19 March 2024

The Church of Ireland
and the Moravian Church
celebrate ‘Armagh Agreement’
after 12 years of talks

Five participants in talks in Gracehill between the Church of Ireland and the Moravian Church (from left): Bishop Michael Burrows, Bishop John McOwat (Moravian Church), the Revd Paul Holdsworth (Moravian Church), Patrick Comerford, and (in the background) Bishop Graham Rights (Photograph: Sarah Groves)

Patrick Comerford

A special service took place in two churches in Co Antrim yesterday (Monday 18 March 2024) to celebrate the deepening relationship between the Church of Ireland and the Moravian Church.

In recent years, the two Churches have been developing a closer formal relationship that allows for clergy from both denominations to serve in either.

To celebrate this, a special service took place yesterday, starting in Saint Patrick’s Church (Church of Ireland), Ballymena, Co Antrim, at 1:30 pm and continuing in Gracehill Moravian Church at 3:30. Archbishop John McDowell of Armagh preached in Saint Patrick’s Church, with Bishop Sarah Groves of the Moravian Church, leading Holy Communion in Gracehill. Trees were planted in the grounds of each church to mark the celebrations, with a reception in Gracehill.

Bishop Sarah has expressed her joy at what has become known as the ‘Armagh Agreement’ between the two Churches. She says she is sure this will ‘bring increased vitality to both denominations enriching their worship and enabling them to share the resources of people, faith and service.’ Bishop Michael Burrows and Bishop Sarah Groves also talk about the relationship between the Moravian Church and the Church of Ireland in a new video.

Ballymena and Gracehill were appropriate venues for these celebrations on Saint Patrick’s weekend. Gracehill is at the heart of the Moravian presence in Ireland. Both are close to Slemish Mountain, where Saint Patrick is said to have spent six years as a shepherd slave, from the age of 16 to 22.

I was involved with Archbishop John, Bishop Michael, Bishop Sarah and others in the talks between the two churches in 2012-2014, so it is a particular, personal pleasure to see these talks have resulted in the ‘Armagh Agreement.’

Ministry of Word and Sacrament ... the altar and carved ‘tulip pulpit’ in Gracehill Moravian Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The talks began in response to a request from the Standing Committee of the Church of Ireland in 2012, asking the Anglican Affairs Working Group of the Commission for Christian Unity and Dialogue to consider the relationship between the Church of Ireland and the Moravian Church.

The request also asked us to bear in mind the continuing possibilities of the Fetter Lane Agreement, between the Church of England and the Moravian Church, and also asked the group to consider the report Finding our delight in the Lord, which has brought about full communion between Moravians and Episcopalians in the US and later in Canada.

The group members were asked too, ‘if appropriate, to make suggestions … concerning the possibility of similar developments in Ireland.’

While the Moravian Church in Britain and Ireland is structured as a single province, the discussions with the Church of Ireland took place as a bilateral conversation and the participants include bishops of both traditions.

The talks began at a two-day meeting of representatives of both Churches in Kilkenny in January 2013. The delegates from the Church of Ireland that year were: the Right Revd Michael Burrows, then Bishop of Cashel and Ossory and now Bishop of Tuam, Limerick and Killaloe; the Right Revd John McDowell, then Bishop of Clogher and now Archbishop of Armagh; Canon Ian Ellis, then the editor of the Church of Ireland Gazette; Canon Helene Steed of Clones, Co Monaghan; and myself.

The delegates from the Moravian Church were: Bishop Graham Rights, the Revd Sarah Groves (now Bishop Sarah Groves), the Revd Philip Cooper, Ecumenical Officer and Provincial Elder of the Moravian Church; and the Revd Paul Holdsworth, then chair of the Irish District of the Moravian Church.

Bishop Graham Rights had travelled from North Carolina for the talks in Kilkenny. Bishop Burrows described the talks as ‘a warm, thorough and fruitful examination of the issues facing our Churches if a relationship of full communion is to be achieved between.’

The talks continued in Gracehill and Ballymena, Co Antrim, the following January (2014), when they also involved representatives from the Moravian Churches in England and the US, the Episcopal Church (USA) and the Church of England. During our discussions, we explored the two traditions’ understanding of sacramental life, the ordained ministry and Church membership.

The participants in the talks also involved the Revd Dr Callan Slliper, representing the Church of England’s Council for Christian Unity; the Revd Dr Tom Ferguson, Dean of Bexley Hall Theological Seminary, Columbus, Ohio; and Bishop John McOwat of the Moravian Church.

In our talks, we explored what we mean by sacraments, ministry and mission, we shared our stories and tradition, and we dined together. We were taken on a walking tour of Gracehill, and later that day we took part in the Holy Communion in the village church.

The Moravian settlement at Gracehill, 3 km outside Ballymena, was founded in 1765. The first group of Moravians arrived in the area 10 years earlier in 1746, the church was founded in 1759, and the name of the village reflects their religious convictions. A plaque on the church wall commemorates John Cennick (1718-1755), the first Moravian evangelist in mid-Antrim, who arrived in Ballymena in 1746, and the meetings were held in the Cennick Hall behind the church.

A communiqué said: ‘We enjoyed the hospitality of the Gracehill congregation and we were introduced to the history of the community in Gracehill. We also shared and enjoyed Eucharistic hospitality. We agreed to report back to the relevant bodies in the Church of Ireland and the Moravian Church. Meanwhile, we continue to work on advancing this process of dialogue.’

Pictured at the launch of the new booklet on the Moravian Burial Ground at Whitechurch are Canon Horace McKinley, Professor Patricia Lysaght, Dr Rosemary Power (author), Bishop Sarah Groves and Canon Patrick Comerford

Later, in May 2014, I was the speaker at the launch of a booklet on the history of the Moravian Burial Ground at Whitechurch, Co Dublin. Dr Rosemary Power’s publication, The Moravian Burial Ground at Whitechurch, County Dublin, looks at the burial ground where over 700 people of the Moravian tradition had been buried since 1764. It also provides a brief guide to the Moravians and a history of some of the people buried there.

Speaking at the launch, I paid tribute to Dr Power’s work as a historian and folklorist, but also as a pioneering ecumenist. Bishop Sarah Groves, who was also part of the talks, also spoke that evening. She paid tribute to the then Rector of Whitechurch, Canon Horace McKinley, who had been the ‘unofficial custodian’ of the Moravian Burial Ground for many years.

The Moravian Church or Unitas Fratrum (the ‘Unity of the Brethren’) is one of the earliest Protestant traditions, with a story that dates back long before the Reformation. Their story can be traced to the Hussite movement and Jan Hus (1366-1415), a reforming priest and theologian at Charles University in Prague who wanted the church in Bohemia and Moravia to return to early practices, including celebrating the liturgy in the language of the people, receiving Holy Communion in both kinds and ending clerical celibacy.

His teachings lead many to see the Hussites as the first Protestant church. The movement gained royal support in Bohemia – then an autonomous kingdom in the Holy Roman Empire and now a part of the Czech Republic. The Unitas Fratrum became known as the Moravian Church after exiles who fled persecution in Moravia arrived in Saxony in 1722.

The Moravians are a tiny church in Ireland. They came to Ireland in the mid-18th century through the mission work of the Revd John Cennick (1718-1755). His best-known hymn, ‘Lo! he comes with clouds descending’, was first sung by Moravians in Dublin 1750. The present version is a mixture of verses by John Cennick and Charles Wesley.

The best-known Moravian hymn writer, James Montgomery (1771-1854), spent part of his childhood in Gracehill, where his father was the Moravian minister. His hymns include ‘Spirit of the Living God’ and ‘Hail to the Lord’s Anointed’.

The Moravian Church values the dictum: ‘In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, love.’

At the talks between the Church of Ireland and the Moravian Church in Kilkenny in 2013

Daily prayer in Lent with
early English saints:
35, 19 March 2024,
Saint William of York

Saint William of York depicted above the doorway of Saint William’s College, York (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Passiontide – the last two weeks of Lent – began on Sunday, the Fifth Sunday in Lent (Lent V), also known as Passion Sunday (17 March 2024). Today, the Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship remembers Saint Joseph of Nazareth (19 March).

Throughout Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on the lives of early, pre-Reformation English saints commemorated in the Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship.

Before today begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks for life and love, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, A reflection on an early, pre-Reformation English saint;

2, today’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Saint William of York depicted above the doorway of Saint William’s College, York (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Early English pre-Reformation saints: 35, Saint William of York (1154)

Saint William of York, who died in 1154, is remembered on 8 June. He was born William FitzHerbert in York, the son of Herbert of Winchester, Chancellor and Treasurer of King Henry I.

William was elected Archbishop of York in 1140, but his election was challenged by reformers, including a group of Cistercians. William was accused of simony, sexual misconduct and being unduly influenced by his connections to the Royal Court.

Pope Innocent cleared William of all charges and confirmed him as Archbishop of York in 1143, three years after his election. However, the charges resurfaced a few years later under Pope Eugene III, who was also a Cistercian. Pope Eugene suspended William from York and removed him as archbishop in 1147, replacing him with the Cistercian Henry Murdac, Abbot of Fountains Abbey. During a riot, some of William’s supporters burned a section of Fountain’ Abbey. William, however, retired to Winchester, became a monk and was known for his austere lifestyle and active prayer life.

During the reign of Pope Anastasius IV, William was called from his seclusion and again became the Archbishop of York in 1154. When he entered York after years of exile, he received an enthusiastic welcome. However, he died within two months, probably from poisoning believed to be in the sacramental wine. One of William’s clerks accused Osbert de Bayeux, Archdeacon of York, who was summoned to face trial before the king. But the king died before the trial took, and it seems never have taken place.

William was buried at York Cathedral. A few months of his death, miracles were attributed to his intervention and a sweet smell came from his tomb when it was damaged during a fire. Pope Honorius III canonised him on 18 March 1226, 73 years after his death.

Saint William’s College was founded for chantry priests in York Minister (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Matthew 1: 18-25 (NRSVA):

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22 All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,

which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Saint William of York (or Saint Thomas Becket?) in the Saint Thomas Window in All Saints’ Church, North Street, York (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Tuesday 19 March 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Lent Reflection: True repentance is the key to Christian Freedom.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by the Revd Dr Simon Ro, Dean of Graduate School of Theology at Sungkonghoe (Anglican) University, Seoul, Korea.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (19 March 2024, Saint Joseph of Nazareth) invites us to pray reflecting on these words:

Help us Lord understand that for true freedom we must have true repentance.

The Collect:

God our Father,
who from the family of your servant David
raised up Joseph the carpenter
to be the guardian of your incarnate Son
and husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary:
give us grace to follow him
in faithful obedience to your commands;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Heavenly Father,
whose Son grew in wisdom and stature
in the home of Joseph the carpenter of Nazareth
and on the wood of the cross
perfected the work of the world’s salvation:
help us, strengthened by this sacrament of his passion,
to count the wisdom of the world as foolishness,
and to walk with him in simplicity and trust;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday: Saint Anselm of Canterbury

Tomorrow: Saint Aelred of Rievaulx

Saint Joseph and the Christ Child depicted in a mosaic in the Cathedral of Christ the King, Mullingar, Co Westmeath … Saint Joseph is commemorated on 19 March (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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