Talk given on Ash Wednesday at Lough Derg's Ecumenical Day by the Right Reverend Dr Michael Jackson, Bishop of Clogher

Bishop Duffy, Bishop Jackson and Prior Mohan
Bishops Duffy and Jackson with Prior Mohan


The words of John Donne, dean of St Paul’s and world-renowned poet:

"No man is an island unto himself"
have long ago passed from legend into cliché. But let us never forget that behind every tired cliché stands an even better idea. Individualism breeds self-sufficiency; and self-sufficiency breeds exclusivity; and exclusivity breeds sectarianism; and sectarianism breeds the very opposite of religion or community. In a world of self-sufficiency, every experiment in community is a witness to something more generous than oneself. In a world of self-indulgence, every experiment in abstinence is equally a witness to something more wholesome than oneself. In both of these particulars, people of faith have something to say - but only if we are prepared to say it and to do it. And, no matter how tired the institutions to which we belong and from which we come, we can still say it and do it together with people who are weary of the false and the vacuous, and yet not really knowing why they are weary in a post-Christian, value-free society. However, I feel already that most people I know would not have much sympathy with what I am talking about. Today you are as good as the credit you can raise – and that more or less has become the height of it.


Self-denial, as we all know, is quite different from self-hatred or self-righteousness. In fact, it has nothing to do with the advancement of the self but with the disclosure of God within us. It has also to do with encouraging our nakedness before God. For every individual action, there is a ripple effect out into the community, whether we are aware of it or not. And Ash Wednesday, the First Day of Lent, is a good time to grapple with the ripples and the resonances of what we do and with what we decide not to do. Both bring in their wake repercussions for the individual and for the group – whoever, whatever, whenever. The Collect for Ash Wednesday, which it is our custom to use daily throughout Lent, excludes hatred from the purpose of God and of Lent itself. It also repeatedly underlines the corporate nature of the new creation which is to come from Lenten penitence. There is no room in Lent for oneself without there also being room for everyone else. Lent is not a solo run of individual salvation but a shared experience of the creation of a new community of faith and action.

These are the words of the Collect for Ash Wednesday and I shall return to them again as our reflections continue and develop: Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may receive from you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness: through Jesus Christ our Lord.


I have posed the question of the relationship between the individual and the community in the title: On an island or in a community? Many of us still, I imagine, remember the thudding statement and definition of an international political figure, then in the prime of ministerial activity: There is no such thing as society, only the individual. Yes, I refer to The Iron Lady, Mrs Thatcher. That in its day was a shocking statement but today there are fewer and fewer people even questioning it. Such is the philosophy of ‘moving on.’ But not everyone can move on. Not everyone wants to move on, in this way. Successful societies do and will leave people behind -and they ought not to. The neglect of community as a dynamic definition of society remains something which Christian people among others must challenge – vigorously and repeatedly.

And where better to explore this theme of insularity and community than on Lough Derg? Individuals and groups have come here from the late Middle Ages and still come today. A community of penitence is formed in a coming together of self-denial and self-examination. A community of hope is formed in the rubbing together of reality and religion. A community of tomorrow is formed in the memories of yesterday and in the encounter of today. All of this re-orientation, re-positioning and re-structuring cannot happen in 72 hours or, in our case, inside half a day but seeds can be sown and risks can be taken. We need only to be open to God and to reading the signs of God in ourselves and in others. Ash Wednesday provides such a possibility.

You may be surprised by my use of the word: risk. Surely, you are saying to yourself, there can be little that is so predictable and so safe, so risk-free, as religion itself? But one of the deep-seated reasons why, in my opinion, many in today’s society shy away from religion - and vast numbers are shying away from the formal expression of religion - is that in seeking space for themselves, as they might express it, they do not want to be exposed to the probing of truth, the nakedness of the self before something and someone they cannot manipulate or control. This reality Christians call God. In becoming self-reliant, we have become self-deluding. Such honestly can surely, we say, be bought off, sidelined, like everything else, in the confidence of self-sufficiency and in greater self-indulgence - or can it? From ourselves we cannot ultimately escape. It is the same old me looking into the mirror in the morning and it is not a pleasant sight!

Time and again as individuals we are in and out of community. Today, Ash Wednesday, we are a community of faith and trust, travelling together as children of God and members of the church worldwide together with one another here locally on Lough Derg. The Anglican Communion, to which the Church of Ireland belongs, has been grappling with the idea of communion itself for some time. Useful pointers to what constitutes communion at all comes from this increasingly bruising encounter with ourselves. The greatest is that everyone is in. God as creator of the universe has an ultimate purpose for all that God has created. The communion of the Holy Trinity is a gift and a revelation to this created universe and the energy of creating, saving and sanctifying are shared by the One God through the Three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Thus communion is something we discern and receive or rebuff and reject. This decision, this act of the human will, has a profound effect on human community and the responsibility in faith which people of God have for others and for community and communion on earth. This is where the church, as a response to the community of the divine Trinity, enters the picture. Individual decision is pivotal in the sort of restoration to God given voice in the Ash Wednesday Collect. So also is the context of community. Otherwise, the repeated and real conversion required in the life of faith is little more than polishing our own silver again and again, thereby making it easier for us to see our own face in it. That, my friends, is nothing other than idolatry.


There is something in the Collect for Ash Wednesday which we might easily miss. Exploring it carefully, we find that we are not bargaining with God. We are not offering to God our penitence as a way of paying our debt, but the debt is already paid by the mercy which arrives in advance of all our repentance. To press this further, it is the new act of creation by God: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts …which makes possible our lamenting and acknowledging and opens us spiritually to receive from the God of all mercy perfect remission and forgiveness. In this way we are set free from what I might call: competitive purity. To take this argument further, I offer words of Archbishop Rowan Williams in one of his definitions of the church: ‘The church is a community that exists because something has happened which makes the entire process of self-justification irrelevant. God’s truth and God’s mercy have appeared in concrete form in Jesus and, in his death and resurrection, have worked the transformation that only God can perform and told us what only God can tell us: that he has already dealt with the dreaded consequences of our failure, so that we need not labour anxiously to save ourselves and to put ourselves right with God.’ (Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert 2003 page 33)


The water is a stone’s throw away from us where we sit. It is dark, cold, uninviting. We have drawn aside to a watery desert in a spiritual and theological tradition which trickles through from the fourth century. We seek to follow the searing yet constructive spiritual insights of those who in their day drew aside, often permanently, into the desert to be found by God. This tradition made its way into the world which lies behind our every attempt to be found by God on this island on Lough Derg and on the larger island of Ireland on which we live. It is, of course, the Celtic tradition. One of the abiding strengths of the Celtic tradition is its very ‘hands on’ approach to religion. People were taught and encouraged to see the presence of God in the most mundane of everyday activities: milking cows, setting a fire. The Victorians still haunt us all today, with their conflation of religiosity and respectability; their abstraction of Sunday from the dynamic confusion of the rest of the week; in their making public worship something of an end in itself. Mercifully we are reaching the end of this particular tunnel. My hope is that we still have enough oil in our lamps to find our way out again into the open arms of God’s judgement and grace.


In 2000, the Church of England produced a paper entitled: Bishops in Communion: Collegiality in the Service of the koinonia of the Church. It may sound like heavy stuff, weighted to the top end of the ecclesiastical market. But I want to quote from it something which will not go away and something which we sweep aside to our detriment and to the lessening of our joint endeavour in every expression of communion. Here it is: ‘The communion which is proper to God’s own nature is a characteristic both of divine life and, potentially and eschatologically, of the universe as God’s creation. In Christ God was reconciling the world to his own communion of love. This perspective points to the necessity and significance of difference or diversity within the created order. Without difference there can be no relationship; but without relationship difference degenerates into discord and conflict.’ (pages 2,3) Difference is essential and diversity is our friend.


In listening to this, I want you to concentrate on no more than the final sentence: ‘Without difference, there can be no relationship; but without relationship, difference degenerates into discord and conflict.’ We are in many ways different from one another but we offer once more our need and desire for a shared relationship. It is time for us together to take stock of some of the things which have been happening over the past years in this diocese and area.

When I came here in 2002, there was no such thing as the Fermanagh Churches’ Forum. I had the pleasure of meeting with a small group of people who were eager that it should be formed. I was delighted to support that but wanted not to be involved directly. I fully accept that this might have seemed off-hand and indeed disappointing to the people I met. But my conviction was that, if the churches insist on separating people into laity and clergy, this is properly and primarily a lay initiative, supported and encouraged by clergy, and will flourish as something done by the people of God. And so it has proved to be. There are many initiatives: Services during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity; Day Seminars with the Irish School of Ecumenics; walks around towns where the various denominations have church buildings – walks which have been significant and sustained, to name a few. These walks in particular make a powerful and a gentle statement all in one. They follow through from that wonderfully innocent invitation to discipleship offered by Philip to Nathanael in the first chapter of St John’s Gospel: Come and see! I myself believe that they are here to stay.

Something else which is worth noting is the local initiative to the west of Enniskillen, namely the reciprocal preaching of Archdeacon Cecil Pringle and Father Brian Darcy. This has been local. It has been sustained and it has been friendly. All of these adjectives are significant. These exchanges are now established and have lasted the pace. Again, I have not sought to attend or to involve myself in what has been a local initiative and which has its own dynamic and momentum. Often good things are best left simply to grow.

It does not often happen that two bishops are at the same time bishops of their home diocese, the diocese of which they are both ordinands. Bishop Duffy and I are in this happy position. One of the things which we thought to try to do alongside one another was to mark the importance of the site of Clogher by holding an act of worship involving people from across the whole diocese on the rath behind the Church of Ireland cathedral. This initiative too has stood the test of time and has gone for four years with steadily gathering numbers to the extent that we have now been able to have the vast majority of it guided and conducted by lay people. There is great pleasure in seeing people making their way, in twos and threes, with their children and friends on the afternoon of Pentecost to Rathmore from all across the area. We chose Pentecost because it is the time when we celebrate the birth of the church itself, a time when difference and togetherness are both honoured. It is a time when the Spirit of the Christ expresses the intention to remain with the people who seek to serve God in life and in worship. However imperfect any one of us may be; however incomplete any one denomination is; we seek the Kingdom of God and the expression of the fullness of the church in faithfulness to the summons of the Holy Spirit.

The celebrations in 2006 marked something important in the life of Clogher Diocese. Nobody is claiming a forensic historical accuracy for Macartan or for 1500 years exactly since Macartan. At the same time, there is something special in taking stock of a millennium and a half of Christian witness and that is the approach which we took. We did not so much try to push worship in common but we sought to enable the people in both dioceses, which geographically are the same diocese, to celebrate Macartan appropriately alongside one another. One of the things which we did do together, and it was something unforgettable, was to invite Bishop Nathan, the Armenian Orthodox bishop of Britain and Ireland, during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in 2006. He came to Monaghan. He gave a public lecture about the Armenian people and their religious tradition. He and the Armenian parish priest in London gave a most fascinating lecture on the liturgical tradition of the Armenian Orthodox Church up to and including the present day. This was attended by 120 people from across the religious spectrum in the diocese. Our thinking in this regard was to unlock something of the stalemate of polarized positions resulting from excessive emphasis on denomination in Ireland, by bringing in someone from a totally different yet thoroughly ancient tradition of worldwide Christianity.


Earlier I spoke of the water outside being dark, cold and uninviting. I am quite convinced that it is important in all things to honour the local, to enable it to feel that it is worth criticizing and to give credit where credit is due. The bigger picture – whether we call it reconciliation, ecumenism, inter-church co-operation – remains hard to read both inside and outside the churches. Unfortunately, as church people, we do love to grumble and we do love to fragment. I remember a proverb passed on to me by a friend: When two people fight, a third quietly profits. The more situations I encounter, the more I see it to be true to life as life really is lived.

As we prepare to move off the island which is Lough Derg later in the afternoon, we step back into existing communities which we and they know all too well. Challenges to the churches today are all too easy to catalogue as if the whole thing were sliding into oblivion. This is not the case. There is impatience with the structures of the church – of course there is. But there is also more permission for faithful experimentation than often in the past. There is a vast chasm of understanding between church and society - of course there is. But there are many people, singly and together, bridging that gap and looking for no reward whatsoever in doing so. Questions of identity and culture loom large in a multi-ethnic Ireland, at last count boasting peoples of anything up to one hundred and fifty nationalities – of course they do. But the opportunities are there for mutual understanding, shared respect and the appreciation of the need to build a new society out of the fragments of the policies and loose ends of the political past. There is unease about the predictability of contemporary party political options – of course there is. But we have a democracy on both sides of the border, and we should use it to the advantage of all, including those who are dis-advantaged. Most of us do our thinking, not so much mentally in our head, but emotionally in the pit of our stomach. We need to be providing for ourselves and for our children proper emotional loyalties every bit as much as properly reasoned arguments.


All of this awaits us when, as individuals, we step back into our communities. I hope that this time of re-creation will have given scope for us all, of whatever tradition and affiliation, to ask of ourselves the following question: What good thing can I possibly want for myself that I do not equally want for others?

21 February 2007