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Clogher Diocesan Synod 2015 - President's Address

 


You may have guessed already, having sat through so many of them, that it is not entirely clear what the President’s Address at the Diocesan Synod is for. But for those who may be new members of Synod I should say that the address isn’t really part of the Synod’s business in the proper sense. You may disagree with it or at least bits in it, but you don’t have any opportunity to vote against it or to argue with it unless you are particularly ingenious in your later interventions.

In that sense I suppose that it is the Bishop’s opportunity to say some things about the year just past and maybe about the present and the future that seem useful (at least to the Bishop). It’s not a sermon although sometimes it can come quite close to being one. I will avoid that as far as I can.

Brothers and Sisters in Christ

I have been looking back over my last Diocesan Synod addresses to see what words I used to greet you with. I see I have used the formal and I suppose very proper phrase “Members of Synod and Guests”. And of course that is what you (we all) are. The clerical members are here because you have a right by virtue of your office or licence to be members of Synod and the lay members because you have been elected in one way or another. And the guests, because we have invited you to come to our family gathering and you may already be regretting accepting.

However I don’t suppose that being a member of the Diocesan Synod is how you usually think of yourself. When you meet someone for the first time say at a party you don’t introduce yourself by saying “ Hello I’m John Smith and I’m a member of the Clogher Diocesan Synod”. You are much more likely to say that you are a farmer or an avid cyclist or a Liverpool supporter – something that you feel reflects an important part of your personality and life. Or, as they say nowadays, something that reflects your identity.

That is why when St. Paul is writing to any of those little communities of believers which he had helped plant around the shores of the Mediterranean that he begins by greeting them as his “ Brothers and Sisters in Christ”. They had different jobs too- some were traders, some were soldiers, many were slaves. But so far as Paul was concerned they were first and foremost brothers and sisters in Christ. As we would say that was their central identity and all other relationships had to be seen in relationship to it.

St. Paul felt that it gave them a special relationship to one another and to the world at large. First and foremost being a brother or sister in Christ was seen as a great gift. It was something that couldn’t be earned or arranged; it was given (just like human family relationships are not chosen). But it was also a vocation. It involved a particular way of looking at the world and gave people certain responsibilities in the world. This new family (again just like all families) was given real vigour, not by the characteristics they had in common, but by their variety.

So here we are in all our variety in the Christian family, members and guests, but each of us with the core of our identity, the deepest part of ourselves, joined together in an inexplicable way in Jesus Christ. Different from one another and yet the same as one another. Able to disagree about lots of matters but always agreeing that our disagreements do not separate us from one another, except in very rare instances.

Sometimes as the family of God we can forget what a privilege and what a responsibility that can be. Usually at times like that God sent someone- a prophet - to remind the family what they should be doing. He still does that, although I would make no claim to be one of God’s prophets. Prophets are usually portrayed as gloomy old moralists although that is not what they are like at all. They are people who call God’s family back to their true allegiance. They say to family “Don’t forget who and what you are and who you server - and don’t let me forget either”.

And sometimes when we are gathered in largish numbers it does no harm to remind ourselves of some important aspect of the vocation which God has given us in the world.

Refugee Crisis

I suppose the obvious place to begin at the minute is in what is being called the “Refugee Crisis”. On one level what is happening in central Europe at the minute is immensely complex and governments are finding if very difficult to develop a joint response that is on the one hand practical and humane and on the other politically acceptable in their own countries.

For those of us who depend on news reporting to keep us informed it is even more confusing and raises many unanswered questions. There has been a war going on in Syria for about four years so why has the dam burst just now? How many people on the move are refugees and how many are economic migrants? What is the best way to ensure that people whose skills are really needed in their own are able to return to those countries as soon as it is safe to do so?

Those are difficult questions which policy makers have to grapple with. But we are not policy makers. We are brothers and sisters in Christ who together share a vocation to welcome the stranger. We are the spiritual inheritors of a man who the Bible calls “a wandering Aramean” (Deut 26:5) and our Lord tramped the roads of Palestine as an itinerant preacher and healer.

We can’t solve the crisis but we can welcome people. The Churches have a network of local centres in every part of Ireland and with the encouragement of the Standing Committee the Church of Ireland has written officially to both the Irish and the British governments offering to partner with them where we can be of real help in the future. This diocese has a recent history of helping projects in the Middle East such as the Al Ahli Hospital in Gaza and in the wider region through the Holy Land Medical Relief Fund. We may yet be asked to lend a helping hand closer to home.

The refugee crisis is on our screens every night and (unlike many such stories in the past) shows no sign of being pushed off the news agenda. However there are other difficulties and dilemmas closer to home and which in one sense are so familiar to us that we take them for granted. I am not talking now about the difficulties being discussed in Stormont and about those talks I would say only that we cannot go on blaming politicians for not making progress in creating a healthy, prosperous and integrated society if we keep holding them back by our own lack of openness to change.

I realise that I am speaking now about the northern end of the diocese and I hope our brothers and sisters from County Monaghan will allow me to say a very few more words on this subject.

Many of us have very strongly held views about the big constitutional issues which have been facing this Province for as long as we can remember. However that should not prevent us from taking initiatives (and also taking risks ) in our own communities all over Fermanagh and Tyrone so that the place where we live is a place of openness, honesty, generosity and a genuine desire to build local communities which can prosper if every way. That is also our vocation. Above all we are to be peacemakers.

Old People and End of Life Matters

However the other dilemmas that I referred to earlier have nothing to do with party politics. They are to do with how we respond to vulnerable people and I want to focus on two groups-the old and those who are dying.

The Archbishop of Armagh has in recent years drawn our attention to the way human life can easily be treated as though it were a commodity. Even though it was never the intention of the policy makers, legislative provision for ending life at whatever stage seems often to become impossible to control. Statute law seems not to be able to cope with the ethical complexities that “end of life issues” inevitably raise, with each case a unique one.

As many of you will know there has been a recent debate in the UK parliament on Assisted Dying and there is much talk about the possibility of a making the amendment of Section 8 of the Constitution of the Republic of Ireland (Bunreacht Na hEirann) an election issue next year. Such debates and a number of legislative provisions have been a feature of the political life on many Western European countries recently.

One group of people who were never intended to be the subject of either debate nevertheless are (in my experience) beginning to feel very vulnerable; old people.
Maybe it is the prospect of facing into what we now call a “significant birthday” in January coming that has made me a little more alive to the issues, but they have also been mentioned to me by quite a few older people.

The idea that life can be ended given certain extreme circumstances is something that older, frail people get concerned about. They hear the arguments that any assisted dying is intended in exceptional cases but there is a nagging doubt which often comes at a time when their confidence has already been shaken through the experience of illness, or a fall or the decline of mental powers.

Older people are all too well aware that their wellbeing slips more and more into other people’s hands and they can feel very unsafe. As a society we have become dangerously used to speaking and thinking of an “ageing population” as a problem or a burden on public finances and private recourses alike.

However we need to remember that we have probably never depended more than now on older people both as families and as societies. Huge numbers of older people are involved in voluntary work and do what they can unpaid to support the fabric of society.

It is only bearing that in mind that we can begin to think about the undoubted questions which do arise about dependency.

It is of course a fact that advancing age is likely to decrease physical independence in various ways. But rather than taking this as the core issue, we should see questions of dependency as basically about how our public services and our private energies seek to preserve both dignity and capacity among those who may be increasingly physically challenged, but remain citizens capable of contributing vital things to the social life. There is a lot to learn in this regard form the work done by disability rights and advocacy groups. We must recognise that it is assumptions about the basically passive character of the older population that foster attitudes of contempt and exasperation, and ultimately create a climate in which abuse occurs.

Although I haven’t the figures for Northern Ireland or the Republic one of the Great Britain Older People’s Commissioner for Wales, estimates that one in four older people report one or another form of ‘elder abuse’, ranging from patronising and impatient behaviour to actual physical mistreatment.
Needless to say, the same applies where we are talking about more than merely physical incapacity. Dementia and depression are painfully familiar challenges – I would guess that a good many in this hall have experience at first hand of caring for family members living with such conditions. One of the most stimulating and informative evenings which I spent this year was at a Dementia Awareness event organised by the Clogher branch of the Church’s Ministry of Healing and the Diocesan Board of Social Theology in Action when doctors and carers provided valuable insights into the range of diseases that lead to dementia.
Because I had been asked to say something at the close of the meeting I looked out a prayer which I think sums up a great deal of what should be our attitude to dementia sufferers:

Please grant my visitors tolerance for my confusion,
Forgiveness for my irrationality and the strength to walk with me
In the mist of memory my world has become.
Please help them to take my hand and stay a while
Even though I may seem unaware of their presence
Help them to know how their strength and loving care will drift
Slowly into the days to come just when I need it most
Keep there hearts free from sorrow for me
For when my sorrow comes to me it lasts only a moment then is gone
And finally Lord let them know how very much their visits mean to me
And how through the relentless mystery of this disease
I can still feel their love.

Is that not a vocation worth having and a prayer worth praying?
All of this also underlines the importance of relationships between the generations. As family structures become looser and more scattered geographically, it is vital that there should be regular opportunities for interaction between younger and older people, not least between children and older people, whether through schools arranging visiting and befriending or through formal and informal contacts. It is here that the contribution of churches is particularly significant: in a good many contexts, we should simply be the most obvious and effective promoters both of contact between the generations and formal or informal volunteering opportunities for older people.
Psalm 71 has a plea in it “ Do not forsake me when I am old and grey headed” and we have a particular role to play in that not-forgetting. For Christian people all life is a gift from God and spiritual writers have long recognised that we are open to different aspects of God’s self-giving at different times of our lives. We all have a specific vocation- and to those in pastoral ministry - a clear duty to be with the old and the vulnerable often; to listen to and to bring them as often as we can into the worshipping community of God’s people. It should simply be part of the in-built routine of our parish life, except of course there is nothing merely routine about it.
A great deal of our culture is frenetically oriented towards youth – notably in entertainment and marketing. This is understandable up to a point: people want to put down markers for the future as they see it. But its effect can be both to ignore the present reality of responsible, active people in older life, who are still participants in society, not passengers – and to encourage younger people to forget that they are ageing themselves, and that they will be in need of positive and hopeful models for their own later years.
We tolerate a very impoverished view of the good life or the ideal life as one that can be lived only for a few years between, say, eighteen and forty. The ‘extremes’ of human life, childhood and age, when we are not defined by our productive capacity, and so have time to absorb the reality around us in a different way – these are hard for our society to come to terms with.
Too often we want to rush children into pseudo-adulthood; too often we want older citizens either to go on as part of the productive machine as long as possible or to accept a marginal and humiliating status, tolerated but not valued, while we look impatiently at our watches, waiting for them to be ‘off our hands’. The recovery of a full and rich sense of dignity at every age and in every condition is an imperative if we are serious about the respect we universally owe each other that respect grounded for Christians in the divine image which is to be discerned in old and young alike.
So a plea that in the year to come we take seriously the vocation which we have been given to care for older people especially those who feel most vulnerable, lonely and even afraid, so that they may genuinely feel that their brothers and sisters in Christ place an eternal value on them.

Hospice Sunday

Before I move on from these rather solemn observations I want to mention one other group of people and the bodies that particularly care for them- and that is the dying and hospice care.
The philosophy of Hospice care remains true to the original vision of the founder of the modern hospice movement, the late Dame Cicely Saunders, who reminded us that:

“You matter because of who you are. You matter to the last moment of your life, and we will do all we can, not only to help you die peacefully, but also to live until you die.”

Dame Cicely Saunders, was a woman of great vision, compassion and faith who transformed the way we care for the dying in Northern Ireland and beyond. The vision of hospice care she stated, recognized that people are more than their illness and that care needed to take account of emotional, social and spiritual issues as well as addressing the concerns of family and friends who are also facing loss.
In your local Hospice the patient and their family are seen as one unit of care. The patient first and their illness second. Your local hospice offers care and support to the whole family, because caring is at the heart of everything they do and anyone who has ever visited a Hospice will be aware of the high level of specialist care and the dedication of all staff that is provided to the patients and family.

The Archbishop at General Synod this year, focused on ‘Freely you have received, freely give’ (Matthew Chapter 10 v.8).

He stated … All life is a gift of God and that generosity of course includes financial generosity (and we should never for one moment downplay this). He referred to the very beginnings of life and the end of life on earth as a gift … a gift of God from beginning to end. And yet, the Archbishop went on to say, the hospice movement is not given proper support from state funding. The Archbishop said … A hospice I visited recently on the edge of Armagh diocese has to raise two–thirds of its financial requirements through its own fund–raising operations. The Archbishop concluded this section of his Presidential address by stating that - We simply have to ask, as Christians living in modern society, where public priorities are?

In a paper written by the Archbishop a few months ago entitled ‘Helping to die or helping to live?’ he stated “It is therefore particularly sad that the hospice movement, where people are wonderfully encouraged to live life as fully as is practicable to the last, should be virtually starved of public money and should hence have to devote so much energy and effort simply to survive financially.


As a result of the initiative of the Primate a resolution was brought to the Diocesan Synod of Armagh this year with a practical way of supporting hospice care. I don’t want to propose a resolution but I do want to commend to you that a special collection is taken on the Sunday nearest All Saint’s Day (1st November) and that the money collected is given to the Hospice movement in one form or other. It would help if someone or some people would help coordinate that effort and perhaps see how we might make it a more regular feature of our Diocesan calendar.

Also if I could also take this opportunity to bring those of you who are in Northern Ireland to the resources of what is currently known as the Fermanagh Protestant Orphans Fund, but which we are hoping that the Charity Commissioners will allow us to re-name the Clogher Diocese Social Fund. This fund has reasonable resources and investments and I know that our incredibly energetic Secretary/Treasurer, Michael Skuce, is more than willing to discuss any particular cases of need, which may arise, if they are referred to him by clergy.

Dignity in Church Life

It is not only the old or those nearing the end of their lives who are to be treated with dignity and as you will see from your programme of the match we have the pleasure of welcoming and will soon have the pleasure of hearing from Mr Adrian Clements, Chief Officer of the RCB and Secretary General of the Church, who has come to help us consider draft policies a which have been developed following on from the General Synod’s approval of a Dignity in Church Life Charter. Adrian is no stranger to the Diocese of Clogher. His late father Tom Clements served most of his ministry in the Diocese and was rector of Enniskillen and Dean of Clogher.

As I sais a little earlier we are a family in Christ and like all families we will have our differences, sometimes very deep differences, but what should mark us out as brothers and sisters in Christ is how we handle those differences and difficulties. However (as Adrian will have an opportunity to tell us later) the draft policies are there to guide us in moments of calm as well as in dispute. We look forward to hearing from Adrian after supper.

Select Committee on Episcopal Ministry and Structures

Many Synod members will remember that we had members of a central church committee that is looking at how the Church is organised on a national basis and the roles which bishops play in that organisation, at a recent Diocesan Synod. Representatives of that same group will be coming to address the November meeting of the Diocesan Council.

The Committee gave an interim report to the General Synod in May, with some new suggestions about how the Church might consider electing bishops and realigning its dioceses. The suggestions regarding the election of bishops seem to have found a pretty positive reception but inevitably the suggestions around diocesan boundaries are more controversial.

As they stand the suggestions made by the committee would have very little, if any, effect on Clogher or indeed of any of the dioceses which are substantially in Northern Ireland. For that reason people from those dioceses have been reluctant to offer much comment.

For myself I would only wish to say that I am very grateful for the enormous amount of work and thought that the committee has put in on our behalf and I hope that as a Church (and particularly as a General Synod) we are able to debate any future proposals as the genuine and sincere attempt that they are meant to be.

During my relatively short time of involvement on General Synod there have been a number of proposals for the reform of the church and its structures, none of which have really borne much fruit, and I hope we do not become an ancient regime incapable of reform and walking blindly towards disintegration.

If I could just address one or two other matters before moving to Synod business proper.

Financial Scheme

Among the many joys of being Bishop of Clogher is the variety which arises form being a part of a cross border diocese. The Church of Ireland is (I think) the only Province of the Anglican Communion which is organised across two separate political jurisdictions. That makes for a certain type of richness and also acts as a reminder that our ultimate allegiance lies beyond national boundaries to the Kingdom of God.

However it also has its complications, not least trying to hold together a Financial Scheme which operates in two currencies. That is made worse when one of those currencies (at present the euro) experiences a prolonged period of weakness against the other. That can make a very significant difference in the assessment asked of parishes and without going into it in any detail now, the Revd Henry Blair will later be proposing a Motion on behalf of the Diocesan Council which seeks to give Council a certain flexibility to ameliorate the worst effects of currency swings.

The Clogher Financial Scheme has many strengths but its principal weakness is that it requires the Diocese to set the assessment for the current year using the accounts of two years prior and is in the endless state of playing catch-up. It can only be hoped that a state of equilibrium is reached in the medium term.

Personnel

I know that the Dean of Clogher will later welcome newcomers among the clergy so I just wanted to say a fond farewell to the Rev James Boyd whose last Synod this will be. James wasn’t amongst us for very long but he certainly made an enormous contribution both in the parish of Dromore, and in the Diocese, especially in the field of Youth Ministry. James will be sorely missed and we wish him and his family well as they cross the Bann back to the Promised Land of East Belfast.

It is with great sadness that we also mark the death of one of our valued Synod members since we last met; Shirley Fannin of Clogher Cathedral. Many of you will have known Shirley through church activities or through the family business in Clogher. She was a long time treasurer of the Cathedral Parish and took an immense interest in all its work. Discreet, polite and with a heartfelt attachment to her parish, her Church and her Saviour Shirley was a most faithful friend. Our sympathies go out to the whole Fannin family.

I’m sure that by now everyone knows of the illness of our Diocesan Secretary Mr Glenn Moore. Glenn is recovering well after an early set back although we would not expect to see him back making a phased return to work until the New Year. I know you would wish me to communicate your best wishes as a body to Glenn.

As well as being our Diocesan Secretary, in which office he has built up an encyclopaedic knowledge of every aspect of the Diocese and the Church of Ireland, Glenn is also the Diocesan Communications Officer and the Magazine editor (not to mention his other jobs as the organist of Enniskillen Cathedral and stand-in at a host of musical events throughout the diocese).

He would usually be the person who oversees the arrangements for this Synod. In the past weeks all of these tasks have fallen to Ruth McKane and Ashley Brown in the Diocesan Office and there are relatively few of us who know just how hard they have had to work to keep the Diocesan administration on an even keel, to get the Magazine out and to organise today. I know that we are all deeply grateful for their willingness to step up to the mark at a moments notice.

Finally, to thank you for your patience and I look forward to a productive Synod.