11 October 2017

Book reviews in the Autumn
edition of the journal ‘Search’

Patrick Comerford

The Autumn 2017 edition of Search, A Church of Ireland Journal (Vol 40.3) is published this week, with reflections on the legacy of the Reformation, papers by the Revd Kevin Conroy on the diaconate as an ‘inviolate’ order of ministry and Professor Steven Ellis and on how Morning Prayer came to be the favoured Sunday morning service in Church of Ireland parishes.

I supervised Kevin’s MTh dissertation research, and it is a pleasure to find that I am referenced in his footnotes in his paper.

The way we respond to developments in the world around us is another aspect of ‘Reformation,’ and articles in this area include key contributions on the challenge of Gafcon by the Revd Philip Groves, and on communal loyalty, identity and the danger of toxicity in a wide variety of settings by the Revd Lesley Carroll.

How to manage community identity in response to historical and sociological upheavals is a theme which Professor Andrew Mayes takes back to Old Testament times, showing how Israelite self-identity developed from tribal brotherhood, to monarchy, and finally to dispersed People of God, each being an essential shift in response to historical and sociological change.

Looking to the future of the Church, Jacqui Wilkinson shares the fruits of her recent Cork-based research on primary school children’s attitudes to Christianity, arguing that encouragement to prayer must be a prime value for teachers and Christian parents alike.

The issue concludes with book reviews by Professor David Hayton, Archbishop Michael Jackson, Dr Raymond Refaussé, Bishop Peter Selby and the Revd Abigail Siines.

In his review of Death and the Irish: a miscellany, edited by Professor Salvador Ryan of Maynooth and published last year by Wordwell, Dr Refaussé writes: ‘Church of Ireland readers may be particularly interested in … Patrick Comerford’s reflection of Henry Francis Lyte’s well known hymn, Abide with me …’

My book reviews on pp 234-236 read:

Jesus: A Very Brief History

Helen K Bond, London, SPCK, 2017, pp 88, ISBN 9780281075997

Thomas Aquinas: A Very Brief History

Brian Davies, London, SPCK, 2017, pp 137, ISBN 9780281076116

Florence Nightingale: A Very Brief History

Lynn McDonald, London, SPCK, 2017, pp 127, ISBN 9780281076451

With over two billion followers today, Jesus of Nazareth is the single most influential figure in history. Yet, a recent opinion poll shows that 25% of 18-34-year-olds in Britain think that Jesus is a mythical or fictional character.

Helen Bond is Professor of Christian Origins at the University of Edinburgh. She has written extensively on the Gospels, the historical Jesus and the emergence of Christianity, and has contributed to several documentaries for the BBC and the Discovery and National Geographic channels. She begins Jesus: A Very Brief History, her contribution to this new ‘Very Brief Histories’ series from SPCK by dealing with the ‘Christ Myth’ and questions about the historical existence of Jesus.

In the first part of her brief historical introduction, Helen Bond first assesses the impact of Jesus on the world of his day, and outlines the key ideas and values connected with him. She digs deep into the ancient and widespread evidence for the existence of Jesus, explores the social, political and religious factors that formed the context of his life and teaching, and asks how those factors affected the way he was initially received. She deals succinctly with Josephus’ account of Jesus, with Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees, the credibility of his miracles and the gnostic gospels, and popular questions such as: ‘Was Jesus married?’

In the second part of her book, she surveys the intellectual and cultural ‘afterlife’ of Jesus, exploring the ways he has a continuing influence in the world today and has left a lasting impact. Why does Jesus continue to be so influential? What aspects of his legacy are likely to endure beyond today?

This is the first book in a new collection from SPCK that seeks to provide short, affordable, accessible books about some key figures in world history written by world experts. These slim paperback books have in an eye-catching die-cut design covers with numbered spines. The series began in April 2017 with this title and two others: Thomas Aquinas, by Brian Davies, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University in New York; and Florence Nightingale, by Lynn McDonald, former Professor of Sociology at the University of Guelph in Canada. Each author takes a similar approach in each book, although they vary considerably in length.

The Dominican theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas (ca 1225-1274) is perhaps the most influential philosopher of the Middle Ages and one of the greatest Western thinkers of all time. The Roman Catholic Church declared him a Doctor of the Church in 1568, and Brian Davies ranks him alongside philosophical giants such as Plato, René Descartes, Immanuel Kant and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Lady with the lamp

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) was born in Florence and is widely known as the founding figure in modern nursing and her role in the Crimean War. She was also a champion of social reforms, campaigning and lobbying on living conditions in the slums and the conditions in workhouses. She was sympathetic to Irish independence, and during a visit to Ireland with family friends in August 1852, she paid her respects at the grave of Daniel O’Connell in Dublin. In her letters, she describes how she loved Dublin but found Belfast too ‘Orange.’

She was known popularly in the Victorian era as the ‘Lady with the Lamp.’ But Lynn McDonald points out that during the Crimean War (1854-1856) the lamp was carried before her by ‘a young Irish soldier, who had enlisted at the age of 15, fell ill at Varna and was shipped out to Crimea, to be sent on to Scutari without ever seeing a day’s battle. He would carry the lamp for her so that she could take down the last letters of dying soldiers.’

Although she admired the work of David Livingstone, she was worried by the work of mission agencies, and condemned them for being more interested in numbers of conversions that the living conditions of the people they worked among. She was also a pioneer in statistical analysis and data presentation, promoting the bar and pie charts we still use today.

Mary Clare Moore of the Sisters of Mercy introduced her to the mystical writers, including Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola and Teresa of Avila. She was a supporter of SPCK and its publishing work; but when her cousin, Rosalind Nash, offered them to SPCK for publication in 1937 they were declined with the excuse that better translations were available.

What next?

In this new series, the choice of Jesus as the first title is obvious, although the second two figures may seem an odd choice to set the ball rolling. Indeed, in this anniversary year it seems a pity that Martin Luther is not one of the titles for publication in 2017. On the other hand, prior to the formal start of this series, SPCK published two hardback books in a similar format: on Julian of Norwich by Janina Ramirez of Oxford University; and Thomas More by John Guy of Clare College, Cambridge.

The next planned study is of William Tyndale by the writer and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, and there is a complementary series on movements and ideas that have shaped the world, beginning with Byzantine Christianity by Averil Cameron of Oxford and the Enlightenment by Anthony Kenny.

The Very Brief Histories series has its own Facebook page, which is being kept up-to-date on current and forthcoming titles.

Patrick Comerford

Trump, Brexit and Denis O’Brien:
Civic Trust lectures bring
public debate to Limerick

This half-age news report is published in the newspaper ‘Limerick Life’ on 11 October 2017 (p 4):

Trump, Brexit and Denis O’Brien: Civic Trust
lectures bring public debate to Limerick

Jodie Ginsberg of Index on Censorship speaks with Canon Patrick Comerford (Picture: Cian Reinhardt/ilovelimerick)

Limerick Civic Trust is bringing a new sense of public debate and engagement to the city with its autumn lecture series. For the second year in a row, the Civic Trust is hosting speakers whose views have often sparked controversy and who are willing to share their experiences and expertise with the public. The lectures are held in St. Mary’s Cathedral, an imposing Medieval venue, which has opened its doors to all comers.

One of the most talked-about events so far was the visit of Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of Index on Censorship, which took place on 28 September. Ginsberg is controversial herself, as her organisation has defended speech some considered blasphemous and insulting. A media furore about Kevin Meyers’ planned appearance did not deter a crowd from hearing Ginsberg discuss the dangers of censorship with Canon Patrick Comerford.

Speaking during banned books week, Ginsberg, who is a former Reuters’ journalist, warned that outrage at certain opinion – such as Holocaust denial and racism – can lead to an impulse to censor people. She warned that this a ‘slippery slope’ that could easily have ‘authoritarian use.’

Ginsberg, ironically speaking from the pulpit, criticised ‘self-appointed spokespeople for offended groups’ who are impinging on freedom of expression.’ “Rich individuals can influence politics and mould the narrative to suit their ends.” She later made clear that she would have ‘no self-censorship on Denis O’Brien’ and criticised Rupert Murdoch for ‘hypocrisy on free speech.’

She noted that Ireland had a ‘very concentrated media market’ and that Ireland’s blasphemy law is a model for countries keen to crack down on religious dissenters, though she welcomed the Government’s move to hold a referendum on the subject.

“It is clear that something is going wrong at universities,” Ginsberg said, referring to campus protests against invited speakers and online campaigners to ‘no platform’ guests whose views some students consider dangerous.

On 5 October, former Irish Times Washington Correspondent Simon Carswell took centre stage, discussing his thoughts on Donald Trump, Brexit and the 2016 US presidential election. Carswell, who attended Crescent College Comprehensive in Limerick, referred to Trump as a ‘slick salesman’ and criticised Hillary Clinton for not appealing to a wider range of voters. He compared Trump favourably to Bill Clinton, however. He also drew parallels between Trump’s victory and the successful campaign for the UK to leave the European Union, citing the feelings of people who have been ‘left behind’ by contemporary political institutions, as well as economic anxiety and a desire for political leaders to feel their voters’ anger.

The Civic Trust will hold two more lectures this autumn. Ian Ritchie, a renowned international architect, will visit St. Mary’s on 12 October. That talk will be moderated by LIT President Dr Vincent Cunnane. And on 16 October, property developer Roger Madelin will share his insights about urban regeneration. Madelin worked on the refurbishment of King’s Cross Station in London and has toured Limerick personally in recent weeks, giving him a chance to fully analyse the state of regeneration in the city.

Does Brexit bring hope for
the Parthenon Marbles
returning to Athens?

The Parthenon in Athens … half the frieze is still in the British Museum in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

I spent time yesterday [10 October 2017] putting the finishing touches to my monthly column for two church magazines, the the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).

In my column next month [November 2017], I am describing my visit to the Ac ropolis in Athens and the new Acropolis Museum in August.

The new Acropolis Museum is the best Greek answer to British refusals to return the Parthenon Marbles to Athens from the British Museum in London.

But is Brexit going to have any impact on either the Greek demands or the persistent British refusals?

Last week, when President Prokopis Pavlopoulos of Greece met a delegation from the Ionian Islands that briefed him on an initiative for the repatriation of all elements of culture around the world and asked for his support.

During those talks last Friday, President Pavlopoulos said Greece’s first priority is the return of the Parthenon Marbles. ‘There is no other monument in the world that broadcasts these symbolisms,’ he said.

Greece is threatening to sue Britain for the return of the Elgin Marbles, which it says are stolen property.

Two years ago, the newly-elected government of Alexis Tsipras turned its back on the recommendation of a London-based team of human rights lawyers acting for Athens, including Amal Clooney, to help to settle the decades-old dispute.

But the Greek Minister of Culture, Lydia Koniordou, told The Times of London in a recent interview: ‘Greece is determined to break the deadlock caused by the continuous refusal by the British government to return the Parthenon sculptures to their country of origin. We are using both diplomatic channels and alternative means … without excluding the use of judicial means.’

About half the frieze, many metopes, and half of the pediment statues are now in the new Acropolis Museum in Athens. But most of rest are in the British Museum in London, with other parts scattered across Europe in other museums, including the Louvre and the Vatican.

The legal team hired by the International Parthenon Sculptures Action Committee includes Amal Alamuddin Clooney.

The committee is chaired by Alexis Mantheakis, who seems to agree with the suggestion from the legal advisers that sculptures could be traded for the Greek parliament’s ‘Yes’ to Brexit when the EU asks the parliament of each 27 member states to consent to the Brexit terms when they are agreed with Brussels.

It seems Scandinavian countries are prepared to say ‘yes’ only in exchange for new rules on fishing in the North Sea. There is a prosecco war is on between Italy and Britain. And Spain is claiming sovereignty over the Strait of Gibraltar. So why should Greece not make its own demands?

‘Here’s the solution we’ve been looking for for decades!’ Mantheakis told the Athens newspaper Kathimerini earlier this summer [7 August].

‘This is the first chance we have to claim the return of the marbles with the support of international diplomacy. We will tell them – gentlemen, we support you; the only thing we ask for is to empty a room in your museum.’

The Greek government has argued that EU mediators negotiating with Britain should protect Europe’s cultural identity, symbolised by the of the Parthenon marbles, pointing out that Athens is the cradle of Western civilisation.

The British Museum replied: ‘The Acropolis Museum allows the Parthenon marbles to be admired against the background of Athenian history. The sculptures displayed in London are important representatives of ancient Greek civilisation in world history.’

At a recent match in Cyprus between Tottenham Hotspur and Apoel Nicosia, Greek-Cypriot fans unfurled two banners proclaiming: ‘History Cannot Be Stolen’ and ‘Bring The Marbles Back.’

Recently, TripAdvisor invited travellers and tourists to rank the ten most attractive museums in the world. The Metropolitan in New York heads the list, the Acropolis Museum in Athens is in eighth place … and the British Museum in London does not appear on the list.