Archbishop Robin Eames concluded his ministry as Archbishop of Armagh on Sunday afternoon with an appeal for faith.
“All will be well,” he told the congregation at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh -an eirenic and confident note upon which to end more than two decades as leader of the Church of Ireland and an echo of the words of Julian of Norwich.
“Sin is behovely, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well”, wrote Julian in the closing years of the 14th Century. It was an extraordinary statement of confidence from a woman whose childhood memories would have been filled with darkness. Julian was born around 1342, in 1347 the Black Death, a devastating disease swept through Europe. Estimates of how many died vary; it is believed that the pandemic killed between a third and two-thirds of the population of Europe between 1347 and 1351.
It is hard to imagine what terror the Black Death induced in the minds of those who survived. If millions of people, including family, friends and neighbours, could be swept away in such a short time, what might the future hold? In a time when literacy was rare, (and material to read even rarer), when rumours, stories and superstitions took a vice like grip on people’s lives, memories of the Black Death would have left everyone living in a state of constant uncertainty, the slightest infection would have brought fear and terror on a community.
To have questioned one’s faith, or to have questioned the Church, in such times, would have brought down the charge of heresy upon one’s head and the prospect of being burned at the stake, but there must have been questions in the hearts of many about why a loving and merciful God would visit such a plague upon his people. Julian would have surely grown up with questions even in her own family about the nature of the world in which they lived.
Julian’s response to the questions of the world is deeply biblical; that faith must persist, even in the face of uncertainty. Saint Paul writes in his second letter to the church at Corinth,
“as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonour, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything”. 2 Corinthians 6:4-10
Paul is confident that even in death we live on.
It is with such faith that Julian was able to declare that “all shall be well”, and continuing in that same faith that Archbishop Eames was able to say to his listeners on Sunday, “All will be well”.