Valedictory Service, Portora Royal School, June 24th 2009
Valedictory Service, Portora Royal School, June 24th 2009
Address given by Michael Jackson OP (1967-1975), bishop of Clogher

My opening remarks come from the Sunday Times of a few weeks back:
The location is Luton, a familiar Easy Jet destination for many of us. The occasion is the return of British troops who had served in Iraq. It is a day of sober reflection - tailor-made, as things turn out, for disaster. A young white man, wearing an England shirt, sees the Mayor of Luton, whose name happens to be Councillor Lakhbir Singh, crossing the square in robe and chain of office. The young Englishman, never thinking that the mayor might indeed also be an Englishman, presumes that he is an Asian and a Muslim extremist; runs up to him; fly-kicks him in the back and runs off. In fact the Mayor is Sikh by faith and in no way an extremist. Caught on CCTV, the young Englishman is eventually apprehended some weeks later outside Luton Town Football Club which, of course, is in the middle of the predominantly Muslim area of Luton Town.

Whatever judgement you make of these events, all of the components of modern Britain are there: aggressive young male; factual ignorance; the seduction of racial caricature. But it would seem that clashes of civilization are attractive on the streets of Belfast every bit as much, as footage of recent weeks have shown. The Republic of Ireland – before the economic downturn – had people of at least 150 nationalities and racism became a matter of concern to many with civic responsibility, as you might expect. Many fewer people came to Northern Ireland to live but Belfast quickly earned for itself the inglorious title of: Hate Capital of Europe. I suppose that it is inevitable in a society where insularity is the order of the day and where none of us has proved to be all that impressive at dealing with difference. The reaction to the Romanians in Belfast, a significant number of whom cannot now wait to get back to Romania, in tabloid media, whether on radio or in print, speaks all too readily of: pogrom. It is as if a few broken windows constitute another Kristallnacht. History is, of course, more complex than that, but perspective and subtlety do not sell enough newspapers.

Part of the reason I am saying this to you this evening is to offer you a challenge. And the challenge is this: Is the education which you have just recently completed a passport to the next stage of individual success or is it an invitation to change for the better a society which is functioning badly? Too often – in an educational culture driven by league tables, by the completion of coursework and by the intricacies of scoring marks in relation to pre-determined answers – issues such as this never surface because they seem either indulgent or irrelevant or both. There just seems to be no time available. The priority of privilege brings with it the imperative of public service. A politically enraged or apathetic society does little to encourage personal contribution in a world where delight in difference can too easily be suppressed by the cowardice of uniformity.

Part of the reason I am saying this to you today is that today - June 24th - is the day on which the Christian church remembers John the Baptizer. If we think of John at all, we probably think of him as someone who moved in and out of the settled society of his day, letting off verbal exocets and offering challenges to those in power about the basis of that power and about the ways in which they chose to exercize it. John, of course, lived many centuries ago but, in so many respects, human nature changes very little. People, in my experience, enjoy it least when what is being pointed out to them is the genuinely obvious. The same people want to accept neither direction nor encouragement, no matter how gentle or how firm, to do things in the way which gives other people a chance to have their point of view heard or their own way explored. The same people resist any application of authority which upsets their own sense of their own authority. In diminishing others, we are simply hastening our own downfall, and are too thoughtless and careless to notice it.

Why, we might well ask, did John make life so difficult for himself and what did he really achieve? The desert, we are told, was his domain. It is all too easy for the religiously sensitive to idealize the desert, as we contemplate a vast emptiness in our mind’s eye from the perspective of our patio-decking or our fireside remote-control. The Judaean Desert, let alone Sinai, is a most uninviting place – betimes scorching and betimes freezing, but always exposed and dangerous. For those who can handle extremes with honest creativity and with personal discipline, the desert is a place and an experience where you feel within you the strength and the surge of what you will voice when you are reunited with other people. And so, the desert functions rather like a bellows or an accordion. You fill up with air and then you give utterance when you find yourself in the wrong situation at the right time. That, in my understanding, is where God called John repeatedly and incessantly to be - in the wrong place at the right time; and he had no fear about telling the people of that place that they were very wrong indeed.

As the Christian Church developed as an institution, it decided that the witness of John the Baptizer was best not forgotten. This is for a whole host of reasons but I would like you, once again, to notice the pivotal place which John holds in the Christian Calendar. The Feast Day of his Birth stands at the season of the longest day and it mirrors the Feast of the Birth of Jesus Christ six months later at the season of the longest night. Not only in St John’s Gospel, but more generally in a religion of revelation, the battle is between darkness and light. Christians claimed the territory of both the longest nights and the longest days to make this very point that the salvation afforded by Jesus in the spirit of John is to be our earthly guide to heaven. Institutions have taken very hard knocks in the past number of weeks in the United Kingdom and in the Republic of Ireland. Our deepest thoughts and strongest emotions must, and always must, stand with those who are abused, violated, degraded and deprived of the dignity of human persons. Parliament, church, judiciary, education, medicine, fellow-citizens all stand shamed.

Institutions and those who people them have let others and themselves down. The temptation is to twist the knife and to keep twisting the knife. There is no possible turning of the clock back but we must find a way to turn it forward. We need to discover afresh the charism of love – love of others and love of ourselves. Without credible, coherent, compassionate institutions in all walks of life, we are not so much in the desert but in the jungle. None of us is entitled to swing into a cycle of sectarianism – again - or into a spiral of racism. Within this framework, the Feast Day of the Birth of John the Baptizer is timely. He feared nobody in positions of power. He was willing to do what had to be done because it had to be done – for the sake of righteousness, or perhaps better: rightness. And as you prepare to leave this School this evening, such a motivation is worth remembering and worth working at.

A History of Portora has recently been published and it was launched here is School earlier this month. It is an attractive volume, the work of a number of generous and grateful Old Portorans. It has the air of being written by boys at School, in that wonderful phrase of Portoran understatement – understatement itself being a rare event in the ways of Portora much of the time, I am sure you will agree! Portora – the school on the hill is an excellent read and, in the best Portoran tradition, unfussy. In light both of Luton 2009 and the Judaean Desert and Jerusalem two thousand years ago, I leave with you what to me is an arresting and probing sentence from the Foreword. It is written by Walton Empey, a member of Connaught House, of the 1st XV and captain of shooting, and now retired archbishop of Dublin – yes, some clergy once were able to do interesting and exciting things! And the sentence is this: ‘School life is not simply made up of study and sport but the interaction of individuals with one another and indeed the system itself when it is disregarded.’ Disregarding the system – we need to be most careful in playing with danger.

My own further suggestion to each of you rookie Old Portorans this evening is that you interact and engage with the system of society wherever you next find yourselves from the moment you drive away tonight from the Terrace of this honourable school - ancient and modern all at once. Many of your predecessors have done great things – spectacular and unspectacular. So can you!

Merciful Lord, whose prophet John the Baptist proclaimed your Son as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world: Grant that we who …have known your forgiveness and your life-giving love, may ever tell of your mercy and your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.




Date: June 09