CANON Harry Gilmore (Derry & Raphoe) brought encouraging news for small primary schools to Synod when he proposed the Board of Education report. Despite support from the Department of Education, there had nevertheless been a desire to close many schools with four teachers or fewer, he told the Synod.
“These schools are often the backbone of our parishes in the Republic,” he said. “I’m not running down the notion of bigger schools at all, but just to say that small schools often are very important in the local parish and community.
“A new initiative has just been launched — the Small Schools Initiative — and we, the Protestant community, have been offered the opportunity to take part in the two-year project in Donegal. We’re starting any time now.”
In what will probably be called The Columba Project, four church schools in a cluster in the north-west of the county — Dunfanaghy, Creeslough, Ballymore, and Gartan — will be given a co-ordinator for two years to help them to work out ways in which administration can be shared and they can be helped to function better.
The project was well supported, and the Department of Education “have actually got a budget for it; so, once they put the money on the table, you know they’re serious”, Canon Gilmore said. “We hope that whatever we learn from [this initiative] might be of use to other small schools in years to come.”
Seconding the report, the Revd Catherine Simpson (Down & Dromore) paid tribute to the “dedication, tenacity, and determination” of all the schools during unprecedented and challenging times. “The Board of Education [Northern Ireland] continues to have representatives at all levels of education, and we continue to make a case for the influence of the Christian faith on education,” she said. “There is a greater move in society to call for minimising the Christian influence, and, indeed, there are many who wish to remove the influence of Churches from schools.
“The board is working tirelessly to combat this, and asks for your support in protecting the Christian ethos of Controlled schools within Northern Ireland, and in so doing ensuring quality education for all.”
The Bishop of Clogher, Dr Ian Ellis, reminded Synod members of the Church’s direct influence on education, and, in an appeal for more governors for the Controlled high schools, describing the responsibility of serving on a school board as “bigger than just fulfilling a right and sitting on the seat”.
Racism, injustice, and gender-based violence
THE Archdeacon of Cork, Cloyne & Ross, the Ven. Adrian Wilkinson, drew particular attention in his Standing Committee report to the statement on racism and injustice in the report of the Church and Society Commission (CASC): “Hidden history lies behind statues and monuments, some of which are in churches.”
The scourge of racism was “still with us”, he told the Synod. “I’m sure we can all think of elaborate memorials, constructed to extol the virtues of the great, good, and wealthy in past generations.
“However, today we might recognise that, for some of these people, their fortune or status was, in part, built upon the contribution, or indeed the suffering, of many other unnamed individuals. We can’t change history, though it is constantly being rewritten, as fresh evidence, increased awareness, and changed context provide new perspectives.
“We would not want to pull down the Georgian mansions of the aristocracy, but where the wealth to fund these impressive buildings was derived from slavery on sugar plantations, or child labour down coal pits, the tour-guide literature and audio-visual presentations can become powerful vehicles for education about such a chequered past.
“In the same way, where these memorials exist in our churches, they should be used to highlight the issues of slavery, exploitation, and injustice, and our Christian response to this continuing problem in the world today.”
Violence against women and girls and gender justice was also a key focus of the report from CASSC, which has partnered with the Mothers’ Union (MU) over the issue. June Butler (Down & Dromore), All Ireland President of the MU, described domestic abuse as the most insidious crime in Ireland today: “Such is the fear and destruction engendered that the UN has termed it the ‘shadow epidemic’,” she said.
She highlighted the many opportunities for activism: the ongoing Word Council of Churches Thursday in Black protest; the MU’s global day of activism on 27 November, and the UN Women’s 16 days of Activism against Gender-based Violence, taking place from 25 November to 10 December.
Jacqui Armstrong (Derry), who leads on gender justice for the MU, said that domestic abuse existed in every group of Irish society. The Church was not immune, but churches rarely spoke out on domestic abuse. “We have an opportunity to change the story. We are challenged by our faith to challenge unjust structures,” she said
The Bishop of Limerick & Killaloe, the Rt Revd Kenneth Kearon, said: “Gender is not a woman’s issue. It is an issue mainly for men. Men ought to support these protest actions and show where they stand.”
A retired GP, Scott Brown (Connor), said that, by the time women appeared in a doctor’s surgery, they were already at the end of their tether. “A patriarchal and conservative Church desires to hide all these shameful acts,” he said, urging the Church to acknowledge this.
YOUNG people needed to be “reintroduced, reincluded, and reinvigorated” as youth activities continued to reopen, said the Bishop of Meath & Kildare, the Most Revd Pat Storey, who has a place in history as the first woman bishop in Ireland and the UK (News, 13 September 2020).
The past 18 months had been particularly difficult for young people, she said. “They have felt isolated without the company of their friends, robbed of the early university years, and devoid of the fellowship of their churches and youth groups.
“As president of the youth department, I have also witnessed the isolation and helplessness of staff, diocesan youth officers, and volunteer youth leaders around the whole island. Youth ministry, due to government regulations, effectively stopped. Whilst all of us found the pandemic difficult, some young people found it unbearable, and we will be dealing with some residual mental-health problems for years to come.”
But staff and youth officers had persevered, reinvented the way in which they communicated with their young people, and had gone virtual, she said. It had left them in need of rest and recuperation, but they had been exemplary in their delivery of youth ministry in trying circumstances: “It hasn’t gone unnoticed and it is not taken for granted,” she said. “Young people will remember that you kept the youth flag virtually flying.”
The Bishop drew particular attention to a new resource, A Welcoming Church, which addressed ways in which youth ministry could be inclusive of those with particular challenges, “including the anxious, the hearing or visually impaired, those with mobility difficulties, those in chronic pain, dyslexia, and many more. The pack gives us tips on how to be more inclusive with those who don’t fit into our often thoughtless routines.”