Photo credit : Belfast Zoological Gardens/PA Wire
The best story we all knew in Belfast was about the woman who used to take the baby elephant home from the Zoo every evening during the blitz in 1941. In 2009 it was traced to Denise Weston Austin , a keeper at the zoo. She would walk Sheila the baby elephant into her back yard each evening – and back again in the morning.
Now it’s a film called Zoo just released. The charm in the story is its simplicity and humanity. The blitz in Belfast was devastating. Denise found a simple – if slightly eccentric – thing which she could do in the chaos. She looked after the baby elephant
Politics will always be adversarial. That’s how the conflict between competing ideas and visions is resolved. But sometimes the ability of politics to achieve seems to break down – another crunch Brexit cabinet meeting or the efforts of the EU to solve the migration crisis. Not much charm, grace or humour in any of that.
It’s always tempting to think that things were better in the past Maybe they were – the vision and political determination which founded the NHS seventy years ago speak of a different kind of political culture. Sheila the elephant had gone back to the zoo and there was a desire to build a better post-war world.
Values are influenced by time and re-examination. Seventy years has seen society do some critical thinking around equality – about class, gender and sexuality. But there are also aspirational ideas around public service and shared responsibility which we can continue to celebrate and foster.
I think it is time to honour values and indeed spirituality in our public life. More service and less personal ambition – more compassion and less sloganising -more vision which catches the imagination and. warms the heart.
The story of Denise Austen who looked after Sheila the elephant reminds us that what matters is our ability to retain our humanity and compassion – however challenging the times
A sad day yesterday as we said farewell to one of my oldest friends, Peter Rankin. just before Christmas, he was due to go cycling in Kerala with his daughter. But he began to feel unwell. He was diagnosed with a brain tumour and in six months he was gone – leaving his wife Lynn and daughters Jen and Gilly.
We were students together in Trinity College, Dublin. We shared a flat and College Rooms. We maintained contact and our lives unfolded in very different ways.
Yesterday’s funeral in Preston was an extraordinary event – a Civic Funeral for Peter as an Honorary Alderman of the City. He was a passionate socialist. He served the Council and the City for nearly 40 years – including two terms as Council Leader. And he was notably successful – and greatly loved – in that role.
Here is the Eulogy which I delivered
It is in part the story of how two young men – each deeply affected by the early years of the Troubles – worked out their responses to that. Peter was, I think, the best example I know of a person of immense ability who left Northern Ireland behind. And as he was accepted and trusted in a different place grew into a person of real stature in a way which would have been impossible in his home place.
Canon EJ Moore – known as Jim – was the first Rector with whom I served when I was ordained in 1976. I travelled to Belfast on Thursday last and was honoured to preach at his funeral service in St Columba’s, Knock, in East Belfast.
In 1976 he was Rector of Holy Trinity Parish, Joanmount in North Belfast which is at the meeting of the Oldpark and Ballysillan Roads. It’s one of the areas of Belfast where, at that time, the two communities were interwoven. So there were several peace lines – or barriers – in the parish area. It was edgy, difficult and often violent.
Jim became something of a hero to me – and to the many curates who served with him in Holy Trinity and in Jordanstown. He was I think the very best that the Church of Ireland could put in place in a difficult situation in the early years of the Troubles – and my sermon explains why.
This is the sermon which I preached
SCOTTISH EPISCOPAL CHURCH CONSECRATION AND INSTALLATION OF THE REVEREND CANON ANNE DYER AS BISHOP OF ABERDEEN AND ORKNEY
PIC DEREK IRONSIDE / NEWSLINE MEDIA
Alison and I were in every sense fortunate to be at the consecration of Bishop Anne. We caught what proved to be one of the last trains from Edinburgh and we had to stay an extra night in Aberdeen before we got home. It was a great and joyful occasion and we felt the prayerful presence – and absence – of a great number of people who would have loved to be there but were frustrated by the weather.
The election of a female bishop was of course long overdue. It will change many things – not just in the diocese but also in the College of Bishops.
These days, my role is to be an involved bystander. And it allows me to watch … I watched the newly-consecrated Bishop Anne as she stood in the centre of the Cathedral and put into the hands of people the bread which is Christ’s body. She reached out to people. There was warmth and empathy which transcended her office. Yes I know that men can do that too and I have worked hard at it myself – but I have a feeling that it is characteristic of many women that they are able to do it with instinctive warmth.
I know that the new Bishop Anne is spiritually strong. I know that she will approach difficult situations with a combination of courage and compassion. I know that she will give spirit-filled leadership.
Her election has seen more than its share of controversy. I was glad to hear her setting out what I believe to be our position on same-sex marriage. We have made a decision about our canonical position – but that decision itself allows space for clergy in good conscience to opt in or to opt out. As a church, we acknowledge that we do not agree on this matter. So those who exercise leadership are called not simply to reflect the deeply held convictions of one group or another – but to ensure that our church has space for all.
I look forward to interesting times ahead
And I wasn’t just an involved bystander. Because of the travel difficulties, I ended up deputising for our Director of Communications. So I happily spent time at the end of the service arranging media interviews for others – without having to utter a word myself.
It’s just over six months now since I retired. I am a firm believer in the idea that you need to stop completely … totally … so that you can think about how you might re-enter the fray in a new way.
I can’t say that I have worked out the answer to that particular question. But I have stopped completely. I hope to get a licence for ministry this month. I haven’t conducted worship other than to preach at a family funeral. I’ve done quite a bit of broadcasting but always at the anodyne end of the spectrum. For the most part, I haven’t had contact with anybody – apart from a little ‘mystery worshipper’ turning up in churches. I’ve missed people of course but I haven’t really missed the rest. I like to think that is because I ‘gave it my best shot’ so I don’t have regrets or wistful longings about what I did or might have done. But I suppose one doesn’t have to justify not missing committee meetings!
And now? Well I just don’t know. Alison and I seem to be quite busy. But retired people always say that. Obviously there are the grandchildren .. and the yoga … and the cooking class … and the cycling. Beyond that I’ll just have to see what turns up. I’m hoping to recast this blog so that I can use it in different ways.
I’m hoping that we will get to the Aberdeen Consecration on Thursday – weather permitting. I’m starting to write Holy Week sermons for the Parish of Douglas in Cork. It’s where my ancestors on my father’s side are buried. And I’m doing to preach at the Chrism Mass for the diocese while I am there. It will be interesting to visit that far south bit of Ireland. It’s a part of the Church of Ireland which feels not unlike the SEC
And I’ll come back and say how I found the consecration.
The decision to retire produced an almost immediate standstill in the blog
So now that things are beginning to settle down a bit, I need to go back and fill in some gaps from the last few months. it’s been a significant and important period. And then I’ll reflect a bit on future blogging
But for now … House renovation is under way and we are busy. I’ve been aware for some time of the sermons of my grandfather, Ernest Bateman. They are being used by a group of historians in Cambridge led by Professor Eugenio Biagini as an important contemporary source in the study of the minority Protestant community in Ireland after Partition.
We are off to a family wedding down south this week. The car is weighed down with six decades of Uncle Artie’s diaries – also heading for Cambridge. It’s a solid hard backed book for each year and written in a microscopic script
I did a ‘test drilling’ to see what he had to say on the day of my birth and found a family swirling around me. Obviously starting as I meant to go on. I wasn’t a bishop at that point but I was already a proxy for other people’s arguments
So I am gradually realising that I belong to one of those families where nobody ever had an unrecorded thought – and I am as guilty as the rest. And out of all this – and my more recent experience – will come something …
Tuesday’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio Scotland. About Princes William and Harry and the coming anniversary of Diana’s death.
One of my final duties today – Commem at Glenalmond College. So I paused to pay my respects to the Founder, William Ewart Gladstone, in the Quad.
It was Gladstone who came to the conclusion that Ireland should have Home Rule and who gave effect to that in a series of Home Rule Bills. The third was passed but its implementation was delayed by the First World War. And then matters were pre-empted by the Easter Rising of 1916 in Dublin. It’s another of the great ‘what if’s’ of history.
But somehow I think that Irish Partition could never have been avoided – for the Ulster Protestants were signing the Covenant in their blood
The diocese and I said our farewells last night at a Eucharist in our Cathedral.
Here is the Sermon
This morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Scotland:
‘Welcome home, Father’. The flat vowels of the passport officer at Dublin Airport. I’m caught – misty-eyed – between Ireland which is home in the sense of deep belonging and family history and Scotland which is home by choice and calling, the place which has made me welcome, the place where my grandchildren are growing up with Scottish accents.So Good Morning to you on this St Patrick’s Day
One of the things which Ireland and Scotland share is the story of migration – movement from Ireland and particularly west Donegal to lowland Scotland – but of course a much wider diaspora to the New World and elsewhere. They were driven mainly by need and poverty, the Highland Clearances in Scotland and the Great Famine in Ireland. Work, dignity, place to rear a family .. and somewhere to call home.
Our faith traditions all have hospitality embedded – for Christians our welcome to the stranger as if welcoming Christ himself. Nothing in any of that about building walls and fences higher – dividing walls are for taking down. As peoples who have a history of migration ourselves we have an instinctive desire to welcome.
On Wednesday evening I was one of over 350 people in the Scottish Parliament for an event organised by the Scottish Ahlul Bayt Society – which is rooted in the Moslem community. The theme of Exodus gave a gathering of people representing almost every strand of Scottish Society a chance to explore the issues of migration and hospitality
I heard people talking about the ‘new Scots’. That’s when the stranger made welcome begins to settle down, to experience what it is to feel at home in a new place and to share in the shaping of the society of which they are now a part.
This evening I’ll be at the party in Edinburgh for the Irish Community. We’ll all be talking nineteen to the dozen about home and how we miss it – but home is where you are welcomed at a deep level and wherever that is becomes home