in west Wicklow last night for the institution of the Revd Olive Henderson as rector of Donoughmore and Donard with Dunlavin in Saint Nicholas’ Church, Dunlavin.

Dunlavin, on the borders of Co Wicklow and Co Kildare, is an elegant village about 45 km south-west of Dublin, with wide streets and a classical courthouse built in the Doric style.

The 2011 Census figures for the Republic of Ireland show the Church of Ireland (including “Protestant”) population of the Republic is 134,635 (2.9%). We are still awaiting a full breakdown of these figures, but they show a 7.8% increase in Co Wicklow, and the 2006 census showed Co Wicklow is the county with the highest proportion of Church of Ireland members (6.88 per cent). Greystones, Co Wicklow, had the highest proportion of any town (9.77 per cent). There were interesting figures too for the three parishes where Olive is the new rector: Donaghmore (27.3), Donard (7.5 per cent) and Dunlavin (7.4 per cent) form one parochial union in the Diocese of Glendalough.

Traditionally, the Dunlavin area was a centre for pre-Patrician Christianity, with a church story predating Saint Patrick’s arrival in Ireland. The name Dunlavin is associated in legend with Liamhán, a princess from North Leinster who was slain after eloping with a prince from South Leinster. The area was settled even before the arrival of the Celts in the Bronze Age. The stone circles at Castleruddery and Brewel could date from ca 2000 BC, and there was an Iron Age hill fort on Spinan’s Hill, between Dunlavin and Baltinglass.

Traditionally, the Dunlavin area was a centre of pre-Patrician Christianity due to the work of Saint Palladius. He arrived in Wicklow in 431 and his followers established three settlements: Tigroney, near Avoca; the summit of Church Mountain near Donard; and at Cillín Cormac near Dunlavin.

In 1332, Frenistown church, near Donoughmore, was burnt, along with 80 people who had fled to the church for sanctuary from violence. As a consequence, the O’Toole family and their accomplices were excommunicated. But this remained a dangerous area into the 15th century, and Archbishop Michael Tregury of Dublin refused to visit Dunlavin in 1468 because “it lay in the Irish territory on the marches of the Pale so he dared not visit on account of the war in those parts.”

It was left to the family of one of his successors as Archbishop of Dublin to develop the present town of Dunlavin, which is the creation of the Bulkeley family and which owes its existence to their decision to build a new village on a green-field site in the late 1650s.

The lands were acquired by the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Lancelot Bulkeley (1568-1650), an Oxford-educated clergyman who was the fifteenth of 18 children in a Welsh family from Angelsey. He came to Ireland in 1613 as Archdeacon of Dublin and became Archbishop of Dublin in 1619. He was jailed in 1647 for resisting the act prohibiting the use of The Book of Common Prayer, and General Ireton confiscated all the wealth of the archbishop a year later. Bulkeley died at Tallaght Castle on 8 September 1650 at the age of 81, and was buried in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. The see remained vacant for eleven years and a new Archbishop of Dublin was not appointed until the Caroline Restoration in 1661.

His son William Bulkeley was the Archdeacon of Dublin throughout the Caroline and Cromwellian eras and remained in office after the restoration (1636-1671). William’s son, Sir Richard Bulkeley (1634-1685), who was born in Tallaght, had the vision and foresight that gave us the present village of Dunlavin. The Fair Green was probably laid out shortly after his successful petition to Parliament to hold markets and fairs in Dunlavin in 1661, and he built a new parish church in 1664, with the main street running from the church to the Fair Green. He also planned a university for Dunlavin, but this was opposed by the Archbishop of Dublin.

Richard Bulkeley was High Sheriff of Co Wicklow in 1660 and was the MP for Baltinglass in 1665-1666. By 1668, Dunlavin had more hearth-taxpayers than any other settlement in west Wicklow. In 1672, he was given the title of baronet, with the territorial designation “of Old Bawn, in the County of Dublin, and of Dunlaven, in the County of Wicklow.”

When Richard died in 1685, the title passed to his son, Sir Richard Bulkeley, 2nd Baronet (1660-1710). The second Sir Richard was educated at Trinity College Dublin and Christ Church Oxford. As a supporter of William III, he was attainted by the Irish Jacobite Parliament, as Sir Richard Buckley, in 1689. He fought at the Boyne, and from 1692 until his death in 1710 he was the MP for Fethard-on-Sea, Co Wexford.

When he died in 1710, the Bulkeley title became extinct. But by then Dunlavin was one of the principal settlements in west Wicklow. The triangular shape of the Fair Green was common to many Irish villages and small towns of the period, and has been described as “the hallmark of early 17th century settlement.” Louis Cullen suggests the Fair Green in Dunlavin constituted the original settlement and is underneath the mid-18th century planned village which was dominated by the square and the market house.

In 1702, James Worth Tynte, a barrister from Co Cork, married Sir Richard Bulkeley’s niece, Hesther, daughter of John Bulkeley of Old Bawn, near Tallaght, Co Dublin. When Sir Richard died in 1710, Tynte inherited the estate and the Tynte family continued to have a long association with Dunlavin for generations. Tynte’s ostentatious lifestyle was reflected in his impact on the village of Dunlavin.

The Market House in Dunlavin, built by the Tynte family in the 1740s, is now used as a library (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Richard Tynte extensively remodelled the village in the 1730s and 1740s, making the fine market house the centrepiece of his village. The market house, built around 1743, was designed by Richard Cassels. Originally a cruciform building, the corners are filled by colonnades. All this is capped by a magnificent, octagonal, stone tower and dome, making it look for all the world like a Viennese church. The former market house remains a landmark building in Dunlavin to this day.

The events of 1798 disrupted any social calm and cohesion that had been brought to Dunlavin, and 36 men were executed on the Fair Green, while more were hanged from the pillars of the market house.

All the archways in the Market House have been closed up, and the building is now used as a library (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

In the generation that followed, the Tynte family endeavoured to restored that social harmony, and this was symbolised by their role in building for two new parish churches in Dunlavin, one Roman Catholic the other Church of Ireland and both dedicated to Saint Nicholas of Myra, the original Santa Claus

The Roman Catholic Church was built on land donated by the Tynte family in 1815, while the new Church of Ireland parish church was built with a grant and a loan from the Board of First Fruits at the beginning of the 19th century and was consecrated on 24 October 1817.

For over six and a half centuries, from 1227 until the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, the Prebendaries of Dunlavin in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral were the Rectors of Dunlavin. They included the great Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), who was Prebendary of Dunlavin from 1700 until 1713, when he became the Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral from 1713 to 1745.

Inside Saint Nicholas’ Church, Dunlavin, last night, waiting for the institution of the new rector, the Revd Olive Henderson (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The Prebendaries of Dunlavin often had vicars or curates to work in the parish, but from Swift’s time until Disestablishment, the Prebendaries also acted Vicars of Dunlavin.

Canon Peter Le Fanu, who was Prebendary and Rector of Dunlavin from 1799 to 1810, was from the same family as the novelist Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. More recent rectors include Bishop Roy Warke (1964-1967), who later became Archdeacon of Dublin and then Bishop of Cork.

In 1985, Dunlavin was grouped with Donoughmore and Donard. For centuries, the Prebendaries of Donoughmore in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral were also the Rectors of Donoughmore.

The church at Donard, which claimed roots in the pre-Patrician mission of Saint Palladius, was granted in the Middle Ages to the Hospital of Saint John the Baptist outside Newgate for the support of the sick. The Vicars and Rectors of Donard have included Nehemiah O’Donnell, who was Archbishop of Tuam at the same time.

Last night, Olive Henderson succeeded the Revd Declan Smith as Rector of Donoughmore and Donard with Dunlavin. Before going to Dunlavin, Declan had worked in Zambia, with APCK, APSO and CMS Ireland, and we were both students at the Irish School of Ecumenics and Kimmage Manor. Olive was an NSM curate in Tallaght in the 1990s while I was training for ordination.

Olive is a worthy successor to Jonathan Swift. After her institution last night, we we were invited back to a reception in the Jonathan Swift National School, the Church of Ireland parish school, where the the memory of the creator of Gulliver and his links with Dunlavin continue 300 years later.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Edinburgh Seminar on Deacons, the Diaconate and Diakonia

The following report was presented yesterday afternoon to the Anglicanism Affairs Working Group and last night [23 April 2012] to the Commission for Christian Unity and Dialogue of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland:

Report on Scottish Episcopal Church, Diaconate Working Group, Seminar on Deacons, the Diaconate and Diakonia

Anglican participants at the Edinburgh consultation: Canon Patrick Comerford, Revd Frances Hillier, Revd Sarah Gillard-Faulkner, Bishop-elect John Armes, Elspeth Davey, Church Relations Officer, SEC

Patrick Comerford

I attended the Seminar on Deacons, the Diaconate and Diakonia organised by the Diaconate Working Group (DWG) of the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC), on Wednesday 13 March 2012, in the General Synod Office, Edinburgh.

The seminar was chaired by the Very Revd Dr John Armes (Saint John’s Church, Edinburgh), secretary of the Working Group, who is about to be consecrated Bishop of Edinburgh.

The participants in the seminar included:

Scottish Episcopal Church: Very Revd Dr John Armes, who is to be consecrated Bishop of Edinburgh on 11 May next (chair); Elspeth Davey, Church Relations Officer, SEC; the Right Revd Mark Strange, Bishop of Moray, Ross and Caithness; Mrs Norma Higgott, Convener Mission & Ministry Board, Elspeth Strachan, Ministry Development Officer (facilitator).
Church of England: Revd Frances Hillier (Diocese in Europe).
Church of Ireland: Canon Patrick Comerford.
Church of Scotland: Deaconess Morag Crawford.
Church in Wales: Revd Sarah Gillard-Faulkner.
Methodist Church: Mrs Jenny Easson; Deacon Roger Hensman,
Roman Catholic Church in Scotland: Revd Tony Schmitz, Diocese of Aberdeen.
Salvation Army: Major Alan Dixon.
United Reformed Church: Rev Mitchell Richard Bunting, Revd Kathryn Price, URC.

The seminar was organised by the DWG because the SEC, as a member of the Porvoo Communion, is committed to exploring diakonia and diaconate, and in the light of the 2009 consultation in Oslo, is committed to exploring the meaning of diakonia and what do about diakonia and diaconate.

This seminar was an exercise in extending this discussion by listening to the experiences of the other member churches of the discussion beyond Anglican Communion on these islands and the experiences of the other denominations in Scotland.

At the opening, we were told the diaconate is an “undiscovered treasure ... a gift of God for the present day... a ministry that reaches out beyond the Church.”

Each church was invited to make a presentation of its own experiences.

Revd Deacon Frances Hillier said most permanent deacons in the Church of England tend to be NSMs, and tend to be in caring professions. Although some are canons and she is a bishop’s chaplain, but they cannot be archdeacons.

The questions she asked included: what’s the difference between readers and deacons? How do they relate to lay ministry? What are the future plans? She said much depends on dioceses, and the attitude of bishops. But she believes there is little appetite in the dioceses for a renewed diaconate, and permanent deacons are often seen as “an inconvenient irritant.”

Scottish Episcopal Church: Bishop Mark Strange said the SEC is good at dealing sacramentally with itself, but a number of people feel called to a different type of ministry which is in the community and which is not tied up to being priests. He asked whether there is a role of deacons where not assumed going to be something else.

Morag Crawford said deacons had distinctive and lifelong office within the ministry of the Church of Scotland that is evangelistic, pastoral, educational and social. It includes chaplaincy in schools, colleges, the forces, prisons, hospitals and the workplace. In all there 49 active deacons (out of 1,200 active ministers), and they include 34 parish workers, five hospital chaplains, a teacher, and two retreat leaders.

The parish deacons work includes pastoral, youth, family and school work and work among the elderly. The marks of deacon ministry include collaborative, service, mission, outreach, flexible, encouraging and enabling.

She traced the story of deacon ministry in the Church of Scotland back to 1836 and the first influences in Germany, and a renewal of enthusiasm in the 1880s, with the formation in 1888 of the Order of Deaconesses in 1888, and the introduction of Parish Sisters in 1893 and Church Sisters in 1916, brought together in one Order of Deaconesses in 1949.

When ordained ministry opened to women in 1966, it was thought the diaconate would die out in the Church of Scotland, but the diaconate opened to men in 1979. By 1990, they were admitted to the Courts of the Church, including presbyteries and the general assembly, and since then some have become moderators of presbyteries. They are free to conduct worship and preach, for which they no longer need a special licence, and may conduct weddings.

They work in area such as justice and peace, being a prophetic voice. There are no special powers or activities exclusively reserved to them, but they have a distinctive call as accountable servants.

Major Alan Dixon said that for Salvation Army officers the commissioning service for is the equivalent to ordination in 1978. But this does not give someone a distinctive status, and being an officer is about availability, service. The questions raised at the seminar seemed to be “total non-starters” from a Salvation Army perspective, where mission and social care are one,

Revd Kathryn Price described how the United Reformed Church chose the title of Ministry of Church-Related Community Work (CRCW) rather than deacon, because of the historical use of the terms deacon and elder among Congregationalists.

People in CRCW ministry work in local churches, alongside Ministers of Word and Sacrament. They have a commissioning service, and posts last for five years, with a possibility of further five. This is a ministry of the church, but while they are not ordained she admits the commissioning is like an ordination service without laying-on of hands. But they are not commissioned for life, and each commissioning is new.

Their work is social, mission and outreach high, but fewer numbers are engaged in Bible studies and prayer groups, for example. This is work is in local capacity building, enabling a congregation to be built up.

The Revd Sarah Gillard-Faulkner feels that in the Church in Wales she is “a lone voice.” There is no forum for deacons, such as a college of deacons. Yet she feels her vocation is as a permanent deacon within the three-fold ministry and Catholic heritage of Anglicanism.

She spoke of the ministry of deacons in terms of service, searching for sick and poor, proclaiming the Gospel, building the kingdom. Serving the sick, poor, needy and those in trouble, and showing compassion for the weak lonely and oppressed, are “signs that the church called to serve Christ in the world.

But deacons are normally transitional, with one year or sometimes even less. There is only a handful of permanent deacons in the Church in Wales, mostly in Diocese of Monmouth (5), and she only stipendiary deacon in her in her diocese (the 10 others are self-supporting). The majority of the other permanent deacons are retired and often were not ordained priest because of their age.

She spends a lot of time with young people and children, in schools, creating new expressions of community, with people on the margins, and in outreach to people who otherwise have no connection at all with the church. It is a pastoral role with its own mission and outreach, but difficult to explain within a Eucharistic-centred church, where the ministry need is identified as mainly for priests.

She sees this as a prophetic ministry, with a prophetic voice in the Church in Wales. “I’m a bit of a lone voice. But prophets are. But it is a lonely place for an extrovert.”

Roman Catholic Church: Revd Tony Schmitz of the Diocese of Aberdeen spoke of the deacon as the agent of another. With a ministry that is often confined to caritas and caring role, but Christ is the first deacon. He spoke of diakonia of altar, diakonia of word and diakonia of caritas.

He recalled how the church in the East has retained permanent deacons, but there they have been reduced to a sacramental role. Vatican II had called for restoration of diaconate, and his church now has 40,000 permanent deacons throughout world, of whom 15,000 are in North America. In Namibia, the Minister of Tourism is a deacon.

Deacons preach, assist at the Eucharist, may minister at baptism and marriage, catechise and teach, and are obliged to say the daily offices. They are involved in chaplaincy to hospitals, prisons, armed forces, counselling, police, schools, immigrants, marriage preparation, work in canon law (the chancellor of one diocese is a deacon), justice, peace, environment, spiritual direction, RCIA preparation, developing lay ministries (including lay apostolate) and missionary activity.

Soon, they shall be 77 deacons in eight dioceses in Scotland, where there are about 600 or so priests. Most are not paid, and the so the age profile is high.

Deacon Roger Hensman (Methodist Church) said that Methodist Ministers of Word and Sacrament are now being called presbyters, but there is still confusion about the word minister, with deacons being called Ministers of Word and Service.

He sees deacons as members of a religious order. But can one be a deacon without being a member of the religious order, and a member of the religious order without being a deacon?

Some deacons preach, but only after a call to preach. Some are worship leaders but do not necessarily preach. Others “do” weddings, funerals and baptisms. He identified a danger of deacons being used as cheap labour, but while they exercise pastoral care, the pastoral charge comes through the presbyter.

He spoke of the danger of deacons being defined by what they do not do: “You’re a minister but don’t do communion ... when are you going to be made up to being a proper minister?”

Their pastoral work in congregations is to build them up, and their roles in the community are development and church planting. Examples include running a farm with young offenders, working with people caught up in people trafficking, drugs and alcohol, or in chaplaincy and as bridge builders.

After a false start in 1873, this ministry dates from 1890, and was inspired by the example of German Lutheran sisterhoods.

It is a complementary rather than assistant ministry, and one that is here to stay, although it constantly swings between the perceptions of function and being.

On behalf of the Church of Ireland, I spoke of the new deacon-intern programme for Year III students at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and the opportunities it had provided and the questions it had brought to the fore.

In the group discussions, we were asked to identify: common themes; points of convergence; and points of divergence.

The questions asked and points identified include:

• Should the diaconate be visible and permanent?
• The diaconate is a sign of Church serving the world.
• The diaconate is a bridge between the sacred and secular, the people of God and others.
• The diaconate is in and for the community.
• The diaconate is challenging, prophetic, facing issues and pioneering.
• The diaconate needs accountability and support.
• Is there payment? Should the diaconate be stipendiary and/or, non-stipendiary?
• Where does authority, encouragement and oversight, reside?
• Are they consistently exercised for the whole church?
• Questions about status and parity with the minister, presbyter or priest.
• What is the difference between ordination and commissioning?
• Service, serving the needs of the community, and working at the edge or on the margin.

It was interesting to see the divergence between the churches that have a theology of the three-fold ministry and those that do not. The non-episcopal churches appear to have a more developed theology of diaconate, even though some are less inclined to use the name deacon (e.g. URC).

Others spoke about the danger of people not distinguishing between being a servant and being a doormat, being humble but not being martyrs. How do people understand the role of the deacons apart from not being priests? There is a danger of deacons being seen as a failed priesthood when they are not second best, and the diaconate is not a consolation prize.

There were questions too about selection, formation, training, post-ordination training ... and whether these should be alongside ministers/priests/presbyters.

There was divergence over permanency and the concept of ordination. Some churches have a very clear liturgical role for deacons that mirrors their role in the church and the world, others do not.

The way ahead:

The Anglican Churches in these islands are part of the Porvoo Consultation on the Diaconate in Dublin next year (2013). We asked whether there is anything we as Anglican Churches can take forward together, or that separately we would like to work on in our own churches. We agreed too that future discussions need to take account of the fact this is not just about diaconate, but about diakonia.

Dr Armes said diakonia is for the local church and spoke of the need to own that and of the need for the appropriate person to equip that.

The Porvoo Contact Group meets in October, and the SEC DWG may call a similar seminar again, perhaps before the end of year, in preparation for the Porvoo Consultation in 2013.

Patrick Comerford
23 April 2012

Monday, 23 April 2012

In Retrospect: Canon Gonville Aubie ffrench-Beytagh (1912-1991)

Patrick Comerford recalls an Irish Anglican priest who was an inspiring and persecuted campaigner against apartheid.

The Very Revd Gonville Aubie ffrench-Beytagh, born 100 years ago on 26 January 1912, was an Irish Anglican priest who attained international prominence in the 1970s for his uncompromising resistance to injustice and apartheid. Although he was Dean of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg, he found his office was no protection against the state security forces, or against solitary detention,trial and eventual deportation.

Although Gonville ffrench-Beytagh was born in Shanghai, was a British citizen and was once classified as “Asiatic,” he insisted on his Irish identity, and was an Anglican by choice rather than birth. He was self-conscious when it came to his awkward combination of names, but proud that each part of his surname indicated his descent from two old Co Galway families. He was descended from Edward James Beytagh (d. 1832), of Cappagh Co Galway, and his wife, the Hon Sarah ffrench, sister of the Hon Gonville ffrench (1797-1866) and daughter of Thomas ffrench (d. 1814), 2nd Baron ffrench, of Castle ffrench,Co Galway. The Beytagh family had lived in the area from the late 17th century. The Beytagh estate was sold in the Landed Estates’ Court in 1864, but two years later, when Gonville ffrench died in 1866, Edward James Beytagh’s son, Edward Thomas Beytagh, inherited Claremont in Ballyforan, Co Roscommon, which he held onto until 1885.[1] However, he practised as a barrister in Cork, was living in Carrigaline, Co Cork, in the 1870s an 1880s, and in 1879 married Mary Aloysius MacDonnell.[2]

In “a sudden attack of snobbery,” Gonville’s father, Leo Michael ffrench-Beytagh, added the hyphenation to his name after his children were born, not because of his descent from Gonville ffrench of Castle ffrench but to claim descent from Edmund de Gonville, co-founder of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. The dean later also claimed kinship with Major Gonville Bromhead, who received the VC for his role in the Battle of Rorke’s Drift in the Boer War and who was portrayed by Michael Caine in the movie Zulu (1964).[3]

Gonville Aubie ffrench-Beytagh was born in Shanghai on 26 January 1912, the son of two much-married Irish parents. His father was an expatriate Irish alcoholic, a former seminarian, a lapsed Catholic, and an admirer of Michael Collins. He claimed to have fought in the Boer War, and by the time his children were born he was the managing director of a cotton company, living in the French Quarter in Shanghai. Gonville’s mother, Edith (‘Pegs’ McIlraith), took her children to the Anglican Cathedral in Shanghai to be baptised, but he was sent to a French convent school. Family summer holidays were spent in Japan. By the age of five, Gonville’s parents were giving him gin to drink – “for medicinal purposes” ... “ostensibly because it was a preventative for malaria.”[4]

The marriage broke up after Pegs left for South Africa with “a young Highlander,” taking her daughter Pat with her, and Leo moved in with his Australian “housekeeper.”[5]

At the age of seven, Gonville and his half-brother, Michael Leo, a future RAF wing-commander, were sent to England in the charge of a remarkable “Auntie” Esylt Newbery, a vicar’s daughter and teacher who became their legal guardian. Apart from a brief encounter with Pegs during a stop-over in Bombay, Gonville would never meet his mother again until he was in his middle age, when a woman he was introduced to as Mrs Buchanan at a party – on hearing his name – exclaimed: “My God, you’re my son.”[6]

Esylt moved to Weston-super-Mare with Gonville, Mike and Pat, and tried earnestly to fulfil the role of mother. For the rest of his life – even in the days he regarded himself as an agnostic – Gonville kept a promise he made her to say every night the words of the Collect of the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity: “O God, forasmuch as without thee we are not able to please thee: Mercifully grant, that thy Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”[7]

He was sent to Monkton Combe (motto Verbum Tuum Veritas, ‘Thy Word is Truth’), an independent boarding school near Bath, and then to Bristol Grammar School.[8] His experience in England of church, Sunday Schools, confirmation classes and summer camps left him determined never to attend church again.[9] In January 1929, just before his 17th birthday, he left England for New Zealand to enrol at an agricultural course at Waitaki Boys’ High School in Oamuru, but was soon expelled after a midnight escapade. He then tried sheep farming, and would later claim that he was one of the few clergy who could preach on the Good Shepherd as he had been a notably bad shepherd himself.[10]

South Africa

After time spent roaming, sleeping rough and in casual labour, a chance encounter with a distant relative brought him to South Africa in late 1932. Although these were pre-apartheid days, he was admitted on the Chinese quota and, on his arrival, the immigration authorities initially refused him entry and classified as him as “Chinese” because he was born in Shanghai, before giving him a temporary permit as an “Asiatic.”[11]

In South Africa, he was reunited with his mother and various half-brothers. He took odd jobs and was a clerk with a mining company before eventually finding an office job with Toc H in Johannesburg, where he helped with a boys’ club. He was still an irreverent agnostic, but at Toc H he soon became friends with Jonathan Graham, later Superior of the Community of the Resurrection (1958-1965), Bishop Geoffrey Clayton of Johannesburg later Archbishop of Cape Town, and Alan Paton, author of Cry the Beloved Country.[12]

One night, on his way home from a riotous party, he was set on by muggers and was left with a broken jaw. In Johannesburg General Hospital, he was visited by Alan Paton, and those visits gave him the opportunity – as Paton put it – “to reflect on the nature and destiny of man and the nature and lack of destiny of himself.”[13]

Once discharged, he started going to church, and almost immediately began thinking about ordination. He told his girlfriend: “You know, for God’s sake, I think I’m going to be a clergyman.” She laughed and laughed and laughed. On the following Christmas Eve, he attended Johannesburg Cathedral, where the dean had locked the door to keep drunken revellers from the Midnight Mass: “It was a hot night and as the doors had been closed, the air was completely still. I knelt at the communion rail, and as I knelt there I felt a very strong cool breeze – and that was all. I do not think that at the time I had any idea what the word ‘breath’ or the word ‘wind’ means to the Christian, or even that the Greek word for the Holy Spirit means breath. I did not even think of Jesus breathing the spirit on his disciples. All I know is that this breath, or wind, which I felt, had a meaning and a content for me which I have never been able to communicate to anyone else, and still cannot describe.”[14]

He sent a postcard to Bishop Clayton, asking how to become a priest. “He asked why I wanted to be a clergyman and I replied it was the last thing I wanted. The bishop was convinced.”[15]

In January 1936, at the age of 24 and a year after being mugged, Clayton sent him to Saint Paul’s Theological College in Grahamstown. He later recalled: “The college turned out to be a rather mausoleum-like, dull, brick structure which to me had the psychological impact of a prison.”[16] Clayton urged him to persevere, and ordained him deacon in 1938 and priest in 1939.[17] The two would remain life-long friends.[18]


Throughout his ministry, Gonville suffered intense bouts of depression, but found his spiritual support and comfort in a Catholic Anglican spirituality. He rose daily at 4.30 a.m. to say the office, and celebrated Mass daily for the rest of his life. He went on to develop gifts as a counsellor and adviser.[19]

He served in a number of parishes in the Transvaal, including Springs and Germiston, with times as chaplain to the Sisters of Saint Margaret in Johannesburg and as the diocesan missioner. In 1952, he was made a canon of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg, and appointed priest-in-charge of Saint Alban’s Mission for “coloured” people near Johannesburg. At an early stage in his ministry he not developed a political consciousness. At Saint Alban’s, with his first true contacts outside white society, “the utter nonsensicality of racial discrimination really hit me.” He grew increasingly disillusioned with the stealthy encroaches of apartheid. In 1953, he resigned his South African passport in protest at the passing of the Bantu Education Act. [20]

A ten-year period from 1954 as the Dean of the Cathedral of Saint Mary and All Saints in Salisbury (now Harare) in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) removed him from the growing maelstrom of South African politics. There he made lasting friendships, particularly with Alison Norman, and brought the cathedral building near to completion. But his reputation as an outspoken preacher and an opponent of racism was gathering pace, making him one of the most controversial figures in Ian Smith’s Rhodesia in the period preceding the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI).[21]

He returned to South Africa in 1965 as Dean of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg, and Archdeacon of Johannesburg Central. There he found Alan Paton had his passport confiscated, and many white people he knew and trusted had been imprisoned or exiled for speaking out for freedom. He quickly became a prominent opponent of apartheid, condemning it as “blasphemous against God and man.”[22] Gonville campaigned against the continuing house arrest of Helen Joseph, a member of the cathedral congregation, first met Winnie Mandela, and opened his cathedral doors – those same doors that had been kept closed at Christmas over 30 years earlier – to black protesters chased up the cathedral steps by police beating them with rhino whips and police dogs snapping at their heels.[23]

In mid-1970, while he was on leave in London, he arranged with Canon John Collins of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, chairman of the International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa and a leading figure in the Anti-Apartheid Movement, for the IDAF to send aid through Alison Norman, a mutual friend, to a humanitarian fund managed by the dean in Johannesburg to help black families in the townships around Johannesburg. The money would buy food and children’s clothes, pay rents and school fees, and help pay for prison visits, especially long journeys to places such as Robben Island.[24]


His Sunday congregations included black township residents, white people from comfortable suburbs, and spies from the special branch spies. The cathedral also included the black congregation of Saint Cyprian’s Church, originally established as a mission church for domestic workers. On weekdays, homeless black urchins, who “disappeared like smoke” if they were approached by any authority, would creep in and listen to the organist practising. The mixture of these groups gave the cathedral its particular character.

He was being watched closely by the South African special branch (BOSS) when, at Christmas 1970, he publicly called the “South African way of life” the “South African way of death.” He was arrested on 20 January 1971 and spent his fifty-ninth birthday in jail, where he was held in solitary confinement and brutally interrogated.[25]

At first, he was accused of furthering the unlawful activities of the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party, and of possessing their pamphlets, with titles such We Bring You a Message, These Men Are Our Brothers, Our Sons, The ANC Says No to Vorster and His Gang, and Freedom. Alison Norman was named as a co-conspirator. During his detention, demonstrations and vigils were held throughout South Africa, and the cathedral bells and the bells of many suburban churches were chimed each day in protest.[26]

In prison, Gonville was shocked to realise fully the way in which white members of the security forces regarded black people as less than human. In solitary confinement, he was refused bread and wine, but he decided to celebrate a daily spiritual Eucharist in his cell. Each morning, he stood in front of a piece of wall between two barred and grilled high windows, and imagined himself before the cross. “I faced it as I would an altar and said what I could remember of the Mass.” From that first morning, he said the Creed, prayed generally, made a short confession, said the Sanctus and made a spiritual communion. “This is something I have never really experienced before, though I have read about it and advised people to do it, he recalled later. “But I can say with complete certainty that the communion that I received then was as real as any communion that I have ever received sacramentally.”[27]

“And you know, it was a reality. ‘Therefore, with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven’ – I don’t think I have ever known the reality of the company of heaven as I did in that prison cell ... I’m no mystic. But I felt the presence of the Church, both in heaven and on earth. And then, when it came to the time of the consecration, I took – I didn’t have any bread or wine – I took nothing in my hands and I said, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And again I took nothing in my hands and said, ‘This is the blood of the new testament which is shed for you and for many, for the remission of sins. Do this as often as ye shall drink it in remembrance of me.’ And I’ll tell you this ... the communions that I received there in that prison cell, without the means of bread and wine, were as real and as glorious and as triumphant and as magnificent as any communion I’ve ever received in my own cathedral, with the organ going and the incense and the bells and all the glory. Just as real and wholly as healing and as complete.”[28]

His trial was postponed and he was released on bail on of 5,000 Rand. He appeared in court briefly again on 30 June, when the state pressed more sinister charges under the Terrorism Act carrying the death penalty and his bail was increased to 10,000 Rand.[29]

When the trial opened in the Supreme Court in Pretoria on 2 August 1971,the main prosecution witness was Kenneth Jordaan, once one of the dean’s altar servers and confidants. Jordaan claimed ffrench-Beytagh had suggested he join the security police to keep watch on their tactics, but it turned out that he was a security police agent. He claimed to have heard the dean inciting the Black Sash – an organisation of middle class, white women – to commit acts of violence against the state, and alleged the dean was involved in a conspiracy to overthrow the state by violence, saying revolution was justified under certain circumstances.[30]

In his defence, ffrench-Beytagh said that, far from advocating violence, he had warned that apartheid would result in violence if it were not changed. Apartheid, he insisted, was “heresy – and damnable heresy.”[31] Later, he described apartheid as “blasphemous against God and man.”[32] It was alleged also he said a particular colonel in the security police ought to be shot. “They didn’t know I had said the same of several Anglican bishops,” he told The Guardian later.[33]

On 1 November 1971, he was found guilty on three charges: inciting and encouraging members of the Black Sash to engage in violence; encouraging Jordaan to engage in violence against the state; and receiving 51,400 Rand from the IDAF through Alison Norman. The judge ruled that although he was in possession of ANC pamphlets, this was not an offence, and they may have been planted.[34]

As Mr Justice Petrus Cillié, Judge-President of the Transvaal, sentenced the dean to five years in prison, women in the courtroom gasped and sobbed. As he left the court, they began singing Onward, Christian Soldiers. His conviction, which hinged “on what he had said rather than what he had done,” sent a warning to his outspoken Anglican clerical colleagues.­[35]


He was given bail pending his appeal. He had to report to the police each week, but continued to officiate at Saint Mary’s Cathedral. His appeal was heard in Bloemfontein in February and March 1972, and on 15 April 1972, his sentence was set aside. But he left South Africa for London immediately and spent the last two decades of his life in exile in England.[36]

One of his first meetings was with Archbishop Michael Ramsey at Lambeth Palace. But he found it difficult to get a parish in England until it was suggested he should apply for a curacy at Saint Matthew’s, Westminster, where Bishop Frank Weston had once been curate. Later, he recalled how he had made a pact with God – if offered sherry, he would refuse the post; if offered gin, he would accept. Both were offered, he refused the sherry and he accepted the post.[37]

He had been an honorary canon of Johannesburg since leaving South Arica, and after joining the staff of Saint Matthew’s was made an honorary canon of Canterbury Cathedral in 1973. Saint Matthew’s gave him a base for an altar and a confessional, for spiritual direction and for prayer. But life there was difficult, and he alienated parishioners with his conservative liturgical practices and his refusal to celebrate the marriages of non-communicant couples.[38]

He moved in 1974 to become Rector of Saint Vedast-alias-Foster, whose the present rector is the Revd Dr Alan McCormack, previously Dean of Residence in Trinity College, Dublin. Saint Vedast, a Wren church in the City of London and a parish without resident parishioners, gave space to concentrate on writing and spiritual direction. He retired from Saint Vedast’s in Christmas 1986, and went to live with friends, including Alison Norman, in an informal community in Tower Hamlets.[39] He died in the London Hospital in Mile End on 10 May 1991, almost twenty years after his forced exile from South Africa.[40]

A Man of Courage

John Betjeman saw Gonville as something of a saint and referred to him as “the martyred Dean of Johannesburg.” Although not without his weaknesses and his eccentricities, his gifts were recognised by many, he was renowned for his ministry of spiritual counselling and some compared him with Padre Pio and the Curé d’Ars.[41]

He had an abiding concern for prisoners of conscience and for the dehumanising effects of apartheid, and for the rest of his life had a sense of guilt about leaving South Africa.[42] But after his death, Diana Collins, long a stalwart of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and CND, said: “Many persecuted families can be grateful for the courage of Gonville ffrench-Beytagh; among them his name will not be forgotten.”[43]

Although he suffered from severe depression, he concealed it with courage yet wrote about it frankly and honestly, especially in Facing Depression (1978) and Out of the Depths (1990). His best-known book, Encountering Darkness (1973), describes his struggle against apartheid and his prison experiences. A Glimpse of Glory (1986) was a collection of meditations with an extended commentary on George Herbert’s poem, Prayer. Tree of Glory (1988) was a series of meditations on the cross and redemption.

Diana Collins said Gonville “belongs to that select band of men like Archbishop Trevor Huddleston and Bishop Ambrose Reeves, who were not content simply to denounce the cruelties of apartheid, but were prepared to risk their reputations, positions, even their lives by trying to help the victims of the South African government.” [44]

“The man is quite obviously a saint,” said the BBC broadcaster Gerald Priestland. He was “a truly saintly despite his penchant for gin, whisky, and cigarettes, and I must not forget those red socks he loved to wear,” said another friend, Wendy Bronfield. [45]

I was deeply influenced by the practical Christianity of the dean during his trial: I was a 19-year-old, who had just had his first adult experience of God’s love in his life, and I wanted to know what a commitment to Christianity would mean for my future, to make the connection between faith and discipleship. His example has remained with me for the past forty years. His bravery and courage taught me the need to relate faith to action in the world; his fortitude in the face of adversity taught me not to fear the “cost of discipleship.”

Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.


Gonville ffrench-Beytagh, The Living Word (London: USPG, 1973).
, Encountering Darkness (London: Collins, 1973).
, Encountering Light (London: Collins, 1975).
, Facing Depression (Oxford: Fairacres, 1978/1990).
, A Glimpse of Glory (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1986).
, Tree of Glory (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1988).
, Out of the Depths: Encountering Depression (Oxford: Fairacres, 1990).

Muriel Horrell, A survey of race relations in South Africa (University of California Press, 1972, 360 pp).
Gerard Irvine, ‘Good and fearless shepherd,’ The Guardian, 14 May 1991, p. 35.
‘South Africa: I won’t come out alive,’ Time, 15 November 1971.
Alan Paton, Towards the Mountain (London: Penguin, 1980).
Kevin Ward, ‘Beytagh, Gonville Aubie ffrench- (1912–1991),Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, vol 5 (Oxford: OUP 2004), pp 630-631.

Footnotes and references:

[1] Ward, p. 630; Burke’s Peerage (various eds), sv. ffrench; landed estate database, NUI Galway, ffrench (Claremont) and Beytagh/Beatty.
[2] Carrigaline Roman Catholic Parish Registers (marriages 1879; baptisms 1880).
[3] Encountering Darkness, pp 9-11; Ward, p. 630.
[4] Encountering Darkness, pp 9-11, 15; The Guardian, 14 May 1991; Ward, p. 630.
[5] Encountering Darkness, p. 11; Ward, p. 630.
[6] Encountering Darkness, pp 12, 30; The Guardian, 14 May 1991; Ward, p. 630.
[7] Encountering Darkness, pp 12, 16; Paton, p. 227.
[8] Encountering Darkness, pp 16-20; Ward, p. 630.
[9] Encountering Darkness, pp 16-17.
[10] Encountering Darkness, pp 20-27; Ward, p. 630.
[11] Encountering Darkness, pp 26-29; Paton, p. 227.
[12] Encountering Darkness, pp 30-31; Paton, pp 227-228; Ward, p. 630.
[13] Paton, pp 227-228.
[14] Encountering Darkness, p. 41; The Guardian, 14 May 1991.
[15] The Guardian, 14 May 1991.
[16] Encountering Darkness, p. 43; Ward, p. 630.
[17] Encountering Darkness, p. 46; Crockford (1980-82), p. 332.
[18] Ward, p. 630.
[19] Encountering Darkness, p. 100; Tree of Glory, p. 75; Ward, p. 630.
[20] Encountering Darkness, pp 47-66; Tree of Glory, p. 75; Ward, p. 630.
[21] Encountering Darkness, pp 67-83; Ward, p. 630.
[22] Encountering Darkness, p. 84 ff; Tree of Glory, p. 73.
[23] Encountering Darkness, p. 105 ff, pp 117-118.
[24] The Guardian, 14 May 1991; Ward, p. 631.
[25] Encountering Darkness, p. 85; The Living Word, p. 1; Tree of Glory, p. 73; Horrell, p. 87; Paton, p. 228; Ward, pp 630-631.
[26] Ann Yates, The Guardian, 14 May 1991; Horrell, pp 87-88; Ward, p. 631.
[27] Encountering Darkness, pp 144-145, 276; Tree of Glory, pp 75-76.
[28] Tree of Glory, pp 75-76.
[29] Encountering Darkness, pp 168-171; Horrell, pp 88-89.
[30] Encountering Darkness, pp 123-129, 172-185 ff; Time, 15 November 1971; Horrell, pp 87-89; Ward, p. 631.
[31] Time, 15 November 1971.
[32] A Living Word, p. 1; Ward, p. 631.
[33] The Guardian, 14 May 1991.
[34] Encountering Darkness, p. 187-191; Horrell, p. 89; Ward, p. 631.
[35] Time, 15 November 1971; Encountering Darkness, pp 229-230.
[36] Encountering Darkness, pp 231-232; Horrell, p. 89; Paton, p. 228; Ward, p. 631.
[37] The Guardian, 14 May 1991.
[38] The Guardian, 14 May 1991.
[39] Crockford (1980-1982), p. 332; Church Times, 17.10.1986; Tree of Glory, p. xiii; The Guardian, 14 May 1991.
[40] Ward, p. 631.
[41] The Guardian, 14 May 1991.
[42] Encountering Darkness, p. 233.
[43] Diana Collins, The Guardian, 14 May 1991.
[44] Diana Collins, The Guardian, 14 May 1991.
[45] The Guardian, 14 May 1991.

This paper was first published in Search: A Church of Ireland Journal, 35/1 (Spring 2012), pp 47-54. Regrettably, the references and footnotes were deleted during the editing process.