Saturday, 25 February 2012

‘Believing and Belonging’ (3): Interfaith Dialogue

Terenure Synagogue, Rathfarnham Road, Dublin ... I was born a few doors away in 1952 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin:
Saturday 24 February 2012 (11.10 a.m. to 12.40 p.m.)

Speaking at a conference in Blanchardstown, Co Dublin, earlier this month, Archbishop Michael Jackson said the various faiths witnessed in Ireland today form one community of affection and understanding, and said we are all on a journey together.

The archbishop was speaking on “Opening the Doors of tomorrow’s Ireland today.” ’He said “we are all on a journey together” and said it was important to build on the community of tomorrow. He used the word “community” in the singular because, he said, “I am convinced that we are all one community together. We often speak of ‘the various ‘communities’ in Ireland, but we are of one community and it is a community of affection and understanding.”

Dr Jackson said it was important to have a dialogue of ideas among those with different scriptures so that people of different faiths could learn from each other and understand each other. But he added that there was also the “dialogue of life” in which people go about their day to day lives together and women, children and men get to know each other.

What does this mean in terms of lived daily life and experience in our parishes and in this diocese?

The Lenten series of Sunday morning speakers in the Chapel of Trinity College Dublin, starting tomorrow, is seeking to look at Jewish, Christian and Islamic perspectives on the Psalms over the six Sundays in Lent.

The visiting speakers have been invited to share their thoughts on some of the best-loved verses in the Hebrew Bible, and they include prominent Christian, Jewish and Islamic scholars, among them Dr Zuleika Rodgers, lecturer in Jewish Studies at TCD, who speaks on Psalm 137 (By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion); and Dr Roja Fazaeli, lecturer in Islamic Studies, speaking on Psalm 139 (O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away).

The Irish Jewish Museum and Heritage Centre is housed in a former synagogue in Dublin’s ‘Little Jerusalem’ … there has been a Jewish presence in Ireland for centuries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Earlier this month, the Irish Council Of churches (ICC) and the Office for Integration of Dublin City Council launched the Dublin City Interfaith Forum at the Civic Offices here beside us in Wood Quay. The forum draws members from the Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh communities.

Acknowledging that Dublin’s religious landscape had profoundly changed in the last decade, bringing new challenges and opportunities, the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Councillor Andrew Montague, said: “I welcome initiatives, such as this Dublin City Interfaith Forum, which encourage discussion, help build relationships, promote integration, nurture harmony and deepen understanding and respect.”

But when I was growing up in the 1950s and the 1960s, the only significant non-Christian faith minority in Ireland was the Jewish community. There has been a Jewish presence in Ireland for centuries, although the present community is by-and-large the outgrowth of immigrants and refugees who arrived in Ireland from the former Tsarist empire – the present day Baltic states, Poland, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine – in the late 19th century.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monotheistic dialogue:

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

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

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

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

Jewish-Christian dialogue:

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

The following pointers are important as examples:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Muslim-Christian dialogue:

al-Faitah, the opening Surah of the Quran

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

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

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

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

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

The crescent and the minaret at the Irish Islamic Centre and mosque in Clonskeagh, Dublin … the largest centre of Muslim worship in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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

● Do Christians and Muslims worship the same one God?

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

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

● How ought I read the Quran?

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

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

Dialogue with other monotheistic faiths

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

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

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

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

Dialogue with non-monotheistic faiths

The Dalai Lama and the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace

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

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

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

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

Ask yourself these questions:

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

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

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

● Can a Christian practice Zen mediation?

Canon Patrick Comerford is 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.

‘Believing and Belonging’ (2): Five Bible Studies

The Samaritan Woman at the Well ... an icon in the Church of Aghios Nikolaos in Vathy on the Greek island of Samos … an icon of listening, diversity, dialogue and respect (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

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

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

Bible Study 1:

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

The Visitation of Abraham … a modern icon but an old and familiar image

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

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

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

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

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

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

Points for discussion:

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

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

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

How far does my hospitality extend?

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

Bible Study 2:

Joseph and the immigrants (Genesis 41):

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

This story provides the Lectionary readings for Morning Prayer next Saturday [3 March 2012], verses 1-24, and for Morning Prayer the following Monday [5 March 2012], verses 25-57. It is a story that is full of strangers. Joseph, who has been sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers, begins his life as a slave, as a stranger, as a foreigner and an immigrant. It was not his choice to end up in Egypt, but then how many immigrants or refugees came to Ireland not by choice design but due to circumstances beyond their control?

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

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

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

Points for discussion:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are they welcome in your church?

Are their children welcome in your school?

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

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

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

Bible Study 3: Ruth

Ruth and Naomi ... a modern icon

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

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

Points for discussion:

What issues does the story raise?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Points for discussion:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saint Photini ... the Samaritan woman at the well

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

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

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

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

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

Points for discussion:

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

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

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

When the conversation is over, will they remain strangers?

How open am I to new friendships?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. These Bible Study notes were prepared for a study session on the Archbishop’s Certificate in Theology course in Christ Church Cathedral on 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.