24 June 2016

‘Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight
Where ignorant armies clash by night’

‘… you hear the grating roar / Of pebbles which the waves draw back’ … on the shore at Bray, Co Wicklow, this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

If I were to take the temperature of Ireland this evening, I would say the overwhelming majority of us are in a state of shock, if not disbelief, after the result of yesterday’s referendum on British membership of the European Union.

Our nearest neighbour and best friend has decided to walk away.

Of course, I accept democracy and I cannot say that the majority of British voters who voted for a Brexit are racists. But when I look at who is happy – Marine Le Pen in France, Gert Wilders in the Netherlands, Donald Trump who is now in Scotland, and smug Nigel Farage in London – I fear the rise of the far right who smugly widen their voter base on the evils of racism and nationalism.

I fear a land border been created between Ireland and the UK, running from Derry to Newry. Imagine replicating the razor-wire border that runs the northern border of Greece, separating it from its non-EU neighbours in the Balkans, and think of the faces of those desperate refugees that Farage abused in his racist poster last week.

The young generation, the future of Britain and the future of Europe has been sacrificed on the altar of political ambition where the high priests are Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson.

Nigel Farage has a German wife who can help him to find safety in the EU if he ever needs to in the future. Boris Johnson is never going to give up his US passport. But the next generation of promising young British citizens will find that these middle aged politicians, in their smug ambitions, have sold their birthright for a mess of pottage.

Europe has guaranteed a minimum wage, health care rights for travelling Europeans, workers’ rights, women’s rights … the future seems dismal this evening.

New border controls may mean Irish business travellers each having to queue for an extra half hour each morning on landing at Stansted, Heathrow and Birmingham, and repeating the same exercise before they catch the last flight back in the evening.

I fly on one of these routes at least once a month on average. The corridor between Dublin and London is the second busiest international air route, following closely behind the air corridor between Taipei and Hong Kong. Consolidate and quantify these waiting half-hours and we can only imagine how much this exercise alone is going to cost business.

Now why should the French bother spending French taxes on stopping refugees at Calais making their way to Dover. Unwittingly, Farage and Johnson may find they have brought upon themselves the one problem they do not want to face.

I tried to clear my head this evening by taking a walk before dinner along the pebble-strewn shoreline at Bray, Co Wicklow. And I found that in my head I was going over and over again the words of Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach first published almost 150 years ago in 1867 in his collection New Poems.

Matthew Arnold was the godson of John Keble, and his father was the headmaster of Rugby.

In Dover Beach, Arnold is on the shore at Dover, facing the Strait of Dover, the narrowest part of the Channel across to Calais. Arnold sees in the retreat of the tide a metaphor for the loss of religious and faith values in Victorian England. But he could be reflecting on the loss of social and political values in England today and the way that this may end in a bloody conflict in which people slay not their feared enemies but their own friends, neighbours and colleagues.

The beach at Dover is bare, with only a hint of humanity in a light that “gleams and is gone.” He hears the sound of the sea as “the eternal note of sadness.” The Greek tragic playwright Sophocles also heard this sound as he stood on Aegean shores.

The final stanza begins with an appeal to love, then moves on to the famous ending metaphor. This is an allusion to a passage in Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War (Book 7, 44), in which he describes a battle at night on a beach in Sicily during the Athenian invasion.

In the battle, the attacking army became disoriented while fighting in the dark and in their fear many of these soldiers inadvertently killed each other.

On this sun-filled evening, I fear so much that in the last 48 hours we have unleashed too many dark forces.

‘But now I only hear / Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, / Retreating, to the breath / Of the night-wind’ … on Bray beach this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Dover Beach, by Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay
. Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Celebrating ordination anniversaries and
remembering a summer evening in 1971

The John Piper window in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist. I was ordained priest 15 years ago on this day [24 June 2001], and ordained deacon 16 years ago tomorrow [25 June 2000].

Last year, it was a particular pleasure to have been invited by the then Master of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield, Canon Andrew Gorham, to preach at the Festal Eucharist in the Chapel of Saint John’s on this day [24 June 2015].

I recalled that evening how my path to ordination began in that chapel when I was a 19-year-old, 45 years ago, back in the summer of 1971.

I was a young, budding freelance journalist at the time, contributing features to the Lichfield Mercury. Late one sunny Thursday afternoon that summer, after a few days traipsing along Wenlock Edge and through Shropshire, I had returned to Lichfield. I was walking from Birmingham Road into the centre of Lichfield.

Frankly, I was more interested in an evening’s entertainment when I stumbled in tat chapel out of curiosity. Not because I wanted to see the inside of the chapel, but because I was attracted by the architectural curiosity of the outside of the building facing onto the street.

I still remember lifting the latch, and stepping down into the chapel. It was 13 years before John Piper’s window had been installed in 1984. But as I turned towards the lectern, I was filled in one rush with the sensation of the light and the love of God.

This is not a normal experience for a 19-year-old … certainly not for one who was focussing on an active social night later on, or on rugby and cricket in the weekend ahead.

But it is was – still is – a real and gripping moment. I have talked about this as my “self-defining moment in life.” It still remains as a lived, living moment.

How was I to respond?

I could go for psychiatric assessment.

I could walk away dismissively, asking: “So what? God loves me, but so what?”

Inside Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

But my first reaction was to make my way from here down John Street, up Bird Street and Beacon Street and into the Cathedral. There I slipped into the choir stalls, just in time for Choral Evensong.

It was a tranquil and an exhilarating experience, all at once. But as I was leaving, a residentiary canon shook my hand. I think it was Canon John Yates (1925-1980), then the Principal of Lichfield Theological College (1966-1972). He amusingly asked me whether a young man like me had decided to start going back to church because I was thinking of ordination.

All that in one day, in one summer afternoon.

However, I took the scenic route to ordination. I was inspired by the story of Gonville ffrench-Beytagh (1912-1991), which was beginning to unfold at the time. He was then Dean of Saint Mary’s, Johannesburg, and facing trial when he opened his doors to black protesters who were being rhino-whipped by South African apartheid police on the steps of his cathedral.

My new-found faith led me to a path of social activism, campaigning on human rights, apartheid, the arms race, and issues of war and peace. Meanwhile, I moved on in journalism, first to the Wexford People and eventually becoming Foreign Desk Editor of The Irish Times.

While I was working as a journalist, I also completed my degrees in theology. In the back of my mind, that startling choice I was confronted with after evensong in Lichfield Cathedral was gnawing away in the back of my mind.

Of course, I was on the scenic route to ordination. A long and scenic route, from the age of 19 to the age of 48 … almost 30 years: I was ordained deacon on 25 June 2000 and priest on 24 June 2001, the Feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist.

I return regularly to Lichfield throughout the year – most recently on 5-6 June – and I slip into that chapel quietly when I get off the train. The chapel has remained my spiritual home. I had started coming to Lichfield as a teenager because of family connections with the area. But now I claim it for myself.

The traditions of the chapel subtly grew on me and became my own personal form of Anglicanism; the liturgical traditions of the cathedral nurtured my own liturgical spirituality.

I now know that the evening sun does not fill this chapel with light. That Thursday evening was many years before the John Piper window was installed. But there is no West Window, look around you, this chapel is not filled with evening light, even on summer evenings. Yet that moment is a lived and living moment … not only in my memory but in my every day, all through my life.

Inside the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)


Almighty God,
by whose providence your servant John the Baptist was wonderfully born,
and sent to prepare the way of your Son our Saviour,
by the preaching of repentance:
Lead us to repent according to his preaching,
and, after his example, constantly to speak the truth,
boldly to rebuke vice, and patiently to suffer for the truth’s sake;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Merciful Lord,
whose prophet John the Baptist
proclaimed your Son as the Lamb of God
who takes away the sin of the world:
Grant, that we who in this sacrament have known
your forgiveness and your life-giving love,
may ever tell of your mercy and your peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings: Isaiah 40: 1-11; Psalm 85: 7-13; Acts 13: 14b-26 or Galatians 3: 23-29; Luke 1: 57-66, 80.

With Canon Andrew Gorham at the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield, during the Festal Eucharist on 24 June 2016