Preaching in the most westerly Church of Ireland church building in the United Dioceses of Cork, Cloyne and Ross, and the most southerly Church of Ireland church on the island of Ireland – the Church of Saint Brendan the Navigator in Crookhaven on the Mizen Peninsula – on Sunday evening 7th July, the Bishop, the Right Reverend Dr Paul Colton, reflected on the challenges facing the Church in sparsely populated rural areas in Ireland.
Today we are here at the edge of Ireland – a spectacular edge: the coast, the Fastnet, the islands, the Mizen, Mount Gabriel, the villages and its people.
And he gave an important affirmation:
Where the people of God are, in a particular place in the sparsely populated areas such as this, they are ‘the Church’ as much as the big city and suburban parishes in Cork, Dublin or in the North East of Ireland are ‘the Church’.
‘It is no secret’ said Bishop Colton, ‘that in places like this, our Diocese, the Church of Ireland as a whole, indeed other churches too, and not only religious institutions, but also other organisations have been and are reflecting about how best to support the sustainability of rural Ireland. The sustainability of rural Ireland is a national concern … Every day, not least as people are fearful about BREXIT in farming communities throughout this Diocese, people mention their anxieties to me as their bishop. A diocese like this is heavily dependent on its members who are dairy and beef farmers.’
Bishop Colton referred to the figures from the Census 2016; in 2016 the entire Crookhaven district had 17 members of the Church of Ireland. ‘But’, said the Bishop ‘that represents 7.6% of the total population of this area. Further east on the Mizen Peninsula, in Toormore, there are 22 Church of Ireland people representing 11.8% of the population. The point is, the population of the entire area is sparse and this is the pattern on all these iconic peninsulas in south-west Ireland and in other parts of rural Ireland too’
The Bishop was speaking at the 2019 inaugural Service in the Crookhaven Summer Series of Epilogue Services which are well-established and renowned in the south-west. From the Gospel of the day he was preaching on the text ‘After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go…’ (Luke 10.1)
He referred to the month of July as the 150th anniversary month – 26th July 1869 – of the royal assent being given to the Irish Church Act which would result in the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland as and from 1st January 1871.
‘Even at that time there were concerns about the effects on rural parishes’ said Bishop Colton. He quoted a sermon of Archdeacon William Lee in Dublin on 22nd October 1867 at an Episcopal Visitation to St Patrick’s Cathedral Dublin. William Lee asked, in the heat of debate about the proposed disestablishment:
‘What is to become of the members of the Church, especially in the outlying districts of Ireland, if the Church Establishment is overthrown?’
Bishop Colton said that concerns ‘for the outlying districts’ is a thread of continuity with that period.
Mentioning the current proposals to reduce the size of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland he said:
While I support the overall principle of synodical reorganisation and the reduction in the number of members, we must do all we can not to marginalize or disadvantage rural, sparsely populated areas. They are, as I say, as much part of the Church as the big city and suburban parishes in Dublin or in the North East of Ireland. We just need to figure out the best ways of being disciples of Jesus, and doing the work of the Church in places like this. Those places that claim to be strong and vibrant in the Gospel have a special responsibility, I believe, to help us with this.
The summer series of Epilogue Services continues in the Church of Saint Brendan the Navigator, Crookhaven at 8.30 p.m. each Sunday evening in July and August. Among the speakers will be Rabbi Dame Julia Neuberger on Sunday 11th August, and, on the 4th August the preacher will be the Most Reverend Dr Richard Clarke, Archbishop of Armagh. All are welcome.