United Dioceses of Cork, Cloyne and Ross
Diocesan Synod Address
by The Right Rev. Dr Paul Colton,
Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross
on 11th June 2022, the Feast of St Barnabas the Apostle
Sisters and brothers, dear Friends in Christ,
At last we can meet again in person, as a Diocesan Synod. Postponing our Synod in 2020 and then only meeting virtually in both 2020 and in 2021, was more than a hiatus. It was brought on by something which, I believe, in more ways than we yet know has changed the world: the Coronavirus pandemic. And it’s not over. Although they have lost their primary place in the media, Covid-19 updates are still being published daily by the HSE and are accessible online.
Even when planning for today I know that our Diocesan staff and the honorary officers of this Synod gave additional attention to the practical arrangements, taking into account the fact that the semblance of normality to which we have returned is not yet an unfettered normality. I thank them, on your behalf, for their careful preparations.
Through the impact of this ghastly virus, our communities have all learnt a lot. It has been a steep learning curve. As we evaluate our response, it’s important to remember that we are looking through the lens of hindsight now, not least the hindsight of the availability of the vaccines and greater scientific and medical knowledge about this coronavirus. With the benefit of that hindsight we might think this or that, and, of course, we have all learnt much. What was done and decisions taken, can only be measured, however, in the light of what was known to us at the time in question in the midst of the particular circumstances pertaining at any given moment; we had no other yardsticks to go by. We could not back then see into a future that is now a recent past.
We went through every emotion imaginable and it pushed everyone to the limits of their humanity. Those of us who serve voluntarily at Saint Luke’s Charity and Home on your behalf in the Church, experienced for ourselves full onslaught of the virus. At one point, throughout the first quarter of 2021 and longer, the situation at the Home, because of the pandemic was precarious and we all felt the full force and stress of it. In mid-February 2021, 58% of the residents had Covid as did 40% of the staff. At the peak of that period, 68% of the residents had Covid and we were without 60% of our staff, and most of our management team, administrative and clinical, were also out, leaving just 3 who didn’t test positive for Covid at that time. I did not think we or I would get through those weeks and months.
That said, I want to emphasise some of the things I have said countless times before. Our hearts and prayers, together with our pastoral and practical solidarity, go out to those who suffered with this disease, or who died, those whose other illnesses were affected by the pandemic, those who were bereaved, and especially those who could not give their loved ones the funerals they would have wished. Our immense gratitude continues to be due to all frontline workers of many varieties, to whom we are especially indebted. I pay tribute also to the clergy and lay workers and volunteers who also had to adapt to the entirely unknown, and to our Diocesan Office staff, all our volunteers and committees, all whom did the best that they could and worked harder than ever.
The pandemic did its utmost to stop us being ourselves as a Church, as an ecclesial reality; for the church is about assembling and gathering. That’s what ‘ecclesia’ means – called out and called to be together, in our case by God – in ancient Greece it was a gathering of the citizens summoned to an assembly. For much of two years we could not do that; and when we could, there have been understandable restrictions on our gatherings.
That you, the people of Cork, Cloyne and Ross, remained faithful, hopeful and determined, in spite of the ebbs and flows in our own personal resilience is hugely worthy of mention, of thanksgiving, of praise and of admiration. You certainly have mine, as your Bishop.
In so many ways the simple ceremonies which took place throughout the Diocese on 18th March – the day designated by the Government for remembrance and also for thanksgiving had us doing what churches are supposed to be best at – turning to God, to offer worship – liturgies of Word, prayer and symbol.
In Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral, the 767 candles laid in the shape of a cross – the symbol of both suffering, and resurrection victory and triumph over death – the candles which were lit by young people from the oldest continuing youth organisation in the Diocese – the Cathedral Choir – and young people from our Diocesan Youth Council, for me, in symbol, brought together visibly, with a sacramental character, much of what we have all been through.
During the first two years of the pandemic, with almost annual regularity, I had cause to put the health service to the test myself, in ways which, for me, and vicariously for those close to me, have been demanding and life-changing. It also gave me an opportunity to glimpse – a mere glimpse – first hand, even if only in a cursory way, while an in-patient and then in periodic visits to clinics as an out-patient, the huge demands that were being placed on health workers in particular because of the coronavirus. Among frontline workers our health workers of all kinds deserve our thanks. For my part, arising from my own situation, I take this opportunity to thank so many of you for your solidarity and prayers and, together with my wife, family and many friends, I have had, in a particular way, at those times to lean on the Archdeacon, the Dean of Cork, and the Diocesan Secretary. They and you all have my gratitude.
In so many ways, it felt at times as if we were being dismantled and as if our work was being undone by the pandemic. As I say, we could not gather and do the things together we are called to and meant to do. Evolutionary adaptations were necessary and creatively used: including online Services, and even the telephone came back into its own. Zoom and virtual meetings saved the day in some ways but were not, in my view, a panacea. In larger zoom meetings it was nigh impossible to gauge reaction, to engender dialogue and proper consultation. Often it was only a perfunctory way of getting the job done. That said, it did save the day in other ways. That said, I would be happy to leave behind the most uttered phrase of this age, namely – ‘You’re on mute’.
It is now a time for rebuilding. The scriptures are full of images of rebuilding and rebirth following tragedy, exile and wilderness times. I rather like this promise from Amos, Chapter 9.14 – from an oracle of salvation – annulling the curses of before. These words come at a time when normal life in the land has been disrupted, cities were in ruins, and people had been uprooted. The words hold out expectation, hope and promise from God. Amos does not do optimism really, but in his book, there is this happy ending, and I love the imagery and the hope:
I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,
and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.
My first ever Old Testament lecture in Trinity College Dublin in 1981 was about Amos, and I hope that my lecturer, Professor John Bartlett, now great in age and wisdom, but affectionately remembered often, will be pleased that I still remember that lecture, and am quoting Amos.
When it comes to building, my preference would have been for ‘gentle’ rebuilding. However, now that things are opening up there is, I sense a pent up impatience and urgency. I, for one, have never had as busy a five month period as I have just had, and the summer ahead, is going to be my busiest on record, as far as I can see. As we rebuild I would encourage us all to show understanding and forbearance with one another. Not everything that was stalled can be restarted all at once. We are a small group of people doing a vast array of things, with an immense portfolio of activities and responsibilities. We are like a mighty ocean-going ship, but, paradoxically, we suffered in March 2020 the impossible for such a ship – an emergency sudden stop. Now we are getting underway again, cautiously, uncertain of the waters, and it will take awhile to build up a full head of steam.
The same is true of society in general. The climate crisis hasn’t gone away, nor have issues of injustice, conflict and food poverty all over the world. Yet, still the pandemic is still tilting our ordinary world on its access, and we see this in many sectors: fuel prices, inflation, cost of living, disruption to the global food supply, HR changes, shortage of workers, retraining of workers, airport queues, cancelled flights, curtailed opening hours due to staff shortages, backlogs of many kinds, a restless people who, having been confined, feel liberated and many are moving around or onwards. We are all playing catch-up and the Church is no different; why wouldn’t it be?
This also gives us an opportunity to reflect anew on what it is that is essential – our esse – our essence – at the core of our very being and becoming. And so rather than automatically going back to what always was without scrutinising or evaluating it, now is a good time to test everything we do against the Five Marks of Mission. Rather than pushing Charting a Future with Confidence to a pre-pandemic back burner, now is an opportune time to engage anew with it.
All of this talk of rebuilding comes, of course, when a new horror has arisen which will, also, affect our being and our work. I refer to the invasion by Russia of Ukraine on Thursday, 24th February last, and the war that has been unfolding there with horrific and inhuman consequences. This is yet another turn of events that will shape not only that country and Europe regionally, but our global household for years to come. We already see the effects on the economy, on prices, and the global food chain has been disrupted in a way that will cause further suffering and horrors among the already most vulnerable around the world. The impact on us, here in Ireland, however, is as nothing compared to the devastation experienced by Ukrainians themselves – their homes and infrastructure targeted and destroyed, lives in upheaval, dislocation, separation, and uncertainty. We see it on our televisions, online and in our newspapers. Nothing is as moving, however, as I and many of you have done, as sitting down and hearing face to face some of their individual stories and (such an inadequate word) predicaments.
In our communities, we are all called upon to do whatever we can, even in small ways, to help. Christians, of all people, those who are called to love their neighbour, carry a special onus to respond with love in action. We are all conscious that this comes on top of all our existing shortcomings and challenges in our own society. It posits questions about how we respond to our enduring housing crisis, and about our response to the more than 7000 people living in Direct Provision Centres in Ireland to name but two persistent issues that confront us. Our Christian faith, however, does not give us the option of picking and choosing neighbours, and the realities we face are what they are, so all that we do, for our new arrivals in Ukraine has to be ‘as well as all that we need already to do, not instead of.’ As my late mother famously said in another context, as she became impatient with the Church of Ireland’s preoccupation with sexuality – ‘on with it.’ And yes, we do have simply to get on with doing what we are meant to do in response to the realities of our time.
My grandmother was born in 1895. Her mother was a widow who was caretaker and cleaner of a building at 30 Westland Row in Dublin. Granny’s best friend lived at the East Wall. They met most often at the Girls’ Brigade in North Strand. The local parish Church was on upper Sheriff Street, East Wall – it was dedicated to today’s saint – St Barnabas.
The playwright Sean O’Casey was a parishioner there for 20 years – along with my granny’s friend – Vi Gourley. We used to go out to visit when I was a child, and their front door was right against the railway embankment. Sitting in their parlour, one thought every passing Enterprise Express was going to come in the window. Today is the Feast of St Barnabas who travelled and proclaimed the Gospel. Like us today, Barnabas attended one of the first Synods ever – the Council of Jerusalem in about the year 50.
What’s all this got to do with the challenges we face and Ukraine? Certainly I, for one, feel, as Sean O’Casey once said: “All the world’s a stage and most of us are desperately unrehearsed.” So true, we are doing the best we can to be faithful. We have empathy with the character – Captain Boyle – in O’Casey’s play Juno and the Paycock who said, more than the once: “the whole world’s in a state o’ chassis”
No. I draw attention to that parish of St Barnabas because just over 100 years ago, again at the most ghastly of times, when nothing seemed to many people to be going right, the rector of that parish, the Reverend David Hall, responded to the dire needs of that area, to its poverty and terrible housing conditions. The death rate in St Barnabas Parish was 48 per thousand whereas the average for the rest of Dublin was 18 per thousand. Overcrowding was the norm. In one house at 10 Commons Street, there were 84 children, – yes, children – living. It was these tenements that inspired Sean O’Casey.
They spurred on the Reverend David Hall also. He set up The St Barnabas Public Utility Society in 1919. Its vision was to improve living conditions and to build houses. Over 170 houses were built at that time in that area. He became known as ‘the building parson.’ His work became a catalyst for change in Dublin. He may be forgotten by most now, but he made a difference when he needed to.
I mention this because, in all sorts of ways, like him, inspired by our faith, we too can do what needs to be done too in these times. Barnabas might be our patron. He was an overseer who partnered Saint Paul in his work, and famously sold land he owned to give the proceeds to the community. In our Collect earlier we prayed that like him ‘we would be generous in God’s service’. We are discovering in these times – with the Founders’ Appeal last year for the Bishop of Cork Pastoral Care Fund, and again now with the appeal for help for housing Ukrainian newcomers – that there are many, many generous people around, motivated by faith and human good will, and I thank them and you all.
That Barnabas world – inner city Dublin – Westland row in my grandmother’s case, Ship Street, Aungier Street and Protestant Row in the case of my grandfather’s family – was the world of the Colton family. Protestant Row is still there today, off Wexford Street. I think that is why, through the generations, our family has always had an affinity with the work of Protestant Aid, founded in 1836. Geoff and Joyce are here, and I am personally thrilled today, in their presence, to announce to you all that the CEO of Protestant Aid, David Webb, wrote to me two days ago, to confirm that Protestant Aid, on top of everything else it does for people in our Diocese, will donate €50,000 to fit and equip the houses at Kingston College for our Ukrainian families.
These substantial donations make our project possible. Through the Lapp’s Charity we have already housed 4 Ukrainian households around the city. In the case of Kingston College, we have had the generous donation of €200,000 from The One Foundation and today’s grant from Protestant Aid of €50,000.
On 14th March, following a chat with Billy Skuse, I sent around an email to people I knew to ‘test the waters.’ Naturally the responses varied. ‘Let the local authority do it.’ ‘Put together a team of volunteers’ (More work I thought). ‘You’ll never get €240,000 (it’s now going to cost multiples of that); ‘€240,000 is a big ask.’ Within about nine days we had €200,000 .
So together with the big donations, I wish wholeheartedly to acknowledge the overwhelming and immediate response from you – individuals and parishes in the Diocese, and from complete strangers. People who simply ‘saw it in The Irish Tines sent in money – including one cheque for €20,000 from someone we do not know. Andrew Bird, son of David, passed around the email to a group of friends. They are now a team of volunteers led by Cobh solicitor, Charlie Daly, who has mobilised the people of Mitchelstown, to get involved, as well as countless businesses throughout the County.
RTE producers saw the photograph, and DIYSOS: Build for Ireland are now on board, with some of the houses to be done by a vast team of volunteers – we are still recruiting – between 4th and 15th July: 6 houses in nine days. And, as I say, they are being equipped and furnished by Protestant Aid.
So let me say that, as we head into a still uncertain future as a Diocese, let’s proceed together, with resolve and resilience, rationally, pragmatically, in faith and hope, day by day as the Lord advises, with the confidence that comes from being Christian people who trust in God, and who are committed to journeying together, and in partnership with others around us.
We have already shown through the decades that we can do great things in this small Diocese against the backdrop of immense challenges.
In my presidential addresses to you over the last 24 years, I have, from time to time, drawn parallels with history, and encouraged you to draw inspiration and strength from our forebears. Now that we are going through what we are going through, there is a serendipity that I did not anticipate, in having taken that approach. Among the periods I have referred to in our Diocese have been lessons drawn from the visitation of Bishop Dive Downes at the end of the seventeenth century, from disestablishment in 1871, from the social upheaval in Ireland at the of the nineteenth century, from the period 1912 to 1922, and, most recently, in the context of the pandemic, from the centenary of the worldwide, so-called ‘Spanish’ flu pandemic.
I think I’ve said it before, but I say it again, I draw immense strength from my own forebears in particular, and all our forebears in general. Still within living memory were the challenges faced during the Second World War- and people here remember their parents’ generation then. I say to myself ‘if they were able to do it in a less technological world with fewer resources, then surely I and we can too’.
In terms of drawing strength and imagination for my own ministry as your Bishop I look around my dining room at the portraits of my predecessors and feel unequal to the task. As I say, I think of the so many desolate and ruined, roofless churches and sanctuaries that Bishop Dive Downes recorded in his Episcopal Visitation at the end of the seventeenth century yet even then, people were turning out in large numbers to receive the sacraments and to be confirmed.
I think of the building renaissance that followed under Bishop Peter Brown, including Saint Anne’s Shandon, celebrating its 300th anniversary this year. Let us recall the determination of Bishop John Gregg throughout the disestablishment debates of the 1860s, disestablishment, and the building of St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, and many other churches in that period. Then there was his daughter, Miss Frances Fitzgerald Gregg, who in that same period founded Saint Luke’s Home, celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. Going back even further, to the 13th Century, we can only but imagine what was achieved by those who founded the Collegiate Church in Youghal, an 800th anniversary that was postponed, but which we shall be celebrating later this year also. Our records tell us that the Bishops of Cloyne in quick succession at the start of that century were Luke, Florence and Daniel. I know nothing about them and there are no surviving portraits, but their legacy endures, not least in the magnificent roof timbers that date to that period.
The Bishop, however, who has most preoccupied me over the last decade and more, is Bishop Charles Dowse. He hangs over our mantelpiece There are people, albeit in diminishing numbers now, in the Diocese who remember him. I’ve no idea whether or not I would’ve liked him or agreed with him as a person, but I still reflect on his episcopate, because he gave pastoral oversight to the Diocese from 1912 until 1933 during, which time there was immense upheaval and social change, along with a significant reduction in the number of people in the Diocese and, as we know, when the numbers reduce, the individual cost to the voluntary giver rises.
Professor Brian Walker Emeritus Professor of History at Queen’s University Belfast has researched Bishop Dowse’s Synod addresses. At this very Diocesan Synod 99 years ago – on 13th June 1923 Bishop Dowse referred to this:
During the last two and half years our church population has decreased by 8 per cent. It is serious but does not call for despair. Many of our people have gone. Neither we nor our country could afford to lose them.Bishop Charles Dowse
Just think what he and the Diocese went through in those decades of his episcopate 100 years ago:
- The Home Rule debates and the Home Rule Bill, while in Ulster the Ulster Covenant was being signed
- The founding of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the founding of the Irish Citizen Army
- The Lockout in Dublin of 1913
- First World War
- The Easter Rising
- The Battle of the Somme
- Partial suffrage for women in 1918
- Armistice in 1918 and the General Election in December that year
- Spanish Flu
- The War of Independence when Bishop Dowse was one of two clerical patrons of the Tomás MacCurtain Memorial Fund set up to ‘deal with distress and unemployment following the burning of Cork.
- At the Diocesan Synod in October 1919, Bishop Dowse stated ‘Murder, robbery and crime stain our native land, and call forth our sternest and most uncompromising condemnation.’
- The following October (1920), the Bishop noted that ‘ the past year has been marked by some unpleasant events, both within the united dioceses and also within its bounds’, but he emphasise that in spite of these various disturbances and disorders ‘ the ordinary ministrations of the church have been uninterrupted.’
- By 1921, he was speaking of it having been a year of ‘fearful happenings and tragic events.’
- Civil War
- The post-war period in Europe
- The Stock Market Crashes of September and October 1929
- The start of the Great depression
Bishop Dowse retired in September 1933 and died three and a half months later on 13th January 1934 at the age of 71. He had been bishop here for 21 years – times of tumultuous change, including, of course, an immense realignment of the population of the Diocese brought about by military withdrawal, and the fact that many others decided to leave. Dr Andy Bielenberg’s research indicates that, including the army, there was a drop of c. 13,000 people between 1911 and 1926, or not counting the army of c. 9,000. To put that in perspective, and leaving aside the State census figures of 2016 which are much higher, that 9,000 – leaving the military out – is more than the total of everyone – everyone – on our parish lists at this point in time. Can you imagine what impact that had?
We have been living through the centenaries of all of these and, through our Cork, Cloyne and Ross Centenaries Commemoration and Reconciliation Project supported by the Priorities’ Fund, we have been doing some of the things that churches are meant to do: to commemorate, to worship, to pray, to gather the community, to give people opportunities to recall their own family stories of many strands, and to do all of this infused by the cathartic biblical enzymes, of faith, hope, love and reconciliation.
As you know, following a long period – several years in fact – of prayerful reflection and research, and then an extended period of consultation – I adopted, on your behalf, a pastoral approach to the centenaries of the killings in the Bandon Valley. I became conscious that if we as the descendant faith community of those who were killed, and those who fled or subsequently left, did not remember and name them, there was slim chance anyone else was going to do so, other than in the context of contested historical debate. It was not my business to enter into the controversy of that historical dialogue, very heated as it often has been. I am not an historian, although I have done my best to read and reflect on as many contributions to the history of that period as possible; but I am not in a position to adjudicate between them. What it was my responsibility to do, as lead pastor, among you, was to take into account, as best I could, the many different viewpoints and diverse expectations of today’s parochial communities in the Bandon valley, and those descendants with whom we have had ongoing contact. The plans for this commemoration, to my surprise, came to the attention, somehow, of both the President of Ireland and of An Taoiseach, Mícheál Martin, and separately they gave their affirmation and approval of the approach adopted. The President wrote a most encouraging letter.
And so it was that between 24th April and 1st May I spent an octave of days visiting the places of the events of that week, visiting graves where they were known, and choosing places to mark the unknown graves of those whose graves we did not know; and I hope I did so, again in which it is the bounden duty of the Church to do: to meet the people, and to conduct short liturgies of the Word, with the laying of wreaths, silence and prayer.
At this Diocesan Synod 100 years ago, Bishop Dowse asked ‘Who can adequately describe the times through which our people have passed during the last few months? The memories of those ghastly massacres in West Cork can never pass away.’ I hope that our recent commemorations ensured that those memories were not erased from the narratives of these centenaries.
This month, 28th June, in fact, marks the centenary of the start in 1922 of the Irish Civil War which would last almost a year, until 24th May 1923. In so many ways we have lived in Ireland for many decades since, and still now, with the consequences of all of that civil war. Indeed, I have attended lectures at the West Cork History Festival which contend that, in so many ways in Europe, we are still living with the outworking of the First World War also. This centenary of the Civil War, gives us an opportunity in all our communities to manifest the ‘ministry of reconciliation’ which St Paul says has been entrusted to us. At the request of the Historical Centenaries Working Group of the Church of Ireland, the Liturgical Advisory Committee has provided a liturgy and liturgical materials for this period. I hope that throughout our parishes, and in our schools also, that the opportunity will be taken, ecumenically, interfaith, and in a communal way to draw on these materials at public events. Please don’t wait for someone else to take the initiative, let us be the catalyst of hosting events which attest to the values of embracing diversity, promoting mutual understanding and reconciliation and cultivating peace and justice. Those peace banners made at the Children’s Ministry Group workshop will, hopefully now, get their public outings at last in community processions.
All that said, and mindful again of the Five Marks of Mission, our bearing witness needs to have an inherent integrity and credibility. As I said in the debate about what might be styled ‘the equality motion’ from which the General Synod moved on without a vote last month, we are not well placed, as a Church, to be prophetic in society, as long as we have not taken a good hard look at ourselves. This is particularly so, when it comes to the fourth of the Five Marks of Mission: ‘to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation.’ If we are to have credibility in doing that, we need to be able to show, I believe, even if it is uncomfortable and hard work, that we have taken a good hard look introspectively at ourselves. There are shortcomings and injustices in our own institution and we are in denial if we think otherwise.
In all of this that I have spoken about today, and in all that we are and do, let us rejoice in our Christianity. As Archbishop Stephen Cottrill said yesterday last week in his sermon at the Service of Thanksgiving in St Paul’s Cathedral marking the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II:
Sometimes people say to me that the Christian faith is just a prop. I couldn’t agree more. I’m not ashamed to say I lean on Jesus Christ, that I’m trying to live close to his heart. That I need his wisdom and his hope.
Let us not be ashamed either. ‘Jesus is worth following’ said the Archbishop ‘because Jesus shows us who God is and he shows us what our humanity could be.’
Let us test all that we do against the litmus of the Five Marks of Mission
And let us be confident also in our Church of Ireland way of being Christian, and as we move the telegraph to slow ahead, and begin to rebuild let us remind ourselves of some of the elements of that way:
- is an apostolic church, maintaining an unbroken link with the early apostles and drawing on the apostolic faith in its teaching and worship.
- is able to trace its roots to the earliest days of Irish Christianity.
- is a Catholic and Reformed church.
- is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion of churches.
- is a church with three orders of sacred ministry – Bishops, Priests and Deacons.
- is a church where we worship using liturgical form and structure: The Book of Common Prayer
- keeps a balance in doctrine and worship between Word and Sacrament, with the Eucharist as its central act of worship.
- where bishops give leadership, but only exercise governance with clergy and lay people in synods such as this one.
In his memorable essay Cork: anatomy and essence, the Cork historian, The late Professor John A Murphy, who died earlier this year notes that enthusiastic Corkonians accept as a richly-deserved compliment the idea that Cork has some claim to be regarded as a microcosm of the entire country. He concludes that the sturdily independent attitude of mind in Cork ‘is the essence, in the eyes of Cork people at least, of the most distinctive county personality in Ireland.’
Cork exceptionalism can become repetitive or even wearisome, except to ourselves, but setting aside for a moment our strong sense of place and of being a special place, I want, in a more prosaic way to end by again saying how much I appreciate and value all of you, all that you are and all that you do for the work of God’s kingdom, here in Cork, Cloyne and Ross, here in this place, and I will never tire of saying ‘thank you.’
11th June 2022