31 December 2017

A year that brought a change in
directions and new experiences

The harbour in Rethymnon on a summer evening this year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

I have been ringing out the old and ringing in the new this morning with my sermon at the New Year’s Eve Eucharist in Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry. But before 2017 is well and truly rung out later tonight, I am pausing for a few moments this afternoon to look back on the past year.

In Britain, this was a year in which Brexit was pursued with even greater vigour, despite the initial understanding that the referendum was merely a consultative process. It was the year of the Grenfell Tower disaster, which has been forgotten cruelly by the very people who are responsible for housing people in conditions such as this. It was a year in which the overwhelming majority of Britons refused to descend into fear-driven hatred following the attacks in Manchester and London Bridge.

I was in Lichfield on the day Theresa May called this year’s election, which saw UKIP wiped out, the SNP sorely wounded, and the Liberal Democrats pushed to the margins. Instead, the DUP holds the whip hand, and decides whether or not Theresa May is going to fall within the next 12 months.

But it is worth remembering too that Sinn Fein’s elected MPs are also propping up this Tory Government. If they took their seats, this government would collapse sooner rather than later. They claim they have no mandate to take their seats in Westminster, but the Good Friday agreement and the subsequent referendums accepted the status quo and the present constitutional arrangements. So long as Sinn Fein MPs refuse to take their seats in Westminster, they are as responsible as the DUP for the way Brexit is being pursued.

The referendum was not a binding decision to leave the single market or the free-travel zone. But this is the agenda now being pushed by the right-wing press, by Sky News, and by many Tory backbenchers.

For the first time in my life, I find myself smiling in wry agreement with Michael Heseltine when I hear him saying he wants to send Boris Johnson to Mongolia and that a government led by Jeremy Corbyn would be better than a Tory government pursuing a hard Brexit. But even Jeremy Corbyn is failing to provide any moral or visionary role that might put help to put a brake on Britain being rushed like lemmings over the cliff edge.

The death this year of Christine Keller is a reminder of how much Britain has changed over the decades. Theresa May’s government is rocked by continuing sex scandals in Westminster and by shoddy dealing. Since the election, she has lost three key figures from her cabinet: Michael Fallon, who is a cousin of the Irish DJ BP Fallon, Priti Padel, and Damien Green.

This too was the year Donal Trump assumed office as President in the US. He did not win the majority of votes among the electorate, but won the votes in the electoral college. For excuses less gross than this, the US has invaded countries and deposed despots. Even Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Gadafy in Libya had a greater claim to electoral legitimacy … and may even have convinced themselves that they had a greater grasp on the meaning of truth.

The two clear, identifiable groups that are unwavering in their support for Trump’s bullying and uncouth style of government are the far-right, including neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, and the so-called ‘Conservative Evangelical’ leadership.

Even the murderous events in Charlottesville failed to wake up these so-called Christians. When business leaders and retired military figures showed they had some principles and moral backbone, the fundamentalists remained on White House advisory committees.

In recent days, Bishop Paul Bayes of Liverpool has called these people out. But it seems they are not for moving. He said ‘self-styled evangelicals’ risked bringing the word evangelical into disrepute, and added there was no justification for Christians contradicting God’s teaching to protect the poor and the weak.

He told the Guardian: ‘Some of the things that have been said by religious leaders seem to collude with a system that marginalises the poor, a system which builds walls instead of bridges, a system which says people on the margins of society should be excluded, a system which says we’re not welcoming people any more into our country.’

He regretted that ‘people who call themselves evangelical in the US seem to be uncritically accepting’ positions taken by Trump and his allies. ‘Some quite significant so-called evangelical leaders are uncritically supporting people in ways that imply they are colluding or playing down the seriousness of things which in other parts of their lives [they] would see as really important,’ Bishop Paul added.

I believe it is wrong to allow them to continue calling themselves ‘Conservative Evangelicals,’ for they are neither conservative nor evangelical: conservatives seek to conserve the traditions of the Church, but these people have no ecclesiology, have no respect for the Sacraments, Creeds, doctrine and ministry of the Church, or discipleship, and are neo-Arians in their understanding of the role of Christ and the nature of the Trinity; evangelicals seek to preach the Gospel, but these people show little or no evidence of bringing good news to the poor, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger or freeing the prisoner.

Instead they are unquestioning in their support of a misogynistic, war-threatening, sexist, racist, lying, boorish, bragging, crude president.

When Trump met the Pope in the Vatican – indeed when Trump met Enda Kenny in the White House – morality triumphed over the brash and the crude. Unfortunately, no lessons seem to have been learned by a man who continues to be deaf to world opinion, to threaten nuclear war and to deny climate change.

His lying about climate change was exposed as a tissue of lies when he pleaded climate change as one of the reasons for needing to build a wall on the sand dunes in Doonbeg to protect his grubby golf course in Co Clare. The wall in Clare could yet be a stain on Ireland’s record in standing up to a recidivist bully.

This was the year of the ‘Paradise Papers,’ the year of the election of President Emmanuel Macron and the failure of the far-right in France, the year the far-right effectively threatened Angela Merkle’s continuing place not only as the leader of Germany but as the leader of Europe, the year Robert Mugabe left office in Zimbabwe without being able to leave with grace and dignity, and the year Cyril Ramaphosa promised to bring an end to corruption in South Africa.

This was also the year of genocide in Myanmar and the year Saudi Arabia created the greatest of humanitarian crises in Yemen, while Trump continued to kow-tow to the Saudis and Theresa May continued to sell them weapons of mass destruction.

This was the year the world seemed to forget that thousands of refugees are still arriving in Greece every month. They arrive to grim conditions on the islands, particularly Lesbos, and they are dumped on the edges of Europe, while Europe becomes increasingly obsessed with its own internal affairs.

It was the year when independence became the main point of debate in Catalunya, and so throughout Spain. But, as a consequence, Rajoy’s government was able to escape debate and questioning about public spending on health, education, housing and infrastructure.

It was the year Leo Varadkar said goodbye to Enda Kenny, the year that the cabinet said goodbye to Frances Fitzgerald, the year Fine Gael said goodbye to Liam Cosgrave, the year Sinn Fein said goodbye to Martin McGuinness and prepared to say a long goodbye to Gerry Adams, and the year that DUP and Sinn Fein politicians continued to draw their salaries despite failing to do the jobs they have been elected to work at. For Sinn Fein, it seems their concerns about the Irish language are more important than the NHS, education, social welfare, public spending or the impact of ‘Brexit’ not only on Northern Ireland but on all people on these islands; for the DUP, it seems protecting Arlene Foster from the continuing fallout of the ‘Cash for Ash’ crisis than to deal with a political vacuum in Northern Ireland.

With Bishop Kenneth Kearon and Dean Gary Paulsen at the installation as Canon Precentor of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick

I presided at the Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral for the last time as a chapter member on 7 January, and peached as a canon for the last time on 15 January. A few days later, I was appointed priest in charge of the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of parishes 20 January, when Archbishop John Neill preached at my introduction in Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale.

A few weeks later, Bishop Patrick Rooke of Tuam was the preacher in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, when I was installed as Precentor of the three cathedrals in the dioceses, Saint Mary’s, Limerick, Saint Flannan’s, Killlaloe, and Saint Brendan’s, Clonfert, on 19 February. From April, my roles in these dioceses, which stretch from Kerry to East Galway and Offaly, across three geographical provinces, include being Director of Education and Training, with training days for clergy and readers in Killarney and Askeaton and a new website providing liturgical and preaching resources.

This is a far-flung diocese, and the parish is far-flung too, with four churches, stretching from mid-Limerick across West Limerick and north Kerry. There is the normal cycle of Sunday service, vestry meetings, pastoral visits, hospital chaplaincy, baptisms, confirmations, funerals, and, hopefully in the future, weddings. I chair the board of management of the National School in the parish, I am involved in a local committee working with Travellers in Rathkeale, Cohesion Group, I am member of the Diocesan Synod, the European Affairs Working Group, and a number of diocesan committees, including the diocesan council, the board of education and Limerick Protestant Orphan Society.

I spoke at the General Synod in Limerick [4 to 6 May], about my work with Travellers in Rathkeale, and since then I was re-elected to the General Synod, but this time for the Diocese of Limerick. I took part in the Chrism Eucharist on Maundy Thursday in Saint Mary’s Church, Nenagh, Co Tipperary, spoke at the Ministry Day in Glenstal Abbey [17 June], and enjoyed the diocesan clergy conference in Galway [11 to 13 October].

An autumn sunset seen from the tower of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

It has been exciting to get to know new cathedrals in new dioceses, and one of the more unusual aspects to these experiences was climbing the Tower of Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Limerick at the invitation of Kieran Brislane, enjoying the sunset across the city and the Shannon estuary, and joining the bell-ringers at their rehearsal.

As Precentor, I was invited by Limerick Civic Trust to chair the public lecture and debate [28 September] with Jodie Ginsberg, Chief Executive of Index on Censorship as part of Banned Books Week, and I had dinner with Stephen Green [14 September], the former chair of HSBC, who opened the Autumn Lecture Series, discussing ‘The European Identity – Historical and Cultural Realities We Cannot Deny.’

The Very Revd Niall Sloane was installed as the new Dean of Limerick the following month [21 October]. He is working at making the cathedral chapter a working body, and next year promises to be an interesting one as Saint Mary’s celebrates the 850th anniversary of its foundation.

I lectured on Thomas Southwell at the annual conference of the Irish Palatine Association [26 August] in Rathkeale, lectured at Tarbert Historical Society [14 October] on one of my predecessors in the these parishes, the Revd Sir William Augustus Woseley, spoke to members of the Thomond Archaeological and Historical Society when they visited Castletown Church [31 May], and lectured at the Irish Hellenic Society on ‘Sir Edward Law (1846-1910): the Irish Philhellene who revived the Greek economy in the 1890s’ [22 November].

Rowing on the River Deel in Askeaton

I am living in the Rectory in Askeaton, which provides ample opportunities for walks by River Deel, River Maigue, River Arra and River Shannon, and I have enjoyed rowing on the River Deel, joined the Desmond Rowing Club and had fun at Askeaton Regatta. There have been new beaches to walk on at Ballybunion, Beagh, Camp, Castlegregory, Dingle, Inch and Kilkee, and walks by the shore at Tarbert, Glin, Foynes, Ventry and Blennerville.

I have regularly caught the ferry between Tarbert and Killimer, enjoying the sight of the dolphins in the estuary, and spent an afternoon sailing out of Tarbert. There have been visits to places as diverse as ‘World’s End’ in Castleconnell, Sixmilebridge, and Bunratty Castle.

There are historic, archaeological and religious sites to explore, from the cloisters of the Franciscan Friary and the ruined Desmond Castle in Askeaton, and the restored Desmond Castle in Newcastle West to the former synagogues and Jewish cemetery in Limerick. I am enjoying the architecture, street art, coffee shops, bookshops and restaurants of Limerick, and the stucco work and art of Pat McAuliffe in Listowel and Abbeyfeale.

I have been at three weddings this year, in Ashford, Co Wicklow, Crinken near Bray, Enniskerry, Co Wicklow, and Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. During one of those weddings, I stayed over at Tinakilly House near Wicklow. The weddings also provided opportunities for a return visit to Wexford and a meal by the estuary of the River Slaney at the Ferrycarrig Hotel.

A return visit to Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield, this year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

There were return visits too to Lichfield, earlier in the year, in the week after Easter from 17 to 19 April, and at the end of the year, from 23 to 24 November, staying at both the Hedgehog Vintage Inn and Saint John’s House. I paid my usual visits to Lichfield Cathedral and the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, there were walks in the countryside beyond Cross in Hand Lane, and there were visits to the Roman site at Wall and to Weeford for continuing research on the Wyatt family.

I was in London in February, May, and November for meetings of the Trustees of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel). There was a trustees’ meeting too during the USPG conference in High Leigh, near Hoddesdon [17 to 19 July]. During the conference, I chaired the session addressed by Bishop David Hamid of the Diocese of Europe. I also took part in a USPG volunteers meeting for dioceses in the Midlands at the Church of England offices near Saint Philip’s Cathedral in Birmingham [24 November].

The conference in High Leigh also provided the opportunity for walks in the countryside in Essex and Hertfordshire, and lunch at the Fish and Eels on the waterfront at Dobb’s Weir, near Hoddesdon, and a walk along the Lea Valley, crossing the Greenwich Mean Line.

Although this is the first year in many that the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies has not organised a Summer School at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, I was back in Cambridge during the summer months [17 July] for a short visit, that included a walk along the Backs, a visit to some bookshops, and a quick visit to Sidney Sussex College.

I continued to travel regularly during the year, with two visits to Greece, two to Italy, visits too to two microstates within the boundaries of Italy, the Vatican City and San Marino.

I was in Rome from 3 to 5 January, staying in the Hotel Franklin on Via Rodi, close to the Vatican, with visits to the usual tourist sights, including the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and the Vatican, and long lingering meals in Trastevere.

Two of us returned to Crete in the summer months [28 June to 12 July], staying again at Julia Apartments in Platanes on the east fringes of Rethymnon, visited the studios of the icon writer Alexandra Kaouki in Rethymnon, and also visited Panormos, the monastery at Arkadi with its new museum, Iraklion and the Museum of Christian Art with its icons and Byzantine treasures, Giorgioupouli. I also stayed in Ariadne in Koutouloufari, which offered an opportunity to revisit old friends in Piskopiano.

I returned to Athens later in the summer [18 to 20 August], when two of us stayed in Monastiraki. We visited the Acropolis, and this was my first time to visit the New Acropolis Museum.

As the year was coming to an end, two of us spent five days in Bologna [14 to 18 November], which also provided an opportunity to visit the Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna, the Roman remains in Rimini and the unusual, independent and somewhat eccentric Republic of San Marino.

Visiting an old ancestral home in Millstreet, Co Cork (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Back in Ireland, I returned in August to Millstreet, my mother’s home town in north Co Cork. I had not been there for some years, but a cousin helped me to recover many childhood memories and stories, and we visited many of the old houses associated with this side of the family.

I continue to write a monthly column in two diocesan magazine, the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel Ferns and Ossory).

This year’s topics were: Auschwitz (January); the Jewish Quarter of Krakow (February); some Irish connections with Rome and the Vatican (March); the Augustinians at Saint John’s Hospital and the Franciscans at the Friary in Lichfield (April); the stucco art of Pat McAuliffe in Listowel and Abbeyfeale (May); the Wyatt family of Weeford and its lasting influence on architecture in England and Ireland (June); the story of Limerick’s Jewish community (July); the Museum of Christian Art in Iraklion (September); how Grenfell Tower exposed a deeply divided Post-Brexit England (October); the Acropolis in Athens and the Parthenon Marbles (November); and Saint Nicholas of Myra, the real Santa Claus (December).

I also wrote a feature for City Life in Lichfield on ‘Philip Larkin’s place in Poets’ Corner and in the life of Lichfield’ (March), contributed a three-part feature in Newslink on Martin Luther and the Reformation, wrote a feature for Newslink on the meaning of Easter, and wrote an Easter feature for Koinonia: ‘In the Harrowing of Hell, Christ reaches down and lifts us up with him in his Risen Glory’ (April).

I was invited to contribute two papers for Ruach, an online journal promoting spiritual growth and healing, that is edited by the Revd Dr Jason Phillips the parish priest of Whittington, Weeford and Hints, in the Diocese of Lichfield, and Lynne Mills: on the spirituality of cinema, ‘Going to the movies with Harry Potter and Noah’ (Trinity 2017), and ‘To praise eternity in time and place … searching for a a spirituality of place’ (Michaelmas 2017).

I also wrote a book review for Search, the Church of Ireland journal, and features for the Redemptorist magazine Reality on ‘Thomas Cranmer: the Cambridge Reformer who shaped the Reformation’ (May) and the Methodist Newsletter on ‘Marking the Reformation: 500 years on – an Anglican Perspective’ (June).

There were occasional contributions to The Irish Times and the Church of Ireland Gazette, and interviews with the Limerick Leader, Limerick Life, and ABC News, the local community magazine in Askeaton. I finished off chapters for books to be published in the coming months, but I am not going to see these in print until 2018.

Opening Adrienne Lord’s summer exhibition of icons in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

In June, I was invited back to Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, to open Adrienne Long’s summer icon exhibition.

I remain President of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (Irish CND), although parish Sunday commitments mean I missed this year’s Hiroshima Day commemorations in Dublin.

It was a major change of direction this year to move on from being a Lecturer at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Trinity College Dublin, but I returned to TCD in November for the graduation of many of my MTh students, including two whose dissertations I had supervised.

This year also had its sorrows: deaths this year included old friends like Charlie Comerford, Johnny Blennerhassett, Sean O’Boyle of Columba Press and the Revd David Hoare of Gibraltar, Archbishop Donald Caird, who had commissioned me as a reader in 1994, and Bishop Samuel Poyntz, who was an early advocate of the ordination of women – I had stayed in his house when he was living in retirement in Lisburn.

This is a comfortable time to live in Ireland: the economy is improving, civil rights are being respected increasingly, and liberties and diversity are social values despite some racism and prejudice that lingers in dark corners. The government has proved itself well-able to negotiate its way through the thorny path of Brexit, and stood up to Trump’s bullying on the status of Jerusalem. But I fear this generation may yet be judged harshly for the way we have failed to get to grips with the crisis surrounding housing and homelessness, our failure to deal with the crisis in our public health system, and the way we have treated asylum seekers and refugees in our so-called direct provision centres.

I am looking forward to 2018 and the New Year, including the celebration of the 850th anniversary of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick. In my column in the Church Review and the Diocesan Magazine next year I write about the benefits of learning a new language. I might think about swimming regularly at the pool in Askeaton. But perhaps my New Year’s resolution ought to be to increase my daily walking average this year of 3.7 km up to 4 km in 2018.

I continue to blog daily, to walk daily, to read Holy Scripture daily, and to pray daily. There have been hospital appointments throughout the year connected with monitoring my Sarcoidosis and my Vitamin B12 deficiency. But, while I have Sarcoidosis, I am still determined that Sarcoidosis shall not have me.

Happy New Year!

A winter sunset at the Rectory in Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph; Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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