Thursday 16 December 2021

The Church of Ireland as an Ecumenical Church

The fourth and final talk in a series for Advent entitled 'The Church of Ireland - who are we', given in St Flannan's Cathedral, Killaloe on Wednesday 15th December 2021

As an ecumenical symbol, the church is portrayed as a boat 
afloat on the sea of the world 
with the mast in the form of a cross. 

Good evening to you all,

whether you are present here in beautiful St Flannan’s cathedral tonight, or watching warm and comfy on a screen at home. There’s a lot to be said for the latter!

Thank you, Dean Rod, for inviting me to talk on the Church of Ireland as an Ecumenical Church. I confess my first reaction was surprise. ‘Whoa, hold on a minute: what qualification do I have to talk about ecumenical matters?’ I am a layman, without formal theological training, and I haven’t followed at all closely the theological ducking and weaving of those deeply involved in the modern ecumenical movement.

But then, on reflection, I felt that perhaps I do have something to contribute, so I gratefully accepted Rod’s kind invitation. I feel passionately that in these times of crisis the Holy Spirit is calling Christians of all traditions to work together in unity for the good of God’s kingdom. But I do not think the Spirit is calling us all to believe exactly the same things, nor to worship in the same way. God loves diversity, I believe. If he didn’t, he would not have created the glorious diversity we see all around us in the natural world. And we should too.

What I hope to do this evening is to look at what we mean by ‘ecumenical’, then outline the history of the modern ecumenical movement as I see it - what has been achieved, and what has not been achieved – and the part that the Church of Ireland has played in it. I will go on to reflect on the failures, and then draw on my personal experience of engagement with other Christians to illuminate what I think is the most promising way forward, which is sometimes called ‘Receptive Ecumenism’.

What do we mean by being ‘an ecumenical church’?

Our starting place, I believe, must be the passage from John’s Gospel in which Jesus prays to the Father for his disciples:

The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:22-23)

Jesus calls his disciples – you and me - to be completely one as witnesses in the world to God’s love.

The OED defines ‘ecumenical’ firstly as

‘Of or belonging to the whole Christian world or the universal Church’.

It is used in this sense when we speak of the ‘Ecumenical Councils’ or give the leader of the Eastern Orthodox communion his title of ‘Ecumenical Patriarch’. The OED goes on to gloss it as

‘In recent use: marked by ecumenism; seeking (worldwide) Christian unity that transcends doctrinal differences; of or representing Christians of several denominations; interdenominational’

It is in these senses that I am using the word tonight.

Different people understand and respond to the word ‘ecumenical’ in different ways:

·         I suspect the first thing many people think of when they hear the word ‘ecumenical’ is Fr Ted, in Dermot Morgan’s hilarious TV sitcom, especially those with little or no contact with church. In a famous episode Fr Ted attempts to rehearse Fr Jack for a meeting with 3 bishops. He teaches him to say, ‘That would be an ecumenical matter’, as a device to shut down awkward questions. Ecumenical as a way of stopping the conversation. I hope that’s not what we feel tonight!

·         For some, ‘ecumenical’ is an insult, because for them it implies compromise or the watering down of what they see as essential truth, things necessary for salvation.

·         Others use it to mean a hope for visible, structural unity in the Universal Church, where all agree on essentials – ‘One church, one Faith, one Lord’, as Hymn 59 from the Church Hymnal puts it.

·         For yet others, of which I am one, to be ecumenical is to commit to work for a different type of visible unity - a unity between Christians that is more like a multi-coloured tweed, in which different denominations and traditions are woven into one fine cloth, through a common commitment to God and to each other.


Let me try to sketch out the development of the modern Ecumenical Movement, as I understand it.

But before I begin, a warning. We will canter our way through a bewildering landscape of Councils and Commissions, and a veritable alphabet soup of acronyms!

Protestants often trace its origin back to the World Missionary Conference held in Edinburgh in 1910. This brought 1,200 delegates together from major protestant denominations and missionary societies, including Anglicans, but no Roman Catholic or Orthodox organisations were invited. Those present saw clearly that denominational divisions were hampering evangelisation, and they issued a call for unity among protestant missionaries.

Another key moment came in 1920, when Ecumenical Patriarch Germanus V of the Eastern Orthodox communion wrote ‘to all the Churches of Christ, wherever they may be’, urging closer cooperation and suggesting a ‘League of Churches’, by analogy to the newly founded League of Nations.

In 1937 church leaders agreed to establish the World Council of Churches, or WCC, to work for Christian unity, though WW2 delayed the first meeting until 1948 – so the WCC is the same age I am! Member churches today include, as well as Anglican Churches, Oriental Orthodox Churches; Eastern Orthodox Churches; Lutheran Churches; Methodist Churches; Reformed Churches, including Presbyterians; and some Baptist and Pentecostal churches.

The Roman Catholic Church is not a member, but it works closely with the WCC through the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and RC theologians are full members of the WCC Faith and Order Commission. This, over many years, has been exploring the growing agreement - and remaining differences - in fundamental areas of member churches' faith and life.

In 1952 the Faith and Order Commission affirmed what is called the Lund Principle, that churches should act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately. From this principle flow such initiatives as:

·         The ‘Week of Prayer for Christian Unity’, for which the WCC and the Roman Catholic Church prepare materials collaboratively. Most if not all CofI parishes join in this with their neighbouring traditions.

·         And also a plethora of regional and local forums of which the CofI is a member, such as the Irish Council of Churches (ICC), the Irish Inter Church Meeting (IICM), Churches Together in Britain & Ireland (CTBI), the European Council of Churches (ECC), and many parish based ‘churches together’ groups.

These aim to bring churches together in common action, while acknowledging their different traditions and theologies.

In 1982 the WCC Faith and Order Commission agreed a document entitled ‘Baptism, Eucharist & Ministry’, known as the Lima Text. In it they write:

() the Faith and Order Commission now presents this Lima text (1982) to the churches. We do so with deep conviction, for we have become increasingly aware of our unity in the body of Christ. We have found reason to rejoice in the rediscovery of the richness of our common inheritance in the Gospel. We believe that the Holy Spirit has led us to this time, a kairos (meaning a critical or opportune moment) of the ecumenical movement when sadly divided churches have been enabled to arrive at substantial theological agreements. We believe that many significant advances are possible if in our churches we are sufficiently courageous and imaginative to embrace God’s gift of Church unity.

The then Archbishop of Dublin Henry McAdoo was one of the co-chairs of the Commission.

In parallel with the work of the WCC, individual churches and communions of churches have held discussions aimed at exploring moves to unity. Some have been successful, in the sense that they have led to mutual communion between the churches. Others have been less so. Let me list a few of these.

·         Discussion between the Anglican churches in Britain and Ireland, and the Nordic and Baltic Lutheran churches led in 1992 to the formation of the Porvoo Communion. All member churches, including the Church of Ireland, recognise the validity of each other’s ministries and sacraments, and as a symbol of their unity, bishops from elsewhere in the Communion participate in the ordination of bishops in each member church. This is a real ecumenical success.

·         Dialogue between the Methodist Church in Ireland and the Church of Ireland led to both churches agreeing a Covenant, which includes mutual recognition of ministry and sacraments, and interchangeability of ministers. Methodist Presidents are seen as equivalent to bishops, and as such participate in the consecration of Church of Ireland bishops, and vice versa. Again, a real ecumenical success. The Covenant has enabled the Rev Vicki Lynch, ordained in the Church of Ireland in this diocese, to minister in the Limerick City joint Methodist and Presbyterian church, and then move to the Church of Ireland Fiddown Union of parishes in the Diocese of Cashel, Ferns & Ossory.

·         In March 1966, following Vatican II, Pope Paul VI and Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey agreed to start ecumenical discussions between the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church. These have been taking place under the authority of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC). The first round of discussions, ARCIC1, co-chaired by the Archbishop of Dublin Henry McAdoo, produced an agreed statement in 1981 on Eucharistic Doctrine, Ministry and Ordination, and Authority in the Church. Further discussions continued in ARCIC2, looking at such matters as Salvation, Communion, Teaching Authority and the role of Mary. The ARCIC work continues today with ARCIC3, looking at The Church as Communion – Local & Universal.

·         ARCIC2 spun out another body, the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity and Mission (IARCCUM) – we really are getting into alphabet soup territory here, aren’t we! IARCCUM is not about reaching theological agreements, but about finding ways to put into practice the agreements that ARCIC has reached and that have been accepted by the two communions. One way they seek to do so is by pairing local Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops in localities around the world. In 2016 Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury in a joint ceremony paired our former Bishop of Limerick & Killaloe, Kenneth Kearon and Roman Catholic Bishop of Limerick Brendan Leahy.

·         The Anglican Communion has also been talking to the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Oriental Orthodox Churches. 

·        And of course, other churches have similarly been talking to each other without us.

In this extraordinary explosion of ecumenical activity over 70 years, the Church of Ireland has made significant contributions. Our participation has been coordinated through bodies appointed by General Synod, the highest authority in the Church of Ireland - the Commission for Christian Unity and Dialogue, and the Covenant Council in the case of the Methodists.

This shows us that the Church of Ireland is indeed ecumenical, in the sense that as part of the universal Church we are committed to the pursuit of Christian unity. And so, of course, are all the other major denominations with which we have been engaged. I feel certain that we are seeing the Holy Spirit at work, patiently and deliberately, if painfully slowly, leading Christians toward the unity that Christ prays for.

Yet the divisions remain

Despite all these high-level ecumenical engagements between our churches, and despite some successes along the way, the divisions between churches remain. In some respects they have even become deeper. Among the divisive issues are these:

1.       The ordination of women. The general Anglican agreement to ordain women as priests and bishops has been a real blessing to us in the Church of Ireland. But it is a real barrier to ecumenical relations and formal unity with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. They maintain that it is ontologically impossible – a woman is simply incapable of being a priest. And of course, it also divides Anglicans. For instance the Church of England has permitted parallel structures to develop for those who cannot in conscience accept female priests.

2.       Equal marriage. Both Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches see same-sex relations as sinful, and refuse to countenance same-sex religious marriages. Some Anglican provinces, such the Episcopal Church in America and the Episcopal Church of Scotland now allow it. Our Church of Ireland still holds to the traditional conservative line, but increasing numbers of clergy and laity, including me, long for the day when our LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ can be married and blessed in church. Other communions are suspicious of the direction the Anglican Communion may be travelling.

3.       The validity of the priestly orders of bishop, priest and deacon. Ever since the Reformation the Roman Catholic Church has considered that Anglican and other protestant ordinations are illegitimate, since they believe the line of Apostolic succession was broken. This, for them, is a real barrier to sharing communion with us.

4.       There are also deep differences over divorce and contraception, which I don’t need to elaborate.

5.       And Church traditions, rules, which are not of principle, also place limits on unity. These include the marriage of clergy, and mismatched procedures that make it difficult for Methodist clergy to move to CofI parishes, and vice versa.

Many observers have drawn the conclusion that the ecumenical process is running or has run out of steam. I think this is in large measure true. No wonder so many question whether it is worth continuing. But it is undeniably true that at the parish level in Ireland and elsewhere, relations between clergy and laity of different traditions have become close and warm – what a change from my young days when they could barely bring themselves to enter each other’s churches.

I think the problems lie firstly in the top-down approach to unity focussed on uniformity, and secondly in the rigidity and reluctance to change of churches as institutions – they areas much human as divine constructs, in my view, with a very human dislike of change, and instinct to self-preservation.

If I am right, how can we break the logjam and make further progress toward the unity that Christ prays to the Father for his disciples?

How many of you have heard the phrase ‘Receptive Ecumenism’?

I have only recently come across it, but when I did, I immediately recognised that it describes my own experience sharing with Christians of other traditions over many years.

The idea of receptive ecumenism is essentially very simple. Instead of asking what other Church traditions need to learn from us – how they must change to fit in with us - we ask what our tradition needs to learn from them – what we can receive from them which is of God.

Receptive ecumenism recognises that our own tradition does not have all the answers, and respects the traditions of others. It seeks to engage Christians of different traditions from the bottom up, starting in our parishes, our local communities, and other communities of interest. So long as together we show the love of God for each other and for his creation, and work together for his kingdom, surely God rejoices in the diversity of our churches, as he clearly rejoices in the diversity of life on this living planet. I suggest that receptive ecumenism has the potential to transform how we listen and relate as churches, valuing each other, learning from each other, and recognising that we all have gifts to share.

My own bottom-up ecumenical encounters have been a great blessing. Let me tell you about a couple of them.

First, there was Nenagh Churches Together, a lay group, which led ecumenical prayer and worship in different churches and in the public square in Nenagh between 2009 and 2014.

·         Its origin lay in a multi-denominational group, which came together after a Lenten climate change course. In 2019 we organised a day of prayer for climate change, inviting people on the street to join us in a community hall. We followed this up with a Vigil for the UN Copenhagen Climate Change conference in the CofI church, at the invitation of the Rector. The RC parish then invited us to lead prayers in their church to celebrate the different nations represented in Nenagh, and later to lead the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

·         And so it went on - in total we held 8 well-attended public ecumenical events up to 2014, alternating churches and other venues. At different times the group brought together volunteers from the CofI, the RC Church, Methodists, Baptists, charismatic groups, and the Romanian Orthodox and Lutheran communities.

·         I think we all felt blessed by the work we did together, as I certainly did. I was truly impressed by the scriptural knowledge and spirituality of this group of lay folk from such varied traditions, by their willingness to work together, and by their gifts in planning and leading worship. I enjoyed the gift of exploring other traditions, and of growing closer together in the faith we shared, and it was fun!

·         But after about 4 years the group began to tire. We felt we had shown the way, that now more engagement was needed from clergy and ministers, but that was not forthcoming – I’m still not quite sure why. So sadly the initiative withered and died.

Then there have been the annual week-long Summer Schools I have enjoyed, run by the Columban Ecological Institute, as part of their MA programme in Theology and Ecology.

·         These were led for many years in pre-Covid times by Columban Fr Sean McDonagh, from Nenagh originally. John Feehan from Birr introduced attendees to the geology, botany, biology and history of a different area each year. John is a true polymath, and a thoughtful theologian, able to relate the science to his Christian faith, which he has done in several books, including the brilliant ‘The Singing Heart of the World’, on creation spirituality

·         I remember particularly one Summer School in the Burren, staying together in a hostel, where I was the only non-Roman Catholic. We prayed each morning. We walked the flower-rich pastures and examined the intricate mechanisms of pollination under the microscope. We pond-dipped and tried to identify the minute creatures we captured. We visited St Colman MacDuagh’s cave and holy well, reflecting on the legends surrounding him. And we walked in pilgrimage for miles across the Burren hills to arrive at Corcomroe Abbey, where Fr Sean celebrated an open-air mass, at which I was invited to contribute a prayer, and to receive Communion with the others.

·         For me, these opportunities to explore prayerfully the wonderful diversity of life with others has been the most wonderful gift. It is so sad that while our CofI welcomes all baptised Christians to receive the Eucharist, Roman Catholics and Orthodox do not, except in special circumstances. Some CofI folk I know go up to receive at mass, but I do not, out of respect for their discipline, unless invited to do so. But when I am, it is a great joy and a blessing.

To finish, let me throw out a few questions to think about:

·         Is the Holy Spirit acting to bring churches of all traditions together, as social change and falling numbers make the churches poorer and humbler?

·         Is ‘Receptive Ecumenism’ a good way forward? Can we grow together at the local level, until the institutional churches catch up?

That will mean actively welcoming Christians of other traditions, worshiping and working together with them, sharing their traditions and our own respectfully, listening to each other even when we disagree. And then bringing back the gifts we receive from one another to our home traditions and churches.

·         Can we in our parishes ask our brothers and sisters in Christ in other traditions, to affirm with us the Lund principle, that we should do as much as possible together, unless deep differences compel us to act separately? Surely we are better together than we are apart!

·         Should we in our local areas get together with those who are willing in other traditions, to establish or re-establish formal ‘Churches Together’ organisations? Through these we can aim to give concrete expression to our essential unity in diversity, and act together to build Christ’s kingdom.

From my experience, I think that will require a commitment not just from laity – who I feel sure will welcome it – but from clergy.

I will be happy to take any questions, but even more I would welcome discussion, both about the questions I have thrown out to you, and how we may make more ecumenical progress.

Joc Sanders

15 December 2021

Tuesday 14 December 2021


 A reflection for Morning Prayer with the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 14the December 2021

‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.’

Paul wrote these words to the new Christians in Philippi, a city in Macedonia on the main road from the East to Rome. They come from the reading from Philippians (4:4-7) set for last Sunday, the 3rd Sunday of Advent, often called ‘Gaudete Sunday’ – ‘Gaudete’ means ‘Rejoice’ in Greek. In his letter he seeks to encourage them at a time when they are suffering opposition, even persecution.

The Lord is near’, says Paul. ‘Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.’

Paul’s words echo down the centuries to us. But let us be very clear just what a hard thing Paul is asking. To rejoice, pray and give thanks when all is well is one thing. But always? No matter how dire the circumstances? What of the man who has just lost his job in the Covid lockdown? What of the single mother who cannot pay the fuel bill? What of the husband or wife whose life’s partner has just died of Covid, died alone? Isn’t Paul asking the impossible of them?

When everything seems to go against us it is very easy to become obsessed with our own misery, to fall into clinical depression. For those who have been there - as I have been - life is very bleak, at least for a time. To be told to pull your socks up is worse than useless – it makes you feel worse. Medication helps many people, but at its root depression is a spiritual disease, I think. It is about feeling cut off from the goodness and love of God – as Jesus said on the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Depression starts to be cured when, for all our troubles, we begin to see things to rejoice over, things to pray for, things to be thankful about.

When we rejoice, ‘the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard (our) hearts and (our) minds’. Paul’s words are wise advice, both for the Christians in Philippi, and for all of us who believe in the goodness and love of God. Quite apart from the theology, they are a tool to help us resist depression.

‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.’

It is different, of course, for those who cannot, for depression, despair or whatever reason, experience God’s goodness and love. Paul’s words won’t help them directly. But we can help them, you and I can help them, by showing through our love and care for them, that there are things to rejoice at, things to look forward to, things to be thankful for.

The coming Christmas season will be psychologically difficult for many people. Society demands that everyone should feel jolly, when many don’t feel jolly at all. And this year for many it is made even worse by a second Christmas of Covid restrictions, and fear of rising infections. Let us make a special point of letting those who have lost a loved one in the last year know that we are thinking of them. Let us keep an eye out for our neighbours who are lonely, old, or finding life difficult, and show them love and support if they need it. And let us give as generously as we can to those agencies who are trying to relieve the shocking poverty too many are living with.

Echoing Paul, may ‘the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard (our) hearts and (our) minds in Christ Jesus’, this year as every year.


Sunday 5 December 2021

John the Baptist

 An address given at Templederry and St Mary's Nenagh on Sunday 5th December 2021, the 2nd Sunday of Advent

As I dodge the potholes on North Tipperary boreens, I often pray that the County Council would take to heart the words of Isaiah we’ve just heard Luke quote in his Gospel (Luke 3:1-6):

"Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;”

Joking aside, today I want to focus on John the son of Zechariah, the subject of today’s gospel reading. There are 3 questions I shall try to answer:

                 i.    Who was he?

               ii.    What was his teaching? and

             iii.    How is it relevant for us today?

So, firstly, what do we know about John the son of Zechariah?

Quite a bit, in fact - and not just from the Gospels. Josephus the 1st Cent Jewish historian is an independent source, who says more about John than he does about Jesus. John was a real person, not just a character in the gospel story. Notice how firmly Luke places John in his historical context.

He is the person we familiarly call John the Baptist. But Orthodox Christians call him John the Forerunner. This is quite as it should be, because the gospel writers and the early church saw him as the forerunner of the Messiah, foretold by Old Testament prophets including Isaiah.

Within the gospels, Luke tells us the most. He weaves the story of John’s birth in with that of Jesus. At the very beginning of his gospel, he tells us about John’s parents, a priest called Zechariah and Elizabeth his wife: both good, pious people, but getting on in years and childless. The angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah to tell him that Elizabeth will bear a son to be named John, who will be a great spiritual leader. Zechariah doesn’t believe Gabriel and is struck dumb, but Elizabeth does indeed conceive.

Elizabeth is a relative of Mary the mother of Jesus. Six months later, after Gabriel appears to Mary to tell her she will give birth to Jesus, Mary rushes off to visit Elizabeth. When Elizabeth hears Mary’s voice, the baby John leaps for joy in her womb, and Mary responds in the words of the canticle we know as the Magnificat.

In due course, Elizabeth bears her son, whom Elizabeth and Zechariah duly name John. Zechariah’s speech returns, and he gives thanks in the beautiful canticle we know as the Benedictus, which we used as our psalm today. It echoes the OT prophesies:

And thou, child, shalt be called the Prophet of the Highest,
for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation unto his people,
for the remission of their sins.

All 4 of the gospel writers tell us how John, now grown up, goes out into the barren desert country by the Jordan, calling on the crowds who followed him to repent, and baptising them as a sign of their repentance. The background to all this was a great popular religious revival: many people were convinced that the Messiah of prophesy was about to appear, and they were urgently looking for signs that this was so. As we all know, Jesus went to John to be baptised, and John recognised him - not surprisingly since they were cousins.

John was just as blunt and bold a preacher as any of the Old Testament prophets before him. He was bound to run into trouble with the authorities. And he did. He upset Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch or King of Galilee, who ordered him to be arrested, and later beheaded. Josephus says he had John killed ‘to prevent any mischief he might cause’.

Let’s now turn to examine John the Baptist’s teaching.

In today’s gospel passage, Luke says that John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. In the following passage, which we will hear next Sunday, he goes on to outline John’s teaching. Three points stand out for me:

 i.    All the gospel writers are clear that John never claims to be the Messiah, but believes that he is the forerunner. Luke puts these words in his mouth: I baptise you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming: I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

ii.    John is what we might call a hellfire preacher. Luke quotes him saying: You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. () Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire’. John seeks to shock the crowds into repentance by terrifying them with the consequences if they don’t. Then he seals their repentance by immersing them in water to symbolise that they are washed clean of sin. His preaching must have been very effective, judging by the crowds he gathered.

iii.    But John’s message is about much more than just hell fire. He calls for social justice. Quoting Luke again, he says: Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise. And he calls for people, even tax collectors and soldiers, to do whatever work they do fairly and not extort more than their due. No price gouging!

So what relevance does John the Baptist and his teaching have for us today?

Luke saw John the Baptist as the hinge on which salvation history turns, the forerunner promised by the prophets, making straight the way for Jesus the Messiah. It is difficult for us to see the world as Luke and his contemporaries did, through the prism of scriptural prophecy. And we deeply distrust fundamentalists who see it that way today.

But that world view empowered the early church to respond to Jesus’s message, no matter what the cost. Without it, the church would never have survived, and we would not be Christians today. The mysterious working of the Holy Spirit through prophecy is something we should celebrate.

Few Christian preachers nowadays stir up hellfire in their sermons, as they once did - and not so very long ago. We have become uncomfortable with the idea of the wrath of God. Instead it is ecologists and scientists who have been leading denunciations of our foolish and wicked trashing of this beautiful, God-given planet from secular pulpits, as David Attenborough did only a month ago at the COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow – you probably saw him on the TV.

Now more and more people are hearing the call to protect our planet, and are starting to act upon it. Christians are to the forefront. Our Anglican Communion has adopted as the 5th mark of mission, ‘to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth’. Pope Francis has given us a clarion call in his encyclical Laudato ‘Si. In the run up to COP26, Pope Francis, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Justin Welby, in an unprecedented joint statement, have warned of the urgency of environmental sustainability. And here in Ireland, Eco Congregation Ireland is spearheading the movement.

I hazard a prophecy, that we will hear more and more John-like hellfire from our Christian pulpits, as the ecological catastrophe of climate change intensifies. Why? Because we should be terrified of the wrath to come predicted by the scientists. That should bring us to repentance. And we should seal that repentance by mending our ways!

And as we mend our ways, we must also try to live out John’s social gospel, to share the good things we have received with our neighbours of every faith and race, at home and abroad. Mé féin is a road to perdition in our shrinking, globalised world. We must do so because this is not only the gospel of John, but the Gospel of Jesus, who empowers us by baptism not with water, but with the Holy Spirit and with fire!

Let me finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word

God of our salvation,
you straighten the winding ways of our hearts
and smooth the paths made rough by sin:
keep our hearts watchful in holiness,
and bring to perfection the good you have begun in us.
We ask this through him whose coming is certain,
whose Day draws near,
your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen

Friday 12 November 2021

Reflecting on COP26

 A reflection at morning worship for the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 9th November 2021

We’ve been hearing a cacophony of voices in the media about the UN COP26 climate negotiations in Glasgow, which continue this week. More or less vague promises of action in the future, often made by leaders whose word we do not trust. Diplomatic manoeuvres by states and multinationals determined not to be stuck with stranded assets. Competing commentaries, some spinning the success of the negotiations, others bewailing their failure. ‘Blah, blah, blah’, to quote Greta Thunberg. But what we all surely understand by now is that urgent, coordinated, global action is imperative to protect life on this beautiful living planet God has placed us on.

I suggest that the reading we have just heard from the Gospel of Mark (12:38-44) has much to teach us about how as Christians we should navigate our way through the verbiage.

Jesus warns his followers to ‘Beware of the scribes’. The scribes were lawyers, highly educated professionals, who enjoyed great privilege and status in Jewish society, as lawyers still do in ours. Yet many had a reputation for greed, for charging exorbitant fees for their services. For instance, as an executor of a will, their charges could sometimes consume the bulk of the estate. ‘They devour widows’ houses’, is the way Jesus puts it. But, he says, ‘They will receive the greater condemnation’. They will be damned.

The national and business leaders meeting at COP26 enjoy great privilege and status in our globalised world. Those who do not take effective action against climate change and the environmental crisis are the greedy scribes of today. We must beware of them. God will hold to account those who continue to exploit fossil fuels, who destroy forests and other natural habitats. They may seem invincible to us now, but their greed and false promises will be exposed. Future generations will damn their names.

If the results of COP26 prove to be weak, we may be tempted to despair. We may feel that there is nothing we can do in the face of massive carbon emissions and environmental damage. But we should learn from the action of the poor but generous widow. Jesus says to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on’. She is a model of faithful action by ordinary, modest, little people of the world.

If we allow despair to prevent us from taking even small actions, the catastrophic future we fear is what we, our children, and our children’s children will have to endure. We must ask ourselves what things, however small, each one of us can do to help avert disaster, or to support those already suffering from the environmental crisis. And we must act on the answers we find in our hearts.

We cannot know the results of our efforts, but as Christians we must strive to respond faithfully to the call to protect God’s planet. Our faithful God will respond to our faith. By his grace, others will be inspired to join with us, and that will inspire yet more to act. Positive change will begin to happen. It will grow and it will spread in a great wave of hope for a better future.

In the midst of COP26, and beyond it, we must be faithful, we need to be hopeful. We must pray for the success of COP26, and for leaders making difficult decisions in response to the climate emergency. And we must pray that the Holy Spirit will show each one of us what actions to take personally to care for God’s planet as we should.

Tuesday 12 October 2021

St Philip the Deacon

A reflection at morning worship for the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 12th October 2021.

Philip the Deacon proclaiming the good news to the Ethiopian eunuch

 (icon written by Ann Chapin)

Yesterday was the feast day of Philip the Deacon, a contemporary of the apostles and St Paul. And we remember him today. He is not to be confused with the Apostle Philip. Philip the Deacon helped the apostles to administer the alms of the growing church in Jerusalem, and when that church suffered persecution, he became a travelling evangelist first in Samaria, and then along the Mediterranean coast of Palestine. His name tells us that he was Greek speaking, a Hellenised Jew, which must have been a great advantage in his work away from the Aramaic speaking Jewish heartlands.

There is an ancient tradition that he was one of the seventy disciples whom Jesus sent out in pairs to proclaim the good news. But the first we hear of him in the New Testament is when he is appointed as one of seven deacons, along with Stephen and five others, to help the apostles to administer the growing church, so that they could concentrate on spiritual leadership. The epithet ‘deacon’ derives from the Greek word for ‘helper’. It must have been a very sensitive job, since Greek speaking Christians were starting to complain that they were being neglected by Hebrew speaking Christians in the distribution of alms.

The church in Jerusalem suffered pogroms after the martyrdom of Philip’s fellow deacon Stephen. Most Christians fled from the city, leaving the apostles in Jerusalem. Philip went first to Samaria, where he worked as a travelling evangelist, with great success, we are told. 

Then, as today’s reading tells us, he was inspired to travel to the South, toward Gaza, where he encountered the ‘Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians’. These people were probably not from Ethiopia as we know it today, but from the Kingdom of Kush in Nubia, South of Egypt, which at that time was governed by queens with the title Candace. Philip’s exposition of a text from Isaiah, from which he proclaimed the good news about Jesus, so impressed the eunuch that there and then, he asked Philip to baptise him, which Philip did. How lovely it would be if the eunuch’s conversion and baptism could be seen as the origin of the Ethiopian Church. While this is not impossible, historians tell us that the Ethiopian church dates only from the 4th Century AD.

Immediately after the baptism, we are told, ‘The Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away’ to a place called Azotus, which is identified with Ashdod, a town on the coast close to Gaza. From there Philip travelled North up the coast, ‘proclaim(ing) the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea’, a port town between modern Tel Aviv and Haifa. He must have settled in Caesarea, because the Acts of the Apostles reports that many years later St Paul and his companions stayed there with ‘Philip the evangelist, one of the seven’ on his way to Jerusalem. It adds the detail that Philip had four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy.

What a career Philip had! Guided by the Spirit he served and nurtured the growing church in many different ways, as the need arose. It is good to remember him, and all he achieved, because he is one of the heroes of the primitive church, a model for all who serve the Church as deacons. As we travel our own pilgrim paths through this world, may his story encourage us to continue proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.

Sunday 10 October 2021

Through the eye of the needle

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan church on Sunday 10th October 2021, the 19th after Trinity

Do you know how to catch a greedy monkey?

First take a jar with an opening a little larger than the monkey's hand. Attach the jar to something that can't be moved, like this pulpit. Then put something in the jar that the monkey wants – a sweet, perhaps. The monkey reaches in, grabs the treat, but with his hand full, he can't get his hand out of the opening. He's so greedy he won't let go – you have him trapped!

The man in today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel (Mark 10:17-31) is rather like the monkey, isn’t he? He had asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” - ‘Jesus, looking at him’, we are told, ‘loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.’

I think the man is a failed apostle. He received the same call to leave everything and follow Jesus that Peter and the rest of the Twelve did. Jesus loved him and must have seen his potential. But the man was trapped, trapped by all his possessions, and he could not respond to Jesus.

 What should we learn from this man’s story?

Should we all, perhaps, do what this man couldn’t do – sell all our possessions, give the money to charity, and follow Jesus in holy poverty?

Just imagine what would happen if everybody did that. Prices would immediately crash. The economy would come to a grinding halt. And as ever the weak would suffer the worst consequences.

No, the fact is that Jesus calls each one of us uniquely, personally. He does not call us all to be or to do the same thing. He calls some to follow him in holy poverty, as he called his twelve apostles, as he called others through the centuries like St Francis of Assisi, and as perhaps he calls some today. But very few of us are called to be apostles.

Rather each one of us should practice listening attentively for Jesus to reveal our personal call, through prayer, through our conscience and through the working of the Holy Spirit. And we should pray that when we hear Jesus call, we will be able to respond.

Jesus goes on to reflect on how wealth and possessions can cut us off from God.

“Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!” he says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

What a knack Jesus has for vivid, humorous images! – once heard, no one ever forgets this image of a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle, as a metaphor for human impossibility.

Almost all of us here in Ireland are rich compared to most on the planet. Surely we must all sit up and take notice of these words of Jesus, whatever else our personal call might be.

The trouble, I think, is not wealth and possessions in themselves; it is how we use them - and how we allow them to use us. They are God’s good gifts, but it is all too easy for us to allow them to close our ears to Jesus’s call, preventing us from being the people God wants us to be – in other words preventing us from entering the kingdom of God. We must always be prepared to surrender wealth and possessions back to God, or to give it away to others, if that is necessary to do God’s will.

Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader, coined the slogan ‘To be rich is glorious’

Doesn’t that sum up the false values of our consumer capitalist society? We share those values with other modern industrial societies, including supposedly Communist China.

Advertising encourages us to want more and more stuff we don’t need. We run around in circles to get the money to buy it, at the expense of our health, our communities, and our families. And we consume it and finally throw it away, damaging our environment in the process. Yet we are no happier for doing so! Meanwhile, the owners of capital seek to increase their wealth, and if they cannot find a profitable investment hide it away in off-shore accounts. We are on a treadmill leading us to the despair that Job expressed in the 1st reading (Job 23:1-9,16-17): ‘If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face!’

We all know this kind of collective madness cannot go on - unless we are peculiarly deaf and blind. People made in God’s image are being hurt. God’s planet is being trashed. Humanity’s greed is damaging the beautiful life filled planet God has placed us on. This cannot be God’s will. The Holy Spirit is speaking very clearly, and our consciences must tell us this is wrong. Now, surely, we need as a society to discard the false values, to surrender our greedy dreams of riches.

Jesus tells us that it is almost impossible for us to enter God's kingdom while we hold on to our riches. But how hard it is to let them go! “Then who can be saved?” say the disciples to one another. “For mortals” – that’s men and women like you and me – “it is impossible”, says Jesus, “but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

The author of our 2nd reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews (4:12-16), urges us to listen to the living, active word of God, and to trust in Jesus, the Son of God. ‘Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness,’ he says, ‘so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need’.

This surely is what we must do to escape from the treadmill of riches. We must pray that God will show us how to live more abundantly with less, how to heal our damaged earth, how to rekindle community, and how to serve fundamental human need instead of worshiping greed.

I shall finish with a Collect of the Word.

Merciful God,
in your Son you call not the righteous but sinners to repentance;
draw us away from the easy road that leads to destruction,
and guide us into paths that lead to life abundant,
that in seeking your truth, and obeying your will,
we may know the joy of being a disciple of Jesus our Saviour,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen

Tuesday 14 September 2021

Hope amidst climate chaos

 Reflection at Morning Prayer for the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 14th September 2021

Creation Time 2021

In the reading from Proverbs 1:20-33, we have just heard the voice of Wisdom, personified as a woman, raising her voice in the public square, crying out from the city walls and at the city gate, rebuking the people of a great city. If the people do not listen, says Wisdom, ‘the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them’.

Theologians, who always like to argue, disagree about the nature of Wisdom. Is she the mouth-piece of the Holy Spirit? Is her voice that of the as yet unborn Christ? But we can surely all agree her voice comes from God.

Today the prophetic voices of climate scientists and ecologists are calling out to us in the public square and the media, the modern equivalent of the city walls, to warn us that we must urgently change the way we live. Theirs is surely the voice of Wisdom in our own times. We must live sustainably within the resources of this good earth, or suffer the consequences. Unless we stop burning fossil fuels, our children and grandchildren will experience climate chaos – the droughts and fires, storms and floods of the last months are only the foretaste of what they will experience. If we continue to carelessly destroy the delicate web of life on this beautiful planet, there will not be enough food for all, many will starve, and the beautiful diversity of living creatures, which feeds our spirits, will be snuffed out.

Human nature is greedy, and our whole society is shaped by market capitalism, which generates ever greater consumption – the antithesis of sustainability. Will it be possible for human-kind to change course in time to prevent disaster?

The barriers to change are immense, and time is very short. It would be all too easy to lose hope. But that would lead to inaction, and bring about the disaster we fear. As Christians we are people of hope, people who rejoice in the good news, people who believe that the kingdom of God is at hand. The voice of Wisdom in Proverbs promises, ‘Whoever listens to me will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm’. We must listen to that voice of hope.

And there are signs of hope. More and more ordinary people are listening to the wisdom of scientists. Governments around the world are beginning to take action. They will come together in October in Yunnan, China for the UN Biodiversity Conference, and in November in Glasgow at the COP26 UN Climate Conference.

At the start of Creation Time 2021, Pope Francis, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and the Archbishop of Canterbury, in a rare joint message, called on us to pray for world leaders as they prepare to meet, and to consider what choices we all must make. ‘We call on everyone’, they say, ‘whatever their belief or worldview, to endeavour to listen to the cry of the earth and of people who are poor, examining their behaviour and pledging meaningful sacrifices for the sake of the earth which God has given us.’

Let us join them in prayer:

We pray for the good earth which God has given us, and for the wisdom and will to conserve it.

We pray for the world leaders preparing to meet in Glasgow at the COP26 climate change conference in November, and in October at the UN Biodiversity Conference in Yunnan.

Grant them the wisdom to take the hard decisions before them.

And inspire us all to make meaningful sacrifices for the sake of the planet,

working together and taking responsibility for how we use our resources.

Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Sunday 29 August 2021

My Beloved


Today’s OT reading from the Song of Solomon(2:8-13) is beautifully romantic, isn’t it?

It is a passionate, poetic dialogue between two lovers:

·         The one cries out, “(I hear) the voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills.

·         The other responds, “‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.’”

Nothing can persuade me that this is about anything but the physical desire the couple have for one another – they are lovers, and they are in love. Which is why my wife Marty and I chose this passage, sharing the voices between us, at a service in Killodiernan Church to bless and celebrate our marriage, a quarter of a century ago.

But, you may ask, why should such passionate love poetry be read in church? Indeed, why should the ‘Song of Solomon’ be included in our Bible at all, since God is not mentioned in it even once? The early church chose to view this Jewish text as an allegory for the love between God and his people. Later Christians read it as an allegory of the love of Christ for his Church. And we may do so too.

But I prefer to see the inclusion of the Song of Solomon in our Bible as a sanctification of passionate human love, a recognition that it is a holy thing, inspired I feel sure by the Holy Spirit.

In our 2nd reading, James addresses his audience as ‘my beloved’, which no doubt explains why the lectionary pairs it with this reading from the Song of Solomon. ‘Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above’, says James ‘coming down from the Father of lights.’ The essence of passionate human love is surely the generous giving by lovers of themselves, one to the other. Such love is a perfect gift from God. Without it, loving, stable human families would not be possible.

Let us look at today’s 2nd reading (James 1:17-27) a bit more closely.

The author identifies himself as ‘James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ’, and he is writing to ‘the twelve tribes scattered abroad’. It is traditionally attributed to James the brother of Jesus, also known as James the Just. St Paul describes him as ‘one of the pillars of the church’ in Jerusalem. James remains in Jerusalem and writes to Jewish Christians in the diaspora, at the same time as Paul travels among and writes to Gentile Christians.

It is God’s good purpose, says James, to ‘(give) us birth by the word of truth’. I am reminded of the opening words of John’s Gospel: ‘The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth … grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’.

‘So that’, James continues, ‘we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures’.When we offer the first fruits of the harvest to God, we intend them to be the best of the good things he has graced us with. And similarly, God intends us, through the word of truth he has given us in Jesus, to be the best people we can be. James pleads with those he writes to, and to us: ‘Rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls’.

‘Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger’, says James, ‘for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness’. There is a great deal of anger about just now, isn’t there? And not just anger about secular things. For instance, Christians who disagree about how to respond to God’s word in the way they treat the LGBT community are furious with each other, even in our own Church of Ireland. But James tells us that such anger is unproductive, it does not produce positive results. Instead, we should respond to God’s word with meekness, with humility, not use it to bludgeon each other in argument.

But our meekness must not result in passivity. We should ‘be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves’, says James, ‘Those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers  - they will be blessed in their doing’.

‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this, says James: ‘to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world’. Listening to God’s word in church on Sunday is worthless – worthless - if it does not cause us to act upon it. Our response must be twofold.

·         First, we must generously support the poor and the marginalised – and for me that includes our LGBT brothers and sisters. If not, we deserve the rebuke that Jesus gives to the Pharisees and scribes in the 3rd reading (Mark7:1-8,14-15,21-23): ‘You (are) hypocrites. You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’.

·         Second, we must resist the pressures of the world to be complicit in evil. We must guard and discipline our hearts as well, for as Jesus teaches us, ‘It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come…. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person’.

I finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word:

Cleanse our consciences, O Lord,
and enlighten our hearts
through the daily presence of your Son Jesus Christ,
that when he comes in glory to be our judge
we may be found undefiled and acceptable in his sight;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen