Bishop’s Address at Cork, Cloyne and Ross Diocesan Synod ~ 30th November 2020

Diocesan Synod Address given in Cork via ZOOM

by The Right Rev. Dr Paul Colton, 

Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross

on 30th November 2020 at 8 p.m.

Dear Friends in Christ,

That a Diocesan Synod would be postponed and eventually held in a virtual medium like this because of a global pandemic, was certainly outside any fear I had for the future when our Diocesan Synod last met in 2019. This was beyond the anticipation of most of us. Global illness and tragedy were the stuff only of my reading material then, such as Dr Ida Milne’s book Stacking the Coffins about the so-called ‘Spanish Flu’ of 1918-19.  

Little more than 100 years on we find ourselves in the same boat.  Our hearts go out to everyone affected by this dastardly virus and the illness it causes: Covid-19.  Even this evening I learnt of a close friend and his wife, both in their 40s, fit, healthy people, now seriously ill in hospital with this disease. 

A thesaurus of words is now commonplace in our parlance and experience: upheaval, anxiety, distress, incidence rate, sanitiser, social distancing, face-coverings, R-number, NPHET, restrictions, levels, essential and non-essential, mental health, and pandemic unemployment payment. 

So the list goes on; but we must never forget that at the heart of all this are people and their lives upturned, isolated, stretched to the limit, fatigued, stressed, ill, or ended through death,  leaving the grief-stricken behind them.  And in parallel, there is what I have referred to before, the phrase used by the American Lutheran pastor and theologian, Nadia-Bolz Weber when she tweeted ‘it’s also now a pandemic of disappointment’ – weddings, reunions, graduations, confirmations, retirement plans, and even State Examinations; so much, and more, thrown off course.

The CoronaVirus Pandemic has caused many problems for us, for sure – economic, commercial, communal and personal, but it has also widened the cracks of issues our society has been facing for decades; things we have known about, lobbied for, and have indeed been working on and made strides in addressing, but the pandemic has highlighted that they are not fully resolved yet.  These have been exposed in the new light of the pandemic. 

The pandemic has shown that there is more to do and that in some areas we have not done enough: the adequate resourcing and equipping of our health service, in spite of the massive expenditure on it; the shortfall in funding for our nursing homes through the Fair Deal scheme; the challenges we will face in that area of care for the older person as our population ages; meeting the care arising from mental health concerns, as well as people with additional needs in society; class sizes in our schools; the dependence on one particular model of evaluation and examination at second level education; and again, you in your own sectors of activity will  have identified analogous concerns. Undoubtedly churches will have lessons to learn too from all of this. Meanwhile the big issues of climate change, poverty, direct provision, homelessness, inequality and injustice have not gone away. 

We could all too easily become overwhelmed and just down tools. Instead, individuals and organisations, including parishes and chaplaincies in this Diocese, have shown resolve, determination, pragmatism, energy and faith in huge measure.  There has been inventiveness, creativity, lateral thinking, and generosity in large measure.  It’s as if you, the people of God, in the face of this common viral enemy, have intuitively put into action the call of Jesus which we read in Saint Luke’s Gospel:

‘…[G]ive, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.’  (Luke 6.38)

From my own involvement in the two Cork Covid-19 Community  Response Forums I have seen that the response of people throughout this city and county has been characterised by generosity, determination, volunteering and going many proverbial ‘extra miles’.  

We have faced up to these times, as I have written and said so often, since last March, with the Christian calling that is characterized by faith, hope and love.  Yes there will come a time for taking stock and reflecting on it all, and trying to figure out what it will all mean for us in the years ahead, but for now, as we continue to live through it, we are focussed on keeping a steady hand on the tiller, on trimming the sails and keeping everything on as even a keel as we can.  Smooth sailing is far from guaranteed,  but let us recall  that in the midst of the storm in the boat on that night in Galilee, Jesus, admittedly fast asleep,  was with them, and when he woke he challenged them ‘Where is your faith?’  

Like those disciples we may be afraid, but I  believe that you, the clergy and people of this Diocese, in the face of this storm are showing faith. And our approach has been to do what Jesus said we should do in response to worry ‘Today’s trouble is enough for today.’  (Matthew 6.34)  Day by day, one  day by one day, for now, as much as we can is the best way.

It is not a lot of consolation to know that in previous ages our people lived through great storms, but personally I do find the response of our forebears inspiring.  Their example and tenacity strengthen my own resolve in personal faith and in the episcopal oversight that has been entrusted to me. 

Had we been meeting on this night one hundred years ago, it would’ve been two days after the ambush at Kilmichael,  nine days after the events of Bloody Sunday in Dublin, and, in eleven days time, during 11th to 12th December, our city would be burned: 40 business premises, 300 residences, the City Hall, the Carnegie Library, and leaving 2000 jobless, not to mention the shock of it all during a time of war. 

Fifty years before those events we would have been here on a night of celebration: the consecration day of the new St Fin Barre’s Cathedral.  Perhaps all was not as it seemed though, the Cathedral was not finished and while vast sums had been raised there was still more to be done, and that was a mere one month before the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland on 1st January 1871.

So, in conclusion, I remind you that the Five Marks of Mission, which are our charter and strategy, are for the challenging times as well as for the joyful times. Our response of faith and our practical approach is now, at this Diocesan Synod, in the midst of a pandemic, as it was on that summery day in 2019 when we last met, to stick to the plan: the  Five Marks of Mission, summarised as

  1. To proclaim the good news of the Kingdom
  2. To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
  3. To respond to human need by loving service
  4. To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind, and pursue peace  and reconciliation, and
  5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

So as we being our Advent journey, let us recall God’s promise and our prayer in the seventh of the great antiphons of  this  season ‘O Emmanuel’ 

‘O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of  the nations, Savour of all people, come and set us  free, Lord our God.  Isaiah  had prophesied ‘The Lord himself will give you this sign: the Virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.’

‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’  (Matthew 1.23)

Bishop Paul Colton
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