Average Sunday attendance for the Church of Ireland falls to 58,000 — 15 per cent of Anglicans are active churchgoers Archbishop tells synod
(7 May 2015) As we begin a new session of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland, it is a real pleasure to welcome new members to the synod, and of course to welcome back those who have served the Church of Ireland previously in this capacity. Other than to welcome you, the only other comment I would make in this regard is to ask us all to remember what a synod is. It is not a party conference. It is a gathering of the people of God – bishops, clergy and laity – in His presence and for His purposes. Everything we do and say over these days is to be God–centred and is to be worthy of our Christian calling.
Since our last synod, we have said farewell to Bishop Trevor Williams (and we noted his forthcoming retirement and paid tribute to him at our last synod). We now welcome in his stead Bishop Kenneth Kearon, and we wish him, his wife Jennifer and their wider family every happiness and blessing in his ministry among the people of Limerick and Killaloe in the years ahead. Concomitant with this appointment – following the decisions of last year’s General Synod – was the direct participation of three Church of Ireland bishops in the consecration as an episcopal minister, and installation as President of the Irish Methodist Conference, of the Revd Peter Murray last June, and the participation of three Methodist Presidents or former Presidents in the consecration of Bishop Kearon. We pray God’s blessing on the further working out of the Covenant between the Church of Ireland and Irish Methodism.
I would like us to note two retirements from the staff of the Representative Church Body. The first has already come into effect and the second will happen in the next few weeks. The first is the retirement of Ms Linda Andrews, diligent and hard–working legal secretary in the Representative Church Body for the past 45 years. Secondly Mrs Jenny Compston of the Press Office in Belfast, a warm and friendly presence there for so many of us, will be retiring after this synod. We wish them both long and happy retirements.
In addition, Mr Garrett Casey our hard–working Synod Officer will soon be leaving the staff of Church House to move full–time into the legal profession. In thanking him for his work for this Synod and its associated bodies, we also welcome his successor, Dr Catherine Smith.
We also wish the Revd Dr Ian Ellis, Secretary to the General Synod’s Northern Ireland Board of Education, every happiness and blessing as he now returns to parish life, as we thank him for the tremendous work he undertook on our behalf for over twelve years as secretary to the Board, and in this context we also welcome Dr Peter Hamill as he prepares to take on this role.
Looking further into the future, our Chief Officer and Secretary General, Mr Adrian Clements, has informed the Executive Committee that he plans to retire after the next General Synod. Tributes will certainly be paid to him at the General Synod of 2016, but I believe that even as plans shortly begin to appoint his successor, we would all want him to know how much we have appreciated his tremendous work over the past three years as Chief Officer, not least for his energy and commitment in working with others to bring the life of the RCB, the Standing Committee and the General Synod into a closer alignment and a more unified and forward–looking culture. On behalf of all of us I know you would want me to ask the Secretary General (as he is in this context) to thank his staff in Dublin and Belfast for their diligence well beyond the point of duty on behalf of the greater good of the whole Church of Ireland.
At the General Synod of 2013 held here in Armagh – the first over which I presided as Primate – I tried to suggest that we undertake the business of synod within an understanding of the Church of God as being a living organism rather than simply an organisation. We were to be capable of adaptation, as all organisms must be, and hence ready to accept that although some aspects of church life may flourish, others may wither away, and that both realities must be faced with confidence and honesty. I continued last year to develop this image of the Church as organism with a central theme – that it is an organism that must be characterised by a distinctive nature, the nature of giving and of generosity to all. I would like this year to suggest that we develop this idea further again – allowing it, I hope, to permeate all our discussions – by proposing that of a further fundamental understanding of our life as a Church is that it is always and everywhere relational.
This is in fact foundational if we are to be truly Trinitarian Christians. Without probing too intensively into the doctrine of the Trinity, I would say that any orthodox understanding of the Trinity is that it shows us God who is not merely a formula or a cipher but rather God who is, as God, an entirely loving relationship – the relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This relationship of complete Love within the Godhead is one into which you and I are invited to participate, through and in God’s grace. As it was expressed so succinctly in last Sunday’s Epistle reading from the First Letter of John, ‘God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them.’ (1 John 4:16)
Hence, all that we are and all that we do is not only to be consciously in the presence of God, but it is truly to be in relationship with God and thus with one another. And so, any Trinitarian faith that is not totally and lovingly relational, with God and with the wholeness of his creation, is both deformed and defective.
Our Orthodox brothers and sisters in Christ would remind us constantly that the creation itself is a lens through which we are enabled to glimpse something of the beauty, power and love of God. When we then treat the creation merely as an object to which we have no need to relate responsibly, and when we abuse and misuse the environment which is integral to God’s creative plan, it is not merely greed and folly but also something close to sacrilege.
We live, however, in a world which has become dangerously non–relational and hence dangerously unstable. The commonplace but horrifying news stories of cold–blooded massacres of those of a different religious faith or of the cynical overfilling of boats crammed with migrants from North Africa are perhaps the most dramatic illustrations of a world which too often sees other human beings as anonymised and disposable commodities rather than as those to whom we must be in relationship if we are truly human.
But we would do well to move closer to our own doorsteps. At a recent meeting of the Irish Council of Churches, we were reminded by Major Anne Read of the Salvation Army that human trafficking is a live issue in our own communities here, throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland. She explained the basic evil strategy of tricking vulnerable people across borders through physical threat into sexual or labour exploitation and what is, in effect, domestic slavery. The depersonalisation of people so that they become abstract entities with whom we need have no relationship, and for whose safety and dignity we need have no concern, is something against which Christian people must always contend.
And yet our society encourages a fear of ‘otherness’ which will inevitably issue in the increase of hate crimes against those who are perceived as ‘other’. But the answer is not a homogenisation of society that seeks to label people in precisely the same packaging, and argues that any differentiation is axiomatically demeaning to one set of people or another. This is a deeply flawed philosophy. In Christ’s love, there is assuredly neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male and female, but we must equally do justice to what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls, ‘the dignity of difference’. Difference is there to be celebrated and enjoyed, not bogusly erased or made a basis for hatred or suspicion.
Part of our task as Christian disciples is to bring back into our world a proper sense of relatedness, rather than allow a retreat into what is, at heart, anonymised unreality. In a recent survey of British teenagers, it was revealed that 25% of the respondents felt happier on–line than in real face–to–face engagement with others. More frighteningly, 13% believed that their on–line friends knew them better than friends they met in person. It is scarcely surprising that 25% wished they could give up on social media but couldn’t bring themselves to do so; they were genuinely addicted. If one–third of young people make ‘friends’ acquaintances on–line before ever meeting them in person (if in fact they ever do meet them), and if Twitter acquaintances are very likely virtual strangers, the consequences are probably inevitable. And so, for every age and not only for young people, on–line bullying and abuse is a live issue, where even death threats are apparently regarded as a reasonable response to some perceived discomfort or annoyance. This is not to demonise the remarkable gift that instant electronic communication may certainly be in so many ways, but it is, however, a salient warning that when we cease to understand that real relationship and inter–relatedness is at the heart of what it is to be a human person, we face dire consequences. Hence the immense need for our Christian communities to be places that are characterised by wholesome inter–relationship.
Since the last General Synod, the statistics from the first church–wide survey on church attendance became available. Although there were few shocks in what we learnt, it was by any standards a necessary reality check. In terms of those who declared themselves as Church of Ireland in the most recent censuses in both jurisdictions on the island, the average attendance over three Sundays in November 2013 was 15%, 58,000 in all. There was a mathematical flaw in the process that will be ironed out for the next survey, in that we do not know whether it was the same 58,000 who attended on each of the three Sundays. (This seems unlikely but we would be unwise in the extreme to assume that there was little or no overlap in attendance over the three Sundays in question!) Further analysis reveals that of those attending, only 13% were between the ages of twelve and thirty. As I commented last June in a media statement, the statistics present the scale of the missional challenge ahead of us as a Church, but nevertheless it is one that if we cannot embrace with confidence and with hope in Jesus Christ we may as well close the doors of our churches now. We must relate to reality, and we must also relate to the future ahead of us, a future towards which God is always calling us.
Hence, last year, I also urged the Church of Ireland to look towards the future, to adopt the mind–set of a Long–Term Church, rather than to live metaphorically from hand to mouth with no vision beyond the immediate exigencies of the present moment. This project has taken off. Much progress has been made over the past year and I will draw your attention to a few of the elements. But a significant part of the potential success of the initiative will be in supplying both coherence and also a shared, consistently understood and confident long–term vision for the Church of Ireland, one that encompasses a number of existing projects and also launches new ideas arising from the energy and thinking released by the initiative itself. In the course of this synod, through the report of the Commission on Episcopal Ministry and Structures, we will seek to discern the characteristics of an appropriate episcopal ministry for the twenty–first century Church of Ireland. As we focus on the need for greater relatedness within the Church, we will also be looking at central Human Resources (HR) policies and management tools for parishes and dioceses. It is hoped that a new handbook for parishes will be published on–line within the next year and considerable progress has already been made on establishing a central electronic database of Church property, a necessity in a more complex and fast–moving world. Work has also been continuing on improving communications technology with the aim of facilitating central meetings from different venues. This will clearly not replace all central meetings, but it will mean that much time, energy and financial resources may be saved, particularly with regard to some smaller meetings.
If we are to envision a Church which will represent a continuity with its tradition but which will nevertheless push frontiers beyond the edges of our present structures, we must also be ready for ministry to display different contours in different missional contexts. With this in mind, the House of Bishops – in collaboration with the Commission on Ministry – is working on possible strategies for training those who may have the calling and the talents to work outside the present structures, in every sense ‘outside the box’. We must be able to relate to those who are not part of our worshipping communities and who would perhaps feel deeply uncomfortable to be regarded as such. Discussion on this area of ‘pioneer ministry’ will, I know, be part of the debate on the Commission on Ministry.
In four years’ time, 2019, the Church of Ireland will be marking (and, I hope, celebrating) one hundred and fifty years since its disestablishment in the summer of 1869. One of my deepest hopes is that we may also undertake two major projects that will have reached fruition by then, or at least be in the final stages of completion by that point.
The first is a complete re–writing of the Constitution of the Church of Ireland. Our present Constitution has served us well but, for most people (certainly those outside the immediate inner core of the Church) it is, to say the least, abstruse. As a Church we need a written constitution and my hope is that, with the cooperation of the General Synod, which could labour and agonise over every clause in such a document and hence delay matters considerably and less than entertainingly, we will be able to produce a Constitution that will be accessible, in every sense, to the total membership of the Church. It will need to be legally robust, it will inevitably contain some technical language (but one hopes that this would be kept to a minimum) and it must relate to the civil law to the degree that its provisions cannot be overturned on legal appeal beyond the confines of the Church. And, as I have said, it must be comprehensible.
A further project that would take some time (but probably not too much time) is that we commission a group of people from outside the Church of Ireland, and including some from outside Ireland, to carry out what we would in other contexts call an ‘inspection’, and let us know what we are doing right, but also what we have to learn about ourselves, and what we could and should be doing better as a Church. This was last undertaken in the Church of Ireland (as part of the ‘Partners in Mission’ venture) some forty years ago. We need to be inspected again! We need to look to the future, and be truly a Church that has confidence in God’s future for us. We need to know ourselves if we are to relate to others or to the future.
Last year, within the overarching theme of being a giving community, the General Synod committed itself to being part of the Flesh and Blood campaign. Since then I have on your behalf been involved in the launch of this campaign in Ireland, both in Northern Ireland and in the Republic, in company with Archbishop Eamon Martin. This unique initiative is the first cross border partnership between the Church (in the broadest sense) and health services. Its aim is simply to encourage parishes and church congregations to see blood and organ donation as a part of their giving. It also seeks to equip people as advocates for blood and organ donation, enabling them to raise awareness of the need for donors with their family, friends and community. It’s about opening a conversation, which we hope will spur many on to become donors – potentially helping to save thousands of lives each year across this island. Each diocese and every parish is now asked to take up the gauntlet, to promote the campaign and encourage people to respond with an act of generosity.
As we seek to relate better and more wholesomely to one another, and to relate to the future that God is beckoning us towards, we must remember also that, as Christian citizens, we are called to relate to the society in which we live. Today marks a general election in the UK, in a couple of weeks’ time there will be two referenda in the Republic of Ireland and within the near future there will also be elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly and for the Republic of Ireland’s Oireachtas. We are not a Church community which, for the most part, makes official declarations as to how people should vote. What we do ask is that each individual Christian disciple thinks carefully about the issues before him or her, and about the policies being presented to them and then, without paying undue heed to the sometimes strident and petulant siren sounds that may present themselves as the dominant voice of righteousness, decide in conscience before God what they believe will truly be for the common good, the good of all.
Next year, 2016, marks the centenary of two iconic events which will be widely commemorated. The first is the Easter Rising which in many respects marks the real beginnings of the present–day Irish Republic. The second is the Battle of the Somme in Northern France which began on 1 July 1916 and in which so many Irishmen, from all parts of the island and of different religious traditions, fought and died together. It is of great importance that these 2016 commemorations are neither one–dimensional nor intentionally polarising. Those who have studied the period around 1916 as history rather than as propaganda (and, as it happens, I can claim to be among their number) know that there is far too much ambiguity and complexity in every aspect of those two key events for anyone to imagine that there is any single precise clear–cut narrative to be found. As Christian traditions we have a rightful place within these remembrances, and we must use such a place with real spiritual depth of thought in the interests of peace and of healing rather than division.
As we now set about our work for the Church and hence also in the service of God, we again ask his blessing on all that we undertake, and pray also that the words of our mouths and the thoughts of our hearts in these days may be for His glory alone.
Archbishop of Armagh