A year or so ago I used to look at my diary and at all the events that day by day had been crossed out. This year hardly any events had even been entered, so there is nothing to obliterate. I suppose in the month of May one is particularly conscious of the non-occurrence once again of the General Synod, that great all-Ireland neo-parliamentary gathering of church members from all corners of the island. There is something unique about the buzz and at best the conviviality of the Synod . . .in the past there were times when I felt it was a body of ungainly size, but now I would give a lot to be back in a meeting hall with so many hundreds of people. This year the streets, restaurants and hotels of Armagh would have been thronged with people from all over the Church of Ireland, with an audible and rich blending of accents such as befits these occasions.
One of the most important aspects of the General Synod, over and above the formal business, is the distinctive manner in which it sustains cross-border friendship and conversation. Each year I tended to spend one evening with a particular group of friends, mostly from the diocese of Connor … we would share laughter, stories and insights. Indeed, in a peculiar way the apparent levity of the atmosphere was sometimes in inverse proportion to the candid quality of the conversation. I’m sure that very many other Southern members of the Synod had similar, and repeated, happy experiences.
Thirty-four years after my Ordination, I always feel that one obvious gap in my experience is that I never served in Northern Ireland. Indeed, I find myself unique among the twelve Church of Ireland bishops in so far as I have never lived or worked outside the Republic. I have sometimes been tempted to consider myself a kind of armchair expert on Irish politics, but the North has always been a somewhat ‘strange’ land to me . . . often visited, the place of residence of many friends, but never my home even for a period. I am fortunate to have a significant number of clergy colleagues in the diocese who know the North well, and of course I am married to a woman from Fermanagh . . . but (as they say) I have only ever paid my taxes to the Harp.
Distressing street violence
I say these things because, at least at the time of writing, there is a distressing renewed level of street violence in the North such as has not been witnessed for many years. On the night before my penning of these words water cannon had been deployed by the police for the first time in a very long period. As always, a cocktail of events has led to this situation – and much of the violence is fronted by disillusioned young people in deprived areas who are bored with lockdown, open to manipulation, lacking in educational opportunity and convinced that the political classes do not represent them or understand them. Into this cauldron of frustration comes a series of unfortunate developments …the perceived threat to identity caused by the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol, suspicion concerning the handling of Republican funerals and their aftermath by senior police officers, the social isolation and barely – suppressed anger caused by Covid restrictions in communities where there was already very little to do. And so on.
What can our response be? Prayer and visits and proactive socialising
What can be our response to this, when we are apparently far away in the very different world of the South-East?
It goes without saying that the first priority is prayer – and prayer which is truly informed and empathetic.
However, there are other practical things which we might also consider. If staycations become possible later in the year, there is much to be said for crossing the border and tasting the atmosphere of the North, its history as well as its scenery. When things eventually get a bit nearer normal, our exploring could be rather more adventurous. A visit to Belfast is not just about good restaurants and the Titanic quarter – not long ago I found a black taxi tour of the flashpoints of the troubles on both sides of the Belfast peace line both eye-opening and remarkably fair. When next some of us do get to the General Synod, we could make a renewed point of breaking out of our comfortable regional huddles and proactively socialising with those whose parochial atmosphere and probably political instinct is very different to our own.
Significant part to play
In short, while many around us talk of Border polls and the supposed inevitable collapse of the United Kingdom, we need to understand why these very things are a source of such fear for many people who are members of our own small and still highly interconnected church. Without compromising our own aspirations and convictions, we are uniquely placed to strive to understand why destabilising fear again haunts many of the streets of Northern Ireland. We have a significant part to play in the national conversation concerning how this shared island can be a peaceful shared home. One of the principles to which the Good Friday Agreement committed itself was the promotion of integrated education in the North. We often assume that phrase is about schools and children – in fact true integrated education has a vital adult education dimension. It involves adults, who know they have considerable baggage in terms of prejudices and inherited aspirations, being able to learn through candid conversation with other people whom they may even initially assume they will find hard to understand or even like. ‘The Border’, in a way we barely recognise, textures the life of every person on this island …it is not just a complicated line on a map; it is also a reality in all our minds. We judge others and compartmentalise them on the basis of what we assume to be their view of ‘the Border’. Partition has installed itself in the very working of our brains, and often impedes our living out of Christian charity.
Death of Dean Norman Lynas
One distinguished and much-loved Ulster priest who gave many years of his life and ministry to the enrichment of church life and pastoral care in this diocese was the Very Reverend Norman Lynas, sometime dean of Ossory. News of his death in the US, following a long illness in the aftermath of a tragic accident, added to our shared gloom this past Good Friday. That day I strove to find some words for our online platforms that would sum up our huge affection for Norman, and I would like in printed form to repeat them here. I wish we could plan something like a major Memorial Service in his beloved St Canice’s to provide a context for corporate thanksgiving as well as lament, but at this time we cannot think in such terms. So I repeat what I said on Good Friday:
‘News of the death In the United States of Norman Lynas, dean of Ossory from 1991 to 2009 will undoubtedly and rightly cause a wave of sadness to pass over Kilkenny and beyond….yet that sadness will be accompanied by a myriad of grateful memories. Our sadness is of course accentuated by our awareness of the extraordinarily difficult times Norman and his family have experienced since his catastrophic accident last summer. Reading online posts describing their courage, positivity, faith and resilience in the intervening months has been an inspiration.
Inevitably we look back now at Norman through the lens of recent suffering, and our memory is textured by the mood that Good Friday inevitably brings. Yet it is right that we remember Norman as he really was and as we knew him – full of energy and ideas and faithfulness and fun. Norman was a hard worker, a devoted priest and a kindly pastor …. and he was the life and soul of a good party too. He loved to view the whole of life as a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.
I’ve known Norman since our paths first crossed in TCD in the late 1970’s. I recall his scholarly yet enthusiastic contributions at Synods, his rich sense of the very tapestry of Anglicanism. His appointment to Kilkenny as a really very young dean and rector in 1991 was in so many ways inspired. He brought the experience and wisdom of his Ulster background to the South East, and came rapidly to relish the life of the Southern church. He was one of those people who seemed to straddle successfully the various facets that make up the layered life of the Church of Ireland. He was a true pastor, who shed godly cheerfulness but was never trite. People in situations of sadness and loss welcomed his presence in the midst of their need. His impact on the wider civic life of Kilkenny was remarkable. Amid his many liturgical duties he found time… as a good dean must do …to know, love and understand the fabric of the cathedral. He rejoiced particularly in the rebuilding of the organ. Curates with whom he worked and for whom he was an inspiration loved him.
Norman gave hugely of himself to strategic planning regarding educational matters in Kilkenny ; both the Model School and Kilkenny College owe much to his vision and wisdom, and he was a much-loved presence in the everyday life of both.
Norman welcomed me to Kilkenny in 2006 with memorable warmth ; I remember him coming to the house with presents that first Christmas when I felt new and rather strange. His smile on the doorstep and his generosity made Claire say (and I suspect her reaction was by no means untypical) – ‘That visit made Christmas for us!’
Soon after I arrived Norman realised that having served for close on two decades in a ministerial task of vast proportions it might be prudent to consider something very different. Hence his departure to Bermuda, a place he had come to love …it was an adventurous and noble decision, which brought much sadness to Kilkenny at the time. Yet for him it was the commencement of a whole new fruitful chapter of which others can better speak. Tragedy struck soon after the move with Nichola’s sudden death (and many had regarded them as almost inseparable), yet Norman displayed courage and resilience, stuck it out in Bermuda, and eventually found great renewed happiness in life and love. It is now fitting that all that is mortal of him should return to Hillsborough to be buried alongside Nichola.
Our hearts go out especially to Tristan (happily still in our midst In Kilkenny) and to Adam as they mourn their father; we are conscious of how unspeakably difficult recent months have been for them. They, and we, can be sustained by the memory of a larger-than-life figure, characterised by generosity, whose priestly ministry cheered as well as sanctified so many of those with whom he had to do. The ancient stones of St Canice’s will somehow know that they bear the footmarks of a very fine dean.
As a hymn sums it up regarding Norman and others like him –
‘These stones that have echoed their praises are holy, and dear is the ground where their feet have once trod;
Yet here they confessed they were strangers and pilgrims, and still they were seeking the city of God’.
As we think of the bereaved, and in the context of our own small team of valued and esteemed diocesan staff, we convey our prayerful sympathy to Diocesan Accountant Mr Leslie Moynan on the recent death of his mother. May he and all those recently bereaved find hope and solace in the promise of Eastertide.
As to what church worship and ‘gathering’ may look like as we arrive in May and vaccination continues, who knows? At the time of writing I have learned the wisdom of eschewing all crystal ball gazing. We continue to surround all those in government and in public health upon whose decisions we depend with our prayers and empathy.
Michael Cashel Ferns and Ossory