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Church of Ireland General Synod: Pioneering future before us, says Archbishop McDowell

19 May 2023

Annette McGrath

Archbishop McDowell delivers his presidential address

Archbishop McDowell delivers his presidential address

Presidential address

THE Church of Ireland had survived the “cataclysm” of Covid but must look to a pioneering future, the Archbishop of Armagh, the Most Revd John McDowell, said in his presidential address at the General Synod last week.

Archbishop McDowell, opening the Synod in Wexford on Friday, reminded members of his focus on reconciliation and gratitude when he took up the post in 2020 (News, 13 March 2020). “There is much on our island that needs to be reconciled, and much to give thanks for,” he told members. “Of course, there is also a huge amount of straightforward, ordinary, boring work to do for each of us — lay and ordained.”

He praised the resilience and perseverance of Church of Ireland members, whose dedication had brought parishes and diocese through the “difficult period” of the pandemic.

The Church had survived the “slow-motion cataclysm” better than expected, but not without some scars and some loss of membership, Archbishop McDowell said. Established Churches in Ireland had been declining numerically for years, although that did not measure any increase in faith. “However, numbers matter, too,” he said, because of Jesus’s Great Commission to make disciples.

Long before Covid, the idea of pioneer ministry had been growing in the Church, he told the Synod. After scrutiny by various church bodies, there were plans to collaborate with the Church Army to unleash pioneer ministry in Ireland.

If churchpeople were not a blessing to the communities where they lived, they would be at best an irrelevance, and at worst a curse, Archbishop McDowell said. Despite the Church’s small size, it was not insignificant socially, as was the early New Testament Church. But neither was it one of the “great engines of the State. . . We need a realistic understanding of how we are viewed, and a realistic grasp of the spiritual gifts we bring.”

He recalled attending the commemorations of the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, in April (Comment, 14 April), and in particular the “spiritual sacrifices of mind and soul and body” made by George Mitchell, the American who chaired the talks that produced the agreement. Even for those who disagreed with the politics of the Agreement, the spirit in which Mr Mitchell had carried out his work was vitally important. Sacrifice was at the heart of the nature of God, and so must also be the core of all things the Church did, Archbishop McDowell concluded.

The Churches had something significant to contribute to the building of Irish society, he told the members, although it must not become captured by any particular political tendency. Most Church of Ireland members in Northern Ireland were probably Unionists, while their brethren south of the border were more likely to be Nationalists. Many others would reject both labels. Aligning denominational and political loyalties had “impeded the Church’s usefulness in the world, and has at times also cheapened the gospel”. Jesus was not a Unionist, a Nationalist, or a “Neither”, Archbishop McDowell reminded the Synod. “He is the Sovereign Lord of all peoples.”

Archbishop McDowell pointed to a resurgence of interest in the ancient spiritual tourism of pilgrimage: “an antidote to this world that we live in”. The Church was blessed to have many places of pilgrimage in its care which could offer missional and evangelistic opportunities to those who have wandered away from faith, perhaps dovetailing with the new pioneer ministries.

Ireland’s ethnic make-up had changed almost beyond description in the past 50 years, but there were far too few people of colour in Sunday congregations, let alone vestries, committees, and synods, Archbishop McDowell lamented. “I make many excuses to myself about why this is so, and have come to the conclusion that prejudices — including my own — are very deep-seated and therefore out of view.”

These prejudices should be treated as though they were as poisonous and infectious as Covid, and the Church must do everything it could to guard against its spread. He had now convened a reference group of clergy and others from ethnic-minority backgrounds to help to guide diversity and inclusion work.

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