Rebuilding and revitalising faith needed, says Bishop in first Presidential address to Clogher Diocesan Synod


Bishop Ian Ellis.

The Clogher Diocesan Synod took place by Zoom on Thursday, 25th November when the Bishop of Clogher, the Right Revd Dr. Ian Ellis, in his first Presidential Address referred to the strength of faith of parishes and looked to rebuilding of the church as we emerge from the Covid pandemic.

He said he found it to be a very great honour and privilege to be chosen to serve as Bishop of Clogher and he indicated that two enthronement services would be held in 2022 in both St. Macartan’s Cathedral, Clogher and St. Macartin’s Cathedral, Enniskillen.

In his address, Bishop Ellis stated: “One of the things which has struck me since joining Clogher diocese is the strong awareness of identity and feeling of belonging to the Church of Ireland. I have also found this to be a happy diocese which although traditional in nature is not stuck in the past. We are faithful to the prayer book and value the sacramental basis of our worship, yet we are a people who enjoy flexibility in our services and appreciate a blend of the best of the old and new approaches to music and hymn singing. We need to build on that sense of belonging and extend our welcome to new people and allow them to see what the Anglican church has to offer to the world.

“One aspect of life in these western counties which has fascinated me is a deep sense of spirituality within people even those who do not attend church. People respond warmly to the beauty and majesty of the creation in the beautiful landscape and environment we are surrounded by. This is a point of contact for the church and a place to start to help people move from that sense of awe and wonder to discover the creator of this world who placed us here and who sustains our life.

“I think it is part of our rich inheritance of Celtic Christianity and the lasting influence of saints of old who brought the faith to these parts. Many visitors to our churches comment on the beauty of our buildings and the sense of peace and tranquillity they invoke. There are opportunities here to help people move on to discover by word and loving service that our churches point to the lord of the Church Jesus Christ who we follow and commit our lives to.

“I have also sensed a strong connection between the churches and community relations are generally very good. We enjoy worshipping together in one another’s churches and supporting one another within the community. This aspect of being together for harvests, special services and fundraising and other cultural events is something the pandemic has greatly affected and is a great loss.

“Principally our goal as a church is to help people find meaning and purpose in life; that is a search which we can help people with particularly as many reflect on what the pandemic has done to their lives. It has disrupted assumptions and norms and given time to think out what the priorities in their lives really are. Certainly the pandemic has caused many to consider their mortality, and to question truth and fulfilment in life. We as those who believe in God have opportunities to have good conversations with seekers and to show how discovering Christ can enable us to find life in all its fullness even in the midst of great confusion and suffering.”

Referring to the pandemic, Bishop Ian said; “It has been quite simply the most destructive and frightening global event in recent times and its effects will unfortunately be with us for some time to come. Many people have suffered because of this virus; personally through ill-health and in family life there have been many deaths. Our social lives have been put on hold and our parish lives have been greatly diminished. It has for many people been a most isolating existence and taken a toll on mental health and a sense of well-being - for others economically it has been a time of loss. Some have lost their livelihood and others have had to learn to work from home. Children have had their schooling disrupted in the past two years and students have had their experience of university life impoverished.

“I want to thank our clergy and Select Vestries for their work in keeping parish life going and applying the Covid restrictions to keep everyone safe.

“As we now emerge from this period when everything has been paused; we are rather like a patient able to recover from covid, but we must begin to take gentle yet determined steps to rediscover parish life. One of the things we did well in the pandemic was to learn how to use the internet and develop online presences for our worship. These have been great at keeping parishioners connected to their church and have also attracted a notable number of new people following our services. The task ahead is to turn those followers into worshippers in church.

“I rather think that we have found many people have changed their church habits; some have rather liked the flexibility of tuning into worship just whenever it suited. Our youth and children’s work has been impacted too and as we try to re-energise our groups we may find that leaders have also changed their habits; and have found that not having to come out to the Hall on a mid-week evening was a welcome change. We could well discover that some leaders may wish to retire from volunteering, and we will have to grow new leadership and re-establish youth and adult groups again. It points to a long-term recovery.

“I think that families will respond as confidence increases in the reducing infection levels and as schools get into regular rhythms of education once more. Parents and children will soon want to come out again and enjoy what the parish has to offer, however it will be up to us to make that offer attractive and help people feel secure. We shall have to go out into the highways and bye ways and invite people back. This will require renewed effort by our clergy with the support of lay leadership in our parishes particularly as we restore our children’s and young people’s work.

“Just like all families church families have been affected financially. I know that many parishes find themselves short of funds; parish incomes have been reduced due to the inability to fund raise and because fewer people now seem confident to return to church our collections have been impacted too. The Diocesan Council has been acutely aware of the financial pressure parishes have been under and that is why last year the Diocesan Council decided to request Synod to give each parish church a rebate of £2000 or euro equivalent. I know this was welcomed particularly by the smaller parishes in the Republic of Ireland who were not able to avail of government Covid recovery grants.”

It was announced at the Synod that the Diocesan Council authorised a financial allocation of £1000 or Euro equivalent to each parish which would be deducted from their 2022 assessment.

“Over the past year as I have reflected on the priorities for the diocese, I am acutely aware of our fundamental need for rebuilding and revitalising faith; not all is due to the pandemic, but the pandemic has magnified some of our challenges. We have a large number of vacant parishes at present, the most recent caused by the retirement of Canon Geoff Bridle. Geoff has retired from the parishes of Cleenish and Mullaghdun after an incumbency of 22 years. We thank Canon Geoff for his long ministry in this diocese and wish himself and Rosita good health and much happiness in their retirement in Co Down.

“These vacancies create quite a gap in clergy personnel. Thankfully we are making that situation a little better as we recently announced the appointment of two new clergy. We welcome two new appointments of rectors - Rev William Jeffrey to the parish of Lisbellaw and the Rev Lindsey Farrell to the parishes of Maguiresbridge and Derrybrusk. We also welcome to the diocese Rev Chris West as Curate Assistant to Enniskillen Cathedral Parish. So gradually we are building up our capacity once more. God willing in the New Year we will be able to call other boards of nomination and seek to fill the remaining vacancies.

“The work of keeping vacant parishes going is a task undertaken by our Rural Deans; Rev Canon Ian Berry, Rev Canon Alan Irwin, Rev John Woods, Rev Johnny McLoughlin and Rev Lorraine Capper. I am grateful for Rev Johnny and Rev Lorraine for taking on these roles recently and we are very much in debt to Rev John Woods who is looking after two rural deaneries at present. I would also like to pay a tribute to our Dean, the Very Revd Kenny Hall who is providing pastoral care for my former parish of Rossorry and also Cleenish and Mullaghdun parishes. These clergy are helping to hold our pastoral ministry together in these challenging times and we really do appreciate their dedicated ministry among us.

“In September last we commissioned four Diocesan Pastoral Assistants; Patricia Hutchinson, Viola Bryson, Wendy Kerr and Keith Browne and also a Diocesan Reader; Joan Nelson who will make a most welcome addition to the ministry in parishes across the diocese.

“I think we will need to rebuild confidence in our call to serve Christ in the Church of Ireland. If our parishes are like a patient recovering from Covid we need lots of encouragement with dedicated and regular pastoral care of our people to be applied. This is of course one of the strengths of the Church of Ireland. As we move forward and parish worship becomes less restricted, we will need to re-establish a sense of family again and to rediscover what it is to be an in-person worshipper and the richness of belonging to one another.

“It is interesting that across the various denominations that Sunday worship numbers have not returned to pre-covid levels. There are a few factors I think are conditioning people’s response; one is fear; some of our vulnerable parishioners who would regularly have come along are still afraid of picking up the virus. It will take some time for confidence to return but hopefully as more are vaccinated and have received their booster those fears will subside.

“The second factor I think is the change in patterns of life brought about by the lockdown experience. Many families have become more closed-in on themselves because of lockdowns and have perhaps lost that sense of belonging to a bigger church family or part of wider society. Some have developed new interests or have just become greater TV addicts; we are told that the subscriptions to Netflix and the like have soared in the past year!

“Returning to my metaphor of parish life being like a recovering patient - we must assure the patient that things will in God’s time improve and that better times are ahead. Maybe not the same as before but just as significant. There is certainly work ahead for us all in restoring church life to its fulness again.

“Some things have already changed at Diocesan level. Over the summer our hard-working diocesan secretary Glenn Moore had a long spell of ill-health. Thankfully he has made a great recovery and we are just delighted to have him back with us once more. Glenn is on a phased return to his work, and we shall have to be very careful not to overload him. Glenn has an unbelievable knowledge of this diocese and an enormous capacity for working hard. I have really missed his presence guiding me in my first few months and look forward to having this great resource by my side as I find my way into my episcopal ministry in the diocese. I must also thank other staff who have kept the administration of the diocese going over the past few months. Sincere thanks to Ashley, Michael, Brian, Henry and Sabrina for taking on extra work to help us through this period.

“At the end of the summer, we have said farewell to our former Youth Officer Jonny Phenix. Jonny has been part of the diocesan team for just over 10 years and recently has completed his time with us as Youth Officer. Both Jonny and his wife Janet have supported youth work in many of our parishes and shared their distinctive skills and faithful ministry over those years. We are most appreciative for Jonny’s work among us as a diocese beginning with the Wells Project and then his ongoing support and encouragement to the work of the Diocesan Youth Council. We have been much blessed by his ministry to Clogher Diocese.
We wish both Jonny and Janet every blessing for the future.

“Earlier this year Rev Canon Maurice Armstrong resigned not only as Rural Dean of Clogher but also as Executive Chairman and Honorary Secretary of the Ministry of Healing Committee. We thank Canon Maurice most sincerely for his faithful and dedicated service of many years in this ministry among us. I am pleased to say that Rev John McClenaghan has agreed to take on this role leading the Ministry of Healing Committee and we look forward to them re-establishing their work among us in the coming year.

“Very gradually rebuilding is taking place; it will need all our best efforts to reconnect with parishioners, revitalise our ministry and begin new rhythms of parish and diocesan life.
Hopefully next year we will be able to meet in person for our Synod; we really do miss being together for the friendship and chat and for those other intangible features of being together. However, this is how things are at present and we must make the most of the technology available to us. For now, let us move on with our business and use this Zoom facility to enable us to conduct our business tonight as we meet in this time-honoured Anglican way as a Diocesan Synod of the Church of Ireland.

“Thank you for your welcome to me as your bishop. I ask for your patience as I continue to learn the role and to get to know you all. Finally, I would like to thank Heather for her support as we have made this challenging move from our happy parish life in Rossorry to a new phase of ministry and home life in Fivemiletown.

“Let us all together move forward in faith and trust in the goodness of God to lead us,” he concluded.

Elections held for vacancies on certain bodies were announced at Synod. These were;
Clogher Diocesan Board of Education; Revd Canon Maurice Armstrong, Revd Chancellor Ian Berry, Revd Lorraine Capper, Revd Canon Paul Thompson, Mrs Florence Brunt MBE, Miss Irene Knox, Mr Henry Robinson.

General Synod Board of Education; Revd Canon Paul Thompson, Miss Irene Knox.

Representative Church Body; Revd Canon Paul Thompson.