Added on 14/03/2014
As The Ven. Robin Bantry White retires from 42 years full–time ministry including 20 years as Archdeacon of Cork, Cloyne & Ross, he spoke to the Church of Ireland Press Officer, Paul Harron, particularly with regard to his role as an Honorary Secretary of the General Synod
This interview first appeared in the Church of Ireland Gazette (14 March edition)
PH: When did you take up the role of clerical Honorary Secretary (Southern Province) and what has it entailed?
RBW: In Spring 2008 following the sudden death of the Very Revd Des Harman in late 2007. He had been a very gifted, caring and meticulous person – ideal in the job – so his were difficult shoes to fill. I have, nonetheless, enjoyed the role enormously both through interaction with so many people and in working on the wide variety of issues involved.
Being an Honorary Secretary is a peculiar role, involving organising business and progressing matters in–between each Standing Committee meeting; we are like a Standing Committee of the Standing Committee in a sense! And we never know exactly what is going to hit us. I thought I knew the Constitution of the Church of Ireland fairly well but I’ve had to read it very carefully indeed and at times consult with others. Before he died, I would have spoken with Canon J.L.B. Deane for expert advice on particularly tricky issues.
I have been very fortunate in my Honorary Secretary colleagues, past and present – it has been good to meet with them regularly, each a person of integrity, and we have tried to do our best at all times.
PH: Have there been any particularly difficult situations?
RBW: We are not there as Honorary Secretaries to push our own opinions and we need to see business carried forward without unnecessary disruption to the Synodical processes; we don’t want to find ourselves in situations where time is wasted, issues get ‘ambushed’ or processes collapse. So, we try to foresee how business can be taken forward with the fewest stresses and strains and ensure that proposers of resolutions take as much into account as possible in advance.
There have been difficult and complex situations at Synods – before my time as Honorary Secretary in the early 1980s, for example, in the early stages of the legislation for the ordination of women, and during the preparation for the Alternative Prayer Book, despite the expert and meticulous work of the late Dean Gilbert Mayes, the process kept being up scuttled. That is the sort of thing that we as Secretaries try to avoid. The process for Special Bills has been somewhat modified and for the better since.
In my time, we had to grapple with the issues involved in the Special Synod of 2011 vis–à–vis the right of a special synod to modify an episcopal election process taking place. During the General Synod of 2012 we faced extensive voting over the resolution on Sexuality and we were fortunate in having the right skills in place regarding procedures so that it could be carried out effectively, albeit in a marathon session.
We have also faced very real financial challenges around the cost of running the General Synod. While Christ Church Cathedral may not have been wholly ideal as a venue, the Synods held there deserve credit for containing costs in difficult and demonstrating that we are prepared to do things differently – staff should be commended for that too, for instance Jenny Polden, a former Synod Officer, purchased hundreds of red cushions for the seats!
All in all, the General Synod shows great good sense; while it may seem to ‘muddle through’, I see this as a God–given process, informed by integrity, skill, knowledge and legal ‘nous’ from those with the ability to assist, from the legal Assessors, Honorary Secretaries and the RCB staff.
PH: How did you combine the role of Honorary Secretary with parish and diocesan duties?
RBW: It has been very busy – and I hope that my successor is closer to Church House Dublin than I have been as living 175 miles from Dublin does require a lot of travelling, though teleconferencing has worked well. I’m fortunate that my parish was a half–time position and I had a half–time hospital chaplaincy. Both the parish and my hospital colleague, Canon Daniel Nuzum, were very flexible, and we were able to provide cover well.
As Archdeacon, my bishop encouraged the long–held Cork tradition that as far as possible people involved in the life of the Church centrally should participate and attend: Cork people turn up, even if we’re at the ends of the earth!
PH: Have you any advice for your successor?
RBW: My modus operandi has been to draw on the combined knowledge of the other Secretaries – some of my colleagues have been very good at forensic reading of the Constitution – and also to get sound independent advice when it’s needed. I would say that persistence is key to the role.
PH: What are your retirement plans?
RBW: Most people know I’m interested in both History and railways. So, I intend to deepen my understanding on certain fronts, especially interpreting the history of the Established Church in the 17th Century as so much of significance can be traced back to that period, and I’m delighted to be receiving the new Archbishop James Ussher volumes as retirement gifts; also I wish to grapple with further reading on the First World War; and I am interested in researching the pioneering Victorian directors of the railway companies. I’m pleased to be continuing to contribute to the Church’s working group on the Decade of Centenaries, not least as my parish (Moviddy) was a significant centre of activity during the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War – it includes the site of the Kilmichael Ambush of November 1920 and Beal na mBlath, the place where Michael Collins was shot in August 1922.
I also intend to enjoy cultivating a vegetable allotment in my new home near Kilkenny, and I want to get more exercise. It has been difficult both being behind a laptop and behind a steering wheel while travelling – 25,000 miles per year every year in my present post!
I will also enjoy having more time with my wife and family and to travel – I have two children in Co. Cork, one near Oxford and one in India. My wife, Faith, is a keen bridge player; however, I won’t be taking that up – I have no skills there and was a shocking disappointment when I couldn’t MC a whist drive while Rector in Douglas! I am, however, very willing to help out with services in my new diocese – should that be called upon…
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