04 October 2020

Religious diversity and pluralism
in a time of pandemic lockdown

Sandy’s Row Synagogue in London … antisemitism is a virus without a vaccine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

I have a little (just a little) twinge of guilt in realising that during the pandemic lockdown I have bought so many books online. My eclectic buying ranges from Strangest Genius, the book by Lucy Costigan and Michael Cullen on the stained glass of Harry Clarke; to Jewtown, a collection of poetry by Simon Lewis, inspired by stories of the Jewish community in Cork.

In Catholic Staffordshire, Michael Greenslade shows how Roman Catholicism survived in Staffordshire more strongly than anywhere else in post-Reformation England except Lancashire. Prominent Recusant families in post-Elizabethan Staffordshire included the Aston, Biddulph, Clifford, Comberford, Draycott, Fitzherbert, Fowler, Giffard, Harcourt, Howard, Littleton, Perry, Stafford, Stanford, Sutton, Talbot, Weld and Whitgreave families.

Later members of the Wolseley family also became Roman Catholics through marriages with some of these families. Some early Irish connections with these Staffordshire Catholics include the marriages between the Dillon family and the heirs of the Stafford family and of the Lee family, Earls of Lichfield.

John Talbot (1791-1852), 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, who lived at Alton Towers and commissioned AWN Pugin to build many churches in Staffordshire, including Saint Giles’s Church in Cheadle, was once ‘the most prominent British Catholic of day.’

Lord Shrewsbury extended his family’s Irish connections when he married Maria Theresa Talbot, daughter of Thomas William Talbot of Castle Talbot, Co Wexford – an Irish branch of the Talbot family that were patrons of Pugin too.

The arms of the Talbot family, Earls of Shrewsbury, represented on the doors of Saint Giles’s Church in Cheadle, Staffordshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

* * *

Despite Irish connections by marriage and descent, the perceived wealth and social status of the Dillon-Lee, Fitzgerald, Talbot, Wolseley and other recusant families in Staffordshire, isolated them from the Irish silk weavers who arrived in the early 19th century, and the impoverished Irish immigrants who arrived in from the mid-19th century on.

The composition of Father John Kirk’s parish in Lichfield, for example, changed as a large number of Irish people moved into the Sandford Street area by the mid-19th century. New Irish workers were attracted to the Potteries by expanding local industries in the 1840s.

The Rugeley mission was described in 1847 as ‘paralysed with poverty.’ At Walsall, the priest said an early mass on Sunday mornings in 1851 ‘for poor people who from want of proper clothes do not like to appear out of doors at a later period of the day.’

The people who arrived in Staffordshire in a new ‘influx of Irish’ in the early 1850s were described by one priest as ‘mostly very destitute.’ Mother Margaret Hallahan, a Dominican nun who moved to Stone in 1853, described the area as ‘a complete range of dust hills. The people say it is the fag-end of the Potteries; I think it is the fag-end of the world.’

The old recusant families had become a minority within the Roman Catholic population of Staffordshire by the mid-19th century, and immigrant Irish families were becoming the majority. Today, the Roman Catholic population of Staffordshire is much more diverse, and descendants of those poor Irish immigrants are completely integrated into English life.

The Irish population in Lichfield in the mid-19th century was living mainly in the Sandford Street area (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

An Irish king of Albania?

Back in the 1980s, there was an old joke among journalists that it was a sure sign of folly to be the pretender to the throne of Albania; it was an even greater folly to go to Albania to claim that throne. But an Irish peer was offered the throne of Albania, possibly on three occasions, in the 1920s.

Lord Headley was one of the most prominent early converts to Islam in England, generations before Muslims arrived in significant numbers from India and Pakistan, and he was an early member of the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking.

The mosque was built in 1889 as the first purpose-built mosque in Britain and is now an architectural treasure. It was the inspiration of a German-born orientalist, Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner (1840-1899), and was built in the grounds of Leitner’s Oriental College.

The mosque was built in a ‘Persian-Saracenic Revival’ style, with a dome, minarets and a courtyard. It is described by the Pevsner Architectural Guides as ‘extraordinarily dignified.’ It was funded mainly by Shahjehan, Begum of Bhopal (1868-1901), one of only four women to become the Muslim royal ruler of Bhopal.

A prominent early member of the mosque in Woking was the Irish peer Rowland George Allanson Allanson-Winn (1855-1935), 5th Baron Headley. The title of Lord Headley, Baron Allanson and Winn, of Aghadoe in Co Kerry, dates back to 1797.

The Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking … Britain’s first purpose-built mosque (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

* * *

Lord Headley qualified as a barrister but later became a civil engineer. As an engineer, he superintended coastal defence works at Youghal, Co Cork, and Glenbeigh, Co Kerry, and carried out similar work north of Bray Harbour, Co Wicklow. When he stood as the Conservative candidate in South Kerry in 1892, he received only 86 votes. Later, he worked on building roads in India, and in 1902 and 1903 he won the Silver Medals of the Institute of Civil Engineers of Ireland.

The Arklow Harbour Commissioners appointed him the chief engineer for extending the south breakwater of the harbour in 1906. But his plans were abandoned the following year in favour of a different scheme by John Purser Griffith.

Lord Headley’s homes in Ireland were at Inseidin, Coliemore Road, Dalkey, and Glenbeigh, Killarney. When he inherited his family title in 1913, he also inherited the family estates in Co Kerry. That year, he converted to Islam and took the Muslim name Shaikh Rahmatullah al-Farooq. He set up the British Muslim Society, was the author of several books on Islam, and twice made the Hajj to Mecca.

Headley was declared bankrupt in 1922. A year later, he was offered the throne of Albania, along with $500,000 and an annual income of $50,000, but turned down the offer. He claimed to have been offered the throne of Albania on three occasions, but turned down each invitation, saying ‘the only thing that goes with it is trouble and the almost certainty of assassination.’

Lord Headley died on 22 June 1935, and was buried in Brookwood Cemetery, near Woking.

Inside the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking … Lord Headley, an Irish peer from Co Kerry, was a prominent early member (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The virus without a vaccine

As we learn to live with the Covid-19 virus, there is another virus with no vaccine that has been spreading virulently across the world: the virus of antisemitism, ‘an ancient virus without an antidote or vaccine.’

This virus is described and analysed by Rabbi Julia Neuberger in her new book, Anti-Semitism: What it is. What it isn’t. Why it matters (Weidenfeld and Nicolson).

Julia Neuberger is known to many people in Ireland. She was Britain’s second female rabbi, has a house in west Cork and is a life peer. She points out that antisemitism runs deeply and more perversely that most religious prejudice, with catastrophic results. There are signs of a recent resurgence not only in Trump’s America but across Europe too.

In Europe this year, we have been marking the 75th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust. But antisemitism continues to find new expressions in every generation. After Michael Cohen’s incriminating testimony before Congress, Donald Trump is reported to have found a new way to fall back on a centuries-old trope when he said, ‘Jews always flip.’

The Labour Party once seemed to be the natural home for Jewish voters in Britain. But the exposure of antisemitism at many levels throughout the party, and Jeremy Corbyn’s perceived inability or unwillingness to deal with it was one of the contributing factors to Labour’s defeat at the general election last December.

The Jewish Chronicle devoted an entire front page to an appeal to non-Jews not to vote Labour for as long as it was led by Corbyn, and 24 public figures wrote to the Guardian saying they would not vote Labour because of the party’s problems with antisemitism.

* * *

In Trump’s America, Jews have been shot to death at Shabbat prayer in synagogues by hate-filled white nationalists in Pittsburgh and Poway, California; and visibly Orthodox men and women have been violently attacked in Brooklyn and Monsey, New York, and shot down next door to a synagogue in Jersey City. The past year has brought the third-highest spike in antisemitism in the US on record.

In a speech to the Israeli American Council, Trump made several comments that drew criticism from the American Jewish Committee and other Jewish organisations for his ‘money references that feed age-old and ugly stereotypes.’

Trump’s language about immigrants and minorities; his reluctance to condemn white supremacists; and his opinion that there were ‘very fine people on both sides’ of the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, combine to create an ugly climate.

In her book, How to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bari Weiss of the New York Times decries Trump’s ‘shameless and savage style of politics.’ Trump, she writes, ‘dismissed civility and decency as virtues for chumps, and cultivated a climate of rage and paranoia that has already proven deadly.’

The virus without a vaccine is just one more reason to watch next month’s presidential election with a mixture of hope and fear, anticipation and trepidation.

Bevis Marks Synagogue in London … antisemitism contributed to Labour’s defeat and the fall of Jeremy Corbyn (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Canon Patrick Comerford blogs at www.patrickcomerford.com. This feature was first published in the October 2020 edition of the ‘Church Review,’ the Dublin and Glendalough diocesan magazine.

Sunday intercessions on
4 October 2020 (Trinity XVII)

A harvest of apples in the orchards at Cappoquin House, Co Waterford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Let us pray:

We give thanks for the harvests
in the world, in our land, in our communities:

We give thanks for all who work in fields and on farms,
at sea and on land,
in forests and in the air,
in shops, in factories and in offices, in the private sector and the public service, in government and in education,
in the health sector, hospitals and homes,
and for those who have retired
but have given us with a rich harvest in our lives today.

Lord have mercy,
Lord have mercy.

We give thanks for your Harvest in the Church,
that we may both perceive and know
what things we ought to do.

In the Anglican Cycle of Prayer,
we pray this week for the Anglican Church of Tanzania
and the Most Revd Dr Maimbo Mndolwa,
Archbishop of Tanzania and Bishop of Tanga.

Throughout the Church of Ireland this month,
we pray for the Diocese of Cashel, Ferns and Ossory,
for Bishop Michael Burrows,
and for the people and priests of the diocese.

We pray for our bishop, Kenneth,
and for his ministry, mission and witness …

We pray for all being ordained at this time …

In the Diocesan Cycle of Prayer, we pray this week
for those who are anxious, frightened, depressed
or in any distress in the dioceses.

Christ have mercy,
Christ have mercy.

We give thanks for the harvest in our own lives and families,
praying that we may receive more abundantly from you than we sow:

We give thanks for new life …
for Simon Michael Foley …
for his parents, Nicky White and Rob Foley …
for his sister, Tamsin …
for his grandparents, Hilary and Simon …

We pray for those in need:

In our hearts, we name individuals, families, neighbours,
care homes, hospitals, voluntary groups …

We pray for those who are sick or isolated,
at home or in hospital …

Alan … Margaret … Lorraine …
Ajay… Joey … Ena … Trixie …

We pray for those we have offered to pray for …

We pray for all who grieve and mourn at this time …
We remember, and give thanks for, the faithful departed …
including Margaret Glynn and Sylvia Mitchell, who died this week …
Bertha Marsh, who died last week …
Canon Marie Rowley-Brooks, who died recently …
Richard Langford, whose anniversary occurs at this time …
may their families find comfort and support in the prayers of friends …
may their memories be a blessing to us …

Lord have mercy,
Lord have mercy.

A prayer of Saint Francis used today in the prayer diary
of the Anglican mission agency USPG
(United Society Partners in the Gospel):

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me so love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy. Amen.

Merciful Father …

These intercessions were prepared for use at the Harvest Thanksgiving services in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick, and Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry, on Sunday 4 October 2020.

A harvest of apples in the orchards at Cappoquin House, Co Waterford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

‘One of them, when he
saw that he was healed,
turned back, praising God’

Harvest time and harvest resources … harvest in a field near Cappoquin, Co Waterford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 4 October 2020 (Trinity XVII, Harvest Thanksgiving),

9.30 a.m.: The Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton

11.30 a.m.: Morning Prayer (Morning Prayer 2), Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert)

Readings: Deuteronomy 8: 7-18; Psalm 65; Luke 17: 11-19

A full barn on my grandmother’s former farm near Cappoquin, Co Waterford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Gospel reading this morning (Luke 17: 11-19) is not one we readily associate with Harvest time. It is unlike the beautiful, rich harvest images in the first reading (Deuteronomy 8: 7-18), unlike the images we expect when it comes to giving thanks for the Harvest.

It is a story of sickness, both personal sickness and the deeper malaise to be found in society; it is a story of marginalisation and discrimination; and a story of the use and the abuse of religious authority and power.

But then harvest is not just about bringing in the crops and giving thanks for God’s blessings on the land – however slim they may appear to be this year. Harvest, at a deeper level, is about the restorative justice that Christ seeks as a sign of what the Kingdom of God is like.

Today is also the feast day of Saint Francis of Assisi. Although he is not named in the calendar of the Church of Ireland, the friary ruins in Askeaton and Lislaughtin make him a saint to identify with in this group of parishes.

One of the best-known stories about Saint Francis is his early encounter with a man suffering from leprosy. As a young man, he found people like this man repulsive. But something drove him to get off his horse, and as the man stretched out his hand towards him, Francis embraced him and kissed him.

As he got back on his horse, Francis turned around, only to realise that he had an encounter with the living Christ. It was a meeting that changed his direction, converted his soul, and had an irreversible impact on the universal Church.

Try to imagine the horrific scene that confronted Jesus as he entered a village with no name in that dangerous zone between Samaria and Galilee on the way to Jerusalem … It is an isolated area, the sort of place where a man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho could expect to be mugged, robbed and left for dead, with anyone who saw him, unlike Francis, unlike Jesus, would have rushed away hastily.

In the Gospel story, Jesus is on a road where one could be mugged (see Luke 10: 30-37), in an area where you could not expect to meet a Good Samaritan.

It is wilderness country, bandit territory. It is an area marked by discrimination and prejudice, deeply divided by sectarianism, racism and prejudice. Jews and Samaritans lived separate lives: they could not share the same food, the same shops, the same streets, even the same villages. Although they shared a similar religious heritage and stories, they despised each other.

And this is an area where those who are disabled or scarred by their physical ailments are cast aside, left on their own, without help – political, social, economic or religious.

After a long journey, as Jesus reaches this village, out from the rocks appear a rough-looking gang of dishevelled, disfigured, bedraggled, unkempt and filthy men, shouting out loudly. How dangerous are they? If they come too close, will he be contaminated too?

But these men are so desperate, so isolated, they keep their distance and all they ask for is mercy. Mercy is all they want.

And what Christ offers them is not mercy of the tea-and-sympathy sort. What he invites them to, is to be restored to, to accept again, their full place in society.

We do not know when they were healed. When they called out for mercy? When Jesus spoke to them? When they obeyed his command? Yet the healing is less important than the collective action they are asked to take. They are asked to go together and show themselves to the priests. This allowed them to get a clean bill of health so they could be restored to their place in normal family, community, social, political, economic and religious life.

The Kingdom of God is a place where all can take part in life in all its fullness. And what these 10 people are offered is a place back in society that will be an example of what the Kingdom of God is like.

The Samaritan is the only one to come back to say thank you. But I often wonder why this Samaritan even bothers in the first place to think of going to show himself to the priests. The priests could give a clean bill of health to the other nine. But they would never give one to a Samaritan. He is an outsider. Healed or not, he remains contaminated, unclean, impure, despised, rejected and isolated. He is ‘one of them.’ He has no place with us.

But Christ is saying he has. Christ is counting him in. Jesus wants him to benefit from the great harvest and to sit down at the heavenly banquet.

The action of Christ in healing the Samaritan alongside the other nine, in sending him too to the priests to claim to a full, restored place in society, tells us the Kingdom of God is there for all. All are invited in. And when we start excluding others we too become weak, we too fail to reap the rich harvest God offers us.

The Kingdom of God is offered too to the Samaritans in our midst, to those afflicted with anything that places them outside normal, acceptable life: the immigrant who is isolated because of the rise in vulgar racism; the single mother; the farmer whose harvest hopes are not being realised; the child who cannot get a special needs assistant at school; the distraught couple minding demanding and ageing grandparents; the once-successful businessman whose enterprise has gone to the wall during the lockdown; the workers who have lost their jobs and lost hope in the future.

Too often in the past, our traditional Harvest readings have been read both in a cosy, comfortable way, and in a way that separates the harvest from the full riches of creation. Yet those beautiful promises in the first reading (Deuteronomy 8: 7-18) of a rich harvest were made not in a time of plenty, but to people in the wilderness, when they had been wandering for far too many years.

Even when there is little hope at harvest time, even at times when we feel most isolated, marginalised and unloved, even in these times of Covid-19, these times of pandemic and lockdown, God promises us a rich harvest that goes beyond this year’s yields, a harvest that will be so rich that we can also build up hopes for righteousness, for justice and for love.

And when the harvest is difficult, when we are not bringing in the returns we hoped for at the time of sowing, when economic gloom and doom appear to be imminent and the pandemic restrictions seem to turn everything sour, we should remember that God’s creation is more splendid and more beautiful than anything we can imagine.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him … they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ (Luke 17: 12-13)

Luke 17: 11-19 (NRSVA):

11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ 14 When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ 19 Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’

‘Eternal God, you crown the year with your goodness’ (the Harvest Collect) … harvest fields near Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Liturgical colour: Green (Ordinary Time, Year A).

The Collect of the Day (Harvest):

Eternal God,
you crown the year with your goodness
and give us the fruits of the earth in their season:
Grant that we may use them to your glory,
for the relief of those in need
and for our own well-being;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Collect (Saint Francis, Common Worship):

O God, you ever delight to reveal yourself
to the childlike and lowly of heart:
grant that, following the example of the blessed Francis,
we may count the wisdom of this world as foolishness
and know only Jesus Christ and him crucified,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The Post Communion Prayer (Harvest):

Lord of the harvest,
with joy we have offered thanksgiving for your love in creation
and have shared in the bread and wine of the kingdom.
By your grace plant within us such reverence
for all that you give us
that will make us wise stewards the of the good things we enjoy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The cloisters in the Franciscan Friary in Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)


37: Come, ye thankful people, come (CD 3)
47: We plough the fields and scatter (CD 3)

‘We plough the fields and scatter’ (Hymn 47) … harvest in fields near the banks of the River Deel in Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

‘You make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy’ (Psalm 65: 8) … a gateway into harvest fields near Barntown, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)