Speech at the report of the Diocesan Council for Mission at the Diocesan Synod on Wednesday, 18th October 2006
This past summer I reached the point of being able to say that I have lived most of my life in Ireland. I love living here, I particularly love Dublin, but there is one thing that disappoints me when I hear it. There continues to be a habit amongst some Irish people of self-denigration, of putting themselves down; there is a tendency to think that things that come from outside are somehow better. I think there is a danger of us getting into this mode of thinking in the churches. England is awash with writing on new ways of being the church, on what is called âfresh expressionsâ?; these might be appropriate in England, I don’t think they are appropriate here. I think English writers should come here and learn about how to have strong churches!
Let’s look at the facts. In September the Irish Times published the results of a huge survey of people over 50 years of age, the survey was an extensive look at lifestyles and attitudes. The survey showed the Catholic Church to be astoundingly resilient. Despite the scandals caused by those who betrayed the sacred trust placed in them, despite the constant ridicule and abuse from sections of the media, the poll showed that 90% of the 50 + population were still practising Catholics.
As well as the 50 + faithful, the large numbers of those under 50 who still attend Mass regularly confound the prophets who believe that the Church is about to curl up and die. I was fascinated by the analysis of the survey which completely ignored the churchgoing figure, which was the highest percentage in any of the categories, and I wrote to the Irish Times commenting on the results. I had an email from a Parish Priest who had just moved to a new parish. His church has six Sunday Masses, the two mid-morning Masses completely fill the church, which seats 800. He said no Catholic cleric could have pointed out the 90% figure, and if they had, they wouldn’t have been believed.
Perhaps we have believed the media for too long. They have come to their own conclusions about the Church and have then sought evidence that supports their argument. The evidence of the Irish Times‘ own survey seems to confound the very impression that has been conveyed by its own columnists.
I think we need to ask what’s going on, and what I think is going on is that the Church has derived strength from being counter-cultural. The Church, when it is at its best, offers, firstly, an encounter with the sacred, (and the sacred has no place in the thinking of a liberal, secular mind), and, secondly, a true sense of community, (and community obligations are alien to individual, consumerist thinking).
If we want to engage in mission, then I think we have to look at how we can best do now what we did well in the past, building up community in our parishes. Being a church is about being a community and that if there is no feeling of community, if there is no sense that when we gather on a Sunday we are met with warmth and love, then all the other things that we do are pointless.
Saint Paul understood how important was a sense of community, a sense that we are loved, when he wrote his first letter to the Corinthians; we all know his words about love in chapter 13. We might have majestic buildings and fine preachers and great musicians and the best that can possibly imagined in every sphere of church life, we might have the most up to date thinking and ideas, but Saint Paul would tell us that without love we are nothing.
The strength of Church of Ireland has never been in doing anything particularly well; being honest, most of us have never had the resources to do anything particularly well. The strength of the Church of Ireland, especially as anyone who has worked in small rural parishes will testify, has been in the bonds of love and community between our people. The warmest welcome I ever received was in a little church in Gleno in Co Antrim where the congregation was in single figures and where the hymns were on vinyl records. Our strength is in being a community for those who come Sunday by Sunday.
Mission for me is about lives touched by God. Lives are touched by the warmth and the welcome and the friendship of the people they meet.
Maybe mission is not about doing, but instead it’s about being. It’s about countering the individualism and the consumerism that are rampant and being a community for everyone.
I think we have much to learn from our Catholic neighbours. I think we have to be confident in ourselves, do the things we have done well, âBy this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one anotherâ?, says Jesus. In being the best community we can be, we are being his disciples.