THE Church of Ireland must change after a year of testing and challenge, the new Primate of All Ireland and Archbishop of Armagh, the Most Revd John McDowell, said as he opened this year’s meeting of the General Synod on Tuesday of last week.
Members met online to discuss Brexit, race, and reconciliation, as well as issues related to the coronavirus.
Archbishop McDowell began his address: “We are all learning, and I hope the learning is not too painful.” The whole Church had been caught up in the limbo imposed by the pandemic, trying to adjust to the new reality, he said.
In this time, he had broken the record for the longest gap between election and enthronement as Archbishop in the history of the Church: he was elected in March, and the lockdown has so far prevented his enthronement (News, 13 March).
Beyond the immediate pandemic, there was the prospect of significant disruption between Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Great Britain, after “many decades of stable relationships”, Archbishop McDowell said.
Reconciliation work in Northern Ireland had begun, he said, where division and sectarianism were infecting almost every part of life. “One thing we can be sure of: the task of rebuilding trust, the wisdom of knowing when to speak and when to keep one’s counsel, and the resilience of determined peace-makers will be needed more than ever.”
During Advent, when the Church looked forward to the coming of God in judgement, members should not forget that they would be asked to account for every act — those which wound and divide, as well as those of generosity and forgiveness, he said. There was even a need for reconciliation within the Church, including a “repellent self-righteousness”.
He made his own apology for failing to speak out promptly after the death of George Floyd earlier this year, which led to the Black Lives Matter protests (News, 5 June). “That hesitation wounded a number of people in the Church of Ireland who had expected some words of solidarity from a senior figure within the Church,” he said. A subsequent meeting with ethnic-minority clergy and Readers had been useful, he said.
Some communities in the Church had not yet been recognised or valued enough, he told the Synod. “Look at the colour of the faces on your screen. We still have a lot to learn, myself included, about what we mean when we say ‘I believe in the catholic Church.’”
He had been proud, however, of how the Church had coped with the past year amid uncertainty. Since in-person worship had not been possible, churchgoers had “reached out into our communities and worked with all people of good will to be companions for the lonely and a support to those who were afraid”. Some may have lost the habit of going to church, Archbishop McDowell said, but some of those who had been introduced to church for the first time through online services may come in person when church buildings reopen.
Although the prospect of a vaccine had brought hope, it was still too soon to say what the Church, or even life more generally, would look like, after Covid-19.
Archbishop McDowell drew attention to two groups that, he said, had suffered particularly during the pandemic: the elderly and the young. “As a society, our treatment of older people has been not far short of a disgrace.”
The nation had accepted the risk of keeping schools open, which did not outweigh the risk of lost education; there was, therefore, a case for a more lenient approach to care homes, he argued.
The younger generation, too, had been hit hard, and would have somehow to deal with the debt that had been built up during these months. “I can’t help thinking that, in terms of tax structures and investment, some of us will need to be prepared to have less so that another generation can have something of the material comfort we enjoy.”