Bishop Colton’s Presidential Address to Diocesan Synod 2013

Diocese of Cork, Cloyne and Ross

Diocesan Synod Address given in Cork

by The Right Rev. Dr. Paul Colton, Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross

8th June 2013

 Note to readers: the Bishop’s address was accompanied by a visual presentation. 

Hence the references to pictures and images being displayed.


Dear friends in Christ, we meet in Diocesan Synod in the name of God the Holy Trinity to consider again the work of the local Church here in Cork, Cloyne and Ross. I welcome each of you once again and I thank you very sincerely for being here today.

Changes in Leadership

At a worldwide level, since we last met, there have been changes in leadership in some of the world’s leading churches.  In an historic departure for recent times, Pope Benedict XVI retired.  Not so unusual as that, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Dr Rowan Williams, also retired.  In Egypt, a new Coptic Pope – Pope Tawadros II – was recently enthroned.

A new Roman Catholic Pope – Francis I – was elected.  For our Anglican Communion, a leader, in a different sense, was elected.  Archbishop Justin Welby – as Archbishop of Canterbury – is not our ecclesiastical leader but, arising from the bonds of affection and common loyalty that link us within the Anglicanism, he is a focus of our unity; we are in Communion with him and with the See of Canterbury.

As we start our work, I mention these, as an important reminder of the bigger picture, the larger Christian family and ecumenical household to which we belong:  the people of God, the body of Christ, the household of faith.  It is a reminder too that there are many ways in which the people of the world live out their Christian journey: the diversity within Christianity and yet, Christ’s call to us to be one, as he and the Father are one. (John 17)

More locally, our own former Dean of Cork, the Most Reverend Dr Richard Clarke, was elected to the See of Armagh in succession to Archbishop Alan Harper.  We send him our warmest greetings and prayers from this Synod.

Similarly we greet a former curate of Douglas Union, with Frankfield, the Right Reverend Ferran Glenfield following his consecration as bishop to serve in the Diocese of Kilmore, Elphin and Ardagh.

As part of our bigger, but also local picture, I mention also the tenth anniversary last year of our signing of the Covenant with the Methodist Church in Ireland.  As stage one of a two-stage legislative process, the way was cleared at this year’s General Synod for legislation next year to provide for full interchangeability of ministries with the Methodist Church, and, in relation to this, I pay tribute to the work of the Dean of Cork, the Very Reverend Nigel Dunne.

The Role of the Bishop

I am now in my fifteenth year as your Bishop.  I must admit, I used to think that 15 years was long enough for anyone to be a bishop anywhere.  I am reminded, however, of my father saying that when you are 84, you are not likely to be saying that 85 is a good age at which to die.

Reflection on the past 15 years prompts me to remind myself, and you, what the role of the Bishop is.  The General Synod itself is looking at this very thing at present too.

I am drawn, more and more, to the description set out by the Lambeth Conference 1998.  The bishop is:

(a)   a symbol of the Unity of the Church in its mission;

(b)  a teacher and defender of the faith;

(c)   a pastor of the pastors and of the laity;

(d)  an enabler in the preaching of the Word, and in the administration of the Sacraments;

(e)   a leader in mission and an initiator of outreach to the world surrounding the community of the faithful;

(f)   a shepherd who nurtures and cares for the flock of God;

(g)   a physician to whom are brought the wounds of society;

(h)  a voice of conscience with the society in which the local church is placed;

(i)    a prophet who proclaims the Justice of God in the context of the Gospel of loving redemption;

(j)    a head to the family in its wholeness, its misery and its joy.  The bishop is the family’s centre of life and love.

This job description is a tall order.  No one person has all the charisms to fulfil it in its entirety.  It is also important to say that there is no perfect bishop; all of us are fellow travellers on the journey of faith, asking the questions, vulnerable like anyone else, and dependent on the mercy, generosity and love of God.

The Need for Overview

In our time and place, whether as a nation, as a society, as a local community, or as a Church, there is a huge risk that we might all, even without being conscious of it, descend into a spiral of negativity  – a web of dread, fear and woe. In such a spiral we risk dragging ourselves and others with us into a black hole where we lose perspective and vision, diminish our sense of purpose and, worst of all for any Christian community, where we may risk losing hope or even faith itself.

It is only human that, at a time like this we each predominantly see things from our individual or parochial perspective.  Therefore, it becomes a challenge for us all, as a partial antidote to this, consciously to endeavour to take an overview of our situation.  Of course we don’t ignore our local issues in which our feet and concerns are firmly rooted, but it is incumbent on us also to seek the big picture – a panorama which includes God’s gift to us of faith and God’s call to us to build his kingdom.

It is, I believe, a special responsibility of the bishop, when exercising episcopal oversight, to do so from the vantage point of such an overview.

The Canadian Astronaut, Chris Hadfield, who returned to earth in mid-May, used Twitter to popularise the work and science of the International Space Station, which was under his command from 21st December until 13th May.

Most days, from the International Space Station, he tweeted photos of the earth.  Here is a picture, from the east, of all of Wales, the Irish Sea and Ireland, at evening time with the sun setting over the Shannon Estuary.  In our work as a Diocese we need, like this, to see the bigger picture of what we are involved in – the faith context; and our calling as disciples.

Keeping the vision of the big picture, alongside our local concerns, is part of our calling as Christians, and is one of the functions of this Diocesan Synod.

Here is a photo from space of our part of the world.  You can see Cork Airport. And, Cork City Centre can also be seen.   And again – the Bandon valley.

The Past Year

Two things dominated my life and ministry in the past 12 months.

The first of these was the finances of the Diocese; a major preoccupation involving months of work, which Mr Keith Roberts will tell you more about later when presenting this year’s Report of the Diocesan Council.

The second, not surprisingly, was the deaths of my parents. On this day last year, only 12 weeks after my father’s death, little did I know that in two weeks’ time my mother would die suddenly among us at The Palace. Such is the nature of our fragility as human beings.

All of you who have suffered bereavement will realise how an event like this takes the wind out of your sails.  I do want to thank each one from within the Diocese and outside the Church of Ireland, who came to our support with prayers, kindness and encouragement in the past 12 months.  This is the sort of Church we are meant to be for each other in Christ’s name.

Naturally, the past year has been a reflective time of retrospect.  Out of that remembrance too has come also prayerful insight and, once again, the opportunity for perspective as well as that all-important overview – the big picture.

In the days after my mother’s death we returned as a family to where my Dublin-father and my Wexford-mother began their married life: Inishowen, Co. Donegal. As a pilgrimage, a tribute to their memory, we visited the house in which they spent their first years of married life, and to which in 1960 they first brought me as a baby.  We went to Banba’s Crown on Malin Head, the most northerly point on the Irish mainland and, on the way, met people who remembered my father working in Donegal in the 1950s. We took in the Church they went to and where I was baptised.

It was, in some ways, a journey back to the 1950s – a return to the past, a trip which became a springboard for our first steps of moving on again in our own time. Bereavement sets one thinking – anniversaries set us thinking – history teaches lessons.

The 1950s

The 1950s came to my mind again earlier this week, and perhaps to some of yours also.  Many who watched the Service in Westminster Abbey to mark the 60th Anniversary of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II may have had flashbacks and memories.

No doubt many here remember those years well.

It was a prosperous time in parts of the world, not in others.  It was a time of style and well-being in many places, but not others.

In the USA, for example, it was a feel-good time of growth, economically and socially. New ideas of prosperity and success began to take shape.  It was also a time of restlessness and migration; the automobile generation found its wheels.

It was also the decade of the Korean War as well as of an Arab-Israeli conflict and the Suez Crisis.   It was a Cold War decade when the Hydrogen bomb was first detonated and the mass development of such warheads proliferated.  There were regional wars such as that in Algeria.  It was the decade of the Cuban Revolution and the Mau Mau rebellion; and the era of the space race.   The Marshall Plan was taking positive effect in the reconstruction of Western Europe. The European Economic Community was founded with the signing of the Treaty of Rome.  DNA was discovered and passenger jets went into commercial service.

In Ireland, some have styled it ‘the lost decade’.  In so many ways it was different; yet in others it was the same.  It was an era of restlessness and change, economic uncertainty, international instability and vulnerability. During the 1950s the Irish economy was also in crisis.   The deficit was mainly financed by drawing on the external reserves of the Irish banking system – their liquidity base – and this resulted in a liquidity crunch here.  This was followed by a strong deflationary budget which removed food subsidies and pruned the public capital programme. In the 1950s the emigration rate was at about 50,000 a year peaking in 1957, when about 60,000 people left.

No less than now, it was a time of turmoil, uncertainty and hardship.

Why Remember?

Why do I mention all this?  Well, certainly not to use the past as a stick with which to scold the present.  Reflecting on the vicissitudes of earlier periods of history, I made this point also several years ago, not to play down our current travails – far from it – goodness knows, for many these times are traumatic and life-changing – but to give us courage and hope

I am trying to underscore the point that people, communities, societies and, indeed, churches, have lived through much in the past and, in spite of all that they suffered, bore witness to Christ; maintained ministry and mission; and, in some instances, they still managed to do exciting and new things in spite of the times.  Above all they remained faithful in worship, mission and service.  Had they not, we would not be still here today doing what we do.

As we encounter the challenges of the present time, not least with a new phase of emigration (at a rate of about 3,000 per month), not least of young people, as many work through these days of economic hardship, including unemployment, most especially, youth unemployment, our faith and our Church has, I believe, a vital and central role to play.

Every generation faces challenges and dilemmas.  Every generation before us had to face up to the question we still face of what it means to be faithful in our discipleship and to do the work of the Church in our own time.

The popular series Downton Abbey has provided some light-hearted, but thought-provoking relief in television entertainment in recent seasons.  In its own way it charts the course of social history through significant world-changing events.   For me, as for many, the performances of Maggie Smith as the Dowager Duchess stand out.   She was outraged when she discovered that her youngest granddaughter – Lady Sybil was in love with the Irish Republican chauffeur, Branson.   Over dinner she unearthed it and said ‘Would someone please tell me what is going on, or have we stepped through the looking glass? ‘This sort of thing’ she said, ‘is all very well in novels but, in reality, it can prove very uncomfortable.’

Many in our midst may feel that, in our own day, they have been dragged through the looking glass to uncomfortable places.

The era depicted in the series corresponded roughly to our so-called Decade of Centenaries. This year is the centenary of the 1913 Great Dublin Lockout when, as it happens, my own great-grandfather was stationed in Dublin and living with my great-grandmother in Ship Street Barracks, Dublin Castle.  Next year will bring the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.

Our Times

Every era has its moments when things are tilted on their axis.  For us it was first of all, 9/11 which, in so many ways, continues to cast its long shadow.  Right now it’s the years of economic downturn and austerity: a trial we had been led to believe would not last as long as it is lasting.

Many people feel isolated and afraid.

The road ahead feels uncertain.

Many have questions.

However, as Alan Wilson, the Bishop of Buckingham, said to me during this past week, in the Bible, the words ‘Fear not!’ are a characteristic sign of having encountered God himself.

The Lord came to Abraham and said ‘Do not be afraid…’

At the Red Sea, Moses said to the people ‘Do not be afraid, stand firm…’

The Lord said to Joshua ‘Do not be afraid…’

When Ruth was worried what the people would think of her, God said to her ‘Do not be afraid…’

To the widow of Zarephath who had only a handful of meal left in her jar, Elijah said ‘Do not be afraid … make me a little cake…’

The Angel of the Annunciation told Joseph not to be afraid…

The same Angel said to Mary ‘Do not be afraid…’

When Jesus came to the disciples in the boat on the stormy lake, he said “Take heart, it is I.  Do not be afraid.’

On the Mount of Transfiguration he touched them and said ‘Get up and do not be afraid…’

With all our fears we are trying to be faithful today. Many are trying, under God, not to be afraid.

Undoubtedly there are many challenges and changes ahead as we make choices. Saying this to you will not come as a bolt out of the blue.

Looking over my presidential addresses to you at synods in the last 15 years one thing, among many, runs as a common thread: a theme of this episcopate.   It is my constant emphasis and call to the Diocese to prioritise ministry over everything else: ministry in a time of great change and pressing demands; and encouraging us all, in parishes, to envision and to plan ahead.

So it was that in 1999 I said that  ‘the church has to be concerned with real issues and less preoccupied with its own obsessions.’

In 2000, I made a call to the Church to make every effort to maintain its presence in rural areas.

In 2001, I asked what it meant to the Church in a multi-faith, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic Ireland.

In 2002, I was raising already the subject of the economic scenario and put it in the context of how we are financing the ministry in local parishes.  That was eleven years ago.

Ten years ago, (hard to believe) in 2003, I opened up the very direct question about the resources needed to prioritise ministry and whether, by comparison, we were trying to sustain too much infrastructure.

At the same time, a year later, I was anxious to affirm our Anglican understanding that it is the diocese – albeit comprised of local communities in parishes – it is the diocese that is the local church. We have a duty to be present with ministry wherever people are.

That theme was developed in 2005 as I explored Anglican way in the context of contemporary popular culture.

A charter for our Church into the future was set out in my address in 2006.

Again in 2007, looking at the imperative of mission, I questioned the sustainability of our currently configured pattern of parochial ministry.

2008, being the year of the Lambeth Conference, I took another Anglican digression and again affirmed what it means to be the Church locally.

Focus on our economic ‘earthquake’ came in 2009, addressing the question of how we are to live our Christianity in such times.

2010 continued that theme of how we can be the Church in shaky times.

2011 was all about our legacy and identity as members of the Church of Ireland approaching the Decade of Centenaries.

Last year I returned to the theme of the sort of Church we are being called to be and to become and, again I encouraged parishes to reflect locally on what each parish is try to sustain.

The purpose of all this was to get people to think ahead and to envision a strategy for the future before it caught up with us.

Why?  Because:

  • mission is an intrinsic trajectory of all ministry:  in worship, in teaching, in pastoral care, in children’s and youth work, in schools, and in outreach.
  • God-centred ministry and mission bring us, as of first importance, with the Gospel, in word and action, to the people of God.

The Diocese Then and Now

As you may have seen from the recent issue of the Diocesan Magazine, I happened upon the August 1959 issue.  It had been kept because it records the wedding of my parents-in-law in Glandore Church that month.  I decided to take my reflection and analysis a little further and so, opting for 1956, around the mid-1950s I had a look at the Irish Church Directory of that year

What a comparison illustrates is that since 1956 there have been huge changes, not without pain, but also with vision and courage.

Making comparisons between 1956 and 2013, this is what we see:











36 (9)

Rural Deaneries



Looking at the map which will feature on our new Diocesan Website to be launched soon, you can see physically where we are in the Diocese and the density of our commitment, both geographically and infrastructurally, to the region.

Incidentally, the new Diocesan Website is almost there, and it is hoped that it will be up and running before the end of this month.

How are we to Face Change?

How are we in our time to face up to change?

It’s not about titivating the edges of something beautiful.

It’s not about giving something enduring and valuable a trendy new look.

None of that is to say that modernising and contemporary approaches are inappropriate but, we need to reflect on the nature of change, and to strategise, collaboratively, the sort of change we envision together.

Our Diocese Today

We can also be positive, proud, in the correct sense, even, of what we are today in terms of our communal self-esteem and worth.

Today we are, I believe, a diocese that focuses on ‘keeping the main thing as the main thing, as Dr Stephen Covey, the American educator, author and businessman would say – famous for his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey was a Mormon who held his doctorate in religious education.

‘The main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing’, he said. We can, without smugness or complacency, be thankful that we are trying to be faithful to God’s call in our time, by keeping the main thing the main thing.  We cling to God’s presence with us, and his invitation to us to be his people – an invitation that elicits in us the impulse to worship; an invitation we want to share with others.

In a host of ways – more than can be readily legible on one slide such as this – 1000s of people throughout the Diocese – mostly volunteers, enabled and equipped for ministry by our clergy, are seeking ways to be faithful to God’s call.

The challenge to us all, continues to be to keep our focus on that call as ‘the main thing.’

‘The Delectable Diocese’

I have referred in previous years to our Anglican sense of the Diocese as the articulation of what we mean by the local church.  This was an affirmation that was underlined at the very first Lambeth Conference in 1867.

George Otto Simms who was bishop here from 1952 to 1956 used to refer to this as ‘the delectable diocese.’  We have come to pride ourselves on its being ‘the family Diocese.’  When I was elected Bishop and was asked in the media what I hoped would be a characteristic of the Diocese, my answer was ‘joy in the faith.’

These are characteristics we treasure, but if they are not to become trite and vacuous, they require on-going determination and work to preserve and value. They must also be undergirded with a meaningful and tangible reality.

To preserve and grow – and grow, not just preserve these things – to grow and develop what we are and what we have become, we need something deeper that goes beyond dressing up treasured things in new clothes.

That ‘something deeper’ is our belief in ‘the Word made flesh’ – ‘God with us’

Saint Paul described it (Philippians 2.1-11) as God emptying himself, kenosis, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  The incarnation, itself an act of salvation, gives us a paradigm for our times.  It is the way of self-emptying.  In the incarnation, the Word of God, modelled how we are to live with each other and alongside each other, understanding and sharing, for real, the experiences and journeys of our fellow humanity, also, like the person beside us, a child of God.

It is the way of solidarity.

The Brazilian Cardinal, Claudio Hummes said of faith and solidarity ‘The faith must express itself in charity and in solidarity, which is the civil form of charity.’  It was he who at the recent conclave whispered to the new Pope – ‘Don’t forget the poor people.’

Solidarity risks being a political buzzword, but it is a word which encapsulates what we do need in our society, and in our church and diocese, throughout these times.  It is about unity and agreement between individuals and communities with something in common, in this instance, a shared experience of challenges, fears and vulnerability.  It is about mutual support, which when given, requires us to make sacrifices and to reach compromises.

It is about the sort of Christian love that is self-offering: people being there for one another; each of us assuring others that they are not alone who in turn give that assurance to us.  It is about encouragement – literally, encouraging – ‘putting in’ – courage.

This sort of love and solidarity needs to be a hallmark of our time and ministry if we are to get through as our ancestors got through the challenges of earlier times.

St Paul wrote to the Colossians and said ‘I want their hearts to be encouraged and united in love …’ (Col. 2.2).

His words to the Christians in Galatia still hold good for us today and our times: ‘Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.’ (Galatians 6.2)

That is why we are here today in this Synod.  The Synod is a Council.  It has the same linguistic root as Synagogue – the assembly.

And the meaning and purpose of Synod is found in the prefix ‘Syn’ meaning, at its simplest, ‘with’; ‘in company with’; ‘together’.  That is why we are here today – to be together in the Lord and for the work that we have been called to do.

The Charter

And if I were to choose a charter which articulates a constant focus on ‘the main thing’ it would be the Commission from the renewal of baptismal promises, used also at every Confirmation Service:  It exhorts us:

  • to worship and serve God
  • to continue in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers
  • to persevere in resisting evil
  • to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ
  • to seek and serve Christ in all people
  • to acknowledge Christ’s authority over human society, praying for leaders; defending the weak; and seeking peace and justice.

Two Things to Lift Our Eyes to the Bigger Picture

Being consonant with these things, and the theme of solidarity, of not being afraid, and of lifting our vision to the bigger picture, I want to refer briefly, as I near the end of my address, to two things.

The Fund for the Future, offers us the opportunity I believe, to lay foundations for the future of ministry in our Diocese.  It can be our gift to our children and future generations.  It is my hope that in the course of the next 20 years, most realistically when times improve again, that each of us will find a way, small or big, to make our contribution whether by fun fund-raising or otherwise.  In that connection, I want to thank one of our honorary secretaries, Linda Deane for having the vision and initiative to be the first person to organise a fund-raising event for the Fund for the Future.

And the other broadening of horizons?  As is happening in other dioceses throughout the Church of Ireland, our Bishops’ Appeal in partnership with Christian Aid is encouraging us to give focus to our usual harvest giving by partering a place and the people of the place.  To that end we have been asked to think of the people of Haiti whose lives were devastated by the catastrophic earthquake in 2010.

Our Bishops’ Appeal representative Andrew Coleman has been assisting us with this.  We are being asked to focus on housing, on the rebuilding of homes and livelihoods.  135 houses like this one have already been constructed.  Each house costs €5,339.65.  For every such house we manage to fund through our harvest giving, the Bishops’ Appeal itself will match the funding and build a second house.

This project is about people. It is about Jackson Fils and his sons Wilkins and Kendo.  It is about Jackson’s grandfather Meritz Filos who keeps all his valuable documents in one plastic bag tied to his pair of trousers, in case, once again, he has to leave his home at short notice. It is about Dinoi and his wife Elise, and about Loudmie St Ilaire.

Our Time of Fear

Yes we live in our own stormy time of fear and uncertainty.  We do, however, have much to celebrate and to be positive about as we do God’s work together – synodically – for this part of Christ’s Church. The storm was another of those times of fear: a time when Jesus came to the disciples in the boat that night and said ‘Take heart, it is I.  Do not be afraid.’ (Mark 6.50)  Faith in the midst of the scary storm: ‘Do not be afraid.’


In conclusion, I return to the 1950s.  Bishop Hearn died suddenly on 14th July 1952. On 2nd October that year, at a Diocesan Synod like this, George Otto Simms, who had been Dean of Cork for only the previous five months, was elected bishop by an enormous majority.  His biographer Lesley Whiteside tells how afterwards some tried to stop the election alleging Simms was too young, too High Church and even a pro-German, ‘Sinn Féiner’.

I bring you back to the 1950s day – 28th October when Bishop Simms was consecrated.  The preacher was Eric Abbott, then Dean of King’s College, London and later Dean of Westminster Abbey.  The biblical text for his sermon, taken from the famous passage of Jesus, ‘Consider the lilies, how they grow, they neither toil nor spin…’ in which Jesus, having urged the people to strive for the things of the kingdom of God, says to them:  ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.’

‘Do not be afraid, little flock…’: well-chosen words of encouragement, solidarity and faith for this small far-flung diocese.  Across the decades those words of Jesus, mediated by that sermon in the 1950s and my retrospect here today, still ring out their call of encouragement to us today – ‘Do not be afraid little flock …’ – encouragement to infuse our solidarity with one another, and our practical realism in addressing the issues of our time, with vision, confidence, faith, hope and love.

These were the very gifts we asked God to give us in our opening Eucharist today:

  • bless us with the Spirit’s grace and presence
  • keep us steadfast in faith and united in love
  • why? So that we may manifest God’s glory.

That is our prayer and that is our calling, not only as we meet today, but every day as God’s people here in Cork, Cloyne and Ross.

+Paul Cork:

8th June, 2013

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