Thursday, 12 March 2020

How the best laid schemes
of priests and people go awry,
from Killaloe to Myanmar

The Hedgehog in Lichfield reopens next week … I’m still hoping to stay there the week after next (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. No matter how carefully a project is planned, something may still go wrong with it. Or, as the poet Robert Burns wrote in ‘To a Mouse’:

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men Gang aft a-gley.

The new restrictions on travel and events because of Covid-19, the Corona Virus, were having an impact on my diary before they were extended by the government today.

I had been invited to preach at the installation of the Revd Rod Smyth as Dean of Killaloe and the Revd Paul Fitzpatrick as Dean’s Vicar in Saint Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe, Co Clare, tomorrow evening (13 March 2020). But it looks as though Ireland is going into virtual lockdown from this evening until 29 March, and tomorrow’s planned service – and sermon – were cancelled earlier today, and the formalities for their appointments will be completed privately.

I have written a four-page feature on Ballyragget Castle, Co Kilkenny, in the programme of the Ballyragget Heritage Festival, which was due to begin tomorrow evening, has been postponed, although the programmes have been distributed throughout the neighbourhood.

I was also invited by the Dublin Council of Churches to preach at an ecumenical service in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, on Saint Patrick’s Day next Tuesday (17 March 2020), but this was cancelled yesterday afternoon.

I was also planning to travel to Myanmar the following Monday (23 March 2020) to represent the Anglican mission agency USPG at celebrations marking the fiftieth anniversary of the formation of the Anglican Church in Myanmar, the Church of the Province of Myanmar. But this has been cancelled too.

In preparation of this planned visit to Myanmar, I had a full briefing in London last week on the sidelines of a meeting of trustees of USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

The Church of the Province of Myanmar is a full member church in the Anglican Communion, and there are over 70,000 Anglicans in a country of about 50 million people. The church is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of its formation, originally as the Church of the Province of Burma, in 1970. It became the Church of the Province of Myanmar when the country changed its name in 1989.

The Anglican presence in Myanmar owes much to the presence of USPG (then SPG) for over a century and a half and throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

There was a strong Anglican presence in Burma throughout the colonial period. The first Anglican priests came to Burma in 1825 not as missionaries but as army chaplains. The great majority of the Anglo-Burmese and Anglo-Indian communities were also Anglicans and there were many Anglican-run schools too, including Saint Mary’s, Maymyo, and Saint Michael’s, Mandalay.

USPG, which was then SPG (the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel), began its mission work in Burma in 1854 when the society sent its first missionary, TA Cockey, a brother of the martyred Henry Edwin Cockey.

In 1863, an SPG missionary, JD Marks opened a school in Yangon that later became Saint John’s College. He also opened schools in Zalon, Hanzada and Theyet Myo.

Because of internal divisions within the Baptist missions, many Karen Baptists from Taungoo joined the Anglican Church in 1875 and the Karen Anglican population increased dramatically in Taungoo.

Jonathan Holt Titcomb (1819-1877), who was ordained in the Church of Ireland in 1842 for a curacy in Downpatrick, Co Down, became the first bishop of Rangoon (Yangon) in 1877, and he ordained the first Burmese-born clergy, including Karens and Tamils, in 1877-1878.

An Irish-born SPG missionary, the Revd Thomas Rickard (1849-1903), worked in Myanmar for 20 years (1883-1903). He was born in Buttevant, Co Cork, studied at Saint Augustine’s College, Canterbury, and was ordered deacon (1881) and priest (1883) in Rangoon (Yangon). He was vice-president of Saint John’s College, Rangoon, from 1881 to 1883, and later held several mission posts at Rangoon and Poozoundoung. He was in charge of the Kemmendine Training Institution from 1893, and he was still working as a missionary when he died.

William CB Purser began SPG mission work in Kyatlatt in 1900. In his Christian Missions in Burma (London: SPG, 1911), he wrote, ‘Their love of fun has earned the Burmese the epithet of the Irish of the East’ (p 10).

Many of the Anglican missionaries in Myanmar, including bishops, were sent by the Winchester Brotherhood. The Bible Churchmen’s Missionary Society (now Crosslinks) began mission work among the Kachins in 1924.

Foreign missionaries had to leave the country in 1940 in advance of the Japanese invasion during World War II, and George Appleton was appointed as Archdeacon of Rangoon in 1942 and to look after mission work in Burma from India. He later became Archbishop of Perth, and then Archbishop of Jerusalem.

During the Japanese occupation, all mission work, including mission schools and hospitals was suspended, and most native Anglicans were dispersed. But after World War II, the Church was reorganised with the formation of three archdeaconries, for the Delta, Mandalay and Toungoo, in 1946 and Holy Cross College was reopened.

After the partition of India in 1947, the Church of the Province of India, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon was formed as a new province in the Anglican Communion in 1947. The number of Anglicans in Burma dropped following independence in 1948 and the subsequent exodus of many British people, followed by many Anglo-Burmese and Anglo-Indians.

When all foreign missionaries were forced to leave Burma in 1966, Francis Ah Mya became the first Burmese-born Bishop of Rangoon.

The provincial council of the Church of India, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon agreed in 1968 to the formation of a new ecclesiastical province in Burma, and the Church of the Province of Burma, later the Church of the Province of Myanmar, came into existence on 22 February 1970, with Bishop Francis Ah Mya as the first Archbishop.

Archbishop Francis Ah Mya was succeeded as archbishop by his assistant bishop, John Aung Hla, in 1973. Taungoo Diocese, which I was expecting to visit, was formed in 1994 from Taungoo Missionary Diocese.

Bishop Stephen Than Myint Oo of Hpa-a, became the sixth Archbishop of Myanmar in 2008. Today, the Anglican Church in Myanmar has six dioceses: Yangon, Archbishop Stephen Than Myint Oo; Hpa-an, Bishop Mark Saw Maung Doe; Mandalay, Bishop David Nyi Nyi Naing; Myitkyina, Bishop John Zau Li; Sittwe, Bishop James Min Dein; Toungoo, Bishop Saw Shee Shoe.

The invitation to represent the Golden Jubilee Celebrations of the Church of the Province of Myanmar included taking part in the Fourth Anglican Family Gathering from 25 to 30 March in Thandaunggyi, Taungoo, with the theme ‘Let us live with the word of God to expand God’s Kingdom’ (see Matthew 6: 10; Psalm 1: 1-3).

A modern English version of that poem by Robert Burns concludes:

But Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!

Still you are blessed, compared with me!
The present only touches you:
But oh! I backward cast my eye,
On prospects dreary!
And forward, though I cannot see,
I guess and fear!


I cannot see forward. But no, I do not panic about the future, nor do I fear it or think its prospects dreary. Hopefully the celebrations in Myanmar have been postponed rather than cancelled, and go ahead later this year.

In my sermon tomorrow evening I was planning to share words from Samuel Johnson, the Lichfield-born compiler of the first English dictionary: ‘Almighty God … without whose grace all wisdom is folly, grant, I beseech thee, that in this my undertaking thy Holy Spirit may not be withheld from me, but that I may promote thy glory, and the salvation both of myself and others.’

Meanwhile, by way of self-compensation for the cancellation of the planned visit to Myanmar, I had booked return flights to Birmingham on 26-28 March, and booked into the Hedgehog in Lichfield, so that I could have my own, self-paced mini-retreat in Lichfield Cathedral and in the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield, which I have seen as my spiritual home for almost half a century.

The Hedgehog, which has become my own personal space for retreat, is being refurbished and is due to reopen next week (Friday 20 March 2020). Hopefully, I can go ahead with this planned visit, and a planed visit to Crete next month for Greek Orthodox Easter.

Inside Saint Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe, Co Clare … tomorrow evening’s installation and introduction has been postponed (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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