In this month’s letter our Bishop looks back over his past ten years of ministry, talks about what challenges him, wearies him and what gives him joy and highlights the value of simple steadfastness in the midst of rapid change.
Some months ago, for the first time in my ordained life, I reached the point where I could look back across a decade spent in the same context of ministry and remind myself of the things that were both inspiring me and troubling me ten years previously. It is a useful method by which to take stock, to assess progress, to identify mistakes and, just occasionally, to acknowledge frustration.
So as we begin 2017, I pulled down the magazine for January 2007 – for, like many other readers, I keep all the back numbers safely. Not for the first time, I was struck by the rate of change through which we have lived. Six of the thirty-two incumbents in office then are now serving in the same parish. Both archdeacons and all six deans have changed. The editorship of the magazine is in different hands. Beyond this diocese, the province of Dublin has a different archbishop and just three other bishops of the Church of Ireland are now in the same dioceses as they occupied in early 2007. Of the fifteen other Anglican bishops of the so-called Celtic fringe (Wales, Scotland and Man), only two remain in office since those times and one of these, the archbishop of Wales, is just about to retire. Back in our own diocese, there have been seventeen appointments of new principals in primary schools since the start of 2007, and two new principals in Kilkenny College. I could go on and on …
But where one notices change most is of course in one’s own house. In the early days of 2007, having spent my initial months in temporary accommodation, I became the first tenant of the new episcopal residence in Troysgate, Kilkenny. All seemed so very new then … Yet the other day a heating engineer told me that ‘the system is beginning to get old’! It is lovely to be able to reflect on the large number of visitors from the diocese and beyond who have passed through the archway at Troysgate over the years … A rich variety of all sorts and conditions of people. When I moved in, my eldest son was beginning transition year and the youngest of our four children was not yet at primary school. Now only the youngest remains in residence, and at present two of the other three live outside Ireland. Sometimes I become a little wistful about how noisy this large house used to be.
Feel greater urgency about aspects of stewardship now
And of course I myself am more than a decade older. One never knows what may lie just around the corner, but I like to assume I am approaching the commencement of the final quarter of what might be termed my ‘active’ ministry. When I was first ordained in 1987, I had neither computer, answering machine or mobile phone. The future seemed to stretch ahead almost eternally with all its challenges and possibilities. Now I feel perhaps a greater urgency about aspects of the stewardship for which I will one day have to give account, and I occasionally feel wearied by the capacity of the church to allow itself to be so frequently distracted from its main task of embodying and proclaiming the Kingdom. On the other hand, there is the joy of feeling the diocese is a place one knows fairly well … No navigational aids are required to reach the remotest church and every single church vestry seems almost a familiar place.
We recall what really matters – simple steadfastness
Any human being could I suppose muse like this about their life, their job, their family. But the value of such occasional apparent self – indulgence is that it recalls us to what really matters in life, to the things that provide anchors amidst the turbulence caused by all the change. We all need the challenge and the excitement that change certainly brings, we need some measure of stimulus to bring colour to our lives, but there is a danger too that change becomes an end in itself, almost an addiction, occasionally an idol. I am one of those who often claims to relish change, but when it beguiles me too much I meditate on the words of the preacher at my ordination as priest very nearly thirty years ago when he reminded me that the quality in ministry that really transforms the world is not so much obsessive change management as simple steadfastness. He drew my attention to words from Acts which describe what was essential to the early Christian communities … ‘They continued steadfast in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers… And the Lord added to their number daily…’. If that was the recipe for fruitful mission in the turbulent environment faced by the early church, we would do well to absorb it anew as we head into the challenges of 2017.
Some things of course thankfully remain largely the same. In my letter in January 2007 I was writing about my hopes for those who would be confirmed that year, there was much emphasis in the magazine on ensuring the church provided a safe environment for children, a multiplicity of youth-related events were mentioned, the diocese was carrying the bereaved and the sick on its heart in care and prayer. In short, and especially with the advantage of hindsight, there was plenty of evidence of genuine and tangible steadfastness in ministry and discipleship. One dares to hope that those who peruse this issue in January 2027 will, despite the constant cares and distractions of life, draw the same conclusion about what are our priorities today.
Thinking of the bereaved
We think indeed of those who have been in recent times ill or bereaved in our midst, including a number in our various rectories. The cover of the January 2007 issue featured Canon Mark Hayden. He and his family have been much in our thoughts as they cope with the unexpected death of his father in the pre-Christmas weeks.
So Stay Steadfast in 17.
Michael Cashel Ferns + Ossory