Ireland – after a year away

We’re back in Donegal after being away for a year. Just up the road in Portnablagh we met this – very Irish – quaint even. But then I thought of Portadown days. The dead were brought home. People gathered with tea, cake and the ubiquitous pavlova. This happens in communities where families have lived close for generations. A funeral is a community event and everybody understands how it is done properly. That is something precious.

And we had another example of what makes this kind of community special. A puncture on Saturday when we needed to go to the Stena Terminal in Belfast on Sunday. People like us go on the internet and ask, ‘Where can I get a puncture repaired on Sunday?’ To which the answer is ‘With great difficulty or not at all’. At which point a single phone call revealed that our nearest neighbour over the hill had what was needed and fixed it in five minutes. Good communities are full of people with skills and kindness.

Beaches around here are magnificent – and virtually deserted. The one we were on today had lots of children having surfing lessons. Some quick research shows that the Surf Schools are real engines of tourist development – making the most of our difficulties with travel – showing adults and children alike that there is very little to beat a Donegal beach, even in the rain

Meanwhile I think about what are the really big issues here.

Well Brexit obviously and the operation of the Northern Ireland Protocol. Ireland is an enthusiastic member of the EU and is also passionate about the Peace Process. Brexit faces in other directions.

I’ve also been following an issue which seems to me to illustrate the question whether Ireland is that modern, social-democratic, European country or – or maybe also – a regressive, religiously conservative country. That issue is the plan to build to build a new National Maternity Hospital on the site of the large St Vincent’s Hospital on the south side of Dublin. The issue is that the land on which this €800 million public hospital is to be built is in the trustee ownership of the Sisters of Charity. The state will lease the land for 99 years and the hospital itself will be a private charitable institution.

Ireland has long had difficulty with the question of whether Catholic moral teaching should apply within medical services. That question is obviously particularly acute in the context of a maternity hospital.

Irish Times journalist Fintan O’Toole has been writing about this issue. In June he wrote that ‘A real republic should not have charity delivering public welfare’. And he goes on to say that ‘It is time to put a stake through the heart of this slavishness. Maternity and reproductive services are not charitable gifts.’

The vehemence of his language suggests that he sees this issue as another test case – a nation-defining issue -:for modern Ireland.

More of my story too

As I came to the end of Mary McAleese’s autobiography, I found myself drawn back two memories

The first was admiration of her ability to recall her experience of the very early days of the Troubles – and the costly and painful impact on her, her family and her community. In 1976, I set out in ministry as the Curate in Holy Trinity, Joanmount, which was just up the Ballysillan Road. We lived in Cliftondene Gardens very close to the peaceline/barricade which closed us off from Alliance Avenue and Ardoyne.

As the years have rolled by, I have often been surprised by the things from those days which I have forgotten – or which perhaps I choose not to remember – or more likely which I have tucked away somewhere in my mind from which they emerge unexpectedly!

Looking back, it seems to me as if we did our ministry as if things were normal. I went house to house visiting in the evenings even though there were no streetlights in much of the parish. I got used to putting my visiting card through the letterbox before the door would open. People were astonishingly resilient in very difficult times. Sometimes it was funny – like the lady whom I met in a house near the church. She told me that there was shooting on the road which led home for both of us – ‘but if I walk with you I’ll be all right’

And then I thought of something from much later on – from the 19 years we spent in Portadown, much of it overshadowed by the Drumcree parading disputes. President McAleese issued an invitation to the Portadown Orangemen to come to a Reception in her official residence in Dublin. Of course they were going – why would they not? And they wanted me to go with them. So Alison and I drove down from Donegal where were on holiday and joined them.

Mary McAleese’s peacemaking had two strands – she was fearlessly challenging to her ‘own’ community and she was warmly generous in reaching out across Ireland’s divisions, I admire her greatly for both,

My story too

I’ve been reading the autobiography of former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese -‘Here’s the Story’. She read it recently on BBC Radio4 Book of the Week.

The picture with President McAleese and her husband, Martin, dates from St Patrick’s Day 2008 when I preached in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin and attended a reception in the President’s official residence, Aras an Uachtarain. Alison and I are with Dean Robert McCarthy.

Mary McAleese and I were born within days of one another and her experiences are of particular interest to me. I hadn’t realised that she spent her childhood in North Belfast. She gives a graphic description of the early years of the Troubles. It was the period when I was away at university in Dublin and Oxford. In 1976, Alison and I returned to live within about half a mile from her home. It was as she describes it – a dreadful time of random rioting, burnings and shootings. North Belfast was an area of intermingled communities. So doorstep assassinations were common.

Many people have tried to sum up the deep roots of the conflict. Mary McAleese described it like this: ‘In schools, homes, communities and churches, carefully bundled formulae saw to it that no one, not even the best of neighbours, could easily detach from the adversarial bunkers birth had allocated each of them to’

What she calls the game changer for her generation of Catholics n Northern Ireland was the introduction of free second-level education at the end of the 1940’s. She says, ‘The excellent education we received in Catholic schools gave us the intellectual tools and self-confidence with which to challenge the vast presumptuousness and pomposity of the Protestant elite who governed Northern Ireland’. My experience is that the tragic counterbalance to that is the ‘brain drain’ of highly educated young people from the Protestant community leaving an obvious leadership deficit in their community. Neither I nor any of my siblings – nor do any of our three children – live in Northern Ireland.

Mary McAleese writes movingly of the Peace Process – that pursuit of the studied ambiguities which enable deep divisions and old hurts to be overcome. Particularly significant is her account of the process which led to the Queen’s State Visit in 2011 – a highly successful visit which changed the face of modern Ireland.

There is much to learn from this book – not just of the slow and steady movement towards some kind of peace – but also of Mary McAleese’s attempt to challenge the deep conservatism of the Irish Catholic Church.

Cry the Beloved Country

This stunning sculpture commemorates the 50th Anniversary of the capture of Nelson Mandela in 1962. He was to spend the next 27 years of his life in prison. It sits just off the main road north from Durban towards Pietermaritzburg. I was fortunate enough to see it on visits to South Africa in both 2017 and 2019. It is at the heart of the province of KwaZulu Natal where violence is tearing South Africa apart following the imprisonment of former President Zuma.

My first visit was in 2003. Like many people from Northern Ireland, I was drawn by the miracle of reconciliation which Mandela’s transformational leadership symbolised. I experienced South Africa’s poverty – the poverty which has not been relieved since majority rule came. I spent Holy Week in the Anglican Parish in Khayelitsha township in Capetown. The image which endures is the footwashing on Maundy Thursday – broad black feet used to walking barefoot washed in pink plastic basins. It felt Christ-like.

I spent a lot of time in Belleville, one of the affluent suburbs of Capetown. My aim was to ‘get inside’ the white Afrikaaner community because I wanted to find out if there were affinities with the Ulster Protestants among whom I worked. And there were – I didn’t have their language but I gradually found them to be delightful and friendly people who were perpetually puzzled by finding themselves on the wrong side of history. I shared their home baking and their hospitality. In the end, we talked – tentatively – about how you find your way when history deals you a difficult hand. It is the challenge which faces the Ulster Protestants to this day.

I spent time with the Diakonia ecumenical organisation in Durban and I spent a week with workers from Ulster Carpets in Portadown who were developing a carpet factory which Ulster Carpets had acquired just across the road from the airport in Durban.

My visits have continued – some work and some holiday – most recently a visit with friends to the Boer War and Zulu War Battlefields.

And now the dream and the hope which Mandela represented is at risk. South Africa may not have moved fast enough and far enough to remove poverty and create employment. Flawed leadership seems to have achieved that fatal combination which we also see in the US – of both stirring loyalty and destroying hope.

I fear that it will be some time before I can return. But South Africa, even in these dark days, will remain a beacon of hope – bad history can be turned around but it takes leadership of real spiritual depth to achieve it.

Have plug – will travel

Destination Grange-over-Sands to meet with friends. 182 miles – the Zoe claims a range of 245 miles. You would think it would easily do that – but it actually has an effective range of something under 200 miles.

So we planned a stop at Tebay Services – 150 miles and the battery was by then at 20%. All chargers on the south-bound side are Tesla. So we needed to cross to the Northbound side – taking in a No Entry sign en route. The charger worked once I had stepped into the hedge to avoid the bright sunlight which prevented me from reading the app which controls it. But once it started charging, we found that we were rationed to 45 minutes. So we moved on to Kittering Lake to top up. But the chargers weren’t working there.

And then we went to the underground car park at Booths in Kendal and charged to 100%. Success – at the third attempt!

There are no chargers at all in Grange-over-Sands but our hotel had offered us a three pin socket for our ‘granny charger’. We plugged in and went out for the day. But the Zoe soon sent me a message to say that charging had stopped because someone had taken the plug out!

Our journey home was better. Up the M6 to Booths in Penrith where the car park had chargers available 24 hours. We needed an hour to get to 100%. Tap on the window – car park now closes in an hour – but we had just enough time to get our charge completed


We got home from Penrith with a diversion to pick up grandchildren in Strathaven. 19% battery when we got home.

I’m sorry about this saga. The Zoe is as always swift and silent.
But the public charging network is an amateurish disaster. The range of the car matters – if it would do 400 miles we wouldn’t have any of these problems. But until we have EV’s which will do that, we need an effective, well-maintained charging network. And it just doesn’t exist.

Thought for the Day

This is my Thought for the Day for BBC Scotland on July 5

The schools are on holiday but the holidays are not the same.  The United Nations reported recently that the crash in international tourism due to the pandemic could cause a loss of over $4 trillion dollars in 2020-21.  Much of that loss will be felt in the economies of the developing world which benefit disproportionately from world tourism.  So many jobs in the travel and hospitality industries depend directly on tourism.

My family have been part of that change.  We too took the staycation option and have just returned from the Island of Lewis and the North West of Scotland.  We had some amazing weather – the scenery is utterly spectacular.  And even this year it wasn’t yet crowded.

 But sometimes you stumble across the unexpected which catches your attention and which you won’t easily forget.  At the entrance to the magnificent Loch Ewe we found the memorial to the seamen who sailed on the Arctic Convoys in World War II.  The convoys would gather in Loch Ewe before sailing to Iceland and on to the northern ports of Russia.  There is poignancy about it because for a long time the sacrifice of the 3000 sailors who lost their lives was not fully recognised.  We stood quietly and looked at the memorial to Charles Edward Kennerley and his fellow crew on HMS Bramble who were lost in the Barents Sea on 31 December, 1942.  And we thought about the dreadful weather and endless winter nights and the constant fear of the torpedo which would end it all coming from a hidden U boat.

 Absorbing that unexpected richness of memory and experience is what turns a journey into a kind of pilgrimage – pilgrimage in which we learn and are changed by what we experience.  It may be a staycation.  But it’s an opportunity to get closer to our own context and history and so to learn more about ourselves and who we are. 

Things Ancient

My first degree was in Classics – Latin and Greek – at Trinity College, Dublin. ‘What use is that?’ you may quite reasonably ask. And I’ll come back to that.

Meanwhile I keep an eye on what happens in this area. I picked up a piece in The Atlantic which reported that Princeton University will no longer require students in Classics to actually study the ancient languages. It’s a decision made in the cause of access and openness. The Atlantic reports the Princeton website as saying, ‘the department wants to “create opportunities for the advancement of students and (future) colleagues from historically underrepresented backgrounds within the discipline.” This will mean “ensuring that a broad range of perspectives and experiences inform our study of the ancient Greek and Roman past.” Let’s not pretend, given the context of modern American academic culture, that the terms here refer simply to diversity writ large. Underrepresentedbroad range of perspectives and experiences—these are buzzwords saying, essentially, “for Black people and Latinos too.”

The.prize for long labours in this area goes to the scholars who have just completed the 23 year task of writing a new dictionary of Ancient Greek – the Cambridge Greek Lexicon.

No mention of Classical studies can avoid acknowledging Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s affection for the Classics and his desire to pepper his speeches with quotes. He is known for his affection for the great Athenian statesman of 2400 years ago – Pericles. Strangely, Pericles too was derailed by plague.

In a weak moment, I read Boris’ extraordinarily self-serving book about Churchill. Uncharacteristically he talks at some length about how, when Churchill wishes to speak to the bloodstream of the English-speaking peoples, he reaches for punchy words with Anglo-Saxon roots rather than the more flowery and complex Greco-Roman roots – ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few …’

And what did I gain from studying Classics? Well clergy have to be wordsmiths – attempting to put words around the joys and sorrows of life and building frameworks of meaning around the great mysteries. The study of Classics teaches you above all about how language works – how to shape a sentence for emphasis, about how to write with economy. It taught me skills which I have used every day and still use,

Clergy work from home too

The debate about whether or not people will ‘return to the office’ is hotting up.  People value the lifestyle gains – the loss of those hours spent on a stressful commute, the possibility of choosing to live somewhere more rural and maybe even less expensive.  

Employers seem to vary in their views.  Fewer big – and expensive – office buildings will help the ‘bottom line’.  But they worry about the loss of potential creativity when people are not interacting around the water cooler.  There is a whole new jargon – like ‘proximity bias’ which means that those who are most visible are more likely to receive whatever favour is around.

Meanwhile the housing market is changing.  People are expanding their house searches into areas which they wouldn’t have felt able to consider before.  Garden sheds, garages and attics are being scrutinised for their potential as work spaces.  I suspect that what are becoming known as hybrid patterns of working may become the norm – one or two days in the office and the rest at home.  Schroeders are saying that they will expect everyone to live close enough that they can be in the office ‘tomorrow’ if required.

Clergy of course know all about this.  And so do farmers.  The Rectory sits – in theory at least – in the middle of the parish or congregational area and assumes, I suppose, a model of ministry which is pastorally orientated.  The Rector works sometimes from a dedicated study and often from a spare bedroom.  It’s a model with great strengths – but in reality its appropriateness erodes when people’s lives are lived on networks rather than in neighbourhoods.

In my days as Rector of a parish in Northern Ireland, I worked on what is now a fashionably hybrid model.  In effect, I did the spiritualities in the Rectory and decamped to the Parish Office for administration, management, meetings and all the rest.  I found it helpful to have a definite separation between those two.  But I know if course that the administration and management are all part of the spirituality.

Meanwhile clergy life experiences its own version of these questions.   Vestries are very aware of the cost of maintaining a rectory.  Some wonder if a smaller house would do.  Others suggest it might be better for clergy to be able to buy their own homes and have a foot on the housing ladder rather than to live as Canon 17 requires ‘in the house provided’.  That has its merits but it isn’t the system which we operate – and clergy have a tax break which protects them from Capital Gains Tax on a house which they own but do not occupy.  I do think that the pastoral rationale for our present system is less compelling than it was.  But what the tied housing system does do is to preserve at least the aspiration that clergy will be able to move to ‘wherever the call comes’ without being inhibited by differentials in house prices.

All of this is part of the great ‘shake-out’ which is coming as the crisis period of pandemic moves away and we begin to be able to recognise the long term changes which it has brought

For ever Zoom?

The Zoom question is still with us. And, from my ‘person in the pew’ perspective, I’m not surprised. However resourceful we are – and however resourceful those who lead worship in church are – the churchgoing experience is still a long way from being one which raises the spirits, builds community and sends us out to change the world.

So where does the Zoom experience stand in all this? I went back to the interesting report to the Scottish Churches, ‘Adapt and be Flexible – the Mission doesn’t Stop”. The report is based on an online survey of 369 congregational leaders of 27 denominations across Scotland. I’m not sure if the ‘person in the pew’ was invited to comment!

To be personal for a moment, it seems to me that Zoom offers us the opportunity of experiencing the breadth of the church. I’ve been visiting churches I know from past ministry and places which we have links with. I’ve experienced diversity and challenge and, particularly in Holy Week and Good Friday, been deeply moved.

I think that Zoom is certainly going to be with us for the immediately foreseeable future. Most obviously that is because it has answered the question of how those who are unable to come to church can be held within the worshipping community. But that in itself begs the question – is Zoom primarily a way of making ‘what we normally do’ accessible on line or does the medium demand a different approach? It has seemed to me from the beginning that worship on Zoom sits somewhere between worship-leading in church and broadcasting. The medium makes it possible to use videos, photographs, music of all kinds – it encourages participation from all sorts of people many of whom find it far less challenging to talk to a microphone at home than to stand up and speak in church. Some have been rising to that challenge but it must demand an enormous amount of work and preparation – it becomes a ‘thing in itself’

One question I looked for in the Report was about whether worship on Zoom reduced apparent denominational differences. So much of church identity in bound up in buildings, how they are furnished and how they are used. Does the ‘close in’ Zoom camera liberate us from that?

And does Zoom harmonise with the carbon neutral strategies which we are attempting to implement.

These are debates which will continue. I suspect that we are hardly at the beginning of thinking about the long term changes which Covid has brought. I continue to broadcast Thought for the Day for BBC Scotland – up the stairs to the spare bedroom to deliver the material on Skype. I can’t imagine that we shall ever go back to expecting contributors to come to the studio for a two minute broadcast! No – the Mission doesn’t Stop. But it may require us all to be more resourceful and imaginative in how we communicate and share what our faith.

Locally-based prosperity – the Preston Model

This is my friend Peter Rankin. We shared a flat together in Dublin three floors above a maternity home in the appropriately named Hatch Street. Later we lived in Rooms together in Trinity College, Dublin – the loo was three floors down and next door which was a bit of a challenge. Among the memories … we stood in Merrion Square in 1972 as the British Embassy was burned and wondered what the future held. And Peter was my best man

Peter came from Ballymoney in Co Antrim. I never understood how this came about – but from the beginning he was a left wing socialist. He served two terms as Leader of Preston Council – another person of real political talent lost to Northern Ireland. He died just three years ago as a result of a brain tumour – far too soon and so much left to do. But it pleased him that he could surprise his political colleagues by producing a friend who was a bishop to speak at his Civic Funeral. And I was honoured that he wanted me to do that for him.

The picture shows Peter receiving a ‘Council of the Year’ Award just before he became ill. Preston Council won it because of the success of what came to be called the Preston Model – a model which sees the council work with ‘anchor institutions’ to keep jobs and investment in the city. I’ve been reading ‘Paint your town Red’ – How Preston took back control and your town can too – by Matthew Brown and Rhiannon E Jones. It tells the story of the successful development of the model – and it suggests that this kind of politics is the only way in which Labour will ever regain power.

The book sets the scene like this: ‘In 2019, a report commissioned by the UN described the effects of a decade of austerity in the UK as a deliberately imposed and unnecessary ‘social calamityinvolving ‘systematic disadvantage’ inflicted particularly on women, children, people with disabilities, older people and BAME communities’

What follows is a description of Preston’s programme of community wealth-building which ‘supports democratic collective ownership of the local economy through a range of institutions and policies‘. What that means is that they adopted ways of procuring goods and services for local institutions which kept as much of the wealth generated in the local community. They developed co-operatives, community land trusts, public and community banking.’

The result of all of this was that in the 2019 General Election, Preston was one of the few constituencies to buck the national trend which saw heavy losses for Labour in its heartlands.

When he received the award, Peter said, ‘

“I was so pleased to receive this award. It was a thrill and a fantastic credit for everything we have been doing in Preston. We created a partnership with other public enterprises to work more closely with Lancashire businesses. The Preston Model of community wealth building is working very well.

“We are thrilled that our initiative is recognised across not just the UK but across Europe as well. We are fortunate that Preston and Lancashire is home to many innovative and growing businesses. Supporting our local business community and creating jobs for Preston and Lancashire people is an important part of our work in Preston.

And now it’s time for me to go again to Preston and to cycle the Guild Wheel Cycle Path with Peter’s wife, Lynn. Peter was particularly proud of it so it is one of our ways of remembering him together.