31 December 2020

From Valencia to Valentia,
in a year of lockdowns,
road trips and lost plans

The Irish Times calendar confused the important holidays at the end of 2020 … was this a sign of the times? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

A friend posted on his Facebook page on Christmas Eve: ‘It’s been a long and difficult year – made more difficult by people who feel the need to preface everything by saying that it’s been a long and difficult year.’

As I look back on the past year, I do not need to tell anyone how long or how difficult it has been. Nor do I need to recall the major events in the political, sporting, social calendars of the past year. But I should have realised that this was going to be a year like no other when calendar for 2020 produced by The Irish Times predicted that Christmas Eve this year would fall on 25 December, Christmas Day on 26 December and Saint Stephen’s Day on 27 December.

So, I started to carefully fill in a large year-planner on a wall in the meeting room in the Rectory. How wrong I was to start planning a few months in advance, never mind planning for a full year ahead.

I got to London twice, and to Valencia early in the year. I was in London in January for the launch in the House of Lords of resources to mark Holocaust Memorial Day and to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust and World War II in 1945.

I was in Valencia in Spain in January too, to celebrate my birthday, and I was back in London in early March for a meeting of the trustees of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

The City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, designed by Santiago Calatrava and FĂ©lix Candela, is one of the ‘12 Treasures of Spain’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Those visits to London, allowed two of us to spend some time off visiting Bevis Marks Synagogue, the oldest Sephardi synagogue on these islands, and to explore parts of the East End in London.

But on that second visit to London, it was obvious that all future travel plans for the year were about to be cancelled. A planned visit to Myanmar on behalf of USPG was called off, and the pandemic restrictions quickly entered every aspect of life.

The Saint Patrick’s Day parades in Askeaton and Rathkeale were cancelled for the first time in living memory, and an invitation to preach in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, on Saint Patrick’s Day, was called off. Nor did I join other family members on a visit to Istanbul later in March.

Soon too, I realised I was not going to be back in Crete for Orthodox Easter, and all other travel plans were scuttled. Among the many planned trips that were cancelled included a city break in Warsaw (a Christmas present from one son), a few days in Puglia and Bari in June, summer holidays in Khalkidhiki and Thessaloniki in August and September, and the potential for a few days in Venice or Paris in November. All meetings of USPG became Zoom meetings, so never for to London again. The USPG annual conference at Swanwick in Derbyshire was cancelled too.

This is the first year in many that I have not been in Greece, Lichfield or Cambridge.

But we were not to be outdone. When the lockdown was relaxed at different times of the year, two of us took advantage of the situation, and headed off on a number of ‘road trips’ throughout the southern half of Ireland, visiting and revisiting places that reassured us that Ireland is, indeed, a beautiful island.

There were two visits to Cobh, including visits to Spike Island and Saint Colman’s Cathedral; two visits to Cork, including walk tours of Jewish Cork and visits to Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral, which was celebrating its 150th anniversary this year; and a visit to the Ring of Kerry.

There were return visits to many places that were dear to me in my childhood and formative years, including Cappoquin and my grandmother’s former farm, with warm welcomes at Cappoquin House, Mount Melleray and Dromana in Villierstown; Ballinskellings and its long sandy beach on the tip of the Ring of Kerry; Valentia Island, where we stayed in the Royal Valentia Hotel; Cahir, Carrick-on-Suir and Clonmel in Co Tipperary, including the Butler house in Carrick, and the Swiss Cottage, castle and Nash-designed parish church in Cahir; Bunclody, including a first-time visit to the only synagogue in Co Wexford; and, of course, Wexford town itself.

Other delightful stops on these ‘road trips’ included Mallow, Lismore, Kilkenny, Loop Head, Doneraile, Kanturk, Buttevant, Kenmare, Sneem, Croom, Kilmallock, Charleville, Aghadoe … and so many more places.

A return visit this year to the Cappoquin of my childhood (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

I continue to provide weekly preaching and liturgical resources for clergy and readers in the Church of Ireland Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe at www.cmelimerick.blogspot.com, and I continue blog daily at www.patrickcomerford.com. I write a monthly column in the Church Review, I have contributed to a number of journals, including Search, the Irish Theological Quarterly and ABC News (Askeaton), I have written occasionally in The Irish Times, and I have written chapters for two books on the history of Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth, and Drogheda Grammar School.

I was invited to lecture on Pugin’s architecture for the Adare History Society, on the Sephardic Jewish ancestry of John Desmond Bernal for the Friends of the Hunt Museum in Limerick, and on the clergy of Askeaton for Askeaton Civic Trust.

I marked the 20th anniversary of my ordination by Archbishop Walton Empey in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, in 2000. In ministry, many expected highlights were cancelled this year – including an invitation to preach at the installation of the new Dean of Killaloe, the Very Revd Rod Smith – and many more were delayed or postponed, including baptisms and weddings. But funerals can never be postponed or cancelled.

When the lockdown forced the cancellation of public celebrations of the Parish Eucharist, even on Easter Day and on Christmas Day, I continued to celebrate the Parish Eucharist on Sundays and major feast days, albeit behind the closed doors of one of the churches or the rectory.

I celebrated the Eucharist and preached once in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, and visited the cathedral on a number of occasions. But I did not have the involvement in cathedral life I would have loved, enjoyed and expected as Precentor. And the pandemic also played havoc with plans for training days for clergy and readers in these dioceses.

On the other hand, I learned to use Zoom and became more proficient with YouTube, and both became important venues for meetings of General Synod, Diocesan Synod, clergy, USPG trustees, school boards and seminars, including a series of webinar lectures on Sephardic history organised by the Sephardi Academia programme at Bevis Marks Synagogue.

I remain a member of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland, the Commission for Christian Unity and Dialogue and the Interfaith Working Group. I am now in my last year of six as a Trustee of the Anglican mission agency USPG. I preached a recored sermon for USPG for the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in 1945 that was used in cathedrals and churches around the world on 9 August. I am chair of the board of management of Rathkeale No 2 National School, a member of the boards of three local secondary schools, in Askeaton, Rathkeale and Dromcolliher, and a member of a number of educational and charitable trusts in Limerick.

I remain President of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), and I spoke on 6 August at the commemorations in Merrion Square, Dublin, marking the 75th anniversary of the atmoic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945.

Although my Pulmonary Sarcoidosis has flared up a few times this year, and I continue to be conscious of some symptoms of my Vitamin B12, my good health has been enhanced this year by love, friendships, and walks on beaches, by riverbanks and in the countryside. I may have sarcoidosis, but sarcoidosis does not have me.

As the year ends, perhaps I am allowed to muse had I made that family trip to Turkey earlier this year, could I have headed this end-of-year review with a reference to ‘from Cappadocia to Cappoquin’ … had I made it back to Greece, perhaps I could have spoken of a year ‘from Rathkeale to Rethymnon’ or ‘from Askeaton and Adare to Athens and the Acropolis’? Indeed, how I wish I could I could write now about from ‘Lichfield to Limerick’, or from ‘Cambridge to Limerick’.

But the lasting legacy of this year may not be the lockdown what the shutdown of 2020 means for most of us. Perhaps the lasting legacies may be provided by Brexit and the closing years of the Trump presidency.

Before this year turned everything on its head, PPE referred to philosophy, politics and economics, which seemed to be the degree of choice of most Oxbridge team members on University Challenger, and PUP referred to the Progressive Unionist Party, once led by Hugh Smyth, David Ervine, Billy Hutchinson and Dawn Purvis.

Who ever thought a president chosen by the Republicans – the ‘party of law and order’ – would show such contempt for law, and sow chaos in the world order?

Who ever thought that next Christmas Britons may be deprived of not only Brussels sprouts at the Christmas dinner table, but also Champagne, Prosecco, Parma Ham …

Who ever thought in advance of 2020 that 20/20 vision would see them through this past year?

Who ever thought that this year would be a year when most of us would see more alcohol being poured through our fingers than through our lips?

Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine we could go up to a bank cashier with a mask on and ask for money.

I never thought the comment, ‘I wouldn’t touch him/her with a 6-ft pole’ would be heard as a caring, friendly statement.

Meanwhile, does anyone know if we can take showers now … or should we just keep washing our hands?

I have not covered a wall in the Rectory with a wall planner for 2021. As for those who get back to Mediterranean holidays next year, we may find the reality of tariffs, trade barriers and food standards may mean we are not going to be plagued by cheap food outlets offering ‘authentic English breakfasts.’

These are witty sentiments that have been shared across social media platforms and pages over the past week. But perhaps the closing words of the year should come from the US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died earlier this year (18 Septmeber 2020). She was a trailblazer on behalf of gender equality, and she fought fiercely and unflinchingly to advance and defend the rights of women and minorities.

She embodied the principle of equal justice for all under the law, as well as the Jewish value of ‘tzedek, tzedek, tirdof’ – ‘justice, justice shall you pursue’  (Deuteronomy 10: 20). That saying was framed on the wall of her Supreme Court chamber, and summed up perfectly her calling as jurist and a Jew.

After a year in which racism, anti-Semitism and violence increased across the world, stoked by a US President who is refusing to accept the democratic will of his people and to leave office, it is important to keep these words in mind as we head into another year, still trembling with uncertainty about what the future holds: ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue.’

Happy New Year, wherever you are!

I am never again going to cover a wall with a wall planner for the year ahead (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Irish Anglicanism, a book review in
the ‘Irish Theological Quarterly’

Irish Anglicanism, 1969-2009: Essays to mark the 150th anniversary of the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland. Edited by Kenneth Milne and Paul Harron. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2019. Pp. 304. Price €35.00 (hbk). ISBN 978-1-84682-819-5.

Reviewed by: Patrick Comerford

The Church of Ireland is marking the 150th anniversary of its disestablishment in 1869-1871. The Church of Ireland is unique in these islands: while the Church of England, the Church in Wales and the Scottish Episcopal Church work within clearly-defined political units in the United Kingdom, the Church of Ireland works across two jurisdictions – the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland; four of the 12 dioceses are cross-border dioceses, with many cross-border parishes.

The disestablishment commemorations began late last year, with Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury preaching in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, and look like continuing into 2021. As part of the commemorations, Irish Anglicanism 1869-2019 is a new collection of essays edited by Dr Kenneth Milne, the Church of Ireland historiographer, and Dr Paul Harron, an architectural historian and former Church of Ireland press officer.

To mark the fiftieth anniversary, Archdeacon (later Bishop) Henry Patton published a collection of his own essays, Fifty Years of Disestablishment, in 1922. But the monumental work on disestablishment came at the centenary, when the pioneering Jesuit ecumenist, the late Michael Hurley, edited a collection of essays by a group of Methodist, Presbyterian, Quaker and Roman Catholic scholars, Irish Anglicanism 1869-1969, in 1970.

This collection is unlike both predecessors. The essays are often short, sometimes to the point of being terse – the longest is by Archbishop Michael Jackson and runs to 18 pages – and are of varying degrees of scholarship: two have no footnotes or references, one has footnotes that sometimes are considerably longer than the text on a page, and one contributor manages to refer to himself at least nine times in the third person.

Unlike Michael Hurley’s book half a century ago, this collection has only one contributor from outside the Church of Ireland. Fergus O’Farrell offers a Methodist perspective, but there is no Roman Catholic reflection, nor is a Presbyterian voice heard.

Of the 26 contributors (some of the papers are co-authored and one has multiple authors), only six are women, which poorly reflects the life of a Church that has been ordaining women as deacons since 1987, as priests since 1990, and as bishops since 2013.

Bishop Harold Miller does not allow his own churchmanship to influence a very fine description of the developments in modern liturgy in the Church of Ireland. But he fails to give credit to other liturgists who contributed to these developments, including Michael Burrows, Ricky Rountree, Michael Kennedy and Brian Mayne. It is left to Raymond RefaussĂ© (p. 238) to give credit to Canon Mayne’s role in compiling and editing the 2004 Book of Common Prayer.

A collection of essays, by its very nature, is selective. But there is no contribution on the Church of Ireland Bishops’ Appeal or the work of the church through development agencies such as Christian Aid and Concern; there is no discussion of the work with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, including the pioneering work of the Discovery initiative and the Discovery Choir; and no engagement with the work of mission agencies, apart from brief historical references in Bishop Kenneth Kearon’s essay to SPG, SPCK and CMS and the role of the Church of Ireland in forming churches in Spain and Portugal.

Of the 20 papers in this collection, five are by bishops (six if one counts the foreword), but only one by a former member of staff of Church of Ireland Theological College, and no other paper is from present or past staff members of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, although many are scholars of international repute, such as Adrian Empey, John Bartlett and David Hewlett, and there is none by lay theologians, such as Andrew Pierce, Margaret Daly-Denton, or the Dublin-born brothers David Ford (Cambridge) and Alan Ford (Nottingham).

The discussion of theological education needs a critical approach in a Church where the teaching of Biblical languages, Church History and patristics have been marginalised and reduced to electives or options.

Despite Canon Ginnie Kennerley’s summary of women’s ministry as women in ordained ministry, little attention is given to women in lay ministry, their membership of General Synod and committees – there are two brief mentions of Lady Brenda Sheil – their role in diocesan and parish life. Nor is there the robust discussion needed of laity engagement in law, the media, science and sport: Catherine McGuinness was a Supreme Court judge; the late Jack Boothman was president of the GAA; Colonel Dick Bunworth was once aide-de-camp to President de Valera and retired as Deputy Chief of Staff, while his brother, Colonel Bill Bunworth, was a pioneering officer in Irish peacekeeping operations.

The brief discussion of media and communications could have generously referred to Patsy McGarry and Andy Pollak who have provided a regular platform in The Irish Times for many people in the Church of Ireland through the ‘Rite and Reason’ weekly column and in a well-planned series marking the millennium in 2000.

Three contributions briefly refer to the crisis at Drumcree, but there is almost no account – apart from Canon Kennerley’s brief mention – of the rise of Reform and Gafcon (p. 69), mainly in Northern dioceses, a movement that threatens to rob many dioceses in the Church of Ireland of a once generous, broad and inclusive ethos. Their aggressive rise impinges on every facet of church life. The paper on interfaith matters misses an opportunity to tackle the objections of some ‘conservative evangelicals’ to an invitation to a Muslim to speak in Christ Church Cathedral, Waterford, and their apparent silence in the face of protests outside mosques in the Greater Belfast area, when crosses were carried by protesters in white robes.

The divisiveness created by this new expression of ‘conservative evangelicalism’ came into the open in the debate on sexuality at the General Synod of 2012, described by Bishop (now Archbishop) John McDowell, as being ‘for many the most divisive synod in living memory’ (p. 101).

If that was a deeply divisive synod, Robin Bantry White argues, on the other hand, that at General Synod ‘there are fewer bores, but also fewer skilled debaters. There are fewer people among the general membership adept at using the Standing Orders. In some ways the synod has become more an annual conference than a parliament debating great matters’ (pp. 190-191).

A church that is more interested in its archives and its monuments than in theological reflection on its faith and praxis is in danger of becoming a mausoleum rather than growing as a living church.

Biographical note:

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is a priest in the (Church of Ireland) Diocese of Limerick, Precentor of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, and a former Adjunct Assistant Professor in Trinity College Dublin and the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.

This book review was first published in the Irish Theological Quarterly (Maynooth), Vol 85, No 3, pp 323-325, on 1 August 2020

Praying at Christmas with USPG:
7, Thursday 31 December 2020

‘In the beginning was the Word’ (John 1: 1) … an old typewriter seen in a restaurant in Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Throughout Advent and Christmas this year, I am using the Prayer Diary of the Anglican Mission Agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) for my morning reflections each day. I am one of the contributors to the current USPG Diary, Pray with the World Church.

Before this day starts, I am taking a little time this morning for my own personal prayer, reflection and Scripture reading.

The theme of the USPG Prayer Diary this week (27 December 2020 to 2 January 2021) is ‘Introducing the International Year of Peace and Trust,’ which I introduced on Sunday, writing as a trustee of USPG and President of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Thursday 31 December 2020 (New Year’s Eve):

Let us pray that 2021 may be marked as a year in which all people on earth work for peace and trust based on dialogue, mutual understanding and cooperation.

The Collect (Times and Seasons)

Eternal Lord God,
we give you thanks for bringing us through the changes of time
to the beginning of another year.
Forgive us the wrong we have done in the year that is past,
and help us to spend the rest of our days
to your honour and glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

John 1: 1-18 (NRSVA):

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own,[c] and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me”.’) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

Continued tomorrow

Yesterday’s morning reflection

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org