Sunday, 7 May 2017

Finding the cultural legacy in
the far reaches of a new parish

Saint John’s Church, Listowel … the former parish church is now a theatre and arts centre (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

I am beginning to realise the vast extent of my new parish boundaries. Although many churches from the past have long closed or even been demolished, their residents and parishioners are still within my new group of parishes, which includes towns such as Newcastle West, Abbeyfeale, Ballybunion and Listowel.

A recent funeral was an invitation to explore the town of Listowel in north Kerry, best-known to many for Listowel Writers’ Week and where the former Church of Ireland parish church, Saint John’s, is now used during the festival for drama, readings, lectures, music and exhibitions.

Saint Michael’s Church stood in Church Street, on the site of an earlier, 13th century Norman church. But all that remains of Saint Michael’s is a three-stage tower built ca 1775 at the entrance and the surrounding graveyard.

The old church tower is all that remains of Saint Michael’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The site for a newer parish church in the centre of the new Town Square was presented to the community in 1814 by William Hare (1751-1837), 1st Earl of Listowel. Saint John’s Church was designed in the Gothic style by the Limerick-based architect James Pain (1779-1877).

Pain was born in Isleworth, Middlesex, the son of James Pain, a surveyor and builder. He and his younger brother, George Pain (1792-1838), were apprenticed to John Nash (1752-1835), the architect responsible for the design and layout of much of Regency London under the patronage of the Prince Regent.

The Pain brothers moved to Ireland in 1811 with James moving to Limerick and George living in Cork. The buildings they designed or worked on include Dromoland Castle, Co Clare; Saint Columba’s Church, Drumcliffe, Ennis, Co Clare; Saint Mary’s Church, Shandon, Cork; Saint Patrick’s Church, Cork; Holy Trinity Church, Cork; Blackrock Castle, Cork; Baal’s Bridge, Thomond Bridge, and Athlunkard Bridge, all in Limerick; Limerick Gaol; and part of Adare Manor, where Pain was replaced as architect by AWN Pugin.

In 1824, the Church of Ireland appointed James Pain as architect to the Board of First Fruits in Munster. He designed and built a great number of churches and glebe houses in Co Limerick, including the former rectory in Askeaton, Castletown Church, near Pallaskenry, and Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, two of the four churches in this group of parishes.

From church to theatre

Bryan MacMahon celebrated in a shop window in Listowel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Pain’s new church in Listowel was built with the stones from Saint Michael’s, and Saint John’s was built completed by 1819. The tower of Saint Michael’s has been in ruins since in 1939, and the remaining parts of the earlier church was demolished around 1940.

In the 1980s, the parish stopped using Saint John’s Church, and it was deconsecrated in 1988. But both the parishioners and the wider community in Listowel were anxious to preserve the building and make it a centre for local cultural activities and heritage. The church was transformed into Saint John’s Theatre and Arts Centre and also houses a Tourist Office. The programme and performances include theatre, music, dance, exhibitions and educational programmes as well as an annual summer school.

John B Keane celebrated in a shop window in Listowel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

John B Keane ran his pub on William Street from 1955 after returning from London to Listowel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Listowel is one of Ireland’s 26 ‘Heritage Towns’ and the home to Ireland’s oldest and leading literary festival, Listowel Writers’ Week, which takes place this year from 31 May to 4 June. It is the home of writers such as Bryan MacMahon, John B Keane, Brendan Kennelly, George Fitzmaurice, and Maurice Walsh, and the town claims to be the ‘Literary Capital of Ireland.’

A statue in the centre of Listowel commemorates John B Keane, who died in 2002 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

John B Keane wrote once:

Listowel where it is easier to write than not to write …

Both Bryan MacMahon and John B Keane are buried in the churchyard beside the ruins of Saint Michael’s Church.

Architectural legacy

The ‘Maid of Erin’ … the best-known work of stucco art and architecture by Pat McAuliffe in Listowel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

During writers’ week, visitors to Listowel are attracted to Saint John’s, and to John B Keane’s statue and his former pub on William Street. But I also went in search of the town’s architectural heritage, and the work of the great stucco and architectural artist Pat McAuliffe (1846–1921), who lived and worked in Listowel as a builder and plasterer.

McAuliffe used stucco to decorate the façades of townhouses, shops and pubs throughout Listowel. His work has left the town with a distinctive architectural and artistic legacy in the colour and variety of the shopfronts he designed, and his oeuvre reveals an awareness of classical narratives.

His wonderfully detailed shop and house façades are an eclectic mixture of classical, art nouveau, Celtic and Byzantine influences. They are important examples of the late 19th century pan-European quest for a national style, and remind me of the style of stucco work by my great-grandfather, James Comerford (1817-1902), at the Irish House on Wood Quay and the Oarsman in Ringsend, Dublin.

Pat McAuliffe lived and worked in Listowel from 1846 to 1921, and races of his work can also be found throughout Listowel and in the surrounding region. As a builder, he applied exterior plaster, or stucco, on the shopfronts and townhouses he designed. Then, from the 1870s on, he began to develop an ambitious and often exuberant style within the compositional framing of façades of everyday buildings in the region.

‘The Maid of Erin’

The ‘Maid of Erin’ is part of Pat McAuliffe’s work on the former Central Hotel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

His best-known work, undoubtedly, is ‘The Maid of Erin’ at the former Central Hotel at 12 Main Street, facing the Square and Saint John’s Church in Listowel. The location of this building at the primary entrance to Listowel’s main square was an appropriate place for what is a monumental work, reflecting then-prominent constitutional nationalist desires.

This terraced, two-bay, three-storey house was built ca 1870 as one of a pair. In 1912, McAuliffe renovated the wooden shopfront of Potter’s public house and inn, and rendered ‘JM Galvin’ on the fascia, for the new owner, Jeremiah M Galvin. The stucco sculpture above an elaborate cornice has since become the most widely known example of McAuliffe’s work.

A sunburst motif rises from the horizon of a scroll featuring the title ‘Central Hotel.’ Below, the figure of Erin leans on her harp, with a wolfhound at her feet and a round tower beside her. McAuliffe’s arabesque symmetry, Scandinavian strapwork, urns, and acanthus-leaf motifs frame the symbolic sculptural rendering between the first-floor windows.

The political climate at the time often demanded that Erin should be presented as a figure of aesthetic beauty. But McAuliffe challenged these norms with his large-scale figurative work, presenting sculptural, architectural, political and social challenges to the norms of the day.

The Maid of Erin is portrayed as topless, a heavy-set woman, barefoot, clearly of and for the land, resting upon a mound that is the island of her destiny. This massed shape has shamrock embellishments, loose Celtic interlacing and the text ‘Erin go Bragh’ (‘Ireland forever’) on its surface.

In the mid-1980s, the premises was renamed the ‘Maid of Erin’ in honour of McAuliffe’s heroine. But in the process the original McAuliffe lettering on the fascia board was destroyed. Over a decade later, the Maid herself was at the centre of a controversy in 1999 when a new owner decided to ‘cover her dignity’ and have a dress painted over her ample, bare bosom. A debate ensued and he was persuaded to return her to her original semi-naked state.

Harp and Lion

The Horseshoe Bar … an early pub front by Pat McAuliffe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

One of Pat McAuliffe’s earliest works in Listowel may be the nearby Horseshoe Bar at William Street. It was built ca 1840 as a terraced, single-bay, three-storey house with a dormer attic. It was renovated, ca 1895, with a render pilaster pub-front by McAuliffe, whose work here includes panelled pilasters, paired consoles and a moulded cornice.

The premises was extensively renovated in late 20th century, with single-storey recessed canted oriel windows inserted to the upper floors and the addition of a dormer attic.

The Harp and Lion on Church Street, Listowel … Pat McAuliffe’s design for PM Keane’s public house (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

McAuliffe’s last major work in Listowel was completed at Patrick M Keane’s public house, a terraced, two-bay, three-storey house at 44 Church Street, near the original, ruined Church of Ireland parish church. Today, the premises is known as ‘The Harp and Lion’ because of his sculptural details.

This terraced, two-bay three-storey house was built ca 1840 as part of a terrace of four, and was renovated by McAuliffe around 1915. Here he favoured a more focussed installation, with a sculptural shield on the first floor, placed between the windows.

The harp and lion challenged nationalist demands of the early 20th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

This first-floor composition consists of a lion upon an entablature, surmounting the harp beneath. The lion gazes out towards the street, indeed seemingly protective of the emblem of Ireland – another challenge to nationalist expectations of the day.

This arrangement is enclosed by scrolled mouldings, with Latin, French and Irish slogans: ‘Spes Mea in Deo’ (‘My hope is in God’), ‘Maison de Ville’ (‘House of the Town’) and ‘Erin go Brath’ (‘Ireland Forever’). The shield is completed with rendered heads at each end of the entablature and zoomorphic motifs clutching onto shamrocks around the harp.

Pilasters at each side of the front consist of symmetrical strap-work patterns, above capitals that each feature incised plaster impressions of a songbird. Consoles jut forward, each embellished with arabesque decoration.

The original cresting above the cornice has since disappeared, as over time metal armatures encased in the plaster have oxidised and expanded, splitting and cracking the plaster around it. Renovation work began after these difficulties were identified in the late 1960s. A delicate skeletal-pattern infill was replaced by a more pronounced arrangement of harped motifs and round-headed dividing blocks, made in metal.

The original fascia board, with the lettering ‘PM Keane,’ has been missing since a change in ownership in the 1980s. At the same time, arrow motifs at either side were lost. The loss of all these details is unfortunate, considering the vibrant Celto-Byzantine and Art Nouveau imitation style of the façade. The Harp and Lion is now an attractive antique shop.

Missing flamingos

The New Kingdom Bar at No 85 Church Street, Listowel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Further along Church Street, on the opposite side, the New Kingdom Bar at No 85 is a terraced, three-bay two-storey house, built around 1880, as a pair with the adjoining house. No 85 was renovated by Pat McAuliffe, with his render pilaster pub front inserted to the ground floor, with panelled pilasters and a corbelled moulded cornice. Each window case on the first floor has a figure to a tympanum as a keystone.

Each window on the first floor of the New Kingdom Bar has a figure as a keystone to the tympanum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Much of Pat McAuliffe’s original work on the neighbouring Star and Garter at No 83 has since been lost. Here, he completed his pub front design across a two-storey, three-bay building. Only the architrave and quoin details remain today. The lost embellishments included two dragons that McAuliffe had delicately placed above an upper storey cornice and flamingos picking at grapes.

Recent fieldwork in the North Kerry and West Limerick region indicates that 35 to 40 buildings in this area may been be the work of McAuliffe. There is more of his work that I need to find in the streets of Listowel and throughout my new group of parishes.

The Star and Garter has lost much of Pat McAuliffe’s original work (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Canon Patrick Comerford blogs at www.patrickcomerford.com . This feature was first published in May 2017 in the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough) and the ‘Diocesan Magazine’ (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).

Saint Patrick’s Hall in the centre of Listowel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Was the Good Shepherd our model
at the General Synod in Limerick?

Christ the Good Shepherd, depicted on the reredos in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford,

Sunday 7 May 2017,

the Fourth Sunday of Easter,

11.30 a.m.:
Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin, Tarbert, Co Kerry, Morning Prayer.

Readings: Acts 2: 42-47; Psalm 23; I Peter 2: 19-25; John 10: 1-10.

In the name of + the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit

I have spent the last three days at the General Synod of the Church of Ireland, which met for the first time this year in Limerick.

We began synod proceedings, appropriately, with a celebration of the Eucharist in Saint Mary’s Cathedral on Thursday morning, which I robed for as Precentor of the Cathedral, and on Thursday evening there was a reception for Synod members in the hallowed grounds of Thomond Park Stadium.

Traditionally, the synod prayers are led each day by the most-recently appointed bishop. But in a departure from that tradition, the prayers this were led by the Dean of Killaloe, the Very Revd Gary Paulsen, who was the Synod chaplain.

We had some friends to stay with us in the Rectory in Askeaton throughout the General Synod, there were many opportunities to meet more friends and colleagues, and the South Court Hotel was a pleasant place to work in for three days.

But, despite the setting and the social aspect to all of this, the General Synod is no holiday, and on sunny days, of course there are more pleasant ways of enjoying the sunshine.

Some of the work may seem tedious on the surface. The book of reports included a 163-page report from the Representative Church Body, including detailed accounts of what the Church has done with the money it holds on your behalf, on our behalf, where it is spent and invested, how much we pay the clergy in stipends, pensions and expenses, and what our policies are when it comes to ethical investment, for example.

All this is not just about responsible spending and housekeeping, but it is about being open and transparent. This money has been given by ordinary church members, and we should know it is being spent well and wisely.

The reports on funds held by the RCB also show how generous people were in the past, and how the Church needs fresh fundraising initiatives if we are going to pass on things we have inherited in good order to succeeding generations.

There were reports from different synod boards, such as the Board of Education and the Church in Society Commission.

The report of the Northern Ireland Community Relations Group, for example spoke of tackling bigotry and sectarianism on the ground. There was discussion too of how we have marked important centenaries, such as 1916 and World War I – indeed the Historical Centenaries Working Group is now chaired by Bishop Kenneth Kearon.

There were reports from the Working Group on Disability, the Refugee Working Group, the Youth Department and the Commission for Christian Unity and Dialogue, of which I am a member.

The report of the European Affairs Working Group taps into the concerns throughout the Church of the impacts of ‘Brexit’ on church life, which we cannot yet estimate. The Priorities Fund report shows contributions to church projects and to groups outside the Church of Ireland.

The Liturgical Advisory Committee produced proposals for new forms of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer for Sundays, and readings and collects for Remembrance Sunday.

The report of the Commission on Ministry introduced discussions on Ordained Local Ministry and on whether the Church of Ireland ought to have our own retreat centre.

On Friday morning, within the context of the Council for Mission report, David Breen from Rathkeale and I had an opportunity to speak about the work of the Rathkeale Pre-Social Cohesion Group, which is supported in part by some of my work in this group of parishes, by the Diocese, and in the past by the Church of Ireland Priorities’ Fund.

And this diocese also came up for discussion when the General Synod encouraged the talks and co-operation that that have been going on with the Diocese of Tuam, Killala and Achonry and our joint working group. The discussions also include some changes that will be discussed again next year.

The report from the Select Committee on Human Sexuality in the context of Christian belief was not without controversy. Even the very phrasing of an addendum to this report, and the way it was included, shows how deep the divisions on this issue are in the Church, and how open, vulnerable and hurt many people are.

We don’t always get it right … far from it.

But we go through all of this – with its heady mixture of fun and heartbreak, humour and tedium – because we care for the Church and we take our responsibilities for it seriously.

We are all – and not just the bishops and priests – we are all charged with being good pastors of the church, good shepherds of the sheep.

Most of us warm to our Gospel reading this morning (John 10: 1-10), as we think about Christ as the Good Shepherd.

The image of Christ as the Good Shepherd is a popular image. So popular, perhaps, that this is one of the most popular images in stained-glass windows in churches of every tradition. In this group of parishes, we have one in the chancel in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton.

But sometimes I have problems with our cosy, comfortable image of the Good Shepherd. Christ is so often portrayed in clean, spick-and-span, neatly tailored, nicely dry-cleaned, red and white robes, complete with a golden clasp to hold all those robes together.

And the lost sheep is a huggable, lovable, white fluffy Little Lamb, a little pet, so like the Little Lamb that Mary had and that followed her to school one day.

But shepherds and sheep, in real life, are not like that.

Lost sheep get torn by brambles, lose their wool, end up bleeding and messy. Any shepherd going down after lost sheep gets torn by brambles, covered in sheep droppings, slips on rocks, risks his life.

City people – removed from rural life by two or generations – have little idea of what it is to be a shepherd, to look after sheep, to keep them in a sheepfold, how sheep follow the voice of their shepherds, but also how easy it is to lead them astray.

The good news of the incarnation first came, not to kings in their bright palaces, nor to Roman governors surrounded by power and might, but to hard-working, humble shepherds in the middle of the night.

Yet they were among the poor, the exploited and the marginalised of their day. They had a hard life. They had to stay out at night in the cold and the dark, on the hostile hills as they herded their sheep. They faced all the dangers and difficulties the sheep faced, and were just as vulnerable. They shared the heat of the day, and they slept with their flocks at night, sharing the dangers of cold weather and threats of preying wolves.

They were poor and had no prospects as husbands or fathers – and their work meant they left their families alone and vulnerable at night too.

But that is the kind of life Christ lives for us and with us. And that is why it is worth working through all the tedium, and the reports, and the finance and the figures at General Synod each year. So that people can find Christ who journeys with the most vulnerable, and takes on all our vulnerability. ‘The Lord is my shepherd … he guides me in the paths … for his name’s sake’ (Psalm 23: 3).

Christ knows what it is like to be out in the cold. He knows what he is asking when he calls on people to leave their homes and villages, and even their families, since he has done the same himself. ‘The Lord is my shepherd … I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever’ (Psalm 23: 6).

He knows what it is to be homeless, helpless and hungry. The Lord is my shepherd … ‘he spreads a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me’ (Psalm 23: 5).

Christ knows the risks and hardships of life. The Lord is my shepherd … ‘though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil’ (Psalm 23: 4).

Christ, against all the prevailing wisdom, identifies with those who are lost, those who are socially 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 God totally identifies with us. He is the shepherd and the guardian of our souls (I Peter 2: 25).

And so we get it wrong at times in General Synod, but we keep on trying, because we know it is worth, and because Christ knows we – all of us, everyone – are worth it.

And so, may all our thoughts, words and deeds be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This sermon was prepared for Sunday 7 May 2017.

Christ the Good Shepherd … a window in Saint John’s Church, Wall, near Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Collect:

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. Amen.

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. Amen.

Christ the Good Shepherd … the Hewson Memorial Window in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Taking the Good Shepherd as our
model at General Synod in Limerick

Christ the Good Shepherd … the Hewson Memorial Window in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford,

Sunday 7 May 2017,

the Fourth Sunday of Easter,

9.45 a.m.:
Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick, the Parish Eucharist.

Readings: Acts 2: 42-47; Psalm 23; I Peter 2: 19-25; John 10: 1-10.

In the name of + the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit

I have spent the last three days at the General Synod of the Church of Ireland, which met for the first time this year in Limerick.

We began synod proceedings, appropriately, with a celebration of the Eucharist in Saint Mary’s Cathedral on Thursday morning, which I robed for as Precentor of the Cathedral, and on Thursday evening there was a reception for Synod members in the hallowed grounds of Thomond Park Stadium.

Traditionally, the synod prayers are led each day by the most-recently appointed bishop. But in a departure from that tradition, the prayers this were led by the Dean of Killaloe, the Very Revd Gary Paulsen, who was the Synod chaplain.

We had some friends to stay with us in the Rectory in Askeaton throughout the General Synod, there were many opportunities to meet more friends and colleagues, and the South Court Hotel was a pleasant place to work in for three days.

But, despite the setting and the social aspect to all of this, the General Synod is no holiday, and on sunny days, of course there are more pleasant ways of enjoying the sunshine.

Some of the work may seem tedious on the surface. The book of reports included a 163-page report from the Representative Church Body, including detailed accounts of what the Church has done with the money it holds on your behalf, on our behalf, where it is spent and invested, how much we pay the clergy in stipends, pensions and expenses, and what our policies are when it comes to ethical investment, for example.

All this is not just about responsible spending and housekeeping, but it is about being open and transparent. This money has been given by ordinary church members, and we should know it is being spent well and wisely.

The reports on funds held by the RCB also show how generous people were in the past, and how the Church needs fresh fundraising initiatives if we are going to pass on things we have inherited in good order to succeeding generations.

There were reports from different synod boards, such as the Board of Education and the Church in Society Commission.

The report of the Northern Ireland Community Relations Group, for example spoke of tackling bigotry and sectarianism on the ground. There was discussion too of how we have marked important centenaries, such as 1916 and World War I – indeed the Historical Centenaries Working Group is now chaired by Bishop Kenneth Kearon.

There were reports from the Working Group on Disability, the Refugee Working Group, the Youth Department and the Commission for Christian Unity and Dialogue, of which I am a member.

The report of the European Affairs Working Group taps into the concerns throughout the Church of the impacts of ‘Brexit’ on church life, which we cannot yet estimate. The Priorities Fund report shows contributions to church projects and to groups outside the Church of Ireland.

The Liturgical Advisory Committee produced proposals for new forms of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer for Sundays, and readings and collects for Remembrance Sunday.

The report of the Commission on Ministry introduced discussions on Ordained Local Ministry and on whether the Church of Ireland ought to have our own retreat centre.

On Friday morning, within the context of the Council for Mission report, David Breen from Rathkeale and I had an opportunity to speak about the work of the Rathkeale Pre-Social Cohesion Group, which is supported in part by some of my work in this group of parishes, by the Diocese, and in the past by the Church of Ireland Priorities’ Fund.

And this diocese also came up for discussion when the General Synod encouraged the talks and co-operation that that have been going on with the Diocese of Tuam, Killala and Achonry and our joint working group. The discussions also include some changes that will be discussed again next year.

The report from the Select Committee on Human Sexuality in the context of Christian belief was not without controversy. Even the very phrasing of an addendum to this report, and the way it was included, shows how deep the divisions on this issue are in the Church, and how open, vulnerable and hurt many people are.

We don’t always get it right … far from it.

But we go through all of this – with its heady mixture of fun and heartbreak, humour and tedium – because we care for the Church and we take our responsibilities for it seriously.

We are all – and not just the bishops and priests – we are all charged with being good pastors of the church, good shepherds of the sheep.

Most of us warm to our Gospel reading this morning (John 10: 1-10), as we think about Christ as the Good Shepherd.

The image of Christ as the Good Shepherd is a popular image. So popular, perhaps, that this is one of the most popular images in stained-glass windows in churches of every tradition. In this group of parishes, we have one here in the chancel in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton.

But sometimes I have problems with our cosy, comfortable image of the Good Shepherd. Christ is so often portrayed in clean, spick-and-span, neatly tailored, nicely dry-cleaned, red and white robes, complete with a golden clasp to hold all those robes together.

And the lost sheep is a huggable, lovable, white fluffy Little Lamb, a little pet, so like the Little Lamb that Mary had and that followed her to school one day.

But shepherds and sheep, in real life, are not like that.

Lost sheep get torn by brambles, lose their wool, end up bleeding and messy. Any shepherd going down after lost sheep gets torn by brambles, covered in sheep droppings, slips on rocks, risks his life.

City people – removed from rural life by two or generations – have little idea of what it is to be a shepherd, to look after sheep, to keep them in a sheepfold, how sheep follow the voice of their shepherds, but also how easy it is to lead them astray.

The good news of the incarnation first came, not to kings in their bright palaces, nor to Roman governors surrounded by power and might, but to hard-working, humble shepherds in the middle of the night.

Yet they were among the poor, the exploited and the marginalised of their day. They had a hard life. They had to stay out at night in the cold and the dark, on the hostile hills as they herded their sheep. They faced all the dangers and difficulties the sheep faced, and were just as vulnerable. They shared the heat of the day, and they slept with their flocks at night, sharing the dangers of cold weather and threats of preying wolves.

They were poor and had no prospects as husbands or fathers – and their work meant they left their families alone and vulnerable at night too.

But that is the kind of life Christ lives for us and with us. And that is why it is worth working through all the tedium, and the reports, and the finance and the figures at General Synod each year. So that people can find Christ who journeys with the most vulnerable, and takes on all our vulnerability. ‘The Lord is my shepherd … he guides me in the paths … for his name’s sake’ (Psalm 23: 3).

Christ knows what it is like to be out in the cold. He knows what he is asking when he calls on people to leave their homes and villages, and even their families, since he has done the same himself. ‘The Lord is my shepherd … I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever’ (Psalm 23: 6).

He knows what it is to be homeless, helpless and hungry. The Lord is my shepherd … ‘he spreads a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me’ (Psalm 23: 5).

Christ knows the risks and hardships of life. The Lord is my shepherd … ‘though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil’ (Psalm 23: 4).

Christ, against all the prevailing wisdom, identifies with those who are lost, those who are socially 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 God totally identifies with us. He is the shepherd and the guardian of our souls (I Peter 2: 25).

And so we get it wrong at times in General Synod, but we keep on trying, because we know it is worth, and because Christ knows we – all of us, everyone – are worth it.

And so, may all our thoughts, words and deeds be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This sermon was prepared for Sunday 7 May 2017.

Christ the Good Shepherd … a window in Christ Church, Leamonsley, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Collect:

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. Amen.

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. Amen.

Christ the Good Shepherd, depicted on the reredos in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)