I would like to begin where I believe one should always begin such an address, with an expression of gratitude.
First of all, and most profoundly and for us all, with a sincere gratitude to God who has continued to be with us as a diocese over this past year – loving us, directing us, leading us and, we hope, using each one of us as we seek to serve Him. With that gratitude comes also a personal thankfulness to the many people who make the ministry that I try to exercise here in Armagh more fulfilling and hope-filled than it could ever otherwise be. Clearly I wish to thank the clergy with those many members of the laity who fulfil ministries of different kinds in all our parishes – diocesan and parish readers, musicians, pastoral visitors, Sunday School teachers, select vestry members and officers, and the very many others who quietly and diligently work for the good of the Church of God. I hope that we all see ourselves as part of the same work, which is nothing less than the continuing ministry of Jesus Christ in the world, in which he allows us – by his grace – to take our individual place.
I would now like to mention a couple of matters that emerged from some of our discussion at our last synod and to provide something of an up-date. You will remember that, by resolution, we supported the setting up of a specific ‘Hospice Sunday’ in the diocese, on the Sunday nearest to All Saints’ Day, with the proposal that special collections might be taken for our different hospices. This was the brainchild of Revd Matthew Hagan, and it proved a wonderful success in its first year with a very impressive amount of money being raised. My hope and prayer is that this initiative will continue, and I know that Mr Hagan has met with encouragement from other dioceses that are seriously considering whether they might follow suit in some form with this excellent idea.
There was also mention at our last synod of the Flesh and Blood campaign that the General Synod of 2014 approved. This was to encourage Christian disciples to consider whether, as part of their understanding of stewardship of all that they had been given by God, they would volunteer to donate blood and also join an organ donors register. This has been launched nationally and my hope now is that we will make this work at local level in this diocese. This is in your hands as clergy and representatives of our parishes. To help with this, we have arranged that you will have the opportunity at lunchtime to meet with those who might give you guidance and encouragement to make this project a reality in your own localities.
You will also remember that last year, we suggested that a completely fresh look should be given to our rules and regulations for the diocese. This work has now been begun, and you will be given an up-date in the course of our discussion on the Diocesan Council report.
You will all know the old cliché about whether a glass is half full or half empty. The optimist may see a glass with some liquid in it as half full. The pessimist will see the same glass with the same quantity of liquid in it as half empty. I recently read a rather neat riff on this which suggested that surely the answer is to fill up the glass until it is definitely full. Is this the challenge that faces us as Christian disciples today in this place and time? We can be optimists or pessimists by nature or temperament. The challenge is to be activists, as we face into the future, the future that God is holding out to us and for us. To fill the glass.
I am going to use a few headings as we continue this journey with God into the future. Much has been done over the past months. As has been said, we have appointed a new youth officer, Gareth Campbell, and also put our communications work on an entirely fresh footing with a new Communications Officer, Jonathan Hull. Under the auspices of the on-going work of the Diocesan Commission I have visited (with the rural deans and the archdeacons) most of the rural deaneries to explain what we learnt from the previous series of meetings held by the rural deans in local parishes, and also to listen to any suggestions or comments from parishioners throughout the diocese. And I hope to complete this programme soon.
The first headline word is CONFIDENCE in what we are, and whose we are. We do not need to pretend that in the Church of Ireland we are somehow a second-class type of a Church! We are rooted in the Word of God, in a living tradition of Christianity stretching back to the early Church. We have worship that, as it is meant to be, is both personal and of real spiritual depth. This is not a matter for pride but it is a matter for confidence. Do not ever apologise for what we are. Yes, we could do it better and we must seek to do it better. No, we are not the only form of authentic Christianity in this island, but we are a living tradition within the Church of Jesus Christ. As St Paul wrote to the Corinthians, we are Christ’s and Christ is God’s.
The second headline is COURAGE. As I say repeatedly to confirmation candidates throughout the diocese – to be a Christian today takes courage, and if it does not require courage of you, you’re not making a very good job of it.
It is often easier to sit on the sidelines and whinge about the mess that everyone else is making of things. It is easier to be silent when one should speak out for Christ, but not for one’s own vanity. It is easier to pretend that the rose-tinted past is where we all should be, rather than facing up to what God may be calling us to in the future he plans for us.
And relevant to something we will be discussing further this afternoon with the session on the Dignity in Church Life Charter, it is easier to go along with the unpleasantness and nastiness of others rather than stand up for courtesy and generosity.
None of this ‘easy life’ takes courage, but rather the contrary, and it is supremely damaging to the life of the Church. Martin Luther King probably put it best when he said that ‘nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity’. Courage – a courage based on true faith in Christ – is part of what we will require.
Then there is CREATIVITY. As I have tried to point out, we are rooted in a Christian tradition that has a profound depth to it but we need to look for ways in which we can be creative with what we have received. Are there ways in which we can apply creativity to the way we worship, not by jettisoning what we have (which would be a pretty pointless exercise) but by using the flexibility that is already there to greater effect. Can we develop ways in which the pastoral care of parishioners can be shared between clergy and laity? Can we learn more of how each of us can express our faith in a world that is increasingly indifferent, if not actively hostile, to all religious faith?
A fourth word is one that can be easily misconstrued but is in fact a very powerful word, COMPASSION. Too often, compassion is seen as a weak, even soppy or sentimental word, but if we look at the sense of it in the New Testament, it is both central to Our Lord’s life and ministry and it is also something that will always carry cost. We are told that Christ had compassion on the crowd (Matthew 9), not simply on people he knew or people who were his followers. He tells the disciples to pray for more workers for the harvest. One of the most disturbing chapters in the Bible is Matthew 25, where we are reminded that if we do not have compassion on those without homes, without food, without the means of survival, it is on Christ himself on whom we turn our back. And so, if our Church communities are places that are so smug in their own self-righteousness that they do not truly wish others, outside their walls, to find God’s love for all and God’s acceptance and God’s care within our communities, then we are indeed a pitiable pretence of the word ‘Christian’. We are living at a time when the world is facing a real crisis in regard to refugees – as tens of thousands of people are fleeing their homeland in search of shelter and safety (and we will be learning more about this in one of our afternoon sessions). Even here in Ireland, north and south, there are many areas of real deprivation. In that context, may I again urge all our political leaders here in Northern Ireland to work together for the sake of those in our society who are suffering deeply at this time and who feel that there is no hope for them.
The final headline for us is the COMPASS. We live in a society, in a world indeed, that seems to have lost its compass, its bearings. A compass is that which points us in the right direction. It does not get us to our destination. We have to find our way there, using a compass. There are different compasses in the life to which we are called. There is a moral compass, which gives us an understanding of right and wrong. There is the spiritual compass, which enables us to follow the call of God to us. There is the compass of the mind, which gives us discernment and understanding of complexity and of subtlety. All are gifts of God, if we will receive them humbly. It is God who urges us to love him with our hearts and with our souls and with our minds. None are to be ignored, and yet all too often they are swept aside in a public culture that seemingly wishes to exist only in a world of sound-bites, of populist emotion, and of cowardly factional and sectional self-interest. We, as disciples of Jesus Christ, must be ready to show that there is indeed a better way if we are to offer anything to our communities and this world, and if we are to move forward with any confidence in Christ.
All that we do (and I do not say this as any concluding pious banality) must be based on prayer. If we are not constantly reaching up to God and listening to God we really are on a fool’s errand. I hope to continue the ‘Archbishop’s Roadshows’ in different parts of the diocese next month on this theme of prayer and praying. It is not that I am an expert, far from it, but I do fervently believe that if we are to move forwards with confidence and trust as a diocese, it must be with prayer and that anything we can learn from one another that might encourage us in this work of prayer can only be for the benefit of this journey we are undertaking together. We began this synod with prayer. Let it be the hallmark of what we now undertake, both here and in the year ahead.
Archbishop of Armagh