Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Launching a new publication on
the Moravians in Whitechurch

The Moravian Burial Ground at Whitechurch, Co Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

Whitechurch Old Schools, Rathfarnham, Co Dublin,

8 p.m., 14 May 2014


I am honoured to have been invited to be one of the speakers, alongside Professor Patricia Lysaght at this evening’s launch of this new publication – The Moravian Burial Ground at Whitechurch, County Dublin.

The author, Dr Rosemary Power, is a member of the Moravian Church and an historian and folklorist. But she is also a pioneering ecumenist. See has worked for the Methodist Church in Co Clare, for the Moravian Church in Swindon, and for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portsmouth, as well as being an ecumenical officer in North Wiltshire.

She is a living reminder that the Moravians in this area are not dead, and are not to be relegated to recording their graves and burial grounds.

Her work draws our attention to the pioneering ecumenism of the Moravian Church, and the diversity of the people they worked with. People buried in this graveyard in Whitechurch include people with connections with Bohemia, Greenland, England, North America, Germany, Tibet, Denmark, the West Indies and, of course, Ireland.

But those Moravians were never ones for merely expanding their own ecclesiastical empire. They always put themselves at the service of the wider Church, and engaged in the mission of the whole Church on behalf of the Kingdom of God.

That ecumenism is a reality today, as I have found through my participation in the talks that have opened between the Moravian Church and the Church of Ireland.

It was a pleasure at General Synod last week – and yes, there are pleasant aspects to the General Synod of the Church of Ireland – to be one of the hosts to our ecumenical guests who, this year, included the Revd Sarah Groves, one of the inspiring figures behind this evening’s new publication.

Sarah and I have been among the representatives of our churches in this dialogue, and I know she was particularly delighted with the new agreements we are reaching between the Church of Ireland the Methodist Church in Ireland.

The best ecumenical dialogues involve worshipping together, sharing meals, accepting hospitality from each other, and telling stories. In those talks, particularly at Sarah’s church in Gracehill, near Ballymena, earlier this year, we explored what we mean by sacraments, ministry and mission, shared our stories and tradition, and dined together.

But ecumenical dialogue must also make the wider picture relevant at the local level, and help local experience to relate to the wider ecumenical process. And that is precisely what we are doing this evening.

‘God’s Acre’ in Whitechurch ... waiting separately yet side-by-side for the coming kingdom (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

The Moravians may be a tiny church in Ireland, but they have enriched our life in the Church of Ireland to a degree that is not acknowledged often enough. The Moravian Church came to Ireland in the mid-18th century through the mission work of the Revd John Cennick (1718-1755), and although the Moravian Church in Kevin Street has been closed for many years, today many of us know of the Moravians through the hymns of John Cennick, the stories of their encounters with John Wesley and their influences on early Methodism, and through our adaptation of the Christingle traditions at Christmas-time.

His best-known hymn, Lo! he comes with clouds descending, was first sung by Moravians in Dublin in 1750, and remains popular in the Church of Ireland, particularly at Advent carol services. The best-known Moravian hymn writer, James Montgomery (1771-1854), spent part of his childhood in Gracehill, where his father was the Moravian minister. He was born in Scotland and was raised in Fulbeck near Leeds. His hymns include Spirit of the Living God and Hail to the Lord’s Anointed.

Over the years, many Moravians became integrated into the other churches in Ireland. John Charles Reichel, a Moravian minister from a Herrnhut family with many bishops, was the father of Charles Parsons Reichel (1816-1894), who had a distinguished career in the Church of Ireland, as Archdeacon of Meath, Dean of Clonmacnoise, Professor of Latin in Queen’s College Belfast, Professor of Church History in Trinity College Dublin, and Select Preacher in both Oxford and Cambridge before becoming Bishop of Meath in 1885.

Bishop Reichel married a grand-daughter of the 1798 leader, Henry Joy McCracken, and is buried in the Church of Ireland churchyard in Whitechurch, close to the original Moravian cemetery or ‘God’s Acre,’ beside Whitechurch Vicarage.

We share so much in common, as we have discovered in this dialogue, including our shared understanding of bishops and their role in the Church, and our common Church life of Word and Sacrament.

But we have more to learn from each other. Over the centuries the Moravians have challenged social inequalities, racism, sexism, slavery and injustice. We as Anglicans have much to learn from the Moravians.

Hopefully the talks we have had in Kilkenny and Gracehill last year and this year will lead soon to closer unity between Anglicans and Moravians in Ireland, like the agreement we are now reaching with the Methodist Church.

Such an agreement already exists in the United States … and Dr Rosemary Power’s publication is a reminder that we should not slacken in our efforts to make this not just a possibility but a certainty.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin.