Tuam, Killala And Achonry Synod Held In St Mary’s Cathedral, Tuam on Saturday 29th September 2012
Added on 29/09/2012
Presidential Address by the Right Revd Patrick Rooke to The Diocesan Synod of Tuam, Killala and Achonry held in St Mary’s Cathedral, Tuam on Saturday 29th September 2012
Earlier this month, I completed my first year as your bishop and what a rollercoaster it has been, punctuated by long periods on the road. I now know every corner and bump on the infamous N17. Everywhere I have gone in the Diocese, the people of Tuam, Killala and Achonry have met me, along with my wife and family, with kindness – and I thank you all for that. I am fortunate to serve as bishop in a diocese that is in good heart. Yes, there are issues in each of our parochial groups/unions but then that is the stuff of parish life. Our clergy are a cheerful lot who work hard, at least that is what they tell me(!), in what are often isolated and lonely situations. I want to welcome the latest addition to that team – the Reverend John Godfrey, who joins the staff of Galway and Kilcummin, with his wife Shirley–Anne and their daughter Annaliese. I trust the people of those parishes, and the Diocese as a whole, will take the Godfrey family to their hearts and ensure that they are made to feel at home in the West.
At our Diocesan Synod last year, communications was highlighted as of primary importance. Though small in number, Tuam, Killala and Achonry is geographically large and it is difficult to keep in touch with all that goes on in every corner of the Diocese. Hence the importance of the Diocesan Magazine. The Diocesan Website too, is another important tool and the information it conveys goes to a worldwide audience.
I’m delighted that the Diocesan Council has responded by pressing for an update of both the magazine and website. This has involved considerable work for those involved but the result in both cases has been significant. Some of you will already have logged onto the new website and here I want to acknowledge the contribution of Dean Alistair Grimason and Dr Paddy Delaney, along with Mr Gabriel Lika and his assistants at the Red Millions Company. ‘Tidings’ now comes in colour. The intention is to print many more copies of each issue for a trial period in the hope of improving internal diocesan communications through wider circulation. A knock–on effect should be additional advertisers and increased revenue. Synod members, I ask for your help in ensuring that Tidings gets into new homes in your parishes and that local businesses are encouraged to advertise in it. Mrs Ann Walton and her team are to be commended on this new production designed by Mrs Jane Stark. They deserve our support and congratulations.
One further means of communication is our Diocesan Directory. It too has been produced in a new form and contains our Diocesan Cycle of Prayer. I hope that as members of Synod you will find it helpful and I want to thank our Diocesan Secretary, Mrs Heather Sherlock who, over and above her many responsibilities, with the assistance of her rector the Reverend Adam Pullen, has compiled this for us.
My pleasant task therefore is to launch our new Diocesan Website, the revamped Diocesan Magazine – Tidings, and the Diocesan Directory. I formally do this with much appreciation to all who are responsible for them.
The theme of my address is ‘Minorities’ and I wish to focus on five areas of concern for us all.
The first of these is the ‘episcopal needs of this Diocese’. Obviously this is a high priority for me as I attempt to define and respond to these needs as best I can.
The parishioners of the parishes of Tuam, Killala and Achonry are a tiny minority in the West and, indeed, of the Church of Ireland as a whole. So how can your needs best be met in terms of episcopal oversight? Eighteen months ago, your General Synod representatives, with the support of a large majority in the General Synod, won the right to have a Bishop of Tuam. A consequence of that process has been the setting up of a Commission to look at the episcopal needs and ministry, in all the dioceses of the Church of Ireland. As I said at last year’s Synod, I believe we should welcome this initiative – it should not be seen as a threat. Indeed, a numerically small diocese like ours has perhaps more to gain from such a review than those larger dioceses in the North and East.
This review will, of course, concern far more that a fresh look at diocesan boundaries. Yes, such a revision, and possible re–configuration, may be part of the Commission’s work, but it will be more comprehensive than this. Diocesan structures and the support mechanisms required for bishops in what are very different situations from diocese to diocese, will be examined. For instance, an important part of any bishop’s work is to lead the diocese in mission and outreach. I am particularly aware of this in our Diocese but am also conscious of the fact that there are few, if any, resources. Just because we are small and somewhat isolated, doesn’t mean that our concerns are any less important. We deserve the support and encouragement of the wider Church. Indeed, I believe, how they regard us says more about them than it does about us.
But we too need to play our part by facing realities. We mustn’t simply dig in and say ‘no’ to any change. I’m sure this new Commission, and Archdeacon Hastings is a member of it, will make it part of its brief to consult with all the dioceses. We should welcome such an engagement. Indeed, we might even be proactive by initiating, at an appropriate time, some internal Diocesan thinking with any findings brought to this Synod for discussion. Either way, we need to play our part in what is a most important review of the leadership of our Church and not least for this Diocese.
What is true in terms of episcopal oversight is true too for ordained ministry at parochial level. This is the second of the five areas of concern I am addressing and that we as a Diocese cannot ignore. In building up faith communities in the parishes, the clergy are a vital part of the total ministry of all the people of God. As the bishop leads in the diocese, so the clergy are the leaders in the parishes.
At present we have ten full–time stipendary clergy and three non–stipendaries in our Diocese. Nine of those stipendary clergy are incumbents with at least two churches, and in one case as many as five, in their charge. Each is heavily committed in terms of Sunday duty, and it is difficult to see how that number might be reduced and still retain the present worship patterns and parish structures. Yet the reality is that a number of our parishes are really struggling to meet their assessment. With distances as they are, my hope would be to resist further amalgamations. Part–time posts might be a way forward. In our recent clergy trip to our link Dioceses of Moray, Ross and Caithness, we saw examples of retired clergy staffing parishes on half–time salaries. Some dioceses in the Church of Ireland are using imaginative ways to employ clergy. For instance, the Reverend Paul Hoey, who will speak to our Synod later, is currently employed on a 50/50 basis by his Diocese as Diocesan Parish Development Officer and by his Parish as their Rector. Other parishes are paying non–stipendary clergy small salaries to take on the oversight of a parish – but a worrying point is, that under the new training arrangements, it looks as if fewer people will offer for this ministry, and that will have a serious knock–on effect for the rural dioceses.
Hence we need to be asking fundamental questions such as:– How many clergy do we need? How many can we afford? Where should they be based? How can they be most effective?…
We are told that church growth is the only way forward for our church. But how are we to grow new churches if there is no possibility of being able to afford the right leaders to get them up and running? In this sense, we need to look at how we spend our limited resources so that we can move from maintenance to a mission model of ministry.
Mission Outreach and growth in the parishes is the next area of concern. At last year’s Synod we began to look at the wider picture, to think about what our Diocese might look like in 2020 and beyond, and to reflect on what can be done now that will influence its future. Indeed, I am greatly encouraged that our newly formed Council for Outreach, (or Home Mission), has been following up on this, identifying three areas for possible growth:
The first concerns what has been dubbed ‘the big black hole’ in the middle of our Diocese. Claremorris, lost its church 49 years ago. It is a town that, like others in our united Dioceses, has witnessed considerable growth in recent years. Undoubtedly, there are people living there and in its hinterland who are supportive of the Anglican ethos. The nearest church today is some 25 kilometres away. We could, of course, choose to ignore Claremorris or, we can ask the question – how might we provide a Church of Ireland ministry to that community? As a first step, I’m pleased we are holding a monthly service, over the autumn, in the McWilliam Park Hotel; testing the water as it were, in this strategic location at the heart of our Diocese, and earlier this month more than 50 people were present for the first of these services!
Secondly, the Council for Outreach has been considering how mission and growth might be stimulated in our parishes. We need to draw in those who, for whatever reason, are not worshipping regularly with us. In many churches in Britain and Ireland, tomorrow will be observed as ‘Back to Church Sunday,’ but in our Diocese, with the backing of the Council for Outreach, I am asking, each parish to observe Sunday 18th November as a ‘Back to Church Sunday.’ The hope is that regular parishioners will invite others to come along with them. This, however, is simply a first step, but it does require your support. Structures and plans are all very well, but it is the passion and ‘holiness’ of clergy and lay members that will ultimately do most to convince others to join us at worship. I’m delighted that Mr Hoey will pick up on this aspect of our outreach later this afternoon.
Thirdly, we need to be creative by discovering new ways to reach people in our wider parish communities who currently have no church connection. As a leading layman wrote recently ‘Ministry viewed in isolation from Mission will inevitably be looking through the lens of existing structures and the continuation of current practices – even when seismic shifts in culture, attitudes and beliefs in society and community have called those structures and practices sharply into question.’ (Andrew McNeile) This is not to suggest that the traditional must be cast aside for the modern. Both approaches must be developed.
It has been widely acknowledged that what won the London bid, over that of Paris, for the recent Olympics was that Lord Coe’s team successfully presented a mixture of tradition and modernity. The emphasis was on London’s past but also its new face – multi–denominational, multi–faith, multi–ethnic and they showcased this as an enrichment. In the Church too, we respect and celebrate what we have received from the past. But alongside this, we must develop new patterns and initiatives for the future. It is not an either/or, but both.
A recent report ‘Church in Wales Review’, proposes that every parish group in Wales, should, ‘in addition to traditional services, provide at least one service every week, in which the form and style of worship is such as will resonate with those unfamiliar with church culture.’ The report states; ‘that it be on a day and at a time which reflects the pattern of life of those to whom it is meant to appeal’. The call is for a mixture of the traditional and the modern working in parallel. Those of you who read the Church of Ireland Gazette, will know that the united Dioceses of Dublin and Glendalough are currently exploring possibilities of this kind that might work for them. Other dioceses too have begun a similar exploratory exercise and some parishes are putting it into practice.
A study of 50 countries, quoted in the Irish Times on 8th August, stated that Ireland has experienced the second greatest drop in recent years in the percentage of the population that claims to be religious. The survey, which measured the changes since 2005, found that those in Ireland who consider themselves religious, has fallen by 22% in 6 years from 69% to 47% in 2011. This is a depressing statistic but must be looked at alongside another, quoted on the RTE News when examining the implications of this survey. The important, and encouraging statistic is that 80% of the population say that they pray regularly. This, I believe, represents an incredible openness to spiritual things in a country where more than 50% are reluctant to commit to a traditional church congregation.
As a Diocese, we must, I believe, look at and experiment with new ways to connect with those in our communities who are open to belief but who have no spiritual home. It is unlikely that many of these people, if any, will want to join our traditional congregations, hence we must be imaginative in our outreach by providing fresh opportunities. If we can do this with some success, then the evidence and experience from other places is that traditional worship will benefit too and that fears, that the one will detract from the other, are unfounded.
I have asked Mr Hoey to help us further with this, because I want to present a challenge for each of you today – clergy and laity alike. Over the coming year, I ask each of our parochial groups/unions to undertake, at a central location, one new activity, which, after careful consideration, you feel might attract people from your community, whether young or old, who are not involved in any church. It might be a regular healing service or musical evening, perhaps a monthly reflective evening for young couples followed by food in a local restaurant or hall. It can be anything, and all the better, if it can have a worship element.
Episcopal needs, Ordained Ministry and Mission Outreach.
The fourth concern I share with you is for our minority ‘National Schools’.
In the Spring Budget, significant education cuts were announced. The reason for these is well known and we all understand that Church of Ireland people, like everyone else, have a responsibility to shoulder their share of the burden in the present economic climate. That is not in question; we wish to be responsible citizens. The difficulty is that the Minister’s plans will in fact penalise, disproportionately, minority sectors, and particularly small rural protestant schools.
These are the facts in this Diocese. There are just six national schools under Church of Ireland patronage. All have children who are Church of Ireland, but also pupils who belong to other Christian denominations, to other faiths and some who have no faith at all. Three of these schools, St Michael’s Ballina, Newtownwhite in Killala and Leaffoney in Kilglass Parish are two teacher schools; that is, their current enrolment is between 12 and 48. Under the budget cuts, by September 2014, each of these will require at least 20 pupils, instead of 12 at present, to qualify for their second teacher. Two, if not all three, will struggle to meet that target. Hence, there is the possibility that each may go from a two teacher to one teacher school, which, in today’s climate of health and safety, of child protection, of economic hardship, is a major step towards closure. In the case of the three remaining schools in Galway, Westport and Collooney, one teacher may be lost in each as revised teacher/pupil ratios for larger schools are also to be reduced. This too will have serious, but not critical, implications for those schools.
The reality is that if these cuts, along with others in terms of school transport, are applied, (and we await the outcome of the Minister’s Value for Money and Policy Review of Small Schools), then it is possible that Church of Ireland schools in this Diocese will be halved in number over the next few years. Added to this, already in this large chunk of the West of Ireland covering approximately one–eighth of the Island, there is no secondary school with a protestant ethos.
In a response to the Diocesan Council’s concerns, the Minister of Education and Skills, Mr Ruairi Quinn T.D., wrote to us and stated that ‘all schools are being treated equally irrespective of type of patronage’. That may be so, but the Minister needs to know that the knock–on effect will be disproportionate. In his letter, he went on to state, ‘that small schools are an important part of the social fabric of rural communities’ and that ‘no school closes because it loses a teacher. Schools close because of a loss of pupils.’ But small schools will loose pupils if they are de–stabilized and subsequently reduced to single teacher status. Indeed, the irony is that the Minister’s mantle is ‘diversity’, yet he is in danger of setting in motion the elimination of 50% of minority schools in the West. Members of Synod, I remind you, that at the formation of the Irish State, an undertaking was given to respect minority choice – diversity in all its manifestations.
As your Bishop, I will of course continue to play my part on behalf of the Church of Ireland schools in the West. I will do so, not because of some sort of siege mentality, neither because I disapprove of what happens in other primary level schools, but because Church of Ireland schools pride themselves in offering parents an holistic educational experience for their children within the context of a broad ‘faith based’ foundation. Yes, I acknowledge this is not what all parents desire, but there are, I believe, sufficient numbers, albeit a minority, whose wish is to have their child educated in such an environment.
And so to the final area of concern I wish to address, that of ‘Human Sexuality in the context of Christian Belief’.
I cannot begin to guess how many hours I have spent in the last twelve months discussing this. We live at a time of great change. Attitudes and practices that were for so long hushed–up, are now honestly and openly discussed. Uncomfortable though this may be, I welcome many of the changes that have resulted. In terms of gay and lesbian people, they now have rights for too long denied to them. The legalising of civil partnerships for same–sex couples entitles them to loving relationships that are legally, socially and economically secure.
The Resolution passed at the General Synod in May states clearly that as an inclusive Church; ‘the Church of Ireland welcomes all people to be members of the Church.’ All, regardless of sexual orientation, are loved and valued by God and we should do likewise. While there is consensus on this, there is evidence that many, perhaps a majority of our members, oppose a re–defining of marriage to include gay and lesbian couples. Like it or not, clergy in such ‘sexually active’ same–sex relationships also present many Church of Ireland members with a moral dilemma.
At the Bishops’ Conference in Co Cavan earlier in the year, General Synod members began addressing these issues. The conference itself was a success in terms of dialogue and listening. The debates at General Synod saw a hardening of attitudes. Debate and dialogue, however, are two different things – in debate participants seek to win; in dialogue they take part in an attempt to understand. Whether one agreed with it or not, the positive outcome of the Synod Resolution is that the Church has committed to a period of on–going dialogue on these issues. I welcome this. In this Diocese we know what it is to be in a minority, hence we need to hear and respond to the stories of those who are from a minority sexual orientation. Indeed that process will also need to involve dialogue with those whose interpretation of the Bible might be quite different from our own.
The Standing Committee is currently developing a strategy for this dialogue. I expect, as clergy and leading members of the laity, diocesan synodspeople will be the focus for it and I ask that in this Diocese, you will embrace the opportunities offered through that process to inform yourselves on the issues and the thinking behind the different perspectives. Only then, should we come to our own conclusions and thereby, be in a position to assist our Church in discerning the way ahead. Again, in this too, I emphasise, that how the majority treats and deals with the minority, will say more about that majority than it does of the minority.
In conclusion, I remind you that minorities will always feel threatened by the majority, unless that majority is prepared to engage with them. Agreement may not result but there is integrity in articulating our story as there is in hearing the story of others. As a minority in the West, we crave that respect. Equally, we must not wallow in our insecurity and fear. Our call is to mission, not survival. So let us, with heads held high, meet the challenge and, when challenged by others who themselves are a minority, ‘do unto them as we would have others do unto us’.
For further information please contact:
The Very Reverend Alistair Grimason
Tuam, Killala & Achonry Diocesan Communications Officer