Bishop of Clogher addresses Clogher Diocesan Synod


Attending Clogher Diocesan Synod.

The Clogher Diocesan Synod took place on Thursday, 27th September 2018 beginning with a Service of Holy Communion in St.Macartin's Cathedral, Enniskillen followed by the Synod in the Cathedral Hall.

The following Presidential Address was delivered by The Bishop of Clogher, Right Revd John McDowell;

Brothers and sisters in Christ,

Believe it or not I am standing before you for the eighth time to give a Presidential Address at the Diocesan Synod of this diocese.

Any one who has the privilege and the duty of having to preach regularly will probably tell you that there is the odd moment of panic when one is faced with a blank page and a deadline. He or she will also tell you about the almost miraculous fact that as soon as one begins reading the passages of Scripture set for the week ahead that (no matter how familiar the passage might be) something new breaks out from it. Perhaps a phrase which was completely missed before. Or even just a word which begins to shine with new light. Failing that you can always go to Sermons4Sunday on the internet! I’m certain that is a rare occurrence.

One such phrase sprang out at me as I was preparing a little reflection for the Inter Church gathering at Camagh Bay on Pentecost Sunday earlier in the summer. The passage talked about the disciples of Jesus being “all together in one place”. So far as we can tell, all of those who had committed themselves to Jesus and His Fathers Kingdom were in that one place together. Of course that cannot be the case anywhere any more. There are simply too many of us, disciples of Jesus. Perhaps the nearest we come to that in the life of our little rural diocese is in our Diocesan Synod when representatives from every parish and ministry come together and we are joined by disciples from other traditions who are followers of Jesus and bearers of his Kingdom. And whenever disciples come together, whether it is for a service of worship or any other gathering, at least part of the purpose is for mutual encouragement. So that is my first wish this evening that we will encourage one another.

Synod members listening to the presentations.

However, as I have said often in the past that should not prevent us from being realistic. We should acknowledge our limitations as a diocese- limited resources, limited understanding perhaps even limited faith. Yet we should avoid putting too many of our problems into the “too difficult” box. With God nothing is unthinkable so we have nothing to be timid about, but we do have to decide what it is we are aiming to achieve.

You often hear about people ( usually men ) suffering a mid life crisis when they usually do something which is out of character and usually also more appropriate for a much younger person to do. You know the sort of thing-buying motor bikes or wearing tight trousers. I don’t think I’ve ever had a full blown mid life crisis but I do remember when I turned sixty a few years ago that it was borne in on me very forcibly that, even given the enormous advances of modern medicine, I had far more of my life behind me than I had in front of me. Because my initial academic training was in history I had an inclination to look backwards even when I was looking for inspiration for the present. But for the Church in particular it is absolutely central to recognise that it is much more important to have a future than to have had a past.

As you may know next year will be the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland. By 1869 we had been the Established Church for over 300 years and therefore part of the administrative apparatus of the State. For instance church wardens were responsible for the state of the roads within the parish boundary and they collected a tax called a “cess” to pay for it. Clergy were paid by the state in much the same way as civil servants are today and we owned large tracts of land as well as exacting tithe from the whole population. However at no time in our history since the Reformation did we exceed 12% of the population of Ireland and we cheerfully persecuted the spiritual forbears of all our guests seated at that table. Judging by their rude good health we didn’t make much of a job of it.

To mark what I’m told is called the “Sesquicentenary” of Disestablishment the Church is producing a book of essays about the fifty years which have passed since the centenary of Commemorations and has commissioned twenty people to write a chapter each on some aspect of church life during the past 50 years. Some of the contributors who have been asked to write a chapter are professional historians. Others like me are what are sometimes called “dilettantes” which is a fancy French loan word meaning “immensely successful chancers”.

Anyway, during the little bit of research I have managed to undertake so far for the chapter I am writing I have discovered that in 1947 the Diocese of Clogher had fifty-seven parochial units served by sixty-three clergy. In 1965 this had reduced to forty six clergy and forty six units. Today if we were at full strength in terms of clergy numbers ( as far as I can tell we have never been at full clergy strength at any time since the early 1960s) we would have thirty four stipendiary clergy of one sort or another.

We now live in very different circumstances and need to recognise that the ministry we provide will need to be much more adaptable than the sort of ministry we have offered in the past. But perhaps what we need overall is a fostering of vocation to ministry which is now taking on new and varied forms and is not simply training for an incumbency. For instance just this year the Church has introduced a new expression of what you might call a traditional form of ministry- Ordained Local Ministry or OLM for short. The programme of formation and academic training for OLM will be delivered largely through distance learning ( but with the assistance of local tutors) of a course accredited by Queen’s University, Belfast and run in collaboration with the Methodist Ministerial Training College at Edgehill. The duration of training will depend on past qualifications but will usually be three years before ordination as a priest/presbyter. Apart from being of great practical and spiritual value for the Church of Ireland it also helps to deepen our Covenant relationship with the Methodist church in Ireland.

Members of Synod leaving St. Macartin's Cathedral following the Service

Although the selection for OLM is carried out by each Diocese (with involvement by representatives of another Diocese) the deployment of OLMs will be local and OLMs will always minister under the supervision of either a rector or another senior clergy person. This form of ministry was introduced into the Church of England some years ago. Learning from that experience the Church of Ireland has adapted it somewhat. We have two ordinands who are about to embark on training for OLM which is a considerable academic and personal challenge and I’m sure all of us wish Abraham Storey and Colin Brownsmith well in their studies which will be a very rigorous test indeed of their vocation.

Last year I asked parishes to think about doing something “new” for young people in the year ahead. This year I would like to ask you to think about encouraging people and particularly young adults to think about ordained ministry.

For decades right up to the 1970s although the Church of Ireland population in Northern Ireland was much greater than in the South we produced three ordinands for every five produced in the South. The balance has shifted somewhat since then, particularly during the years of the Celtic Tiger when vocations from the South tailed off, but now the vast majority of Northern clergy come from the east of the Province. I cannot emphasise enough just how important it is for the Church of Ireland in rural dioceses like Clogher to inspire young men and women to search their hearts and their circumstances to see whether God is calling them into the ministry of His Church; into a life of service to the Gospel and to the world, which of course brings its unique challenges at a time when much of what we proclaim, and especially the centrality of Jesus Christ and His Cross as both revealing the holy love of God and interpreting the world for us, is so contrary to many instincts promoted by the age we live in. Archdeacon Harper as Diocesan Director of Ordinands will gladly answer any queries you may have.

In past Synods I have said a fair bit about what the Church expects of clergy and those who work full time in ministry. However I need also to underline the fact that clergy who are diligent in the exercise of their ministry are under unprecedented pressures. Sometimes that pressure comes simply by virtue of having to witness to a way of life to which the world can be indifferent or hostile. Sometimes it can be the weight of regulation which descends upon the smallest as well as the largest parish and which can easily crush the spirit of clergy as well as of volunteers. Sometimes it is because there is a feeling of a lack of support and understanding in the parish. We are a small diocese with mostly small parishes which need to work together as families of believers. I am not so naive as to think that all parishioners are amiable or that all clergy the embodiment of a ministering angel of a perfected saint.

It is very rare indeed for any one person to have all the skills and gifts of leadership needed in today’s society. Clergy are not always leaders in that sense. And they are not necessarily called to be. They are called to be shepherds and to exercise leadership in that sense. Leadership that is not driven by either ego or simply by results but is characterised by faithfulness, compassion, integrity and love for the people of God. I know you will support your clergy as they seek to lead by these very exacting standards and that you will pray for them; that you will encourage them as they witness very publicly through what they say and do to the greatness of the God and the Gospel they serve.

Now to return to the point I raised earlier about our purpose as a Christian community. I first heard the following story about a letter written by the Duke of Wellington at a clergy conference and I hope you will agree that there are some lessons in it for us today. It was written in 1812 during the Peninsular Campaign against Napoleon. He was writing to what we would call the MOD.

'Gentlemen,' he wrote, 'While marching from Portugal to a position which commands the approach to Madrid and the French forces, my officers have been diligently complying with your requests which have been sent by His Majesty’s ship from London to Lisbon and thence by dispatch rider to our headquarters.

We have counted our saddles, bridles, tents and poles, and all manner of sundry items for which His Majesty’s government holds me accountable. I have dispatched reports on the character, wit and temperament of every officer. Each item and every farthing has been accounted for, with two regrettable exceptions for which I beg your indulgence.

Unfortunately, the sum of one shilling and ninepence remains unaccounted for in one infantry battalion’s petty cash, and there has been a hideous confusion as to the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment during a sandstorm in Western Spain. This reprehensible carelessness may be related to the pressure of circumstance, since we are at war with France, a fact which may come as a bit of a surprise to you gentlemen in Whitehall.

This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty’s government, so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that perforce it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below. I shall pursue either one with the best of my ability but I cannot do both:

1) To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in London, or, perchance
2) To see to it that the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain.

Your Most Obedient Servant, Wellington '

So, as I said at the outset of this Address the question I would ask each of us to consider in the coming year is 'What are we here for'? In my 2012 Presidential Address I tried to give some sort of indication as to what the answer might be and I think much of that still hold good. Here is a slightly wider version in what are known as the Church’s five marks of mission and against which clergy and parishes can measure their activities and effectiveness.

To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
To respond to human need by loving service
To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation
To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.
To preach, to teach, to serve, to transform, to sustain this beautiful land.

They could have been designed to fit the challenges which we face in our country and our diocese. Last year the Clogher Diocesan Youth Council took up the challenges posed by the Five Marks of Mission and tried to interpret them in terms of our own context. At last years Diocesan Synod I also asked that each parish might consider doing “something new” especially for young people in your area and simply for the sake of information and encouragement to let me know what that new thing was. Many of you have done so and I am very grateful for all that has been achieved and will continue to be achieved as we move forward.

Although I feel I have a duty to encourage parishes to do new things I need also to remind myself of the vast number of old things and well worn things that are carried out so well in our parishes. To some extent this is reflected in the content of the Diocesan Magazine and it is good to see that it can now be accessed online. But of course I have the privilege of getting to see what goes on first hand as I travel through the diocese day by day and Sunday by Sunday.

I want particularly this year to thank and commend all of those in the parishes of this diocese who are involved it the unglamorous and usually unseen work of administration. Such thanks are due every year but especially so this year because of the extraordinary amount of new regulations particularly with GDPR and Charities Registration and Reporting which you have had to handle. I know it may not seem so at the time but this is a real service to God and His Church which demands skill, patience and perseverance. We are deeply grateful for the work that you put in and for your willing attendance at the training events which have been organised concerning GDPR and Charities matters throughout the past year.

The staff in the Diocesan Office are as aware as we all are that “administration” has become a great burden and occasionally even a disincentive to volunteers. They have tried to reduce and simplify administrative tasks as far as possible (for instance this year we had a much simplified Easter Vestry Return). I don’t think I am breaching any rules of confidentiality to say that the Diocesan Secretary has also let it be known at every opportunity in central church meetings that we perhaps need to be a bit more proactive and forthright in making rule makers aware of the consequences for ordinary volunteers of their sometimes rather remote decisions.

And just at this point a particular word of thanks to Ashley for the way she has helped so many of us to make some headway in the area of Charities Registration and filing of our first set of accounts. I hope that by now most parishes have completed that filing but if not I know that the people who staff the helpline at the Commission will be as helpful as possible.

Some of you will also have had contact this year with Henry Robinson who the Diocesan Council have asked to help the parishes and the Diocese to put together an inventory of our properties including the form in which ownership is held. As you can imagine this is detailed and painstaking work to which Henry brings many years of experience and I know you will give him any assistance he requires as his project is for all our benefits. And a further encouragement if it is needed that we would recommend that parishes consider vesting any properties that aren’t already so vested in the Representative Church Body. It could be that there are occasions when local trustees or some other form of ownership are appropriate but always remembering that now such trustees will probably be required to register separately with either the Charities Commission in NI or the Charities Regulatory Authority in the Republic of Ireland with all the accounting obligations which that brings.


One final piece of business before I say just a word or two about wider issues. As you can see we have an important Motion on the order of business concerning a change to how we conduct elections. These proposals, which are the result of the work small subcommittee of the Diocesan Council, will be explained in greater detail by one of the Honorary Secretaries, Mrs Barton when she proposes the Motion. As with all regulations they can look a bit obscure but I hope you will accept my reassurance that they are intended to simplify the rules and also to encourage participation.

But the work that I see as I travel around the Diocese is not only in the administrative sphere; it is also in the area of worship and community service. And service (or ministry to use the NT word) is crucial to our witness. Every square inch of Ireland, north and south is covered by a parish. We are literally 'present' everywhere and we are present for the long haul. We have a future as well as a past. Without going too deeply into the theology of it, 'presence' is fundamental to who we are. At Christmas time we are powerfully reminded that God came and dwelt amongst us ( literally 'pitched his tent'). He became 'present' in a new way in the world he had created. And even as he appeared to leave, to pack up his tent, he said 'I will be with you always'. He continues to be present and active in the world in many ways but principally through his Church. Through you and me. Our presence is to make a difference for God.

I now want to mention the big word of the moment...Brexit. What I don’t want to do is to give you yet another opinion on the subject itself. There are plenty of opinions around about whether it is a good thing or a bad thing and on whether it should be implemented this way or that way. I have tried to keep myself informed as much as I can about the technicalities of what is going on but, the complexities of the subject and the confusion in political life are so great that precise predictions are futile. I know all about Canada++ and about the European Economic Area. I have read far too many books and articles about the European Court of Auditors and the terms on which The World Trade Organisation allows countries to trade with one another. But after reading all that I still don’t know what price a drop calf will be in Clogher or Clones Mart this time next year never mind at the end of the transition period in December 2020.

However one thing is certain. One way or another Brexit will be a very significant development which will take many years to work through. It has particular importance for people who live in Fermanagh, Tyrone and Monaghan not simply because these are Border counties but because they are counties of small farmers and small businesses who have only very limited resources to respond to a period of economic adjustment. It is important that communities help one another through what might be a bit of a bumpy ride and that our very particular needs as a region living right on the edge of the United Kingdom, Ireland and the European Union are borne in mind.

As with all unprecedented and complex processes there has (in my own opinion) been a strange mix of both exaggeration and complacency in the claims and discussions around the whole subject. But one undoubted danger is that the relationship between the two governments under whose care the different parts of this diocese sit, and for whom we pray week by week, will become much more strained. The peace which we enjoy in NI today is to some degree dependent on the improvement which took place in UK-Irish relations at government level dating back over forty years. The fact that both countries also belonged to the same trading block no doubt helped to align our interests and the United Kingdom and Ireland were usually strong allies when arguing their case in Europe. They had the same set of interests in trade and had many other things in common. To adapt an old proverb, familiarity with one another bred 'consent'.

It is impossible to say at this stage exactly how divergent or similar that trade policy will be in the future. But however close or far apart it ends up, the well being, material and otherwise, of the people of this diocese will remain tied up together across different jurisdictions. Remember it is more important that we have a future than that we had a past and that as a Diocese which has a permanent presence on both sides of the Border we should do our best, by the words we use and the gestures we make, to bring a distinctive Christian contribution to the whole matter. A contribution that recognises that the spiritual life needs some sort of a material basis on which to live and that our overwhelming vocation is to reflect the character of God as revealed to us in Jesus Christ in all that we say and do.

Finally some words of welcome and gratitude. We have two members of the clergy attending their first Clogher Diocesan Synod- the Rev’d Roy Taylor now serving in the Clones Group of parishes and the Rev’d Johnny McLoughlin rector of Aghavea. You are very welcome. But also to welcome in a new capacity the Rev’d Lorraine Capper serving in the Donagh Group and the Rev’d Charles Eames in the Drumkeeran Group. And not so much a word of welcome as one of encouragement to the Rev’d Olie Downey who has moved from being a curate to that of incumbent, a step of greatly increased responsibility. As always we owe a debt of gratitude to the staff of the Diocesan Office. As you may know Ruth has been off on quite an extended period of sick leave and our prayers are with her as she gets back on her feet again. However we have been lucky that Sarah Mac Bruithin has been available, willing and able to stand in three afternoons a week to provide some cover.

As always the first port of call and the last line of defence in many instances remains Glenn Moore our Diocesan Secretary who, although in theory working part time, has been the source of much wisdom and assistance to so many people not least to me and I am very grateful.

There are also some of our clergy and staff who are unavoidably absent this evening and our prayers are with Canon Maurice Armstrong and the Rev’d John McClenaghan for a full recovery to health and strength.

The Diocese of Clogher has passed through very unsettled times over very many centuries and more recently during turbulent and violent times, the legacy of which remains unresolved. Although the violence for the most part long behind us I’m afraid it looks as though the periods of political and social turbulence are not. As people who are first and foremost disciples of Jesus Christ we might do worse than to ask ourselves as the coming year unfolds “In what way is what I am saying or doing a witness to the love and holiness of God” for in the long run it will be on that and that alone that we will be judged as individuals as a Church and as a community.

So, praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has given us new birth into a living hope, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

Once again thank you for your patience.

The Bishop of Clogher delivering his Presidential address.