Bishop Paul Colton’s Address to the Diocesan Synod of Cork, Cloyne and Ross, 2015

United Dioceses of Cork, Cloyne and Ross

Diocesan Synod Address given in Cork

by The Right Rev. Dr Paul Colton,

Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross

6th June 2015


Dear friends in Christ, we meet as a Diocesan Synod in the name of God the Holy Trinity to reflect again on the work of the local Church here in Cork, Cloyne and Ross.

I referred last year to the work of the the Commission on Episcopal Ministry and Structures, and we welcomed two of the Commission’s members to give us a presentation.  Since then the Commission has published its thinking in a more detailed way.  Moreover, at its meeting in May, the General Synod adopted a resolution welcoming the ‘general principles, analysis and approach to diocesan restructuring outlined’ in the Commission’s report; acknowledged ‘the need for structural change’; and requested the Commission to consult with Diocesan Councils’ and to bring legislation to next year’s General Synod.  This is our only Diocesan Synod scheduled to take place before then.  I did invite the chairperson of the Commission to be with us here today however, as the first meeting of the Commission following the General Synod will not take place until later this month, she felt that she needed to have that meeting with other Commission members first.

Nonetheless, this being our only scheduled Diocesan Synod between now and then, we do need to begin our local reflections here today.  That is why, using the discretion given to me under our Diocesan Regulations, I have decided this year, not to open the floor to a plenary debate about my address as a whole – as you know that is something which I usually and readily do, and have done (uniquely I think among dioceses) for the last fourteen years.  Instead I want to ask you this year  to work together, at your tables, to reflect on the discussion document published by the Commission, to make points and to ask questions that we might usefully put to the members of the Commission, as part of their promised consultation process.  We do all that, of course, in the context of our own local programme, Charting A Future with Confidence.

Marriage Referendum: a personal perspective

Before I initiate that discussion, and as we are meeting very much in the wake of the outcome of the recent Marriage Referendum debates, vote and outcome, I do want to share first, some personal reflections about it too. That is what they are, personal reflections, and I recognise that within the room we have more than a hundred such personal reflections, and perhaps even more, some of which will be very different from my own, and others not dissimilar to mine.  Such is the nature of living in a human community with a diversity of experiences, life journeys and perspectives.

We meet two Saturdays after the declaration of the outcome of that plebiscite the day before.   It will come as no surprise to you that I, personally, was delighted and relieved by the outcome.  I know that there are people among my brothers and sisters in Christ in this Diocese, and throughout the Church of Ireland who will have shared these feelings, as well as many who do not.  It’s important to remember that each of us is, in our own way, endeavouring to be faithful to our Lord’s call to follow him, and to discern what is the Good News for our time.  We are all trying to give expression to what his love, truth and justice are to mean in our day.  It is this focus on the centrality of Jesus Christ that unites us, and demands of us respectful and generous engagement each with the other.

Pause for Thought

Whichever view we took on the referendum proposition, the result gives all of us in the Church pause for thought.  As I say, I know that in this room, as throughout our Church of Ireland in this Republic, there were people who were on either side of this debate.   People who journey in faith, and who, each day, do their utmost to put the same Jesus Christ, the living Word of God, and the written word, at the heart of their lives, came to different conclusions and voted in different ways.

We cannot know precisely the number of Christians who voted yes or no.  But given that, by their own self-affiliation and self-definition in the Census 2011, Christians make up by far the largest faith group in the State, we can surmise that they were among those who voted Yes in hugely significant numbers.  It is undeniable too that some Christians were vigorous in articulating arguments on the ‘no’ side.  On both sides of the argument, social media became, in some instances, a cauldron of extremes.

In spite of the advance polls, the outcome came as a surprise even to the ‘Yes’ side.  Brian, one young gay campaigner I know of, writing in a recently published magazine article, wrote:  ‘Up until polling day we were convinced that we would just snatch a victory by the skin of our teeth.’  The result caught many unawares. Even late on the afternoon of the poll itself I saw ‘yes’ campaigners on social media fearing that the turnout was too low to result in a ‘yes’ outcome.

The first constitutional referendum that I can recall exercising my vote in was the 8th Amendment to the Constitution – the right to life of the unborn – in October 1983.  I remember well the heat of that debate, and of the four abortion-related referendums since.  Those together with the two relating to divorce stand out in my memory for the vigorous level of public engagement and debate: until this year’s referendum on marriage equality.

It was an energetic public debate and, for many, it was bruising.  If it was difficult for those engaged in the debate on either side of a hypothetical proposition, how much more must it have demanded emotionally from those most affected, LGBT people themselves.  This is where, whatever our viewpoint, as a caring Church, we need to put ourselves in other people’s shoes.

For my part, I was profoundly uncomfortable as a citizen of the State, adjudicating, as I saw it, on the human and civil rights, the place in society, the equality or otherwise, of another group of people, a minority: LGBT people.  I note that earlier this week, other commentators have questioned whether ‘Rule by Referendum’ is the best way to make decisions (Irish Times – Liam Weeks on 2nd June 2015).  For me, however, the issue is not with referendums per se, but with what we feel the need to include in our Constitution.

I know from speaking with many lesbian and gay people that, while they had no option but to acquiesce in the declared necessity for a referendum as part of our constitutional process, many did feel, nonetheless, as if their very esse, their being, their existence, their identity, were being deliberated upon, talked about.  As a result they were objectified, sometimes in a very dehumanising way.  I spoke to some who, understandably, became very agitated and angry about this.  For vulnerable people it was an emotionally destabilising time.  That is why the readiness and courage of so many people among them to come forward and to tell their own very ordinary, and sometimes very difficult, stories was hugely important to all of us.  In part this, is why too, I believe, we saw such a spontaneous outflow of relief, emotion and jubilation in those televised pictures from Dublin Castle, what one correspondent to the Irish Times referred to as ‘a secular pentecost’; not only because all eyes had been on people for the previous few months, but because, for many, the amassed emotions of accumulated years of marginalisation and stigmatisation, memories of hurt and suffering, especially prior to 1993, suffering in which the churches have been complicit – all of these was lanced, as it were, for many in that moment.

The part Christians play in these times

Christians must be to the fore in exposing homophobia and in countering it.  The love, compassion and message of Jesus Christ, radical and inclusive in his time, should drive us too, in relation to all issues in our own time, to be advocates for, and agents of, justice, equality and human rights throughout our world.  Aren’t these integral to the marks of mission? The marks of mission: the proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom, teaching, baptising and nurturing new believers, respond to human need by loving service, seeking to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation; and, to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

In the euphoria of one side – the ‘yes’ side’ of the Marriage Referendum debate, or the dismay of the ‘no’ side, it would be all too easy to take recourse to a naive analysis of what it might all mean about religious adherence and the outlook for institutional religion in Ireland.  As I said, it doesn’t take much scrutiny of our Census figures on religion to surmise, however, that undoubtedly huge numbers of professing Christians, including members of the Church of Ireland, voted ‘Yes.’  Christians were undeniably key to the ‘No’ vote also.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the same voting pattern would automatically be replicated in a different referendum on other hotly debated issues in our society.  As we move forward in the churches we can be assured that there are and will continue to be issues on which, in faith, we will be united or divided:  abortion, gender issues, other aspects of sexuality, economic policy, political engagement, conflict and military engagement, peace-keeping, the plight of ancient Christian communities in the Middle East; environmental issues, climate change, the type of investments we as a church make; the things that other people raise here at Diocesan Synod and at General Synod.

We have much to learn from listening to one another, learning from one another, and embracing the breadth of experience that lies within and is innate to our Anglican approach. For example, listening to Stephen Trew from the Diocese of Dromore at General Synod recently, I have begun to dialogue with him on social media, and I am endeavouring to educate myself more about the arguments about divestment of churches from fossil fuels, including the Operation Noah report on climate change called Bright Now:  towards fossil free churches,  as well as the Anglican Communion Environmental Network report, The World is our Host: A call to urgent action for climate justice  to which Stephen pointed us.

The Church of Ireland Now

Now that the referendum has been passed, we all have to get on with it. What will ‘getting on with it’ mean, in a Church where there were ‘yes’ and ‘no’ voters?  Where are we now?  Where is the Church left in the wake of this referendum?  Archbishop Diarmuid Martin called it a ‘reality check.’ I agree with him.  How we respond to that ‘reality check’ is key; we can be open to learning from these times, or we can dig in.

We are a Church in which people throughout this island do have a polarisation of views on this issue, and a wide range of opinions on it, and others like it.  The editorial in last week’s Church of Ireland Gazette (29th May) summed up the situation well:

Discussion of same-sex marriage is undoubtedly set to continue both within the Church as well as in society at large in Northern Ireland. The Church must relate to the cultures in which it exists, with its own beliefs at times at variance with secular views. The Archbishops and Bishops, despite rather stark terminology in part, have nonetheless thus rightly stressed in a statement the need for “a spirit of public generosity” on both sides, as debate continues. … For the Churches, to live in Ireland as a distinctly minority voice is now a clear reality, and it is a humbling experience.

It is humbling.  We do have to be open, practical and generous about the range and diversity of beliefs and opinions within our own Church of Ireland.   Even though we are a small church, a minority grouping on a small island, we are a many-faceted community.  Our small numbers accentuate our consciousness of our diversity and our differences.

Writing about the Marriage referendum, the editorial Church of Ireland Gazette published on the very day of the Referendum itself, 22nd May said :

A “Yes” vote would cause something of a dilemma (perhaps to put it mildly) for the Churches. …  As far as the Church of Ireland is concerned, a final question might be put: do the various recent letters to the Gazette and other publications show a major rift within the Church of Ireland that mainly runs along the border, albeit with notable exceptions? Certainly, there does seem to be a general difference of approach, North and South. That cannot really be denied and, indeed, to deny it could be a huge mistake. Realities always need to be faced. It is only then that the best courses of action to secure a good future can be properly considered.

The Gazette says ‘To deny it could be a huge mistake’; however, to reduce it exclusively to a north-south dynamic is to risk losing sight of how complex and multi-faceted our diversity actually is.  The diversity can  be  theological, political, cultural, social, economic, regional, for example, and that diversity is worked out within every diocese, between dioceses, between age groups, between urban and rural areas, and much more besides.

The Gazette has inaugurated discussion on this important issue, but it is important to acknowledge that there are many dimensions to our differences of outlook throughout the Church of Ireland: sociological, political, economic, historical, demographic, as well as theological reflection and spirituality.  I am not an expert in all of these fields, but it does strike  me that the insights of other disciplines – an interdisciplinary approach – to help us to understand ourselves, would be immensely important.  What I do observe is that a key element in the divergence of outlook and belief, not only in the Church of Ireland, but throughout the Anglican world, and indeed, Christianity, has its roots substantially, in how we read, engage with and interpret Scripture.  This is something I spoke at length about as being the nub of the issue in my address to you at this Synod, nine years ago in 2006; but here we are as a Church of Ireland still in the same place in 2015.

An opportunity to model communion

How are we to sustain and nourish our communion with each other while embracing such a spectrum of approaches to God’s Word?  The capacity to hold together broad divergence has always been what sustained the appeal of Anglicanism for me:  how two people, with Jesus the living Word of God at the centre of their lives, can be in full communion with each other even though, when gathered around the written Word, seen through the lens of tradition and reason, they see things differently, and reach very different conclusions.

Could it be that we in the Church of Ireland might model something here in relation to holding together the breadth of Anglican diversity, something we set out deliberately to value to and preserve, but which some have given up on in other parts of the world by setting up alternative groups of fellowship under a different Anglican umbrella?  I think we, as the venerable and ancient Church that we are, catholic and reformed, should work hard to make that possible, and, in so doing, offer it as a pattern to the Anglican world. A vision, an aspiration such as this will be, however, nothing more than a fond hope and a meaningless platitude unless we do indeed actively engage with our differences.  Again, as the Gazette said, to deny ‘could be a huge mistake.’ It would be.

Meanwhile, our focus on ministry and mission continues.  Included in our pastoral ministry are the needs of all people, including LGBT members of our parishes.  These are not remote and hypothetical situations.  They are real people turning to Christ and his Church for ministry today, this week and next week, already in our Diocese.  Only two days ago, we gathered in this very parish with a friend, a man to bury his male partner of 35 years.  Rightly they received the pastoral ministry and care of this Church, in the name of Christ, in illness and in death.  But what about when LGBT are alive? Our responsibility in ministry extends primarily to the living; so we must care for and include LGBT people, couples and families as we care for others.

Soon, civil marriages of gay couples will start to take place, and, while it is clear that clergy are not permitted to conduct those marriages in Church, clergy and laypeople of the Church will inevitably soon be guests on such occasions, at the civil marriages of friends or of members of their own families, and, no doubt will be asked to say grace or prayers in such family contexts.  Our church cannot shy away from these issues, and how is our rich diversity of believing and belonging to the Church of Ireland to be accommodated?

Article in The Tablet

I had completed this address to you when my attention was drawn to an article in today’s edition of The Tablet  – an international Catholic news weekly.  It’s by Professor Werner Jeanrond who, in my time, was a lecturer at TCD and at the Church of Ireland Theological College.  He is now Master of St Benet’s Hall in Oxford.  He was referring to a gathering of theologians and bishops in Rome last week.  What he says, is worth quoting, if you will bear with me, as he says these things better than I have and his words illustrate that we are not alone as a church grappling with these things:

In the current climate of polarisation in both the Church and society, any attempt to differentiate approaches to the pressing questions of our time risks being denounced by one side or another. Some argue that either the doctrinal tradition of the Roman Catholic Church is preserved in toto without change and interpretation, or the Church is on course to a total accommodation to postmodern culture.

Such presumed alternatives are neither Christian nor helpful. What is needed, instead, is an in-depth conversation on the approaches and encouragement that the Christian tradition provides for meeting the diverse challenges of today. …

The Bible and the texts of the tradition are read in the different contexts of our world. God communicates in and through language and so there cannot be a language-free approach to God’s self-communication in history. Divine revelation has chosen human language to proclaim the good news of God’s creative and redemptive project. Therefore we must reflect on our common hermeneutical predicament.

Hermeneutics is the art of understanding. It comprises a genuine love of God and of God’s incarnate Word in history and a continuing search for the meaning and significance of our faith in our respective historical, cultural and communicative circumstances. Interpretation never stops.

Moreover, we Christians need each other when reflecting on the tradition and practice of our faith. …

The other major challenge facing the Church is its attitude to same-sex relationships. Its failure to accompany faithful same-sex couples and identify a proper framework for their life before God is haunting the Church and diminishes its credibility as an institution charged with proclaiming God’s love and with promoting human love. Out of context references to selected biblical phrases for the purpose of condemning same-sex love can never deflect from God’s invitation to all men and women to form loving relationships.

Commission on Episcopal Ministry and Structures

I wish to use the remainder of my time, and the subsequent time our standing orders give me to use at my discretion, to introduce for debate at your tables that other major topic:  the work of the Commission on Episcopal Ministry and Structures.

Last year we welcomed representatives of the Commission on Episcopal Ministry and Structures to our Diocesan Synod to give a presentation and to distribute their survey.  At the time, the dominant reaction I had from you was one of puzzlement, as, without clear proposals or an emerging trajectory even on the table for discussion,  it was not clear what we were being asked, or what we were being asked to respond to.  In its report to the General Synod last month the Commission referred to these visits to each Diocesan Synod as being part of its consultation process.  The Diocesan Synod and our members on General Synod need to give full, detailed and committed consideration to what is proposed.  After all, the rights of diocesan synods have been eroded in the statute setting up the Commission and renewing its mandate.  Where once a diocese affected by any proposed changes had what amounted to a local veto, that has been removed in this instance under the legislation setting up the Commission.

The principal assertion in the report is that the Commission was set up ‘with the clear expectation that there will be change.’    The report states that the ‘present arrangements do not serve the current or future needs of the Church as well as they might; …’  but it does not say how or why this conclusion was reached.  It merely concludes that ‘the status quo is not an acceptable option.’  I personally would like to see something of the rationale that led to these conclusions.

We are told that ‘the universal propelling force for change is effectiveness in mission.’  This then is to be the measure of the Commission’s own proposals.  Does what is being proposed make for more effective mission?

A key component in the proposals appears to be that dioceses need to have a certain critical mass.  The factors taken into account are population, cures, church attendance, church buildings and schools.  In spite of the fact that we are trying to ease our way to innovative patterns of ministry, the Commission takes no account of those creative and missional efforts in its analysis: only cures – conventional parochial models are counted.

The Commission’s Report and proposals cover three areas:

  1. the role of the bishop and models of episcopacy
  2. the Episcopal Appointment Process
  3. Diocesan boundaries

The role of the bishop and models of episcopacy

Last year I referred to my personal submission to the Commission on Episcopal Ministry and Structure.  In each of the last two years I have set out the description of the role of a bishop articulated by the Lambeth Conference 1998.  It is no easy charter in our day, and cognisant of my own shortcomings, and how, even in my seventeenth year as a bishop, I am on a steep learning curve every day.   Here again is that summary:

  1. a symbol of the Unity of the Church in its mission;
  2. a teacher and defender of the faith;
  3. a pastor of the pastors and of the laity;
  4. an enabler in the preaching of the Word, and in the administration of the Sacraments;
  5. a leader in mission and an initiator of outreach to the world surrounding the community of the faithful;
  6. a shepherd who nurtures and cares for the flock of God;
  7. a physician to whom are brought the wounds of society;
  8. a voice of conscience with the society in which the local church is placed;
  9. a prophet who proclaims the Justice of God in the context of the Gospel of loving redemption;
  10. a head to the family in its wholeness, its misery and its joy.  The bishop is the family’s centre of life and love.

I have not seen any such similar theological summary set out by the Commission itself.  The Commission does state that it has looked at the possibly of bishops holding a number of roles, or stepping down to move from diocesan episcopal ministry to other roles within the church.  Two key components seem to be the suggestions that (i) saving money does not lie behind what is being proposed, on the contrary, the report states that adequate resources must be provided and that some others may need to be paid to do some of the things bishops currently do; and (ii) in that connection, there is exploration of a range of things that bishops currently do, that they might give consideration to not doing.  Who is to do them is not clear to me, such as oversight of the clergy and clergy discipline; and school patronage.

Diocesan Boundaries

I wish also to direct your reflection to the third of the Commission’s areas:  diocesan boundaries.

In this connection the reflections of the Commission are set out in the document Diocesan Boundaries: Opening the Discussion.

Last year I expressed the hope that the work of the Commission would be much more than changing boundaries.  It seems to be in large measure about that, hence the separately published booklet. (Incidentally, as an aside, I observe that there is now no member of the Commission who currently resides in Munster, one of the largest areas affected by the proposals.

The discussion document shows the historic pattern of dioceses and concludes that this ‘should continue to form the basis of any restructuring.’  Personally, I find this disappointing and unadventurous.  It is much less far-seeing and pragmatic than was the Synod of Rath Breasail of 1111 which delineated the current schema, followed closely by more reforming Synods in Kells-Mellifont  in 1152 and in Cashel in 1172.  The Synod of Rath Breasail planned for a major shift in church organisation from one centred around monasteries to one based around dioceses and parishes.  When determining the dioceses it took account of the realpolitik of the time:  the focus was harnessing factors of contemporary secular influence such as the ancient territorial boundaries of the Irish dynasties, and incorporating, in a genius way, the ancient monastic sites also.

In Ireland we have a strong sense of place.  We know this in Cork, but people in Kerry, Waterford, Galway, Mayo all know this too. Today people outside the churches identify much more closely with cities and counties than they do with ancient diocesan boundaries.  I believe we should be harnessing that affinity with place and region if we are to be really serious about mission.  If our concern is about mission, I can observe that more often than not when people ask about the area I cover they only grasp it when I talk about County Cork – the ancient boundaries mean little other than to those on the inside.

We do, I believe, have to take seriously the urban centres and their hinterland, as the Dean of Armagh said at the General Synod.  That in itself makes us uncomfortable because quite a number of our bishoprics are not located in principal cities at all.  I find it strange, therefore, on this model, that we would countenance not having a bishop resident in either Limerick or Cork; that we do not have one based, for example,  in Galway or Sligo, or, indeed, one identifiable Bishop of Belfast.  Perhaps the Commission might look at the work that has been done by others such as the National Spatial Strategy 2002-2020 with its nine gateways; and Shaping our Future, the regional development strategy for Northern Ireland.; and the framework for collaborative action, Spatial Strategies on the Island of Ireland.  We can learn from other disciplines and professional insights such as these, and I am only citing these as examples of what other sectors are doing.

I myself have so many questions that I have not yet been given satisfactory answers to, for example:

  • The Commission says it takes account of road networks but in our area it seems, in fact, not to have done so.  The artery with the potential most to enlarge our hinterland, is surely, the M8, but even examples B and D barely exploit this.  Indeed, the Minister for Transport announced on 11th May the postponement of plans to develop the M20 – a motorway link between Cork and Limerick.
  • If a Diocese is about creating fellowship in worship and ministry, and generating energy and synergy and mission, how can that be done by making it even more difficult for people to meet and get to know one another?
  • In Examples A or C – what I consider personally to be the worst options for Cork, Cloyne and Ross is the fulcrum of the Diocese going to be Cork, or will it be Limerick?
  • In example C it would seem inevitable that Limerick would become the natural hinge and centre of activity.  Is there to be no Bishop in Cork?  What would the point be in the Bishop living in Cork if the natural focus for activity and the hub were Limerick?
  • What would be wrong with creating even fewer dioceses with fewer diocesan bishops than the 10 envisaged and having, instead, assistant or Suffragan bishops?
  • I am struggling to see mission here in these maps.  I am seeing more of the same – amalgamation without rationalisation which, as we know, is really only dilution. It weakens rather than strengthens.
  • In these maps I am seeing the accentuation of the urban-rural divide, and again, far from seeing mission, I am seeing a retreat from rural Ireland particularly the West and South West.  It looks as if there might be every possibility of there being no resident Church of Ireland bishop in Connaught.
  • There is no concrete proposal in any of the documents about how the issue of synodical representation might be worked out in a reconfigured Church of Ireland.
  • As I said at General Synod, in the first 4 and a half months of the year I  had driven 16,000 km and spent 33 nights in hotel rooms as part of my work: already too much to be good for a diocese.  In some of the examples given I am seeing not mission, but more time spent in my car and more nights in hotel rooms.

Having said all that, paragraph 5 on page 5 of the Discussion document asks what I have been asking for years in this Diocese:  is the church in some dioceses relying too much on too few people to sustain an existing system?  We have to be open also to the possibilities this process puts be before us.

Charting A Future with Confidence

That, in part, is one of the factors that brought about our own Charting a Future with Confidence programme.  We have to take these proposals of the Commission on Episcopal Ministry and Structures seriously.   I am excited by our own initiative.  It got off to an excellent start and we were indebted to the Archbishop of Armagh for coming to launch us and inspire us on our way.  Most of all I am hugely indebted to all who have agreed to be part of the process most especially, the convenors of the four groups.  Their interim reports are included in the Report of the Diocesan Council and when we come to that during the day, members will have the opportunity to address those.


As ever, in this Diocesan Synod we commit ourselves afresh to be faithful, energetic and creative disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ as we set out to Chart a Future with Confidence.

May God the Holy Spirit guide and bless us as we begin our work in this Synod today.

Thank you again for your attendance today and for your commitment to the work of this part of Christ’s Church.

+Paul Cork:

6th June, 2015

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