IRELAND is beginning to be redolent of how it was in the 17th century, with “the warring super-powers of Europe slugging it out for supremacy”, the Archbishop of Armagh, the Most Revd John McDowell, told the Church of Ireland General Synod at its first meeting of the new triennium on Thursday.
He spoke of how the Church of Ireland transcended political boundaries. “It has not been unusual for me in episcopal ministry to have been in a parish in Northern Ireland in the morning praying for Her Majesty the Queen, and in a parish in the Republic of Ireland in the afternoon praying for the President,” he said.
“Indeed, it is one of the great privileges for ministering in an all-island Church to do so. But if it is to mean anything and have any integrity, then I must not just pray, but also work for the good of both places.”
It had been a torrid time to be in government, he acknowledged, especially for the complex coalition governments of Ireland, and politicians had without doubt been subjected to unprecedented pressures and demands. “They should be able to look to us in the Churches as encouragers, and be completely assured of our prayers.”
The Archbishop reiterated concerns he expressed at last year’s Synod about currents and developments in diplomacy and politics which had the potential to eat away at many of the gains, particularly in Northern Ireland, secured, for instance, by the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.
“These pressures remain, and have, if anything, intensified,” he said. “And they will continue to do so as long as Northern Ireland is governed by policies which primarily respond to the needs of places other than Northern Ireland, wherever they may be.
“Indeed, the whole of Ireland is beginning to be redolent of how it was in the 17th century, with the warring super-powers of Europe slugging it out for supremacy, but leaving behind social and political divisions which will be found difficult to heal.”
This year is the centenary of the founding of Northern Ireland and of Saorstát Éireann (the Irish Free State) — something, the Archbishop said, which had “the potential to be divisive, with differing interpretations of those momentous events becoming flashpoints for bitter words and a hardening of attitudes. . . As a Church with members throughout the island, we have a vocation to model how to maintain a sort of non-political unity in the face of those forces; of differences around us within the family.”
Church leaders in Ireland issued a statement on St Patrick’s Day, 17 March, highlighting opportunities for churches in this centenary year “to be intentional in creating spaces for encounter with those different from us, and those who may feel marginalised in the narratives that have shaped our community identity. That will require us to face difficult truths about failings in our own leadership in the work of peace and reconciliation” (News, 19 March).
He described the statement as an honest attempt to respect differences. “Although each of us undoubtedly has some sort of political leanings, we tried to consider these important historical events simply as disciples of Jesus Christ, who have been called to a particular form of leadership in the service of the Kingdom: our first and ultimate allegiance.”
With reference to diversity, he spoke of a growing understanding of “how difficult it can still be to be a person of colour on this island — and even, at times, in our Church”.
A research project in collaboration with a group of ethnically diverse clergy and readers is to examine and make recommendations on how the Church of Ireland can become truly a place of welcome for those from every ethnic background, rather than be “stuck in what has been described as “the continuous loop of the visitor experience”.
Referring to climate change, the Archbishop said that there was “an enormous task of reconciliation to be carried out in our relationship with the created order. We cannot honestly challenge governments without also challenging ourselves.”