The Church of Ireland

The Church Of Ireland
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Church of Ireland GENERAL SYNOD 1999

   Sermon preached by the Bishop of Meath and Kildare (Bishop Richard Clarke) at the "pre-synod" service in St Patrick’s Cathedral Dublin on Monday 17th May 1999.


Advice from the Preacher, the Old Testament one :

   There is a time to break down, and a time to build up.. Ecclesiastes 3.3

If any of us were asked what we thought we were about over the next few days at the General Synod, I should imagine that the idea of building up would feature somewhere :

  • Building up relationships within the Church of Ireland.
  • Building up a confidence throughout the Church.
  • Building up a church-wide awareness as to what exactly has been going on over the past year in that multiplicity of meetings, committees, boards, councils, and indeed in all the deliberations of the great and the good of the Church of Ireland since the last synod.
  • But also building up structures which will enable us to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ more effectively, so that we may indeed grow into maturity, into the measure of the full stature of Christ..

We probably like to think that we are also building up a good image for the Church of Ireland. In this I think we are somewhat deluded. We are sadly not of great interest to the outside world, unless we are making complete fools of ourselves and a mockery of the Gospel we profess, or unless we are being so circumspect and anodyne as to make the Church look completely pointless, and a very far remove from the Christ who came, not to peddle deliberately ambiguous banalities but, in his own words, to cast fire upon the earth.

And so as we meet in synod, it seems to me that we have in fact two choices -

   either to indulge ourselves and (in paraphrase of Alexander Pope) ‘give our little Senate laws and sit attentive to our own applause’,

   or to engage - decisively and even sacrificially - with the harsh questions that are being asked of us by Christ, by this country and by an entire world beyond our myopia.

And if we are to take this latter course, part of the role of the synod must surely encompass not simply a notional building up but, more particularly, a radical breaking down.. And how could it be otherwise, if we were to be in any way faithful to the Cross of Christ? The whole purpose of the Gospel was to preach redemption in Christ and therefore release - release from the imprisonment in which men and women found themselves, and in some cases placed themselves. Christ came among us and continues to come among us "to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.." and although the Gospel remains through two thousand years the ultimate instrument of redemption and of deliverance, the freedom of the children of God can never come about without an emphatic breaking down. And if we were to be at all honest about ourselves in these next few days, would we not surely acknowledge that as a Church we have in fact imprisoned ourselves, and that in a wider setting we have also imprisoned others - making them in effect our slaves?

But how have we imprisoned ourselves as a Church? Can any of us doubt that whenever any church has become so identified with any particular culture or ideology that the maintenance of its numerical strength - or even its continuing survival - is dependent on its espousal of that identity, it has locked itself into a prison of its own construction but, worse still by far, in so doing, it conceals the light of Christ rather than fulfilling its vocation to reveal him to the nations. I truly believe that we, the Church of Ireland are doing precisely that, and that we will certainly answer for it. Throughout this country - north and south - we have hidden ourselves and the Gospel of Christ within cultural and ideological identities which have, in themselves, absolutely nothing to do with the Gospel.

This is an Ireland which, in different ways, is revealing itself as one of the most racist countries in Europe. A recent survey revealed that in this part of Ireland eighty percent of asylum seekers had suffered racial abuse and in many cases physical attack. This is an Ireland where the childhood mortality rate among travellers is three times that of the settled population. Yet in the Church of Ireland we seem to have isolated ourselves into a cultural cocoon of comfort and complacency which has difficulty at times even vaguely connecting with the reality of life under our noses. Yes, there are honourable exceptions, and members of the Church of Ireland have indeed shown energy and courage in exposing expanses of injustice and ill-treatment, but can we seriously pretend that the reality of life for a rapidly expanding under-class has burned itself into the soul of the Church of Ireland? No - in Wilfred Owen’s phrase, By choice we have made ourselves immune / To pity and whatever moans in man..

And in not caring, we as a Church are allying ourselves with the powers of darkness.

It is certain also that much of our time over the next three days will be spent agonising over the issue that has become a by-word for the problems of our Church and which has haunted every parish in this entire island - Drumcree. We must acknowledge that for the world beyond our blinkers, this is all seen as an issue of racism in which we as a Church are colluding. And of course, as Our Lord reminds us, the plank in our own eye will always seems far less objectionable than the speck in our brother’s eye, far away from us. And so we may well shudder at the realisation that for over a century the Reformed Church in South Africa supported segregated Christian worship while openly acknowledging it to be at variance with the Gospel but justifying it by invoking St Paul's injunction to remember the sensibilities of the weaker brother. We would do better to shudder, not at South African history but at how other Christians see us, the Church of Ireland, today and in a direct parallel. The chorus in T S Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral acknowledges that they are the sort of men and women who (as they put it) fear the injustice of men less than they fear the justice of God.. fearing all that people might do to them – the hand at the window, the fire in the thatch, the fist in the tavern, the push into the canal, less than they fear the love of God.. Over the next three days, will we too display ourselves as a Church which has lost all sense of the Gospel imperative to take seriously the sometimes confrontational and even divisive implications of the love of God shown to the world hanging on a cross rather than sitting on a fence?

But of course part of the reason why we have lost touch with the fear of God and with the exacting repercussions of the love of God is probably the massive self-absorption that prevents us from looking beyond ourselves, and outwards to a world beyond which we are absent-mindedly torturing. As some of you know, the Lambeth Conference of 1998 was not one of the highlights of my life to date, but I would freely admit that in one area at least, the Conference came up trumps - in reminding all of us of the sickening reality of world debt and of a new slavery in which we in the northern hemisphere all connive, but from which we all benefit, as a Church, as a society , as individual people. Because, yes, slavery abounds in our world, in terms of millions of people in Africa, Asia and South America whom we own, because they owe us as northern nations far more than they would ever hope to repay. Yes, we send aid, sometimes fairly generously, but for the £l5billion given as aid from the wealthier countries, over £150billion is paid back to us as repayment on debt. This is made worse by the fact that (because the debts were cynically made long-term at compound interest) the annual repayments are often more than the original loan. The Anglican Commission on Justice and Peace, which met last month in Seoul, highlighted the case of Brazil in this regard - In 1989 Brazil owed $115.5 billion; between 1989-98 it paid back $225 billion in interest. However in 1998 it still owed $235 billion, more than twice as much as it originally borrowed. It all makes the loan shark in the high-rise flat look benevolent..

And if we hear the story of an African mother having to choose between which of her two children will be able to receive medical treatment, and which will not and will have to die, that is not just a horror story. It is a horror story and it is a true story, true many times over, and while we sit comfortably or even uncomfortably at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham for the next three days, thousands - literally thousands - of mothers and fathers somewhere in the world will watch their children die in agony for want of a few pence worth of medicine, because for every pound that can be spent on medicine in many third world countries, several pounds must be spent on servicing the national debt. That is slavery. And as long as we do nothing and care nothing - as individuals and as the Church of Ireland - we are colluding with utter evil.

Yes, there is still slavery, and it is also a slavery about which we can do something if we actually care. Certainly we could be a major irritant to our politicians in demanding their support for Jubilee 2000 (because most of the loans are given by governments in concert, not by banks on their own initiative). Jubilee 2000, as many of you will know, is a fairly modest effort to give starving, diseased and suffering countries a new start as a new millennium begins by writing off debt that is clearly unpayable, in response to the biblical command to release debtors from their debts, and slaves from their slavery in the Jubilee year. One of the proposals of the Lambeth Conference which has for the most part been quietly ignored (unlike some of the more asinine resolutions) is that as Churches, × 7% of our total church income at every level be given to the relief of third world debt as a first principle, although obviously not in place of other personal giving. That is actually all that it would take globally: × 7% of income by western governments, churches, businesses, would halve world debt in one year, so that Zambian mothers would not have to choose which of their children will live and which will die.

The Italian-Jewish writer Primo Levi, one of the few survivors of Auschwitz who was able to write with a degree of both objectivity and compassion about his experiences, wrote in his book, The Periodic Table, about a Dr Müller who had been in charge of the laboratory in which Levi had worked as a prisoner during the war. Levi had no hatred for Müller, more a curiosity about him, because he was probably, Levi reckoned, typical of many around him. The common technique, Levi writes, was to try to know as little as possible and therefore not to ask questions. Müller, says Levi, had obviously not asked questions of anyone, not even from himself, although from his laboratory window, clearly visible, were the flames of the crematorium at Auschwitz.

In this general synod - certainly the final ordinary session of synod in this millennium - are we then to resolve to try to know as little as possible, to ask questions of no-one, not even of ourselves, or are we to take courage in both hands and declare the year of the Lord's favour, and so to proclaim release for our own imprisoned Church and for an enslaved world?.

   Because there is indeed a time to break down, so that in God’s grace we may build up..


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