Bishop’s January Letter
In this month’s letter our Bishop announces two institutions in the Diocese in the next few weeks, gives details of a presentation entitled ‘The Church of Ireland perspective on Brexit’ that he was asked to make at a recent church conference in England, and also remembers Mildred Weekes who died recently in this Diocese.
New Year … more changes. We look forward to the Institution of the Reverend Graham Sawyer to Kilcooley Union with Fertagh; this will take place in Kilcooley Church at 8 pm on Friday January 11. Mr Sawyer joins us from the diocese of Blackburn in England, and has a rich portfolio, particularly in communications and broadcasting as well as in ministry. Then on Friday 22 February at 8 pm in Tullow church we will have the Institution of the Revd Canon Brian O’Rourke. Canon O’Rourke is of course already well known in the diocese, and in recent years we have valued his expertise particularly in the area of education and the training of school Boards of Management. We wish both these clergy every happiness in their new spheres of ministry.
It is always challenging to write the January magazine letter two weeks before Christmas. As I write many eyes here are looking across the water to the parliamentary chaos surrounding Brexit, on the day when the Prime Minister of the UK decided to postpone the clearly doomed vote seeking approval of her withdrawal ‘deal’. One can only speculate concerning what developments may have occurred in this scenario before these words appear in print.
Church of Ireland perspective on Brexit
Recently, at a church conference in England, I was asked to give a short spontaneous presentation on the ‘Church of Ireland perspective on Brexit’. This subject was not the primary business of the conference, I was given virtually no notice, and I had to speak using hastily scribbled notes. But I detected a genuine attentiveness and interest in the audience concerning whatever I might say. I did initially point out that most of my friends in Britain were Remainers, and I still had an inadequate sense of the motives and indeed fears of the Brexiteers. I also acknowledged my own prejudices … Ireland has essentially done very well out of Europe, and in a curious way enthusiastic participation in the European Institutions has strengthened our sense of identity and of being an equal partner in a large international family. For many in Britain, EU membership appears to have the opposite effect and even to have robbed – some believe – the nation of its feeling of proud identity
That said, I hastily found myself making the following points:
– at the time of the 2016 referendum in Britain, the moral case for remaining seemed to be poorly made. For all its flaws, the European project was based on a desire to build peace and respect. One of the 2016 slogans seemed to be ‘doing what is best for Britain’. Fair enough, but an avowedly Christian country should always consider also what is best and right for other people. There seems an inadequate sense in Britain of how European partners need their presence and wisdom, not least in the moulding of the values and laws we share.
– It seems strange how little attention was given during the referendum debate to the issue of the Irish border, and how that issue could hugely complicate the process in the event of a vote to Leave. For several decades the most bloody civil conflict in Western Europe took place within the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom. Without a doubt, partnership in the EU contributed hugely to the delicate architecture of a peace process which allowed for the invisibility of borders and the equal cherishing of differing national identities beneath the umbrella of a bigger belonging. Had the role of the EU similarly contributed to the resolution of an ancient conflict in the Home Counties, would Britain have been so willing to Leave?
– while the Good Friday agreement absolutely recognises that Northern Ireland is to remain a part of the UK unless and until its people decide otherwise, that does not diminish the fact that Northern Ireland is ‘different ‘ (in a purely factual sense) from the rest of the UK. Many of its citizens of the Unionist persuasion acknowledge their stake in the wider island of Ireland; they cheer on an all-Ireland rugby team and belong to all-Ireland churches. More challengingly, there is no other part of the UK whose people have in effect as a birthright an entitlement to citizenship of a neighbouring sovereign state as well as of Britain itself. Northern Ireland is utterly secure in its constitutional position, but it is in a very profound way a distinctive place, and appropriate recognition of that distinctiveness is at the heart of its peace. Surely the so-called backstop is no more than a putative insurance policy that ensures the recognition of the special character of Northern Ireland (within the United Kingdom), and therefore undergirds its stability.
– All the comments I have just made need to be tested and analysed by going and walking the roads of the borderlands, where neighbours criss-cross a frontier in the course of their daily business, where that frontier is indeed hard to find these days as it travels through parishes, fields and back gardens, where any talk of a return to the borders of the past is truly and for very good reason frightening.
Who knows how this matter may have moved on even before these words are read ? But for us on the sidelines, yet profoundly affected however by whatever may take place, there are real moral and relational issues here to incorporate into our prayers. As recently as the production of our 2004 Prayer Book, the Litany very deliberately included the following suffrage
Bless the European Union
And draw us closer to one another in justice and freedom.
Whatever may now become of these words in Northern Ireland, they will certainly remain part of our prayers here, and the implications of those phrases deserve reflection in an evolving and volatile situation.
As a diocesan family we give thanks for the life of Mildred Weekes who died recently, and we surround those closest to her with our love. Mildred was a versatile person of remarkable talent … Sportsperson, artist, traveller amongst many attributes. Along with her husband Cecil, she touched for good the lives of many friends and parishioners during their years in the vicar’s residence in Kilkenny, Urglin Rectory and Lismore Deanery. We give thanks for every remembrance of her.
Michael Cashel Ferns and Ossory